Why it is wrong to describe Israel as a ‘settler-colonialist society’.

Iraqi Jews displaced in 1951.

The case of David Miller, a UK-based professor of political sociology who recently made highly controversial statements concerning UK university Jewish Societies (JSocs), and the UK’s Union of Jewish Students (UJS), raises vexed questions concerning the limits of academic freedom (and, perhaps, the limits of freedom of expression in general). Public criticism and condemnation of Miller (from MPs and peers, and from academics), has focused, understandably, on his statements concerning Jewish student organisations: these are arguably the most extreme and the most controversial of his statements. In this blog post, I want to examine another strand of his statements, namely, his repeated characterisation of Israel as a ‘settler-colonialist society’. This view, while less controversial (on the hard left) than his statements on student organisations, is also more widely shared (inevitably, perhaps), and it may have some superficial plausibility to some, particularly those on the hard left of UK politics. Yet, it seems to me that this view, of Israel as a settler-colonialist society, is also deeply problematic.

Let me try to explain why I think it is inaccurate and misleading, and potentially dangerous, to describe Israel as a ‘settler-colonialist society’.

According to a 2008 survey, 70.6% of Jewish citizens of Israel, were born in Israel. Such citizens cannot possibly be described as settler-colonists, unless they reside in the West Bank or East Jerusalem (which are commonly regarded, under international law, as occupied territories, though Israel disputes this). As of July 2020, Israel had approximately 6,829,000 Jewish citizens, of whom approximately 600,000 (i.e., 9%) reside in the West Bank or East Jerusalem. It follows that more than 60% of Jewish Israelis were both born in Israel, and reside within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. These Jewish Israelis (who are a majority), cannot be described as settler-colonists, at least according to international law. Can they be described as settler-colonists on the basis that they may live on land that was seized three or four generations ago from Arabs in the 1948 War of Independence (referred to by Palestinian Arabs as ‘Al-Nakba’, The Catastrophe)? Pro-Palestinian campaigners and academics in the UK frequently seem to argue this; but it is an extremely problematic position. It implies that, if land was seized by one’s ancestors by force, then one has no right to remain there. Do we apply this kind of argument to any other country? And what would be the consequences if we did? The ancestors of white US citizens took their land from the indigenous Indian population; should they have to move ‘back’ to Ireland, Germany, England, Scotland, the countries from whence their ancestors came?

We must bear in mind that those now turning 18 in Israel are, many of them, the great-grandchildren of those who fought in the 1948 war. Should they have to move (or should they be expelled, even), to the countries their great-grandfathers or their great-great-grandfathers emigrated from, or fled from as refugees, in the early years of the twentieth century – countries such as the Russian Empire, with its many anti-Jewish pogroms that prompted a Jewish exodus? And this brings me on to another point. Many Jewish immigrants to Israel, while they were obviously not born in Israel, have not been settler-colonists by any stretch of the imagination, but have, rather, been refugees fleeing persecution, even death. This is certainly true of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe during the Holocaust (or during the intensifying Nazi persecution leading up to the Holocaust) – true of both the small number of refugees admitted by the British Mandatory authorities in Palestine, and of the much larger number who sought and found refuge in Palestine in defiance of the British authorities there. It was also true of many Russian Jews fleeing the Czarist pogroms of 1881-1905. More recently, it has been true of many Mizrahi Jews fleeing persecution in the Arab world. The ancient Jewish communities in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya suffered serious pogroms between 1940 and 1970, sometimes following Israeli victories in the various Arab-Israeli wars, prompting the exodus of hundreds of thousands to Israel, under the Law of Return. One can argue that the Law of Return should apply to descendants of Palestinian Arabs who lost their homes and land in the 1948 war, but one cannot fairly describe refugees, or (worse still), their descendants, as settler-colonists.

Of course, those who disagree with current Israeli government policies on settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, should be free to denounce these policies as settler-colonialist – a case can be made that they are, and indeed many left-wing Jewish Israelis frequently make this case. But pro-Palestinian academics and activists in the West often go much further. For example, in response to an open letter condemning Miller’s statements on Jewish student organisations, the campaign-group ‘Support David Miller’ made a statement to The Times on 4th March claiming that

Several of the signatories write from occupied Palestinian land, seized through ethnic cleansing. In their bid to silence Professor Miller, they are attempting to whitewash apartheid; the daily demolition of Palestinian homes; and the racism at the heart of Zionist ideology. They will not succeed.

Who were these signatories writing from ‘occupied Palestinian land’? An inspection of the list of signatories (as of 13th March) reveals that, of the handful who are identifiably from Israel, none are identifiably from the West Bank or East Jerusalem; the ‘nearest’ is Shalem College in Jerusalem, but this is built on the area which was ‘No-Man’s Land’ between 1948 and 1967. The ‘occupied Palestinian land, seized through ethnic cleansing’ must therefore refer to land ‘seized’ in 1948. (I will not devote much discussion to the issue of whether the displacement of Palestinian Arabs from the area which became Israel, during the 1948 war, should properly be described as ‘ethnic cleansing’; the rights and wrongs of 73 years ago are not the primary concern of this post; it rather concerns what should or should not be done, now, at the present time. Suffice it to say that there are two very different opinions on the ‘ethnic cleansing’ question[1].) Do these campaigners propose restoring the land, in its entirety, to the descendants of Palestinian Arabs? I don’t think such an ideology is practically or morally defensible, that all land should be restored to the descendants of its ‘original’ inhabitants – it ignores the human cost and the injustice of uprooting people from land and houses their family has owned for generations, for three or four generations (often), in the case of Israel. And if it is defensible, how far back do we go? As mentioned above, no-one seriously advocates the restoration of the territory of the United States, in its entirety, to the descendants of its indigenous peoples; and there are many other examples (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South America). And one might observe that, before the Muslim conquest of Palestine, there were very few Arabs there at all.

One would hope that even very pro-Palestinian activists and academics in the UK do not advocate the expulsion of all Jewish Israelis from the area of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River (i.e., Mandate-era Palestine); assuming they do not, they would do well to make this clear.


[1] As usually happens in war, crimes were committed against civilians by both sides, including for example the Deir Yassin massacre perpetrated by soldiers of the Irgun and Levi groups (Jewish extremists), but also the Kfar Etzion massacre perpetrated by soldiers of the Arab Legion, and the Jewish Agency bombing and the Hadassah Medical Convoy massacre, both perpetrated by Arab forces in Jerusalem. Those in the UK who are disposed to blame the Jewish decision-makers at the time, for the overall consequences of the war, would do well to reflect on the fact that it would have been well within the capabilities of the British authorities in Palestine to have imposed, on both sides, a relatively bloodless partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state; but cutting and running was the preferred option of the British government at the time. Having said that, the decision-makers responsible are long dead. Ernst Bevin, Foreign Secretary in the Attlee government from 1945-51, and the architect of Britain’s disastrous policies in Palestine in the final years of the Mandate, died in 1951. David Ben-Gurion, the leading decision-maker on the Jewish side in the 1948 war, and Israel’s first Prime Minister, died in 1973. All senior military commanders in the 1948 war, both Jewish and Arab, are likewise long dead, as are the vast majority of the rank and file of the military forces of both sides.

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