Israel a product of Colonialism? Yes & No

Israel a product of Colonialism? Yes & No

This was my response to someone on a Facebook discussion, who — while ultimately accepting the reality of Israel’s existence as an irreversible fact — views “the establishment of the State of Israel as a well intentioned mistake. A sort of last gasp of European expansionism into the third world.”:

While Israel’s development was encouraged by the British for 20 years (until they restricted immigration with its 1939 White Paper), and the UN endorsed its creation in 1947, Israel was created with the toil and blood of Jews, mostly fleeing discrimination, persecution and worse. Was it the product of colonialism or of a liberation struggle? There were aspects of both, but it would not have survived if it were primarily the former; its creation more closely parallels that of the U.S. than Rhodesia.

Let me explicate a bit: After the British captured Palestine from the Ottoman Turks in 1917, during World War I, and began governing for the longer term under a mandate from the League of Nations, they developed a working relationship with the Zionist movement in line with the Balfour Declaration for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people.”  The Jewish Agency for Palestine was set up by the British and evolved into the pre-state de facto government of the Jewish community, known then as the Yishuv.

The British worked with the Jewish Agency to allow a controlled flow of Jewish immigrants to Palestine.  Relations were mostly cordial between the Jewish Agency and the British authorities but disagreements did occur, as the Jewish-Zionist interest was to maximize immigration, while the British interest was to manage their colony and keep it stable.

The Brits attempted to set up an Arab Agency for Palestine, but the Palestinian Arabs refused and organized their own “Higher Council” instead.  An oddity of this history is that the first British High Commissioner for Palestine was a pro-Zionist English Jew, Sir Herbert Samuel, who wound up appointing Hajj Amin al-Husseini as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem; Husseini emerged as the most powerful leader of the Palestinian national movement, virulently antisemitic and anti-British, and eventually an enthusiastic ally of Hitler.

In the late 1930s, there was a massive anti-British and anti-Jewish revolt in Palestine which the British defeated at great cost, killing 5,000 Palestinians while suffering hundreds of British and Jewish dead.  But at the end, the Palestinian demand to curtail Jewish immigration was agreed to, with the British White Paper of 1939.  Palestine’s gates were effectively closed to most Jews just at the point that the situation for European Jewry was turning desperate, as the Nazis began gobbling up most of Europe and preparing to implement the Holocaust.

All Zionist factions resisted the White Paper, with the Lehi (Stern Gang) underground actually attacking British forces.  The much larger Hagana and Irgun helped refugees where they could but also encouraged their members to join the British armed forces to fight Hitler.  By the end of the war, the right-wing Revisionist Irgun or Etzel underground also turned to sabotage and the kidnapping and killing of British soldiers.  The mainstream Hagana concentrated on running the British naval blockade to bring in shiploads of stateless Jewish refugees, only physically fighting the British once or twice.

This very complicated history is related in many books, but I especially recommend Tom Segev’s lively telling in One Palestine, Complete.  It is a separate story from that of Israel’s rule over the remaining Palestinian Arab territories, conquered in June 1967, which by accident or premeditation (another point of contention) is more accurately characterized as colonialism.

By | 2013-02-19T12:00:00-05:00 February 19th, 2013|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Thomas G. Mitchell February 23, 2013 at 4:14 pm - Reply

    While I agree that Israel is closer to the United States than Rhodesia–I lived in Rhodesia at the end of white rule–the United States is also a colonial creation. Therefore it is accurate to categorize both as independent settler colonies. What separates Israel from the United States is that the Israeli Jews are returned natives who had the authorization of the international authority of the time, the League of Nations, to colonize Palestine. The West Bank can be compared to Namibia, which was ruled by South Africa for 75 years after being conquered in what South Africa regarded as a defensive war. The differences are that the West Bank is strategically much more valuable than Namibia, which is more comparable to the Sinai, and that Namibia and South Africa had separate distinct liberation movements. Because both Hamas and elements of the PLO want to liberate both the Palestinian territories and Israel form Israeli rule it is much more difficult to convince Israel that it is safe to give up control of the West Bank.

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