Shayna Abramson

Why the Post-Colonial Narrative Doesn’t Apply to Israel

There is a narrative that goes like this: White European Jews came to the land of Palestine and colonized it, starting in the 1800s. In 1948, they founded their own state, by kicking out the indigenous Arabs. Therefore, Israel does not have a right to exist.”

First of all, there is the double-standard issue: White Europeans** came to America, kicked out the Native Americans, and then established their own state. White Portuguese people came to Brazil, colonized it, brought hundreds of thousands of slaves from Africa, and then declared independence; Brazil’s first ruler was Dom Pedro I, a member of the Portuguese royal family who was born in Lisbon.

But nobody disputes the right of either of those two countries to exist. Even if we accept that Israel, which was established by a UN Resolution, was established by White Europeans and involved the displacement of the indigenous populations, it’s unclear why that would make it any less legitimate than most of the modern nation-states of the New World – some of whom, like Guatemala and Venezuela, carry out human rights abuses that are arguably much worse than anything that’s been done by Israel.

But let’s deconstruct the argument a bit:

“White European Jews came to the land of Palestine”.

There is a debate that can be had about whether or not Jews in the USA today are “white.”

But it is quite clear, in the context of Europe in the 1800s, that Jews were not white. Jews did not achieve emancipation in France until until 1806; for much of the 1800s, countries in both Western and Eastern Europe had discriminatory laws governing where Jews could live and which professions they could practice, as well as university quotas that ensured that Jews did not have equal access to higher education.

As a matter of fact, Zionism was born in response to anti-Semitism: It was upon witnessing the false charges trumped up by anti-Semites against General Dreyfus, in France, who was Jewish, as well as an angry mob that yelled “Death to the Jews” outside of the courthouse, that Herzl was inspired to become the founder of modern Zionism.

Zionism was also seen as a solution to the terrible pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe. As a matter of fact, each major wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine came in response to specific anti-Semitic attacks, with the final wave coming in response to the Holocaust.

So did European Jews come to the land of Palestine? Yup.

Were they white? Not according to the power structures in Europe of that era.

“And colonized it”.

The Jews who arrived to Palestine in the 1800s did not come with guns and kick people out. They came unarmed, and generally purchased the land legally.* They focused their settlement building on abandoned plots of land.

The Jews who emigrated in the 1800s did not come as an occupying force. They did not come in a position of power. Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The Jews who came to the area in the 1800s lived under Ottoman rule, bound by Ottoman law and subject to the whims of the empire – just like the Arab citizens who also lived in the area. Once the area fell under British control, after World War One, the Jews who emigrated to Palestine lived there under British law, subject to the whims of the British Empire – which tried to severely curtail Jewish immigration, even as Hitler rolled across Europe.

If the word “colonize” applies to that situation, we are certainly using it very differently than when we talk about White Europeans coming with guns and killing and kicking out Native Americans.

“In 1948, they founded their own state”

This is true. Technically, the state was established by a UN resolution. However, once the UN resolution was approved, David Ben Gurion did proclaim independence. Israel’s declaration of independence affirmed that:

“WE APPEAL….to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship….WE EXTEND our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace”

“by kicking out the indigenous Arabs.”

In 1948, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq decided to invade the newly-founded State of Israel. During the course of the war, hundreds of thousands of Arabs living in the area were displaced. Why? Some were encouraged by Arab leaders to leave. Some fled out of fear, because it is natural to run away when you see tanks rolling in. Israel did kick some out, but those directly kicked out by Israel account for a minority of those who were displaced.

The definition of a Palestinian refugee is any Arab whose “normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”

Living in a country for two years does not make one indigenous.

Until World War One, which ended in 1918, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire. Borders were fairly porous, and there was migration between different parts of the empire.  There was immigration during the British Mandate period as well.

In 1948, there were Arabs whose great-grandparents had been born in Palestine. There were also Arabs who immigrated to Palestine as children or as adults.

Although many of the Jewish residents of Palestine in 1948 were either immigrants or children of immigrants, there was also a sizeable Jewish population that could trace its residence in Palestine back to the 1500s.

So it’s unclear how much each group was indigenous, or that one group was massively more indigenous than the other.

“Israel does not have a right to exist.”

Since the claims this statement was based on have been disproved, it no longer applies.

But even if it did apply – what then?

There are some Jews who live in Israel who emigrated from countries such as America and England, that they can move back to. There are others who emigrated from countries such as Yemen and Iraq, which they cannot go back to without fear of getting killed – assuming that the governments are even prepared to take them in. There are other Israeli Jews whose grandparents or great-great-great grandparents were born in Israel – where would they go?

If you say that the answer is nowhere, because instead of Israel, you will create a state of all its citizens named Freetopia, then I have bad news: From Rwanda to Iraq, the world is full of examples of post-colonial countries*** where ethnic groups that hated each other were forced to share a democratic government and geographic area – i.e., a modern nation state. The results have not been pretty.

So the question you must ask yourself is not whether Israel has a right to exist, but rather, whether the existence of Israel is so awful that it worth the risk of plunging an entire region into massive ethnic war, and possible genocide, in order to erase Israel’s existence.

If you answer “Yes” to that question, then I’m not sure we have much more to talk about.

** Can I say that after Brexit?

*In response to attacks on their fields, the Zionist Jews established their own guard units in 1909. In 1920, in response to attacks by Arabs on Jewish civilians, they established a paramilitary defense organization – but that was decades after the first large wave of Jewish immigration, which took place in 1882.

*** I’m working off of an assumption that if you oppose Israel’s right to exist, you do believe that the post-colonialist narrative applies.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.