Sunday, April 02, 2006

To be (colonialism) or not to be


Whenever I get on a bus or hitch a ride, I mumble silently to god not to let anything blow up. I also make sure to ask god not to let the driver I'm riding with crash into anything, because statistically speaking, Israelis are more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than a terrorist attack.

After a little self-assuring prayer, I stop worrying. Why bother? I can't pass every ride with stiff nerves, scared that something is going to happen to me along the way. If it happens - and hey, it could - then it happens. Nothing I can really do.

A couple days after elections a Palestinian dressed as an Orthodox Jew blew himself up inside a car driven by a couple from the settlement of Kedumim who picked him, a teengager and a 20-year-old woman up from a hitching post along the highway.

The first time I was on that highway was when I was hitchiking myself, with three of my best friends, to the settlement of Shiloh for the weekend (don't be scared/pissed, mom, I won't do it again). It was my first time in the West Bank aside from a wedding I went to in Gush Etzion and a Shabbat spent in Ma'ale Adumim eight years ago. Both the Gush and Ma'aleh Adumim are verbally tossed around as non-settlement settlements, likely to be annexed to Jerusalem should Israel disengage from the West Bank. I've never been to a Palestinian city in the West Bank, the official reason being because I am an Israeli citizen and it is illegal for me to cross into PA territory. For the last many years I also refused to go into the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The first thing to strike me, when standing on the West Bank highway with three friends, with the strange feeling of having been suddenly transported, together, from Jerusalem to the shtachim, was that Israelis and Palestinians drove on the same highway.

Putting the separation wall and the IDF treatment of Palestinians aside for a minute as important but separate issues, what I noticed then was that the Palestinians villages and Jewish settlements are literally within a stone's throw of each other throughout the West Bank. Shiloh is less than a ten minute walk from its nearest Arab neighbor (and apparently heavily guarded, though it didn't look like it to me). Waiting alongside the highway, I saw two white Palestinian license plates for every one yellow Israeli plate driving along the same road.

This shocked me. Granted, I couldn't see the wall from where I was standing, nor did I take one step into a Palestinian village. But I was completely surprised to learn that Jews and Palestinians drive on the same road. And that Jews hitchhike, without worry (except me, mom) on that very same highway. For some reason I thought it would be completely separate.

What stops those Palestinians that are committed to carrying out an attack in Israel from pulling that same attack along the highway, next to one of the settlements? Not all Palestinians want to attack Israelis, but for those who do, isn't this the easiest place?


I've mentioned before how easy it is to hitchhike in Israel, and how, especially in the territories, it seems as though every Jew is eager as anything to pick up another Jew, maybe to avoid a situation similar to last week's events in Kedumim.

When I was standing on the highway, waiting for my own ride into Shiloh, I was scared. I knew that the chances of something happening to me then were as likely as something happening to me on the bus I take approximately four times a week back and forth from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, but I was scared anyway.

Plenty of cars stopped for us, so many more than when I hitch in the rest of Israel. Most of the drivers were healthy looking, well-fed and suntanned hippie teens who invited us to jump in and catch a ride to the spring with them, or who suggested that rather than hitch, we hike through the wadi. Through Arab villages, of course, but a really nice hike nontheless.


I started thinking recently about the idea tossed around of Israel as a colonialist enterprise. What got me thinking was the depth of the culture in Israel in terms of linguistic, religious and geographical pride - the quintessential terms for nationalism, but not necessarily congruent with the experience of so many colonialist movements. Aside from the Afrikaaners, I couldn't think of a single example of colonialism whereby occupiers had a language and culture unique to that place alone, where the occupiers considered themselves a nation, and not just a representative of a larger occupying power.

So is Israel an example of colonialism? What's the definition of colonialism? Is it necessarily a byproduct of occupation? Are these two synonymous? According to Wikipedia,

Colonialism is the extension of a nation's sovereignty over territory beyond its borders by the establishment of either settler colonies or administrative dependencies in which indigenous populations are directly ruled or displaced. Colonizers generally dominate the resources, labor, and markets of the colonial territory and may also impose socio-cultural, religious and linguistic structures on the conquered population. The term also refers to a set of beliefs used to legitimize or promote this system, especially the belief that the mores of the colonizer are superior to those of the colonized. Though colonialism is often used interchangeably with imperialism, the latter is broader as it covers control exercised informally (via influence) as well as formally.

Incidentally, Wikipedia also uses Israel's occupied territories as an example of colonialism as referenced above. Theirs is obviously not the deciding definition of colonialism, but it seems as good as any place to start.

1. Extension of a nation's sovereignty over territory beyond its borders by the establishment of either settler colonies or administrative dependencies in which indigenous populations are directly ruled or displaced.

