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Debating Zionism as ‘Settler-Colonialism’

By Ralph Seliger

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.”     

5 Responses to “Debating Zionism as ‘Settler-Colonialism’”

  1. Bernard Bohbot
    January 25, 2022 at 3:08 pm #

    I can’t help but think that this debate is not objective at all. It is a subjective matter. Anti-Zionists use the term “colonialism” as a synonym for “theft”. Zionists focus instead on the fact that the Jews have returned to their homeland to emphasize that they are not strangers to that land and they have a just claim to it.

    Yet, from a universalist perspective, it is clear that it is a conflict between two legitimacies.
    I won’t go into details, but if you put yourself in the other’s shoes, it is easy to understand why the Jews needed a home, and why the Palestinians (like any other people) were not ready to give up part of their territory to another people who were almost absent from it only a few years before.

    Stephen Van Evera was right to say that both sides have a self-justifying narrative that makes peace impossible, because it does not allow for the recognition that the other also has some legitimacy. This is true for the Israeli right, but also for “moderate” Palestinian intellectuals who have not followed the same path as the Israeli left, which has come to fully recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian perspective.

    Unfortunately, the Western intelligentsia, which is more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves, does not help them to be more magnanimous.

    By the way, I don’t know what Arielle Angel means by “ethnostate”. The term ethnic can have a cultural or racial dimension. If what she means is a racial state, she’s talking nomsense.
    And if she is calling for cultural neutrality of the state, she should start by calling for the construction of Spanish public schools in the United States, in which English will be taught as a second language!

  2. Sheldon Ranz
    January 29, 2022 at 4:43 pm #

    Since I travel in Ms. Angel’s circles, let me explain what she (and I) mean by ethnostate, although I prefer the term ethnocracy. It is a government wherein one ethnic group is awarded superior rights over all others within the same country. In the case of Israel, this has been the case since 1948, as Israel’s leading human rights organization, B’Tselem, concluded last year in its groundbreaking report: “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: THIS IS APARTHEID.” B’Tselem’s findings have been corroborated by Human Rights Watch, and in turn corroborate the claims made by Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights. Some ‘nonsense’!

    • Bernard Bohbot
      February 4, 2022 at 2:11 pm #

      Americans fail to understand that according to international law, states are required to give equal individual rights to all their citizens, not equal collective rights (culture, language, immigration policy). The UN Convention of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Council of Europe’s Vence Commission delineate clearly what a state has the right (and not the right) to do.

      Israel already gives equal political rights to all its citizens. It also claims to give full civil rights to Palestinian-Israelis, but the truth of the matter is that there is plenty of (covert) institutional discrimination in Israel.

      Don’t think that there is no such thing in other Western countries (voter suppression in the US, French mayors who pass municipal laws that exclude Roma children from their public schools – by requiring children who want to attend municipal schools to have a permanent address, etc). Israel is obviously worse than most Western countries, but it is a country at war with a minority that openly identifies with the enemy. I dare you to name me one single country in the world that did better under similar circumstances. I can’t think of any other country that has introduced affirmative action programs for a minority that supports the enemy in wartime (30% of new hires in the civil service have to be Arabs).

      By comparison, Greece does not allow its Turkish minority to choose its own communal leaders (they are appointed by the government for security reasons). It is also illegal for Turkish communal institutions/NGOs to identify as Turkish. Imagine the Knesset passing a law saying that Palestinian-Israelis no longer have the right to identify as Palestinians!
      Estonia and Latvia do not even grant automatic citizenship to their Russian-speaking minorities. They need to take a test to prove that their command of the national language is good enough.

      As for Adalah, most of the so-called 60 discriminatory laws or so that appear on its database are laws that privilege Jewish culture and Jewish immigration. This is totally legal under international law and doesn’t affect the individual rights of Palestinian-Israelis. B’tselem, AI, and HRW refuse to say whether Israel has the right to exist or not, although UN Security Council resolutions and the International Court of Justice have clearly recognized Israel’s right to exist within the 1967 borders. I stick by what I said. The far left’s anti-Israel hysteria is nothing but “nonsense”!

      I’m to the left of the ZIonist left when it comes to the way of solving this conflict. (I’ve advocated a confederal solution to this conflict for more than a decade now – and I’m not that old!-, while most people within the Zionist left found this idea too radical. And while there is no legal obligation for Israel to identify as a binational state within the Green Line, I also happen to believe that Israel should call itself a Jewish-Arab state, so Palestinian-Israelis won’t feel symbolically excluded from Israel’s identity). But placing the whole blame on Israel for the absence of peace is childish and counterproductive. Unfortunately, North-American liberal Zionists have joined the anti-Israel bandwagon. JStreet, APN, and Partners for Progressive Israel have refused to denounce AI’s slanderous report.

      Giants of the Israeli left, such as Carlo Strenger, Amos Oz, Amnon Rubinstein, and Arthur Hertzberg, have denounced the growing dogmatism of the Israeli left (which pales in comparison to what happens to the Zionist left in the US). You won’t achieve anything with this dogmatic behavior.

