Copyright c 2003 by Derek Jonathan Penslar
The relationship between Zionism and
colonialism, long a highly controversial subject among scholars throughout the
world, has in recent years become a primary source of friction between
champions and opponents of revisionism within Israeli historiography and
sociology. Until the 1980s, most
scholars of Israel Studies teaching in Israeli universities denied or qualified
linkages between Zionism and the high imperialism of the fin de siŹcle. This approach is still taken by a number of
younger scholars in
Regardless of their political
stance, historians of
Some of the more recent historical literature, on the other hand, claims that Zionist thinking, like that of fin de siŹcle Europeans as a whole, operated on multiple levels and that feelings of benevolence, humanitarianism, and sympathy could easily blend with condescending, Orientalist, and even racist views of the Palestinian Arabs. Israel’s current crop of critical sociologists, claiming that Jews and Arabs in pre-1948 Palestine constituted a common socio-economic and political matrix, argue that Zionism conformed closely with typical European settlement colonialism, in which, as Ronen Shamir has put it, “employers and employees belong to the same ethnic group…and in which that ethnic group has effective control over the land in ways that enable it to extract and utilize its resources.”<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
One serious problem with the
discussion on the relationship between Zionism and colonialism is the attempt
to establish complete congruence or total separation between the two
phenomena. Another, related problem is the
failure to include additional categories of analysis such as anti-colonialism
(Zionism as an act of resistance by a colonized people) and post-colonial
In this article, when I refer to
post-colonial discourse and practice, I mean something rather different from
current concepts of postcolonialism.
When first used in the 1950's, the “post-colonial” referred to a
historical moment, when
Modern European colonialism frequently involved the expropriation of native lands and the exploitation of native labor for the economic benefit of the metropole. The two phenomena were, at times, causally linked, in that expropriation could stimulate the formation of a rural proletariat, which then provided cheap labor on plantations and in workshops and factories. On the other hand, the two could develop separately; settlement colonialism displaced the native from his land so that it might be worked by members of the colonizers’ nationality. Settlement colonialism was usually sanctioned by a sovereign state, often via the licensing of one or more private companies to bear the risks of the colonizing venture.
Before 1948, the Yishuv and its
Zionist sponsors abroad could not be considered a colonizing state, in that it
exercised highly limited authority over small portions of
The use of Arab labour was not, however, necessarily or purely colonial, as throughout the Arab world in the early twentieth century, the development of capitalist agriculture tore peasants from their holdings and sent them into agricultural wage labour. Both Arabs and Jews owned citrus groves, and both employed Arab labourers on similar terms. As to expropriation, there are a number of documented cases of Jewish land purchases causing the displacement of Palestinian peasants, but the overall dimensions of the phenomenon are difficult to determine, as is the overall importance of displacement as opposed to other factors in the movement of Palestinian laborers from the countryside to the cities during the Mandate period.
