Zionism, Colonialism, and the Toxic Conversation On Israel

The New Republic’s John Judis is the latest recipient of over-the-top right-wing attacks on any who would question Israeli policy.  Judis’ book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israel Conflict has been attacked as part of a “new worldwide effort to question the legitimacy of Israel” (Ronald Radosh in the Jerusalem Post) and the work of a “faux Elder of Zion” (Rick Richman in Commentary) who “deploys the bigotry of yesteryear” (Jordan Chandler Hirsch in the Wall Street Journal) and insists that Arab massacres against Jews are “justified” (Hirsch and Radosh).

I haven’t read Judis’ book yet, and I can tell that these sentiments are nonsense. Judis is a fair-minded writer; it beggars belief that he would justify Arab massacres against Jews.  More sober reviewers such as Jonathan Kirsch in the Jewish Journal and Gershom Gorenberg in The American Prospect have a lot of trenchant criticisms of it, but they are intelligent enough not to have a conniption fits about policy disagreements and nowhere mention the sorts of absurdities that Judis is accused of.

That said, Judis’ attempt to defend himself gets him into trouble, and does lead me to wonder whether this book is the masterpiece that some are hailing. In particular, I noticed this paragraph in Judis’ response to his critics:

Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and the British Zionists who helped draft the Balfour Declaration did not aspire to create an empire like that of the British or French, but to be junior partners of the Western imperialist powers. Herzl, who admired Cecil Rhodes, described the Jewish state as “a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” The Zionist movement established “colonies” and aspired to create a Jewish state in a territory where, at the beginning of the Zionist movement, Arabs made up 95 percent of the population. American Zionists compared the Zionists in Palestine with American colonial settlers. At the time, colonialism and imperialism were not dirty words they way they are now. So yes, I think much of the Zionist movement—with the exception of Ahad Ha’am and his followers—saw themselves engaged in a mission that could be described as settler colonialism.

Now, I realize that these replies cannot go on too long, and that thus nuance gets lost, but if this response accurately and completely reflects Judis’ views and the message of the book, then that represents a real problem. Whatever Herzl might have thought, the man died in 1904 (13 years before the Balfour Declaration), and the British Zionists who helped draft the Balfour Declaration were nowhere near the core of the Zionist movement that actually created the state in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  David Ben-Gurion and the rest of the Yishuv institutions and leadership had no interest in being junior partners of western imperialism: they loved working with Orde Wingate in the late 1930’s, but basically detested the British and other imperial powers. “We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war,” said Ben-Gurion. That is not someone who wishes to be the junior partner of imperialism. Indeed, the Mapai leadership was shocked when Israel was not invited to the Bandung Conference in 1956 and Israel’s government leaped at any chance to establish strong relationships with African governments as soon as they were independent.  (The much-ballyhooed Israel-South Africa relationship really did not get going until 1976, after the rest of Africa cut off ties with Israel following the Yom Kippur War).

Thus, “colonialism” represents a deeply flawed view of the Zionist project.  “Colonialism” assumes a metropole to which one is loyal.  The Zionists who actually built the state had little for any metropole and saw themselves as a nationalist movement.  Gershon Shafir, one of the best scholars out there working on this, makes an absolutely crucial distinction between “colonialism”, which Zionism was not, and “colonization,” which it clearly was.  Any time  a group of people moves from one part of the world to another, in one sense it is “colonization.” But to see Zionism as a “colonialist” movement is at best imprecise and misleading.

None of this excuses the hysteria against Judis in the right wing press. But Judis isn’t doing himself any favors in his response — and very possibly, he won’t be doing it in his book, either.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

9 thoughts on “Zionism, Colonialism, and the Toxic Conversation On Israel”

  1. While I doubt that people there make much use of the term, there is little question that Finland is a Finnish state. Since its independence, Finland has embodied the national aspirations of the Finnish people. No one has a problem with this. As it happens, however, not everyone living in Finland is ethnically Finnish. There are three other populations: the Romani (formerly called Gypsies), the Sami (formerly called Lapps), and the Finland Swedes. All speak a non-Finnish language. The Finland Swedes are the most numerous of these three, and are concentrated on the west and southwest coasts and in the self-governing archipelago of Aland. All three minority groups have rights that are set out in the Constitution of Finland. There is no question that members of all three minority groups have the same civil and legal rights as Finnish-speaking citizens of Finland. This is a norm in Western nations, even when, in the case of the Romani, it is grossly violated.
    Should the day arrive when the government of Israel recognizes that *as a matter of principle* its minority group members should have the same civil and legal rights as Jewish citizens of Israel, then the slogan that "Israel is a Jewish state" will no longer be so bitter in the mouths of those minority group members. For now, unfortunately, "Israel is a Jewish state" has been a justification for grievous discrimination against the non-Jewish population.

