Today, we are faced with the lax use of historical terms, adding emotional fuel to an ongoing blaze of accusations and division. Without resorting to nitpicking and more argument, I include the following words.
Colonialism-A practice of domination or subjugation of one people over another, including political and economic control over a dependent territory. The term colony comes from the Latin word colonus, meaning farmer. The practice of colonialism usually involved the transfer of population to a new territory, where the arrivals lived as permanent settlers while maintaining political allegiance to their country of origin.
Imperialism-Comes from the Latin term imperium, meaning to command. One country exercises power over another, whether through settlement, sovereignty, or indirect mechanisms of control.
Though it may appear as if Israel is trying to annihilate innocent Gazans, I do not believe that is the intent. My heart aches every day when I glance at a new report of civilian deaths occurring in the Gaza strip. I do not support the present Israeli government, especially in regards to its policies on settlements in the West Bank. Certainly there are rabid Israelis who would be glad to destroy Palestine, and they are terrorists too. Genocide is a strong word and should be used appropriately. The Turks committed genocide against the Armenians between 1915–16. The Rwandan massacre of the Tutsis by the Hutus in 1994 was state sponsored genocide.
The horrific deaths of Gazan civilians are the result of Israel’s attempt to destroy Hamas, a terrorist group. It is widely known that Hamas hides within, adjacent to, and under civilian buildings. The attrocities of October 7 in Israel sicken me. The deaths of innocent Gazans horrifies me. I pray levelheaded individuals will broker a cease fire quickly.
Though to us naive, the pioneers, who moved to what is now Israel, left Europe due to antisemitism. Zionism developed in western, central, and eastern Europe over the 18th-19th centuries. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, deduced that antisemitism would never end, and a Jewish state was the solution. His philosophy bloomed and flourished from the spirit of ethno-nationalism, popular during his time. Zionism was not particularly popular among the assimilated European Jewish population of the pre World War I period.
However, Jewish settlers trickled into the holy land during the late 19th to early 20th century. As pogroms became more frequent and Nazism began to rise, more people left Europe for the unknown wilderness that was known as Palestine. The collective farms known as Kibbutzim were established based on socialist roots. The settlers, being politically and socially aware, did not want to create a system of plantations in which the educated Europeans hired the Arabic peansants. Unfortunately, the kibbutzim movement separated the Jewish and Arab farms, and consequently two societies emerged. The early Zionists were not concerned with the Arabic population, moreso about Jewish religious cultural identity and troubles in Europe. They could not have forseen what was to occur.
Early Kibbutz workers
The early 20th century saw the culmination of imperial conquests leading up to World War I. The holy land became a pawn between the Ottoman empire and the British. The Turks and the British gave priority to European settlers spurring investment in the land. The local Muslim population was left behind and ignored. The British emerged as the victors against the Ottoman empire as a result of World War I. The British were awarded a mandate by the League of Nations to rule the land. The Balfour Declaration — approval of a Jewish home in Palestine — established by the British was encorporated into this agreement. The British continued to favor the Jewish settlers over the Arab population, albeit ambivalently. Violence erupted between and among all three forces. Within the Jewish population in Palestine, various competing groups emerged. Most significant to today were the right wingers who favored nationalism over socialism. They believed in fighting back to win (which we see today in the conservative political parties in Israel).
Simultaneously, antisemitism in Europe was reaching dangerous levels. More and more European Jews desperately attempted to emigrate to Palestine, due to extreme immigration policies in the United States which forced Jews to remain in deadly circumstances. Though not the Nazis, the British were antisemitic and racist. By all means, they attempted to prevent the Jews from entering Palestine to avoid further angering the Arabic population.
After World War II the British terminated their mandate and returned the problem to the United Nations. After the war, the world was sympathetic to the plight of refugees of the Holocaust. More stateless Jewish refugees fled to what would become the Jewish state of Israel in 1948.
Israel Independence, 1948
Looking at the definitions of Colonialism and Imperialism, one could easily surmise that the Israeli government fits within both categories. However, as is evident above, the history is far more complex. The religious refugees who were some of the early colonists to the future United States escaped persecution in England. Good intentions do not necessarily continue as is obvious in American history. Competing forces intervene, including internal and external economic interests and political factions.
The Zionists who emigrated to what became Israel in the early twentieth century were products of their environments: Eurocentric, educated, sexist, assimilated, and racist. The plight of the Arabic farmers who inhabited the land were not foremost on their minds. On the other hand, the holy land was the birthplace of Jews and Judaism thousands of years prior to the origins of Christianity and Islam. Jews had been thrown out of this sacred, historical land several times and returned, so why not again? Jerusalem and Haifa had established, thriving Sephardic communities dating back to the Inquisition.
The horror of the Holocaust and emerging Jewish identity as a strong force to be reckoned with is not to be ignored. The Jews of the mid 20th century experienced loss of citizenship, rights, and property. The Jews were murdered in their own countries. Where should they have gone during that chaotic period of the pre and post World War II world? No one wanted them. There were pockets of Jews spread throughout the world, in places like Shanghai, Uruguay, South Africa, and the Philippines. It is no wonder that the Jews desired and deserved a secure land where they would be safe. This is the wish and right of all people.
Equally significant to Jews themselves is the question of Jewish identity. Are Jews primarily a national group with their own state? Will they feel free to live anywhere they please without fear? More generally, are the Jews a religion, ethnicity, or a nation or all three? Jews are a minority group in the world according to numbers. They have been targeted for thousands of years.
When a non Jew is asked whether Jews are a minority, the response is typically, no! Stereotypes influence people's views, among these are the following: Jews are rich, control economics around the world, and are white. White people cannot be minorities or victims of discrimination, the thinking goes. As is evident in Israel, Jewish people come in all shades of skin color from all parts of the world. They are farmers, laborers, soldiers, taxi drivers, teachers, doctors, and business owners. Jews live everywhere, even in rural Uganda.
Children from Abudaya Congregation, Uganda
The separation of the world into good and bad, brown and white, indigenous and colonizer, rich and poor only furthers misunderstanding, hatred, and violence. We are all but a combination of all of these qualities.
In conclusion, when characterizing others as colonizers and imperialists and accusing them of committing genocide, understand that what one sees is the result of historical events affected by a myriad of forces, some evil some quite simply the desire for safety and security.
Note: Thank you Phincas Ziraba for your photograph.