Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Colonialism or Homeland Return: How Far Back is History Relevant?

There’s a running joke making the rounds this season:

Palestinian: Jews weren’t living in Palestine two millennia ago.

Israeli: Really? So why are more than 2.5 billion people on Earth these days celebrating the birth of a Jew in Bethlehem 2000 years past?

It is clearly absurd to argue that the Jewish People have no right to “Palestine.” Factually-historically, Jews continued to live in their Holy Land uninterruptedly from the era of Jesus until today (and of course, well over a thousand years before that). But for the sake of an intellectual exercise with very serious consequences, let’s imagine for the moment that all Jews were exiled back then by the Romans. Would they still have a legitimate claim to the land from which they were banished?

Put another way: how long does a nation have to be “gone” from their land before their return becomes a “colonialist” enterprise?

Why is this far more than a thought experiment (Gedankenexperiment, to use Einstein’s terminology)? Because it is relevant not only to the “Jewish Question” but to several other peoples as well. Chief of which are the Moslems.

The religion of Islam came into being early in the 7th century, and within a few decades conquered half the world – all the way to Spain. This was a world-spanning “colonial enterprise” of monumental proportions. However, over the ensuing centuries, they were slowly driven back by the Christian world – until (ironically) in 1492 they were forcefully and completed ejected from Spain.

Today there are extremist Islamic sects (e.g., ISIS) who seek a counter-“Reconquista” (the Spanish term for reclaiming their own lands), aspiring to return to those “Islamic” lands all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and even beyond. So, the question becomes: 1300 years retains a “Right of Return,” but 2000 years is “too long”?

Such a double standard would be laughable if it didn’t have such terrible political consequences. The problem: even many Palestinians who are not malevolently oblivious to ancient Jewish history, still claim all the land from “The River to the Sea” because they’ve been residing on the land for at least…

And that’s another question. I just said “residing on the land” – not “ruling” it. If a “People” have a right to their land, is that a matter of simply living and working on the land, or should it also entail some sort of political sovereignty over that land? Here the claim of Moslems to Spain is stronger than the Palestinians’ claim to “Palestine” – for at least in Andalusia they ruled uninterruptedly for several centuries; the Palestinians never had anything close to even autonomy (assuming that one can even find any people who viewed themselves as “Palestinian” before the PLO’s 1964 declaration of peoplehood).

Indeed, the very concept of “nationalism” as we understand the term today was always alien to Moslems: for the Islamic world, the only true socio-political entity was the “umma” – the complete totality of ALL Moslems wherever they lived. This was the raison d’etre of Islam’s early conquests – and much later (around 1500) the underlying justification of the Ottoman Empire (note; not the Ottoman “State”) expanding all the way to the outskirts of Vienna!

Thus, the Palestinians lived in quite a different situation than that of the Jews. Within their Land, the Jewish People had sovereignty, autonomy, and vassalage during alternating periods throughout their first millennium-plus years of peoplehood. Indeed, for a while (e.g., the Davidic and Solomonic kingdoms) they even had some general concept of what we moderns today call the nation-state – and again almost a thousand years later when the Maccabees wrested back full sovereign control from the Hellenistic Seleucids, instituting the holiday of Hanukkah that the Jewish world finished celebrating last week.

The Kingdom of Judea as well as the Maccabean state weren’t downtrodden satrapies; conversely, under the Ottoman Empire, the district of Palestine wasn’t even a separate political entity but rather administratively connected to Damascus for much of Ottoman rule.

Christmas (Jesus’ life) proves the Jewish People’s claim to living here a very long time ago; the Hanukkah story adds a strong (prior) political dimension to that claim. Radical Islam’s quest to reconquer lands from 1300 years ago reinforces the Jewish point that territorial “absence” is not a justification for calling the State of Israel “colonial.” The bottom line: Jews have every rightful justification for having reinstituted their formerly sovereign state – even after two thousand years.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published four books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: