To understand Zionism, we must listen to the voices of its victims

The debate on antisemitism often ignores Zionism's settler colonial features and exceptionalizes Israel. Challenging that discourse is not antisemitic.

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion visits the agricultural settlement of Be'er Ora, north of Eilat, June 13, 1957. (Moshe Pridan/GPO)
Prime Minister David Ben Gurion visits the agricultural settlement of Be'er Ora, north of Eilat, June 13, 1957. (Moshe Pridan/GPO)

Last month, Felix Klein, Germany’s Commissioner for the Fight against Antisemitism, accused the eminent Cameroonian historian and philosopher Achille Mbembe of antisemitism. Along with other groups and figures, Klein attempted to bar Mbembe from delivering an opening talk at a major festival in Germany, sparking a fierce public debate.

As Mairav Zonszein reported in +972, Klein’s accusation was based on Mbembe’s comparison between Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and the apartheid regime in South Africa, as well as his comparative approach to studying the Holocaust, which his accusers claimed amounted to trivializing the genocide.

The affair has revealed the ways in which the discourse on the relationship between postcolonial studies and the study of antisemitism is both important and in need of development.

One of the criticisms voiced against Mbembe was that postcolonial analysis tends to ignore the unique aspects of antisemitism compared to other forms of racism. Yet this argument ignores the other side of the equation: that the contemporary discourse on antisemitism ignores the colonial aspects of Israel and Zionism, and produces an exceptionalist view of antisemitism and Israel as entities unto themselves in an isolated history.

It was not uncommon for Jews to recognize as early as the 1920s and 1930s that Arab resistance to the Zionist movement, and later Israel, did not derive from antisemitism but rather from their opposition to the colonization of Palestine. For example, the Zionist leader and founder of the Revisionist movement, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, recognized Zionism’s colonial features and offered an honest explanation of the Palestinians’ motivations for rejecting it.

“My readers have a general idea of the history of colonization in other countries,” Jabotinsky wrote in his 1923 essay “The Iron Wall.” “I suggest that they consider all the precedents with which they are acquainted, and see whether there is one solitary instance of any colonization being carried on with the consent of the native population. There is no such precedent. The native populations […] have always stubbornly resisted the colonists.”

Palestinian Arab militia members, next to a burnt truck on their way to Jerusalem, circa 1948. (Palmach Photo Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)
Palestinian Arab militia members, next to a burnt truck on their way to Jerusalem, circa 1948. (Palmach Photo Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

Haim Kaplan, a devoted Zionist from Warsaw, wrote in his diary in the same spirit in 1936. Reflecting on the Great Arab Revolt in Palestine, where his two children lived at the time, Kaplan observed that the talk of a renewed Arab antisemitism was little more than Zionist propaganda. From their perspective, the Arabs were right: Zionism dispelled them from their land, and the movement’s adherents should be regarded as the side that waged war on the local population.

Despite these assessments, figures like Jabotinsky and Kaplan still had their reasons for justifying Zionism. In many countries today, including Israel, their critical observations of the movement would have been denounced as antisemitic. But they were right.

Robust scholarship has shown that Zionism has featured settler colonial elements. Zionists sought to build an overseas community, bounded by ties of identity and a shared past, in a land they viewed as empty or inhabited by natives that they regarded as less civilized than themselves. They wanted not so much to govern or exploit the natives, but to replace them as a political community. A key question that many historians are debating is how dominant settler colonialism has been compared to Zionism’s other characteristics.

Approaching Zionism as one settler colonial movement among others does not necessarily negate the pursuit of justice embedded in Zionism, in which the Jews deserve a homeland of their own in the modern world. It also does not necessarily deny Israel’s “right to exist,” just as the recognition of the United States, Canada, and Australia as settler colonial states does not negate their right to exist.

It does, however, make Zionism’s duality clear: it is both a national movement designed to provide a sovereign haven for Jews fleeing antisemitism, and where Holocaust survivors could rebuild their lives; and it is a settler colonial project that has created a hierarchical relationship between Jews and Palestinians based on segregation and discrimination.

