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Zionism is not a 'settler-colonial undertaking'

By David Hoffman, in "The Mail & Guardian", South Africa, 28 June 2005

Central to the highly critical position the Mail & Guardian takes towards Israel is the following statement by Drew Forrest in the June 10 edition, which seeks to defend the M&G from what he dubs "the anti-Semitism canard": "It is simply undeniable that the state of Israel is a settler-colonial undertaking, where Jews have constituted themselves as a majority by immigration, military force and legal device -- including a bar on the return of Palestinian refugees."

Is that what Israel primarily is about, a "settler-colonial undertaking", implying that its primary intent is the exploitation of another people and its land, backed up first and foremost by brute force, or is Israel rather Jewry’s great historic opportunity for collective affirmative action in a world where nation states (witness the recent referenda in Europe) still predominate?

To answer that question fairly, one must look at the entire Zionist enterprise from the beginning. Certainly Western and Central European Jewry were very much a part of an i mperial Europe and its colonial expansions and culture, and thus it would be pointless to deny a foundation in fact for the perception that Israel is a settler-colonial undertaking. But I do nevertheless deny the supposedly "undeniable" claim that the state of Israel is primarily or essentially a "settler-colonial undertaking", for the fundamental fact is that the Jews in both Islamic and Christian civilisation were a despised and oppressed umma, or people (the term often designates the entire Muslim community), and the reconstitution of their national sovereignty was and is absolutely necessary for overcoming that legacy of anti-Semitism.

In its essence, Zionism is not a "settler-colonial undertaking" but a national programme of affirmative action. The Jews in today’s Israel are not even primarily of European descent, but like many Palestinian Arabs, they are of African and Asian descent, and arrived in Israel/ Palestine in the 20th century, although there is unbroken Jewish habitation in Israel back to antiquity.

Considering that not all Arabs perceived Zionism to be illegitimate at the outset, that within the Qur’an there is plenty of scope for ascribing legitimacy to the Jewish presence in Palestine and for according respect to the Jews as an ancient umma, one must recognise that the Arabs made choices when it came to their response to the Jews reclaiming their historic right to Palestine. For the Romans did not merely start centuries of "European atrocity" as Forrest wrote, they destroyed Jewish statehood and sovereignty in the land of Israel and imposed exile.

And it was believed, in all the biblically based civilisations, that this signified divine displeasure. That the Jews had been exiled and restored before, and looked forward again to Messianic restoration, meant that these were real hopes, in real time, for real people.

Anti-Semitism in real historic time does create the context in that this conflict is in fact waged. When the Jews began to organise to achieve their historic rights they did so on a positive basis. They paid attention to global political and economic realities, negotiating with imperial powers, purchasing land that became the basis for what they received in the 1947 partition plan. Some even tried to engage the Arabs in peacemaking. But the bad stuff, the violence, the ethnic cleansing of Hebron in 1929, the genocidal threats itbach al Yahud (slaughter the Jews), and the racism were all introduced by Arab nationalist leaders and thus everything subsequent in this conflict, including the bad stuff that Jews are now doing, comes under the rubric of "self-defence".

The issue of who started the conflict is all-important in determining responsibility. And it is thus altogether important how one understands the Jewish claim to the land of Israel: historic right and affirmative action for an ancient umma or the greed of an arrogant "chosen" people. Because if the Jews are "aggressive" by nature (and of course they are no more aggressive than any other people), then opposition to Zionism is self-defence, but based on anti-Semitic innuendo. However, if the Jews are the only people who are to be denied their right to a nation state, then anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.

As to the Palestinian refugees from the War of Independence and their descendants: seeing that the Arabs wished to deny the Jews even a small state, what happened in that war is not systematic criminal expropriation and expulsion of another people, but again, self-defence.

Alone among refugee populations they were kept in misery to be returned to their homeland, to destroy Israel. On the Indian subcontinent 10-million Muslims from India resettled in Pakistan and 10-million Hindus came from Pakistan to India. The Muslim world had no choice but to make its peace with the secular, democratic Hindu state of India. Israel is not that dissimilar in being basically a secular, democratic Jewish state, but it is a lot smaller and there is a huge history of genocidal attack against the Jewish people, so why should the Muslims give up the struggle against a people that, in the words of Iran’s next president, one bomb can wipe out?

Anti-Semitism unfortunately is not only a canard, nor is it merely a dangerous neurosis; it is a 2000-year-old cultural legacy with such deep roots that its branches extend wherever rejection of Jews and Judaism continues to predominate. The starting point for healing the wounds is thus taking the most aggrieved, that is the Jews who just lost six million in an apathetic and uncaring world, and saying, unequivocally, you are entitled to have a state and security within it.

I am not advocating divine right here, but merely historic right and justice, and I do not deny that the Palestinians have rights, and deserve justice as well. But when one takes what is essentially affirmative action and understands it to be colonial oppression, then one is not far from "gross insensitivity" -- the kind of insensitivity that leads to yet another Holocaust.

Rabbi David Hoffman is a member of the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation

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