A tale of two settler colonies

Australians should be well positioned to understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel has long been accused of being a settler colony. In fact, the first major Western study advocating this position, Maxime Rodinson’s essay ‘Israel: A Colonial Settler State?’, was written before the Six-Day War in 1967.

That Australia is a settler colony is uncontroversial. For progressives, Australia’s settler past leads to two understandings: first, they understand why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples resisted colonisation; second, even if they regard Australia as a wonderful place today, they understand that First Nation Peoples harbour feelings of resentment. The chant ‘Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land’ might make some uncomfortable, but for the most part progressives do not respond with self-righteous horror, nor allege anti-white bigotry. Aboriginal intellectuals who talk about sovereignty might be marginalised, but it’s not difficult to grasp the logic of their position.

If one accepts that Israel is a settler colony – and there are strong arguments for this position – then there are certain understandings that should follow. Progressives should understand, for instance, why Palestinian people opposed the colonisation of their land. This should, in turn, help them understand the ongoing conflict, specifically that Palestinian resistance is not exclusively driven by Islamism or anti-Semitism, but rather motivated in large part by anger at dispossession.


What is a settler colony?

Other forms of colonialism are often driven by a desire for natural resources, or to exploit the labour of an indigenous population. Settler colonialism is primarily concerned with settling a new community on a foreign land. This inevitably results in the dispossession of those who originally lived there, which causes conflict. In the case of Australia, the British arrived in relatively small numbers, and gradually expanded their presence. Their encroachment on Aboriginal land, which they claimed as their own, inevitably led to violent clashes. Perhaps conflict could have been avoided if the Europeans had sought coexistence and understanding. The British were determined to set up particular kinds of communities in Australia – namely, communities that excluded the Indigenous population – and, as Aboriginal people began to resist their dispossession, the colonisers protected their communities with force.

There are obvious similarities and differences between Zionism and the colonisation of Australia. The Jews who arrived in Palestine as part of the Zionist project came overwhelmingly from Europe, just as those who colonised Australia were overwhelmingly European. Some have suggested European Jews couldn’t possibly have been colonisers because Europeans had, and were, treating them terribly. The fallacy of this should be clear to Australians: colonisation never promised equal benefits to all members of the colonial project. Many of the convicts who were sent to Australia suffered terribly – and, of course, had no desire to come to Australia in the first place. The question about whether Australia was colonised does not depend on the perspective of convicts, nor on the pleasantness of their experiences. It depends on the structures of relations between the Indigenous peoples and the colonisers, as well as on the actions of the British elites who ensured that a steady supply of Europeans would come to Australia and that resistance to colonisation would be crushed militarily.

There were similar dynamics in the colonisation of Palestine. It may be conceded that there were small communities of Jews living in Palestine long before modern Zionism was conceived. But from the late nineteenth century, as modern Zionism began to take shape and Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe started moving to Palestine, the community increased substantially.

As Benny Morris notes in Righteous Victims, the early Zionist settlers tended to view the Arabs as ‘primitive, dishonest, fatalistic, lazy, savage – much as the European colonists viewed the natives elsewhere in Asia or Africa.’ Though they were a ‘small minority, the settlers quickly began to behave like lords and masters … [I]n most moshavot, Arabs were treated like the indigenous peoples in other places colonised by Europeans.’

Nonetheless, Morris argues, the major causes of the conflict between Arabs and Zionist settlers were not ‘accidents, misunderstandings, or the attitudes and behaviours of either side’ but the fact that the Zionists ‘sought radically to change the status quo, buy as much land as possible, settle on it, and eventually turn an Arab-populated country into a Jewish homeland’. Recognising the inevitable backlash that would accompany this move, the ‘Zionists tried to camouflage their real aspirations’ for decades.