In the case of Israel, the nation in question comprises Jews and Arabs (though with a government intent on Jewish character.) First problem here is definition of nation. Considering that this is the first sovereign nation state to be established in a land which has been occupied by one imperial group or another throughout its history, it's difficult to say exactly who the nation is here. I guess it refers to the Jews, but there are Israeli Arabs and Christians, and hey, we're already into the deeper question of whether nation here means religious, linguistic or otherwise. 'Beyond its borders' is another problematic designation, considering that Israel does not exactly have definitive borders. Some of its land was given in by international agreement, while the rest was won in war. Then of course there's the problem of whose borders we are going by, those described in the bible, those designated by the UN, or those declared following wars which Israel militarily won.

Next we come to the issue of 'settler colonies' and 'administrative dependencies.' In terms of settler colonies, this whole not having an official border thing really makes it difficult to determine what exactly a settler colony is. Colonies on illegal land? Should there be a difference in consideration between settlements deemed legal and illegal by Israel? Where does the bible fit in? What about administrative dependencies? Let's say by settler colonies we are referring only to land conquered through modern war and internationally recognized as illegal (meaning 1967 borders and on). In that case, the whole separation wall, deemed as apartheid by many opponents, is indeed a sort of ethnic separation, but also by default removes Israeli administrative sovereignty from all land and cities within the Palestinian Authority - a step away from colonialism. If we are to refer to all of Israel and its uncertain borders (not just those in post-1967 borders) as settler colonies, then this whole question gets a little more complicated.

That segs into the next part of the definition, the part that refers to all of this illegal rule being imposed on an indigenous population directly ruled or displaced.

I knew there was a reason I hate politics.

First, I guess we have to try to unravel this whole business of the indigenous population in this here holy land. Some would argue that the indigenous population, by divine and historical designation, is the Jews. Of course, that ignores the fact that Abraham, the father of the Jews, came over from somewhere in today's Iraq, and the fact that his descendents inhabited the land with the godly permission and commandment to kill and conquer the other nations existing there at the time - including the Canaanites, the Moabites, the Philistines, and yes, even Amalek. It also ignores that god's land promise was intended for Abraham's seed - should that exclude Ishmael?

Is the land Israel because it belonged to an Israelite kingdom for so long? Because the Jewish religion and nation were solidified here (2,000 years of exile aside)? Because it is promised to Jews in the torah? Or is the land Islamic Arab because they were here for so many centuries? Or Christian Arab? Or perhaps Ottoman, because they occupied here for some five centuries? Or maybe Philistine or Moabite?

Okay, that part's giving me a headache. Let's move on to the directly ruled or displaced part. In the years prior to British colonization, the Jewish communities living in Ottoman Palestine were directly ruled in the sense that while they were given freedom to practice their own religion without fear of death, only Muslim were eligible to own land or be Ottoman citizens. Jews were sovereign from the Ottomans only inasmuch as they were not citizens of the empir.e Displaced? Yeah, Jews were displaced, no matter where you argue they originate from.

The Palestinians have also been displaced. Are now displaced. Those who spout the rhetoric of Palestinians really being Jordanians, or Syrians or Lebanese or Egyptians are missing that point. Whatever displaced the Palestinians, be it the establishment of the Jewish state, the Arab neighbors who today voice international disappointment for Israel and who even in those days launched war on Israel, did not accept the mass number of Palestinian refugees. Not in 1948 and not in 1967. And not today, really, either. Was this to prove the point that Palestinians must stay in Palestine at every cost? Whether a nation of Palestine as such existed prior to the establishment of the state of Israel is an irrelevant question; one exists now. As separate from the rest of Arabs as Iraqis are from Syrians. Arguments that its lack of sovereignty keep it from being a nation are moot and ridiculous - Israel, comprised of the Jewish nation, is a modern state that did not exist before. The previous Israel was completely different. Not to mention, throughout our displaced history, Jews considered (and consider) themselves a nation, having to do both with land and ancestral heritage. Palestinians, regardless of when they merged, now belong to a nation they connect directly to a land. Saying 'Palestinians don't exist' is as equally obtuse as saying 'Germans' or 'Italians' (two examples of nations that did not exist until two centuries ago) are not nations, that 'Germany' and 'Italy' are not countries. They are now. And both, incidentally, are composites of patchwork nations nationalized into one by political and military movements.

Back to the directly ruled part. Palestinians are not directly ruled by Israelis. They are ruled by the Palestinian Authority. Theirs is an indirect rule in that they are subject to Israeli military control, and thus to international aid because of their collapsing infrastructures. But there is a democratically elected Palestinian Authority that, try as it might, Israel could not prevent from exercising its political muscle, despite any economic or military control it employs.

Regarding the question of any overlap between the definitions of occupation and colonialism, the idea of an extension of a nation's sovereignty over territory beyond its borders onto another nation's land sounds like a pretty clear example of occupation - but does that necessarily mean that occupation is synonymous with colonialism?

