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Israel’s Colonial Mentality

The extermination of the Native Americans can be admitted, the morality of Hiroshima attacked, the national flag [of the United States] publicly committed to the flames. But the systematic continuity of Israel’s 52-year oppression and maltreatment of the Palestinians is virtually unmentionable, a narrative that has no permission to appear. Edward Said, The Last Taboo The ‘post’ in postcolonialism does not specify – and this point has been made well by several academicians – periodicity, as in the period after colonialism.1 Instead, the term as a whole signifies a practice of locating the colonial dimensions in the formation and experience of our modern world. Yet despite this consistent claim, few theorists have sought to direct a postcolonial critique at the state of Israel.2 Although that project has not as yet begun, theorists like Spivak and Arif Dirlik have voiced their dissatisfaction at the broader state of postcolonial theory, which has a tendency to concentrate ‘too much on past forms of colonial domination’.3 Indeed, for Rukmini Bhaya Nair, postcolonial practice is a way of returning to ‘buried memories of colonial trauma’ in an attempt to reach some kind of ‘cure’.4 Yet this delimiting of postcolonialism’s possibilities ties postcolonial theory to always assess the traumas of the past. What is needed, I feel, is an assessment of the present in postcolonial terms and the traumas that are currently in the making. That is the focus of this essay and the case at hand is of the state of Israel.

Israel is never described as a colonial state in mainstream media and only rarely in academia or non-mainstream publications. Pilger, for instance, merely implies it in his reference to Gaza as Israel’s colony in Freedom Next Time,5 while individuals like Gad Barzilai eschew it altogether by characterising Israel as a postcolonial state.6 The focus on terminology is not a pedantic irrelevance but crucial to offsetting the dominant narrative that presents Israel and Palestine as somehow equally at fault, equally terrorised (one by the terror of suicide bombings and missile attacks; the other by the aggression of a sophisticated army) or at best equally unfortunate. Yet even this latter position – seeming to offer the naïve observer some shelter from accusations of taking sides – I suggest, underscores a key element of the dominant narrative in which the occupied is cast as instigator of trouble while the occupier is guilty of being unable to control its anger in retaliation. This much was made clear by the insistence of the British Government that the words ‘state terrorism’ be removed from a UN resolution passed in the wake of the Jenin Massacre, and more emphasis placed on Palestinian suicide bombings that had ‘provoked’ Israel and ‘set off the cycle of violence’.7 This tendency to overlook the colonial dimensions of Israel’s past and present is perhaps accounted for by the problems inherent in the “post” of the term “postcolonial” when taken as a descriptive label. Joseph Massad draws attention to this problem when he suggests that the prescript of “post” before “colonial” implies a diachronic trajectory in which, first comes the era of colonialism followed by the postcolonial.8

Yet settler colonialism – ‘a variant of colonialism’ as Massad points out – disrupts this linear temporality. Massad characterises examples like the American Revolution of 1776, the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, as all instances of settler colonialists declaring their independence while ‘maintaining colonial privileges for themselves over the conquered populations’.9 So although these states place themselves discursively (re: their claim to gaining independence) in a postcolonial spatiality and temporality, they draw into their present vestiges of the past. Massad writes:

[these states] instituted themselves as postcolonial states, territories, and spaces and instituted their political status as independent in order to render their present a postcolonial era. Yet the conquered people of these territories continue […] to inhabit these spaces as colonial spaces and to live in eras that are thoroughly colonial.10

This is particularly true of Israel, where the declaration in 1948 of the emergence of Israel is formally recorded as The Declaration of the Establishment of Israel, but popularly termed the Declaration of Independence. Yet as Massad correctly asks – ‘from whom [..] were the Zionists declaring their independence?’11 The British had left prior to the war between the Zionists and the neighbouring (and newly established) Arab states, whose armies were not themselves occupying any Palestinian land prior to that war from whom independence could have been wrenched.12 Massad continues his penetrating enquiry by saying that neither could the Zionists have declared their independence from ‘Imperial sponsorship as they had continued to be supported by the European empires, including Britain’:

