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The Great Misinterpretation: Israel is not colonialism


By David Warden


David is Editor of Humanistically Speaking and the Humanist Representative on the Bournemouth & Poole Holocaust Memorial Committee. He was prevented from delivering a talk on this subject in January owing to a planned protest by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. In this article, he explains his current thinking about the conflict.





Introduction – what makes us believe what we believe?

There's something really weird about human cognition. Increasingly, it seems to me, we do not believe things on the basis of rational analysis but on the basis of tribal, political, cultural, and ideological identities. And these tribal identities can become so fierce we end up wanting to kill, or at least silence, others who disagree. Europeans spent at least 130 years killing each other over tribal differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. These wars eventually came to an end in the 17th century when we decided to adopt the principle of toleration.


We could be sliding back to those intolerant and violent times. It ought to be possible for us to maintain civilised and rational dialogue across the political spectrum, but increasingly those on the conservative right, even if only mildly leaning in that direction, are suspected of having hateful views which should not be given a platform. In this atmosphere, it becomes exceedingly difficult to have a rational conversation about the Israel-Gaza conflict without immediately being accused of racism and complicity in genocide if you fail to adopt the “correct”, socially-sanctioned and progressive left beliefs. On the other hand, if you are critical of Israel, you can very quickly find yourself being accused of anti-Semitism. And so most people try to keep their heads down and talk about something less contentious, like the weather or how their spring bulbs are doing.


The Matrix

Human belief systems often look like the Matrix – a state of delusion from which it's almost impossible to escape because people don't want to escape. It's often easy and rewarding to stay inside the Matrix because this is what is socially-sanctioned. Escaping from a Matrix can be hard work. It's not as easy as taking a red pill! The first Matrix I escaped from was evangelical Christianity. Christian theology is an intricate intellectual puzzle which fits together beautifully for those inside the Christian Matrix. I was marinated in evangelical Christianity from a young age and I wanted to be an evangelist. But studying theology proved fatal to this ambition. After a couple of years of in-depth study, I realised that Christian faith was an illusion. I swallowed the red pill and I became an atheist. This pattern, the collapse of beliefs which I had previously assumed to be true, after a period of in-depth study, was to repeat itself a number of times over the years.


Truth can be complex and messy – humans prefer simple, compelling narratives

Sometimes, the belief in question is so widely believed to be true it is difficult to avoid being seen as a crank if you reject it. And yet the evidence may point strongly towards scepticism. This happened to my former belief in the historical Jesus. The vast majority of people assume that Jesus was, at the very least, a good man and a wise teacher who lived in Judea in the first century and was crucified by the Romans. But there is a vast body of scholarship on the question of what we can know about the historical Jesus and whether he even existed at all. I read a huge amount of this literature and was driven to outright scepticism by the evidence, or rather the lack of evidence for the historical Jesus. But in order to reach such a position, you have to do an enormous amount of work. It's far easier to just go along with the consensus that Jesus existed and dismiss dissenters as cranks.


The next belief system to collapse was management theory. In 2002/3, I studied for a master's degree in Human Resource Management. I was intrigued to find that the subject could be studied on two levels. You could either believe that all this management theory was true, in which case you could be a smooth operator in any work organisation, or you could take the red pill and discover that management theory was mostly an elaborate exercise in pseudoscience which was designed to boost the credentials of management and management consultants. I took the red pill. I managed to sustain a subsequent career in local government, but I was always a sceptic.


Well, I won't go on with these examples because by now you are probably wondering when I am going to get back to writing about the Arab-Israeli conflict. But it's important for me to set the scene, which is this: human beings believe things for all manner of reasons other than factual veracity. We believe things because we like compelling narratives about Good and Evil, or because we want to get to heaven when we die, or because we want to fit in with everyone else, and so on.


