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What’s with Israel and colonialism? Why is there even a discussion about that? Why do Israel’s detractors keep using that word? Colonialism is when a “mother country” sets up colonies. Colonies are remote sites where settlers from the motherland live. One example of this were the British colonies in America which eventually became the Unites States. For something to be a colony, it must have some relation to a distant, noncontiguous motherland. Empires can expand through direct conquest, whereby they simply conquer their direct, contiguous neighbors, or through colonization, where they colonize distant lands.
The claim has been made by some that the entire country of Israel is a European colonialist project. That claim is so preposterous that it will not be dealt with here except to note the obvious point that there is no other Jewish motherland from which Israel could have been colonized, and more specifically, there is no sovereign entity called “Europe” from which Israel could have been colonized (Europe is a continent, not a country. And even if you wish to refer to the European Union, modern Israeli’s are clearly not colonialist representatives of the E.U. And even if you wish to refer to specific European countries from which many Jews immigrated to Israel, those countries were not and are not Jewish countries. They may have had large Jewish populations prior to World War II, but any Jews that moved to Israel from those countries were hardly official colonialist representatives of those countries; rather, they were a persecuted minority, hated and given few if any political rights until quite recently.)
Regarding the country of Israel as a whole, one may make the claim that a large proportion (a bit less than half of the current Jewish population) immigrated from European countries, but that is not the same as colonialism. And the obvious fact that Israel is their ancient homeland clearly gives them the right to return there should they so desire. And even if you disagree with that statement, it still is not colonialism. You may want to argue that despite the Jews having an ancient homeland in Israel, because they have been away for so long, and because other people have been living there for some time, that, if you will, the “statute of limitations” on lost ancient homelands has run out, and therefore the Jews no longer have any claim on the land. Again, that is not colonialism, though it may be a valid opinion. However, that simply is not the majority opinion of the world, of the United Nations, or of the verdict of history, all of whom have seen fit to grant Israel the right to exist. So while one may indeed hold that opinion (again, not colonialism), that opinion would be a minority historical opinion of sorts, not relevant in any way to the practical world of today, in which the undisputed fact is that there is a country of Israel made up of Jews who have returned to their ancient homeland.
Given these facts, the inescapable conclusion is that those who use the word colonialism in reference to the entire state of Israel do so out of a desire to link Israel with current or past real colonialist enterprises which were motivated either by greed (to steal natural resources from the indigenous population living in the colonial lands), the need for territorial expansion for defense purposes or to accommodate population expansion, or in some cases a paternalistic attempt to “bring order to the barbarians” or “civilize the savages;” and buttressed by a strong culture of racism towards the indigenous population in the colonial lands. Such colonialist enterprises today are clearly and correctly considered morally corrupt, and thus the attempt by some of Israel’s detractors to apply that language to the state of Israel. However, simply saying something does not make it true, and as outlined above, colonialism is not applicable in any way to the state of Israel.
Some have sought to apply the word colonialism to Israel’s treatment of the territories known alternately as the west bank or Judea and Sameria. And once again it is evident that the use of such language is simply an attempt to convey and connote racist, evil, and morally corrupt motives to the state of Israel. For here, too, the use of the word is factually inaccurate. First of all and most basically, the territories are a contiguous landmass to Israel and therefore cannot be colonized. You don’t colonize land right on your own borders – colonies are distant islands of settlement at remote locations relative the the homeland.
Second, Israel currently holds the territories under a military occupation not because it wants to steal the natural resources from the indigenous population, but because it won the territory in a defensive war and despite trying to make peace with its neighbors for over 50 years, hasn’t been able to figure out what to do with those lands. There is no country to whom the land may be returned. Jordan, the country which occupied the land immediately prior to Israel has relinquished its claim to the land. Britain, the country occupying the land prior to that has no current claim on the land because its mandate expired in 1947. And the Ottoman Empire, who occupied the land prior to Britain, no longer exists. And while some have sought to create a new Arab county called Palestine using perhaps portions of that land, those details remain to be worked out and so as yet no such country exists. (And despite the wish and hope of certain people for such a country to be created in the future, that wish in and of itself does not confer upon the land the status of having been possessed somehow in the past by that as-yet-uncreated potential future country. Thus the incongruity and meaninglessness of the oft-used phrase “stolen Palestinian land.”) And so Israel has controlled the land under a military occupation in a continual state of limbo. And while that may be unfair to the local non-Jewish population, it is not colonialism.
And third, Israel actually has a legal and historical claim on those territories, that while not universally accepted by everyone, is certainly within the bounds of reason. The legal basis rests on the Balfour Declaration, the San Remo Conference, and the right of countries to hold onto lands captured in defensive wars by belligerent aggressors. The historical claim to the land is the same on which the entire country of Israel is founded – that the territories constitute the cradle of ancient Jewish civilization and are part and parcel of the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland, no different from the Sharon plain, the Galilee, or the Negev. And while it should be noted that none of that means that Israel can ignore the rights of the local non-Jewish population, the simple fact that there exists a non-Jewish population does not make the situation one of colonialism. The local non-Jewish population may feel bad that Jews have or are returning to their homeland – they may prefer to be left alone to live their lives in peace without all these Jews trying to revitalize their ancient civilization – they may even vehemently oppose the establishment of such a Jewish state. And they certainly have the right to feel that way. That still doesn’t make it colonialism.
Now you may say I’m just arguing semantics. That if the local population doesn’t want its land to be taken over by someone else, then that is close enough to be called colonialism. And if you want to be purposefully imprecise, I suppose that may indeed be “close enough.” But perhaps therein lies the point. The situation of Israel is so unique in the modern world that we simply don’t have adequate language to describe what is happening. I cannot think of another example of an ancient people, scattered around the globe and bereft of their homeland, suddenly returning and rebuilding their culture and country. And so it is little wonder that the words we use have been used historically to describe other, different events that just do not apply to Israel. And when faced with such a situation – when we cannot look to past examples of, say, British colonialism, and say, “well, that was wrong, so this must be wrong, too,” or, “Former colonialist powers such as Britain and France relinquished control of most of their former colonies, so too, must Israel somehow give up its colonial ambitions” – when we are not able to look to past examples such as those because they don’t apply to our situation, perhaps the best we can do is to start at the very bottom, view the situation as it actually is in the present, and formulate a plan which is as fair to all parties as is practically possible, and that respects the human dignity of all the inhabitants. Perhaps if people on both sides would start having such a discussion, rather than hurling knowingly inapplicable and intentionally emotive language at each other, some actual progress could be made.