The early Zionists did not create a Jewish state, nor were they in any position to do so. In 1914, there were some 738,000 Palestinians and 60,000 Jews in Palestine. In those circumstances, the Jewish settlers could only continue their project if they gained the support of a power that could overcome the wishes of the indigenous population. As Norman Finkelstein notes, the Zionists sought a tactical alliance, first with the Ottoman Turks and then with Great Britain, to pursue the Zionist dream in Palestine, promising that they would serve as a ‘strategic asset’ for the imperialists. They were successful in this endeavour, recruiting British support for Zionism in the famous Balfour Declaration of 1917, which looked ‘with favour’ on the creation of a ‘national home’ in Palestine for the Jews.

The declaration included lip-service about not prejudicing the ‘civil and religious rights’ of the ‘existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ – communities making up a mere 90 per cent of the population! In private, Lord Balfour confessed a less diplomatic version of Britain’s intentions:

[I]n Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country … The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion that is right.

In essence, this was the Zionist terra nullius.

In Palestine, the Zionists originally claimed the land was empty. When they discovered that there were people there, they decided that the interests and rights of the original inhabitants simply weren’t as significant as those of the new arrivals from Europe.

Likewise, in Australia, as Henry Reynolds has observed, ‘British settlers quickly had to adjust their ideas once they gained experience in Australia. The interior was not empty; there was no land without owners.’

Reynolds notes that ‘once the demographic picture became clear the theoretical justification changed course. The indigenous people were there all right, the new story ran, but they were too primitive to be regarded as the actual owners and sovereigns.’

The Balfour Declaration was implemented in the form of the Mandate for Palestine, which formally established British rule over the territory. As Tom Segev argues in One Palestine, Complete, the ‘mandatory system was designed to give colonialism a cleaner, more modern look. The Allied powers refrained from dividing up the conqueror’s spoils as in the past; rather they invited themselves to serve as “trustees” for backwards peoples, with the ostensible purpose of preparing them for independence.’

The mandate facilitated the large-scale immigration necessary for the creation of a Jewish state. By 1931, there were some 175,000 Jews in Palestine, making up about one-fifth of the national population. The overwhelming majority of Jews leaving Europe in the early twentieth century did not go to Palestine: most of them went to the United States, when this was possible. Segev estimates that ‘at the height of Jewish immigration, only 4 out of every 1000 of the world’s Jews came to Palestine’.

Throughout much of the mandate period, the Jews in Palestine continued their ‘camouflage’ policy of denying their intention to create a state. Though the right-wing Revisionists, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, called for a Jewish state in Palestine (as well as on the east bank of the Jordan River), the mainstream Zionist movement, most of whom considered themselves socialists, publicly opposed the demand. David Ben-Gurion – leader of the labor Zionists and eventually Israel’s first prime minister – testified before the Peel Commission in 1937 that ‘if Palestine were uninhabited we might have asked for a Jewish state, for then it would not harm anyone else. But there are other residents in Palestine, and just as we do not wish to be at the mercy of others, they too have a right not to be at the mercy of Jews.’ Arthur Ruppin explained that the ‘official, acknowledged aim of the Zionist Organisation’ was a bi-national state. Jewish leaders tried to allay Arab fears that they wanted a Jewish state in Palestine with resolutions affirmed by Zionist Congresses in 1921, 1925 and 1929.

Jabotinsky opposed this policy, arguing that the Zionist movement should openly announce its goal of seeking a Jewish state in Palestine.

It was not until 1942 that the Zionist movement adopted the Biltmore Program that called for ‘Palestine to be established as a Jewish Commonwealth’. This was a step towards more openly announcing the pursuit of a Jewish state in Palestine. Judah Magnes, a left-wing Zionist intellectual, commented bitterly that Jabotinsky ‘was the prophet of the Jewish state. Jabotinsky was ostracised, condemned, excommunicated. But now almost the entire Zionist movement has adopted his point of view.’

Jabotinsky explained his reasoning in two 1923 essays on the ‘iron wall’ policy he proposed. He said that there wasn’t the ‘slightest hope’ Palestinians would agree to Palestine ‘becoming a country with a Jewish majority’. He regarded the Zionist project as a straightforward colonial one and observed that opposition to Zionism was easily explicable: ‘we are seeking to colonise a country against the wishes of its population, in other words, by force.’ He observed that:

Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement.