The Israel-Palestine Matrix

When it comes to Israel, Palestinians and their Western allies believe the following things: that Zionists invaded Palestine (aided and abetted by the British Empire), that Zionism is a settler-colonial project, that the victorious powers after the Second War gave Palestine to the Zionists as a guilt offering for the Holocaust, that Zionists stole Palestinian land and ethnically cleansed Palestine in order to create the state of Israel, that Israel is an apartheid state, that Zionism is racist and genocidal, that Palestinians have the right to return to their pre-1948 homes, and that none of these beliefs amount to anti-Semitism because they do not mention Jews – only Zionists. In addition they believe, although the actions of Hamas on 7th October were horrific, that Palestinians have the right to resist a brutal occupation and siege, and that they are currently being massacred in a disproportionate and genocidal response to the 7th October attacks. In short, according to the Israel-Palestine Matrix, Israel is the Great Satan of Western colonialism and the Palestinians are the oppressed victims who need to be liberated by permitting them to reclaim their pre-1948 homeland.


Now of course this entire “matrix” of beliefs could be true (just as Christianity and management theory could be true). Indeed, some Israeli historians and activists, such as Ilan Pappé, who is a professor of International Studies at the University of Exeter, defend this matrix of beliefs about Israel and Palestine. Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, has recently repeated some of its key allegations against Israel, including apartheid and genocide. But others, such as Benny Morris who was a professor of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, and Haviv Rettig Gur who is an Israeli journalist and senior analyst for The Times of Israel, offer a very different historical narrative.


If you've followed any of my articles on Israel-Palestine so far, you will know where my sympathies lie. As usual, I find myself in red pill territory. I can’t say I was ever a paid-up Palestine liberationist but my studies so far have made me highly critical of that position. So here are seven theses about Israel-Palestine and brief responses to them. If you disagree with my responses, then please tell me why in the comments below.


1. “Zionists ‘invaded’ Palestine (aided and abetted by the British Empire)”

Jewish refugee migration to Palestine from 1881-1920, in the tens of thousands, was facilitated by the Ottoman and then the British authorities. It was largely in response to the accession of the ultra-nationalist Tsar Alexander III in Russia and the 1,300 pogroms (massacres) of Jews which ensued in Russia and Eastern Europe. During the Russian Civil War of 1918-1921 alone, as many as 200,000 Jews were killed. During this 40-year period, 1881-1921, the majority of Jewish refugees went to the United States – 110,000 in the year 1921 alone. But after 1921 and throughout the 1930s, the period of maximum peril for Jews, the world closed its doors because of economic problems caused by the First World War and the Great Depression. After 1924, Jewish migration to the US was reduced to a trickle. The same was true for many other countries – doors were shut. The largest wave of Jewish migration to Palestine occurred between 1929 and 1939 – around 250,000, primarily from Germany and Poland and mainly due to the rise of Nazism. There was nowhere else for Jews to go. In 1939, the British severely restricted Jewish migration to Palestine because of Arab unrest, especially the violent Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. This was precisely at the time when Jews needed to get out of Germany. As we know, six million subsequently perished in extermination camps. In 1946, a year after the Second World War ended, 250,000 Jews were still living in Dachau, and Buchenwald, and Bergen-Belsen. Even after the Holocaust, even after Auschwitz, no-one wanted to resettle the surviving Jews. They found refuge in Palestine. And then after 1948, the greatest source of Jewish refugees, around 800,000 in total, was from Arab countries. Describing Zionism as an “invasion” is a gross distortion of historical facts. Zionists were refugees, mostly poor and mostly desperate, with nowhere else to go.


2. “Zionism is settler-colonialism”

Jewish settlement in Palestine was facilitated by the British Empire, and Britain was authorised to do so by the League of Nations, but Zionism itself was not an imperial or colonial project. Zionism was a post-imperial project to recreate an ancient Jewish nation as a safe haven for Jewish people. Israel is a country which was populated by Jewish refugees: from Russia, from Romania, from Poland, and from Arab countries. If Palestinians and their Western allies were taught this history today, maybe bridges of understanding could be built.


The Jews were expelled from Judea by the Romans in the second century (although many remained in the land which the Romans renamed as “Palestine”) and since then Palestine has been conquered and occupied by various empires and dynasties. With the dissolution of empires following the First World War, Jews were granted an historic opportunity by the international community to recreate their ancient nation on at least part of the land now called Palestine. At the same time, several Arab nations were created out of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire including Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and the Palestinian Arabs were given numerous opportunities to create a Palestinian state.


