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8/22/2010 Historical Fiction

Published on The New Republic (

Historical Fiction
Israel is not a colonialist state.
Dore Gold August 17, 2010 | 12:00 am

The argument that Israel is a colonialist entity is often marshaled to

undermine the Jewish state’s legitimacy . The theme has certainly
permeated Western academia, almost uncritically . For decades, it has
been employ ed against Israel in one international forum after
another. In 1 97 3, the U.N. General A ssembly gav e initial momentum
to this idea when it condemned the “unholy alliance between
Portuguese colonialism, South A frican racism, Zionism, and Israeli

That association of Israel with colonialist regimes set the stage in

1 97 5 for the most insidious resolution ev er adopted in the General
A ssembly against Israel, which stated that Zionism was a form of
racism. It helped cement the Afro-Asian bloc behind both the
resolution and the mov ement to delegitimize Israel. Ev en when, in
1 991 , the General A ssembly finally ov erturned the resolution,
comparisons between Zionism and colonialism persisted, arguably becoming ev en more strident.

Speaking in Johannesburg in 2008, A zmi Bishara, a former member of the Knesset, ex plained another way that
accusing Israel of being a colonialist entity has real political utility . Bishara, who today does not miss an
opportunity to question Israel’s legitimacy before audiences abroad, ex plained that two points had to be
established to show that Israel was an apartheid state: first, that Israel practiced racial separation; and second,
that it was a product of colonialism.

Of course, any one who v isits the emergency rooms in Israeli hospitals, or the classrooms at any Israeli
univ ersity , or the v oting booths on election day , to say nothing of the Knesset itself, would see both Jewish and
A rab doctors, patients, professors, students, v oters, and parliamentarians mix ing together in a way that utterly
disprov es the charge of apartheid. That leav es Bishara with mainly the claim of colonialism to make his case.

Unlike the charge of racial separation, the tag “colonialist” cannot be refuted simply by looking around modern
Israel. It is a historical charge about how Israel came to ex ist: In effect, it amounts to the claim that Israel was
established as an outpost of another distant power imposing itself on the territory and its nativ e inhabitants. But
the fact is that while modern Israel succeeded the 1 922 British Mandate for Palestine, it was created by neither
the British nor any other occupy ing power.

The Jews were already asserting their right to self-determination well before the British and the French
dismantled the Ottoman Empire. For ex ample, the Jewish people had already re-established their majority in…/israel-not-imperialist-state-hi… 1/3
8/22/2010 Historical Fiction
Jerusalem by 1 863. Decades later, Britain and the rest of the League of Nations considered Jewish rights in
Palestine bey ond their power to bestow because those rights were already there to be accepted. Thus the League
of Nations gav e recognition to “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine.” In other words, it
recognized a pre-existing right. It called for “reconstituting” the Jewish people’s national home. A nd the rights
recognized by the League of Nations in 1 922 were preserv ed by its successor organization, the United Nations,
which in Article 80 of its charter acknowledged all rights of states and peoples that ex isted before 1 945.

The accusation that Israel has colonialist roots because of its connection to the British Mandate is ironic, since
most of the A rab states owe their origins to the entry and domination of the European powers. Prior to World
War I, the A rab states of Iraq, Sy ria, Lebanon, and Jordan did not ex ist, but were only districts of the Ottoman
Empire, under different names. They became states as a result of European interv ention, with the British putting
the Hashemite family in power in two of these countries.

Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, meanwhile, emerged from treaties that their leaders signed with Britain.
By means of those treaties, the British recognized the legitimacy of local Arab families to rule what became states
like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. A similar British treaty with the al-Saud family in 1 91 5 set the stage for the
ev entual emergence of Saudi A rabia in 1 932.

Moreov er, during Israel's War of Independence, A rab armies benefited directly from European arms and
training—and ev en manpower. The Arab Legion initially fought in Jerusalem with British officers, while the skies
of the Egy ptian Sinai were protected from the Israeli A ir Force by the Roy al A ir Force. Indeed, Israeli and
British aircraft clashed in 1 949.

William Roger Louis, one of the foremost historians of British imperial strategy , uncov ered an ex tremely
rev ealing document from the British foreign office that puts into perspectiv e Israel’s relationship with the
European colonial powers at its birth. In his 1 984 book, The British Empire in the Middle East, 1 945-1 951 , he
describes a meeting on July 21 , 1 949 of senior British officials at the end of Israel’s War of Independence. Sir
John Troutbeck, head of the British Middle East Office, said, “We were in a position to control the A rab
gov ernments but not Israel.” He then ex pressed fear that “the Israelis might drag the A rab States into a neutral
bloc and ev en attempt to turn us out of Egy pt.” The original Foreign Office document also ex pressed concern
that the British would lose their airbases in Iraq. In 1 956, Israel briefly made common cause with Britain and
France against Nasser’s Egy pt, but this could not alter the fact that, for the imperial powers, Israel was an
obstacle, not an outpost.

Nev ertheless, in recent y ears, the effort to portray Israel as a colonial entity has ex panded. For many
Palestinian spokesmen, in particular, it became important to deny the historical ties of the Jewish people to their
land and to portray them as recent colonialist arriv als to the region—in contrast to the Palestinians, who were
portray ed as the authentic nativ e population.

This effort reached an audacious peak when Y asser A rafat denied that the Temple had ev er ex isted in Jerusalem
at the end of the July 2000 Camp Dav id Summit with President Clinton. Many of his deputies—from Saeb Erekat
to Mahmoud A bbas—hav e since picked up the same theme. Speaking on Nov ember 1 2, 2008, at a U.N. General
A ssembly “Dialogue of Religions and Cultures,” the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fay y ad, addressed the
historical connections of Islam and Christianity to Jerusalem, but noticeably did not say a single word about
Judaism's ties to the Holy City .

In a similar v ein, Arafat used to tell Western audiences that the Palestinians are descendents of the Jebusites,
with ancient roots in the land. But in Palestinian society , one establishes one’s status by claiming to be a relativ e
latecomer, whose ancestors were from the Arabian families that accompanied the Second Caliph Umar bin al-
Khatttab when he conquered and colonized By zantine Palestine in the sev enth century . Ev en at that time, the
Jews were still a plurality —and, perhaps along with the Samaritans, a majority —in the land, six hundred y ears
after the Romans destroy ed their ancient Temple and the Second Jewish Commonwealth. This emerges from
Professor Moshe Gil’s monumental 800-page A History of Palestine: 634-1 099.…/israel-not-imperialist-state-hi… 2/3
8/22/2010 Historical Fiction

A scertaining the truth has nev er been the objectiv e of those try ing to paint Israel with a colonialist brush. They
hav e been determined simply to conclude that the Jews came as an alien force to Palestine, to adv ance European
interests, rather than see them as a people recov ering their historical homeland, where they had deep,
indigenous roots.

Dore Gold is an Israeli statesman w ho has served in various diplomatic positions under several Israeli
governments. He is the current President of the Jerusalem Center for Public A ffairs.

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