Dani Ishai Behan
Dani Ishai Behan

Let’s Talk About Colonialism

Arab "explorers" outside Jerusalem. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The word “colonialism” brings to mind many things. Most notably, it is a term associated with European imperialist adventures in the “New World” and all of the attendant horrors that followed. It invokes, in specie, mental images of white-European settlers, armed with Bibles and bayonets, dominating “less advanced” (and typically non-white) indigenous populations, leading to some of the worst human rights atrocities in history – the massacre at Wounded Knee, the African slave trade, the racial segregation policies of South Africa, the reservation schools, and the extirpation of countless native cultures throughout the world.

And since nearly all of these and other more infamous examples of colonialism were specifically white-European, the concept itself has come to be seen as coterminous with white supremacism. In other words, it is perceived as an exclusively European vice, whereas the colonial histories of non-white nations are (in almost all cases) ignored or summarily dismissed. It is under this rubric, and in conjunction with the postmodern progressive fixation on racial justice (and the very recent re-formulation of Ashkenazi Jews as “white-European”), that Zionism has been cast as a “colonial” movement, while the ongoing Arab effort to reverse the gains made by the indigenous Jewish people in 1948 is championed as “anti-colonialism”. Many have even gone as far as to describe Israel as the “last remaining settler colony in existence”.

Zionism, however, is not colonialism, but the polar opposite thereof. To understand why this is so, it is important to clearly define both of these concepts.

Colonialism is, at a baseline level, the practice of expropriating foreign territory and incorporating it into a metropole, or “mother country” (e.g. the British Crown). This process typically entails occupying these new lands with settlers, suppressing local indigenous populations, and enforcing the tongue, culture, and lifestyle of the metropole on the aforementioned indigenous inhabitants. It is, to quote Wikipedia (which I am loathe to do), the relationship of domination of an indigenous population by foreign invaders, with the latter ruling in pursuit of their own interests.

It can also, in a more rudimentary sense, mean “building a town or a city”. That is how Ze’ev Jabotinsky used it in his famous Iron Wall essay, which anti-Zionists were quick to pounce upon. But for the purpose of this article, I will use it in the former sense.

Zionism is an indigenous people’s repatriation/liberation movement. It is thought to have officially emerged in exile, borne of the radical liberationist strain of Enlightenment thought from which feminism also emerged, but the underlying concept is much older. The yearning to return to our homeland has been ingrained in our culture ever since we were jettisoned from our soil by foreign occupiers, primarily into Europe, North Africa, and other parts of the Middle East.

Zionist leaders sought the support of world powers, particularly the British (who would eventually betray the Zionists) and the King of Iraq, and began to make their way home – rebuilding their people and country into the powerhouses they are today.

Zionism is, at its core, an indigenous rights project, and has been since day one. The Jews returning from exile had no mother country to “colonize” on behalf of. Israel IS the mother country. There was no New Warsaw, New Bielystok, New Vienna – only the revitalized names of ancient Jewish cities; cities that had been established by the ancestors of these supposed “European colonists”. The Zionists wanted nothing more than to rid themselves of diaspora and return home, and to compare that with colonialism is both dishonest and cruel.

It is commonly alleged by anti-Zionists that the early Israelites were themselves conquerors (of Mesopotamian stock), but this is not corroborated by scholarship. Jews are a Canaanite people, having emerged organically out of earlier autochthonous populations and forging a new culture specific to that land. Virtually everything about our identity, our culture, our peoplehood, and even our shared DNA is Canaanite in origin. Hebrew itself is the last living Canaanite language, and the Jewish name for “God” is derived from El, the chief deity of the Canaanite pantheon.

Now let’s discuss the real colonialism occurring within Palestine – specifically, that conducted by Arab Palestine itself.

As with many powerful nations in the early Middle Ages, the Arabs sought to expand their holdings and their power through acquisition of foreign territory. Conquest, war, and totalization were the popular mode of “progress” in that era, so it isn’t surprising that the Arabs sought to build an empire of their own. Their first conquests included, by dint of proximity, the upper parts of Middle East, specifically Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. They immediately set about the project of “Arabization”: raising taxes on indigenous peoples, restricting our government access, curtailing our civil liberties, replacing our sacred sites with mosques (the most notable example being the Al-Aqsa compound, which sits on the very location where our Temple once was), and effectively reducing us to second class citizens in our own lands. This system was cynically named “Al-Dhimma”, or “the protected people”.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
The Dome of the Rock compound, built directly on the ashes of both of our fallen Temples. We’re still not allowed to enter the Dome, or even pray near it.
Image source: Wikipedia

Those who defied this system, or were perceived as defying this system, were met with massacres and bloodshed, as the seemingly endless list of pogroms (and the eventual ethnic cleansing of Jews from “Arab lands”) clearly shows.

The only way to escape all of this was to convert to Islam, abandon all trappings of indigenous identity, and become “Arabs”. Countless people throughout the Middle East and North Africa did just that, trading in their indigenous identities for the privileges of Arab status. However, as with their brethren in Europe, relatively few Jews were willing to assimilate, and most held steadfast to their people, their religion, and their way of life.

