Comparing Settler-Colonial Societies

Thomas G. Mitchell is an independent scholar with a doctorate in international relations from the University of Southern California and an undergraduate degree from Hebrew University.  He has published a number of articles and books comparing the politics of “military politicians” and (where relevant) the peace processes in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Israel/Palestine.  (He last posted at his blog, “The Self-Hating Gentile,” in 2014.)  The following are his thoughts inspired by the apartheid and settler-colonial discourse regarding Israel:

There is a Kulturkampf being conducted among anti-Zionists, progressive Zionists and mainstream Zionists over the concepts of apartheid and settler colonialism. Anti-Zionists wish to use these labels to delegitimize and isolate Israel as anti-apartheid activists once isolated South Africa. Mainstream Zionists are in defensive mode simply saying the opposite of what their enemies claim. It is the progressive Zionists who are the most confused: do they side with their normal progressive allies on the Left or with their fellow Zionists?

The solution might be found in a closer examination of these claims. The case against Israel as an apartheid state lays in the Rome Statute that defines apartheid as an international crime but strips it of its historical context in South African history. Statutory apartheid is to real apartheid as statutory rape is to real non-consensual rape and as the legal definition of narcotics is to the medical definition. Any group of legislators or international representatives can get together and make claims based on a simple majority at the time.

Settler colonialism is a bit more complex. It can be argued either on the basis of Zionist settlement of Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine or through a comparison of the characteristics of Israeli politics with those of known settler societies such as Australia, Canada, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the United States. I have spent the last two decades engaged in what I call comparative-settler analysis based on the latter. I consider Israeli politics to have six fundamental traits:

  1. weak coalition governments based on multiple parties as a result of its Proportional Representation-list franchise system;

  2. powerful religious parties comparable to system-Islamist parties in countries like Turkey;

  3. a legal differentiation between Arabs and Jews based in law granting the latter more rights;

  4. a divide between Left and Right based on Arab policies;

  5. a major role for former generals in electoral politics including three prime ministers;

  6. and finally powerful parties (Labor, the Likud) with paramilitary roots (Palmakh, the Irgun).

Trait numbers three through five are typical of settler states; trait six is found equally among settler and non-settler democracies; traits one and two are non-settler traits. I argue that if one considers these characteristics, plus the fact that Israel is a democracy, an immigrant society and is heavily militarized — due to its prolonged conflict with the Palestinians and their Arab allies — the best comparisons with Israel are those that are also immigrant societies, democracies, and that experienced prolonged native-settler conflicts. There are three such societies: the United States in the nineteenth century, Northern Ireland in the twentieth century, and South Africa in the twentieth century. The American South and South Africa were herrenvolk (master race) democracies, and Israel and Northern Ireland were ethnic democracies. In the latter type, the native population has the vote but is excluded from government. In the former type, the “lesser” races are barred from voting.

Israelis see themselves as returned natives and not as settlers. I regard them as returned natives for the purpose of legitimacy and as settlers for the purpose of comparison.

In studying the Israeli-Egyptian peace process of the 1970s and the Oslo peace process, I concentrated on comparisons in three areas: lessons for Meretz and the Labor Party, comparing classes of military politicians, and lessons for American mediators from the peace processes in Northern Ireland and Southern Africa.  But reality has rendered Meretz and Labor minor actors in Israeli politics.   Being self-funded and dependent on American book publishers, my progress has been slow.