Israel: A Colonial or Post-Colonial State?

                                                 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 Israel, but in the past fifteen years there has risen a cohort of Israeli academics who, following the lead of Arab and Western scholarship on the modern Middle East, have made  linkages between Zionism and colonialism central to their scholarly endeavors.

            Regardless of their political stance, historians of Israel have sought to reconstruct the sensibilities and mental universe of their subjects, just as sociologists of Israel have focused on broad socio-cultural and economic structures.  Traditional Zionist historiography emphasized that the founders of the state of Israel did not think of their enterprise as colonial in nature and, in fact, abhorred contemporary European colonialism for its parasitical profiting from the expropriation of native land and the exploitation of native labor.  Classic Israeli sociology, in turn, has contended that the Zionist movement and Yishuv did not conform to any conventional model of a colonizing state and that the structural barriers between Jewish and Arab society before 1948 were so great as to render impossible any consideration of the Jewish-Arab relationship as one between colonizers and colonized.  

            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.”[1]

            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 state-building (understanding Israel within the political and economic framework of 20th-century Asia and Africa).  This paper will contend that Zionism was historically and conceptually situated between colonial, anti-colonial, and post-colonial discourse and practice.  I will do so by drawing upon some essential texts in postcolonial studies, especially the work of Partha Chatterjee.  Dialectically, my use of these texts to deconstruct current conceptions of Zionism’s relationship with colonialism will deconstruct the texts themselves, for, I believe, scholars such as Chatterjee tend to essentialize anti-colonial movements and do not sufficiently acknowledge their grounding in classic European nationalism.  In other words, by depicting  Zionism as in many ways an anti-colonial movement and Israel as a post-colonial state - by placing Zionism in Asia, as it were -  I will be re-placing Zionism in Europe, a continent distinguished by not only the great overseas empires of the West but also a sizable body of colonized, stateless peoples, including Jews.

            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 Europe’s former colonial possessions became independent.  Since the 1970s, however,  post-colonialism has mutated from a descriptive category into a conceptual framework for critiquing Western forms and relations of power. (Thus the de-hyphenization of the term; from the delimited temporal and spatial realm of  “post-colonialism,” emphasizing transition, to the diffuse and overarching intellectual field of “postcolonialism”)  Whereas post-colonial states were frequently the creation of nationalist movements, postcolonialism, according to Robert Young, one of the subject’s most eminent scholars, “always operates as a form of internationalism,” because nationalism is, on his view, inherently oppressive, and new tri-continental (Asian/African/Latin American) states that adopt European nationalist sensibilities and practices have internalized the evils of the oppressor.[2]   I do not share this view, which robs the anti-colonial nationalist movements of the power of judgment, and which, as I argue at the end of the article, overlooks nationalism’s transcendence of its European origins to become a global vehicle of collective identity.  Thus when I refer here to the “post-colonial,” I am using the term in its older, descriptive sense. 



            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 Palestine.  From 1918 to 1948, the role of the colonizing state was played by Britain.  As has long been argued by economic historians of the Yishuv, and has recently been popularized by Tom Segev in his book One Palestine: Complete, the Mandatory British administration developed Palestine’s physical infrastructure, sanctioned mass Jewish immigration, and fostered the development of Jewish autonomous political and even military institutions.  Moreover, the nation-building practices within the Yishuv itself conformed, so it would seem, to both the exploitation and displacement models of colonial practice:  the former through the heavy reliance upon Arab labor in the Zionist plantation colonies and in certain urban industries, and the latter through the assiduous purchase of Arab-owned land and its nationalization by allowing only Jewish ownership thereof and labor thereupon.  

