Jarrod Tanny

Israel Is Not a White Imperialist Project: A Toolkit

During a recent presentation on antisemitism, a viewer asked me an important question: “How do you argue with people who insist that Israel is a European imperialist state?”

I have thought long and hard about this question and I decided to compile this list of useful responses to undermine the charge of imperialism and the founding of Israel. Consider this a toolkit for the average person, Jewish or otherwise, who supports Israel but does not know enough about the conflict to respond to anti-Zionism. In a similar vein, this toolkit is not intended to convince anti-Zionist academics or die-hard Palestinian nationalists, because they cannot be convinced. It is intended to persuade those on the left who blindly follow the anti-Israelism that is central to Woke intersectionalist social justice. They only support the “liberation of Palestine” because they are told to do so, even though they know nothing about Israelis or Palestinians.

I warned my audience that there are a number of seemingly accurate facts the anti-Zionists will deploy to prove their case. But the problem lies in the way they distort these facts, extracting them from their historical context, and inserting them into a flawed conceptual framework.

So here you go, a handy little guide to counter the argument that Israel was founded as a racist European imperialist project.

(1) “Zionism and the Jewish state was built by European Jews with white skin who had not lived in Palestine for close to two thousand years.”

On the face of it this claim is true. But here’s why it’s wrong:

Israel was not a European imperial project because the Zionists were not acting on behalf of a European empire, unlike every other colonial project, such as the British in India and the Belgians in the Congo. They were not agents of the British Empire, even if the British and the Zionists made use of each other. Neither side trusted the other. The British merely regarded the Jews as more “reliable” than the Arabs. And in the 1930s, the British turned on the Jews.

Unlike the builders of other empires and the subjects who settled there, Jews are from the land they allegedly colonized. Our ancestral connection is indisputable; we had a state in Israel in antiquity and it was destroyed, forcing us into exile against our will. But there was always a Jewish presence, however small, in Palestine during the exilic era. Thousands of Jews from throughout the world settled in Palestine long before Zionism was an idea. They did not settle to rebuild a state but to live as Jews in their ancestral land which they believed God had given to them.

Once we enter the nineteenth-century age of ethnic nationalism and the concurrent rise of racial antisemitism (“Jews go back to Palestine you aren’t European”), we chose to go home and build a state on our ancestral lands, much like the Czechs, Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Poles, and Germans did. Our nation-building was no different from theirs. We are indigenous to the land because that is where our culture was born. That the early Zionists had “white skin” is irrelevant in this context. Europeanness (i.e., whiteness) was not defined exclusively by skin color on the European continent, certainly when it came to the Jews. We were racialized middle easterners. And our migration was driven by a yearning to go home and and a necessity to flee Jew-hatred, not to steal land to build an empire. The Holocaust all but confirms the pervasive belief that white Europeans viewed us as dangerous and unwelcome foreigners.

On the subject of race: Jews are genealogically adjacent to Arabs insofar as we both came out of the same middle eastern peoples. We all use and have used a Semitic language for three thousand years. Today Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews make up 60% of the population. They are people who literally look like Arabs and who have lived in the middle east and north Africa for 2000 years. The Mizrahi Jews didn’t “go home” because they were always in the vicinity of home. And they are certainly not white by any stretch of the imagination.

(2) The Zionists illegally stole Palestinian land to build their state.

This is a fallacy. The Ottoman land reforms of the mid-1800s changed the concept of “land ownership” in the region to the benefit of wealthy Arab landowners, transforming the Palestinian farmers into actual legal tenants, whereas they had previously farmed what was for all intents and purposes inherited family land for centuries. When the Zionists came they legally purchased the land from these wealthy Arab landowners. And then to the surprise of the farmers, the Zionists took possession either to farm the land themselves or to hire Arabs as contractual laborers. It is not the Zionists fault that Palestinian peasants were stripped of their land by Turkish law and wealthy Arab who used the system to their advantage. Surely the Turks and the Arabs can’t be accused of practicing white imperialism.

Now from the perspective of a Palestinian farmer it certainly appeared as if Zionists were white Europeans who took their land. When studying history, it is necessary to understand everyone’s perspective, including how the victimized subjects interpreted events as they unfolded. But there is a profound difference between subjective interpretation and objective fact. And objectively speaking, the Zionists did not steal Palestinian land during the foundation of Israel, certainly not in the systematic manner anti-Zionists claim.

