Israel, Palestine – and nuance as the moral imperative
The latest flare-up of violence in Israel and Palestine came with the expected barrage of related content on social media. As an Israeli guide working mostly with European travellers, I have a lot of contact with internationals – these days, mostly digital, due to the pandemic. More than ever before, much of the content I have come across indicates how little people actually know about the modern history of the place.
I know tensions are running high, and the outrageous politics of both Israel and Hamas require more attention than what anyone says or thinks in Europe. However, I do feel an urge to write this now, because this is when people might be willing to think about anything related to Israel/Palestine seriously.
What strikes me especially is a concerning correlation between the use of certain buzzwords and a very superficial understanding of the conflict. Examples that come to mind are an article, an open letter by academics and a statement shared by German Facebook contacts of mine, all of which feature excessive use of the term "colonial" as a backdrop for the conflict. These are mere examples of what is seemingly becoming axiomatic amongst ever-growing influential activist and intellectual circles.
Judicious use of the "colonial" label
Vocabulary that used to be almost exclusively limited to academic debates is becoming integral to the mainstream conversation about Israel/Palestine. More and more people support the Palestinians as part of a global anti-colonial and "intersectional" struggle that aims to unite marginalised groups and progressives around the idea that Israel is the pinnacle of European hegemony's historical ills – a dangerous and absolutely ahistorical concept.
I don't, by any means, reject attentive, refined use of these terms. Many early Zionists from Europe were indeed products of their surroundings and their era, and viewed Palestine as a place in need of some kind of "civilising mission". The "colonial" framework can be valuable in understanding several aspects of Jewish settlement, some historic dynamics between Jews and Arabs in Palestine and perhaps something – but certainly not everything – about the origins of racism in Israel.
It can also teach us a lot about practices in the Occupied Territories since 1967. There are, however, countless layers of context to this history that are missing when the term is thrown around crudely. Using "colonial" as a synonym for Israel's entire being obstructs a deeper understanding of the situation.
The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy's definition of "colonialism" states that "the practice of colonialism usually involved the transfer of population to a new territory, where the arrivals lived as permanent settlers while maintaining political allegiance to their country of origin". Based on this definition, people should be able to answer several crucial questions, before dubbing Israel "colonial" in every other sentence:
Those Jews who arrived in Ottoman Palestine from the 1870s onwards were overseas settlers of which Jewish government exactly? Were they, several dozens of years before the Balfour Declaration, pawns of a sovereign power exploiting people or natural resources in this part of the Ottoman Empire? Were the settlers arriving here up until Israel's foundation – and to a large extent afterwards, as well – not, by today’s definition, refugees or asylum seekers?
They were part of an emancipation movement that courted imperial powers (first the Ottomans, later the British Empire), and eventually turned to violent resistance against British rule. Numerous Zionist thinkers, Hannah Arendt included, envisioned a bi-national homeland rather than an exclusively "Jewish state", or at the least a fully egalitarian one. This vision was tarnished by bilateral nationalist violence from 1920 onwards, culminating in the 1948 war, but it still resonates with many people who understand themselves as "Zionist".