Sherry Sufi
West Australian Columnist — MA MHist PhD

Israel: Not a European colony

Old City Markets, Jerusalem © Sander Crombach.
Old City Markets, Jerusalem © Sander Crombach.

COVID-19 has brought the World Health Organisation into global spotlight. 

Visitors to its website have noticed that it lists Israel in Europe and the West Bank and Gaza in Asia.

Israel’s geographical location is in Asia. 

Yet its identity often confuses both non-Israelis and Israelis, alike.

At times, it aligns itself with Europe by choice, such as its participation in Eurovision. 

Other times, it tries to align itself with Asia, but is pushed towards re-aligning itself with Europe. 

The Israeli soccer team’s removal from the Asian league (AFC) in 1974 due to pressure from its neighbours is an example of that.    

In a choice between not playing at all and playing in the European league (UEFA), Israel eventually settled for the second option. 

This confusion takes on many forms. The most extreme of which is the story the anti-Israel campaign has long told the global community. 

It claims that, since Israel was established (1948) by Jews from Europe with the support of a European colonial power — the British empire — that makes it a European colony on Asian soil. 

Firstly, the Jews who began settling in pre-state Israel from the first aliyah (1882) onwards neither saw themselves as Europeans, nor did Europeans see them as Europeans. 

They were every bit as authentically Middle Eastern as the Jews who never left the Middle East. 

Secondly, every single neighbour that Israel shares a border with was also established with the support of European colonial powers, the British and the French empires. 

That doesn’t make them any less legitimate. 

Today, modern Israel stands on the same soil as ancient Israel, which existed 3,000 years earlier under the rule of Kings David and Solomon. 

Jerusalem was its centre of life, learning and activity.  

Yet the argument that Jewish exiles returning from Europe are European colonisers sounds so deceptively logical — if you didn’t know better, you could almost fall for it.

For the record, there is nothing wrong with European colonies, I proudly call one home. 

Who would disagree that they are some of the most stable and desirable countries in the world. 

Look at Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America. 

Millions have chosen to call them home off their own free will. 

That said, we can’t just call Israel a ‘European colony’ at random because it isn’t one and pretending that it is undermines its rich ancient heritage. 

In the eyes of the global community, European colonialism does have a stigmatised reputation. 

This is mainly due to its perceived and actual collateral impact on native populations across conquered lands. 

Besides, the Europeans who settled Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America had no prior historic and civilisational relationship with the land. 

They took those lands, because they could. That’s how the world worked back then. Territorial expansion used to be the global norm. 

Remember, Israel’s neighbours in the Middle East have also spread their civilisation far and wide beyond the peninsula on which it started.    

That was colonialism, just not of the European variety, so it often goes unnoticed. 

The Jewish exiles from Europe who began settling in pre-state Israel had a prior historic and civilisational relationship with the land. They weren’t colonisers. 

Imagine if a group of Indigenous Australians lived outside the geographical land of Australia, but kept all their traditions and preserved their identity, no one would deny that the ones in exile are as native as the ones who never left.

It works the same way for Jews in exile. They are as Middle Eastern as the ones who never left.

By making Israel out to be a foreign presence on Asian soil, the anti-Israel campaign tries to give itself the moral legitimacy needed to attract global support to help ‘decolonise’ it through boycotts and sanctions.

Judging by its official Twitter account name, it seems the World Health Organisation has bought into that here.

From university campuses to the floor of the United Nations, as hostility towards Israel reaches new heights, now is an ideal time to eliminate this confusion which has long been exploited by those opposed to its existence.

What’s even more important is to avoid responding in a way that defeats its own purpose.

For instance, a popular argument often seen floating around on social media says: 

  • Most Jews in Israel today didn’t even come from Europe. 
  • 2/3rds came from other Middle Eastern or North African countries.
  • They have had greater influence on Israeli cuisine and music.  
  • So it follows that Israel can’t exactly be a European colony. 

The premise here is spot on. 

Those Jews who came from Israel’s neighbouring lands are to be saluted for their continued sacrifices in service to the Jewish state using their bilingual capabilities and intimate understanding of hostile forces.

Yet the conclusion has a hidden flip side.

It concedes that when Jewish exiles from Europe did make up the majority of Jews in pre-state Israel between the first aliyah (1882) and independence (1948), that was a European colony. 

It also implies that if Jews from Europe or America were to ever become the majority in Israel through mass aliyah, that would again make it a European colony. 

These are misleading implications.

More Jews live outside Israel than within it. 

3/4ths of the world’s Jewish population is made up of exiles who lived in Europe and by extension, America. 

An argument like the one above compromises their identity and status as native Middle Easterners. 

Remember, they are as Jewish and as authentically Middle Eastern as Jews elsewhere. 

They have kept the same traditions in exile as did their counterparts who remained within the Middle East and North Africa.

No one denies that the Zoroastrian Parsees that have lived in India for centuries are the natives of Persia (Iran).

Though they have not been physically present on Iranian soil for over a thousand years, their historic and civilisational connection is undeniable.

That connection will remain intact so long as the Zoroastrian Parsees resist efforts to assimilate and dissolve into another civilisational identity.