That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of ‘Palestine’ into the ‘Land of Israel’.

He summarised an Arab article whose logic he regarded as unassailable. The author said that the Jews could not yet ‘dream of expelling or suppressing the Arabs, or even of setting up a Jewish state’. Instead, the Zionists just said that they wanted Jewish immigration. Jabotinsky continued (in the voice of the Arab author):

In this way the Jews will, little by little, become a majority and, ipso facto, a Jewish state will be formed and the fate of the Arab minority will depend on the goodwill of the Jews. But was it not the Jews themselves who told us how ‘pleasant’ being a minority was? No misunderstanding exists. Zionists desire one thing – freedom of immigration – and it is Jewish immigration that we do not want.

Thus a voluntary agreement was impossible with the Arabs. Jabotinsky instead urged that the Zionists use force to ensure the success of their project. He identified the creation of a Jewish state with settler colonialism, comparing Zionism to the colonisation of the United States, and the Palestinians to Aztecs and Sioux.

Ben-Gurion privately agreed. He explained:

Were I an Arab … I would rise up against immigration liable sometime in the future to hand the country … over to Jewish rule. What Arab cannot do his math and understand that immigration at the rate of 60,000 a year means a Jewish state in all of Palestine?

Ben-Gurion accepted that Palestinians were reasonable in opposing the creation of the Jewish state: ‘There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?’

By 1939, there were 1,070,000 Palestinians in Palestine and 460,000 Jews – in other words, Jews had gone from being less than 10 per cent of the population to over 30 per cent. This massive immigration was facilitated by the British colonial authorities, and put the Jews in the kind of position from which they could successfully create a Jewish state.

There were numerous rebellions against the Zionist influx and the concomitant displacement of the Palestinians. The most spectacular uprising lasted from 1936 to 1939 and was described by Ben-Gurion as the Arabs ‘fighting dispossession’. The Zionists could stay ‘on the sidelines’ and let the British ‘crush the Arabs’ – a job they dutifully did. Nevertheless, the Zionists, particularly the right-wing paramilitary group Irgun, eventually joined the campaign to suppress the Arabs, pioneering various forms of terrorism in 1937, such as the placement of ‘massive bombs’ in ‘crowded Arab centres’ (documented by Benny Morris). Between 3000 and 6000 Palestinians were killed in the uprising, another 6000 were detained and many more were exiled. This brutal repression was a major factor in the failure of the Palestinians to successfully resist the creation of Israel and their large-scale dispossession during the Nakba.

Similarly, the record of Aboriginal resistance to the colonisation of Australia is extensive. Reynolds was sufficiently impressed by Aboriginal resistance in Tasmania that he thought the Indigenous people could have achieved a treaty of sorts, though more recent research seems to have disproved the thesis.

The eventual repression of Aboriginal guerrilla warfare in Tasmania was brutal. After an attempted sweep of the island to enforce the so-called ‘Black Line’, the colonists exiled the remaining Aboriginal people to Flinders Island, forcing them to live in conditions that continued their decimation. Lyndall Ryan writes that ‘[historian] James Boyce considers that the forced removal of the Western nations constituted an act of ethnic cleansing that was tantamount to genocide. It is impossible not to agree.’

The colonisers of Australia did not just practise repression but also large-scale terrorism to ‘deter’ the Indigenous populations from resisting European settlement. In describing these ‘punitive expeditions’, Reynolds notes that the ‘killing was to be both grossly disproportionate and indiscriminate … Violence was to be used not only to punish the guilty but to deter “all of them” from future resistance.’ Marine Captain Watkin Tench wrote at the time that the goal was to ‘infuse an universal terror, which might operate to prevent further mischief’. Colonial terror was particularly pervasive in Queensland: Timothy Bottoms estimates that the ‘death toll for Aboriginal Queenslanders may well be in the range of 48,000 to 50,000’.

