Debating Zionism as ‘Settler-Colonialism’

On Dec. 20, 2021, Alan Johnson, editor of the British online journal, Fathom, debated Prof. Leila Farsakh (a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston) in a webinar hosted by Peter Beinart.  Despite Beinart’s public preference for one binational state in Israel/Palestine, he moderated the discussion fairly, as is his custom.   

One of Johnson’s effective debating points was on how Farsakh and other anti-Zionists “flatten” Zionism, ignoring the spectrum of historical and current viewpoints and parties labelled as Zionist.  I also appreciated his reference to the Zionist consensus accepting the Peel Commission and then the United Nations General Assembly plans for partition, which the Palestinian leadership and the Arab League violently rejected.  

It would be a good debating point — rarely if ever invoked — that “partition” was a misnomer for the UN Partition Plan, passed by the General Assembly on Nov. 29, 1947.  It actually laid out a form of confederation between two sovereign states, sharing a common currency and economic market, with an international body governing an undivided Jerusalem under neither state’s sovereignty.  While (perhaps reluctantly) accepted by the Jews, the Arab side began its attacks on the Jewish community in Palestine immediately after the UN’s vote, and half a year before Israel declared its independence — at which time the war was broadened with invasions by the armies of five neighboring Arab states.  

Although the State of Israel is not a product of “settler colonialism” — there was no “mother country” or “metropole” — Israeli rule over the West Bank and at least parts of East Jerusalem exemplify exactly that.  The West Bank and East Jerusalem are governed and exploited economically in the interest of Israel proper and its Jewish settler inhabitants.  Israel remains governed in part by parties that resist negotiations for a solution (preferably two states) that would end its military occupation. 

Johnson pointed out that Barak and Olmert attempted to negotiate a two-state agreement, but Palestinian parties (especially Hamas but also Fatah at times) have in different ways resisted such a solution.  Johnson also referred to the Arab and Muslim Middle East’s appalling human rights record in its treatment of minorities, illustrating how quixotic, dangerous, and unappealing the one-state idea is for most Israeli Jews.  (One can watch the YouTube recording at the bottom of this post.)

I’ve met Beinart a couple of times and I’ve written for the blog that he had set up at The Daily Beast a number of years ago.  Even as I understand his frustration at how things have evolved in Israel, I find his new one-state position exasperating.  I agreed with the thesis of his 2012 book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” that if young liberal-minded American Jews were faced with a choice between supporting Israel and supporting their “liberalism,” they’d embrace some version of the latter.   Yet even then, I saw an unfortunate tendency to lay almost exclusive blame on Israel and Zionists.  

I also used to be a contributing writer at Jewish Currents, when it published a range of views on Israel before turning virulently anti-Zionist under the new youthful leadership it has had since around 2017-18.  In becoming its editor-at-large, Beinart has helped put Jewish Currents on the map in public discourse, even as it remains small in paid circulation.   

The following provides a taste of JC’s current editorial leanings:  Read here as historian Lorenzo Veracini discusses “settler colonialism, Zionism, and decolonial futures.”  JC’s editor-in-chief, Arielle Angel, stridently supports Hannah Arendt “On Loving Jews” in the latter’s famous exchange with Gershom Scholem over his anguished perception that Arendt showed no “Ahavat Yisrael” (literally “love of Israel,” but this really means feeling solidarity with the Jewish people) in her coverage of the Eichmann trial — expanded from a series of New Yorker articles into “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”