Is Zionism Colonialism?
Michael Shurkin

"The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living."     - Karl Marx

Is it accurate, or even useful, to regard Zionism as colonialism? It has long been a commonplace for Arab political and intellectual leaders to regard Zionists as colonialists, and to identify with the eternal colonized. Israel, to cite the Columbia University political scientist and anti-Semite Joseph Massad, is a racist state founded by "Zionist Jewish colonialism" and "armed colonists" who were nothing less than "British colonial death squads" Can Israel's sympathizers hold their noses and look such allegations in the face? And how can they be evaluated?

Part of the difficulty many Americans on the moderate-Left and Right have with comprehending the anti-Zionists is a very different understanding of the words 'colonial,' 'colonialism,' and 'colonization.' If anything, Americans tend to have a purely positive association with colonialism: Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. Indeed, we have so effaced the colonized peoples from our own creation myth that we forget the distinction between colonizer and colonized and think of ourselves, the colonizers, as the oppressed party in our intra-colonial conflict with the métropole, Britain. Meanwhile, Americans know nothing of Arab experiences with colonialism. How many of us remember the last time Britain landed troops at Basra? Iraqis do, and Arab criticism of Zionism as colonialism is not so much a response to current events as it is the expression of a political discourse with a distinct history and sources. That current events appear to confirm the Arabs' suspicions does not help. Yet with typical American ignorance of history, we literally have no idea what they are talking about.

Arabs began accusing Zionists of colonialism the moment the first Jewish pioneers arrived in Palestine. Their claims took on form and vigor with the rise of Arab nationalism in the Mandate period, as Jewish colonialism easily became conflated with British/Other European colonialism. Arab nationalism itself was born out of the anti-colonial struggle, and the concomitant growth of Zionist Palestine (with apparent British support) both fueled the Arabs' fears that Zionism was an auxiliary of Western colonialism and guaranteed that anti-Zionism would be fundamental to Arab nationalism. It was in the 1950s, however, that anti-Zionism, inspired by the socialist and anti-colonial insurrections that swept the globe, acquired much of its present ideological content. The leaders of Arafat's generation looked at Israel and saw Cuba, Indochina, and, above all, Algeria. It was all the same fight, one that could be won using the same basic methods: peasant guerilla war and urban terrorism. They have been fighting the same war ever since. The 1950s anti-colonial national liberation movements were also important because they seduced the Western Left (including a raving Jean-Paul Sartre) to embrace them as heroic causes in the name of which anything was justified, including terrorism. At that moment was born the Left's affinity for the Palestinian cause, for it readily accepted the notion that the Palestinian's struggle was that of a colonized people against chauvinist bourgeois nationalism and colonialism. Israel equals colonialism equals bourgeois capitalism, nationalism, and racism. (The past decade has seen the addition of globalization to the menu.)

If ignorance of history characterizes American understandings of anti-Zionism, obsession with history marks the Arab versions. This history has become a trap for many anti-Zionists for two reasons. First, they seem informed more by the hatred and resentment of the colonized against the colonizer than any other motivation or rationale. Arab intellectuals seem stuck, clutching to their identity as colonized, reinforcing their subordination to and dependence on the colonizer, imaginary or not, and ceding ground to extremists like Bin Laden, who can only channel Arab energies into futile and self-destructive gestures of rage. Second, the 1950s model of anti-colonial struggle, as compelling as it is, obscures some important differences between those fights and the fight with Israel. Anti-Zionists and their Western leftist sympathizers mistake what Israel is all about as well as the relationship between Israel and the West. They simply do not see the difference between Israelis and, say, French colonists in North Africa.

So what are those differences? How can we evaluate in what ways Zionism is and is not colonialism?

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Image: Shilo settlement, Ian Lustick, 1993

June 2003

Zeek in Print
Spring 03 issue available here

Zionism and

Michael Shurkin

Simulacra and Science Fiction
Dan Friedman

I Hear America

Jay Michaelson

I wish I was...
Harbeer Sandhu

Josh Gets Contacts
Josh Ring

When I Met Humility, I saw Letters
Abraham Mezrich

David Stromberg

Zeek @ Low
June 26, 2003
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