On Israeli Settler Colonialism and Indigeneity

Guest post by David Rylance:

On indigeneity, I wish to make a historical point. And I wish to start by acknowledging that it is absolutely true that there is a difference to the usual “plot” of settler-colonialism in Israel’s case, which usually revolves around a division of natives and foreigners. Certainly there could be no claims for origination from the land in the case of the Anglo-European extermination of American First Nations or Australian Aborigines, for example. However, indigenous “identity” is based on something far more fundamental than an identity claim to a historical relation to territory. It’s based on the concrete experience of dispossession from the place that one lives and the only home one knows. Even counting in the late terrible conditions in and after the Second World War, the experience of Jewish settlers was one of either deliberate planned immigration or, alternatively, of refugee flight. They had every grounds to flee and every right to be accepted wherever they fled to – *especially* Palestine. And Leftists of any principle will today defend the principles of open borders, precisely, in part, because of the quotas and closed borders that everywhere met the Jews in the lead-up to the Second World War. But there is a distinction between open borders and a project of colonization aimed at absorbing a territory under its own exclusive political power. Only the Right insists those two things are confusable, that too “large” an immigration is immediately a colonization – as though the free movement of peoples were a type of violent takeover in itself – and that colonization, meanwhile, as it has happened historically – especially in terms of the European dispersion across the globe – was ultimately little more than a regrettable but “inevitable” form of “modernizing” immigration of peoples.

I’m not sure if it’s apocryphal but it’s said that there was an exchange, reported in the memoir of Maarouf al-Dawalibi, between King Faisal of Saudi Arabia (hardly a progressive) and Charles de Gaulle (also anything but a Leftist) on this issue of indigeneity. I’ll quote from the text available online:

[In 1967], Charles De Gaulle held a dialogue with [Saudi] King Faisal. De Gaulle told King Faisal that the Jews have a right to Palestine because they lived there 4,000 years ago. King Faisal told him that in that case, France belongs to Rome, because 3,000 years ago, the Romans were in France. Does every country that occupies another country [have a right to it]? Palestine is the country of the Palestinians,who have lived there since the day God created it. If every country belonged to the people who entered it, no country in the world would belong to its people.
[De Gaulle] said: But some Jews were born in Palestine, and therefore, it is their country.
[King Faisal] asked: How many embassies are there in France?
[De Gaulle] said: 150 embassies.
[King Faisal] asked: What if every ambassador or embassy worker whose wife gives birth in France were to demand that France belong to him because his children were born in France? France would be lost to you.
Charles De Gaulle was speechless, and he was so convinced by what King Faisal said that he banned the sale of arms to the Jews in those days.

I’d amend this in a crucial manner. Rather than speak of embassy births in comparison to the Jewish population of Palestine – a population that was also, in 1948, comprised of many native Jews, with as fully continuous a territorial existence in Palestine as Palestinian Arabs, who were coerced and forced into shattering all civic social ties they had built with Palestinian neighbours in order to vindicate the declaration of “independence” forced down upon them – I would compare the formation of Israel based on claims to the historical lineage of Jewish births in the region – and thus a Jewish indigeneity, a non-foreign claim – as being equivalent to New Guinea being able to prove that the Aboriginal population of Australia had descended from migrations from its territory tens of thousands of years ago and to then make claims for its right to a *New Guinean* state on Australian territory due to the fact the Indigenous Aboriginals of Australia were, “in fact”, not indigenous *Australians* – native to their country of indigenous attachment – but were, on the contrary, a New Guinean diaspora that must identify with their New Guinea-ness now in order to qualify as indigenous.

That’s the plight of what Zionism inflicted on many Jews in Palestine – not invested in this project of state-formation – in the lead-up to 1948. As Ariella Azoulay, a Jewish Israeli, argues, one of the greatest crimes in this entire business has been the way racialization – deeply connected to capitalist state-formation – has enabled Israelis to insist that whatever the nakba might be, it is only a catatsrophe *from their point of view*, that it has nothing to do with a violence that had to forge an essential and absolute dividing line between Jews and Arabs that sliced across the civil society that actually existed on the ground. She writes of 1948: “Dayr Yasin, Sheikh Mouanis, Kibbutz Saris, Majdal, Sidna Ali, Miske and Rashpon are only a few of the places where Jews and Arabs tried to preserve their lives in common.” The utter devastation of that society – not only by the Zionist movement, I should add, if it was by that movement primarily and fundamentally, but also by the power politics of surrounding regimes which were deeply disinvested from care about the Palestinians’ autonomy and concerned more about the militarized colonial threat they could (quite correctly) see brewing on their doorstep – determines everything about Israel/Palestine today, from the shattered splintering of the Palestinian people into “citizens” of Israel, subjects of the occupation, “foreigners” in Gaza and exiles in the disapora to the perennial siege mentality, eulogization of state and military chauvinism, and deeply narcissistic wound culture of Israel that instrumentalizes trauma (sometimes real, but mostly imagined) both so hysterically and so cynically. To claim, then, that a very real Jewish historical indigenity in Palestine justifies the exclusivist and chauvinist Israeli state is not only wrong, it is an obscene erasure of the entanglements and interrelations in a single civil society that were the actual truth of that indigenous history. And this is exactly why there has always been, from the very moment Zionism came into being as a national-colonial political ideology, anti-Zionist Jews absolutely resolute upon opposing it not just for the sake of Palestinians but *for the sake of its oppressive demands upon Jewish indigeneity and diversity*, not only in Palestine but all over the world.

So I ask all of you who care for indigenous rights not to be confused by what can appear a very seductive argument about “conflicted justice” in this situation which exploits this fine point about indigenous ties. There is, indeed, in this historical relation a difference that sets Israel off from almost all other settler-colonialisms but it is *not* a difference that negates the fact it *is* a settler-colonial state, only that it has imposed that fact not merely upon Palestinians but also upon many Jews who lived in Palestine who it now claims, totalistically, to represent.

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