Letter to the Editor: Settler Colonialism Cannot Explain Israel. Worse, It Cannot Promote Peace

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Letter to the editor

Some of my colleagues write in their Letter to the Editor (LTE) of Nov. 15, 2023 that I am wrong to claim, in my reservations about their “Statement of Concern” (SOC), that settler colonial theory as applied to Israel is both inaccurate and dangerous. I agree with much that is in the LTE and I share its desire for peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. I am convinced that a professor’s job on campus is to model exploration of nuance, complexity and the whole picture rather than to issue categorical denunciations of entire nations. Thus, I take this opportunity to expand upon and clarify my claim that settler colonial theory is inaccurate and dangerous with respect to Israel.

Settler colonialism is posited to be a distinctive form of colonialism whose motivation is the acquisition of territory for the benefit of a (usually European) mother country and the settlers that emanate from it, and whose means is the genocide of native populations, which a founder of settler colonial theory, Patrick Wolfe, has called a “logic of elimination” of the native. Thinking about Israel in these terms has heuristic value. It sets in relief certain features of Israel’s history and the current conflict. The question is whether the paradigm is truly adequate to a description of its object and to the aim of peace. In my view, it is not.

Inaccurate

Settler colonial theory is inadequate to the case at hand. Indeed, some settler colonial theorists have recognized that their paradigm does not apply without qualification to Israel. Wolfe, for example, conceded that Israel represented “a partial exception” to the paradigm because early Zionist immigrants did not emanate from, pursue the interests of, and receive the support of a single mother country. Zionism was not a land grab by an existing state but rather a national movement to create a state for a people without one. As Ralph Leonard observes, “Israel-Palestine can’t simply be reduced to settler colonialism; it is also an unresolved national question.” Neither the Zionist nor for that matter the Palestinian aspiration to nationhood can be understood apart from the modern history and ideology of nationalism. Not only does settler colonialism not adequately account for the formation of the Zionist state, it risks naturalizing rather than historicizing Palestinian national aspirations while ruling Zionist national aspirations categorically illegitimate.

Moreover, in the paradigmatic settler colonial societies in North America, Australia and so on, settlers were not seeking to return to a place that was central to their identity and already inhabited by natives who identified as they did and that they perceived as — because it was — the historical homeland of their people. The English did not colonize North America in order to join indigenous English. But Jews did immigrate to Palestine/Eretz-Yisrael, often fleeing persecution, to join native Jews and reestablish a homeland.

Finally, there is genocide, the SOC’s gravest charge against Israel. Settler colonial theorist Rachel Busbridge writes that with respect to Israel, it is a “weakness” of settler colonial theory to see genocide as “simply there, omnipresent and manifest even when (and perhaps especially when) it appears not to be.” If settler colonial societies are by definition genocidal, and if we have designated Israel a settler colonial society, then Israel’s every gesture, however pacific or conciliatory, must amount to a more or less covert manifestation of a genocidal “settler will.”

Thus it is that the SOC could accuse Israel of genocide already two weeks after Oct. 20, 2023 despite no such finding at that point in time from the relevant international bodies. In recent weeks, the ICJ ruled that Israel must take steps to prevent genocide and incitement to genocide, but it did not determine a genocide or call for a ceasefire, as urged.

For my part, I find the noncombatant death toll and the destruction in the current war deeply disturbing. I worry, with genocide expert Omer Bartov, that Israel’s current leadership is in fact capable of, though not now committing, genocide. I also believe that, as Musa al-Gharbi argues, the war has been ineffective. However, I was not in October nor am I now prepared to predetermine Israel’s commission of genocide.

In summary, the “tendency in settler colonial scholarship to regard Zionism as purely settler colonial,” with all the presuppositions that that entails and all the historical facts that that elides, renders it incapable of accounting holistically for the history and current actions of Israel.

Dangerous

The normative program that follows from designating Israel “settler colonial,” rather than questions about the designation’s accuracy, are what is really at stake here. That normative program is “decolonization.”

What would decolonization mean for Israel? Some propose a benign but improbable single state. Some gesture toward the Algerian model. Most French settlers in Algeria returned to France after 1962. Where would Israel’s Jews, who are not “white,” as is often asserted, “return” to? Indeed, the LTE asserts that the SOC “does not imply […] that we believe Jews should be driven from the land,” although neither the SOC nor LTE proposes a positive program. Finally, others offer rather different proposals, which provide important context for the response on this campus and others to Hamas’s attack.

In these latter proposals for decolonization, Israeli Jews, even those whose ancestors have always lived in Palestine/Eretz-Yisrael, must be persuaded to adopt a new identity as “settlers.” Crucially, “settlers can never ‘be indigenous,’” as settler colonial theorist Lorenzo Veracini asserts.

Once persuaded that they are invasive settlers, Israeli Jews must submit to being “metaphorically killed,” in Veracini’s figure. Then the “settlers” may at best (also metaphorically) “return” as “guests” who pay “rent” for the “indigenous property” they occupy.

