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 370 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli flag hangs off pole in Migron 370 R
(photo credit: 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 agreement.
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 more.
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 alike.
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 guard.”
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.
“To 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 movement.
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.
The 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 pacify.
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.
And as 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.”
Reality is another story. Much of the world has already done its weighing and reached its conclusions.
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.