Gabriel Piterberg noted in his masterful 2008 book The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel that the “achievements of the comparative study of settler colonialism have been at once scholarly and political,” that the young field “creates a language that amounts to a transformative alternative to the way in which these settler societies narrate themselves in their own words.”
Yet, like many academic fields, comparative settler-colonial studies has a difficult time translating into the sphere of organizing for policy change. The bridge between the academic and activist worlds is mostly missing. So one purpose of reviewing books such as the newly released collection Studies in Settler Colonialism for The Electronic Intifada is to help bridge the gap between the grassroots and the “ivory tower.”
Comparative settler-colonial studies carries tremendous potential for anti-colonial organizing in Palestine (as well as in countries that are the products of a settler-led colonization such as the US, Canada and Australia). Its baseline understanding is, as Piterberg put it, “the history of the interaction with the dispossessed is the history of who the settlers collectively are,” indigenous removal being the sine qua non of creating a settler society. In short, the field does not stop with describing the events of settler colonization. Instead it describes the political structure, settler colonialism, that endures long after the initial colonizing events. The field is vibrant but small, making Studies in Settler Colonialism: Politics, Identity and Culture an important addition to a growing body of work.
Fiction turned into fact
Editors Fiona Bateman and Lionel Pilkington open by stating that the collection “arises from a conviction that a policy of expansion based on the notion of ‘unoccupied’ or ‘virgin’ territories is also founded on a commitment to annihilate native or indigenous peoples. In focusing on the territory in settler colonial contexts, the confrontation and extreme violence necessary to create these empty spaces of the colonists’ imagination is frequently obscured” (1). This phrasing helps to understand an important element of the Zionist narrative. Early Zionists imagined Palestine as “a land without people for a people without land.” This is the “empty space of the colonists’ imagination” of which Bateman and Pilkington write. It was long ago discarded as fiction but it retains a popular relevance in Israel, though most will quickly acknowledge that it’s not actually true.
But in a way, it did become true. What a stronger party imagines — the “empty spaces of the colonists’ imagination,” “a land without a people” — might well be realized against a weaker party. In 1948, Palestine was made “a land without a people” not for “a people without land,” but by creating “a people without land,” the refugees driven from Palestine. The framework of settler-colonialism shows the power of settler narratives and their importance becomes readily apparent.
Claire McLisky’s terrific chapter “(En)gendering Faith?: Love, Marriage and the Evangelical Mission on the Settler Colonial Frontier” focuses primarily on Australian missionary work but is relevant for Palestine. She describes the uses of gender in settler-colonialism and throws stark light onto the Israeli language of “demographic suicide” — or a “demographic bomb” when describing the pending Palestinian majority in areas under direct Israeli control.
Prominent “doves” like Uri Savir, the chief Israeli negotiator at Oslo and president of the Peres Center for Peace, refer to Palestinian reproduction as a “demographic reality” made “into a time bomb in [Israel’s] democratic system” even while condemning the racism of the Israeli right-wing (“Savir’s Corner: In need of a new system,” The Jerusalem Post, 24 November 2011).
Right-wingers such as University of Haifa geography Arnon Soffer state things more clearly. “I’m against the increase of the Arab population in Israel,” Soffer said in the Forward (“Sounding the alarm about Israel’s demographic crisis,” 9 January 2004).
The threat, effectively, of “too many Arabs” has been invoked by Israelis and others as a reason to establish a Palestinian state — for example, when then-US Secretary of State George Schultz told Congress in 1988 that Palestinian reproduction is “a very large, clearly ticking demographic time bomb” (“Shultz, Seeing Arab ‘Time Bomb,’ Urges Israelis to Rethink Borders,” The New York Times, 11 March 1988).
