Zionism and colonialism

The other day I found myself rereading favorite passages from the book Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish nation-state and human rights. (Yes, I’m the sort of guy who rereads favorite passages from books with titles like Israel and the Family of Nations.)

It’s a dense, complicated book written by two of Israel’s best-known liberal intellectuals – Amnon Rubinstein and Alexander Yakobson. The former, a constitutional law scholar, is sometimes called the “father of Israel’s constitution.” He is a former Meretz MK and education minister, law school dean, and the author of two groundbreaking Basic Laws. The latter is a historian of ancient Rome, a former Peace Now activist and a columnist for Haaretz.

They probably don’t vote Likud.

Together, they have written what may be the finest defense of Zionism from the past 50 years. This wonderful book, which sells as a simple paperback in Hebrew but is for some reason packaged as an expensive academic hardcover in English, is an intellectual cage match that joyfully upends the arguments and assumptions of those who would deny Jews the right to a state of their own.

The book tackles head-on the popular assumption that there is something incongruous about a “Jewish state” that espouses liberal human rights. It dissects international legal norms and Zionist theory and delves into the minutiae of, for example, UN partition talks in 1947 and the intellectual discourse around “neutral” statehood vs. nation-statehood.

That may not sound like fun, but it is. Here’s one example on the comparison of Zionism to colonialism. It’s on page 66 of the English version of the book:

Those who consider Zionism a form of colonialism are sometimes willing to admit the differences that exist between it and the usual model of European colonialism. However, they hold that none of these differences are of decisive importance for defining the nature of the phenomenon. Thus, Oren Yiftachel, Professor of Geography at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, writes that “despite the salient differences compared with other colonial movements, the actual process of European settlement [in Palestine] enables Zionism to be classified (both pre- and post-1948) as a ‘pure’ colonial settlement movement.”


For the sake of public disclosure, he lists these “salient differences” in a footnote, where the discerning reader quickly discovers just how superficial and artificial Zionism’s identification with colonialism is. The differences listed by Yiftachel are:


Zionism’s nature as an ethnic and national rather than an economic project; the refugee status of most of the Jews [who came to Palestine]; the loose organization of the Diaspora Jewish communities as opposed to well-organized [colonial] mother countries; and lastly, the ideal of the ‘return to Zion’ which is grounded in Jewish tradition.


In other words, Zionism was a colonialist phenomenon in all respects and fully resembled other examples of modern colonialism – apart from the fact that it was a national movement, that it was not motivated by a desire for economic gain, that it arose out of Jewish suffering and was realized by people who may be defined as refugees, that the settlers had no colonial mother country, and that the bond with the Land of Israel was part of the traditional historical identity of the Jewish people.

Just 267 words, and you’ll never be left speechless or confused when someone tosses out the ol’ Zionism-is-colonialism silliness.

See? I told you it’s a fun book.

About the Author
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.