In 1967, and only three weeks before the outbreak of the Six Day War on June 5th, Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes published a collection of articles on the Arab-Israeli conflict. In addition to a long lineup of Arab, Jewish, and other intellectuals, the collection included Shimon Peres and Uri Avnery among its authors.
The first article in the collection, entitled ‘Israel, Fait Colonial?’ (“Israel: a Colonial-Settler State?”) belonged to Maxime Rodinson, a French orientalist and Marxist whose Jewish parents had perished in Auschwitz.
Rodinson answered the interrogative title in the affirmative, largely by highlighting the peripheral (and ignoring the central) qualities of colonialism.
What are these central qualities?
Two characteristics set all colonialist ventures, ancient and modern, apart from the ordinary, non-colonialist settlement of land. The first is the umbilical connection a colony maintains to a mother country.
The OED defines a colony as “ a country or area under the full or partial political control of another country, typically a distant one, and occupied by settlers from that country.” Already it is clear that this definition misses Israel and, before its independence in 1948, the cluster of communities that made up the Yishuv. No mother country could be assigned to most of the towns or villages populated by Jewish immigrants from Europe or the Middle East. Certainly, no mother country could be found for the whole Yishuv. In fact, the very act of making Aliyah was a renunciation of the immigrant’s country of birth - a literal and symbolic severing of the ties between the early Olim and their native lands.
The second characteristic of colonialism, in all its ancient and modern manifestations, is the essentially mercenary nature of the effort. All colonial ventures were economically predatory endeavors. From the outset, a stronger group of complete outsiders establishes a one-sidedly extractive economic hegemony over the colony and transfers some or all of the extracted wealth back to the mother country. Here again, the Yishuv does not fit the description. For decades, the Jews were weaker than the Arabs among whom they settled, and the purpose of their settlement was neither economic nor extractive.
In fact, by making Aliyah, almost all the early olim were eschewing a number of other, economically more attractive destinations (e.g. US, Latin America) that offered fewer risks and better opportunities than the ones involved in traveling to, and settling in - now arid, now malarial - Ottoman Palestine. You need only read the travelogues, the memoirs, and the correspondence filled with desperate calls for help, the reports of moshavot surviving between droughts and Arab attacks, to know that this was not anything like Britain-in-India or France-in-Algeria.
In short, the evidence is overwhelming that Jews traveling to Palestine early last century were engaged in something other than a predatory economic venture on behalf of a mother country. In many cases, they were in fact abandoning greener pastures for the arduous struggles of living off the land in the Holy Land. That same phenomenon persists today in the form of tens of thousands of American and Canadian Jews who leave the safety and comfort of North America's suburbs to build new lives in places like Hebron, Ariel, and Efrat. From Ben Gurion till now, the reason they all give to the uncomprehending gentile for what looks like a voluntary downgrade in their living standard is that they’re “going home.”
Both of these qualities (i.e. the unique relationship to the mother country, and the predatory economics) are necessary for the historically-based definition to apply. Rodinson’s reasons for describing Israel as a colonial entity ignored these two sine qua non qualifications and emphasized incidental or ancillary elements in the history of Jewish resettlement of Palestine.
Describing as ‘colonial’ the return and resettlement of the land of Israel by the Jews equates what is in fact a national liberation movement with its antithesis, colonialism. Such usage should be rejected, (even when innocently done by Zionist icons like Jabotinsky) as both ahistorical and defamatory.