Illiberals Get Anti-Colonialism Wrong

One of the most hackneyed tricks of the American far right is to insist that its fellow illiberals on the left are dominating the Democratic Party.

If anything, Hamas’ attacks on Israel have shown that illiberals are in fact a tiny part of the actual Democratic coalition. They are, however, a growing faction on the Generation Z left (Puck and LA Times via MSN).

Moreover, when it comes to the marketplace of ideals, the illiberal take on the Israel-Hamas war does not deserve a stall. This is not simply because they seem to have no qualms with Hamas’ butchery. In fact, the entire construct used by the illiberal left here is fundamentally flawed.

Anti-Colonialism: A Round Peg for a Square Hole

The anchor of the illiberals’ views on this, in theory, is anti-colonialism. This became known as a noble attempt to reverse the rapacious 19th-century carve-ups of Africa and Asia. It was a driving force in the redrawing of the globe after World War II – thanks in large part to the colonizers themselves being unable to maintain empires after the war. There is a more extreme version aimed at “settler colonialism” – in which the imperial power uses emigration from the home country to maintain control over the indigenous populations. “Settler colonialism” can be rather elastic. White supremacy in South Africa, the partition of Ireland, and even the existence of Anglo-America can end up targets of the most extreme opponents of this.

This is the concept that illiberals are using to defend Hamas and attack Israel. There’s only one problem: it simply doesn’t apply to the area consisting of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. History shows it doesn’t apply at all.

From Empire to Empire

The illiberals’ insistence that Israel is a “settler colony” only works if one has the most ignorant and ahistorical view of the region. Something like this line from the aforementioned LA Times piece:

Some have adopted the Hamas position that all Israelis are legitimate targets by virtue of being on land where Palestinians lived before Israeli statehood in 1948.

All sorts of history gets erased in this one sentence. The assumption behind this is that Palestinians had self-determination and independence before Israel was imposed on them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The first example of an imperial power attempting ethnic cleansing in Palestine/Judea came in the first century AD – and the Jews were the victims. Moreover, the Roman Empire’s dominance over the region did not end in independence for Palestine but rather conquests by different empires.

The last non-European regime to control the region was the Ottoman Empire, which collapsed after losing World War I. One of the victors (Great Britain) had a policy supporting a “Jewish homeland” during and after that war – a policy they were instructed to implement by the League of Nations (Avalon Project). By 1939, though, the UK issued a White Paper that made clear that it was not pro-Zionist in the least (Avalon).

In other words, the “colonial power” that supposedly forced Israel onto Palestinians had an official policy…against the establishment of Israel:

His Majesty’s Government therefore now declare unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State. They would indeed regard it as contrary to their obligations to the Arabs under the Mandate, as well as to the assurances which have been given to the Arab people in the past, that the Arab population of Palestine should be made the subjects of a Jewish State against their will.

After World War II, an exhausted and bankrupt UK handed Palestine over to the United Nations, which partitioned it into Israel and Palestine.

Palestine’s Actual Extinguishers

This was the first time Israel was officially established by anyone. It wasn’t a colonial power. It wasn’t an empire. It was the United Nations. Moreover, the partition expressly mandated “two independent States, one Palestinian Arab and the other Jewish, with Jerusalem internationalized (Resolution 181 (II) of 1947).” The Arab state never got off the ground, but Israel had nothing to do with that elimination.

Jordan and Egypt controlled the rest of the territory assigned by resolution 181 to the Arab State. In the 1967 war, Israel occupied these territories (Gaza Strip and the West Bank) including East Jerusalem, which was subsequently annexed by Israel.

One can argue the wisdom of annexation. None of this is to justify Israel’s actions in Gaza and the West Bank. The point is to establish that Israel was not a colonial project. No European empire created it. Indeed, the one imperial power that could have (Britain) explicitly rejected it. Moreover, an independent Palestine vanished due to occupation by Egypt and Jordan, not Israel or any European power.

On the Matter of Race

So why does the anti-colonial argument still hold sway among illiberals (and the naive Westerners)? The answer is simple and breathtakingly stupid: skin color. As Matti Friedman put it in The Atlantic a couple years back:

Indeed, for some on the progressive left, the conflict between Jews and Muslims 6,000 miles east of Washington, D.C., has become jumbled up with American ideas about race.

The story of the Jewish minority in Europe and in the Islamic world, which is the story of Israel, has nothing to do with race in America. My grandmother’s parents and siblings were shot outside their village in Poland by people the same color as them. If you stand on a street in the modern state of Israel and look at passersby, you often can’t tell who’s Jewish and who’s Arab. Many Israelis are from Arab countries, and for the 6 million Jews living in the heart of the Arab world (300 million people) and in the broader Islamic world (1.5 billion people), the question of who’s the minority is obviously a tricky one. Most Black people here are Jews with roots in Ethiopia. The occupation of the West Bank is supported by many Israelis mainly because they have rational fears of rockets and suicide bombings, tactics that weren’t quite the ones endorsed by the American civil-rights movement. All of this is to say that although Israel, like America, is deeply messed up, it’s messed up in completely different ways.

Ironically, Israel’s own racial problems have exacerbated the illiberal myopia (Friedman again):

Another unpleasant reality on display in the recent upheaval is the fault line that runs between Israeli Jews with roots in Europe (known as Ashkenazim) and those with roots in the Islamic world (Mizrahim, in our local shorthand). We expend great effort to pretend that our debates are only about policy, not identity, but that isn’t true. The grievance felt by many families whose roots are in places like Casablanca and Algiers, and who were sidelined by the country’s Eastern European founders and the official narratives, has not faded—on the contrary, it seems to have grown.

Most people in fighter squadrons, commando companies, and intelligence outfits are Ashkenazi and liberal. The academy and the tech boardrooms are much the same. This sociological fact says nothing good about our society. At least half of the Jewish population here is Mizrahi, but we’ve never had a Mizrahi prime minister, and the Supreme Court has a woeful lack of ethnic diversity.

Again, none of this is meant to justify – or even discuss – Israeli policy in Gaza and the West Bank. I have already expressed my views on Gaza in this corner. What this does show is the utter fallacy of labeling Israel an imperial or colonial remnant. Illiberals who insist upon that assertion are simply wrong.

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