How “Settler Colonialism” Can Help us Understand Israel—and the U.S.

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October 2020, pp. 18-19

History’s Shadows

By Walter L. Hixson

IN THE PAST few years, references to Israeli “settler colonialism” have become increasingly common, but what does this term actually mean?

Settler colonialism is an important concept because it helps explain the core identity not only of Israel but also of its chief benefactor, the United States. Indeed, the shared identity as settler colonial states goes a long way toward explaining the “special relationship” between the two nations as well as the history of the Middle East conflict.  

Surveying changes that were remapping the world as a result of the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson declared that “Jewish Palestine” should “never go back to the Mohammedan apache.” By linking Arab Muslims with the southwestern Indian tribe, which had relatively recently been violently subdued by the United States, Wilson invoked the shared history of settler colonialism. Just as American settlers had “tamed” their own frontier—“Winning the West,” as Theodore Roosevelt put it in his multi-volume pop history—many Americans assumed that the Zionists were on a similar mission of settling and bringing civilization to the backward Islamic world.

Israel and the United States, like nearly all societies, create mythological histories for themselves—a “usable past”—that puts a positive spin on history, thereby obscuring more critical analysis and understanding. Americans, for example, like to think of themselves as the “land of the free,” yet the nation sanctioned slavery at its founding, clung to it long after most nations ended the odious practice of human bondage, and today has the highest rate of incarceration in all the world. There’s not a lot of “freedom” to be found in those facts.

Zionists likewise bristle over application of the term settler colonialism to Israeli history. “Colonialism” is recognized as an exploitative economic system, animated by racial oppression, one that ought to be relegated to the past, hence it is not a desirable label to have applied to your country. But it is the “settler” component that really defines and distinguishes the concept.

Conventional colonialism, normally associated with the British empire and other European colonizers, centered on economic exploitation of colonies for profit, but settler colonies are altogether different. In the 19th century, Europeans carved up China and competed in the imperial “scramble for Africa” in order to exploit those lands for profits to take back home.

Settlers, however, come to stay in a new land, rather than merely to exploit its natural resources and native labor for short-term profit. Settlers cultivate racial, religious and nationalist frameworks that serve to justify the takeover of lands on which other people already live. They assume new identities as chosen peoples who believe they are destined or divinely sanctioned to inherit a new land, which they sometimes even depict as an uninhabited “wilderness” or “virgin land.”

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One of the most important aspects to understand about settler colonialism is that it is a zero-sum game: settlers do not intend to share the land with indigenous people, rather they intend to remove them in order to establish sacred homelands of their own. By means of mass migration and violent removal policies, settlers seek to drive out the native residents. Settler societies thus work relentlessly to establish enduring “facts on the ground.”

For the Zionist movement, success depended on the migration of masses of Jews and their takeover of as much land in Palestine as possible with as few indigenous people as possible remaining on that land. As the Zionist patriarch David Ben-Gurion succinctly explained to his son in 1937, “We must expel Arabs and take their place.” Likewise, in the 19th century, Americans famously proclaimed it was their “manifest destiny” to seize by means of war a massive territory inhabited by Indians and Hispanics.

Because people do not give up their historic homelands peaceably, settler states invariably resort to violent solutions including ethnic cleansing and warfare, massacre and collective punishment, incarceration and torture. Settler states—as Palestinians and Native Americans can attest—are intrinsically violent societies, particularly in the early stages of their evolution.

Another crucial characteristic of settler society is abhorrence of legal constraints and of external authorities. Israel, typically backed by the United States, has a long and flagrant record of ignoring or defying the U.N. and other international entities in order to pursue its own ends in Palestine and the greater Middle East.

DISTINCTIVENESS OF ZIONIST SETTLER COLONIALISM

While Israel had much in common with the United States and other settler colonial societies, in certain crucial respects Zionist settlement was unique. The sordid history of anti-Semitism was a powerful and distinctive driving force behind the movement, but another crucial distinction pertains to timing.

Zionist settler colonialism came to fruition well into the 20th century—much later than the rise of settler societies in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, among others. Zionist settler colonialism thus coincided and clashed with the post-World War II rise of human rights consciousness and growing awareness of the historic exploitation and unjust treatment of indigenous and colonized peoples. In December 1948—the same year that Israel gained international recognition—the United Nations ratified the historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights of all peoples.

The confluence of Israeli settler colonialism and the postwar discourse of international human rights consciousness is fundamentally important. The Israeli policies of ethnic cleansing, borderland aggression, militarism and the establishment of illegal settlements are reminiscent of an 18th- or 19th-century style of settler colonialism, which stood in stark contrast with the postwar norms of decolonization, national self-determination, international justice, human rights and the rights of indigenous people.

The concept of settler colonialism thus helps illuminate the extent to which Israel’s policies are reactionary and out of step with their time. It also helps to explain why the resistance to those policies will not go away, and why the Israel lobby has to put in so much hard work to act as though the repressive and reactionary policies do not actually exist.

Settler colonialism helps us to grasp Israel’s core identity, the aggression and the contempt for international authority that are hard-wired into the Zionist state. Settler colonialism also helps us understand American support for Israel’s repressive behavior, as we have been there, done that.

Once we begin to be honest about history—our own as well as other’s—we will be better positioned to do something about it. That’s why settler colonialism is a concept worth emphasizing.


History’s Shadows, a regular column by contributing editor Walter L. Hixson, seeks to place various aspects of Middle East politics and diplomacy in historical perspective. Hixson is the author of Israel’s Armor: The Israel Lobby and the First Generation of the Palestine Conflict (available from Middle East Books and More), along with several other books and journal articles. He has been a professor of history for 36 years, achieving the rank of distinguished professor.

 

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