Zionist Settler Colonialism

Zionist Settler Colonialism

Zionist Settler Colonialism


Zionist colonies in Palestine at the beginning of the British Mandate, 1920.When in the late nineteenth century Zionism arose as a political force calling for the colonization of Palestine and the “gathering of all Jews,” little attention was paid to the fact that Palestine was already populated. Indeed, the Basel Program adopted at the First Zionist Congress, which launched political Zionism in 1897, made no mention of a Palestinian native population when it spelled out the movement's objective: "the establishment of a publicly and legally secured home in Palestine for the Jewish people.”


Moreover, in the early years of their efforts to secure support for their enterprise, the Zionists propagated in the West the idea of "a land without a people for a people without a land," a slogan coined by Israel Zangwill, a prominent Anglo-Jewish writer often quoted in the British press as a spokesman for Zionism and one of the earliest organizers of the Zionist movement in Britain. Even as late as 1914, Chaim Weizmann, who was to become the first president of Israel and who, along with Theodor Herzl and David Ben ­Gurion, was one of the three men most responsible for turning the Zionist dream into reality, stated:


In its initial stage, Zionism was conceived by its pioneers as a movement wholly depending on mechanical factors: there is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country. What else is necessary, then, than to fit the gem into the ring, to unite this people with this country? The owners of the country [the Turks] must, therefore, be persuaded and convinced that this marriage is advantageous, not only for the [Jewish] people and for the country, but also for themselves.


Neither Zangwill nor Weizmann intended these demographic assessments in a literal fashion. They did not mean that there were no people in Palestine, but that there were no people worth considering within the framework of the notions of European supremacy that then held sway. In this connection, a comment by Weizmann to Arthur Ruppin, the head of the colonization department of the Jewish Agency, is particularly revealing. When asked by Ruppin about the Palestinian Arabs, Weizmann replied: "The British told us that there are there some hundred thousands negroes [Kushim] and for those there is no value.” Zangwill himself spelled out the actual meaning of his slogan with admirable clarity in 1920:


If Lord Shaftesbury was literally inexact in describing Palestine as a country without a people, he was essentially correct, for there is no Arab people living in intimate fusion with the country, utilising its resources and stamping it with a characteristic impress: there is at best an Arab encampment.


About three hundred Zionist rural colonies, collective and noncollective, were established between 1882 and 1948 in Palestine. Throughout this period, however, the vast majority of the Jewish population (75 percent in 1948) continued to live in the three main cities: Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel Aviv. Collective colonies (kibbutzim and moshavim) were not introduced until the first decade of this century. Even by 1948 less than 7 percent of Palestine was Jewish-owned, chiefly by the central Zionist land-acquisition organization, the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth). The sites of many colonies were chosen with geopolitical or military considerations in mind. Some, as in these photographs taken ca. 1946, were straight military strongholds. The bulk of the rural male population, especially in the collective colonies, belonged to the official Zionist military organization, the HaganahDespite such statements, however, the Zionists from the outset were well aware that not only were there people on the land, but that people were there in large numbers. Zangwill, who had visited Palestine in 1897 and come face-to-face with the demographic reality, acknowledged in 1905 in a speech to a Zionist group in Manchester that "Palestine proper has already its inhabitants. The pashalik of Jerusalem is already twice as thickly populated as the United States, having fifty-two souls to the square mile, and not 25 percent of them Jews…” Abundant references to the Palestinian population in early Zionist texts show clearly that from the beginning of Zionist settlement in Palestine-which Zionist historiography dates to the arrival of the members of the Russian Bilu Society in 1882-the Palestinian Arabs were far from being an “unseen" or "hidden" presence. Moreover, recent studies have shown that Zionist leaders were concerned with what they termed the "Arab problem" (Habe'ayah Ha'aruit) or the “Arab question” (Hashelah Ha'aruit). As seen in their writings, the attitudes prevailing among the majority of the Zionist groups and settlers concerning the indigenous Palestinian population ranged from indifference and disregard to patronizing superiority. A typical example can be found in the works of Moshe Smilansky, a Zionist writer and Labor leader who immigrated to Palestine in 1890:


Let us not be too familiar with the Arab fellahin lest our children adopt their ways and learn from their ugly deeds. Let all those who are loyal to the Torah avoid ugliness and that which resembles it and keep their distance from the fellahin and their base attributes.


