Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Israel and the Myth of Colonialism

Cross-posted at

One of the most frequent statements made by people on the far left about Israel is that it is some kind of colonial enterprise.  Here is a typical statement that recently appeared at a Democratic blog that has large readership:

“how is [sic] israel’s actions in the palestinian mandate since 1947 not colonial? it’s a textbook settler colony.”

The comment was actually posted by a friend of mine, a very intelligent person who simply doesn’t know a thing about Israel.  If he did have any knowledge of Israel’s history and demographics, he would realize that the notion of Israel being a colonial enterprise of the West is nothing more than a myth.

It’s helpful to understand just how colonial enterprises have worked over the past two or three hundred years.  A fairly succinct statement can be found at wikipedia:

The colonial period normally refers to a period of history from the late 15th to the 20th century when European nation states established colonies on other continents. During this time, the justifications for colonialism included various factors such as the profits to be made, the expansion of the power of the metropole and various religious and political beliefs.…

Note the key elements – a colonizer, placing its people in the colonized territory to rule over it and extract profits and resources.  This was certainly the pattern when the British created their colonies in America, the Caribbean, India, and throughout Asia.  It was also a pattern for the French in North Africa and the Caribbean, and for Belgium in Africa.  In each case, the colonizing power didn’t just send its people over to the colonized territory. It put them there to rule on its behalf.  The key phrase is “on its behalf.”

For example, British rule over India began with the East India Company establishing a commercial foothold in India in the early 18th century, which eventually grew into governmental administration and a military presence that was private, but had the blessing and overall protection of the British government.  The presence of the East India Company led to the eventual assertion of direct British governmental control (the Raj) over India in the mid-19th century.  

In the Congo, the Belgians ruled directly almost from the start.  Under King Leopold II, Belgium plundered the Congo for its resources, in particular copper and rubber, generating enormous profits for Belgium.  The Congo became an official colony of Belgium in 1908, with an explicit Belgian governing administration.

Israel clearly doesn’t fit that pattern.  When I hear someone say that Israel is a colonial enterprise of the West, the first question that comes to mind is, who is the colonizing power?  It clearly wasn’t Britain.  Sure, Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, declared in 1917 that:

“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object….”

However, the British did very little to encourage the actual creation of that Jewish homeland, and from 1935 on, the British actively tried to prevent Jewish refugees from the Holocaust from reaching Palestine.  For example, Jewish immigration from 1919 to 1941 hit a peak of 66,472 in 1935, but the British informed the Jewish Agency that only a third of its requested quota for 1936 would be allowed to enter Palestine. Consequently, as the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews began to pick up speed in Germany, the British only allowed 29,595 Jews into Palestine in 1936.  And in 1937, the number dropped even more drastically, to 10,629.  


After World War II, the British were no more generous with respect to immigration of Jewish refugees:

On June 6, 1946, President Truman urged the British government to relieve the suffering of the Jews confined to displaced persons camps in Europe by immediately accepting 100,000 Jewish immigrants. Britain’s Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, replied sarcastically that the United States wanted displaced Jews to immigrate to Palestine “because they did not want too many of them in New York.”


Most of the Jews that reached Palestine between 1945 and 1948 came illegally, and when caught by the British, were put in detention camps on Cyprus.   The British detained approximately 50,000 Jewish refugees who tried to enter Palestine illegally.

It’s also important to note that the overwhelming majority of these Jewish refugees trying to enter Palestine were not British.  Rather, they were of every European nationality – French, German, Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Russian, etc.  

Consequently, it would be absurd to claim that Israel was a colonial outpost of Britain, the only nation that had any governmental authority over the region during the years leading up to Israel’s creation.  It would be just as absurd, if not more, to claim that Israel was a colonial outpost of any other European nation.  Germany had just finished trying to slaughter the Jews of Europe. And none of the European nations had any warm, fuzzy feelings for Jews.  They just wanted the Jews gone from Europe, and had no interest in sponsoring Israel as a colonial outpost.  Probably the largest source of European immigrants to Israel was the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe.  It would be ludicrous, however, to claim that Israel was a colonial outpost of the Soviet Union.  The reality was that the Soviet Union was busy persecuting its Jews, and simultaneously backing the very Arab states that were so hostile to Israel.