Wikipedia gives a bunch of definition for occupation, including the periods of time following a nation's territory invasion by controlling enemy troops; the act of settling onto an uninhabited tract of land; A situation where a country or region is under the control of a foreign army. According to this definition, even those who argue that the land was uninhabited when Jews arrived (i.e. "a land without people for a people without a land") should recognize that Israel's conquest of the territories was occupation. The IDF presence in the West Bank, despite its position of defense, is still a foreign and thus occpying force in a region inhabited by people not under Israel's political jurisdiction. From this, it would seem that while the definition of colonialism encompasses the definition of occupation, occupation does not necessarily imply colonialism.

2. Colonizers generally dominate the resources, labor, and markets of the colonial territory and may also impose socio-cultural, religious and linguistic structures on the conquered population.

There doesn't seem to be any question of whether Israel dominates the regional resources (i.e. water, food, aid) used by the Palestinian Authority. It does (though the issue of aid is a constantly changing battle these days). And considering the horrible state of the PA's infrastructure, it seems clear that Israel dominates the work and business sector of the region as well.

Does Israel impose socio-cultural, religious and linguistic structures on the conquered population? It doesn't seem so. Palestinians speak Arabic and are not forced to learn Hebrew (the majority doesn't speak it); Palestinians are Muslim or Christian, not Jewish; and I think any danger of Israel imposing socio-cultural structures on the Palestinians is probably the last thing anybody's worried about.

3. The term also refers to a set of beliefs used to legitimize or promote this system, especially the belief that the mores of the colonizer are superior to those of the colonized.

Terms or beliefs used to legitimize the system? I don't think Israel could talk itself out of anything here. Zionism as a system essentially embodies this part of the definition. It is the idea that Jews belong in the land, regardless of argument, because either a) god promised us such as the chosen people; or b) the more secular argument that leaves god out of the equation but fights for the right of Jews to have a homeland.

Jews do not have another country. Period. Using the argument that Palestinians are Arab and Muslim and thus could be recast into any Arab land is essentially an argument of ethnic transfer, and means nothing. Using any argument that one group is superior to another here is ridiculous and counterproductive. Here we are: two people in one land, neither of us going anywhere. The band Shotei Hanevua or Fools of the Prophecy, has a great song that comes to mind, with lyrics that go (in translation) "nobody is going to leave here... so start loving each other."

Or don't. But stop trying to prove you have more of a right to the land than the other. How could we even possibly begin to say who this land belongs to? It's like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg? Who cares? They both have the bird flu now!

4. Though colonialism is often used interchangeably with imperialism, the latter is broader as it covers control exercised informally (via influence) as well as formally.

The final part of the definition is actually the part which, if you're looking, most justifies the view that Israel is not an example of colonialism. This is not to make any comment on Israel military or humanitarian practices with regard to Palestinians - it is a comment on whether Israel is an example of colonialism.

When considering how Israel compares to standard colonial enterprises, quite a few differences come to mind. But none stands out to me as much as the truth that whereas in every other example of colonialism I can think of the colonizing group was a representative body of a major world economic or political power, Israel is not. Regardless of a posteriori arguments that Israel is a pawn of the U.S., there is no arguing with the fact that Israel was established not as a satellite of a thriving imperialist power, but as a haven for refugees.

Also, this need for a refugee haven demonstrates the other significant difference: Not only did the new immigrants not represent a major power looking for economic leverage, but they were all refugees who for reasons of personal danger could not go back to the countries they came from. They could have gone elsewhere, but not back to where they came from. This was not the case for the original Afrikaaners, whose ancestors were Dutch representatives looking to secure an economic trade route and, along the way, set up a European society. Afrikaaners would be hard-pressed to say they were Dutch, and would accuse you of insigating ethnic transfer if you suggested relocating them to Holland. But the colonial intention nevertheless makes a difference when considering whether or not it is an example of colonialism. The question of intention is also necessary in considering whether there is a difference between colonialist and colonist, referring to the distinction between settlement as a method of economic/military exploitation and settlement as a refugee solution.

Does any of this make a difference when considering when military rule/defense is necessary? Or when it is justified? Or if refugees turn to exploitative measures as a method of security? Or if the land is won in war? Or if the refugees turn to more expansive settlement through economic and political motivations once their greater state has already been established, and the refugees are no longer refugees, but citizens?

Every nation is entitled to its security. And every nation is entitled to live freely without being crushed or terrorized by its neighbor. Every nation.

The question of whether Israel is an example of colonialism is useless. The answer might temporarily satiate and satisfy, but it's not really going to get us anywhere. Israelis and Palestinians are both here. That's it. Get used to it.


Steph said...

Just - wow. What a good way to approach the problem. What a difficult way to approach the problem, too :)

An excellent read, and - for a European struggling with much the same kind of questions while living in Jerusalem - much food for thought.

Thank you.

Ittay said...

I agree with you. As long as israelis and Palestinians keep giving each other history lessons, we will never come to an agreement.