More important than the consequences of Zionist settlement, however, were the means employed. The World Zionist Organization tried to assume the role of a colonizing state. It overtly emulated European practices by establishing a colonial bank, funding research and experimentation in tropical agriculture, and supporting capitalist joint-stock companies that were hoped to yield, eventually, a profit to their shareholders. The instrumental rationality, bureaucratic procedure, and expectation of sustained profit that characterize modern colonialism (and distinguish it from mere conquest) were all present in the early Zionist project. The ZO’s attempts to take on the mantle of the colonizing state, however, failed, primarily due to a lack of means. Moreover, although the officers of the ZO had few qualms about linking their enterprise with European colonialism, they were not wont to conceive of the Arab as an enemy to be expelled or a body to be enslaved for profit. This was the case even when Zionists explicitly invoked European nationality conflicts as models for their own actions. Thus, for example, in 1908 the ZO planned to establish a publicly-funded colonization company along the lines of the Prussian Colonization Commission, which sought to strengthen the German presence in Prussian Poland. Zionist bureaucrats blithely cited both the Prussian Commission and Polish counter-measures as models of the mobilization of public direction and expertise, on the one hand, and private capital, on the other, for the public good.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Zionist discourse as well as
practice conformed in many ways to the colonialist and Orientalist
sensibilities of fin de siŹcle
European society. Zionism contained a
powerful mission civilisatrice to
Zionism certainly contained Orientalist elements, yet it differed from colonial movements in its assertion of familial propinquity, however distant, with the Arabs. As opposed to Joseph Conrad’s nightmarish vision of the corruption of the white man who journeys into the heart of African darkness, Conrad’s contemporary, the Hebrew writer Moshe Smilansky, presented Jewish contact with the Beduin and Druze of Palestine as literally an ennobling experience. For Smilansky, celebration of the Arab was less similar to Western romanticization of the utterly alien noble savage than Russian depictions of the semi-Asiatic Caucasian Muslim as intrinsically Russian.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Moreover, whereas the topos of the Arab as sexual object figured prominently in Orientalist fantasy (the object was usually female but at times male, as in Andre Gide’s novel The Immoralist), the sexualized Arab rarely figured as an object of Zionist desire.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Thus we see in Zionism an apparently contradictory search for connection with and isolation from the Arab, a contradiction that can be resolved if we look beyond the obvious similarities between Zionism and colonialism and turn our gaze to the Jews’ historic status as a colonized people and Zionism as an anti-colonial movement.
In an essay on colonial practice in
fin de siecle French Indochina and the
Stoler’s description of French and
Dutch policies and attitudes towards their colonial subjects can be easily
mapped on to attitudes and policies towards Jews in 18th and 19th-century
Much of the recent literature on the
colonial encounter probes the complex reaction of the colonized intelligentsia
to the blandishments of the West, the inability to achieve full acceptance, and
the simultaneous desire to preserve and transform indigenous cultures. Throughout
Moreover, colonized intellectuals in
various lands claimed that the colonized peoples’ material disadvantage was the
result of their culture’s unjustified and tragic rejection of science and
technology, which had been essential elements of the pristine sources of the
indigenous culture (e.g., Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism).
King Rama’s distinction between Buddhism’s rich spiritual heritage and
the cold truths of Western science, and his well-tempered statement that each
is necessary to human well-being, find their Jewish-historical parallel in the Haskalah, the Jewish variant of the
European Enlightenment. One of the Haskalah’s pioneering texts, Naphtali Hirsch
Wessely’s Words of Peace and Truth
(1782-85), distinguishes between the “torah of God” and the “torah of man” and
calls for a new appreciation of the latter in Jewish education. Like Thai, Bengali, and Egyptian
intellectuals in the late 19th century, Wessely and his fellow adherents
of the late 18th-century German Haskalah claimed that their
religious culture was inherently open to scientific inquiry but had been
tainted by superstition. Moreover, as the Reform movement within Judaism
The division between body and spirit, between the physical and the
metaphysical, that was central to post-Cartesian Christian civilization had
worked its way into Jewish culture already in the 17th century,
stimulating astronomical, medical, and
(al)chemical inquiry. The Haskalah,
Reform Judaism, and the Wissenschaft des Judentums, however, contained a
revolutionary and totalizing agenda not found previously in the realms of
Jewish thought. The modernizing
movements within Judaism claimed the right to abrogate centuries of
interpretive tradition and to base faith and practice entirely on a
rationalistic reading of ancient authoritative texts. This transformation of Judaism was paralleled
in early 19th-century
Abraham Geiger dismissed much of rabbinic Judaism as a lifeless husk encasing Judaism’s biblical, monotheistic essence, and Leopold Zunz, the greatest of the early exponents of secular Judaic scholarship, excavated the literary riches of the Jewish past to demonstrate its superiority to contemporary arid talmudism. The Indian parallel to the work of these men, a Wissenschaft des Hinduismus, if you will, came into its own in the 1870’s, with the founding by Dayananda Saravati of the Arya Samaj. The Arya Samaj saw in the Vedanta a fixed, textual base for a rationalized Hindu religion. The Arya Samaj presented ancient Vedic religion as monotheistic and egalitarian, far superior to its degenerate Hindu successor, which had allegedly been corrupted by polytheism and the introduction of the caste system.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Like the proponents of Jewish Wissenschaft, Hindu reformers accepted Western scholarly methods, for a rationalized religion depended upon standardized, critical editions of sacred texts.
