Were the Zionists the same as colonialists?

Michael Anbar Ph.D.
Edited by palestinefacts.org

It is often claimed that the settlement of Jews in the Land of Israel is actually colonialism. This is heard from Arab sources, from European socialists, from some American academicians, and even from some “liberal” Jewish circles in the US and academic “neo-historians” in Israel.

The term “Colonialism” has a strong negative connotation, e.g., British colonialism in India and South Africa, French colonialism in North and West Africa; these followed Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese and Spanish colonialism all over the globe. Colonialism has been disgracefully associated with brutal oppression and exploitation of native populations. The recent economic globalization, spearheaded by the USA has been defined by some liberals as “neocolonialism”, to make it despicable. But there is nothing in common between historic colonialism or even “neocolonialism” and the resettlement of the Land of Israel by Jews following the Zionist ideology.

The Britannica defines colonialism as follows:

  • A political-economic phenomenon beginning about the year 1500 whereby various European nations discovered, conquered, settled, and exploited large areas of the world. [“Colonialism,” Britannica 2002 Deluxe Edition]

This definition excludes ancient Phoenician and Greek colonialism, which aimed to establish bridgeheads for commerce, and Roman classical colonialism that set up strategic defensive outposts by settlements of military veterans.

There are five characteristic elements in European colonialism:

  1. All colonial powers were motivated and driven by material profits to the mother country. Material gain could be achieved either by plundering the local treasures or by exploitation of local natural resources (including labor) and transferring them to the mother country, or by opening captive markets for products of the colonizing country.
  2. Conquest of colonies by military force; this was typical of traditional European colonialism (“gunboat diplomacy”).
  3. Maintaining the rule of the colonizing power over the local population by garrisons (i.e., revolving military units) generally under the command of colonial military governors.
  4. Imposing the culture of the colonizing power (i.e., language, religion, legal system, etc.) on the local native population, generally by force.
  5. Export of surplus or undesirable populations of the colonizing power to certain colonial territories (e.g., Libya, Algeria, Australia).

The Zionist ideology advocates the return of Jews to the land of their ancestors from which they were exiled by brutal military conquests. There were two such major exiles in Jewish history – in 586 BCE and six hundred fifty-eight years later, in 72 AD. Both exiles were associated with the total destruction of Jerusalem, the ancient Jewish capital, and the demolition of its temple. The eastern hill of Jerusalem where the citadel captured by King David once stood, south of the Temple Mound, has been called Mount Zion. This name became synonymous with Jerusalem; hence Zionism.

Quoting the Britannica again:

  • Although Zionism originated in eastern and central Europe in the late 19th century, it is in many ways a continuation of the ancient and deep-felt nationalist attachment of the Jews and of the Jewish religion to Palestine, the promised land where one of the hills of ancient Jerusalem was called Zion. This attachment to Zion continued to inspire the Jews throughout the Middle Ages and found its expression in many important parts of their liturgy. [“Zionism,” Britannica 2002 Deluxe Edition]

Zionism has emerged even earlier than cited in the Britannica. Psalm 137:

  • Besides the streams of Babylon we sat and wept at the memory of Zion … Jerusalem, if I forget you, may my right hand wither, may I never speak again, if I forget you!

The Psalm is a twenty-five hundred years old Zionist expression. Nehemiah, who came to Jerusalem about 440 BCE, giving up a high position in the Persian court, was a Zionist and so was Hillel who emigrated from Mesopotamia four hundred years later. So was Judah Halevi, the philosopher poet who wrote:

  • Better a day in the land of God than a thousand on foreign soil, the ruins on the Holy mount than coronation halls…

Halevi immigrated to Israel in 1141. So were hundreds of Jewish Rabbis who immigrated to Israel in 1211, followed by Nahmanides is 1267. And so were hundreds of other Jewish spiritual leaders and scholars and thousands of their followers who came to the Land of Israel over hundreds of years, way before the modern political Zionist movement was even born.

As a result of the perpetual yearning of the Jewish people for the Land of Israel, Jewish communities existed there continuously since the destruction of the Second Temple to date, notwithstanding its destroyed or occupied capital. Obviously, there were Jewish communities in that land since the emergence of the Judaic nation with its unique culture, about thirteen hundred years earlier. The presence of Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Christian Crusaders and Muslim Ottomans in their homeland, did not prevent Jews from maintaining their presence there. It definitely did not reduce the aspiration to regain possession of their land and to rebuild their ancient capital.

In the twentieth Century, those aspirations evolved from spiritual to political. The immigration of thousands of individual Jews, who followed the modern Zionist ideology, to the Land of Israel since the eighties of the 19th Century, led to the establishment of a politically independent Jewish state in 1948 and to the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967.

Now where is the analogy with colonialism? The Jews who immigrated to the Land of Israel over the millennia never represented an alien colonizing power. French Jews who immigrated to the Land of Israel did not do this for the sake of France, Russian Jews did not represent the colonial ambitions of Russia, German Jews did not have the economic welfare of Germany in mind, and so on. The only remote analogy of the establishment of peaceful settlements in another country by a persecuted minority is that of the Pilgrims in 1620; but even they had no historical claims to the land they made their new home.

Moreover, Jewish immigrants throughout the centuries did not grab land by force; they purchased it. Only the brutal War of Survival of 1948, which was initiated by the Arabs, changed this trend forcing the Israelis to confiscate Arab land to maintain their survival in a hostile region. Jews obviously did not plunder their own land for the benefit of any foreign colonial power. They did not impose Judaism on the local Arab population. The current practice of the Hebrew language by many Arabs is a matter of convenience for those who wish to maintain ties with the technologically advanced Israeli economy. Even in terms of globalization, the State of Israel is not a domineering force, definitely not when it comes to the local Arabs.

So where in the world did Israeli Jews practice colonialism in any sense? This is a myth disseminated by the same Palestinian Arabs who claim that the existence of the Jewish temple in their ancient capital is a Zionist myth. My only remaining question is why do some Americans and even some Jews buy these incredible Arab claims?

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