Colonialism Paradigm and Jewish-Arab conflict

This short essay was written to answer this question:
Evaluate the arguments for and against the colonialism paradigm as the basis for comprehending the Jewish-Arab conflict.
(from a class on Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict from Gideon Shimoni)

The arguments for using the colonialism paradigm to describe the Jewish-Arab conflict are based in the notion that the Zionist enterprise fits as a type or example of typical European colonialism, and the response by the Arab population is simply a reaction against this aggression. These claims are based in the superficial fit of Jewish immigration and Zionism with the standard discourse, means and results of colonialism.

The discourse and ideology of the Jewish settlers is said to be very similar to the ideologies of other European settlers and colonies throughout the world. Those who make this claim point to the presence of a general mission civilisatrice within the Zionist discourse. This idea of a “white man’s burden” or attempt to lift the local populations out of their inferior state was present in nearly all other colonialist attempts and was a hallmark of the colonial period. The feeling of moral and material superiority over the backward and scorned Arab population matches exactly the colonialist discourse elsewhere. Another element of the Jewish discourse that conforms to colonial practice and sensibilities is the romanticizing of the “noble savages” or indigenous populations- holding them up as paragons of upright living and simplicity. Jewish settlers and pioneers in many ways adhered to this practice by adopting local dress and customs from the Bedouin tribes, and this causes some to equate them to other colonialist endeavors.

The means of Jewish settlement and the Zionist cause tempt many to view them through the lens of colonialism. Some see the immigration of large numbers of Europeans into another territory as a means of establishing homes and settlements as the epitome of settler-, plantation- or pure settlement colonialism. The practices of land acquisition and rejection of local labor in favor of “white” labor or the exploitation of local labor are explicitly seen in the ways the Zionists approached their settlement and nation building and were common within other colonialist paradigms. The WZO founded a colonial bank, capitalist joint-stock companies and did agricultural research; all of which are paralleled within the standard models of colonialism as practiced by others. Practices of cultural repression of the local population can be seen politically and economically through the occupation and domination of the Jews in the territory. Further, some see the mandated education practices of the Zionists as an attempt to foist upon the locals Zionist or European sentiments.

The results of the Zionist work also lend to the argument to view it within the colonialist paradigm. Seeing a country based upon the displacement of a legitimate local population and legalized by the occupying force by the enactment of statutes restricting ownership of land to Jewish hands and other laws (such as the Law of the Return) leads critics to see only the practice of colonialism based on separation and supremacy. The exploitation of Arab labor or the flat rejection of it (both seen at different times in the early yishuv) fit well within the norms of pure or plantation colonialism.

The arguments against the use of the colonialism paradigm to describe the conflict rise from a more in-depth analysis of the Zionist work and agenda. Looking at the facts less superficially reveals a number of extenuating or unique circumstances as well as mitigating factors that make the colonial paradigm untenable as the best paradigm with which to view the conflict.

Firstly, these arguments rest on the supposition that there is a distinct difference between colonization and colonialism- one being the simple creation of new settlements within a new geography and the other being based in political/economic domination and exploitation of the territory for the benefit of the home state. The Zionist movement fits into the former because first, the land was chosen for its historical and religious characteristics (not its economic potential) and second, the Jewish movement retained no mother country to support. This is further supported by the fact that all monetary support for the enterprise was explicitly one-way into the territory; Baron Rothschild and others poured large amounts of money and loans into the area without reaping any benefits outside of it. Similarly, the Zionist pioneers retained very weak political connections to the European powers and no real interest in retaining a state or center of culture outside of Palestine.

Secondly, the general discourse and framework of the Zionist leadership did not fit fully into a colonial paradigm either. While within the general Jewish elite of the time there existed some colonialist ideas (such as romanticization of the Bedouin and/or superiority over the indigenous populations), they were countered by the presence of a number of anti-colonial and even post-colonial elements. The Jewish intelligentsia was decidedly anti-colonial because they felt that they themselves had been somewhat colonized or exploited by the European powers throughout the centuries. The Israeli founders hated colonialism because of its parasitic relationship with local labor and the land that did not blend well with their socialist leanings and open dislike of capitalism.

Thirdly, the framework for the means of settlement differed from the standard framework of colonialism. Jewish immigration and settlement was based upon the family and the ideas of restoration, return and reconnecting with their historical land. In this sense, the civilizing mission was aimed generally at the Jews themselves and not at the local populations. The conversion of the “heathen” indigenous populations to Christianity, which was a hallmark of European colonialism, never entered into the thoughts and desires of the Jewish nationalist endeavor, which instead aimed at promoting and preserving the culture of the settlers. And while this caused the natural separation of the Jewish population from that of the Arabs, this was not solely because of a sense of superiority nor was it for the purpose of exploitation. Employing the more expensive Jewish labor (in an effort to cause downward class mobility and the creation of a Jewish working class) to the exclusion of the cheaper Arab labor is anything but exploitation of the local economy. The two economies- Jewish and Arab- also grew in tandem, another sign that exploitation of the local economy was far from the agenda. These structural barriers between the two economies and cultures left little room for a colonizer and colonized relationship.

Aaronsohn, Ran. “Settlement in Eretz Israel: A Colonial Enterprise?” Israel Studies, 1996, vol.1, no. 2: 214-229.
Penslar, Derek J. Israel in History: The Jewish State in Comparative Perspective, London & New York, 2007, pp. 90-111 (“Is Zionism a Colonial Movement?”).
Penslar, Derek J. “Zionism, Colonialism, and Postcolonialism,” Journal of Israeli History, vol. 20, nos. 2/3, Summer/Autumn 2001.
Shafir, Gershon. Zionism and Colonialism: A Comparative Approach,” in Barnett, Michael N. (ed.) Israel in Comparative Perspective Challenging the Conventional Wisdom, New York, 1996: 227-244.
Shimoni, Gideon. “Postcolonial Theory and the History of Zionism,” in Philip Carl Salzman & Donna Robinson Divine, eds. Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israel Conflict, Routledge, London & New York, 2008, pp. 182-194.
Shimoni, Gideon. The Zionist Ideology, Brandeis & University Press of New England, Hanover & London, 1995.