Is Zionism a form of settler colonialism? Anti-Zionists think there is an easy answer to that question: “Of course.” Zionists think there is an equally easy answer to that question: “Of course not.” In fact, the question has no easy answer. Zionism resembles settler colonialism in some respects and differs sharply from it in others.
Different forms of colonialism
Let’s begin with some definitions. “Colony” means a group of people from the same place or with similar interests who live close to one another, e.g., “the Polish colony in America” or the “the artists’ colony in the East Village.” Nothing about the word entails taking lands away from other people or even of settling far from one’s original home.
“Colonization” does imply a program of setting out to found communities far from one’s home. The ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans all engaged in colonization. Some but not all of their colonies maintained ties with their city of origin (called a “metropole” by scholars); some but not all were intended as a way for the home city to extend its power.
“Colonialism” is often used more or less interchangeably with “colonization,” but only when the formation of colonies is carried out by a regime that uses them to extend its economic, political, cultural or ideological power. This describes the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries, the Mughal conquest of India, and the various conquests that made for the Ottoman, Chinese, Mongol, and Japanese empires. Yet today it is widely associated with European imperialism alone.
“Settler colonialism,” finally, is a sub-division of “colonialism” that is often regarded as its worst form. This term is commonly used for colonies in which “the invading Europeans (or their descendants) annihilated, displaced and/or marginalized” the native population (note again the assumption that the invaders will be Europeans). Paradigm examples are Australia, Argentina, Canada and the United States. Many scholars associate settler colonialism with European racism; some maintain that it is inherently “genocidal.” Its distinguishing feature is supposed to be that the colonists seek “not the exploitation but the replacement of the native population.”
Once again, it is false to characterize settler colonialism as specifically European. The Chinese takeover of Taiwan from its native Malay inhabitants, for instance, followed exactly the same pattern as European settler colonialism. And over the past century, the Japanization of Korea, the Arabization of Iraq (as against Kurds, Assyrians, and other minorities), and the Moroccan government’s attempt to settle its citizens in Western Sahara are all clear examples of settler colonialism. So while identifying settler colonialism with European regimes alone makes for effective anti-Zionist propaganda — the Jews coming into Palestine are lumped with groups who represent the epitome of European arrogance and racism — it distorts reality.
Aspects of Zionism that fit the settler-colonialist paradigm
Aside from its European associations, in some ways the rubric of settler colonialism does seem to fit Zionism:
1. Early Zionists themselves used the words “colony” and “colonization” to describe their project. The organization sponsoring early Zionist communities in the land was called the Jewish Colonization Association, and Arthur Ruppin, the head of the Zionist Organization’s Palestine Office, entitled his 1926 book, The Agricultural Colonization of the Zionist Organization in Palestine.
2. The Zionist movement sought and received the support of great empires. Herzl tried to interest the German Kaiser and the Ottoman Sultan in the Zionist project. After his death, Weizman succeeded in getting the British Empire to sponsor Zionism, and it continued to operate under British auspices — albeit with the endorsement of the (imperially-dominated) League of Nations — up until the moment at which Israel declared its independence.
3. Many early Zionists displayed the same racist condescension and contempt towards the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine that other European colonialists showed towards the native peoples of the Americas, Australia, and Africa. Theodor Herzl thought that a Jewish influx into Palestine would “form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.” Chaim Weizman regarded the Palestinian Arabs as “a demoralized race,” and Jabotinsky declared that “we are going to the Land of Israel in order to advance Europe’s moral boundaries to the Euphrates.”
Others displayed outright brutality towards the Arab inhabitants of the land. As early as 1891, Ahad Ha’am complained that “our brethren in the Land of Israel … behave toward the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, infringe upon their boundaries, hit them without reason, and even brag about it.” Ahad Ha’am was unusual among early Zionist leaders for acknowledging this problem. Most, while disapproving of the sort of brutal behavior that Ahad Ha’am described, shared the contemptuous attitudes underlying such behavior. They either asserted, contrary to the evidence on the ground, that “most Palestinian Arabs … welcomed the material and other benefits” the Zionists believed themselves to be providing, or that European Jews, as representatives of a higher civilization than the Arabs, had a right to rule the land.
Sometimes these prejudiced attitudes towards the Arab population spilled over into proposals to expel them. Herzl wrote in his diary that the Zionist movement might “try to spirit the penniless population [of Palestine] across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country.” Other early Zionists made similar remarks. Israel Zangwill gave speeches in 1904 proclaiming that “We must be prepared to expel [Palestine’s non-Jewish population] from the land by the sword, just as our forefathers did to the tribe that occupied it,” and Ben Gurion said in 1938 that he supported “compulsory transfer.”
During the War of Independence, of course, the vast majority of Palestinians did in fact flee their homes, often with the encouragement, or worse, of the Israeli army.
Taken together, these points add up to a plausible case that Zionism was a form of settler colonialism. But in many ways the points are misleading, and they leave out a glaring difference between Zionism and settler colonialism.
