Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 6 February 2024


Settler Colonialism: A Guide for the Sincere

An Israeli flag painted near a collection of buildings in an arid landscape.
Credit... Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

A former colleague of mine liked to say that there are certain ideas that vanish in the presence of thought. Among those ideas is settler colonialism — or rather, the invidious, hypocritical and historically illiterate way in which it is often denounced in anti-Israel polemics and protests.

What is settler colonialism? The Legal Information Institute offers the following definition: “A system of oppression based on genocide and colonialism that aims to displace a population of a nation (oftentimes indigenous people) and replace it with a new settler population.” What is settler colonialism as it applies to Israel? The idea that Israel is a British colonial scheme that aimed to create a Jewish ethno-state by eliminating the native Palestinian society and, crucially, that the only way to right this wrong is to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but here’s a thought: If settler colonialism needs to be eliminated, why not get rid of all settler colonialism?

That would start with the United States, which began as a settler-colonialist enterprise under British, Dutch and Spanish rulers, and continued as one under American rule. Some progressives try to nod to this fact with land-acknowledgment statements, which are now common on college campuses, but that’s a remarkably cheap and performative form of atonement.

Real atonement — of the type that’s now being demanded of Israelis — would look quite different. If you’re an American citizen of non-Native American descent, leave. Leave Hawaii. Leave California. Leave Massachusetts, too. Return to the lands of your ancestors — if they will have you. If not, that’s your problem.

If you are allowed to stay, do so under an entirely different form of government, one that isn’t based on the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Sign over the deed of your property to the descendants of those dispossessed by past generations of settler colonialists. Live under new rulers, not of your own choosing.

What’s true of the United States goes also for Australia, New Zealand and Canada. But why stop there? What are ethnic Russians doing east of the Urals, or in the Caucasus, or in Crimea? What are Han Chinese doing in Xinjiang or Tibet? What are Iberians doing in Latin America? And how did the people, culture and language of the Arabian Peninsula wind up in distant places like Morocco, Tunisia and, for that matter, the Holy Land itself (seized by the Rashidun Caliphate from the Byzantines in 637 C.E.)?

At this point, some opponents of settler colonialism might reply that historically distant examples of settler colonialism don’t justify current instances of it. But how ancient, really, is the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, the last major battle between Native Americans and the U.S. Army? What about the American invasion of the Hawaiian kingdom three years later?

It’s fine to oppose settler colonialism, but in that case, one also must be consistent and principled. To say that Israel alone must be eliminated on grounds of settler colonialism while giving a pass to other cases of settler colonialism is a double standard that is hard to describe as anything but antisemitic.

As it is, most Israelis were born to Israeli parents and grandparents, and many can trace their heritage in the land many more generations back. At least a few Israelis have grandparents who fought British colonialism, especially after World War II. And virtually every Israeli can read Hebrew inscriptions on Jewish coins found in archaeological sites throughout Israel dating back more than 2,000 years.

It’s odd, to say the least, that the ethnic group that is today most vociferously accused of settler colonialism is the one that can unmistakably trace its language, culture and religion to the same places from which it was long exiled and now inhabits and governs. Whatever else it is, Jewish nationalism — that is, Zionism — is the oldest continuous anticolonial movement in history, starting well before the Romans sought to de-Judaize the area by calling their Levantine colony Palestina. Hanukkah, the festival of lights, is one such reminder, celebrating the recovery of Jerusalem from colonizing Greeks in the second century B.C.E.

Should this ancient history, interesting or inspiring as it is, matter? In the final analysis, no.

Israel is justified by being a sovereign state that commands the loyalty of its citizens, not by the precedents of antiquity. Ditto for the United States and every other state, whatever the nature of its origins. History is lived forward, not back, and the goal of politics and diplomacy is to make life as livable for as many people as possible, not to re-adjudicate ancient rights or wrongs. That should be a motto for Palestinians, too, in the hopes of a future state based on something better than current grievances or past glories.

Settler colonialism deserves discussion in the classroom — just like other interesting, but fatally flawed, academic theories.

More on Israel and “settler colonialism”

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