(3) The Nakba: Israel ethnically cleansed 750,000 Palestinians between 1947-49.

On the surface the forced exit of 750,000 Palestinians is a reality, and this charge needs to be handled with care. But once again, context matters. Here are some reasons why:

Not all the 750,000 who fled did so at the point of a Zionist gun. Many did of course. But many others fled because of pervasive rumors of the imminent arrival of Zionist soldiers. And others fled because their Arab leaders told them to do so, promising they could return home once the war was won. How many were violently forced into exile by Zionist militias and the nascent IDF is contested by scholars. And while the violent expulsion of any human beings is morally indefensible, widening our gaze suggests that the Zionists were not the lone aggressors in a sea of victims, even though they are treated as such.

First, Palestinian Jews were ethnically cleansed as well. The Arabs completely decimated every Jewish community they controlled at the end of the war; there was not a single Jew left in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, or Gaza. Conversely, Israel granted citizenship to the Arabs who remained in Israel after achieving independence, approximately 15% of the population. Did Arab Israelis face discrimination? They did to a certain extent, but they got to stay and participate in Israeli democracy; they were not cleansed from the land.

What if we expand our gaze a bit further? Then we learn that an equal number of Mizrahi Jews – 750,000 – were ethnically cleansed from neighboring Arab lands. Almost every Arab state (falsely) accused its Jewish population of Zionism and forced them to leave. With few exceptions, the Arab world became Judenrein. This hardly justifies the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, but singling out what happened to the Palestinian Arabs when the Arab world in toto destroyed its ancient Jewish communities is to hold the Jews to a double standard.

Let’s expand our gaze even further. The term ethnic cleansing came into popular usage during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, after collective population transfers became illegitimate (and a war crime) in the eyes of the international community. This was not so in 1948. In fact, after World War II, violent collective population resettlement was practiced throughout the world. India-Pakistan is the most obvious example. 3.4 million people “went missing” in 1947 alone. Where’s the condemnation? Western Europeans (and the Soviets) did so as well. Nearly twenty million Europeans, including twelve million Germans and 5 million Poles, were expelled, resettled, or exchanged between states in 1944-1951, with no say in the matter. These numbers dwarf the expulsion of the Palestinians. To repeat, we have a double standard at play that presents the Jews as uniquely violent in the aftermath of World War II.

(4) Palestinians are indigenous to the land whereas Jews are not, hence Palestine should be free from the river to the sea, replacing the state called Israel.

What does indigenous mean?

If it means “we were here first” in a collective sense, then sorry, the Jews were there first and enjoyed sovereignty as a Jewish state (or as an autonomous province in a larger empire) thousands of years before Palestinians had an ethnic identity, let alone a state. And there has never been an ethnic Palestinian state.

If indigenous means “the site where your ethnic culture came into being,” then both the Jews and the Palestinians are indigenous.

But the left uses indigenous here to imply that European Jews had lost their indigeneity because of two thousand years away from Palestine. The Jews were now scattered and indigenous to the lands they inhabited. The early Zionists were thus Polish, Russian, and German. While Jews have always adopted aspects of their surrounding cultures, the core of their identity was formed in the Second Temple era in Judea, and they preserved it through the long night of exile. Try suggesting to a Native American that after five hundred years of European conquest and much forced assimilation they have lost their indigenous status. How would the intersectionalist left respond? There’s no expiry date on indigeneity.

The above analysis should make it clear that calling Israel a European imperial project is simply not true. It may seem true, because the anti-Zionist left takes a handful of facts out of their proper historical context.

Note: None of what I have written covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after 1948 or 1967. And it does not matter that I have not ventured into these waters. Why? Because the anti-Zionists see 1948 as the original sin. Vilifying Israel for the post-1967 “occupation” and construction of settlements in the West Bank does not change the fact that Israel’s founding was legitimate in every respect and according to international law. Condemning anything that has happened since 1967 does not serve the anti-Zionist agenda, which is to undo 1948 because it was a racist endeavor launched by white European imperialists.

If you find yourself arguing with a Woke intersectionalist who is centering Palestine in their “social justice campaign” because that’s what the cool kids are doing, this toolkit will help you prove them wrong. And who knows? Maybe some of them will listen.

About the Author
Jarrod Tanny is an Associate Professor and Block Distinguished Scholar in Jewish History in the Department of History, University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is the author of City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia's Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa. He is also the founder of the Jewish Studies Zionist Network,