Settler colonialism is a process by which a colonizing power sends settlers to depopulate a region of its inhabitants and gain control of land. While the applicability of the definition to Israeli history is dubious, the concept has gained popularity among anti-Israel activists and a small number of critical scholars. It has yet to be accepted widely in political science. Proponents of the term say it describes truthfully what has occurred in places like the United States, Australia, and Israel. In reality, it is a Marxist narrative of history which selectively ignores facts in order to draw sweeping moral and political conclusions.
The modern study of settler colonialism is led by critical historians Edward Cavenaugh and Lorenzo Veracini. The term has been
used since at least 1947 with passing references
in UN documents and the journal Parliamentary Affairs. One of the most well-known texts on the subject, particularly as it relates to Israel, is Maxime Rodinson's 1967 text Israel: A Colonial Settler-State?
Rodinson's text is a Marxist history of Israel, telling of a Jewish
"bourgeois" in Europe who came to Israel to exploit the Palestinian
proletariat fellahin. Critical scholars of Israel like Joseph Massad and Ilan Pappe have used this framing as well.
The settler colonialist framing is useful for anti-Israel activists because it makes Israel seem archaic and fundamentally incapable of existing in a world of modern human rights norms. It also delegitimizes Israel's citizens in three ways. First, it reframes Israelis - many of whom are third and fourth generation sabras - as temporary settlers. Second, it implies that colonization is the ultimate goal of all Israelis, since they are settlers by nature. Finally, it erases the multitude of political viewpoints in Israel toward the Palestinians and Israel's future by implying that all Israelis are colonial settlers with a settler mentality. This obfuscation makes it possible for activists to avoid arguments rooted in the nature of Israeli society by writing off over 6.4 million Jewish Israelis as part of a settler colonialist project.
common thread in settler colonialist accounts is that Jews or Zionists were sent by a
colonial power (Britain) to gain control of historical Palestine by
depopulating the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants. This story is the
basis of justifying a broad range of opposition to Israel. Since the state is a
settler colonial outpost, justice requires it be dismantled and its
original inhabitants returned. This framing also allows strategic ambiguity because Israel also refers to its populations in the West Bank as "settlers." It's often unclear whether those using the term are applying it to the West Bank, or to Israel as a whole.
As a concept, settler colonialism raises three important questions. First, how much can such a broad concept really explain? Settler colonialism has been applied to the United States, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan, Iraq, Cyprus, and Turkey. For this level of breadth, the term must necessarily sacrifice significantly in terms of depth. Furthermore, Israel is consistently treated as a unique case in academic literature because of the unique historical circumstances out of which it rose. Settler colonialism, however, claims that Israel is just like a whole broad set of cases. That fact alone should raise suspicion.
Settler colonialism also tells us very little about what happens in the cases it purports to describe. If common historical processes were at play in the US, South Africa, and Israel, why are the indigenous populations of each in very different places regarding political, economic, and social status? And if the answer isn't clear, why do proponents of settler colonialist accounts cling to the term?
Finally, the policy implications of settler colonialism are unclear. Human history is replete with conquering and depopulation. Israel, for example, was established by European Zionists in conjunction with the British, but it was colonized by the Ottomans before that, the Mamluks before that, the Crusaders before that, Muslim armies before that, the Romans before that, and the Macedonians before that. Who counts as the indigenous population in this case, and who is the conqueror? How far back in history must we go before everything is returned "fairly" to its "original owners?"
As a way of understanding Israeli history, settler colonialism also has three problems. First, Jews who immigrated to Mandate Palestine didn't come only from Britain. They came from states across Europe and eventually from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia as well. British Jews weren't even a majority of immigrants - in 1948 the largest number of immigrants to Israel came from Former Soviet Union countries. The idea that Britain sent Jews as colonial settlers is unsubstantiated by historical fact. The idea that "The West" is a colonial power is a dubious assertion given centuries of competition between Western colonial powers.
Second, Britain didn't send Jews to Palestine as colonists, but rather to get rid of them. Britain was motivated to establish a Jewish
home by domestic pressure against Jewish immigration before
the first World War. Creating a Jewish home had support among
Christian Zionists in Britain, and offered a compelling solution to the
immigration issue. Jews were also not sent to Mandate Palestine to
depopulate its Arab population. Britain and the United Nations offered multiple partition plans which included guarantees of national sovereignty to Palestinians and Jews alike. To assume Britain began letting Jews immigrate to Mandate Palestine with the intent of depopulating the area is inferring intentions without evidence. It also ignores how British colonialism worked in virtually every other state in the Middle East.
Importantly, there is evidence that depopulation of Palestinian villages occurred separately from legal acquisition by Zionists of land. Israel's early leaders (David Ben Gurion for example) wanted to prevent Palestinians from returning to their homes. Israeli revisionist historians have documented processes of depopulation, and archival documents make this history undeniable. This depopulation, however, occurred in the process of Israeli state formation - not as a deliberate strategy of settler colonialism. It is a history with which Israelis must reconcile, but it is not settler colonialism.
Finally, Israelis are not motivated by land claims alone. To frame Israelis as motivated by a desire to depopulate and conquer land completely misunderstands the Israeli national project. Rhetoric from Israelis about homeland, nationalism, and security cannot reasonably be written off as "propaganda." They speak to a complex set of motivations Israelis have that go far beyond the desire to control land as settler colonialism claims.
Ultimately, settler colonialism as a concept proves little insight for explaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While interesting as a concept for critical theory and useful for anti-Israel activism, there are better ways of understanding Israel's formation as a state and subsequent treatment of Palestinians. Academic writing on insurgency, nation-building, state formation, and military occupation offer a much more robust language for removing, not adding to, the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.