There were, certainly, those who took exception to such attitudes. Ahad Ha'Am (Asher Zvi Ginzberg), a liberal Russian Jewish thinker who visited Palestine in 1891, published a series of articles in the Hebrew periodical Hamelitz that were sharply critical of the ethnocentricity of political Zionism as well as the exploitation of Palestinian peasantry by Zionist colonists. Ahad Ha'Am, who sought to draw attention to the fact that Palestine was not an empty territory and that the presence of another people on the land posed problems, observed that the Zionist "pioneers" believed that "the only language that the Arabs understand is that of force .... [They] behave towards the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly upon their boundaries, beat them shamefully without reason and even brag about it, and nobody stands to check this contemptible and dangerous tendency." He cut to the heart of the matter when he ventured that the colonists’ aggressive attitude towards the native peasants stemmed from their anger "towards those who reminded them that there is still another people in the land of Israel that have been living there and does not intend to leave.


At the end of World War II, the Zionist leadership decided to undermine the British regime in Palestine as a prelude to the establishment of a Jewish state. One of its chosen tactics was the sponsorship of illegal mass Jewish immigration into the country over and above the official postwar annual quota of 18,000 Jewish immigrants (set by the British in spite of their promise to the Arab delegates at the 1939 London Conference). Between 1946 and 1948, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants were transported to Palestine from European ports. These scenes were photographed at Haifa in the summer of 1946.Another early settler, Yitzhaq Epstein, who arrived in Palestine from Russia in 1886, warned not only of the moral implications of Zionist colonization but also of the political dangers inherent in the enterprise. In 1907, at a time when Zionist land purchases in the Galilee were stirring opposition among Palestinian peasants forced off land sold by absentee landlords, Epstein wrote a controversial article entitled "The Hidden Question," in which he strongly criticized the methods by which Zionists had purchased Arab land. In his view, these methods entailing dispossession of Arab farmers were bound to cause political confrontation in the future. Reflected in the Zionist establishment's angry response to Epstein's article are two principal features of mainstream Zionist thought: the belief that Jewish acquisition of land took precedence over moral considerations, and the advocacy of a separatist and exclusionist Yishuv.


This introduction is excerpted from the first chapter of Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of "Transfer" in Zionist Political Thought 1882-1948 (IPS, 1992) by Nur Masalha.


Above photos from Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876-1948 by Walid Khalidi.



To commemorate the United Nation’s “International Day of the World’s Indigenous People,” on August 9th, the Institute for Palestine Studies is making available seven articles from the Journal of Palestine Studies archives that highlight a history of settler colonialism upon the people of Palestine and the current methods used which continue this process into the present day.



Published by the Palestine Foundation Fund (Keren Hayesod) to promote Jewish settlement in Palestine, circa 1930.Israeli Sociology's Young Hegelian: Gershon Shafir and the Settler-Colonial Framework

Gabriel Piterberg

Vol. 44, No. 3 (Spring 2015), pp. 17-38


In April 2014, the Center for Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) convened a conference titled “The Settler Colonial Paradigm: Debating Gershon Shafir's Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict on Its 25th Anniversary.” This essay emanates from the conference. I first chart the dialectical emergence of Shafir's thought out of Israeli sociology, and then gauge its impact on the growing presence of the settler-colonial framework in the study of Palestine/Israel. The analysis of Shafir's book shows how a powerful hegemony has produced its disavowal. The examination of Palestine/Israel as a settler-colonial situation past and present underscores the benefit of studying this topic comparatively and as part of a global phenomenon.








Erik Ruin, Just Seeds Artists' Cooperative 2005.

Colonialism, Nationalism, and the Politics of Teaching History in Mandate Palestine

Elizabeth Brownson

Vol. 43, No. 3 (Spring 2014), pp. 9-25


For Palestinian nationalists in Mandate Palestine, British education policy was a source of constant frustration. The shortage of schools, the lack of local control over the curriculum, and the marginalization and de-politicization of Palestinian history constituted major grievances. Proceedings from the Peel Commission reveal much about the rationale behind this policy, particularly the bias toward “rural” education and the attempts to control teachers. Drawing on and complementing the work of A.L. Tibawi, this article seeks to shed light on the nationalists' protests by examining both the responses of officials brought before the Commission, as well as the government's history curriculum during the Mandate. In doing so, the research shows that education policy was constructed to maintain the underdevelopment of Palestine and to hinder state-building efforts that could compete with those of the Zionists.