It’s also useful to take a look at the Israeli population and how it changed after the founding of Israel.  Between 1948 and 1995, only 71,480 Americans immigrated to Israel.  Only 26,000 came from the UK.  By contrast, between 800,000 and 1 million Jews came from Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries between 1948 and the early 1970s.  These were the Jews who were ethnically cleansed by the Arab and Muslim nations following the creation of Israel – stripped of their lands and property, deprived of jobs, and expelled either overtly or implicitly.  They weren’t the Ashkenazim of Europe, they were Mizrahim and Sephardim.  They didn’t speak English, or French, or German, or Russian, or even Yiddish or Hebrew.  They spoke Arabic or Farsi.  By 2002, almost half of Israel’s population had its origin in Arab or non-Arab Muslim countries. But you never see the Israel-critics on the left mentioning this Arab/Muslim ethnic-cleansing of the Jews, nor does anyone assert that Israel, by its population, might be a colonial outpost of the Arab/Muslim nations.  


Consequently, Israel doesn’t even come close to fitting the traditional notion of colonialism – a nation sending its citizens into another region to establish a base of power.  If Israel is a colonial outpost, it is one without a colonizer.

Perhaps when someone on the loony left makes the assertion that Israel is a western colonial enterprise, they mean that it represents “white Europeans” going into a region that is neither white nor European, and asserting power over the indigenous brown people.  Quite often I’ve seen comments on Democratic and liberal blog
s about how Israelis are “white” and the Palestinians are “brown.”  Of course, anyone who makes such a comment is woefully uninformed, and has probably never seen an Israeli or a Palestinian, for that matter. As I noted about, nearly half the population of Israel are refugees (or the descendants of refugees) from Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries. That would make them kind of brown, too.

What people really mean when they refer to Israel as being a colonial outpost is that Israel is a colonial outpost of the United States.  In holding that belief, however, they show an alarming ignorance of the history of US-Israeli relations.  Between 1948 and 1968, Israel and the United States simply weren’t very close, diplomatically or otherwise.  President Truman provided diplomatic support for the founding of Israel, but refused to supply the new state with weaponry to defend itself in the War of Independence.  Indeed, it was 14 years before the US provided any serious military aid to Israel, when the Kennedy Administration sold Israel the HAWK anti-aircraft missile system.  

The primary supplier of weaponry to Israel between 1948 and 1968 was France.  Israel destroyed the Egyptian air force in the Six Day War using French fighter jets and bombers, not US aircraft. The US didn’t start providing serious military assistance to Israel until 1968.  And of course, when the Egypt closed the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping in violation of international law in 1956, Israel attacked with the backing of England and France.  The United States joined with the Soviet Union in forcing Israel to withdraw from the Sinai.  Hardly what you would expect from the colonial master.  And as I have pointed out above, between 1948 and 1995, only 71,000 Americans immigrated to Israel.  

Since 1968, the relationship between Israel and the United States has certainly been a close one in every sense of the word, but can one really say (with a straight face and a shred of honesty) that Israel is a colony of the United States?  If it is a colony, you’d think it would do our bidding, at least some of the time.  In truth, however, Israel does what the US wants when it suits Israel to do so, which isn’t that frequently.  If the US really called all the shots the way the colonialism adherents believe, would the West Bank settlements still exist?  

So for all those who spout idiotic slogans about Israel and colonialism, don’t quit your day jobs.  Put away your textbook from Marxist Theory and Imperialism 101, and learn about the history of the region.


  1. sberel

    sending it to my daughter, as they have been discussing Israel in Judaics, and she was just asking me about it.  Very timely, thanks.  

  2. Shaun Appleby

    But is the accusation of “colonialism” really the issue?  Seems Israel under Likud has managed to pretty much isolate itself from regional partners in recent years.  I’m not sure I understand what Bibi’s long-term strategy might be; preserving the status quo seems increasingly problematic.

