Were Jews who came to Israel in the 19th century colonists, colonizers or colonialists?

There is a sustained anti-Jewish, anti-Israel Judeophobic campaign that has been going on for years. The old slogans have been replaced but are often the same in essence as the old Judeophobic slogans. More than 200 years ago and throughout the 19th century, Jews were widely considered aliens to Europe, reprehensible Asiatics, Orientals. The German philosopher Kant summarized this view concisely, and rather ironically in view of current opinions and prejudices. He called the German Jews: “The Palestinians who live among us.” The Judeophobes of the 21st century turn the slogan around while saying the same thing in essence. Now the Jews are considered aliens to the Middle East, to the region that the 19th century Judeophobes saw as Asia, the Orient. In sum the Jews are still viewed as aliens but now the locus of their alien nature has shifted from Europe to the Middle East.

The notion that the Jews are aliens to the Middle East, or to the Land of Israel in particular where Jews were sovereign in their own land, is expressed by segments of fashionable opinion by calling Jews in Israel “colonists” or “colonialists” and so on. This label is especially applied to Jews who came to live or “settle” in this country. But is the label justified? One typical characteristic of those who apply such labels is that they avoid or are unaware of parts of history that do not fit their “narrative.” The ancient history of the Land of Israel, known to Greeks and Romans and other ancient peoples, shows that they well knew that Israel was the “land of the Jews” in the words of the Greek Pausanias. In fact, the Roman Empire called the country Judea (IVDAEA) in the heyday of the Roman Empire. But let’s leave ancient history aside, that is what the anti-Zionists might say. And we accept that for the sake of argument. Instead, let’s start with the Zionist immigration in the late 19th century, starting with the First Aliyah in 1882. Jews were already a majority in Jerusalem at that time and had been so since the 1850s according to a number of observers. But those Jews then in Jerusalem are not usually considered “Zionists.” So be it. Staying with the Zionist immigrants of the First Aliyah, where did they come from? The bulk came from the Russian Empire and Roumania. Did the Russian tsar or the Roumanian king send those Jews to Israel as part of a colonization project, as for example the king of England sent William Penn and his Quakers to Pennsylvania to colonize that territory? The answer is No. Were they sent perhaps by the Zionist Organization? The Zionist Organization did not exist until 1897 when founded by Herzl at the First Zionist Congress. The answer is again No.  There was a body called Hibbat Tsiyon (or Zion), a cooperative society, that organized some of the Russian and Roumanian Jews. Was the Hibbat Tsiyon a colonialist empire? It raised private funds to buy land for Jews in Israel. By settling Jews on the land, it also wanted to counter the leftist, socialist accusation commonplace at the time that Jews did not do and could not do manual labor or toil as farmers.

The most famous Roumanian Jew of the First Aliyah was Aaron Aaronhsohn. He was born in Roumania in 1876. When he was born Roumania was part of the Ottoman Empire. Aaronsohn was born as an Ottoman subject like his father and mother before him.

Now what kind of country or state was this Ottoman Empire? It was a Sunni Muslim state where the Sunni Muslims, including most Turks and most Arabs, formed a superior caste with superior rights and privileges to those of the rest of the population. These subject peoples included Christians of various ethnic groups, Armenians, Albanians, Serbs, Vlakhs [Roumanians], Greeks, Assyrians, etc, and sects, Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Maronites, Nestorians, etc., other Muslim sects such as Shiites and Alawis/Alevis, and — of course — Jews. In the Levantine region of the empire, Jews were at the bottom of the social barrel, although the Empire sometimes favored Jews over Christians where the Christians were very much in the majority.

Besides Turks, most Arabs were Sunnis and that includes nearly all Palestinian Arabs. Hence, Arabs, including Palestinian Arabs, were perfectly suited to taking part in the governing of the empire. And they did so. They took pride in the military victories of the Empire and saw them as Sunni Muslim victories. Indeed, two historians, an Arab and a Turk, Zeine N Zeine and Ziya Gok Alp, defined the empire as a Turkish-Arab state.

Scions of the leading notable Arab-Muslim families in what the World War One allies officially called “palestine” starting in 1920 (although there was no “palestine” in the Ottoman or earlier Mamluk empire) took high positions in the imperial service. Such were Musa Kazem el-Husseini [al-Husayni] who graduated the Ottoman School of Administration and Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi. Husseini served the Empire as governor in Anatolia [governing Armenians?] and other parts of the empire while Khalidi was the first speaker of the Ottoman parliament inaugurated in 1877 and later the consul in Vienna, an important diplomatic post given the delicate relations between the Ottoman and Austrian Habsburg empires.

So Aaron Aaronsohn was born a subject of an empire in which Palestinian Arabs, but not Jews, held high positions in the state. This was an empire where Sunni Muslims enjoyed superior rights and privileges and Jews were held in contempt and were humiliated and oppressed in the Arab-Muslim majority regions of the Empire.

Aaronsohn’s family brought him to Israel in 1882, four years after Roumanian independence as granted by the Congress of Berlin. In the same period the Ottoman Empire let thousands of Muslims from Bosnia — assigned to Austria-Hungary by the same Congress of Berlin — migrate to Middle Eastern parts of the Empire because they did not want to live under Christian rule. They did not want to be subject to Christian Habsburg domination and wanted to stay in the Ottoman state. Shouldn’t Jewish Ottoman subjects have had as much right to migrate in order to stay in the Empire and retain the better legal/social status they had in it than they would have in independent Roumania?

Moreover, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes in Article 13 (1) that

Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.

Weren’t the Aaronsohns exercising a right under the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, albeit they did  so before the Declaration was issued?

About the Author
Elliott A. Green is a writer, researcher, and translator living in Jerusalem. He has published in Nativ, Midstream, the Jerusalem Post, and other publications.