Latest hasbara target: Israel as a settler-colonial state

Ongoing expansion of the Jewish settlement of Halamish (File)

Maurice Ebileeni

Mondoweiss  /  July 21, 2021

A recent debate over the term “settler colonialism” in Haaretz seeks to raise doubts over the appropriateness of using it to describe Israel. This is exactly how good solid hasbara works.

A recent debate over the usefulness of the term “settler colonialism” in the English version of Haaretz shows how American universities and media are constant targets for Israeli hasbara. It started with Steven Lubet and Jonathan Zasloff’s deeply flawed article from July 5 titled “Is Israel really a Settler Colonial State?” where they go to great lengths in refuting any reference to Israel as a settler-colonial state. Engaging in a fuzzy dialectic about whether the use of the term asserts a historical fact or expresses bias for the purpose of smearing Israel’s reputation, Lubet and Zasloff insist that its aim is exclusively “to isolate the Jewish state from the legitimate family of nations.”   

The following week, on July 14, Arnon Degani thankfully responded to Lubet and Zasloff and I am even more grateful Degani took the time to explain what settler colonialism really is since most of us do not actually, as he claims, understand the term. 

However, in countering Lubet and Zasloff’s deductive argument against defining Israel as a settler-colonial state – vis-à-vis to claim Israel is a settler-colonial state is exclusively a part of an ongoing smear campaign because Israel is really not a settler colonial state in the sense that it does not behave like other settler colonial states – Degani’s assertion that Israel is indeed “comparable to those of other settler-colonial societies” is not particularly condemning. It is not particularly condemning insofar as he does not see “the moral and existential issues” Israelis are facing as “uniquely abominable or innocuous” – to the contrary. In “successful settler-colonial states,” as he has it, assimilation has “worked in tandem with the physical removal of indigenous communities.” To exemplify how settler-colonial societies “allow for the native to stand on a more equal footing with the settler” in Israel, Degani points to “the recent willingness of Palestinian-Arab parties and politicians to work in government with Zionist parties” and so on and so forth. In a nutshell, Degani sees that the use of the term “settler colonialism” in attempting to delegitimize Israel’s existence is utterly useless since it merely positions Israel among some of the West’s most progressive democracies such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. 

Settler colonialism has been a basic part of the debate on American campuses and media and as Lubet and Zasloff make clear, their article is explicitly directed at American audiences as their main concern is “American journalism’s future coverage of the Middle East.” This statement and the fact that their article – as well as Degani’s – was only made available in English, makes the intention of the articles clear.  

Bringing together the conclusions of both articles – vis-à-vis it is “more accurate to see Zionism as a form of nationalism – and Zionists as refugees” (Lubet and Zasloff) and Israel is “comparable to those of other settler-colonial societies” but that does not make it “uniquely abominable or innocuous” (Degani) – make it appear that we are offered both sides of the argument. This archetypal “two-sides” paradigm whereby both sides are only partly right and the truth is to be found somewhere in the middle is somewhat deceiving here insofar as the question of settler colonialism is being debated between a UCLA-educated Israeli historian currently located at the Hebrew University and Jewish-American legal scholars located in UCLA and Northwestern University. As a scholar who has written about Israel and Palestine in the past ten years, I can safely assert that the so-called truth does not lie between the arguments of playing down the uniqueness of Israel’s settler colonialism and advocating for the moral legitimacy of the Israeli nation-state. 

On a personal note and in response to Degani, I also wish to add that I do not think that settler-colonial polities turned into the “’West’s’ most progressive democracies” have been particularly progressive or democratic toward their indigenous populations nor have they offered them the possibility of assimilation in any equitable or meaningful sense. More importantly, I also do not believe that the purpose of the race toward the claim for exclusive indigeneity in the Israeli-Palestinian case is merely to arrive at some shared declaration; rather, the Israeli government and Israeli officials have been systematically working to erase Palestinians’ claim altogether for the purpose of replacing it with Jewish exclusivity. That is to say, while Palestinians consider Israelis as foreign invaders who arrived in Palestine and uprooted the native population, Israelis regard the making of the Palestinian people as the outcome of Arab (and other) populations’ movement across the Middle East during the past centuries (and thus, they cannot claim any real historic connection to the land). We only need to remember when Palestinians learned, in 1969, from then Prime Minister Golda Meir that they did not exist – and argument that was smoothly developed decades later by former Likud MK Anat Berko when she professed that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people since the Arabic language does not have the letter “P.” 

Should we really be engaged in proving that Palestinians exist?  Or, if Israel is a settler-colonial state? Or, if it is okay that Israel is a settler-colonial state? In other words, as readers of the English version of Haaretz, here we are pondering “both sides” of an intellectual and moral argument – and yet again, our attention is diverted from the atrocities faced by Palestinians on a daily basis. I mean if I had to stand in line for hours every day at some military checkpoint to get to work, or my family and I only enjoyed a few hours of electricity every day, or if I belonged to the fifty percent of Israel’s Arab citizens who exist below the poverty line, then I really cannot say that the nation-state has treated me any differently from the settler-colonial state. As readers of the English version of Haaretz, however, I am supposed to be left with doubts about whether it is legitimate or fruitful to use the term settler colonialism anymore and with feelings of uneasiness regarding how pro-Palestinian scholars, intellectuals, politicians, and activists have been “misusing” the term to exclusively smear Israel’s reputation. As a critic and a scholar though, my assessment is that the main purpose of this debate has been to manufacture discontent with Palestinians’ public relations tactics while simultaneously constituting general consent for Israel’s policies. This is exactly how good solid hasbara works.             

Maurice Ebileeni is a lecturer in the English department at the University of Haifa