  3. Sheldon Ranz
    February 19, 2022 at 12:15 pm #

    When you say “North-American liberal Zionists have joined the anti-Israel bandwagon. JStreet, APN, and Partners for Progressive Israel have refused to denounce AI’s slanderous report.”, you sound like you are toeing the Israeli government line, The most important thing to remember is that these groups refuse to agree to the apartheid label, unlike lifelong Zionists like Alon Liel(former Israel ambassador to South Africa), Michael Ben Yair (former Israeli Attorney General) and my organization, the Democratic Zionist Social Democrats USA, neither of whom have no problem calling a spade a spade.

    You’re to the left of the Zionist left? Oh please. The ‘left of the Zionist left’ is the anti-apartheid, Democratic Zionist stance that supports the three demands of the BDS movement and can provide a political path forward for the 25% of American Jews who see Israel as an apartheid state, according to the latest poll taken by the Jewish Electoral Institute.

    Most of the laws in the Adalah database deal with issues of land, residency and education, not culture and immigration. But each of these laws discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel, in direct violation of Israel’s founding document, the Declaration of the Establishment of Israel.

    AI’s secretary-general, Agnes Caillamard, dated at a press conference in Jerusalem that AI supports the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and recognizes the State of Israel. How is that that you missed that? Hmmmm…

    Israel, you say “…is a country at war with a minority that openly identifies with the enemy.” Aha! So here you finally lay your cards out on the table. Since you believe that Palestinian Israelis openly identify with ‘the enemy’, they deserve what’s coming to them, right? So admit it, Bernie – you believe they deserve to be subjected to apartheid!

    And all this racism coming from you, someone from the ‘left of the left’!!

    • Bernard Bohbot
      April 18, 2022 at 5:47 pm #

      Dear Sheldon Ranz,

      You are a genuine Stalinist. You really want to talk about Adalah’s database? Let’s do it. Adalah claims that the Law on the flag, the Law on the calendar, the Law on postal stamps, the Law that requires public television to foster Jewish education, and all laws that assert Israel’s Jewish character are racist. Otherwise, most of the “discriminatory” laws that appear on Adalah’s database happen to be anti-terrorist laws that you can find in all Western countries (especially the US). As for anti-democratic laws, they penalize all those who oppose the government, not just Arabs. Interestingly enough, Adalah posits that benefits discharged soldiers get are discriminatory even though Palestinian-Israelis have access to similar benefits thanks to the alternative civilian service.

      According to Adalah, Israel has no right to be a Jewish state, it must remain neutral. Once again, international conventions do not require states no be culturally neutral or to have a neutral immigration policy. In fact, UNCERD and the Council of Europe’s Venise Commission explicitly state the opposite. You conflate and confuse equal individual rights (civil/political) with equal group rights (self-government, cultural rights, immigration policy…).

      I never justified any discrimination against Palestinian-Israelis. I said that the likes of Amnesty International fail to put things into context. Israel is not located between Norway and Sweden. No state has ever granted so many rights to a minority that identifies with the enemy in wartime (and I’m not blaming Palestinian-Israelis for doing so). The Turkish minority of Greece and Russian-speaking minorities in Baltic countries have much less rights than Palestinian Israelis. Interestingly enough, your friends from Jewish Currents never refer to Arab countries as “ethnostates”, despite the fact that minorities have much less rights there than in Israel. Actually, they fail Arab nationalism as “anti-colonialist” (after all, there has been no Arab conquest in the Middle East and North Africa; Kurds and Berbers voluntarily ceded their land!).

      You really want to talk about Agnès Callamard, the one who claimed that Israel killed Arafat?Anyhow, the AI report states that wanting to preserve a Jewish majority and not allowing the return of all refugees is part and parcel of Israel’s apartheid. You cannot deny that AI’s demands are incompatible with Israel’s existence as a Jewish-majority state. Interestingly enough, a few weeks ago, Paul O’Brien said that Israel should not exist as a Jewish state. Omar Shakir said that the very idea of a Jewish state is akin to White supremacy. Do you really want to rely on these people? No wonder you support BDS, which looks increasingly like a Trotskyist or Maoist cult. You blame Israel only for the absence of peace despite the fact that Palestinian negotiators themselves, such as Hussein Agha, Diana Buttu and Akram Haniya have both acknowledged that the PA does not accept the Clinton parameters).

      You make fun of me because I said that I’m to the left of the Zionist left when it comes to the way of resolving the conflict (I’m to the right of the Zionist left when it comes to allocating blames, as I don’t believe that the Palestinians are helpless children who have no agency). But unlike you (or your friend Larry Derfner) I don’t believe that the Palestinians should have sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza only. Like Sari Nusseibeh and Yehuka Kedar, I’m not only in favor of a confederation but also a condominium that would give both peoples formal joint sovereignty over the whole land (although they would exercise their sovereignty within the 1967 borders only). That would create a de facto reality of two states in one country. There are interesting historical precedents (the one country-two systems between China and Hong Kong, Gorbatchev’s plan of turning the Soviet Union into a genuine confederation, Andorra, which used to be a French-Spanish-Andorran condominium until recently, among others).

      I just don’t believe that BDS, AI, HRW, or your “democratic socialist” Corbyn aficionados (who have nothing to do with European social-democracy) have any kind of moral authority. It’s rather easy for me to choose between Arthur Hertzberg or Amos Oz on the one hand, and your friends who want to destroy Israel and call Hamas and Hezbollah “progressive social movements” or “freedom fighters” on the other).

      I fear our worldviews are irreconcilable. Let’s not continue this discussion any further.

      Bernard Bohbot

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