If not all Israeli Jews will accept metaphorical “killing,” not all settler colonialism scholars accept metaphorical decolonization. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, for example, write, “decolonization is not a metaphor,” because merely metaphorical decolonization “entertains a settler future.” Questions about the future can only “be addressed at decolonization.” The answer “will not emerge from friendly understanding.” For “decolonization is not accountable to settlers, or settler futurity.” Ask yourself: What could it possibly mean for Israeli Jews, given that they are “settlers” and given that “decolonization is not a metaphor,” to decline to “entertain a settler future”?

Tuck and Yang’s paper, cited over 8600 times, has informed the broader discourse. As the Oct. 7 murder of Israelis unfolded, a professor in London echoed Tuck and Yang: “Decolonisation is not a metaphor. From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Meanwhile, a Yale professor tweeted, “Israeli (sic) is a murderous, genocidal settler state and Palestinians have every right to resist through armed struggle” as well as “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.” We see in these examples, which could be multiplied at length, an embrace of non-metaphorical “decolonization” as well as an uncompromising binary, encouraged by the settler colonial framing, between evil, oppressive settlers and good, oppressed natives.

This is the larger context within which the SOC is situated. The SOC designated Israel a “settler colonial state” carrying out a “genocidal project against Palestinians” and warned that “to insist that Palestinians…must only protest in an ‘appropriate’ way, is to fall squarely into the camp of ‘both sides.’” The implication is that to judge Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attack an “inappropriate” form of protest is to assert a false moral equivalence between Israeli “oppressors” and Palestinian “victims.” This reflects more than just a bigotry of low expectations with respect to the moral capacities of Palestinians, whom the SOC tacitly identifies with Hamas. It also reads as justification of Hamas’s normative program, in which decolonization is no mere metaphor. I am not the only close reader among Oxy’s faculty to notice that the SOC appears “to excuse Hamas’ terrorism and to ignore its fascistic, theocratic, anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-women fundamentalism.” The oppressor/oppressed binary that settler colonialism encourages cannot accommodate the historical fact that often, as Yuval Noah Harari puts it, the parties to a conflict can be both “victims and perpetrators at the same time.” To note this fact is not to assert a moral equivalence or to insist that the suffering on both sides is always commensurate.

Many students, faculty and staff found the SOC shocking and morally objectionable. I found it morally objectionable but not shocking. I understood the way Oct. 7 was received on college campuses against the backdrop, in part, of “[t]he history of the modern Left’s romance with terrorism.” Those of us who are, broadly speaking, on the left must reckon with this history. According to Journalism professor Susie Linfield, this history “started with the Algerian War and gained momentum throughout the 1960s, 70s, and beyond with the emergence of the Red Brigades” and other left-wing terrorist groups as well as “the Palestine Liberation Organization and, especially, its Rejectionist Front.” The embrace of anti-Israel violence by a segment of the left offers context for gender theorist Judith Butler’s claim in 2006 that “Hamas, Hezbollah [are] social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left.”

In light of this discourse, the SOC did not shock me. For the SOC participates in it, albeit at some remove. I wish to emphasize that I do not believe that the signatories of the SOC or LTE intended to celebrate terrorism or promote violence, much less antisemitism. I believe that the vast majority were wholly unaware of the historical and contemporary dimensions of the discourse with which the SOC resonated. Language uses us as much as or more than we use it. I presume that most signatories intended only — and commendably — to signal support for a mistreated people.

Yet the SOC’s resonances precluded faculty like me from signing it. I urgently wish for Palestinians to enjoy equal rights and self-determination in peaceful coexistence with their Jewish neighbors. But the tenor of the discourse in which the SOC participates will only frustrate coalition-building and impede progress toward this goal. Rhetoric matters, and this rhetoric will ultimately do both peoples and the cause of their peaceful coexistence more harm than good. This is why I assert that the settler colonial framing is dangerous. We must embrace instead a language, as Alan Johnson writes, that allows “each people” to “feel itself to be understood as a permanent feature of the Middle East.”

Why I wrote this

This conversation, appearing in a student paper, inevitably performs a pedagogical function. I realized that my letter might be many students’ only encounter with an alternative to the settler colonial understanding of Israel and the current conflict. Moreover, I realized that even before the SOC, freely exploring ideas was not encouraged as much as it could be at Oxy. Today, numerous students tell me they fear to question what appears to be a campus consensus. Thus, I felt obliged to offer an example of a community member breaking with an apparent orthodoxy that many find stifling. Students need to see that the Oxy community encompasses a diversity of opinions, and that no opinion, no matter how vehemently expressed or seemingly hegemonic, is unquestionable. In today’s culture of cancelation-enforced conformity and self-censorship, and in an academy that is increasingly an ideological monoculture, students must be encouraged by example to raise, from time to time, a dissenting voice.

Jacob L. Mackey

Associate Professor of Classics

Chair of Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture

2 COMMENTS

  1. We can prevaricate about whether Israeli is a settler or genocidal state like this piece does or we can acknowledge decades of mass violence committed in the name of the Israeli state and call for an end to it. All one has to do is look at the expansion of Israeli territory and the loss of Palestinian land and life to know what is actually going on.

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