Among both Jews and Hindus, religious reform and textual scholarship were
part of a broad movement for cultural renewal, of which education was an
essential part. Like the maskilim in
Comparing Chatterjee with recent work by the Jewish historians Marion Kaplan and Paula Hyman, we see both Jewish and Indian writers in the late 19th century accusing women of leaping to assimilate into the colonizers’ culture, thereby neglecting their duties as mothers of the nation and preservers of religious ritual. These accusations were themselves yet another form of projection, for among both Jews and Indians, men comprised the bulk of the vanguard undergoing assimilation. Women, largely confined to the home, maintained religious traditions within the intimate sphere of the family while the observance of pubic ritual experienced decline.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
An essential component of early Indian and Jewish nationalism was a
defensive, secular historiography that posited the continuous existence of a
united people (what Benedict Anderson calls a bound seriality<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>), whose
fall from ancient glory was the result of random chance and human action, not
divine will. Traditional Hindu
historiography, like the historical consciousness of biblical and rabbinic
Judaism, interpreted the course of human events as the result of divine
providence, which rewarded and punished the leaders of the faith and people
according to their observance of the divine way, be it dharma or halakhah. Although Jewish historical thinking began to
secularize in the sixteenth century, in the wake of the expulsion of the Jews
The comparisons I am offering between the Jewish and Asian intelligentsia might appear forced because, prior to the rise of Zionism, the former rarely thought of themselves as colonized, but rather as members of a religious minority, deeply rooted within its lands of residence, most of which became increasingly open to Jews, socially and politically, over the course of the nineteenth century. Emancipation transformed Jews into enfranchised citizens, and capitalism made them into prosperous burghers. In such an environment, one could argue, Jewish intellectuals did not engage in colonial mimicry, rather, they were no more or less European than their Christian fellow-countrymen. There was, however, a clearly apologetic, defensive component in the Haskalah and Wissenschaft movements that differentiate them from their general European counterparts, the Enlightenment and historicism. The popularization of scientific discourse in the Jewish press was far more than an instrument of mass education through the dissemination of useful knowledge; it was seen as a vehicle for the collective transformation of a people psychically stunted by talmudism. Jewish intellectuals in nineteenth-century Europe may have felt that time was on their side, but they were nonetheless engaged in a vigorous campaign to refashion Judaism, not merely to be accepted into European society, but also to protect Jewish life from the blandishments of both Christianity and secularism, to engage in a carefully thought out process of imitation in order to prevent assimilation. The material conditions of life for European Jews and Asians differed greatly, as did the relations of power with the European hegemon, but the thought processes of Jewish and Asian intellectuals were similar, including those that led to the development of nationalist ideologies. It is no surprise, then, that aspects of Zionism resemble anti-colonial national movements, although there were spectacular differences as well.
Chatterjee has traced the transition in 19th-century Bengali thought between the rationalist and universalist trends of Hindu reform movements and the rejection of those trends late in the century by an anti-rational, mystical glorification of the Indian national spirit. For example, the lower-caste mystic Ramakrishna, who became an object of a cult in the 1880's, glorified the “ancient Hindu national ideal” of ecstatic asceticism.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Ramakrishna’s emphasis on myth rather than rationality, and on myth’s power to fuel nationalistic sentiment, found its counterpart in a major stream of Zionist ideology, beginning with Micha Berdichevsky and finding its most scholarly exponent in Gershom Scholem, who rejected the rationalism of the Wissenschaft des Judentums and embraced kabbalah as the primary manifestation throughout the ages of Jewish vitalist spirit.