Palestinian reproduction seen as a “weapon”
Those using such language declare Palestinian reproduction to be threatening, problematic, or even apocalyptic. Either way, it’s seen as a weapon. McLisky’s chapter begins by framing this same idea in the terms of Australian settler-colonialism. “Heterosexual love, marriage and reproduction have always occupied an ambivalent place in settler colonies like Australia,” she writes. “While reproduction of the ‘right’ sort of settlers is imperative to the numerical increase of the colonizing population, indigenous peoples’ reproduction is more problematic” (106).
Daniel Carey’s chapter “Spenser, Purchas, and the Poetics of Colonial Settlement” also approaches gender and settler-colonialism through looking at how Ireland and Virginia were described by Edmund Spenser and Samuel Purchas as a “virgin bride to be wooed” (38).
John Patrick Montaño’s “’Dycheyng and Hegeying’: The Material Culture of the Tudor Plantations in Ireland” provides a compelling framework for understanding the meaning of Israeli architecture, including the wall and the settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank. He writes, “if we follow cultural geographers in seeing landscape as rife with meaning, then we can read the built environment as a document or ideological text created to convey a particular message or view of the world” (49). He adds, “officials considered the […] material culture of stone houses, roads, hedges, fences, walls fields, forts and towns as an essential tool in transforming the landscape and people of Ireland” (49).
This framework could be quoted almost verbatim to describe the various campaigns of Zionist colonization and Judaization — the transforming of Palestine into Israel — from 1882 onwards, and certainly those done consciously as Judaization campaigns in East Jerusalem, the Negev (Naqab) and Galilee.
Robert J.C. Young’s “International Anti-Colonialism: The Fenian Invasions of Canada” offers a historical look at a different internationalization of anti-colonial resistance. The Fenian Brotherhood organized armed invasions of British-colonized Canada as part of the Irish resistance to the English colonization of Ireland. Yet they did so by becoming a part of the settler society in the United States. Though not explicitly asked, this offers a compelling question for Palestinians in the United States, Canada and Australia: How do you organize in a completely anti-colonial way?
The “logic” of settler-colonialism
John Collins seeks to explore “Palestine in the context of the global environment that emerged immediately after World War II” (170) in his “A Dream Deterred: Palestine from Total War to Total Peace.” He situates the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s formation, inside several global trends, especially those related to strategic doctrine and population control. In doing so, he writes, “the Nakba prophetically illuminates a larger set of stories whose full significance is only emerging today” (170). He notes that settler-colonialism’s logic of indigenous removal gives it “a crucial role in the story of how the world of sovereign war waged against specific external enemies gradually gave way to the world of permanent war waged in the name of protecting life” (173).
Collins’s chapter also underscores the relevance of settler-colonialism to the US’ “war on terror.” He writes, “Not accidentally, settler states (primarily the United States, Israel and apartheid South Africa) were leaders in the thirty-year development of an entire industry devoted to the study, prevention and combating of ‘terrorism.’ Today’s US-led Global War on Terrorism, which shares with neoliberal globalization ‘the unbounded surface of the earth as [its] territorial frame of reference,’ would have been impossible without the discursive and ideological space constructed through the ‘terrorism’ industry. In carrying out its own projects, in other words, settler colonialism did much to bring about a globalized world of permanent war in which there is no longer any ‘outside’ (if there ever was)” (173).
Salah D. Hassan’s “Displaced Nations: Israeli Settlers and Palestinian Refugees” starts with a short thesis of Israel as a settler-colonial nation, somewhat unnecessary in a book about the structures of settler-colonialism (though vital almost anywhere outside this volume). Hassan then introduces simultaneous narratives of Zionist settlement and Palestinian displacement. The connection between the two is at one level obvious, but as Piterberg noted, the indigenous presence is “putatively inconsequential” inside the settler narrative.
Fitting Palestinian dispossession inside the context of Israeli settlement recognizes the interrelation between the two. It is a step beyond recognizing that Israel played a role in driving out Palestinian refugees, noting instead that Palestinian removal is an inherent to Israeli settler colonialism. Hassan continues following Israeli settlement and Palestinian removal through the chapter finally comparing and contrasting the Israeli Law of Return (which privileges Jews over other prospective and current citizens of Israel) with the Palestinian right of return.
