Though the very title of this post would appear to legitimize accusations of Israelis as “colonial settlers” – a common epithet used by Arab scholars such as Prof. Joseph Massad (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/11/2011111810259215940.html), there is an important difference between colonialism as it was practiced during the Age of Imperialism and the type of “settling” practiced by the Jews who went to Israel.
The Jews who landed in British Mandate Palestine during the years prior to 1948 were not colonizers in the true sense of the word, for they did not act on behalf of any colonial power. In the New World, British “colonists” settled the land once occupied by indigenous peoples for the British crown, and throughout Africa, European countries rushed to carve up land for European settlement in the wake of the Berlin Conference. Yet, the Jews who came to reside in what was then Palestine did not act on the behalf of a mother country, nor did they seek to institute a mercantilist mode of economy that characterized the colonial systems of Britain and France. On the contrary, Jews came to settle in Palestine not to enrich European colonial powers but to escape the persecution perpetrated against them by those nations. From Spain, to England, to the Russian Empire, the Jews of Europe experienced systematic discrimination and displacement that forced them from their homes. The waves of immigration to Palestine were not so much efforts to colonize as much as the result of forced migration.
Thus, the language used by anti-Zionists scholars is misleading and inaccurate and suggests a larger, non-existent conspiracy dreamed up by the Jews to subjugate the indigenous Arabs of historical Palestine. No such plot, eerily redolent of the charges levied against Jews in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has ever existed. There was no worldwide Jewish power on whose behalf the first halutzim were acting to colonize Palestine and bring it under the larger umbrella of a Jewish empire, nor was there any sort of fiat from some leader that demanded the expulsion of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants. On the contrary, European and, later, Middle Eastern Jews came to Palestine to escape the persecution visited upon them in their mother countries; they did not come to enrich the powers that oppressed them! With this in mind, it would appear that both Jews and Palestinian Arabs have common historical experiences: forced migration, systematic oppression, ghettoization. Indeed, it is completely fallacious to argue that the early Jewish settlers were colonizers of any sort. The building of a Jewish homeland did not necessitate the destruction of Palestinian indigenous life, and it was not until the war in 1948 that the notion of Jewish/Arab coexistence became an idealistic fairytale.
Nevertheless, the larger issue at hand is the imprecise language and terminology employed by both Jewish and Arab scholars of the Mid-East conflict who seek to paint both sides in dehumanizing and unrealistic terms. The conception of early Jewish settlers as malevolent colonizers bent on destroying indigenous Palestinian existence may appear to jive with today’s fashionable anti-Western sentiments and tier-mondiste solidarity between formerly colonized nations, but this characterization is wholly inaccurate and used to the detriment of Israelis and Palestinians alike. This popular narrative, seized upon by Arab scholars, simply makes the prospect of Middle Peace increasingly unattainable and demonstrates the true colors of many anti-Zionist thinkers. Stripped of historically inaccurate rhetoric, many of the polemics decrying the settlement of Palestine by Jews belie latent anti-Semitism. Scholars like Joseph Massad would do their own cause much good by recognizing the dangers of mischaracterization and inaccuracy.