  3. bubbanomics

    meant that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are a form of colonization.  Of course, that view would not be consistent with the concept of extracting natural resources or making a profit.  Just seems to me to be what the individual was trying to get at.  

  4. Strummerson

    is that the early Zionist movement, pre-state, often referred to the enterprise as a ‘colony.’  One of the most important umbrella organization for supporting early settlements, particularly the moshavim was called “The Jewish Colonization Association” (ICA).  The Zionist Congress of 1898 established a body called “The Jewish Colonial Trust.”  Theodore Herzl’s support of the Uganda proposal was based on a kind of reverse colonialism where instead of the homeland establishing the colony, that the Zionists should first establish the colony and employ it to continue to pursue the establishment of what would become Israel.  Herzl composed an admiring letter to Cecil Rhodes (him  of ‘Rhodesia’).  I think it’s fair to read the pre-history of the state in the context of both European national liberation movements and colonial projects of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The Zionist movement developed in the context of these ideological and institutional formations.

    The critique of colonialism was developed in the second half of the 20th century, and thus awareness of its devastating problems was not current in the ethos of the early Zionist movement.  I concur with most to all of the argument here and think that it’s crucial to distinguish between Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and modern Israel.  But if we aren’t careful to parse the terminology and its history, we are caught in the face of quotations that would undermine us.

    Furthermore, there are indeed some parallels to colonialist enterprises that concern many on the Jewish and Israeli left.  Colonies are marked by both support of the state that launches it and exploitation of indigenous populations.  Israel, which purports to be a sovereign and independent Jewish nation built in part upon the concept of avodah ivrit (Hebrew labor) indeed depends upon a patron state (US) even if that state didn’t launch the project and depends upon the exploitation of Palestinians and more recently foreign workers from Africa and other places.  There are therefore troubling structural similarities to colonial projects that merit critique.  The modern State of Israel falls far short of what was envisioned as a democratic Jewish state where Jews are fully enfranchised and self reliant.

    But I want to underscore once more that this diary exposes very importantly how some of Israel’s critics and opponents co-opt the discourse of colonialism and apply it to Israel in ways that approach demagoguery.  

  5. memes forward is one the most problematic issues in the i/p issue.

    calling israel the colonizer is no more accurate than calling palestinians the conquested.

    i’ll have to read the diary again paul because i am a bit tight on time – but thanks for posting this.

  6. Stipes

    with respect to the I/P peace process.  While some may use it as an emotional proxy for other deeper feelings, I don’t think it’s very germane to the discussion of how to move the  peace negotiations forward.

    It is, however, an interesting exploration into how even knowledgeable folks can be woefully misinformed about the dynamics in the ME.

  7. Are there any ancient borders, at all? Has any nation been exactly what it is today for hundreds of years?

    Didn’t Joshua colonize the land Israel sits on in 3,000 BCE? France, China, Germany, Russia – are all their borders fixed since Time Immemorial?

    I don’t know all the details of Israel’s history, nor exactly how Palestine came into being, or Syria, or Egypt. Egypt of 3,500 BCE was not even the same culture or ethnic group as Egypt of Cleopatra’s day or Egypt today.

    At some point we all have to accept that countries are where they are, there is no end to rewinding history. I cannot – on behalf of Creek ancestors I know little about – seriously stake claim to Georgia and Florida. If I were to go that path, why not try to figure out the pre-Creek (who were an expansive empire themselves) status and argue on behalf of whichever group’s land holdings that I can trace my genes to? The Creek’s claim a tenuous (as far as I can tell at this point) connection to the Mound Builders but could well be entirely descended from whomever wiped out that civilization.

    My overriding sentiment on the whole I/P conflict is: “so the f*ck what?!?!?”  You – Israelis – stop building Settlements like a bunch of jerks. You – Palestinians (et al) – stop firing rockets and assuming that Israel will go away and you will move back to your grandparent’s neighborhood you have never seen.

    The world is what it is. Can’t we just deal with the present and future?

    I know, I know – woefully naive.