Such sponsorship and alliance, it may be recalled, was to lead to the tripartite Israeli, French, and British invasion of Egypt in 1956 and the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula following Gamal ‘Abd al Nasir’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal.13

Massad concludes that this can only be interpreted therefore as an attempt by Israel to recontextualise its establishment as occurring against colonialism and not in tandem with it.14

Alan Dershowitz, however, takes exception to such a characterisation of Israel, arguing that it is a misdescription to call it a colonial state. In his book The Case for Israel, Dershowitz argues that the Jews who settled in Palestine were refugees escaping the anti-Semitism of Europe and Russia and cannot therefore be classified as colonialists. Yet he seems to overlook the historical data showing correspondence between leading Zionists and European and Russian statesmen. Indeed, such was the embroiled nature of the idea of Israel with Imperial intentions in the region that Ernest Laharanne – Napoleon III’s private secretary – wrote in his book, La nouvelle question d’Orient: Reconstruction de la nationallite Juvie, that Jewish settlement in Palestine would open up ‘new highways and byways to European Civilisation’.15 Similarly, Herzl – the father of Jewish Zionism – offered Imperial Britain multiple benefits if it sponsored Jewish colonisation. ‘It is surely no exaggeration’, he wrote, ‘to say that a Jew would rather purchase and propagate the products of a country that has rendered the Jewish people a benefaction than those of a country in which the Jews are badly off’.16

Deaf to such evidence, Dershowitz goes on to ask, ‘for whom were [the Jews] working? Were they planting the flag of the hated czar of Russia or the anti-Semitic regimes of Poland or Lithuania?’17 By pointing out the absence of a state for which the Jews may be said to have been working, Dershowitz aims to acquit Israel of its coloniality. Yet this is a rigid pedanticism which obscures the malleable and composite nature of colonialism. As it happens though, in the case of the Zionists and their identification of Jewry with the state of Israel, one can replace a colonialising state with a colonising collectivity. In effect then, the appeal Zionism makes to Jewry as a bound identity and collectivity may be seen as replacing the “necessary” component of a state to account for colonisation/colonialism.

What’s more, the Zionists that pushed for the establishment of a Jewish homeland, were largely (if not entirely) European to begin with, and they framed their petition to the powers of Europe in colonial terms. Herzl, for instance, proclaimed somewhat ambiguously in the fourth Zionist Congress held in London in 1900, that England ‘with her eyes on the seven seas, will understand us’.18 What this understanding would be is left unsaid but the implication is that England – the then dominant colonising power – will appreciate our desire for, as Herzl wrote elsewhere, creating beyond Europe ‘an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism’.19 In fact the European identity of the Zionists in some respects trumps their identification as Jews and strengthens the case to see Israel – pace Dershowitz – as a colonial state.

Concretising that case further, Massad makes a solid observation by noting that Herzl never thought of demanding territory for a Jewish state in Europe. Instead, the territories that he considered (amongst them, Uganda and Argentina) were always located in the colonised world, or at least beyond the parameters of Europe. ‘Such a proposal,’ he says, ‘would never have been considered by the European empires, who would have never agreed to the displacement of gentile Europeans for the purposes of erecting a Jewish state.’20 This becomes explicit in one of Herzl’s own dairy entries where he writes, ‘…if I could show [Chamberlain, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies] a spot in the English possessions where there were no white people as yet, we could talk about that’ (my emphasis).21 The displacement of ‘other’ people was for the Zionists (as for their European-colonialist-counterparts) acceptable and even seen as somehow benevolent. The dominant colonial narrative in which all these people were embedded, was one that saw Europe at the apex of civilisations and therefore as bound to a civilising mission involving the more “backward” races of the world. This narrative was necessary to mask the brutalities of colonialism as – in Israel’s postcolonial transmutation – the narrative of the persecuted refugees seeking self-determination is necessary to deflect criticism from its periodical pogroms.

