Israel and the Colonial Dilemma


Palestinian Refugees, 1948

I was talking off-line – well, on FB messages – with a Jewish Irish-studies colleague and friend who fears that the identification of Zionism with Jewishness is becoming all too commonplace in talk about the Israel state today – not least on my Facebook page. I infer that he holds that state to be culpable of many excesses and that much of its purported “reaction to Hamas” is indefensible – if so, a credible position on his part, and I expect a personal burden too. One would wish it were not necessary to castigate the country with which one’s ethnicity and traditions are so often associated – though what the world knows as “Jewish” is often “British” or “American” and (albeit it in lesser numbers for horrific reasons) continental European as well. There is room here for the hyphenated forms “Jewish-American” and so on. All of this is a stimulus to further thought, and here it is for what it is worth.

Irish-studies folks are generally “on board” for a post-colonial interpretation of their subject area, Ireland – the country in which it is obviously grounded – but also any other country world-wide which has, or is currently, experiencing the woes of colonial invasion and imperialist subordination, or simply hegemonic repression in the sense of untrammeled cultural influence – all of which are variations on the theme of “colonialism” as this is understood in academic and wider walks of life today. In this view, the act of invasion and dispossession is a primordial crime which kick-starts major forms of social and political psychosis, if – more happily – with many interesting and appreciable cultural results. Well and good.

An Irish post-colonialist is still an anti-colonialist in spirit and it follows that none of these can be expected to look on the actually-existing state of Israel without severe misgivings or feel stronger bonds of empathy with Israeli than with Palestinians in the current state of affairs. It might have been different, perhaps, if this or that recent Middle Eastern conflict had not happened – and there are obvious strands in Joyce’s discourse about Jew-Greek and Greek-Jew in “Ulysses” which suggest that the case of Israel, considered as a people seeking to return home or to possess their homeland freely and without foreign interference – or simply to speak the “language of the outlaw” on their own account – might be drawn on in support of a pro-Israeli position today, if that kind of literary canonicity has any value in a real situation.

Decland Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (1996)

Decland Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (1996)

In reality, however, the body of postcolonial writing suggests that no such interpretation is available to the Irish intellectual – unless, like Conor Cruise O’Brien, he is indulging in the paradoxical support of neo-imperialist minorities against the brutality of blood-soaked nationalism. Thankfully, perhaps, it’s hardly necessary to quote Irish sources on this matter – and nor are Irish sources the well-spring of post-colonial thinking (an odd fact which merits some reflection). Thus, in spite of the Temple of David, the Weeping Wall and much else that is Jewish in the so-called Holy Land, there is nothing in Fanon or in Memmo or any other anti-colonial writer to suggest that the modern Israeli state is anything other than colonial formation in the defining sense. It is a country in which a certain territory have been bought, fought for and otherwise claimed by an extraterritorial group for their own purposes – no less than Kenya was when it became a coffee-plantation for Britons in the interwar and post-war periods. And we all know how that ended.

The fact that Israel is not a colony of a world power but an independent nation which took its footing in the region through its own efforts is not as strong an argument against the colonial status of that state as might at first appear. Firstly, it did so by means which are frankly recognised to equate with the meaning of the modern term “terrorism” – a modus operandi which Israel as much as any nation on earth refined and implemented for its own purposes. Secondly, the international support it has more or less constantly received from Jews the world over and from the governments of countries they inhabit gives it the empirical character of a classical imperialism colony in decade after decade.

Given the viewpoinrt that Israel is a colony, and one surrounded by those of other nations who wish them to depart, it is perfectly inevitable that the underlying attitude on the part of the national population in relation to their neighbours should be defensive at the very least. (“Who is my neighbour?”, might be a pertinent question here.) And rhis is why we see such outlandish parallels as the constant support of Sinn Fein/IRA in Northern Ireland for the Palestinians and the equal and opposite support of the DUP for the Israelis – an alignment which is only intelligible in view of the fact that the membership of the DUP and the Israelis have a shared tendency to regard themselves as a “chosen people” and the victims of a “siege” on both religious and secular grounds.

Only a limited number of alternatives face a colony such as Israel living in hostile territory, as Israel does – either consolidation as a bastion-like state or withdrawal, or finally liquidation with genocidal overtones. Neither the second nor the third are going to happen and the vigour of the Israelis in constructing such a powerful and productive entity in the region can only elicit the deepest admiration of anyone who even remotely acquaintd with the challenges of the nation-building enterprise. In fact, the heroic character of Israel’s self-defence against its enemies in successive attacks upon it by surrounding Arab nations – for whatever reason – has demonstrate that, for those living there there is only one option: defence by any possible means.


Albert Memmi, The Colonized & the Colonized (orig. in French 1957)

In this, however, they have to contend with world opinion – or, at least, to manipulate it to their best advantage for today world opinion is on a negative cycle as regards the actual state of affairs in Palestine-Israel, just as it is prone to negativity in regard to the conduct of imperialists and colonists past and present elsewhere in the world. This is simply the way we are thinking and the way we are educating others to think: it is the democratic orthodoxy of the Western World. And, whereas the the rank and file of the British Labour Party used to stand square behind the Israeli state, even conferring on it something of a mascot status in keeping with their own Dissenter-origins as the “chosen people” chanting “Jesusalem” at Party conferences – it is now largely setting its face against Israel, whereas the membership of the Tory Party is probably, on balance, pro.

