Is Israel a “settler-colonial” state? The debate, explained.

The historical discussion at the heart of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Is Israel a “settler-colonial” state? The debate, explained.0

At a protest in Rome in October 2023 calling for a ceasefire and aid into Gaza, a protester holds a sign calling for an end to “colonialism and displacement” in Palestine. Simona Granati/Corbis via Getty Images Haleema Shah joined Today, Explained in 2019. She produces, reports, and guest hosts episodes on the controversies and curiosities of the day.

Is Israel a “settler colonial” state?

That charge has been the subject of fierce debate in recent months amid the continuing Israeli assault on Gaza after the October 7 attacks by Hamas.

Colonialism is a system in which one people dominates another and uses the subjugated group’s resources for its own benefit (the British Raj in India is a classic example). Colonial projects take many forms, but Israel is accused of being the result of a specific variety: settler colonialism.

According to the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, settler colonialism has “an additional criterion that is the complete destruction and replacement of indigenous people and their cultures by the settler’s own in order to establish themselves as the rightful inhabitants.”

Settler colonialism does not have a definition under international humanitarian law (unlike many other terms used during this latest war), although Article 49 of the Geneva Convention prohibits certain actions often associated with that term; it is instead a concept that historians use to describe the system of replacing an existing population with a new one through land theft and exploitation, which is enabled by occupation, apartheid, forced assimilation, or genocide.

Historians often apply the term to the projects that founded the United States, Canada, South Africa, and others.

Within that cohort, there are scholars who apply the term to Israel’s founding, too. The argument begins with the 30-year period during which the British Empire controlled historic Palestine and facilitated the mass migration of Jews, particularly those persecuted in Europe before the Holocaust and in the wake of it. That migration, they argue, displaced the existing Arab population and launched a conflict that continues to this day.

But critics of the argument view accusing Israel of settler colonialism as a distortion of the term, in large part because of Judaism’s deep historical ties to present-day Israel. Many Jewish people who migrated from around the world and became citizens of Israel use the word “return” to describe making their home there.

The debate has echoed from college campuses to the halls of Congress. In the United States, “colonialism” is, at times, viewed as a popular buzzword used to vilify the Jewish state and a means of casting Jewish refugees as agents of empire. Among pro-Palestinian activists and in many formerly colonized communities, the term is a historical prism linking much of the Global South and through which the Palestinian struggle can be understood.

The argument might seem academic. But it is important for understanding pro-Palestinian groups’ grievances with the international community — for failing to prevent Israel from engaging in what they view as an established settler colonial pattern of eliminating a native population through expulsion and genocide to annex Palestinian land.

Palestine’s short but critical history as a British colony, briefly explained

Both the United States and Canada, widely viewed by historians as states founded as settler colonial projects, relied heavily on British patronage. Israel’s foundations are similar, some scholars argue.

In 1917, the British colonial period, or British Mandate, began in historic Palestine. Zionism, the ideology that Jews are both a religious group and nation whose spiritual homeland is Israel, was extant for decades before then, driven in large part by violent antisemitism in Europe.

A black-and-white photograph of men in military uniforms and brimmed hats standing in front of shops bearing Hebrew signage.

British Mandate forces in Jerusalem in October 1937. Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But that year, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour wrote what he considered a declaration of sympathy with the aspirations of Zionism.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” he wrote in what came to be known as the Balfour Declaration. The declaration also stated, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” — though, as my colleague Nicole Narea wrote, there was no specification of what those protections would be or who they would apply to.

The letter was a powerful endorsement of the establishment of a Jewish home where the biblical kingdoms of David and Solomon once were. Priya Satia, a historian of the British Empire and professor at Stanford University, said it also marked another British foray into colonial enterprise.

“You’ve got to remember, this is against the backdrop of ongoing British settler movement into Rhodesia, into Kenya, into South Africa,” she said. “That is what the architects thought they were doing when they started this process.”

Historians argue that the British Empire backed the Zionist movement for myriad reasons, including anxieties about Jewish migration to Britain, the search for new allies in World War I, and to maintain control of the nearby Suez Canal.

“The British, before they decided to take Zionism under their wing with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, for more than a decade had decided for strategic reasons that they must control Palestine,” Rashid Khalidi, a professor at Columbia University and author of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, told Vox. “They needed it to defend the eastern frontiers of Egypt. They needed it because it constituted the Mediterranean terminus of the shortest land route between the Mediterranean and the Gulf.”

After the Balfour Declaration, the British facilitated the mass immigration of European Jews to historic Palestine. Per a League of Nations mandate, the British would maintain economic, political, and administrative authority of the region until a Jewish “national home” was established.

Were Zionism and the founding of Israel inherently colonial projects? The debate, explained.

That long, tangled history planted the seeds for today’s strife — and the debate over what to call the Israeli project.

“Zionism, of course, has a national aspect, but as early Zionists all understood and accepted and were not ashamed of, it was a colonial project,” Khalidi said. “It was a settler-colonial movement to bring persecuted Jews from Europe to Palestine, where they would establish a Jewish majority state.”