Despite this, the Jewish nation was not expected to survive. Arab rulers believed we would eventually cave in and convert, or languish in dhimmitude until we all died off. The success of Zionism shattered these expectations. Not only did we survive exile in Europe/Babylon/etc and under centuries of Arab occupation, we regained a substantial chunk of our ancestral territories – defeating 6 well-trained Arab armies bent on genociding us in the process. The acute humiliation felt by the Arab states after the war, and the resulting flood of refugees (both Jewish and Arab), set the stage for the ongoing Israel/Palestine conflict and the Palestinian cause.

What, then, is the Palestinian cause? It is, in essence, a reaction to Zionism and the State of Israel itself. Although it ludicrously presents itself as an indigenous rights-oriented cause, it is really nothing more than a front for Arab imperialism. It is hoped that, by repatriating the 6 million or so descendants of Arab refugees into Israel, the Jews in Israel will be demographically overwhelmed and we will be robbed of our self-determination once more, transforming our country into a de facto (and eventually de jure) Arab state.

The Palestinian cause has nothing whatsoever to do with human rights or “anti-colonialism”. It is about nothing more than the Arab world’s desire to regain its lost “honor” by accomplishing through stealth what it failed to do by force: restoring their hegemony over Israel and putting the “uppity” Jews back in their place.

On The Indigenous Status Of Palestinian Arabs

One commonly proffered argument in defense of anti-Zionism is that Palestinians, not Jews, are the land’s native people. This argument appears to be based on three main points…

1. The prolonged exile of most Jews from the land of Israel

2. The foreign cultural/genetic influences acquired in diaspora

3. The belief that most Palestinians are, in fact, merely converted Jews

The first two arguments are nonsensical. The third is flat out wrong. To expound a bit further…

1. The idea that a people can lose their origins or their rights by being walled off from their land for “X period of time” is ludicrous. And it sets a dangerous precedent. By invoking a (unspecified, not to mention non-existent) statute of limitations in this case, what incentive does China have to let Tibetans return home? What incentive do the United States and Canada have to give First Nations their rights? What incentive does ANY colonizing nation have to listen to their indigenous populations? Absolutely none.

2. Indigeneity is conferred by ethnogenesis. Simple as that. The notion that indigenous status is or should be in any way contingent on cultural or genetic “purity” is risible. It is a demand that no extant population could possibly meet, let alone populations who – until very recently – were living under the boot of foreign powers.

And the fact is that Jews retained their identity, core culture, language (albeit largely in Creolized form), spiritual ties, and DNA links to their indigenous homeland. Ashkenazi Jews, for example, retained a high genetic and cultural similarity with Samaritans, despite spending centuries in Central/Eastern Europe.

3. This one at least has some merit to it, but it’s still highly exaggerated and dishonest. Although some Palestinians do have ancient Jewish roots, this only applies to a minority – specifically Palestinian Christians, and the Muslim population of Nablus. Generally speaking, Muslim Palestinians cluster near Yemenis and Saudis on PCA plots, not in the Levant.

There is very little that supports the Palestinian claim of indigeneity to Israel. The language, core culture, religion (barring a small handful of Christians), etc, are chiefly of Arabian provenance. Even the “Palestinian” moniker, and the flag itself, are of colonial origin.

“Palestine” derives from peleshet/plishtim, a Hebrew term meaning “invaders”. This term was originally applied to the Philistines, a sea-faring colonial population of Aegean origin who settled along the coast of what is now Gaza. They have been extinct since the 7th century BCE, although Greek writers like Herodotus continued naming the southern Israeli coast as “Palestine”. After the failed Bar Kokhba revolt of 135 AD, the Romans renamed the entire area to “Syria-Palaestina” (Syria-Palestine). This was intended as a humiliation to the defeated Jews, and a way of erasing all memory of our connection to our homeland. The Arab conquerors later adapted this name in Arabic and, by the late 1960s, had chosen it for themselves.

The Palestinian flag uses the pan-Arab colors, each directly corresponding with a foreign conqueror. The red section represents the Khawarij, the black stripe represents Muhammad and the Rashidun Caliphate, the white stands for the Ummayad Caliphate, and the green stripe represents the Fatimid Caliphate.

Nothing about this flag is indigenous to Israel.
Image source: Wikipedia

Until very recently, Arabs outside of the Peninsula saw themselves as part of a larger Arab empire, and made no apparent effort to deny that they had arrived to Israel and other parts of the upper Middle East/North Africa through colonial conquest. They were boastful of it, in fact. That’s one of the main reasons European colonists had a relatively high opinion of Arab society and Islam.

Their methodology may have differed somewhat from that of their European counterparts, but they undeniably saw themselves in the same light – and, as luck would have it, so did the indigenous peoples they conquered. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that they began to claim that Arabs outside of the Peninsula were really just ‘Arabized natives’, not descendants of foreign conquerors. I am not nearly as sympathetic to this view as I once was (or ever will be again; you’ll know why very shortly), but there is one small element of truth to it – Arab populations outside of the Peninsula did obtain large quantities of indigenous ancestry. However, it is still a dishonest claim that ignores or outright denies all of the wrongs that were committed under Arab hegemony, the impact it had (and still has) on indigenous populations, and all of the non-blood related criteria for indigenous status.

