The argument that Israel is a colonialist entity is often marshaled to undermine the Jewish state’s legitimacy. The theme has certainly permeated Western academia, almost uncritically. For decades, it has been employed against Israel in one international forum after another. In 1973, the U.N. General Assembly gave initial momentum to this idea when it condemned the “unholy alliance between Portuguese colonialism, South African racism, Zionism, and Israeli imperialism.”
That association of Israel with colonialist regimes set the stage in 1975 for the most insidious resolution ever adopted in the General Assembly against Israel, which stated that Zionism was a form of racism. It helped cement the Afro-Asian bloc behind both the resolution and the movement to delegitimize Israel. Even when, in 1991, the General Assembly finally overturned the resolution, comparisons between Zionism and colonialism persisted, arguably becoming even more strident.
Speaking in Johannesburg in 2008, Azmi Bishara, a former member of the Knesset, explained another way that accusing Israel of being a colonialist entity has real political utility. Bishara, who today does not miss an opportunity to question Israel’s legitimacy before audiences abroad, explained that two points had to be established to show that Israel was an apartheid state: first, that Israel practiced racial separation; and second, that it was a product of colonialism.
Of course, anyone who visits the emergency rooms in Israeli hospitals, or the classrooms at any Israeli university, or the voting booths on election day, to say nothing of the Knesset itself, would see both Jewish and Arab doctors, patients, professors, students, voters, and parliamentarians mixing together in a way that utterly disproves the charge of apartheid. That leaves Bishara with mainly the claim of colonialism to make his case.
Unlike the charge of racial separation, the tag “colonialist” cannot be refuted simply by looking around modern Israel. It is a historical charge about how Israel came to exist: In effect, it amounts to the claim that Israel was established as an outpost of another distant power imposing itself on the territory and its native inhabitants. But the fact is that while modern Israel succeeded the 1922 British Mandate for Palestine, it was created by neither the British nor any other occupying power.
The Jews were already asserting their right to self-determination well before the British and the French dismantled the Ottoman Empire. For example, the Jewish people had already re-established their majority in Jerusalem by 1863. Decades later, Britain and the rest of the League of Nations considered Jewish rights in Palestine beyond their power to bestow because those rights were already there to be accepted. Thus the League of Nations gave recognition to “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine.” In other words, it recognized a pre-existing right. It called for “reconstituting” the Jewish people’s national home. And the rights recognized by the League of Nations in 1922 were preserved by its successor organization, the United Nations, which in Article 80 of its charter acknowledged all rights of states and peoples that existed before 1945.
The accusation that Israel has colonialist roots because of its connection to the British Mandate is ironic, since most of the Arab states owe their origins to the entry and domination of the European powers. Prior to World War I, the Arab states of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan did not exist, but were only districts of the Ottoman Empire, under different names. They became states as a result of European intervention, with the British putting the Hashemite family in power in two of these countries.
Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, meanwhile, emerged from treaties that their leaders signed with Britain. By means of those treaties, the British recognized the legitimacy of local Arab families to rule what became states like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. A similar British treaty with the al-Saud family in 1915 set the stage for the eventual emergence of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Moreover, during Israel's War of Independence, Arab armies benefited directly from European arms and training—and even manpower. The Arab Legion initially fought in Jerusalem with British officers, while the skies of the Egyptian Sinai were protected from the Israeli Air Force by the Royal Air Force. Indeed, Israeli and British aircraft clashed in 1949.
William Roger Louis, one of the foremost historians of British imperial strategy, uncovered an extremely revealing document from the British foreign office that puts into perspective Israel’s relationship with the European colonial powers at its birth. In his 1984 book, The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945-1951, he describes a meeting on July 21, 1949 of senior British officials at the end of Israel’s War of Independence. Sir John Troutbeck, head of the British Middle East Office, said, “We were in a position to control the Arab governments but not Israel.” He then expressed fear that “the Israelis might drag the Arab States into a neutral bloc and even attempt to turn us out of Egypt.” The original Foreign Office document also expressed concern that the British would lose their airbases in Iraq. In 1956, Israel briefly made common cause with Britain and France against Nasser’s Egypt, but this could not alter the fact that, for the imperial powers, Israel was an obstacle, not an outpost.
Nevertheless, in recent years, the effort to portray Israel as a colonial entity has expanded. For many Palestinian spokesmen, in particular, it became important to deny the historical ties of the Jewish people to their land and to portray them as recent colonialist arrivals to the region—in contrast to the Palestinians, who were portrayed as the authentic native population.
This effort reached an audacious peak when Yasser Arafat denied that the Temple had ever existed in Jerusalem at the end of the July 2000 Camp David Summit with President Clinton. Many of his deputies—from Saeb Erekat to Mahmoud Abbas—have since picked up the same theme. Speaking on November 12, 2008, at a U.N. General Assembly “Dialogue of Religions and Cultures,” the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, addressed the historical connections of Islam and Christianity to Jerusalem, but noticeably did not say a single word about Judaism's ties to the Holy City.
In a similar vein, Arafat used to tell Western audiences that the Palestinians are descendents of the Jebusites, with ancient roots in the land. But in Palestinian society, one establishes one’s status by claiming to be a relative latecomer, whose ancestors were from the Arabian families that accompanied the Second Caliph Umar bin al-Khatttab when he conquered and colonized Byzantine Palestine in the seventh century. Even at that time, the Jews were still a plurality—and, perhaps along with the Samaritans, a majority—in the land, six hundred years after the Romans destroyed their ancient Temple and the Second Jewish Commonwealth. This emerges from Professor Moshe Gil’s monumental 800-page A History of Palestine: 634-1099.
Ascertaining the truth has never been the objective of those trying to paint Israel with a colonialist brush. They have been determined simply to conclude that the Jews came as an alien force to Palestine, to advance European interests, rather than see them as a people recovering their historical homeland, where they had deep, indigenous roots.