But others dispute that view. That includes scholars like Benny Morris, a member of the Israeli New Historian movement that challenges official Israeli history, who argues that Zionism is rooted in the aspirations and ideals of a persecuted group, instead of the interests of a mother country. “Colonialism is commonly defined as the policy and practice of an imperial power acquiring political control over another country, settling it with its sons, and exploiting it economically,” Morris writes. “By any objective standard, Zionism fails to fit this definition.”

Derek Penslar, a history professor at Harvard University, writes in his book Zionism: An Emotional State about the various taxonomies of Zionism and that some of its early visionaries were critical of political Zionism’s aims.

“The most famous Zionist intellectual of the early 20th century, Asher Ginsberg, who went under the pen name of Ahad Ha-am, was against the establishment of a Jewish state,” Penslar told Vox. “He was very well aware of the Arab population of Palestine, and he said, ‘look, you know, we basically can’t get these people against us. We can’t anger them, we have to live with these people.’ And so he advocated forming much smaller communities that would not antagonize the Arab populations.”

The man who came to be known as the ideological father of Israel, however, was the political Zionist Theodor Herzl. A journalist from Vienna in the late 1800s, he witnessed the rise of populist, antisemitic politicians in his city and remarked on the pervasiveness of antisemitism in Europe in a play and later his pamphlet, The Jewish State.

A black-and-white photo of a man standing outside, with low, flat-roofed buildings visible in the background. He wears a suit and has a large beard.

Theodor Herzl in Palestine in November 1898. Imagno/Getty Images

Credited for galvanizing an international movement for Jewish statehood in Palestine, Herzl sought a more dignified existence for European Jews like himself and espoused a vision of the Jewish state that included universal suffrage and equal rights for the Arab population. But in private, he wrote of Arab expropriation, and in public, he placed Zionists like himself within the colonial order of the time.

“We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism,” he wrote. “We should as a neutral State remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.”

While under British control, Palestine saw violent clashes between Zionists and Arabs, and its demography changed rapidly, with the Jewish population increasing from 6 percent to 33 percent. In the eyes of Arab nationalists, the argument was a simple one: A foreign power took control of Arab land and promised it to another foreign group.

“For the Zionists and for Israel, it’s a lot more complicated,” said Penslar, whose work links post-colonial studies with the history of Zionism. “They wanted to be free, they wanted self-determination, and they wanted the kinds of things that colonized people in the world wanted. And the consensus was that they would realize their freedom in the Jews’ historic, biblical, and spiritual homeland in the land of Israel, which is the same thing as historic Palestine.”

(In a sign of how contentious the discussion over Zionism and antisemitism is, as part of a broader criticism of Harvard’s handling of antisemitism on campus, critics also protested Penslar’s heading of a university task force to combat antisemitism, pointing to his criticism of Israel as disqualifying — this despite Penslar’s own critiques of Harvard’s handling of antisemitism and his distinguished academic reputation.)

Judaism’s ties to the Middle East, mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran, the Hebrew language’s origins in ancient Palestine, and the Jewish ties to the region as a motherland motivate arguments that Jews are a native group in present-day Israel. It’s why groups supportive of Israel argue that it does not fit into the settler colonialism framework.

A black-and-white photo of a crowd of people aboard a ship’s deck. A large banner hanging over the side of the ship reads: “The germans destroyed our families ... don’t you destroy our hope.”

Jewish refugees aboard a ship. Universal Images Group via Getty

“Jews, like Palestinians, are native and indigenous to the land,” writes the Anti-Defamation League, a mainstream Jewish pro-Israel group and also one of the US’s leading anti-extremism organizations. “The Land of Israel is integral to the Jewish religion and culture, the connection between Jews and the land is a constant in the Bible, and is embedded throughout Jewish rituals and texts. The Europeans who settled in colonies in the Middle East and North Africa were not indigenous or native to the land in any way.”

To scholars like Khalidi, who comes from a family of Palestinian civil servants dating back to the 17th century, the connection doesn’t justify the creation of a majority Jewish state under international law.

“Does that mean that the people who arrive from Eastern Europe are indigenous to the land? No, they’re not indigenous. Their religion comes from there. Maybe or maybe not their ancestors came from there,” said Khalidi. “That doesn’t give you a 20th-century right — that’s a biblical land deed that nobody believes except people who are religious. And in modern international law, that just doesn’t hold.”

By the mid-20th century, the British, recovering from World War II and facing anti-colonial agitation from Zionists and Arabs in Palestine — not to mention from other corners of their empire — handed control of Palestine to the United Nations. In 1947, the General Assembly passed Resolution 181 to partition Palestine.

“Even though Arabs constituted a two-thirds majority of the country, more than 56 percent of it was to be given to the Jewish state and the rest was to be given to an Arab state,” said Khalidi.

For Israel, the birth of a Jewish state was a triumphant defiance of odds in the face of the Holocaust, and victory against military units from Transjordan, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt who were defeated the following year. It also occasioned the expulsion or voluntary exodus of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries. Israel soon established a Law of Return that would grant any Jew from any country the right to move to Israel and gain citizenship.

