Shimon Glick

The ‘settler colonialists’ of Palestine

The anti-Israel epithet is a misdiagnosis that inverts the truth: It was the Jews who were exiled from their native land
'Next Year in Jerusalem,' a page in the Amsterdam Passover Haggadah, 1741, from the Haggadah collection at the National Library of Israel. (Courtesy NLI)
'Next Year in Jerusalem,' a page in the Amsterdam Passover Haggadah, 1741, from the Haggadah collection at the National Library of Israel. (Courtesy NLI)

Among the litany of accusations that have been aimed lately at the State of Israel, an increasingly frequent one has been that of “settler colonialism.” This term is usually defined as the displacement of a country’s native or indigenous population by a colonial state, usually by military means. If true, then Israel would thereby join many distinguished fellow countries, including the United States of America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and others.

In the case of these other countries, there is actually some historical basis for this finger-pointing. What can be done practically to remedy the situation today is, of course, less clear. But only Israel is expected to reverse its supposed status as a settler colonialist state basically by disappearing.

Clearly, the negative impact of settler colonialism on indigenous native populations can be real, but in the case of Israel, this is a gross misdiagnosis. An honest analysis of the history of Israel/Palestine actually points to the conclusion that it is the Jews who are the true native indigenous population of the region and who have been forcibly exiled for more than 2,000 years.

An unbiased analysis of history will indeed accept the description of genuine settler colonialism in the Middle East but with a serious misidentification of the true victim of this injustice. The Jewish People have the longest consistent history as the legitimate native indigenous nation in the territory under question. The Jews began their romance with this land several hundred years BCE, even before they built the Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Since then Jews have, on numerous occasions, been subject to military assault, eviction and banishment from their homeland.

One may start with the Assyrian invasion in 722 BCE, followed by the Babylonian invasion in the sixth century BCE. But these stubborn Jewish natives returned only 70 years later to repopulate the land and rebuild their temple, speaking their original language, celebrating their holidays as before and trying again.

Next, it was the Seleucid Greeks who sent their colonial armies to expel the Jews in 200 BCE. The holiday of Hanukkah, still celebrated today more than 2,000 years on by Jews around the world, commemorates the successful Jewish revolt against these usurpers.

The Greeks, however, were replaced soon enough by the all-powerful Roman Empire under which the Jews enjoyed a kind of sovereignty under kings like Herod the Great. Soon enough, however, the Jews revolted against the all-powerful Romans and despite some initial success, were finally defeated. (All this is described in fascinating detail in The Jewish War by the Roman-Jewish historian, Josephus).

Their expulsion in 64 AD was considered such a major event that the Roman emperor, Titus, celebrated the victory by erecting an impressive arch in Rome, still visited today, decorated with the religious symbols of Judaism, so that all could enjoy this great triumph.

Arch of Titus. Wikimedia Commons.

But again the stubborn Jewish nation did not give up and for the next two millennia continued its attachment to its land, an unmatched unique love affair with the land as part and parcel of its religion, its culture and language, until it finally returned with the almost miraculous creation of the current state of Israel. During these more than 2,000 years the Jews lived in “exile,” their “Diaspora,” all over the world, but they never forgot their homeland.

Daily prayers and holidays attest to this eternal attachment to the land. For example, in the festive Seder meal at Passover, Jews around the world, and for two millennia, sing out “Next year in Jerusalem.”

The actual Jewish population in historic Israel fluctuated, depending on the whims of the (truly) colonial overlords (sometimes Arabs, Crusaders, Turks, and later the British). At times the population reached several hundred thousand and at times it was as low as several hundred. The different colonial invaders took turns persecuting these stubborn natives, evicting them and using varied forcible means to prevent their return

Over the centuries different groups of Jews tried with varying success to purchase homes and land in Israel, but invariably these attempts were frustrated by the colonialists of the times. Hundreds, and perhaps thousands of synagogues in Israel were destroyed by the various colonialists regnant at the time. During all of these years, the exiled Jews, whether in London or Baghdad, in Paris or Yemen, in Warsaw or New Zealand, pined for their homeland, faced toward it in their prayers, called their children by biblical Hebrew names and celebrated their traditional holidays. For its part, Islam did not come to the Holy Land until the 8th century, and their leaders immediately banned entry of Jews to the Jews’ holiest place, the Temple Mount, over which (as in the case of Hagi Sophia in Istanbul, originally a giant church) Muslims built the huge and glorious Al Aksa mosque.

The entire civilized world recognized “Palestine” as the Jewish homeland. When Jews were expelled from various European countries, the frequent cry by antisemitic mobs was “Get out of our country – go back to Palestine.” Unfortunately, Jews’ return to their homeland was usually prevented by forces in Palestine.

Many attempts by Jews in small numbers to return were unsuccessful over the centuries for a variety of reasons. Then in the 18th century, some rabbis with a messianic dream in mind began to come to live in Jerusalem and Safed in homes they purchased in what they considered to be holy cities. These were not pioneers, successful in an economic sense, but rather a sort of attempt to realize some spark, initiation or heralding of the fulfillment of the messianic era, as promised by the biblical prophets. More pragmatic immigrants to Israel emerged in the 19th century as part of a Zionist political movement. By the end of the 19th century, Jews were the majority of the population in Jerusalem and Safed.

Prior to 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel and its war with several invading Arab armies, all attempts by Jews to come back to their homeland were always by peaceful means, unlike almost all colonial movements. Lands were purchased often at exorbitant prices from the local population. Interestingly, Arab leaders in Palestine were generally the ones who sold land to the Jewish settlers.

Unlike most colonial movements, the Jewish settlers did not want to recreate colonies in the image of the culture from which they emigrated: no colonies named New London or New Amsterdam. Instead, they resurrected names from their 2,000-year history: Beer Sheva, Rehovot and the like. They came to revive their historic native culture. They came with their historic holidays, their biblical customs and their ancient language. Their revival of a biblical language into a language of daily use is unmatched in world history. Also, unlike many other colonial movements, they did not come to Israel to exploit it, they came to contribute to the restoration and development of their recovered homeland.

The Zionists returning to Israel did not come to replace native indigenous populations. They themselves were the real natives and the indigenous population of the land of Israel. Let us bury once and for all the slanderous charges against the State of Israel as representing the colonial part of the phrase “settler colonialism”.

Had the Arab inhabitants of Palestine welcomed the Zionist immigrants instead of attacking them, the Middle East country would really have become a Garden of Eden instead of a recurrent battlefield. It is never too late to begin.

The author expresses his appreciation for the thoughtful insights and editing by his colleague, Professor Mark Clarfield.

About the Author
Born 1932 in New Jersey. State U of Medicine MD 1955. Trained at Yale. Mount Sinai. Research in Nobel prize winning laboratory of Berson and Yalow.