Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Is Zionism colonialism?

In the comments section of Israellycool, a Palestinian Arab has asked me to engage in a dialogue with him centering around :
I am coming from the angle that Zionism is a colonial, imperial, and facist ideology. (And I do not mean to insult you personally). This does not mean that I am calling you a pro-colonialist/imperialist/fascist - afterall, there may be other sub-facets of Zionist that you like, perhaps like community, sense of purpose, or what not. But at its core, I believe that this is what it is, but at the same time, this is why I wanted to discuss this matter with another Zionist. To be blunt, I want to sell you on my logic, as I am sure you want to sell me on yours. I think this needs to happen somewhat.
As his questions are broad and they cut to the very core of the differing viewpoints between Zionists and anti-Zionists, I agreed to address them.

His first contention, often stated as fact (especially by Arab academics like Joseph Massad,) is that Zionism is a colonial ideology. We will need to start with a basic definition of colonialism or else we will not get anywhere.

The dictionary definition is:
A policy by which a nation maintains or extends its control over foreign dependencies.

Wikipedia's definition is more expansive:
Colonialism is the extension of a nation's sovereignty over territory beyond its borders by the establishment of either settler colonies or administrative dependencies in which indigenous populations are directly ruled or displaced. Colonising nations generally dominate the resources, labor, and markets of the colonial territory, and may also impose socio-cultural, religious and linguistic structures on the conquered population (see also cultural imperialism). It is essentially a system of direct political, economic and cultural intervention by a powerful country in a weaker one. Though the word colonialism is often used interchangeably with imperialism, the latter is sometimes used more broadly as it covers control exercised informally (via influence) as well as formal military control or economic leverage.
In both these definitions, a colonial project is one that is imposed by a powerful nation onto a less-powerful territory.

We will also need a definition of Zionism. This is actually harder than it looks. A very good start would be:
Zionism is the national revival movement of the Jews. It holds that the Jews are a people and therefore have the right to self-determination in their own national home. It aims to secure and support a legally recognized national home for the Jews in their historical homeland, and to initiate and stimulate a revival of Jewish national life, culture and language.
From the Arab viewpoint it is easy to conflate Zionism with the colonialism (and imperialism). The Zionist movement started at the same time that European powers were heavily involved in colonizing many parts of the world, including the Arab world. To make matters worse from the Arab viewpoint, the colonialist mindset of the British is certainly a large reason why Zionism succeeded politically - they felt that Zionism would be a way to gain a foothold in a critical part of the world without having to colonize it themselves. And it would be folly to deny that there was an element of bigotry in play here as the Western world uniformly looked at Arabs as untamed savages.

In other words, the Arabs feel that Zionism has the same effect as colonialism, therefore they conclude that the two are functionally identical.

However, Zionism is more like anti-colonialism: it is a national liberation movement, with the nation being the Jewish nation. Zionism's 's intent is not to rule over others nor to subjugate others. The vast majority of early Zionists wanted to re-build the Jewish national home in the same place that the original home was, the biblical Land of Israel. Judaism had maintained a strong emotional tie with ancient Israel; daily prayers long for a return to Zion;Jews annually mourn for the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem; and not only Jews had maintained a continuous presence in their original homeland, but Jews had returned there in much smaller numbers throughout the ages.

Definitionally, they two aren't even close. The Zionists didn't want to offer allegiance to the British Empire, they wanted to be independent of it. The colonialist requirement for a "metropole", or mother country, doesn't exist in Zionism.

The Arab motivation to apply the colonialist label to Zionism purposefully ignores the definitions or goals of the Jewish national liberation movement and instead tries to fuzz the definition so that the metropole is the entire Western world. Israel indeed has the hallmarks of a modern, Western nation and more closely identifies with the West and the ideals of democracy and liberalism than with the Arab world. And in more recent decades, when the word "colonialism" has turned into a dirty word, the Arabs have been keen on using it as a weapon against Israel among the nations that have the most colonial guilt.

The conscious use of inaccurate and inciteful terminology ("racism" is another favorite) is but one weapon used by Arabs and their supporters in order to delegitimize Israel and Zionism. Deep down, the Arab leaders know this to be true as they consciously adopt Zionist terminology and methods to sell their own Palestinian Arab national movement (for example, "diaspora"and "right of return") - if Zionism is so inherently abhorrent, why would they choose to mimic Zionist methods? The reason is because they know that Zionism was a remarkably successful national liberation movement, not a colonialist ideology. In Algeria, the French could be expelled because they had somewhere to go; this cannot work against the Zionists because Jews have traditionally been the ultimate stateless people and the entire point of Zionism is to rectify that.

The Palestinian Arabs have turned into a modern stateless people due to the decisions of Arab leaders to keep them in that state and therefore artificially turn them into the "Jews" of the Middle East, with an amazing and transparent program of discrimination that mirrors the Jewish experience in Europe. Combined with an incessant diet of hateful rhetoric and incitement against Zionism, of which the "colonialist" label is only a tiny part, they choose to keep Palestinian Arabs in misery knowing that they will not be blamed as long as the Zionists are still around.