What we now call “ethnic cleansing” was a common though extremely unpleasant outcome of the break-up of multi-ethnic and multi-cultural empires into nations. The biggest example of this process was the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947 which created 10-15 million refugees. 800,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries post-1948 but they are not demanding to return to their former homes. The UNHCR was set up in 1950 to resettle refugees, not to assign permanent refugee status to them and their descendants. UNWRA is unique in this regard and it bears a large measure of responsibility for the perpetuation of the refugee problem and the ongoing conflict. This is obviously a controversial viewpoint but The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace (2020) by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf makes this argument in great detail.


3. “The victorious powers after the Second War gave Palestine to the Zionists as a guilt offering for the Holocaust”

It's true that Western countries were closed to Jewish migration in the 1930s. Western countries could have opened their own doors to Jewish migration after the end of the Second World War but as we saw above, they did not. The post-1945 Labour government was ambivalent about Zionism and abstained in the 1947 UN partition plan vote. An additional argument often expressed is that Arab Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust, so why should they have had their land given away for something perpetrated in Europe? This argument is disingenuous to say the least. The UN partition plan was not about “giving away land” but an attempt to demarcate two post-imperial states with majority and minority populations. Furthermore, it's well known that the Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini met with Adolf Hitler in 1941 and requested his support in opposing the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, and Britain restricted migration to Palestine at the end of the 1930s to appease Arab opposition to Jewish migration. If Palestine had been open to Jewish refugees in the 1940s, hundreds of thousands could have been saved. The Holocaust certainly gave additional impetus to Zionism but history is much more complicated than a simplistic psychological theory. It was a two-thirds vote in the United Nations General Assembly in 1947 in favour of partition – in other words, a two state solution – which facilitated the creation of Israel in 1948.


4. “Zionists stole Palestinian land and ethnically cleansed Palestine in order to create the state of Israel”

This is the biggest area of disagreement between Ilan Pappé and Benny Morris. Pappé claims that the surrounding Arab nations were goaded into attacking Israel on 15th May 1948 because Israel had been conducting ethnic cleansing since March 1948. Morris claims that the Palestinian Arabs started a civil war in November 1947 and that the Zionists went from a defensive posture to an offensive one in March 1948 because they knew that six Arab nations were planning to attack. The Zionists knew that they could not win a war against external attack by six nations at the same time as having hundreds of Palestinian Arab militias inside the country. So they had to deal with the internal attacks first in order to withstand the external attacks. According to Morris it was this war, started by the Arabs, which led to the mass flight and partial expulsion of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs. Morris's account seems the more plausible to me but historians will no doubt continue to argue over different interpretations of history. Readers may be interested to know that in the 1990s Pappé was a leading member of Hadash, a left to far-left political coalition in Israel formed by the Israeli Communist Party and other leftist groups (Wikipedia). This fact does not invalidate his work as a historian but it may help to explain his perspective.


5. “Israel is an apartheid state”

At best this is accusation is an inaccurate analogy. A black person in apartheid South Africa could not become a judge, but an Arab Israeli can. For example, in 2004, Salim Joubran became the first Arab Israeli to be appointed as a permanent member of the Supreme Court of Israel. He served until his retirement in 2017, marking a significant milestone for representation in the judiciary. The accusation of “apartheid” seems to apply mostly to the occupied territories such as the West Bank. Military occupation of the West Bank is oppressive, but how can it not be if support for Hamas in the West Bank is high, meaning that the occupied population wishes to annihilate the state of Israel? I realise that Amnesty International has taken the view that Israel is guilty of apartheid but their report on the matter does not strike me as an objective or fair analysis and it has been heavily criticised in Congress by both Democrats and Republicans, and rejected the UK Foreign Office. Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, also makes this claim. I believe that we should stick to the correct description which is “military occupation” and not muddy the waters with inaccurate and ideologically-driven analogies. It's instructive to note that the status of Palestinians in Lebanon is highly discriminatory, in terms of employment opportunities in particular, yet no one complains about the “apartheid” regime in Lebanon.