Irrespective of its veracity, this new narratives appears to have been brought on by three things…

1. European colonialism in the Middle East – By this, I mean the British, French, and Italian occupation of the MENA region, although one might also include the Crusader wars – which Jews would be more inclined to see as two colonial powers fighting over land that doesn’t belong to either of them, but I digress.

The main point here is, once you’ve experienced colonialism yourself, you are less likely to see it as anything to be proud of.

2. Colonialism is no longer seen as a “good thing” – In centuries past, colonialism (when successful) was seen as a testament to the glory, might, and valor of the colonizing civilization. Not only was it seen as normal, it was considered a bragging point. The Arabs managed to “Arabize” nearly all of the Middle East and Northern Africa, driving countless “lesser” civilizations to extinction (or near extinction) in the process, while making their religion (Islam) and culture the “official” one throughout much of Asia and Africa, and even parts of Europe (for a time). And at a time when colonialism was seen as normal, or even righteous, it made perfect sense for them to beat their chests about that.

But times have clearly changed, and colonialism is now seen as an inhumane evil and a bare manifestation of racist entitlement. It is a term capable of delegitimizing entire nation states, so no one wants to be associated with it anymore.

And this brings me to…

3. Israel’s re-establishment – A development that was (and still is) opposed near unanimously by Arabs. In conjunction with number 2, Israel’s enemies felt they would get more sympathy by linking themselves up with anti-colonial movements worldwide while casting the Jewish returnees – most of whom had been displaced into Europe – as “foreign settlers”.

4. Burgeoning indigenous rights-oriented “hasbarah” – If you’re curious as to what hasbarah means, it’s the Hebrew term for “explanation”. But most of the time, it is used derisively by antisemites as a shorthand for “propaganda” or “lies”.

Putting that aside, the ‘Arabized natives’ claim can be seen as a response to the new ‘indigeneity’ conscious strands of pro-Israel activism, which many Arab opponents of Israel are quite visibly nervous about. The fear, as far as I can tell, is that knowledge of Arab colonialism would not only undercut their “struggle” against Zionism, but could also be used by Kahanist types to challenge their *own* right to be in that land.

Now that we know why this narrative has become so popular, let’s look at the arguments it is based on…

1. “They are genetically indigenous to the lands they inhabit” – This is somewhat true, albeit more so in certain areas (Lebanon, Syria, North Africa) than in others (Iraq, Jordan, Gaza, West Bank). But all of these groups, sans Lebanese Christians, trace at least some of their descent to Arabian settlers. Every conquering population absorbs DNA from the people they conquer, so the fact that most have some measure of indigenous blood is neither here nor there.

2. “Being an Arab simply means speaking Arabic” – This is definitely not true. Most Israeli Jews, Assyrians, Kurds, Copts, and Amazigh are fluent in Arabic, but none of these groups are “Arab”. Moreover, Palestinians and Syrians and Iraqis et al aren’t Arab simply because they speak Arabic. It’s because they identify as Arabs, are recognized as Arabs by other Arab countries, and are accepted as part of the Arab world. The vast majority also practice Islam and identify with Arab culture. Even the colors of (most) Arab flags correspond with specific Arabian conquerors. All of these things are indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula.

But most importantly, not only do they not identify with any extant indigenous peoples (e.g. Jews, Samaritans, Copts, Amazigh, etc), they have worked tirelessly to marginalize and expunge them from their homelands. That is why I have a very difficult time accepting the idea that they are indigenous. It’s just not enough to claim “I have ancient Jewish descent” or whatever, especially when its sole purpose is to deflect accountability, justify attacks on living indigenous peoples, and extirpate them from their homeland. There is absolutely no reason I should accept these kinds of argument.

4. “The Arab conquests did not involve capitalist exploitation” – This is the Marxist view of colonialism, which constitutes only one variant. Capitalism is not the defining feature of colonialism. And even if it was, Israel is still not a colonial state – but they’ll never admit it.

Now, as for why I have a particular problem with this narrative…

It is a convenient way for Arab states to dodge accountability for their historical and present abuses against indigenous peoples. The argument that they are simply Assyrians, Jews, Samaritans, Copts, etc who speak Arabic may be a comfortable one, but it is not based in reality. As I mentioned previously, every conquering population inevitably absorbs DNA from the peoples they conquer. That’s how colonialism works. The Arab world isn’t unique in this case.

The fact that Bolsonaro might have some indigenous Brazilian ancestry means absolutely nothing – he’s still not part of an indigenous tribe and, more importantly, he’s still a tyrant who is using his colonial privilege to oppress indigenous peoples. No amount of indigenous blood will change that.

It is a claim that has been weaponized against indigenous peoples and used to sweep us under the rug, all in the hope of removing us from our homelands and ensuring that they remain “Arab”. They’ve appropriated our histories and identities as their own without actually belonging to our cultures or suffering for them, and despite centuries of benefiting from the very same system of colonial domination that led to our dispossession in the first place.

I think we have every right to be pissed off about that.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.