As the late Amos Funkenstein observed, the Zionist project was fueled by two contradictory conceptions of human nature, romantic and materialist. The former defined man as ineffable, spontaneous spirit, and the latter operated within grooves cut by economic laws, “stychic” social processes (to use Borochov’s terminology), and a search for “human material” to be shaped by Zionist apparatchiks into a productive laboring nation.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The nationalization of the masses had to be rationally planned even when it involved stoking irrational collective feeling. Thus anti-colonial movements, and the post-colonial states that succeed them, featured aspects of hyper-rational, utopian planning while pooling reservoirs of tribal solidarity and fury against the colonizer.
Consider the case of women’s suffrage, which was the subject of almost
two centuries of debate in the West, and which only came to
State building in the post-colonial world demands direction, planning,
and regulation. Chatterjee’s important
essay on the role of planning and technical expertise in modern Indian
nationalism<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> helps us
to pinpoint the point of departure between Zionism and anti-colonial movements,
The comparisons with the situation of the Jews in the 20th
century are striking. For the Jews,
there has been, even after the creation of the state of
During the first half of the 20th century, the Zionist
movement created a proto-state, in which planning was indeed a form of
legitimization, of imagining the nation by asserting the authority to set the
course of the nation-building enterprise.
Like post-colonial states, the Zionist movement and early state of
Because Jews have constituted an unbounded nation, Zionists were not the
only agents of Jewish social engineering in our century. During the formative decades of the Yishuv, a
number of international Jewish philanthropic organizations, often better-funded
than the Zionists, attempted mass colonization of Jews in lands as far flung as
Much of the motivation behind the agrarian orientation of the agents of
Jewish social engineering, however, was ideological - apologetic, romantic, or
socialist. After all, contemporary
Our discussion demonstrates that at a certain point, comparisons between Zionism, on the one hand, and colonialism or post-colonial states, on the other, are no longer valuable except as tools for highlighting the eccentric, distinctive qualities of the Zionist project on the world stage. Attempts to force the Zionist project into Chatterjee’s theoretical framework of an anti-colonial nationalism and post-colonial state fall short not only because of Zionism’s unique features, but also because Chatterjee fails to satisfactorily distinguish anti-colonial nationalism and post-colonial policy from their European predecessors, which are, in fact, Zionism’s true parents.
Chatterjee’s desire to essentialize the colonized nation leads him to juxtapose western, liberal politics, allegedly based on the mechanistic principals of majority rule and legitimized by atomized, individual voters, and what he claims is the consensus-based politics of post-colonial states.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> In fact, a politics of consensus characterized many modern European states, including Imperial Germany, in which the chancellor and cabinet were not responsible to parliament, and the Italian kingdom, which was managed through a constant process of give and take between members of a minuscule political and economic elite. The failure of the international Zionist movement or the Yishuv’s representative bodies during the interwar period to function as paragons of representative democracy, therefore, does not in any way remove the Zionist project from mainstream fin de sičcle European statecraft, let alone the rough and tumble world of politics among socialists and national minorities in eastern Europe.
Chatterjee attempts to refute
Zionism’s mission civilisatrice
was directed primarily at Jews, not the indigenous Arabs of Palestine. It was not primarily a manifestation of a
colonial will to power, nor was it merely a response to centuries of Gentile
criticisms of Jewish social and economic behavior. As a European nationalist movement, Zionism could not help but have a powerful
pedagogic and developmental dynamic. In
late 18th century, German states expected Jews to undergo, as the
bureaucrat Christian Friedrich Wilhelm von Dohm put it, “civil improvement,”
but the same expectations were held for other social groups considered to be
unproductive. Hence the appearance in
Chatterjee depicts the historian of the craftsman of the modern Indian
nation, but of course the same can be said of any land in 19th-century
The origins of modern European nationalism are steeped in controversy, as
classic views emphasizing the centrality of nationalist ideology, created and
disseminated by narrow intellectual elites, have been steadily replaced by a
focus on socio-economic transformation, uneven economic development, and the
reshaping of pre-existing collective identities as the prime sources of popular
nationalist sentiment. Nationalism may
well have had 18th-century manifestations outside of
Nationalist ideologues associate primacy with legitimacy and nervously equate a reactive nationalism with a lack of authenticity. Similarly, Chatterjee’s defensive posture vis a vis Western nationalism is not warranted. The fact that nationalism was a European cultural invention does not delegitimize or subordinate extra-European nationalist movements any more than modern mathematics in the West has been tainted by its dependence on the medieval Islamic invention of algebra. As in math and science, so too in the realms of philosophy and sensibility certain concepts take on universal value and appeal, enter global circulation, and become permanent fixtures in human consciousness. Nationalism is the algebra of modernity: it isolates and brings to light the factors of ethnic solidarity, and then initiates the process of al-jabr, a reunion of broken parts.
