Posted by: laffingeyes | May 10, 2017

Nationalism and Colonialism

Often when I read about Israel, I feel as if I have fallen between two rather loud demonstrators shouting at each other and neither actually hearing the other; or if they do listen, it is with utter lack of comprehension. On one side are those who accuse Israel of being a colonization denying natives their right of self-determination and on the other those who often complain about tolerance toward Palestinian violence and hatred. One can tell the story of Israel as that of a colonizer, and one can narrate it as the realization of a people’s right to nationhood, and often the two narrations only meet in battle and then they separate as if two different countries are being discussed. Israel has the peculiar and perhaps unique position of being both a colonizer and a fulfillment of nationalist aspirations.

It is, as it were, a double-edged or triple-edged sword, for in two or three aspects, the Jewish settlers were always colonizers – the very word “settlers” hints as such – but in one important aspect and in the way in which they perceived themselves, they were not and could not be regarded as colonizers. It’s important to understand this contradiction in terms.

Although from the middle of the 19th century, numbers of Jews settled in Palestine for religious reasons, historically, Zionism officially began in 1897 as a political movement to achieve a national homeland for the Jews. The Jews are not only members of a religion but a people. In the West, especially in the United States, this is often forgotten because it contradicts both national assumptions of assimilation and Christian perspectives on the Jews. The Jews regarded their right to a nation-state like that of any other people who had been banished from their homeland. The right was further based on a hope that a nation-state would end their 2000 years of persecution. So, in its raison d’être, Zionism can be regarded as not having been and never aspiring to colonialism.

It is often claimed that Israel is a creation of the West; that is, without the Balfour Declaration and the West’s support in the UN, the state of Israel would not have been created. Again, although this seems to be a truism since Israel was the first nation established by the UN, it is not. The Balfour declaration legitimized what had already begun, and the UN vote legitimized what was already a fait accompli. Rather, if the state of Palestine had been created in 1948, it could truly have been said to have been created by the West. The Palestinians had neither a government infrastructure nor any national identification other than that among intellectuals – and certain politicians. The Jews, on the other hand, had both a nascent government and a strong national identity. If they hadn’t won the state in 1948, they might well have won it afterward.

But, of course, to the natives, the settlers were colonizers. There was no way they could not be. They came from abroad, they proudly regarded themselves as a Western Hebrew avant-garde, and very few spoke Arabic. Those who did generally belonged to the most nationalistic working class. Furthermore, throughout most of the years of the British mandate, the Jewish enclave was favored, since it was, in many respects, self-governing. For many years, it had a close relationship with the government  in London.

The state of Israel was founded primarily by socialists, and even though they had the biases of all colonialists before them, they also regarded their right to eretz Yisrael as built through hard, physical labor. The Jew, returning to his homeland would be renewed, reborn, and remade as a tiller of soil, not exploiting any of the natives. The leader of the Revisionist party, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, however, was an avowed colonialist and firm admirer of the British Empire. It is no wonder that his party did not build any agricultural settlements nor that the Likud party currently ruling Israel follows in his footsteps in its expansionist plans in the West Bank.

Today, however, Israel is also regarded as colonialist because, like a Western beacon in a sea of Arab culture or like a sore on the Arab body depending on one’s view, it is an integral partner of the West. From its beginning, for both strategic and economic reasons,  Israel always aspired toward this status. It is utterly wrong and an historical falsehood to claim as some have done that Israel was founded by the West for this reason; that is, for both military and real-politik reasons, the West wished to plunk its bastard child in the Middle East. The truth is otherwise. When Israel was founded, the American State Department was against and like the British, it vainly sought to woo the Arabs, and for many years, Israel’s existence was quite perilous. Today, every time Israel’s Prime Minister arrogantly proclaims in his excellent English that we are the only democracy in the Middle East, he fuels that lie. But again, he is a child of a colonialist anti-Arab creed. And I am not — yet — describing Israel as it is today.


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