Israel-Palestine: From Colonisation Straight to Apartheid

The debate scheduled to be held on 4 May in the French National Assembly on a resolution condemning the ‘institutionalisation by the State of Israel of an apartheid regime consequent upon its colonial policies’ has aroused outraged protests, roars of indignation and predictable accusations of anti-Semitism. These reactions can often be explained by an ignorance of the colonial reality of Zionism.

Promotional poster for Judah Leman’s film, The Land of promise, 1935
National Photo Collection of Israel, Photography dept. Goverment Press Office/Wikimedia Commons

Apartheid? How dare you? The president of the Republic himself has scolded those who ‘misuse historically loaded and defamatory terms to describe the State of Israel’. The Israeli parliament, unlike many of our politicians, had no such scruples when it publicly enshrined that apartheid system by voting on 19 July 2018 a constitutional law entitled ‘Israel- Nation-State of the Jewish people’ of which article 1 unabashedly proclaims: ‘the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is solely for the Jewish people’, a right which is denied Palestinian citizens of that same State but granted to Jews settled in Argentina or Ukraine. And Benyamin Netanyahu’s new government has engraved in its program that the Jewish people ‘have an exclusive and unalienable right to every part of the Land of Israel’ and shall develop its colonisation in ‘Galilee, in the Negev, in the Golan and in Judea Samaria’.

If it is so unsettling for some to accept the reality of that apartheid, denounced by many organisations for the defence of human rights, it is because it challenges many myths about Zionism and the State of Israel, in which many well-meaning people still see a kind of ‘miracle,’ a ‘renascence of the Jewish people on the land of their ancestors,’ an appropriate redress for the Holocaust. All of which has contributed to absolve the Zionist movement of its original sin, its colonial dimension.

‘An empty land’

Starting with the ‘great discoveries’ of the 15th century, there developed a vast movement of European conquest of the other continents which has gone down in history under the name of ‘colonialism.’ In his book Terra Nullius,1 the Swedish journalist Sven Lindqvist gives a precise definition of these ‘empty lands’ to be conquered: ‘In the Middle Ages, this was land that did not belong to any Christian sovereign. Later it was land to which no European country had yet laid claim, land which rightfully belonged to the first European country to invade it. An empty land. A desert land’. There were two versions of colonialism. In most cases, the conquered country was administered by a few thousand officials and soldiers from the mother country; by contrast, a ‘settler colonialism’ involved the massive installation of Europeans and a vast demographic upheaval – as in North America, Southern Africa, Algeria, New Zealand, Australia and, the most recent example, in Palestine (although in a very different context, of course, in the 20th century and at the outset of the general movement towards decolonisation).

This migration was made easier by the feeling of superiority experienced by most of the settlers, as Orientalist Maxime Rodinson reminded us in a famous essay entitled in its English translation Israel, a colonial-settler State (New York, Monad Press, 1973). ‘European supremacy had implanted, even in the awareness of the poorest social groups participating in [the colonial enterprise], the notion that outside of Europe any territory was available for occupation by a European element (…). The idea was to find an empty territory, not necessarily empty of real inhabitants, but a kind of cultural emptiness. Beyond the borders of civilisation.’

This arrogance, when it did not produce massacres (which were rare) justified every form of discrimination against the indigenous peoples and, in daily life as in the law, a ‘separation’ between the newcomers and the ‘natives’, a domination of the former over the latter, a de facto apartheid long before the popularisation of the term. The whole system rested upon the distinction of rights, individual and collective, between settlers and ‘natives,’ the latter fragmented according to a myriad of statutes – ‘civilised,’ mestizo, half-breed, mixed race, etc.

A movement originated in Europe

The champions of Zionism are indignant: ‘There is nothing colonial about it.’ Born in the 19th century, Zionism claims to be a movement of liberation, like those of oppressed peoples living in the grand multinational empires, Ottoman, Czarist or Austro-Hungarian – Serbians, Slovaquians, Poles or Croatians. They too demanded the creation of a state for Jews; but unlike those others, they wanted to build it not where most Jews lived but in Palestine2, where they were few. They called upon their historic and religious links with that land in the name of the Bible, a sacred text several thousand-year-old and meant to constitute a kind of title deed. The irony of history is that most of the men who founded the movement were atheists.

Can mythological narratives justify territorial pretensions? A text like the Bible, which has been shown to have very little to do with any real events – though one hour is spent every day studying it in every history class in Israeli schools (history class mind you) – can it constitute an act of ownership?

Yet many Westerners who claim to be secular and to reject all prescriptions in the name of sacred texts or immemorial rights, accept these arguments. Just recently, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, praised ’the Jewish people who were finally able to build their home on the promised land.’ Promised by God ? Applying these principles elsewhere would lead to a thousand years of wars, as illustrated by the Moscow’s proclamation that Ukraine is a ‘Little Russia’ or Serbia’s claim that Kosovo is the cradle of its people. And why should France not claim back Aachen, capital of Charlemagne’s empire, the ‘king of the Franks’? I am not denying the religious ties between Jews and the Holy Land; for centuries of Ottoman domination, except in time of wars, they could go on pilgrimages there, be buried in Jerusalem in hopes of being the first to be resurrected upon the Second Coming of the Messiah. No one today would think of heaping praise on ‘the Pilgrim Fathers’ for settling in North America in the name of their right to build ‘the City of God’ — except, of course, the Christian fundamentalists — or the conquest of Southern Africa by the Boers on the pretext of their being ‘the chosen people.’