In this paper, I have set Zionism against colonial, anti-colonial, and
post-colonial equations, only to argue that although Zionism shares certain
variables with all three phenomena, Zionism is not equivalent with the first
and can, like the latter two, be simplified and rendered largely congruent with
European nationalism. Zionism was a
product of the age of imperialism; its adherents shared a number of common
sensibilities with European advocates of colonial expansion in the
Anti-colonialism’s emphasis on cultural renewal, akin to cultural
nationalism in 19th-century
The Arab Revolt of the late 1930s transformed the Palestinian Arab in the
Zionist imagination from a natural part of the landscape into a coherent,
hostile political force, an enemy that would have to be vanquished in the
struggle to establish a Jewish state.
With the establishment of the state of
Israelis justified the conquest of eastern
Classic Zionism and its ideological underpinnings grew out of, yet
departed significantly from, European high imperialism and the Orientalist
sensibilities that justified it. After
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Ronen Shamir, The Colonies of Law : Colonialism, Zionism, and Law in Early Mandate
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Derek Penslar, Zionism and Technocracy: The Engineering of Jewish Settlement in
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Yaron Peleg, “Moshe Smilansky and the Making of a Noble Jewish Savage,” ms., forthcoming in Prooftexts. ***
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Ibid. Smilansky’s stories do present an eroticized image of the Beduin male, but his relationship with Jews is a friendship among equals, not the domination by the older European man of the young native boy found in Gide.
7. Ann Stoler, “Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers:
European Identities and the Cultural Politics of Exclusion in Colonial
Southeast Asia,” reproduced in Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny, eds., Becoming National,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. I discuss this
subject in detail in my book Shylock’s
Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Peter van der Veer, “The Moral State:
Religion, Nation, and Empire in Victorian Britain and
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Compare Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Susannah Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, Chicago:
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Van der Veer, “The Moral State,” 30-31.
13. Compare Chatterjee’s, “The Nation and its Women,” in The Nation and its Fragments with Paula Hyman, Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1995, and Marion Kaplan, The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany, New York and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. See Chatterjee’s essays, “The Nation and its Pasts” and “Histories and Nations” in The Nation and its Fragments.
16. Discussed in Chatterjee’s essay “The Nationlist Elite,” in The Nation and its Fragments, 45-51.
17. Amos Funkenstein, "Zionism, Science, and
History," Perceptions of Jewish
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Compare Sylvia Walby, “Woman and Nation,”
reproduced in Gopal Balakrishnan and Benedict Anderson, eds., Maping
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. “The
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. These themes are further developed in my book Shylock’s Children, Ch. 6.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Chatterjee, “Whose Imagined Community?” in The Nation and its Fragments.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Penslar, Shylock’s Children, 29-32.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Cited in Mauro Moretti, “The Search for a
‘National’ History: Italian Historiographical Trends Following Unification,” in
Stefan Berger, Mark Donovan, and Kevin Passmore, eds., Writing National Histories,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Ibid, 118.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. Despite its many problems, Liah Greenfeld’s Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity,
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. On this last point see Young, Postcolonialism, Chapters Two and Three.