The same is true in the Jewish case.

So the argument in response to the anti-Israel world view needs to be tighter than the above. 

All Jews belong to the same civilisation — Am Yisrael — a distinctly Semitic Middle Eastern civilisation.  

It doesn’t matter if one’s ‘Jewishness’ dates back two generations or twenty.

It doesn’t matter if a Jew comes from Lithuania or Ethiopia, America or Morocco, France or Yemen, Poland or Iraq.  

Every Jew is part of Am Yisrael and Israel is home.

What defines Jewish civilisation as distinctly Semitic and Middle Eastern are its core ingredients. 

These are its origin stories, customs, liturgy, rituals, music, festivities, lunisolar calendar, dietary laws, art, architecture, attire, community centred lifestyle and relationship with the land of Israel.

While being devout isn’t a requirement, these core ingredients have long served as the nervous system holding each member together as, what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls ‘a letter in the scroll’.

To extend that metaphor, neither the letter nor the scroll are European.

Am Yisrael began in Hebron and Jerusalem — not Athens or Rome. 

Its scriptures are in Hebrew and Aramaic — not Greek or Latin.

These are Semitic Middle Eastern languages written right-to-left, unlike any European language. 

Its founding stories are set across the Nile and the Euphrates — not the Danube or the Rhine. 

Abraham in Ur (Iraq), Moses in Sinai (Egypt), Kings David and Solomon in Jerusalem (Israel), Esther and Mordechai in Persia (Iran). The list goes on. 

The ancient Israelites wore turbans, robes and headscarves. They lived in flat roof houses made from mud bricks.

They ate figs, dates, olives, lentils and flat bread. They didn’t eat pig. 

Every time actual Europeans have come in contact with Jews in their native land, the end result has been anti-colonial resistance:

  1. Judah the Maccabee vs the Greeks (167—160 BCE)
  2. Simon Bar Kokhba vs the Romans (132—136 CE) 
  3. Menachem Begin vs the British (1939—1948)

Jews ended up scattered around the world — not by choice — but because Roman colonisers destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE and sent large numbers of Jews into exile in 135 CE. 

As Jewish communities spread out around the Mediterranean world and other parts of the Middle East, Babylonia (Iraq) became the centre of Jewish learning. 

Compiled in 500 CE, the Babylonian Talmud became the defining instruction manual for Jewish self-preservation and continuity in foreign lands. 

It contained the recipes with those core ingredients to guide communities in exile on how to maintain their distinctly Semitic Middle Eastern heritage away from home.

Until the rebirth of Israel (1948), the fate of the Jewish people would rest at the mercy of foreign rulers across the West and the East. 

As would the fate of their native land itself which, for centuries, would neither have a Jewish majority, nor Jewish sovereignty. 

Scholars agree that Jews in Europe were worse off than the Jews who remained in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. 

Besides the Roma people, Jews were the only major non-European minority on European soil across the centuries. 

For generations, European rulers collectively blamed Jews for the crucifixion. This charge was only overturned in 1965. 

Forced conversions, torture, blood libels and mass expulsions were the norm.

Jews were expelled from England (1290), France (1306), Hungary (1360), Austria (1421), Spain (1492), Portugal (1497), Naples (1510), Milan (1597), Frankfurt (1614) and Russia (1791). 

Notice how far apart some of these dates and places are to get a sense of how widespread anti-Jewish resentment was across the centuries in different parts of Europe. 

This is only scratching the surface. There were many more expulsions than those listed here.

Economic crises to pandemics — when things went wrong, Jews were blamed.

They were even accused of starting the Black Plague that swept across Europe in the mid—1300s. 

Their distinctly Middle Eastern customs such as circumcision, children’s initiation, matchmaking, weddings, funerals and community centred lifestyles among other practices were found too exotic by European society.  

Jews were forced to live in enclaves outside main towns. They were neither allowed to own land nor participate in the usual professions.

They had to re-adjust their attire to appear less Middle Eastern and more European. 

So turbans became hats, robes became gowns and sizes of head caps shrunk. 

Alongside headscarves, Jewish women began wearing wigs and hats.

European artists continued to paint Jews with exaggerated Middle Eastern features. 

This resentment came from all ends of European society — devout to secular and went beyond the sectarian divide.

Martin Luther called for Jewish schools and Synagogues to be burnt down and for Rabbis to be denied the right to preach.  

How Europeans perceived Jews is best summed up by German thinker Johann Gottfried Herder who, although sympathetic to Jews himself, described them as ‘…an Asiatic people alien to our part of the world’.

By this stage, the overall picture is clear enough. Life for Jewish exiles in Europe was far from pretty.  

Yet there is a tendency among some to point to isolated examples of famous Jewish thinkers like Spinoza, Freud or Einstein among others and suggest that Jews had it easy in Europe. 

That’s like saying, the successes of Oprah Winfrey or Will Smith prove that African Americans always had it easy in America. 

Exiled Jewish communities across Europe did produce countless high achievers that have made lasting contributions to human advancement. 

