David K. Rees

Israel is NOT the result of European imperialism

David Ben-Gurion delivering Israel's declaration of independence (Times of Israel).
David Ben-Gurion delivering Israel's declaration of independence (Times of Israel).

While throughout the world, the headlines about Israel focus on the war in Gaza, after the war is over, the critics of Israel will remain. The favorite chant of Israel’s critics these days is “From the river to the Sea, Palestine  will be free.” While this is merely a chant, it is the product of the allegedly logical argument that Israel is the result of European imperialism. This argument is is incorrect, as my personal experience as a Jewish American who made Aliyah, as well as an analysis of the logical argument, show.

I was born and lived the first 58 years of my life in the United States, the son of a German, Jewish woman  who managed to escape to England after her father was arrested by the Gestapo. That does NOT mean that my making aliyah was the result of European imperialism. Rather, Israel was  place where I  believed in the democratic principles upon which it was founded.

Those principles are set forth in Israel’s declaration of independence, which states, in part: “THE STATE OF ISRAEL  . . . will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions . . . .” These principles are the same as the principles set forth by Dr. Martin Luther King in his “I have a dream” speech, and Thomas Jefferson in the American declaration of independence.

Starting in the fall of 2022, those  principles have been challenged in Israel by a  racist, ultrareligious, ultrarightwing government which was elected that year.  It is of because this government, through its attack on the courts, threatens the individual rights of people of all religions, that before the present war, hundreds of thousands of Israelis, including me, protested  every Saturday night all over Israel chanting “democratia” and “booshah” (shame).  I will never forget my  feeling of identity with a sign being held by one of those protesters which  said. “I did not make Aliya for this shit.”

Not only does my personal experience show the fallacy behind  the River to the Sea people’s claim that Israel is the result of European democracy, but the logical argument is flawed as well.

The modern basis of the logical argument begins with Edwards Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism. While Said’s  argument on first blush appears valid,  deeper analysis shows that it is fundamentally flawed. Said, an  academic whose field was literature, was primarily concerned with what he termed “Orientalism”.  The Orient about which Said was writing  goes  from Turkey, south along the Mediterranean coast,  then west to the Atlantic ocean. Said correctly asserts that the worst (but not only) Orientalists were the British  and the French. He also correctly asserts that European Orientalism is at its heart both racist and founded on  the idea that Christianity is correct: people who practice other religions, do not understand that.

But his inclusion of Israel among the countries established by orientalism is primarily based on his criticism of Britain’s Bernard Lewis, who Said describes as an “Orientalist historian”.  Orientalism ( 2019) Penguin Edition at 318).  He hardly discussed Israel in his analysis.

The leading academic, who now promotes this myth is Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor at Columbia University. Khalidi’s focus on Israel is NOT surprising, since he headed, The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)’s Beirut office during the 1970s and early 1980s, a time when  the PLO was unquestionably a terrorist organization. Khalidi has taken Said’s analysis one step further, declaring that the Balfour Declaration, constitutes an assault ON ARABS.  In fact, the Balfour declaration was issued in 1917 when Great Britain had no need to declare war on anybody; it was already in the midst of World War  against the Axis powers, including Germany and Turkey. Still, his argument has been taken up by modern Arab politicians, including Mahmoud Abbas, the President  Palestinian Authority. Abbas even went so far as to sue Great Britain for issuing the Balfour Declaration.

There are at least two major flaws in the Said/Khalidi  accusations. The first  flaw is that neither man deals with the fundamentals of European imperialism.

There were at least two motives for European imperialism. The first is economic. In case after case, the European country was NOT in the colonized land in order to build a country; it was there take the country’s resources for the economic benefit of the home country. The Spanish in central and south America are a good example. They wanted gold to bring back to Spain. They had no intention of remaining  in the new world. Once the the Spaniards had taken the gold, they intended to return home. The same was true of the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies (oil), the Dutch and English in South Africa (diamonds and gold) and the Portuguese in Angola (minerals  and oil).

While the list goes on, two more examples deserve special attention.  The British colonized India in order to obtain diamonds, tea, and spices to take back to England, They had no intention of building a country: India had been a country for hundreds of years.  A man might serve in the British army in India for decades, but when it was time to retire, he would go  back to mother England.

The French experience was a little different.  The French wanted land in northwestern Africa just across the Mediterranean Sea in order to accommodate its expanding population, but the country it wanted to build would have had  a two-tiered system. On  top of tier would be  composed of the French. The second, inferior, tier would be composed of Arabs.

The second motive was religious. The French created French Indochina (today’s Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) in order to spread Christianity to people who were perfectly happy being Buddhists. The same was true of the Spanish in California, where through the mission system, they intended to convert Native Americans into Christians.

The motive of the Jews who moved to Palestine beginning in the late 19th century was different.  They did NOT move to a country to strip it of its natural resources; Palestine had none. They did NOT have a religious motivation; Jews do NOT proselytize. Neither the Western European Jews who had been discriminated against for centuries, nor the “Russian” Jews, who had been murdered in pogrom after pogrom had any intention of returning to the land from which they had come. They came to build a country for themselves and their descendants and that is exactly what they did.

The other mistake that Said and Khalidi make is factual. While the leadership of the new Jewish state in 1948 was from Europe, roughly half the Jewish population was composed of people who came from North Africa or countries in the Middle East. The sad fact is that in much of the world, Jews have been treated as second-class citizens for years. In Israel, they are NOT. No wonder  Jews from many parts of the world created the  Jewish and democratic state.

About the Author
Before making Aliyah from the United States, I spent over three decades as a lawyer in the United States. My practice involved handling many civil rights cases, including women's- rights cases, in State and Federal courts. I handled numerous constitutional cases for the ACLU and argued one civil rights case in the United States Supreme Court. I chaired the Colorado Supreme Court's Committee on the Rules of Criminal Procedure and served on the Colorado Supreme Court's Civil Rules and Rules of Evidence Committees. Since much of my practice involved the public interest, I became interested in environmental law and worked closely with environmental organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). I was on the Rocky Mountain Board of EDF. I received an award from the Nebraska Sierra Club as a result of winning a huge environmental case that was referred to me by EDF. I also developed significant knowledge of hazardous and radioactive waste disposal. I was involved in a number of law suits concerning waste disposal, including a highly-political one in the United States Supreme Court which involved the disposal of nuclear waste. As I child I was told by my mother, a German, Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany, that Israel was a place for her and her child. When I first visited Israel many years later, I understood what she meant. My feeling of belonging in Israel caused me to make Aliyah and Israel my home. Though I am retired now, I have continued my interest in activism and the world in which I find myself.
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