            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.[3] 

            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 awaken the Middle East from its narcotized Levantine torpor, to shatter the fossilized soil of the holy land with European tools and technology.   Zionists, like Europeans in general, romanticized the Beduin as the true son of the desert, and some residents of the Yishuv, particularly students, laborers and guards, dressed in Arab fashion as an expression of their sense of return to reclaim their ancient Middle Eastern patrimony.  This sentimental idealization of the noble savage, however, was overlaid by powerful feelings of moral and material superiority.  The Palestinian peasant was often perceived by Zionists as an  ignoble savage, uncouth and backward.   The most benign Zionist impulses to offer Arabs the fruits of western technology and to present a model of bourgeois social relations were imbedded in a project to control, direct, and regulate all affairs in the Land of Israel.  This blend of feelings of familial affinity and paternalist superiority was manifested in the Zionist claim that the Palestinian Arabs, or “Arabs of the Land of Israel,” as they were called, were the descendants of ancient Hebrews who had been cut off from Jewish civilization and slowly devolved, preserving shards of the ancient Hebrew customs and language. 

            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.[4]  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.[5]   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 Dutch East Indies, Ann Stoler writes of the profound anxiety caused to colonial administrators by the phenomenon of miscegenation between European males and native females.  The offspring of such unions were said to create an economic problem by producing an underclass of paupers, yet the threat that these children posed to their colonial masters was clearly cultural in nature.  A child neglected by his European father but dutifully raised by his native mother was said to have been abandoned, and thus subject to government action, whereas the abandoned children of native fathers were objects of neither concern nor tutelary policy.  Children of mixed unions were considered potentially meliorable because of their European blood; in fact, if raised as wards of the state, they could form “the bulwark of a future white settler population, acclimatized to the tropics but loyal to the state.”[6]  In Indochina and the East Indies French and Dutch citizenship were granted to creoles via an examination of the supplicants’ racial fitness, mastery of the colonizer’s language and culture, and demonstrated commitment to leave behind the world into which they had been born. 

            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 Europe.  Emancipation was granted on a quid pro quo basis.   Cultural and economic regeneration, that is, mastery of the host society’s language, the adoption of reigning cultural mores, and a movement from the traditional practice of peddling to livelihoods in crafts and agriculture, were considered either preconditions for citizenship (as in the German states) or immediate and necessary outcomes of the attainment of citizenship (as in France).   For Jews in post-Napoleonic Prussian Poland, as for creoles in colonial southeast Asia, citizenship was granted on a case by basis, the result of a rigorous yet arbitrary examination procedure.  Proposals made in the late 19th century by colonial officials to establish agricultural colonies for the regeneration of the Indo-European poor had their parallel in the era of enlightened absolutism, when reformist bureaucrats in Prussia, Austria, and Russia championed, and at times established, colonies to train Jews in productive labor.[6]

            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 Asia and Africa, intellectuals compensated for their economic and military inferiority vis a vis the west by asserting the moral and spiritual superiority of the colonized nation versus the powerful, but allegedly spiritually bankrupt, European powers.  For example, in India, Vivekananda’s Ramakrishna mission, founded in 1897, re-fashioned Hinduism into a bulwark against the west, which allegedly inculcated spiritual discipline into its adherents through yoga and meditation, and stimulated national solidarity by preaching the necessity of social action.[7]  Here, as well as in such diverse lands as Thailand (Siam), Meiji Japan and late Ottoman Egypt, the locus of collective identity was presented by intellectuals as found in the realms of culture, religion, and historical commemoration, which could lead to a purification of contemporary ways of thinking and a return to lost glory. 

            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).  Siam’s King Rama IV (1851-68) ascribed opposition to scientific inquiry within Buddhism to pollution from Hinduism, whereas in the predominantly Hindu Bengal, early Indian nationalists located the source of their technological decline in Islamic influences.[8]

