Arkadi Mazin

Is Israel a colonial state? We must simplify the answer

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

“I’m really scared by all this colonialism talk”, a post in an Israeli expat community I’m a member of went. “Calling Israel a colonial project implies that it should be ended, and the ‘settlers’ should return to their ‘countries of origin’. That bothers me a lot.” 

I understand the feeling and the desire to fight this notion tooth and nail, even if it entails clamping down on freedom of speech on campuses. Yes, it means Israel and its defenders will be hated even more by the generation soon to take the reins in the US and the world, but what choice do we have, right? 

Israel as a state and a society, as well as pro-Israeli Jews around the world, tend to have this Pavlovian reaction of fighting back against any real or perceived threat instead of trying to understand its origins and maybe mitigate it peacefully. We easily believe we can be hated, but not that we can be honestly misunderstood. 

Before flatly denying the accusations of colonialism, we must understand the amount of truth in them. Here is how I see it. There’s no denying the colonial nature of the occupation. A state controlling a territory outside its borders, seizing land, and settling it with its own citizens who enjoy infinitely more rights than the oppressed local population – this is textbook colonialism, very rarely seen in the modern world. 

Israel’s origins are also undeniably colonial. Back in Zionism’s early days, this was proclaimed openly and even proudly. In his letter to the infamous colonialist Cecile Rhodes (drafted but not sent), Theodor Hertzl explains why Rhodes should be interested in helping the Zionist project despite it apparently being outside his sphere of interests: “How, then, do I happen to turn to you if this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial.” 

The Palestine Jewish Colonization Association, established in 1924, was a major player in land acquisition and Jewish settlement in Palestine and was only disbanded in 1957, years after the founding of Israel. Before the British mandate, colonization by Jews did not entail subjugation of the local population – which is why it was largely unsuccessful. It took the involvement of a mighty and experienced colonial empire for the project to survive and eventually succeed. 

Israel as we know it could not have existed without driving out more than 80% of the Arab population and expropriating its land. Even many people who ended up being Israeli citizens were stripped of their land possessions (the so-called “present absentees”). 

But today, in its 1967 borders, Israel is NOT a colonial state. Almost. Because it still retains some nasty elements of colonialism, such as the state programs of “Judaization” of Galilee and the Negev. Or the infamous Nation-State Law which says: “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” Jewish settlement – but not Arab. The Arabs are those at whose expense Jewish settlement is often being promoted. 

To summarize, it’s complicated. Yes, Israel is running a classical colonial regime on the occupied territories. Yes, the establishment of Israel was a colonial endeavor. No, today, Israel, in its internationally recognized borders, is not a colonial state. Except for a few things here and there. 

The question is, can we reasonably expect regular people in the West, such as bleeding-heart (no sarcasm here) college students and activists, to understand those nuances? It might be fair to demand that they learn the intricacies of Israel’s past and present before forming an opinion, but is it doable, considering that even most Israelis, in my experience, don’t know basic facts about how Israel came to be, or what the occupation regime looks like, or what the Nation-State Law says? So, what happens, in my opinion, is people see clear signs of colonialism and act accordingly. 

I personally strongly believe that Israel has the right to exist in peace and security and that, at its core, it is currently not a colonial state. But I understand how things Israel keeps doing can muddy the waters and stoke accusations of colonialism.  

The best way to counter them would be to simplify the picture. To end the occupation (and, for starters, to curb the poisonous settlement activity). To stop obsessing over settling the land with Jews inside Israel’s borders. To rescind the shameful Nation-State Law that has no place in a modern democratic state. Or we can keep self-righteously quarreling with the entire world, thinking this is the only way to protect Israel, which might ultimately lead to the opposite result. 

About the Author
Arkadi Mazin began his career in journalism in the 1990s, joining the ranks of Vesti, the leading Israeli publication in Russian. As a freelancer, he collaborated with major Israeli media outlets, including Yedioth Aharonoth, Haaretz, and YNET. Today, he is a contributor to Re:Levant Israeli website in Russian and a staff science journalist at, a leading source of news on longevity research.
Related Topics
Related Posts