The position in America is rather different in that the Democratic Party appears to be the natural constituency of American Jews and hence it is the home of Senator Bernie Sanders, who is a wonderfully likeable example of the Jewish intellectual in the classical socialist-tending mode. In this respect, perhaps, the real triumph of his campaign in recent months is that it has given back a credible voice to Socialism in America – a form of communitarian thinking doomed by the Sacco and Vanzetti fiasco and all the other horrors that hit the American Left in the last century. Yet Bernie Sanders is a critic of Israel today and it is the Republicans who are its best supporters. I have no figures on this – but it is clear that there is a large-scale drift out of the Zionist camp in America politics today.

This is a huge challenge Israeli propaganda and derring-do, for which they lack nothing in enthusiasm, resources, or invention. But politically educated Israelis have always known that, at bottom, their position as a country depends on its status as a colony in the Middle East supported by the Great Powers – even when they were themselves warring against those powers. Today the dynamic has changed in view of the unlimited violence unleashed in the region and, in simple terms, the mass availability of guns and munitions. (For Israel, getting guns from Russian was once a crucial step in the “defence” of the new-born state and its expansion towards the sea.)

The Wall in Israel-Palestine

Colony or Seige?

It seems an almost certainty that the colonial character of Israel will henceforth be its dominant identity and that, until the West drifts back into an imperialist frame of mind, its popular support in the EU and American will remain under threat. The long-term question for any forecast must be whether Israeli can survive in those conditions and in what form. The obvious answer is that the self-recognition of citizens of Israeli as members of a colonial nation fighting for survival – as others such as America or Latin America did in previous ages – is the only cogent position that young Israelis can take up today. The opposite view, that they are a liberal force in the Middle East and the vanguard of a humanist civilisation in the region is rapidly being exposed as the bunkum that it is.

Liberal Israel is shrinking and will continue to shrink until it is extinct and – in the absence of stable “world politics” – there really is no environment of thought or action in which it has any chance of being preserved or reborn. The result is tragic for those who support the people of Israel with whom they naturally identify since, as members of the most liberal community in the West – to speak of the Jewish intelligentsia in America, for example – they are now on a collision course with the political leadership of the country which embodies the nearest thing to the idea of nationhood for their own ethnicity and traditions.

Dispossessed Palestinian woman with housedoor key

Dispossessed Palestinian woman with housedoor key

This has a further consequence: Jewish intellectuals who object to the endless theft of land in Palestine and the militant sequestration of the Palestinians in their own country are now adrift and “wandering”, as the phrase went, once again. It is ironic to find that in a period when the typical homeless Middle-Easterner is an agenda Palestinian woman with the key to her former house in her cloth handbag – the left-wing Jew is now without a homeland. But perhaps this is a misnomer or even a misunderstanding, since the home of the Jewish intelligentsia is so often the country in which they have settled and upon which they confer so much honour by their fidelity to the highest standards in philosophy and art and all the other operative departments of cultured life.

The current emergence of a large proportion of international Jews who stand up to protest against the conduct of the Israeli state against Israel is certainly a gratifying and an impressive display of ethical responsibility on the national and political front but the “bottom line” here is not so much about this or that outrage or even the Apartheid climate which has increasingly become the defining character of the Israeli state but the recognition that Israel is a colonial nation and that the act of colonising is intrinsic to its historical nature and its modus operandi as a political state.


Balfour Declaration, 2 Nov.1917

When Israel was founded, in the period of Protectorates and all that post-war imperialism on the part of the ultimate victors of WWI and later in the spin-off from WWII, the world – our world – was largely favourable to the idea of Jewish “settlement”, and largely contemptuous of the supposed claims of Palestinians who were said to have sold off their country piecemeal, such as it was. (Those who did so must rue the day.) But times have changed and today our world considers that every invasion, every Raj, Protectorate or Concession occupied by representatives of the First World in the Second and Third Worlds is a colonial tyranny – nothing else and nothing less.

And this is the dilemma of the Jewish intellectual and, to that extent, their tragedy – though the adaptability of the human heart and the human mind is surely such that individuals and communities can alter their position irrespective of the historical propulsion of the so-called “nation” or “state” to which they notionally belong. It might seem impertinent to say so, but it is this space – which I am going to call the Bernie Sanders space – that one has the best entitlement to expect to see lively and creative intellectual discourse and a vindication of the ethical tradition of one of the greatest races and traditions on earth.┬áThe pity is that if they fail they will do so at the cost of the wider credibility of the Western Powers since, to a significant extent, they make up the opinion-making class. And they will do so at the cost of the kind of bitter alienation which has recently given rise to the sort of spurious charges and counter charges of anti-Semitism and racism which we hear so often today.

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