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 developed in Germany in the first half of the 1800's, champions of Reform would attribute these superstitions to baleful Christian influences, just as Asian intellectuals besmirched neighboring or competing religions.  And, like colonized intellectuals who used western methods to study their civilizations’ classic texts, 19th-century German Jewry pioneered the systematic study of Jewish texts following the norms of Western scholarship.  The term given to this enterprise was Wissenschaft des Judentums, that is, the study of the Jewish lettered tradition outside the pietist parameters of that tradition.   Practitioners of Jewish Wissenschaft adumbrated Asia’s colonized intelligentsia in their compensation for powerlessness by  locating the essence of Jewish civilization, and its justification for continued existence, entirely in the realm of spiritual and literary creativity.   Moreover, as Susannah Heschel has argued in her study of Abraham Geiger, the founder of Liberal Judaism in Germany, Geiger’s writings on the Pharisaic roots of Jesus’ teaching can be interpreted “in [Edward] Said’s terms as  a revolt of the colonized against Christian hegemony.”[9] Geiger, like the mobilized, anti-colonial intellectual,  turned a proud and defiant gaze towards the dominator, appropriating his discourse not merely to refute claims to superiority but also to reverse the dominator-dominated power relationship.  

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 India by Rammohan Roy, who invented a laicized, rationalized Hinduism that drew solely on the ancient Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads and their philosophic commentaries, the Vedanta.[10]

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.[11]  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 Europe, the Arya Samaj founded schools to educate Indian children as an alternative to the schools of the colonizer, in this case, western missionaries.  Cultural renewal also sought to re-arrange and stabilize gender relationships.  According to Chatterjee, Bengali literature in the late 19th century contained a strong criticism of the politically emasculated and feminized babu, or middle class male.  Misogynistic discourse about women as seducers of and lords over men was a projection of the babu’s fears of his own loss of traditional culture and emasculation at the hand of the colonial state.  The babu, then, had much in common with the balabat, the Jewish householder, who was presented in classic Yiddish literature as talkative but impotent, and dominated by bossy females.  

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.[12]

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[12]), 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 from Spain, Hindu scholars were accounting for the Muslim and British conquests of India within this sacred-historical framework as late as the mid 1800's.  But in the 1870s, Hindu historiography adopted modern Western conceptual norms, with the result being a body of writing in many ways parallel to the great works of Jewish historical writing of the age. Heinrich Graetz’s magisterial History of the Jews, like  Tarnicharan Chattopadhyay’s History of India, blended staggering erudition with proto-nationalist apologetics.   Both authors molded history by compartmentalizing it into distinct periods, separated by particular events that became synecdoches for the nation as a whole.  History moved from the periphery to the center of consciousness; the nationalist project was presented as an act of restoration as much as one of revolutionary transformation.[13]

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.[14]  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.[14]  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 France and Switzerland after the second World War.  Yet as Sylvia Walby has noted, post-colonial states have granted women the franchise at the time of the states’ establishment.  Political citizenship is granted to all adults at the time of state creation as an expression of a populist sentiment and a legitimization of the overthrow of nonrepresentative colonial rule.  As Chatterjee writes of India, nationalists asserted that the entire people had been nationalized, that is, vested with a distinct and unifying Indianness. The entire nation, having been feminized by the colonial power, was to be emancipated in one fell swoop.[14]  This conceptual framework is of benefit for the study of Zionism, for it helps account for the World Zionist Organization’s early granting of voting rights to women (for the second Zionist Congress of 1898, at a time when only New Zealand had national female suffrage) and the passion with which all but ultra-Orthodox members of the Yishuv advocated women’s suffrage after the first World War. 

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[15] helps us to pinpoint the point of departure between Zionism and anti-colonial movements, and between Israel and post-colonial states.  For Chatterjee, economic planning, like the woman’s suffrage mentioned above, is a form of state legitimization, through which the state appears to rise above individual interests and promotes a Gramscian “passive revolution” in which modest reforms are accomplished but pre-capitalist elites are not annihilated.  Economic planning is outside of the politics of the state but deeply imbricated with it.  For most third-world countries, India included, such planning has focused primarily on industrialization, with agriculture more likely to be left to the private sector.

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 Israel and certainly before it, no unifying state to orchestrate economic development.  Yet world Jewry has formed a unit more cohesive than an ethnic group or stateless nationality.  Thanks to their economic and philanthropic elite (often one and the same), Jews the world over have been joined up into a quasi-polity, whose members, unlike those of a state, cannot be confidently tallied up and located in a particular space.  Rather, this entity resembles, to use another of Anderson’s terms, an “unbound seriality,” borderless but finite.  Nor did 20th-century Jewry have to contend with pre-capitalist elites cluttering up the developmental landscape.  Indeed, the Jews’ elites have been among the West’s princes of capitalism.

