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More on Israeli ‘Settler-Colonialism’

By Kenneth Stern

The following is drawn from my book, “The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate,” pp. 46-47:

Consider again the claim that Israelis are “settler colonialists.”

On 4 July 2018, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) wrote to the Iroquois Confederacy — Native nations from New York and Canada — urging them to boycott the world championship of lacrosse, a game Natives invented (and that the Iroquois introduced to early American settlers,  a game they continue to excel at, and that is important to their culture.  The request stated, in part:

As indigenous peoples, we have both seen our traditional lands colonized, our people ethnically cleansed and massacred by colonial settlers. This year marks 70 years of Israeli dispossession of Palestinians, which began with what we call the Nakba, or catastrophe. In the years surrounding Israel’s establishment on our homeland in 1948, pre and post-state Israeli forces premeditatively drove out the majority of the indigenous people of Palestine and destroyed more than 500 of our villages and towns.

Contrast this language with this passage of an essay by Judea Pearl, a noted academic (and the father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002). “It is not surprising,” Pearl wrote, “that misrepresenting Israel as a ‘white settler-colonialist society’ has become a cornerstone of BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions] ideology and propaganda.” He asks those who read such claims to “ask themselves if they can recall” any of the following:

  • One case of white settlers moving into a country they perceived to be the birthplace of their history.

  • One case of white settlers speaking a language spoken in the land before the language spoken by its contemporary residents.      

  • One case of settlers whose holidays commemorated historical events in the land to which they moved — not the lands from which they came.

  • One case of settlers who did not name towns like New York, New Amsterdam and New Wales (Israeli towns are not named “New Warsaw,” “New Berlin,” and “New Baghdad”), but after names by which those towns were known in ancient times.

  • One case of settlers who narrated their homecoming journey for eighty generations in poetry, prose, lore and daily prayers.

The reality is that Israel isn’t like settler-colonial states in many ways, but in other ways it is. Proponents on each side seem blind to the complexities, choosing to highlight either the differences or similarities, depending on which better suits their black/white, good/ bad, us/ them argument, and perhaps as Michael Hogg and his colleagues posit, depending on which one makes them feel more “certain.” As scholar Seth Anziska says, “Real history is the ability to navigate all these views at once. The rest is communal advocacy.”

There is one important aspect not covered here: While the founders of Israel were predominantly Jews from Europe, most Jews from Arab lands were expelled from their home countries after the establishment of the state. The majority of today’s Israelis can trace at least part of their family history to North Africa and the Middle East.

One Response to “More on Israeli ‘Settler-Colonialism’”

  1. Neil Schipper
    December 29, 2021 at 8:26 am #

    Hi Kenneth Stern,

    I appreciated seeing how Judea Pearl tries to deconstruct the settler-colonialism smear.

    In my attempts to persuade radical progressives that the charge of settler-colonialism is deeply ahistorical and unjust, I have made the same basic argument, albeit somewhat more circuitously:

    For thousands of years prior to the age of transoceanic transport, the origin myths, sacred texts, and holy days of the Portuguese people all spoke of the lands of their forefathers… Brazil, Macau, Angola, and Mozambique.

    Stubbornly had the Portuguese clung to these traditions, through daily prayer in the non-European languages of those lands, and through supporting a priestly class devoted to the study and interpretation of texts in those languages. The humblest churches as well as the greatest cathedrals of Lisbon, Porto, Faro and Algarve were daily filled with voices expressing the vitality of their emotional and historic connection to those lands.

    And how gratifying it must have been for the Portuguese, once the first great fleets arrived, to find residing in neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro, Maputo, and Luanda, long residing minority populations worshiping and studying in those very same languages. And how gratifying to find dozens of villages, and remnants of temples and burial sites, where the stories in foundational texts took place.

    The smear has become true in the minds of many by virtue of unrelenting Goebbelian/Alinskyite repetition, and vigorous efforts to counter it are far too rarely seen in academic writing, in mainstream news organs like NYT and WaPo, and in liberal publications like The Atlantic.

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