  2. I am wondering in practice how solidly the distinction between “colonizing” and “colonialist” holds up. Insofar as the colonists moving from one place to another seek to reproduce large chunks of the social, cultural and governmental structures of the place(s) where they came from, details of their allegiances to factions in their former countries may be moot. They still have the effect of colonial outposts. (And yes, that “insofar as” is very much an open question.)

    Also, I think you omitted some words in ‘Any time a group of people moves from one part of the world to another, in one sense it is “colonization.”’; right before the comma there should be “with the intent or effect of displacing the people who are already there”.

  3. I’m not very well-read in Israeli history, but it seems to me that given Britain’s status as a colonial power in the 1930s and 1940s, and specifically as the power in charge of Palestine, it was politically expedient—indeed, necessary—for the Zionists to market themselves to the British as junior partners in Western imperialism.

  4. Jonathan, maybe we all need to read Judis' book. The beginning of his paragraph to which you object identifies Herzl, Weizmann and the British Zionists. You don't disagree. You merely go on to cite Ben Gurion and the next generation of Zionists of the 1930s and 1940s, who realized that the World War I era British promises to Zionists were qualified further and further (as we know, British politicians were already walking back the Balfour Declaration shortly after its pronouncement, as Scott Anderson's book called "Lawrence in Arabia" demonstrates). Your point is not wrong, but one has to admit the dichotomy proposed between colonization and colonizing becomes murky, so that Judis' statements are less controversial than we may think. The very next paragraph in Judis' defense puts Judis directly in support of positions you and I hold most dear, which is to ensure Palestinians are not discriminated against in Israel, but that Israel be allowed to call itself a Jewish State, and that there be a two state solution, with the Palestinians in control of the West Bank. Judis deserves to be read before we even start to agree with any of the attackers against him, and I plan to read him.

    By the way, what is your view of Ari Shavit's book, which I am almost completing? I find most of it familiar, but the book is compelling for putting the basic information most American Jews don't know into a sort of oral history with a breezy style that makes for easier reading than a more scholarly book such as Judis' book. I am a fan of scholarly history books myself, but I know most of my fellow congregants at the temple I belong to are not…:-)

    1. I was also interested in responses to Ari Shavit's book. The occupation is a disaster for him, but when it comes to Iran he seemed to be leaning toward the camp that sees Iran as an existential threat to Israel, and perhaps willing to consider a military strike to remove that threat. I was not certain that I was reading him correctly on this point.

      The persepectives of others would be welcome to me as well as to Mitchell.

      1. I am finishing the Shavitt book and was disappointed in the Iran chapter. Ed, you are reading Shavitt the same way I did. Shavitt, in that chapter, made no case for me that Iran having the bomb is an existential threat to Israel, and he ironically included the point without a sufficient rebuttal that the Shin Bet directors who have held the office don't agree with him. Still, I find Shavitt's book overall a tonic for American Jews especially who don't have Jonathan Zazloff's knowledge regarding the history of the past 100 years in Israel/Palestine.

  5. I have zapped the off-topic comments to this post. The fact that people frustrated by their inability to rant at Keith Humphreys on his own posts have decided to threadjack this one tells you something about the quality of the Drug War Ranters RBC has unfortunately attracted.

    Keith, and I, are both annoyed that comments on drug-related posts on RBC are dominated by a group of people who either prefer ignorant passion to knowledge or mistake ignorant passion for knowledge, and who have formed an epistemically closed circle of mutual admiration that protects them from learning anything. As a result of that domination, RBC cannot serve as a forum for serious exchange of expert views, because the experts who used to comment here - sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, with one post or another - don’t want to get into the sandbox.

    I’m prepared to do the work of zapping the nonsense; Keith has patients to treat.

  6. Its along the lines when Party leader Yosef Lapid pitched his appeal to Jews from Western Europe as distinct from those from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Russia. He welded his call for a "secular unity government" to an appeal to "westernism," saying that "if we let the east European ghetto and the north African ghetto take over, we will…be lost within a terrible Levantine dunghill." Or Eli Yishai's controversial statement about Israel and 'white men'.

    I don't think Israel's proclaimed Jewishness is simple to understand. How this Jewishness has taken form? Hertzl said not to think of Jews as a race. Oren said there's no official religion for Israel. How is this alleged Jewishness viewed by the non-Jew, the non-Zionist? The Muslim, an israeli citizen or not, isn't an heir to Abraham, too?

    OREN: …… unlike Great Britain that has a national church, we don't have an official religion.

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