Except, that fact alone doesn’t erase the widespread suspicion and hostility with which they were treated in Europe across multiple generations.

By the mid—1800s, the so-called ‘Jewish Question’ about the status of exiled Jews had become one of the greatest debates in European society. 

The whole reason why Jewish thinkers in the late—1800s began encouraging Jews to start returning to the Middle East was because Europe had never accepted them as its own after nearly 2,000 years in exile.

It was time for Jews to rule Jews in a Jewish majority state on the same land where its earlier version had existed in the ancient past.

This goal was achieved in 1948.

Remember, African Americans share a lot in common with European Americans such as faith, native language and British-origin surnames. 

Yet they still choose to identify as African Americans and the global community respects that choice, as we should.

By comparison, the Jewish exiles in Europe shared even less in common with other Europeans as we have seen so far. 

If Jews in Europe wanted the easy way out, they would’ve dropped their commitment to those core ingredients, converted and assimilated, that would’ve been the end of the so-called ‘Jewish Question’.

Instead, they risked their lives to preserve their identity.

Typical civilisations tend to ensure self-preservation and continuity in their own native lands, under the protection of their own rulers and armies. 

The miracle of Am Yisrael is that it managed to do the impossible in foreign lands despite deliberate attempts to erase its identity.

Jewish civilisation neither has anything to do with Europe, nor with colonialism. 

The Jewish state put itself back on the world map, not entirely as a direct favour by foreign powers, but the same way any other colonised people achieve independence. 

The anti-Israel campaign exaggerates British role in the establishment of Israel because it helps make Israel seem like a work of ‘British-Jewish’ collusion, which makes for a sensational conspiracy theory. 

British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour is remembered for his iconic Balfour Declaration (1917) promising a Jewish national home in the Middle East. 

Here’s a little known fact, only 12 years earlier, the same Arthur Balfour in the more senior role as British Prime Minister had restricted Jews from entering Britain through the Aliens Act (1905)

He did this at a time when Jews faced rampant persecution across the Russian Empire.  

Too often, the Europeans who supported a Jewish state being established in the Middle East did so because they wanted Jews out of Europe.

Despite initial sympathies, the British Empire during its colonial rule in pre-state Israel (1920—1948) never held a consistent position on the Jewish state.

At the outbreak of World War II, as Jews tried to escape from inevitable extinction, the British issued a White Paper (1939) restricting them from returning to the Middle East. 

Six million Jewish lives that could’ve been saved — perished on that continent of Europe. 

All things considered, there could be nothing more distasteful than to think of Jewish exiles in Europe as Europeans.

Neither did they think of themselves as Europeans, nor did Europeans think of them as Europeans. 

There is a tendency to link Israel’s identity with Europe due to its democracy, free press and liberal values among other things.

Remember, Japan, South Korea and India all have democracy, a free press and liberal values. 

None of that makes them European. Each has its own distinct identity based on its own distinct past. The same is true of Israel. 

Europe has done more for humanity with its ideas, inventions and discoveries than other civilisations.  

Yet it made a complete mess of one thing — its treatment of Jewish civilisation. 

It was Europe that started the exile in 135 CE because some wanted Jews out of their native land. 

It was Europe that started the ‘Jewish Question’ in the 1800s because some wanted Jews out of Europe. 

It is Europe that too often sides with forces committed to the dismantling of the world’s only Jewish state.

It is not reasonable to expect the present generation of Europeans to be guilt tripped for the actions of past generations. 

But it is entirely reasonable to expect the global community to call on the anti-Israel campaign to abort its mission, at once. 

It is time to recognise that modern Israel is based on ancient Israel that stood on the same soil 3,000 years earlier under the rule of Kings David and Solomon. 

The miraculous rebirth of the Jewish state was not an act of colonisation. 

It was the opposite — an act of decolonisation from centuries of foreign rule and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty on its native soil.   

The rebirth of Israel hasn’t brought an end to Jewish exile. More Jews continue to live outside than within Israel.

But the fact that a Jewish state again exists on the world map is a comforting thought.

Trying to survive without their own state, their own government and their own army is an experiment with 2,000 years of failure written on it.

Today, Jews in exile know that if ever times got challenging, there is a place they can always call home that is Israel which is in the Middle East, Asia.

The World Health Organisation can feel free to update its website and put Israel where it actually belongs. 

The narrative war must be won.

Don’t forget to share this around far and wide.

About the Author
Dr Sherry Sufi is a West Australian author, columnist and political analyst. He wrote an award-winning PhD thesis on nationalism and language, which has been published as a book. He also has a Masters in History (MHist), a Masters in Politics and International Studies (MA), a Bachelors in Philosophy (BA), and a Diploma in Information Systems (DipIS). He fluently speaks, reads and writes multiple languages. Dr Sufi has made appearances on Sky News Australia and 2GB radio. His articles have been published in The Australian, The West Australian, The Spectator, Fairfax Media, PerthNow and The Jerusalem Post. His interest areas include Israel-Australia relations, Jewish civilisation, interfaith relations, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, United States foreign policy and world history. The views expressed here are his own.
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