6. “Zionism is racist”

Israel is a Jewish state in the same way that England is an English state, France is a French state, and Jordan is an Arab state. We do not ordinarily label countries as “racist” because of their ethnic and cultural character and their desire to maintain ethnic and cultural integrity and cohesion. I am unaware of any other rational basis for this particular smear, which was withdrawn by the United Nations General Assembly in 1991. Anyone still making this accusation needs to catch up.


7. “The IDF’s response to the 7th October attacks is disproportionate and therefore it must be a deliberate genocide”

The UN's International Court of Justice is unlikely to make a judgement on this allegation for years. But the claim of genocide has again recently been made by Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories in her report “Anatomy of a Genocide”. Albanese is a controversial figure, as documented by Wikipedia. She has been criticised by the French Foreign Ministry for claiming that the 7th October attacks were not motivated by anti-Semitism but were a response to Israeli oppression. In her recent press conference, Albanese appears to hold Israel responsible for the 7th October attacks, seems to downplay the existential threat faced by Israel, and dismisses Israel's stated war aim to destroy Hamas. Whatever your view of Israel, the Hamas Covenant makes it plain that their struggle is “against the Jews” and that their movement is “but one squadron that should be supported by more and more squadrons from this vast Arab and Islamic world, until the enemy is vanquished and Allah's victory is realised... [the Movement]strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine (emphasis added).” In Albanese's upside-down world, her report claims that Israel merely “construes” Palestinians as a security threat in order to “justify” their oppression. Predictably, there is no reference to the Hamas Covenant in the report.


A telling section in Albanese's report (Introduction, point 7) claims that “Israel’s actions have been driven by a genocidal logic integral to its settler-colonial project in Palestine, signalling a tragedy

foretold.” In other words, the allegation of “genocide” is an a priori belief, which is dependent on the prior belief that Zionism is colonialism. This historical framing of the report sets it up as an exercise in belief confirmation. The evidence against Israel is indeed shocking, but there is no countervailing body of evidence about the hundred-year war against Jews and the Jewish state by Palestinian Arabs and some Arab states which shows no sign of abating. The report mentions Netanyahu's biblical reference to “Amalek”, claiming that this is a reference to Palestinians. The Israeli counterclaim is that this is a reference to Hamas, which makes sense given what happened on 7th October. The fact that, since Hamas came to power, Gaza has been turned into a vast underground military fortress and that an entire generation have been indoctrinated to hate Jews, gets no mention. Albanese likes to talk about context, but half of the context is missing.


The view from a human rights lawyer is one thing. We get a very different view from an expert in war.

According to John Spencer, Chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute, West Point, New York, proportionality in war refers to the proportion of the response to the threat, not to the number of causalities on either side. The threat to Israel is existential. Hamas wants to annihilate the state of Israel. Seen from this perspective, proportionality takes on a different meaning. This YouTube video in which Spencer analyses the current war in Gaza is very informative. He states that we have no way of knowing how many people have been killed in the conflict and that, in any case, many of the casualties will have been Hamas combatants (of which there were about 30,000 before the current conflict). He also describes the unique nature of the war against Hamas, and that the entire population of Gaza could have been protected in Hamas tunnels.


We need to understand the nature of the war before we rush to label it as “genocide”. The destruction of Gaza has echoes of the US destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, both of which were deemed to be important military targets. The sheer destructiveness of the bombings was intended to convince Japan to surrender. These two cities together were about four times larger than Gaza in terms of area, and approximately 200,000 people died as a result of the bombings. They are not typically described as genocide despite the immense destruction and number of casualties. Rather, they are usually discussed in the context of military strategy and the exigencies of war. They provide an alternative template for interpreting what is currently happening in Gaza: Israel has characterised the whole territory as a military objective. The entire world has the opportunity now to rescue the remaining population of Gaza. Why do we not hear the UN calling for that?