With the exception of the 1982 war on Lebanon, Israel has not practised slaughter on a scale comparable to the colonisers of Australia. Nonetheless, the style of Israeli terrorism is essentially the same. Israel first openly adopted a policy of reprisals in the 1950s, and recent declarations by Israeli military leaders (such as the Dahiya doctrine) sound remarkably similar to the ‘grossly disproportionate and indiscriminate’ attacks against Australia’s Indigenous peoples.


Settler colonies now and then

In Australia, the colonisers were basically successful: the Indigenous population was decimated and the influx of Europeans made Aboriginals a tiny minority within their own lands, from which they were overwhelmingly dispossessed. As a result, Australia could eventually grant Indigenous people civil and political rights without facing any risk of dramatic upheaval. With its illiberal, majoritarian democracy – one that provides essentially no protection of the rights of individuals (let alone minorities) – Australia could maintain the subjugation of Indigenous people and their dire socio-economic circumstances simply through formal democratic processes that protect the status quo.

In Israel, the colonial process is incomplete and unsuccessful. Palestinian citizens make up about 20 per cent of the population, and form a rapidly increasing demographic. Israeli democracy within the Green Line is more illiberal and majoritarian than Australia, and is also ethnocentric. Maintaining Israel’s formally democratic features may become a problem when Palestinians make up 30 or even 40 per cent of the population; Israel will be increasingly tempted to restrict and cancel the democratic rights given to Palestinians so as to prevent them voting for parties seeking to transform Israel to a ‘state for all its citizens’ (as the Palestinian party Balad advocates). We are already seeing signs of this in the chauvinist repression directed at people like Haneen Zoabi, Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara (who was forced into exile).

The colonial process continues, particularly in the West Bank. Levi Eshkol, the Israeli prime minister who conquered the area, repeatedly explained that he was pleased with the ‘dowry of territory’ but that it came ‘with a bride whom we don’t like’ – in other words, Israel likes the land, but doesn’t want the Palestinians on it. During and after the 1967 war, Israel pursued various methods of expelling the Palestinians; a more quiet policy of ‘transfer’ continues today. Israel cannot secure the West Bank – or even just the parts of the territory it wants – so long as Palestinians live on the coveted ‘Judea and Samaria’.

In The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Morris explains that ‘transfer was inevitable and built into Zionism – because it sought to transform a land which was “Arab” into a “Jewish” state, and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of Arab population’.

This is a significant difference between Australia and Israel.

I do not wish to whitewash Australia’s mistreatment of Indigenous peoples. Amnesty International has accused Australia of ‘ethnic cleansing’ on the basis that the refusal to fund Aboriginal homelands in the Northern Territory forces Indigenous people into ‘hub towns’. These kinds of assimilationist policies, seen also in attempts to prevent Aboriginal children from being educated in their own languages, threaten a cumulative cultural genocide.

Yet Australia does not seek to drive Indigenous peoples out of Australia. Israeli policies, on the other hand, do not aim at transforming Palestinians into Jews – they are aimed at making Palestinians leave Eretz Yisrael. The comparative transfer impulse, I suspect, is due to the relative sizes of the territories and populations.

Australian racism has changed, but political Zionism has not. What follows from this? Following his claim that Israel is a settler colony, Rodinson wrote: ‘What are the consequences to be drawn from this diagnosis? Preach holy war against the intruders and demand that they be forcibly evicted and cast into the sea?’

Colonisers ‘are not monsters with human faces’, he observed, adding that ‘no one speaks of chasing the whites out of South Africa because of their colonial origins. They are asked simply to coexist with the Blacks as equals.’

In the two cases under consideration, this may be regarded as inadequate. Indigenous sovereignty, land rights and disadvantage will not be redressed through formal equality, and coexisting as equals will not address the Palestinian refugee question. As Rodinson understood, recognising the grievances of those who were colonised does not in and of itself resolve the situation. Nonetheless, it helps us understand the nature of the conflict as well as the kind of grievances that need to be addressed if the conflict is to end and if the different peoples are to live together in peace and justice.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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