  8. Christy1947

    England in particular has a model it has used since 1105 AD or thereabouts, and this essay and the comments reminded me of it and how it worked, and how it may also apply to some degree here. I believe but am willing to hear evidence to the contrary, that this was the first time the English tried the model, less than two hundred years after there became a single “England” in the first place.  

    In that year, there was in England in specific  a colony of Flemings working cloth and such in the area we now call the Midlands. They did not get on well with their English neighbors, to put it mildly, but were refugees from massive flooding in the Low Countries which had forced many to move and their skills with textiles and such were initially thought valuable, and this is where they had gone, and they had no other place to go.

    ‘No other place to go’ is the key to this. The English of the time set a goodly number of them up in a few colonies in what is now called Pembrokeshire in southwestern Wales, then a Kingdom called Dyved,  which at that time was independent and they and  a series of smaller kingdoms, north and south, and fighting the English fiercely to stay that way.

    The object of the enterprise was to set colonies in that area of Wales which would be so at risk from the Welsh that they would have to be loyal to the English in order to survive and be supplied. People to be settled there were, coincidentally,those whom the English didn’t want in England anymore either, no matter how valuable their skills.

    And that’s what happened, with the Flemish communities surviving, for several centuries as a distinct group, looking to the English for protection and doing what they had to do to keep that protection in a non English area until the area itself came under direct English rule. It was tries again in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries in Northern Ireland, with Protestants.  

    These Flemish colonies persevered and were the predecessors of the castle rings subsequently built which enabled the English to control and then conquer Southern Wales a century or so later. Apparently the English never forgot how well this worked, because it happened as part of  their colonial thinking again and again.

    I found this mess when I did my Honors Degree in History many years ago, but it still has some application here as an alternative interpretation of what a colony actually is and why it is where it is. An alternative look at ‘colonialism’ and its mechanisms.

    In both the case of Israel and its predecessor communities in Europe, and of the Flemings of the Midlands and Pembrokeshire, the ‘colonists’ were people the English and others really did not want among them, in the worst way. Putting these people in the Holy Land/Pembrokeshire had the double benefit of getting them out of the English or other European areas, and making them dependent for their protection and safety upon those who allowed them there, because all involved knew from the first that they were being put into an area where the locals wanted no part of them either and were prepared to fight about it. 1920 was not that many years since the Turks had been at the gates of Vienna, and then there was this little thing called the Crusades….

    The English, in both cases, were not going to do any such thing with ‘their own people’ but could used what they considered  available expendibles to do it, and did. And the economic benefit of doing it redounded in no small degree to the English and other European nations in general as to Israel, because they got the benefits of having a ‘colony’ looking to them for support and defense and culture, without the cost of their own people to get it, in the long run, and got rid of whom they did not want among them at the same time. To this day Israel is over against its neighbors, essentially a European culture struggling for recognition as an equal of sorts in that world rather than in the one which surrounds it.

    This was also the practice followed  when prisoners and those ejected by the Enclosures and Clearances and thereafter the Potato Famine, for whom no other alternative was offered either, in various English speaking colonies we all know well. And in the cultural memory of these places there is no general recall of the often-by-then-British any recall of them being sensitive or responsible  or non-racist or even consistent with alleged “English” values,  in the way they manipulated these colonies.

    One of the differences, of course, was that at a certain point the later English, unlike Edward I and his, decided to go out of the colonies and empire business, and dumped a mass of such situations in the same few years, from 1947 to 1960 or thereabouts, including India and Pakistan, much of Africa,  and the Holy Land, where the population was not as nearly English as, say, Australia or New Zealand or English Canada, because  they couldn’t afford it and didn’t want to bother with it anymore.

    And are struggling to this day with the consequences of their colonial habits, now moved to the homeland of English people in no small part because part of the later ideology of this colonialism, to make the whole World British, came home to roost in a very literal way.

    But for a time, this sort of colonialism solved the problems then in the upper class British mind, no matter the consequences that flowed from such choices when that mind changed. Other European colonialized areas had different intellectual histories about whatthey thought they were doing.

    Yes, I am aware that the world of Jews is much broader than Europe alone, but even the Israelis are struggling with that, but that is another comment somewhere for another time.

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