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 Israel venerated technical expertise; the engineer, along with the farmer and warrior, was part of the pantheon of Zionist heroes.  In Zionism, however, the position of the colonial state in third-world developmental nationalism was replaced by an opponent as amorphous and unbounded as the Jews themselves: the Diaspora, which had allegedly distorted the healthy political, economic, and spiritual structures of ancient Israel and had rendered the Jews dysfunctional.

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 Argentina and Ukraine.  Zionism’s developmental ethos and its program of massive Jewish social and economic change appealed to Jewish philanthropies of virtually every stripe.  Thus in 1929 non-Zionists in the United States were mobilized to serve Zionist political goals through the expanded Jewish Agency for Palestine, while the Yishuv’s material needs were attended to during the interwar period by organizations such as the Palestine Economic Corporation, which received much of its funding from the New York-based Joint Distribution Committee.  Both Zionists and the array of non-Zionist Jewish philanthropies shared an eccentric developmental agenda that focused, unlike the case in post-colonial states, on agricultural rather than industrial planning.  The reason for this reversal was ostensibly because the Jews’ particular concentration in urban occupations, particularly commerce, and the economic needs of the sites of Jewish social engineering (for the JCA, the Argentinian pampas; for the Joint, the Ukrainian steppe; for the Zionists,  Palestine) demanded the creation of a class of Jewish agriculturalists.[16]

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 Israel has become exactly what Revisionist Zionists, whose economic views differed sharply from not only Labor Zionism but also most Jewish philanthropies, called for: an industrialized city-state that imports raw goods and cheap labor and exports high technology products.   Thus the motives behind the Zionist project had little in common with those of western settlement colonialism but also did not fit well with the developmental world view of post colonial state building.  

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.[17]  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 Anderson’s claim that the modern nation-state is a western conceptual category that predetermined the form and content of anti-colonial collective identities.  Chatterjee posits a distinction between western and post-colonial states, claiming that the former, having long performed their national identities through the free exercise of power, have been sufficiently secure in their identities as to leave the realms of education, religion, and familial affairs to the private realm.  Post-colonial states, on the other hand, have been forced to make such area matters central to state policy, for these had formed the core of the colonized people’s identity during the period of struggle with the West.[18]  This distinction, of course, has not historically existed; the modern state has been an increasingly invasive entity from the days of absolutism through the era of social-welfare states in the mid 20th-century.  Moreover, virtually all forms of European nationalism have stressed the cultural uniqueness of the people and the obligation of the state, or, in the case of stateless peoples, the intelligentsia, to preserve and promote the national culture.

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 Germany in the 1780's of books with titles such as “On the Civil Improvement of Women” and  “On the Civil Improvement of Monks.”  Similarly, the demand upon the Jews in revolutionary France to undergo “regeneration” had at first been applied to the people of France as a whole, as part of the revolutionary project to forge a homogenous French nation, language, and culture.[19]  A century later, French Jewry’s ongoing efforts to fully acculturate were paralleled by the Third Republic’s gradual transformation of, to cite Eugene Weber’s memorable phrase, “peasants into Frenchmen.”  The Zionist aim of transforming “Jews into Israelis” was unique not so much in the project of nationalization as in its overwhelming difficulty, in that the nationalization of the Jews demanded the rapid and laborious creation of its own preconditions, e.g.,  the presence of a population in situ, a rudimentary national economy, and a body of indigenous folk culture.