Franz Krausz, circa 1935. Published by the Rural and Suburban Settlement Company (RASSCO) to promote Jewish settlement in Palestine.Behind Israel's Demand for Recognition as a Jewish State

Diana Buttu

Vol. 43, No. 3 (Spring 2014), pp. 42-45


Diana Buttu's assessment of Israel's recent demand that Palestinians, as represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

Part of a Commentary on The Kerry Negotiations in the Spring 2014 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies.










"The Settlement Calls!" circa 1935.The Other Shift: Settler Colonialism, Israel, and the Occupation

Lorenzo Veracini

Vol. 42, No. 2 (Winter 2013), pp. 26-42


This densely argued essay offers an original approach to the study of Israel-Palestine through the lens of colonial studies. The author’s argument rests, inter alia, on the distinction between colonialism, which succeeds by keeping colonizer and colonized separate, and settler colonialism, where ultimate success is achieved when the settlers are “indigenized” and cease to be seen as settlers. Referring to the pre-1948 and post-1967 contexts, the author shows how and why Israel, itself a successful settler colonial project emerging from the British mandate, has failed to create a successful settler project in the occupied territories; indeed, and paradoxically, the occupation’s very success (in terms of unassailable control) renders the project’s success (in terms of settler integration/indigenization) impossible. Also addressed are the consequences of occupation, particularly what the author calls Israel’s “recolonization,” and the implications of the approach outlined for the Israel-Palestine conflict and its resolution.







"Elections for the 18th Knesset," by Lahav Halevy, 2013.Liberal Colonialism? Israel’s 2013 Elections and the “Ethnocratic Bubble”

Oren Yiftachel

Vol. 42, No. 3 (Spring 2013), pp. 48-67


Israel’s 2013 Knesset elections, in which the incumbent ruling party was returned to power for the first time in a quarter-century, were noteworthy in several respects. The basic divisions of Israeli politics into geopolitical and socioeconomic blocs were unchanged, only small electoral shifts being registered. On the other hand, as this report shows, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu barely achieved an electoral victory despite his overwhelming preponderance in public-opinion polls. Due to the rise of the new, personality-driven Yesh Atid party and the latter’s unlikely alliance with the settler-based Jewish Home, which together garnered as many Knesset seats as the winning Likud-Yisrael Beitenu list, for the first time in decades ultra-Orthodox parties were excluded from the governing coalition. The elections were marked by the near-invisibility of the Palestinian issue and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The report concludes that the continuing governing consensus in favor of “liberal colonialism” is unsustainable, although exploiting the “cracks” in that consensus is difficult and unlikely in the short term.






"After 2,000 Years - The Homeland Is Ours Again," circa 1935.The Israeli Settler Movement Post-Oslo

Peter Shaw-Smith

Vol. 23, No. 3 (Spring, 1994), pp. 99-109


If Israel's settlers suffered a setback in their grand strategy when the Likud government was voted out of office in June 1992, this paled compared to the blow they received in September 1993 when the government of Yitzhak Rabin recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and signed the Declaration of Principles (DOP) on a Palestinian self-governing authority in the occupied territories. Suddenly, the icy winds of reality blew through the cozy network of politics and infastructure the settlers had been building since the mid-1970s, and the national consensus they had, rightly or wrongly, taken for granted over their presence in the occupied territories seemed in doubt. Settlers faced their greatest challenge, but thanks to their work of previous years, they were ready for it.








"Israel - Land of the Bible," circa 1977.The Biblical Bases of Zionist Colonialism

H. S. Haddad

Vol. 3, No. 4 (Summer, 1974), pp. 97-113


The ideals, goals, strategy, and tactics of Jewish settlement in Palestine may agree in some respects with those of settler regimes elsewhere. But there is a basic difference. Unlike other settler regimes Israel claims to be a return.














The poster images above are from the Palestine Poster Project Archives.


While most of these articles are only available for this month, you can have access to our entire archives if you Subscribe to the Journal of Palestine Studies.


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