Conclusion – two fundamental causes

I am appalled by the carnage and the humanitarian catastrophe of war. I want the Palestinians to flourish and to have a good future. I also want Jews to live their lives free from rocket attacks, suicide bombings, horrific pogroms and hostage-taking, and the ultimate threat of annihilation.


I believe that a reasonable case can be made that the root cause of the conflict is not Zionism itself, which was an international response to the plight of Jews from the 1880s onwards. Zionism could have co-existed peacefully side-by-side with Palestinianism, if Palestinian Arabs had understood from the outset that Zionism was not a colonial project but a refugee re-settlement project for their co-religionists, both descended from the patriarch Abraham. From this point of view, the Arab-Israel conflict is a fratricidal war.


One cause of the conflict is that the Arab world has, from the start, misunderstood Zionism as a colonial project, rather than as a refugee resettlement project, and therefore it has always had the aim to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state and, after 1948, its destruction. With the partial exception of Jordan, it has refused to resettle the Arab refugees which came out of the 1948 war and subsequent conflicts. This is not for lack of room. The combined area of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq is 723,000 square kilometres as opposed to just 22,000 square kilometres for the state of Israel. Of course, it’s not just about land capacity, and so we need to ask whether there is another reason why Arabs do not want a Jewish state in the Middle East under any circumstances, of any size.


The second cause of the conflict, as made crystal clear by the Hamas Charter, is the religious belief that any land which has been conquered by Muslims in the past must remain under Muslim control in perpetuity until the end of time. This is about religious supremacy and the subordination of Jews to the “successor” religion of Islam, a belief which is indifferent to the number of martyrs who die for the cause – indeed martyrdom through jihad is devoutly desired. It is not Islamophobic to say this. I have no animus against pious Muslims who wish to pray, fast, pay zakat, and make Hajj. But religious supremacy and violent jihad are incompatible with Western liberal values and a peaceful solution. They should also be incompatible with Islam itself understood as a religion of peace not compulsion.


The path to peace and prosperity is for the Palestinians and their Western allies to deconstruct and abandon the false narrative of colonialism and the whole matrix of a priori beliefs which flows from it. Persisting with this “decolonisation” belief structure locks in another century of misery, poverty, victimhood, oppression, war, death, destruction, and suffering for the Palestinians. The path to peace is for Palestinians to hear the Jewish story anew and to understand why these descendants of Abraham, Jewish refugees, came back to the land of Israel after centuries of exile and to resolve to live as equals with the Jews in the land of their forefathers. The path to peace is for both communities to build, co-operate and prosper, and to renounce violence. The first step on that journey is dialogue and openness to alternative narratives.


References and further reading and watching

  • Hamas Charter or Covenant (1988) Link Note: In 2017, Hamas unveiled a revised charter, without explicitly revoking the 1988 charter.

  • Francesca Albanese WIkipedia

  • United Nations Human Rights Council Press conference: Francesca Albanese UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories 27 March 2024 Link

  • Anatomy of a Genocide (2024) Link

  • Israelis: The Jews Who Lived Through History – A recent lecture by Haviv Rettig Gur who is an Israeli journalist and senior analyst for The Times of Israel Link

  • The Great Misinterpretation: How Palestinians View Israel – The second part Gur's lecture Link

  • The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace (2020) by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf

  • The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process (2019) by Robert Spencer

  • The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2007) by Ilan Pappé

  • 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (2009) by Benny Morris


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A very interesting read and a highly worthy sequel to your previous article/talk.

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Eric Hayman
Eric Hayman
Apr 01

"6. “Zionism is racist”

Israel is a Jewish state in the same way that England is an English state, France is a French state, and Jordan is an Arab state. We do not ordinarily label countries as “racist” because of their ethnic and cultural character and their desire to maintain ethnic and cultural integrity and cohesion. I am unaware of any other rational basis for this particular smear, which was withdrawn by the United Nations General Assembly in 1991. Anyone still making this accusation needs to catch up."


"Israel is a Jewish state in the same way that England is an English state, France is a French state, "


With around a dozen Muslims in the Israeli parliament, how can…

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Israel is not a mono-ethnic state but it is majority Jewish. Jewishness is primarily an ethnicity although also a religion.

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