The idea that Israel is a colonial-settler state has played a significant part framing anti-Semitic incidents since the eruption of the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas. Thus posters featuring Israeli hostages kidnapped by the Islamist terrorist group on 7 October have been defaced by having the word “coloniser” written over them. The idea seems to be that as colonisers they deserved their suffering.
The description of Israel in this way goes back at least as far as the 1960s. In 1965 the recently formed Palestine Liberation Organisation published a pamphlet by Fayez Sayegh, a Palestinian-American diplomat, entitled Zionist Colonialism in Palestine. Then in 1967 a special issue of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes published an article by Maxime Rodinson, a leading French scholar, on Le conflit israélo-arabe. In 1973 an English translation of the latter work was first published as Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (The question mark is worth noting).
However, it is only recently that the term has gained a high public profile. That led Simon Sebag Montifiore, a British historian and television presenter, to publish a refutation in the Atlantic magazine
A measure of this terminology’s proliferation is the decision by Elon Musk, the owner of X/Twitter, to suspend anyone who uses it on his platform. The same will apply to anyone who uses the related chant “from the river to the sea Palestine will be free”. It is not clear whether he is motivated by the distress such posts can cause the Jewish community or the fear of businesses withdrawing their advertising.
However, similar accusations are not restricted to X/Twitter. Gen Z users, born between the mid 1990s and the early 2010s, have made Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “letter to America” go viral on TikTok, a video hosting service. The letter, which sought to justify the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on America, does not use the term “colonialism”. But like many who justify the 7 October Hamas pogrom it casts Israel as the epitome of evil. It says the Jews have occupied Palestine for more than 50 years: “overflowing with oppression, tyranny, crimes, killing, expulsion, destruction and devastation”.
Such accusations are not only false but also harm the cause of Palestinian self-determination.
James Heartfield, a writer and lecturer, has pointed out on spiked that Jews migrating to Palestine were often fleeing persecution.
Those who arrived before the state was founded and immediately afterwards were mainly fleeing from Europe in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Then in the late 1940s and early 1950s there was a new wave who were escaping an upsurge of persecution in the Arab world and Iran. So Jewish migrants can hardly be described as taking advantage of a position of privilege and power.
Heartfield also makes much of terrorist activity against the British authorities by pre-Israel underground groups such as the Irgun and Lehi (apparently the British intelligence services came to regard them as their greatest anti-colonial threat). His point is that to argue Israel was the creation of imperialism means leaving out the struggle of some Jewish groups against the British mandate. He is also implying that those who regard violent activities as a legitimate means to gain freedom are being inconsistent. They ignore such tensions in their attempt to portray Israel as a colonial-settler state.
However, there is a risk in Heartfield’s approach. Most people would disapprove of terrorism in any context. So the activities of Irgun and Lehi might also be used to discredit and deligitimise Israel.
As noted above, it is not just that the decolonisation narrative is false. It also damages the cause of Palestinian self-determination. First, any Palestinian who believes Israel is a colonial-settler enterprise will be tempted to abandon the painstaking business of building autonomy. Instead they are likely to support attempts to wipe Israel out. Yet such an approach can all too easily undermine the importance of self-determination as a principle. It also takes political conflicts in a destructive direction.
Second, claiming that Israel is a colonial-settler state rules out any attempt to negotiate a solution to the conflict. Those who argue in that way have often concluded there is no point in negotiations. Instead they have decided to rely on a long-term process of deligitimisation based on the guilty feelings of western nations towards their imperialist pasts.
Third, it is a way of avoiding doing the soul-searching that Palestinians urgently need to undertake. One aspect of this is to recognise that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, actively recruited for Hitler in the 1930s and early 1940s. This relationship is hardly compatible with a narrative portraying the Palestinians solely as victims.
Another aspect of this soul searching would be the need to honestly face the decisions made historically by the Palestinian leadership. One Palestinian who did understand the importance of facing this question was Nizar Banat, an anti-corruption activist. He regularly castigated the Palestinian Authority (PA) for its corruption. He even called for the European Union to cut off aid. As a result he was beaten to death by PA security staff.
There is one last point on the Palestinian use of the decolonisation narrative that needs to be made. In Heartfield’s article referred to above, he asserts that settlers in the West Bank have stolen Arab land. It is a moot point whether this counts as settler-colonialism or amounts to the practice of some sort of apartheid. History shows that how one goes about tackling that sort of questionable use of power has a big impact on what happens once that power is overthrown. The obvious example favoured by the critics is that of South Africa.
The decolonisation narrative is misleading, intellectually lazy and damaging to the Palestinian cause. It is almost certainly impossible to completely ban expressions of support for the idea on social media. However, supporters of peace in the region would do better to consider the most effective ways of countering this dishonest framing of the conflict.
Guy Whitehouse is a member of the Academy of Ideas and the Free Speech Union. His views do not necessarily reflect those of those organisations.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.
The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.
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