Socialism of conquest

Three more arguments have been used by the Zionist movement to deny its colonial dimension, even though some are out of date: its socialist character; its anti-imperialism; the absence of a home country whence the settlers came.

It is pretty much forgotten now but there was a time when Israel claimed to be a Socialist country. Many people who in the twenties and thirties made aliyah (settled in Palestine) were motivated by ‘collectivist’ convictions. But Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell3 among others has shown that there was nothing egalitarian about their agricultural structures. The implantation, on the one hand of moshavim - individual cooperative farms - and on the other of collectivistic kibbutzim were primarily aimed at doing away with private Jewish farmers who were reluctant to get rid of their Arab workers who were cheaper and more productive than inexperienced settlers newly arrived from Russia. And above all, the kibbutzim, heavily militarised – ‘one hand on the plough, the other on the sword’ – were aimed at establishing a security mesh across the territory, a first step towards conquest. In 1944 the success was undeniable: of the 250 Jewish colonies, there were about a hundred moshavim and over 110 kibbutzim: there remained only some forty properties privately managed by Jews – and these were denied aid by the Jewish Agency. While the kibbutz was an excellent export product for selling ‘socialist Israel’ - in the sixties tens of thousands of Western youths still experienced collective living there - today there remain only ruins which cannot hide the country’s deeply inegalitarian nature.

Break away from the ruling country?

In the forties, several Zionist groups rose against British presence in Palestine, including by means of bloody terrorism (which their successors do not like to remember). But did this make Zionism an anti-imperialist movement? Without the resolute backing of London, the dominant imperial power during the first half of the twentieth century, the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) would never have been able to become a self-sufficient political, economic, and military entity as early as the nineteen-thirties. Moreover, the opposition to London between 1944 and 1948 bears a strong resemblance to recurrent phenomena during the fifties in Algeria or the former Rhodesia, when settlers rebelled against the mother country. Should the Organisation Action secrète (OAS) be awarded a certificate of an anti-imperialism for having rebelled against France? It is true that the Zionist movement did triumph in 1947-49 thanks to the political and military support of the USSR, but it is ironic to see people who describe Joseph Stalin as a bloodthirsty tyrant taking the realpolitik of the USSR as a certificate of ‘progressivism’ for Zionism.

As for the fact that there is no homeland for the Jews - as France was for the so-called pieds-noirs, its settlers in Algeria - let us not forget that the situation was the same for the pioneers in North America or Southern Africa who came from many European countries. In every case, Europe could be described as a ‘global homeland.’

Key to the strategy: the separation of populations

In practice, the colonial nature of Zionism fuelled a strategy based, as in Southern Africa or Algeria, on a separation between settlers and ‘natives.’ Of course, this assumed different forms according to the geographical, historical and political environments, but everywhere it meant greater privileges for the former. Thus, in Palestine, ‘the Balfour declaration’ (1917) laid down a dividing line between the Jews who were offered ‘a national homeland’ and the other collectivities (Muslims and Christians) who could clam only civil and religious rights.

On the ground, under the protective wing of London, the Zionist movement began what it called ‘the conquest of the land’ (i.e.ridding it of its Arab farmers) and the ‘conquest of labour’ which implied the refusal to have Jews and Arabs working side by side. This ‘separate development’ of the Yishuv, reinforced by the mass immigration of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, ended up by creating institutions, an army, and an economy totally ‘separate.’ Contrary to other settler colonial projects (Algeria, South Africa), the Zionist goal was to create a National State for the colonisers and to get rid of the indigenous population. This ambition was partially fulfilled with the deportation of from 600 to 700,000 Palestinians between 1947 and 1949 and the creation of a Jewish citizenship which did not include the ‘natives’4. Those who remained, around 150,000, were subjected until 1966 to a ‘military regime’ and a programme of ‘internal colonisation’ - the confiscation of their land - with the project of ‘Judaising Galilee.’

The takeover of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in June 1967 posed a challenge for the Israeli authorities insofar as it modified the demographic balance: henceforth, on the territory of historic Palestine there dwelled approximately as many Jews as Palestinians. To resolve this dilemma - so long as the conditions for a second Nakba have not been achieved - and to consolidate the ‘Jewish State,’ Zionism needed to legalise and extend an Apartheid system, an ethnocratic system which would lead to the unabashed assertion of Jewish supremacism and set up a ‘separation’ from the Palestinians, the end result of over a century of colonisation. It is this self-evident truth that the MPs opposed to the May 4th resolution refuse to acknowledge. We can only recommend they ponder the words of Pantagruel in the Tiers Livre by Rabelais:

If the signs anger you
How much more angrier will their meaning make you?

1Sven Lindqvist, Terra Nullius: a Journey through no one’s land, New York, New Press, 2007.

2There were plans to create a State in Uganda, the Congo and Argentina, but these were quickly abandoned.

3Founding myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism and the Making of the Jewish State, Princeton University press, 1998.

4Azmi Bishara, Palestine, Matters of Justice and Peace, Hurst, London, 2022.