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 Europe. Augustin Thierry and Francois Guizot in France, Johann Gustav Droysen and Heinrich von Treitschke in Germany, Pasquale Villari and Gioacchino Volpe in Italy, all claimed to engage in a scholarly enterprise, based on a careful accumulation of evidence and free of pre-judgments, yet still compelled, in Villari’s words, not by “merely a scientific need, but a moral duty” to demonstrate the historical roots of national unification.[20]    (How rare was Benedeto Croce’s tart statement of 1916 that “the history of Italy is not ancient or centuries old but recent, not outstanding but modest, not radiant but labored.”)[21]   Zionist ideology was well served by the Jews’ unusually high level of textual production and by the long history of Jewish communal autonomy, which provided Zionist historians such as Ben-Zion Dinur ample evidence, reproduced in his multi-volume anthology Yisrael Bagolah (Israel in Exile), that the Jewish collectivity had, throughout the historic depth and geographic breadth of the diaspora, comprised a coherent national body, which, through Zionism, was merely fulfilling its longstanding and inevitable destiny.  Although Villari’s object of study was a predominantly peasant culture, he, too, combed through the past to locate manifestations of the united Volksgeist, although in his case the evidence came largely from the realm of folk customs and lore. 

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 Europe, as Anderson has argued of the socially-frustrated and independent-minded “creole pioneers” of Latin America.  Even within Europe nationalist sensibility could emerge from what was essentially a political conflict between metropole and creoles, as in Ireland at the time of the Act of Union, when Anglo-Irish landowners claimed to be true Irishmen, the natural-born stewards of the indigenous thralls.  But it was precisely this sort of political conflict that stimulated the European intelligentsia to formulate nationalist ideology as early as the 16th century, and to frame the cult of national essence within issues of cultural production.  Thus in Elizabethan England, the unparalleled beauty of the English language and the unassailable virtue of English liberty were totally intertwined.[22]  French nationalism, in turn, equated collective identity, morality, and culture, and featured a defensive ethos in which England was perceived as the dominant enemy.  German nationalism emerged as a response to French cultural and political hegemony during the Napoleonic era, and so the chemical equation for a defensive nationalist ideology spread eastward and southward throughout the European continent.

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 Middle East.  Yet the movement was not, in and of itself, a form of colonial practice.  Enmeshed in a matrix of religious sensibility, political ideology, and historic circumstance, Zionism realized itself in the Middle East, in an area chosen not for its strategic value, natural resources, or productive capabilities, but rather because of what Jews believed to be  historic, religious, and cultural ties to the area known to them as the land of Israel.  To be sure, Zionism’s call for a persecuted religious minority to build a new society in a distant land resembled the ideology of the Puritans, who spearheaded settler-colonialism in what would become the United States, but whereas the Puritans saw North America as a tabula rasa upon which a new Jerusalem could be inscribed, Zionism was based in concepts of return, restoration and re-inscription.  The fact that these concepts were social constructions of a particular time and place (19th-century Europe), that they represented a profound rupture with traditional Jewish conceptions of the Land of Israel, and that Jewish political and settlement activism assaulted the  longstanding Jewish discourse of eventual redemption in Messianic time does not alter the assumptions of continuity and the claims of return inherent in Zionist ideology and sincerely held by its exponents.   Finally, because Zionism’s mission civilisatrice was directed almost entirely inward, to the Jews themselves, Zionism lacked the evangelical qualities of European colonialism in North America, Asia, and Africa, where conversion of the heathen to Christianity served as a justification, consequence, and at times, a cause of colonial expansion.

Anti-colonialism’s emphasis on cultural renewal, akin to cultural nationalism in 19th-century Poland, Bohemia, Ireland, and many other European lands, had its Jewish equivalent in the Haskalah and Wissenschaft des Judentums.  These movements, which often denied Jewish national distinctiveness, were not Zionist despite themselves, playing the role of unwitting soldiers in a teleological march to full-blown nationalism.  The Haskalah and Wissenschaft des Judentums were necessary but hardly sufficient pre-conditions for Zionism.  Without challenges to emancipation in the West and brutal, state-sanctioned antisemitism in the east, Zionism would have been still-born, just as, say, modern Thai nationalism would not have developed from its mid 19th-century Buddhist reformist roots had France not seized lands traditionally under Siamese jurisdiction in the Mekong river valley.     