Indeed, the essentially racist component of colonialism is present in Israel’s treatment of Arab Israeli’s and its perception of Palestinian’s more broadly. In 1982, when Israel launched a bloody invasion of Lebanon resulting in the death of eighteen thousand people – mostly Palestinian refugees – Menachem Begin’s (Israel’s sixth Prime Minister) response to talks of civilian deaths was dismissing. ‘Not for one moment,’ he said, ‘would I have any doubts that the civilian population deserves punishment’22 and described elsewhere the Palestinians as ‘two legged beasts’.23 Such histories, though, are rarely recorded in national memories. There one valorises the past, as Dashowitz does when he says, ‘[these early Zionists] came to Palestine without any of the weapons of Imperialism… [T]heir tools were rakes and hoes’.24 The reference to the tools of farming evokes the doctrine of Avodah Ivrit which teaches reliance on one’s self and doing one’s own hard work.25 The incoming Zionists are cast as cultivators of the land, of people who, unlike the Imperialist British, do not exploit others but do the work themselves. Yet as Maxime Rodinson has argued,

…if direct exploitation of the native population occurs frequently in the colonial world, it is not necessarily always characteristic of it. It was an exception to the rule for the English colonists settling the territory that was to become the United States to have native Indians working for them. The English in the East Indies were not land-owners who exploited peasants, anymore than they were in Australia or New Zealand… Are there those who would, as a result, entertain the idea that British expansion into all these territories was not colonial in nature?26

Recognising Israel as an existing settler colony casts all the wars it has been involved in with the Palestinians as colonial wars waged against anti-colonial freedom fighters. The brandishing of the term terrorist for Palestinians therefore is problematic because although their tactics maybe terroristic – as of certain groups in colonised India – they cannot be termed terrorists in a straightforward sense. Indeed, if the media of the western world continues blindly to throw around the term, it will be party to the colonial project and be fulfilling the role that pro-Empire papers served during the heyday of British Imperialism.

Furthermore, recognising Israel as a settler colony spells a chilling prospect for all sane and humane minds, for a settler colony can never attain a peaceful existence until it recognises itself for what it is and sets to redress its ingrained inequities. Until then it operates within a mentality where exterminating the native populace of the lands that are colonised – as in the case of the Australian Aborigines and Native Americans – is deemed necessary to the survival of the self. Where this is not possible, it will constantly move to impress upon the subjugated population its might through harsh and severe actions so that the physical onslaught translates into a symbolic gesture of unchallengeable power. It is hoped that by such degrees the native population’s hostility may be turned into docility.

So long as Israel continues its colonial mentality it will be locked into conflict with the Palestinians until such a time as the Palestinians are either wiped out or then driven into complete submission – the only possibilities within the dynamics of settler colonialism’s as taught by history. The ball therefore is indeed in Israel’s court, and in the court of her allies too, since they have a moral duty to air this alternative narrative (which represents the reality of these recurrent conflicts better) for the sake of the Israelis as much as the Palestinians.

 

 

