The key to understanding Israel is to situate it as a settler-colonialist project requiring the dispossession of the Palestinians, argues Alex Snowdon
From the late nineteenth century onwards, Zionism grew out of three interlinked phenomena. It was a response to antisemitism, it was one expression of the much wider phenomenon of nationalism, and it was sponsored by Western imperialism.
The Zionist movement and its ideology need to be understood as a particular version of the nationalism that was prevalent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: a settler-colonial nationalism that depended upon a close relationship with imperialism.
The roots of its nationalism were not in a particular territory, but in shared Jewishness. It sought ‘a land without people for a people without a land’. The Zionist movement emerged, from the 1880s onwards, in response to European racism. Antisemitism was a long-established form of racist prejudice and discrimination in Europe and Russia.
The French Revolution had represented a leap forward for European Jewry. Newer and more rational ideas, together with democratic aspirations, challenged the old ideologies, of which antisemitism was very much a part.
Nonetheless antisemitism persisted and was in some ways refashioned. The Nazis would later be associated strongly with the notion of Jews as both biologically inferior and as a destabilizing ‘enemy within’ European societies. Wealthier Jews were caricatured as parasites, while working class Jews were strongly associated with left-wing ideas, in particular the hated Bolshevism. These prejudices were taken to their murderous extreme by Nazi Germany in the Holocaust, but they were part of the European political mainstream.
The Zionist movement was only ever one political current among Jews – and for a long time it attracted only a very small minority. There were many anti-Zionist Jews (often socialist) and non-Zionist Jews.
The dominant views in Jewish communities involved seeing antisemitism as something that had to be challenged and overcome within the societies in which Jews lived. Zionism, by contrast, reflected a degree of fatalism on that score, resigned as it was to seeking a ‘homeland’ elsewhere.
Zionism did not begin with a clear commitment to having a homeland in Palestine. Different options were considered. During the early twentieth century, however, Zionist aspirations crystallized around the notion of making a home in Palestine. This drew on old scriptural references to the region in the Jewish religion for ideological support.
The Zionist project took a more concrete and coherent form during the years immediately prior to, and following, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in three different ways. As already mentioned, it became very sharply focused on Palestine.
Secondly, it became clear that Britain would be the effective colonial sponsor. Zionism could never stand a chance without the active support of at least one imperialist state because it involved making claims to territory that was already inhabited.
Thirdly, it evolved from the vague notion of a ‘homeland’ – which could theoretically involve living side by side with other national or ethnic groups as part of a larger nation state – towards the distinct idea of a Jewish nation state.
This vision of a nation state was fuelled by both the wider trend of nationalism and by European racism towards non-European people. Imperialist assumptions underpinned the idea that it would be perfectly reasonable to take over the land of people in the Middle East.
It was always debatable whether Jews were really ‘a people without a land’, as it could be argued that Jews ought to stay in the countries where they were settled: whether rooted in the left-wing vision of anti-racist working unity with non-Jews, or a moderate commitment to assimilation into European society. But the notion of ‘a land without a people’ was undoubtedly false: Palestine was already peopled, inconveniently for the Zionists, by Palestinians.
Jewish settlement grew gradually from the start of the twentieth century onwards, encouraged by a desire to escape the racism and poverty that afflicted many European Jews and the more violent and overt antisemitic pogroms in Russia. After the Balfour Declaration, once the British Mandate was established, the numbers grew substantially. In the 1920s and 1930s there was growing antagonism, including on occasions deadly violence, between Jewish incomers and the indigenous population.
Zionism was and is a form of settler-colonialism. Classic colonialism involved strong European states taking over and colonizing lands elsewhere in the world and politically subjugating the people. These colonies were formally part of an empire, run by one of Europe’s great powers, and there was no self-rule or democracy. This was the global order that developed between roughly 1870 and 1914.
These empires were characterized by sharp economic exploitation and also by the promotion of racist attitudes towards the ‘colonials’ among the population of the imperialist state. An elite layer within the colonized population would be incorporated, politically and economically, into the empire, but only to an extent. Senior administration would still rest with foreign officials from the imperialist state, while prospects for economic development would be retarded.
Settler-colonialism is distinct from this in a number of ways. Settler colonies are run by people who have a degree of independence from the European imperialist power that originally settled some of its people there.
In the American case this went as far as the settled domestic elites launching a successful war of independence against Britain. So, the settler population, while broadly sharing the ideological attitudes of white Europeans towards the ‘natives’, sought independence (to greater or lesser degrees) from their initial European colonial sponsor.
Settler-colonialism has also tended to be motivated, to a very large degree, by the wish to possess land. It has tended to be expansionist, seeking more and more land irrespective of who already lives there. This, in turn, meant conflict with indigenous populations. The expansion into the ‘Wild West’ by the American pioneers of the 19th century is the archetypal example.
Genocide has therefore been a greater feature of settler-colonialism than classic or typical colonialism. The people are in the way of control of the land, so the people must be removed. That can happen either through exiling them or killing them. Very often it has been the latter.
This appalling logic of settler-colonialism can be seen all too graphically in Zionism’s development and the foundation of Israel as a ‘Jewish state’. Kibbutzes – collective farms and plots of land – started in the 1920s or 1930s, could often seem egalitarian, and even socialist, because of their cooperative ideals and internal equality. Yet they were often developed on stolen land, they were exclusionary towards the Palestinians, and the people living there tended to have a deeply hostile stance towards the Palestinians, who were viewed as a nuisance or threat.
As Jewish immigrants became more settled in Palestine, during the 1920s and 1930s, they tended to develop a highly confrontational relationship with the Palestinians, rooted in conflict over control of land and reinforced by racist and supremacist attitudes. Hostility and conflict became the norm.
Israeli apartheid and violence have their roots in this pre-history of the Israeli state. Apartheid policies are no aberration, but rooted in the very foundation stones of Israel as a racially exclusive settler-colonial state.
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Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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