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 Israel after the 1948 war, it, like a great many post-colonial states, oppressed an indigenous national minority thought to present a political and cultural threat to the fragile polity.  One can certainly be critical of the new Israeli state’s policies of expropriating Arab land and subjecting the Galilee’s Arabs to a harsh military rule, but such policies were not necessarily a form of western colonialism.  Only after the 1967 war did Israel’s relationship with the Arab minority change to a bona fide form of colonialism,  The demographic balance between occupier and occupied tilted increasingly towards the latter, Israel gained substantial economic profit from the occupation, and its military and security forces brutally combated Palestinian nationalism in a fashion similar to French rule in pre-independence Algeria.  Perhaps even more important, from the late 1970’s onward Jews were encouraged to move into the occupied territories as state-sponsored settlers, living as a minuscule minority of privileged colonists in areas that remained, unlike post-1948 Israel, overwhelmingly Arab. 

Israelis justified the conquest of eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank via arguments about the religious and historical right of Jews to sovereignty over their alleged ancient biblical patrimony.  Moreover, the seizure of the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights was attributed to bona fide security concerns.  The act of conquest was arguably not motivated by a desire to subjugate a people and expropriate its land, but the speed with which the Palestinian labor force and market became tools for Israeli economic exploitation, the harshness of the Israeli military occupation, and the sheer numbers of Arabs brought under Israeli control quickly created a colonial regime in the occupied territories.  Indeed, one could argue that post-1967 Israel became not only a colonial state but also an imperial one, the difference being that imperialist ideology, which emerged in late 19th-century Europe, posited that the nation depended for its survival upon territorial expansion and that empire was an indivisible extension of the nation.[23]  

Classic Zionism and its ideological underpinnings grew out of, yet departed significantly from, European high imperialism and the Orientalist sensibilities that justified it.   After 1967, however, Israel underwent a rapid evolution into a colonial state.  Scholars would be well served, therefore, to consider the importance of ruptures as well as continuities within the fabric of Israeli history when evaluating the relationship between Zionism and colonialism. 

                                                          End Notes


[1].  Ronen Shamir, The Colonies of Law : Colonialism, Zionism, and Law in Early Mandate Palestine,  Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2000, 17.



[2]. Robert J. C. Young, Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell, 2001, 57-69.  Quote is from 61.


[3].  Derek Penslar, Zionism and Technocracy: The Engineering of Jewish Settlement in Palestine, 1870-1918, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991, 94-96.


[4].  Yaron Peleg, “Moshe Smilansky and the Making of a Noble Jewish Savage,” ms., forthcoming in  Prooftexts. ***

[5].  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, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, 295.


[6]. I discuss this subject in detail in my book Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001, Ch 1.


[7].  Peter van der Veer, “The Moral State: Religion, Nation, and Empire in Victorian Britain and British India,” in Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann, eds.,  Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999, 32-34.



[8].  Compare Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994, 39-40, with Chatterjee’s essay, “Histories and Nations,” in The Nation and its Fragments:.Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.


[9].  Susannah Heschel, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, 20-21.


[10].   Van der Veer, “The Moral State,” 30-31.



[11].  Ibid.



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.


[12]. Benedict Anderson, The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World, London:  Verso, 1998, 30-45.


[13].  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 History, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993, 347-50.


[14].  Compare Sylvia Walby, “Woman and Nation,” reproduced in Gopal Balakrishnan and Benedict Anderson, eds.,  Maping the Nation, London: Verso, 1996, 235-54, with Chatterjee’s essay, “The Nation and its Women.”


[15].  “The National State,” in The Nation and its Fragments.


[16].  These themes are further developed in my book Shylock’s Children, Ch. 6.

[17].  Chatterjee, “Whose Imagined Community?” in The Nation and its Fragments.

[18].  Ibid.

[19].  Penslar, Shylock’s Children, 29-32.

[20].  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, London and New York: Routledge, 1999, 114.


[21].  Ibid, 118.

[22].  Despite its many problems, Liah Greenfeld’s Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1992, argues this point convincingly.

[23].  On this last point see Young, Postcolonialism, Chapters Two and Three.