Notes:
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[1] See, Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonialism?” (1991), Critical Inquiry, 17:2, pp336-357.
[2] There are of course exceptions, most notably (and the one that I have drawn heavily on), Joseph Mossad’s “The ‘Post-colonial’ colony: Time, Space, and Bodies in Palestine/Israel”, in, The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, ed. by Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, (London: Duke University Press, 2000), pp311-346. Others include, Elia Zureik, Palestinians in Israel: A Study in Internal Colonialism, (London: Routledge, 1979), the impressive contribution by Maxmime Rodinson in Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?, (New York: Monad, 1973), and more recently, Gershon Shafir, “Settler Citizenship in the Jewish Colonisation of Palestine”, in, Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century, ed. by Caroline Elkinson and Susan Pedersen, (New York: Routledge, 2005).
[3] Stephen Morton, Gayatri Spivak, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), p2.
[4] Ruhmini Bhaya Nair, Lying on the Postcolonial Couch, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pxi.
[5] John Pilger, Freedom Next Time, (London: Transworld Publishers, 2007), p104.
[6] Gad Brazilai, Communities and Law, (Ann Abror: University of Michigan Press, 2006), p42.
[7] John Pilger, Freedom Next Time, (London: Transworld Publishers, 2007), p105.
[8] Joseph Mossad’s “The ‘Post-colonial’ colony: Time, Space, and Bodies in Palestine/Israel”, in, The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, ed. by Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, (London: Duke University Press, 2000), p311.
[9] Ibid, p311.
[10] Ibid, p311.
[11] Ibid, p318.
[12] Ibid, p318.
[13] Ibid, p318.
[14] An example of this type of narrativising can be seen in Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel: “The Jewish refugees who came to live in Palestine had to overcome Turkish, British, and Pan-Arab imperialism in order to achieve self-determination”.
[15] Cited in, Regina Sharif, Non-Jewish Zionism: Its Roots in Western History, (London: Zed, 1983), p53, quoted in, Joseph Mossad’s “The ‘Post-colonial’ colony: Time, Space, and Bodies in Palestine/Israel”, in, The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, ed. by Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, (London: Duke University Press, 2000), p313.
[16] The Complete Diaries of Theodore Herzl, ed. by Raphael Patai, trans. Harry Zohn, vol. 4, (New York: Herzl, 1960), p1367, cited in, Joseph Mossad’s “The ‘Post-colonial’ colony: Time, Space, and Bodies in Palestine/Israel”, in, The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, ed. by Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, (London: Duke University Press, 2000), p314.
[17] Alan M. Dershowitz, The Case for Israel, (New Jersey: Wiley, 2003), p14.
[18] Protocols of the fourth Zionist Conference (London 1900), 5, cited in, Joseph Mossad’s “The ‘Post-colonial’ colony: Time, Space, and Bodies in Palestine/Israel”, in, The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, ed. by Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, (London: Duke University Press, 2000), p314.
[19] James L. Gelvin, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p51, cited in, Syed Haider, “Fires of the Past: Israel”, http://www.islam21c.com/british-affairs/the-fires-of-the-past-israel.html, viewed 07 Jan. 09
[20] Joseph Mossad’s “The ‘Post-colonial’ colony: Time, Space, and Bodies in Palestine/Israel”, in, The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, ed. by Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, (London: Duke University Press, 2000), p315.
[21] The Complete Diaries of Theodore Herzl, ed. by Raphael Patai, trans. Harry Zohn, vol. 4, (New York: Herzl, 1960), p1361, cited in, Joseph Mossad’s “The ‘Post-colonial’ colony: Time, Space, and Bodies in Palestine/Israel”, in, The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, ed. by Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, (London: Duke University Press, 2000), p315.
[22] Patrick Seal, Asad of Syria, pp377-378, citing Israel Home Service, August 12, 1982, and BBC summary of World Broadcasts, August 14, 1982, quoted in, John Pilger, Freedom Next Time, (London: Transworld Publishers, 2007), p111.
[23] Amnon Kapeliouk, Sabra and Shatilla: Inquiry into a Massacre, AAUG, 1984, p34, cited in, ibid, p111.
[24] Alan M. Dershowitz, The Case for Israel, (New Jersey: Wiley, 2003), p14.
[25] Joseph Mossad’s “The ‘Post-colonial’ colony: Time, Space, and Bodies in Palestine/Israel”, in, The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, ed. by Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, (London: Duke University Press, 2000), p319.
[26] Maxime Rodinson, Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?, (New York: Monad, 1973), p88, quoted in, ibid,p319.
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About Syed Haider

A PhD candidate at SOAS and English teacher.

3 comments

  1. whats happened to the comments
    why is the website not allowing comments anymore

  2. Absolute nonsense.
    Go read the Quran, The Bible and the history books. palestine as a state never existed until 1947. Israel on the other hand has been in existence for thousans of years. Its there in the history books. We only have to see what Mohammed did to the Jews at Khayber

  3. Flying the flag?
    JazakAllahu khairan for the well-written and -researched article.
    Something that needs to be reported again and again – Israel is an illegal state, a colonial state, an occupying state.
    Right to exist? OK, could have a right to exist in Europe where most Isarelis were born and where they were persecuted, but doesn’t have a right to exist on the land that has been that of the Arabs for over 14 centuries.

    Rather you didn’t fly the Israeli flag on the website though…

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