Israel’s challenge to the colonial worldview
Israel and its struggle to survive will come to symbolize the West’s own post-colonial future, rather than its colonial past.
Israeli flag hangs off pole in Migron Photo: REUTERS
The accusation that Israel is a Western colonial-imperialist power is not new,
but in the present age of political uncertainty it is again emerging as one of
the great rallying cries of world politics.
The imperial Israeli
whipping-boy unites Berlin’s discontent and Cairo’s rage in rare and wonderful
From Tehran to Caracas, seething resentment of Western
dominance finds an object. Meanwhile progressives in Europe, America and Israel
concede with a sigh that, from a Western power like Israel, one ought to expect
Of course it amounts to slander. The Jewish state is neither
colonial nor properly Western. And though this truth may be quite incapable of
redirecting the currents of world opinion, it has a certain power. By examining
the Zionist movement’s relationship to colonialism openly, we don’t merely
remind ourselves what sets Israel apart from yesterday’s colonial powers. The
truth exposes a great irony of anti-Zionist politics: Israel today has moved
beyond colonialism in a way many of its critics have yet to do. Israel, in fact,
challenges the colonialist paradigm shared by Islamists and liberals
In 1899, following the American takeover of the Philippines,
Rudyard Kipling penned the West’s last great poem sympathetic to colonialism,
White man’s burden. That burden, as Kipling saw it, was the thankless task of
civilizing the native. He wrote: “Take up the White Man’s burden / And reap his
old reward: / The blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye
As these lines suggest, by the turn of the past century
colonialism was seen by enlightened Western opinion as the bitter duty imposed
by cultural superiority.
Published only two years later, Theodor Herzl’s
utopian work Old-New Land described the workings of a future Jewish state.
Kipling’s poem notwithstanding, Herzl’s imaginary state was to be culturally
rooted in Western Europe. “Ghettoized” Jews from Eastern Europe as well as the
local Arabs, who lacked both economic infrastructure and national consciousness,
were to be progressively civilized. The assimilated Jews of Western Europe were
to define the customs of the state and its ideology.
In retrospect, it’s
clear that Herzl understood only half of his own idea of an “Old-New” land. The
revival of the Hebrew language, immigration from the East, as well as the deep
historical and religious connection of the Jews to Israel were something beyond
the pale of European colonialism.
Herzl’s attachment to Western culture,
moreover, blinded him to the fact that the return to the ancient homeland was
not the same thing as a transplant to the New World. And rather than
“civilizing” the Arabs, Zionism precipitated a struggle over the land between
two indigenous nations with no other home.
Mainstream and left-wing
Zionism in the pre-state period, following Herzl, did continue to hope that the
material benefits of Jewish settlement would eventually win over local Arabs.
Martin Buber’s efforts towards a binational state, for example, were based on
the idea of a fraternal or paternal sharing of Western
know-how. Kipling’s civilizing creed was part of much early Zionist
thought. But the right wing of the Zionist movement had long held that the
paternalistic paradigm was simply misplaced.
Revisionist leader Vladimir
Jabotinsky argued as early as 1923 that Jewish expectations of being welcomed by
local Arabs were not only naïve, they were a mark of disrespect.
imagine, as our Arabophiles do, that [the Arabs] will voluntarily consent to the
realisation of Zionism in return for the cultural and economic benefits we can
bestow on them... has at bottom a kind of contempt for the Arab people; it means
that they despise the Arab race, which they regard as a corrupt mob that can be
bought and sold.”
After the Arab revolt of 1936 put Jewish life and
property under immediate threat, even mainstream Zionism was largely cured of
the “white man’s burden.” Indeed, after the mass immigration in the 50s from the
Orient and Africa, Israel was no longer white.
Today it seems obvious
that the influence between Western and Eastern Jews has been deep and mutual,
producing something entirely new. Or as Herzl put it, something “Old-New.” So
whatever position one takes with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, two
things should be clear. First, the struggle is not between a colonial nation and
an indigenous one, but rather between two indigenous nations. And second, these
nations came into being at the same time, both resulting from the Zionist
Denying Israel’s unique post-colonial identity serves the
Islamic world’s interest in obvious ways. The Western interest in denying it is
both more complicated and insidious. This is well worth exploring.
age of colonialism may be over, but today more than ever the “white man’s
burden” (now also carried in at least equal measure by the white woman)
dominates the Western worldview.
In general, and particularly after Iraq
and Afghanistan, the West lacks all interest and taste for pursuing war. It
hopes to pacify and civilize under the slogan of “democracy and human rights.”
On the other hand, the Islamic world (and the developing world in general),
though hardly of one mind, has religious and economic motives to foment
conflict, as well as the taste for doing so.
Admitting that an
irremediable force toward war exists in the world spells the definitive end of
Western ideal of perpetual world peace. Contemporary Western apologetics toward
Islamic aggression are formed largely out of a commitment to preserve that ideal
of world peace at all costs. The West’s “burden” is still to civilize and
The West, as a result, has a deep spiritual need to be
responsible for all the hatred it inspires. This need is child of the threatened
collapse of the world peace paradigm as well as the legacy of its colonial past.
As long as the West is responsible, the West can fix the problem.
long as Israel is considered the last colonial Western state – susceptible of
the radical solution of being dismantled or the “moderate” solution of being
pressured into unilateral concessions – the naked aggression of the Muslim world
need not upset the ideal of constant progress towards world peace. The Western
intellectual – whether Israeli, European or American – can repeat to himself
Kipling’s antiquated words: “By all ye cry or whisper, / By all ye leave or do,
/ The silent, sullen peoples / Shall weigh your gods and you.”
another story. Much of the world has already done its weighing and reached its
Sooner or later, the harsh reality of diminished power and
demographic shifts will force Western thought to disburden itself of its
obsolete and arrogant undercurrents.
When that happens, Israel and its
struggle to survive will come to symbolize the West’s own post-colonial future,
rather than its colonial past.
The writer is a public relations
professional and freelance author.