Why Zionism doesn’t fit the settler-colonialist paradigm
The first argument, that Zionists employed the words “colony” and “colonization,” is misleading because those terms have uses that do not tie them to the European program of extending its rule that we today identify with “colonialism.” Arthur Ruppin had the agricultural connotations of “colonization” primarily in mind and his central concern was the need for Jews to adopt an agrarian way of life in Palestine. Ruppin was also one of the early Zionist leaders most concerned that the incoming Jews learn Arabic, develop friendships with Arabs, and “seek to buy land which was of limited use to the Arabs”; he indeed became a leading advocate for a binational rather than an exclusively Jewish state.
Something similar applies to the second argument, which links Zionism with empires. Zionism had no imperial sponsor for its first thirty-six years, and for all intents and purposes it lost its British sponsorship in 1939. Even between 1917 and 1939, its relationship with Britain was rocky, since the British tried to balance their commitment to Zionism with their interest in cultivating a relationship with the Arab world. Zionism was not a British movement, but a separate entity — serving Jews around the world, not British people— that had sometimes converging, sometimes divergent, interests from the British. This is entirely unlike the relationship between Britain or Spain or France and their colonists in the Americas, Africa, and Australia.
The third point about negative Zionist attitudes towards Palestinian Arabs has more merit, but it too is misleading. It is true that Herzl contrasted the “civilization” of European Jews with Arab “barbarism” and mused in his diary about expelling local Arabs. But he also wrote a novel envisioning a future in which Jews and Arabs would live together in peace and mutual respect. Moreover, the remark in his diary was never translated into a program for action. “The possibility of removing Arabs from Palestine,” says Mark Tessler, in a history of Israel-Palestine that is often critical of Zionism, “was not taken seriously or even placed on the Zionist agenda during [its early] period.”
As for Zangwill, he eventually became opposed to the very idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine precisely because it would entail displacing the local Arab population: he wanted a Jewish home only in a territory unclaimed by other people. And Ben Gurion, while well-known for his remark about compulsory transfer, is also well-known for his refusal to try to take the West Bank, in 1948, because he didn’t want Israel either to rule over or to expel its large Arab population.
Finally, while it is true that many Zionists held racist attitudes towards Arabs, it does not follow that racism served as a primary motivation for their movement. In the first place, there were Zionists who pushed back against the Eurocentrism of figures like Herzl and Weizman, some of them even calling on their fellow Jews to “jettison their European culture, enter into genuine parnership with the people of the country and learn from their ways and skills.”
In the second place, racism was pervasive in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and can be found in movements of all sorts. Marx and Engels were extremely racist; so was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But the racist views of Marx and Stanton do not entail that their socialism or feminism was motivated by racism. The same should be said of Zionism.
A movement to rescue Jews, not dominate others
Which brings us to the glaring omission in the standard argument for regarding Zionism as a settler-colonialist movement: the Zionist movement was formed in order to help Jews escape European domination, not to extend that domination over other people. The Jews from Russia, Poland, and Germany who came to Palestine from the 1880s through the 1940s did not see themselves as Russian, Polish, or German — they saw themselves simply as Jews, who had been badly treated and not regarded as part of the dominant ethnic group in their countries of origin, and who had no interest in extending the power or presence of Russia, Poland, or Germany to Palestine. They sought a Jewish home in Palestine, not a Russian or Polish or German one. Jonathan Zasloff and Steven Lubet make this point well in a recent astute piece on Zionism and settler colonialism.
The point is linked to the most common objection to the settler-colonialist explanation of Zionism: that Zionism had no “metropole” or home country to refer back to, or return to if their project failed. No European power regarded them as its representatives. Nor did the Jews in Palestine regard themselves as belonging to any such power. They may have wanted Britain to help them, but they were willing to take such help from any great power. Britain was an ally, not a sovereign, for them; nor did they regard any other European nation as their true home or ruler.
But without a metropole, it is hard to maintain the settler colonialist paradigm. The absence of a metropole explains why the Jews could not just “go home,” if their project failed, and why they regarded their buying up of indigenous land, not as expanding the power of some faraway country, but as the necessary condition for a hitherto landless group to establish a home for itself.
The appropriate conclusion to draw from all this is that Zionism, at its origin, both does and does not fit under the rubric of “settler colonialism.” It certainly should not be seen simply in that light.
Settler colonialism and the occupation
None of this applies to the settlement project that Israel embarked on after the 1967 war. Israel’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank fit the settler colonial paradigm perfectly. By 1967, Israel was an established state and its citizens have gone out from there into the territories it conquered very much as “frontier settlers” moving to a periphery from the metropole. They have a home to return to, they see themselves as representing that home and expanding its power, and it uses its military force to protect them and expand their holdings, all the while oppressing and dispossessing the indigenous inhabitants of the area. There is moreover a debate within the metropole, much like the debates in Britain when it ruled India and in France when it ruled Algeria, over whether the colonists should pull up stakes and come home — a debate that did not take place, could not take place, within the Jewish community that established itself in Palestine before 1947.
Relatedly, there is a clear moral case in favor of uprooting these settlements, while there was no such case for “sending back” the Jews of 1882-1947, given that that would have meant rendering them homeless or, in many cases, dead.
So the answer to the question, “Is Zionism a form of settler colonialism?” is a complicated one. It is a simplistic distortion to characterize Zionism as just a form of settler colonialism, but there are some reasons to employ that characterization, and the phrase aptly captures Israel’s project of settling the West Bank, and replacing its native population with Jews.