In Palestinian memory, the establishment of Israel entailed an ethnic cleansing campaign known as the Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic. Fearing violence by Zionist forces or actively expelled by them, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes in present-day Israel. According to a 1948 Israeli Defense Forces intelligence report, “without a doubt, hostilities were the main factor in the population movement.” No Law of Return exists for Palestinians who were displaced by the Nakba.

A black-and-white photo of large crowds wading into water carrying large suitcases on their heads and shoulders. One man carries another man on his shoulders.

Palestinians driven from their homes and fleeing via the sea at Acre by Israeli forces, 1948. History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Nakba took place as independence movements in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean gained traction. To scholars like Satia, who studies the empire that once colonized a quarter of the world, Palestine became a global touchpoint in an era of decolonization.

“All these other places do eventually get some kind of decolonization process. And in Palestine, there isn’t one,” she said. “It becomes the last bastion along with South Africa.”

The present-day charges of settler colonialism and demands to decolonize

Settler colonialism is hardly a thing of the past nor is it an exclusively Western enterprise. China is arguably practicing it by incentivizing Han Chinese migration to Xinjiang and Tibet. India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomous status is criticized as a Hindu nationalist effort to transform the demographics of its only majority Muslim state.

And Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories motivates charges of present-day colonialism. This includes continued settlement construction in the West Bank and control of the ingress and egress of people and goods (most notably humanitarian aid) into the Gaza Strip.

In the West Bank, almost 700,000 Israelis are living in settlements scattered throughout the territory, which are protected by the Israeli military and often subsidized by the government.

“It’s pretty fair to say that the Palestinians are an occupied people. And there’s no question that the settlements that Israel has set up in the West Bank since 1967 are a kind of colonialism,” said Penslar.

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explained, “Most international lawyers (including one asked by Israel to review them in 1967) believe settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer of population into occupied territories.” Israel’s government disputes that its settlements violate any international law.

The settlements obstruct the contiguity of Palestinian land and movement. Palestinians are barred from certain Israeli-only roads and forced to navigate a network of checkpoints, which invokes comparisons to apartheid South Africa.

“The contiguity of the territory of the West Bank has been completely broken up,” said Satia. “You can use analogies like ‘Bantustans,’ which comes from the South African context.”

Men in orange vests at work in a dusty construction site. Multistory urban buildings made of tan concrete stand in the background.

Palestinian laborers work at a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, in the occupied West Bank, on February 29, 2024. Menahem Khana/AFP via Getty Images

South African politicians, including its first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, argued that Palestinians were engaged in a parallel struggle. In the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent siege of Gaza, South Africa is accusing Israel of committing genocide in the International Court of Justice. Israel vehemently denies the charge, calling it “blood libel,” and says it has a duty to protect its citizens from Hamas.

As the world watches the deadliest war in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict unfold on their screens, activists and academics rely on the term “settler colonialism” to explain a decades-long cycle of violence that has killed over 30,000 Palestinians and over 1,400 Israelis in the last six months.

To Penslar, who lived in Israel through two intifadas, today’s cycle of violence won’t change by identifying Israel as a settler-colonial state.

“Even if we do go through all of this and decide Israel is a settler-colonial state, it doesn’t really mean very much, because at the end of the day we have to come up with a solution which involves either Israeli Jews dominating Arabs, or Arabs dominating Jews, or the two people sharing the land or two states,” he said. “And whether you call Israel a settler-colonial state or not, it doesn’t really help us a whole lot.”

The call for decolonization is criticized by some for lacking achievable goals and denounced by others as a euphemism for expelling or killing Israelis in the name of anti-colonial resistance. Immediately after the October 7 attacks, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said, “the enemy has had a political, military, intelligence, security and moral defeat inflicted upon it, and we shall crown it, with the grace of God, with a crushing defeat that will expel it from our lands.”

But academic proponents of the settler-colonial thesis say that expulsion is not a natural consequence of accepting that settler colonialism is foundational to a country.

“You can have that conversation and acknowledge that historical reality without implying that everyone needs to leave,” said Satia, citing Australia, New Zealand, and Canada — countries that have formally apologized to their indigenous peoples for colonial atrocities and pledged reparations to certain groups.

If the First Aliyah, or migration of the Jewish diaspora to historic Palestine, began in the late 19th century, then the descendants of those people living in Israel today are tied to the land not only because of Judaism’s history but also because of several generations living there in recent memory.

“Those are people who now have not just a presence but certain rights,” said Khalidi, adding that Israel fits into a pattern seen in other settler-colonial enterprises.

“You look at South Africa, or you look at Ireland, or you look at Kenya, or you look at what is now Zimbabwe — a very large proportion of the populations that were settled there by colonial powers … are now part of those populations. They have rights there. They should live there,” he said. “Now, how the relationship between them is to be worked out. That’s a question that’s not going to be easy to solve.”


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