Israel does not meet the definition of settler-colonialism

by Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD

A popular canard leveled against Israel and Zionism is that of allegedly being rooted in “settler-colonialism.”

Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean and vice-president of Conservative Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, posted a blog entry, in which he lamented:

“This week I have been inundated by hateful and violent antisemitic email and text messages telling me that I should go back to Germany (which I never came from). I should go back to Russia (which I was kicked out of). I should go back to wherever I should go back to, that we Jews have no rights to the Land of Israel, that we are ‘colonizers,’ even though there has been continuous Jewish living in the Land of Israel from 2,800 years ago.”

He continued: “We possess stone documents speaking about [the people of] Israel in our land from ancient Egypt (the Merneptah Stele), from the Moabites (the Mesha Stele), from surrounding Canaanite neighbors, from Greeks and Romans throughout the ages in an unbroken chain.”

So why does the “settler-colonizer” accusation persist?

As noted on the American Jewish Committee’s website: “By charging Israel with colonizing Palestinians, Hamas and its supporters are manipulating the cause of racial justice to advance their terrorist goals ….

“Hamas wants Americans and Europeans to think the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a racial one, in which Israelis are seen as European and white oppressors and colonizers, and Palestinians are seen as people of color who are oppressed and colonized. But the conflict is not a racial one. It’s a conflict between two nationalities.”

What is colonialism? James Sinkinson, president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), has said: “Colonialism is the policy or practice of one country acquiring full or partial political control over another, occupying it with settlers and exploiting it economically.”

In settler-colonialism, one country conquers other parts of the world. It abuses the local inhabitants, exploiting their assets and imposing on them the culture of the “motherland” through settling its colonists as agents of the regime.

The Arab opponents of Zionism attribute the conflict’s origins to the British Empire’s replacement of Ottoman rule in Palestine (1516-1918). They deny prior ties of Jews to the Land. Moreover, they charge that Britain’s imperialism led to exploitation of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs, exploitation that allegedly involved settling European Jews amid local Arabs, leading to the establishment of the “settler-colonial” State of Israel in 1948.

As the AJC website explains, “Those who oppose [the existence of] the State of Israel as a Jewish state use these terms to charge that Israel ‘engages in ethnic cleansing by displacing and dispossessing a native or pre-existing population.’”

This analysis is faulty.

First, Jews were not strangers who were imposed upon the region. For millennia, Jews have been indigenous to Eretz Yisrael. According to Ryan Bellerose, an activist on behalf of indigenous groups, “To be indigenous means to have shared language, culture, and traditions in conjunction with connections to an ancestral land.”

That description reflects Jewry and its ties to Israel: sharing millennia of use of the Hebrew language and the practice of Jewish law and traditions emanating from the Torah and centering around Eretz Yisrael. Additionally, the Jewish people are the only inhabitants to have lived in a sovereign polity on the land in question. Jewish exiles remained devoted to returning to the Land, a devotion sustained even as the ancient Jewish homeland was colonized in succession by the empires of the Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, and British.

The establishment of the State of Israel was not an incidence of colonialism intended to spread the language, culture, and power of Britain. The Jewish people had their own language, customs, and traditions that had evolved over centuries in this Land. The entry of Jews into Palestine was not colonizing; Arabs in Palestine were not a nation, nor did they collectively own the land. Thus Jews arriving in pre-state Israel was not equivalent to British settlers being sent by their home country to India, or to French settlers transplanted into North Africa, or to Dutch settlers re-rooted into Indonesia. Instead, their arrival represents the first instance in history of an indigenous people — the Jews — returning to be part of a sovereign nation in their own homeland — Eretz Yisrael.

The Jewish immigrants to British Mandate Palestine were not agents of their “mother country.” Neither was the UK an ally in the creation of an independent Jewish state. Great Britain’s Balfour Declaration of 1917 did — briefly — favor the creation of “a Jewish national home.” However, after World War I, which ended in 1918, the British quickly reneged on this promise.

Already in the early 1920s England allocated more than half of “Mandate Palestine” to the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Mandate authorities encouraged Arab immigration into the remaining 45 percent of Palestine. They also worked diligently to prevent the arrival of Jews. During Israel’s War of Independence, the British supplied arms to the Arabs, while boycotting weapons to resupply the Zionist forces.

As noted by Alan Dershowitz, “Those who absurdly claim that the Jewish refugees to Palestine in the last decades of the 19th century were “tools” of European [colonialism]…must answer the following question: For whom were these socialists and idealists working? Were they planting the flag for the hated czar of Russia or the antisemitic regimes of Poland or Lithuania?”

Additionally, Dershowitz says, “they came without any of the weapons of imperialism. They brought with them few guns or other means of conquest. Their tools were rakes and hoes. The land they cultivated was not taken away from its rightful owners by force or confiscation by colonial law. It was purchased…at fair and often exorbitant prices.”

Furthermore, as Rabbi David Wolpe, visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School, said:

“Jews are far from being colonialists.” Instead Jews are actually indigenous, since they came originally from Israel. In anti-Zionist ideology, “the colonialists are always white, but the Jews in Israel are quite diverse [the majority are not white]. Colonialists do not share the land, but Israel gave the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt and has made separate offers to share their land with the Palestinians — which the Palestinians rejected.”

Further, he noted, many of the Jews “were kicked out of Israel by one colonial power — Rome — and returned by overthrowing the rule of another — Britain.”

Throughout the ages, the land of Israel indeed has been colonized. But by whom? By successive Arab empires! Abbasids (Syria), Fatimids (Egypt), Ottomans (Turkey), and now the attempt to do so by Iran (Persians). FLAME’s Sinkinson points out that “the Arabs are the most successful colonizers ever…. Today, there are 22 Arab nations and 57 Islamic countries…, created largely by the violent subjugation of local indigenous peoples…, [such as] Berbers, Yazidis, Arameans, Zoroastrians and Copts…, pre-Islamic peoples, cultures, and religions that were either wiped out or forced into Arab or Muslim culture.

Moreover, the word “settler” is intentionally translated by anti-Zionists into a misleading translation for the Hebrew/Zionist term “yishuv.” “Leyashev et aretz” or “settling the land” has been a mitzvah in Judaism; the entire enterprise of redeeming the Land was entitled “The Yishuv.”

This terminology does not mean to colonize in the imperialist sense. It means to put your labor, your hands, sweat, and tears, into enriching arid land and making it bloom. It means to legally purchase land to settle, generally from absentee landlords seeking profits. It means creating organic communities of workers who farmed and fertilized their land, promoting industry and self-reliance.

Zionism does NOT mean settler-colonizing. It means elevating land long neglected by the Ottoman Empire and transforming its vitality into a profound blessing for Jews and Arabs alike.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”