Problematic view of Zionism
Saree Makdisi critiques Labor Zionism in his chapter “Zionism Then and Now.” Labor Zionism is the the ideology of David Ben Gurion, Chaim Arlosoroff and others associated with the Second Aliyah (1904-1914) based around labor organizing — the Histadrut union primarily — more recently seen as the Labor Party of Ehud Barak, Amir Peretz, Shelly Yacimovich and Shimon Peres.
He compares and contrasts Labor Zionism with the Revisionist Zionism associated with the secular Israeli right-wing (Likud and other parties) using novelist Amos Oz’s writings. Makdisi uses “hardcore Zionism” and “softcore Zionism” to distinguish Revisionist and Labor Zionism and this reads a little off, but the point is clear enough. More problematically, he makes several basic mistakes.
He writes, “For the most part, when we speak of settler colonialism today, we are referring to colonial projects that took place in the distant past … There is however, one form of enduring settler colonialism from the twentieth century. I refer, of course, to Zionism” (237). Here he unsuccessfully contradicts many of the other chapters in the book which describe ongoing settler-colonialism.
Makdisi seems to understand settler-colonialism (a structure) as settler-colonization (an event), despite the conclusions of his own chapter (the persistent shared ideology of indigenous removal in revisionist and Labor Zionism). Even by Makdisi’s understanding, the US colonization of Hawaii shares the same time-frame as Zionism; while the Chinese Han colonization of Tibet is much younger. Further, his conclusion that Zionism has not “matured or developed ideologically” (255) rings false and stems from this same misconception. Both Revisionist and Labor Zionism have undergone significant changes — not to mention the radical transformation of National Religious Zionism — but they have remained settler-colonial.
Then there are the little things. He notes that UN Resolution 181 (the plan to divide Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state) was approved in “upstate New York” (239) instead of in Lake Success, a small village on Long Island, not “upstate.” The list goes on. Makdisi’s insightful critique of Amos Oz’s work and its situation in a comparison of “softcore” and “hardcore” Zionism — a clever effort that demonstrates the shared anti-Palestinian ideology between the two — is partially lost under a series of distracting errors and misconceptions. Such errors from Makdisi, judging by his fine earlier works, are quite surprising.
Worth the read
Studies in Settler Colonialism is exceptionally useful for how we discuss and conceive of anti-colonial organizing. Several terrific chapters aren’t even mentioned here in this review for lack of space. That is why it so frustrating that few will ever read this book — its $85 price tag will keep it out of the hands of most public libraries and individual buyers. It deserves a wide readership, but it is economically inaccessible and will largely stay inside academia.
Most outrageously, it is completely unaffordable for the overwhelming majority of indigenous people whose dispossession is so searingly critiqued inside its pages (though who hardly need to read this book to understand settler-colonialism).
But it is more than worth the read if one can track it down. Such a broad selection of chapters from Ireland to Hawaii to Australia to Palestine on will greatly inform readers on how settler-colonialism actually works. Even old hands to the issue will find fresh analysis and insight, sometimes directly, sometimes through comparison. In order to change what’s going on, we must educate ourselves and others about what is going on. Some of that education can be found in this book.
Jimmy Johnson is the founder of Neged Neshek, a website focused on Israel’s weapons industry, and can be reached at jimmy [at] negedneshek [dot] org.
- Gabriel Piterberg
- Fiona Bateman
- Lionel Pilkington
- Claire McLisky
- Uri Savir
- Arnon Soffer
- Georbe Schultz
- Daniel Carey
- John Patrick Montaño
- Robert J.C. Young
- Fenian Brotherhood
- John Collins
- Salah D. Hassan
- Law of Return
- right of return
- Saree Makdisi
- Labor Zionism
- Revisionist Zionism
- Labor Party (Israel)
- National Religious Zionism