Illustrative photo of kibbutz ceremony, July 1951. (פוטו ארדה)
Illustrative photo of kibbutz ceremony, July 1951. (פוטו ארדה)

The settler colonial prism is valid for understanding other historical cases in the world, and there is no reason not to debate — even when the discussion gets emotional — the case of Israel-Palestine along these lines, including the concept of apartheid.

Understanding Zionism means embracing the complexity of two narratives that seem irreconcilable, but are in fact complementary: to tell the story of the reasons why Jews fleeing antisemitism and discrimination in Europe immigrated to Palestine, while at the same time telling the story of the consequences of this act for Palestinians over the past century.

The Palestinian intellectual Raef Zreik described this duality poetically: “Zionism is a settler-colonial project, but not only that. It combines the image of the refugee with the image of the soldier, the powerless with the powerful, the victim with the victimizer, the colonizer with the colonized, a settler project and a national project at the same time. The Europeans see the back of the Jewish refugee fleeing for his life. The Palestinian sees the face of the settler colonialist taking over his land.”

In the same vein, understanding antisemitism also means embracing its complexity: Jews today are victims (or potential victims) of antisemitism in many parts of the world, sometimes under the guise of anti-Israel or anti-Zionist speech, and at the same time, Israel is a powerful state, a wrongdoer, and an occupier. Jews, like all human beings, can be both victims and victimizers.

This does not diminish Jews. Rather, it bestows on them a double responsibility: to fight antisemitism worldwide while, as Israelis, to bear responsibility for crimes against the Palestinians.

Politically, therefore, any discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that confers full political, national, civil, and human rights to all the inhabitants between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — whether in the form of one state, two states, or a binational federation — should be welcomed and not deemed antisemitic.

Palestinian citizens take part in a protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law, central Tel Aviv, August 12, 2018. (Oren Ziv/
Palestinian citizens take part in a protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law, central Tel Aviv, August 12, 2018. (Oren Ziv/

Germany has been in the last two generations — despite its shortcomings and complex postwar history — a model of coming to terms with its past. We now wonder whether this road has reached a dead-end that requires careful rethinking. The situation in Germany today is absurd. Any harsh critique of Israel’s occupation or its policies is deemed antisemitic. Is this really a lesson Germans want to draw from the Holocaust? That Jews can do no wrong? This kind of philosemitism is disturbing.

As scholars of the Holocaust, one of the things our research has taught us is the importance of listening to the victims’ voices. This sensibility, from the Eichmann Trial to Saul Friedlander’s books on the Holocaust, reflected the general public’s and scholarly recognition of the value of incorporating the voices of victims into the historical narrative. A similar moral demand was posed by Gayatri Spivak in the field of postcolonial studies when she asked: “Can the subaltern speak?” Stemming from the Holocaust and from the experience of European colonialism, listening to these voices has been acknowledged as a universal moral imperative beyond the Holocaust.

Who are the subalterns and who are the victims in this case? From the perspective of the Holocaust and antisemitism, they are Jews, but from the perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are Palestinians, whose voices therefore demand great attention.

It was Palestinians who identified early on the colonial features of Zionism. They contested the claim that the local Arab population voluntarily left in 1948, documenting that they were in fact expelled during what they describe as the Nakba. They are today witnesses to the Israeli occupation: the plunder of land, the establishment of settlements, the killing of innocents, the demolition of houses, and more. They are seeing the shattering of any possibility of an independent Palestinian state as Israel prepares to formally annex large parts of the West Bank.

We ought to listen to these voices. Not because they are always right (who is?), and even if they are heated (the occupied have a right to be angry), but because we have an obligation to listen to witnesses of injustice. These voices are part of the conversation and cannot be reflexively dubbed antisemitic. Listening to them and being accountable to them makes us more, not less, Jewish. It makes all of us more, not less, human.