OPINION: Don’t under-estimate the disastrous impact of Israeli “settler-colonial” myths

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OPINION: Don’t under-estimate the disastrous impact of Israeli “settler-colonial” myths

'We must confront the distorted worldview which fosters hatred and antisemitism' writes Labour Friends of Israel director Michael Rubin

One example in Palestinian textbooks of a conspiracy theory that Israel removed stones from historic sites. Pic: The International Legal Forum (ILF)
One example in Palestinian textbooks of a conspiracy theory that Israel removed stones from historic sites. Pic: The International Legal Forum (ILF)

The furore over the candidacy of Azhar Ali in Rochdale is a potent reminder of both the power – and destructive quality – of conspiracy theories.

Keir Starmer’s decision to withdraw Labour’s support from Ali was the right one. Not only were his comments – which suggested Israel had allowed the barbarous Hamas attacks of 7 October to occur – grossly offensive, they were also dangerous.

All conspiracy theories – the far-right Q-Anon political movement, the 9/11 “truthers” and those who claim mass shootings in US schools are “false flag operations – are pernicious.

But the multitude of contemporary conspiracy theories which surround the State of Israel – everything from claims that the IDF harvests organs from dead Palestinian to Jeremy Corbyn’s musings about “the hand of Israel” in a 2012 jihadist terror attack in Egypt  – are part of long tradition of antisemitic conspiracy theories to which Jews have been subjected for centuries.

Nobody should need reminding of where such conspiracy theories can lead; the historian Norman Cohn famously described the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as “a warrant for genocide”.

Some conspiracy theories, however, appear to have acquired a veneer of intellectual respectability.

Sir Keir Starmer (left) alongside former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn

The claim that Israel is a “settler-colonial” state – prevalent in anti-Israel discourse on social media and in the protest marches in western capitals – first circulated and became widespread in academic and intellectual circles.

Left-wing intellectual anti-Zionism is driven by factors specific to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, including the long history of antisemitism on the left; the impact of Cold War Soviet propaganda; and a political alliance between the radical left and Islamist politics in the west. More recently, it has been fuelled by the growth of identity politics among some sections of the left.

Michael Rubin, Labour Friends of Israel.

But this notion diverges so far from historic and contemporary reality that it has to resort to what historian Simon Sebag Montefiore calls “a caricature, zombie history,” to sustain itself.

As a forthcoming paper LFI (Labour Friends of Israel) paper on the “settler-colonial” myth argues, it is imperative that we urgently confront this distorted worldview which fosters hatred and antisemitism and hinders the prospects of peace and a two-state solution.

One of the most pernicious effects of this mythology is to dehumanise Israelis, who are reduced to “colonialists” against whom Hamas’ slaughter is legitimised as “resistance”. Chants such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and calls for “decolonisation” appear to call for the elimination of the State of Israel. This is both immoral and inherently incompatible with the concept of a two-state solution.

As we saw during the Corbyn years, and we see in the intimidation which too many Jewish students suffer on campuses, anti-Zionist discourse very easily and frequently spills into overt antisemitism. Describing Israel as a “settler-colonial” state demonstrates a complete blindness and insensitivity to the history and cultural identity of Jews.

The Jews who came to the territory of Israel-Palestine were neither imperialists nor colonialists. They were typically refugees fleeing antisemitic persecution within the European states where they lived. Jews were drawn to the land not for its resources but because it was the unique territorial focal point of Jewish history, faith and prayer where there had been a Jewish state until its destruction by the Romans in 70AD; and where there was an indigenous, non-diaspora Jewish population continuously living.

They did not seize or appropriate, but bought the land on which they settled, and they had an ethos of cultivating it themselves rather than seeking to exploit the labour of the local population. Unlike European colonialists, the Jews did not serve an imperial power but were motivated by goals of national emancipation.

Azhar Ali made his comments at a meeting of the Lancashire Labour Party. He later apologised

Unsurprisingly, their cause – which became more urgent with the rise of the Nazis – attracted the sympathy of the Labour party.  The party reaffirmed its support for the Jewish national home no less than 11 times between 1917 and 1945, including in the August 1917 war aims memorandum which was published three months before the Balfour Declaration. Labour also rightly opposed the National government’s 1939 white paper that severely limited migration to Mandate Palestine and thus denied Jews this final place of refuge from Nazi persecution.

Branding Israel as “settler-colonial” and calling for its “decolonisation” is thus neither accurate nor is it progressive. Instead, it encourages an approach to activism – characteristic of the BDS movement – that entrenches the conflict, rather than contributing to its resolution.

Rather than putting pressure on rejectionists and supporting moderates on both sides, such campaigns collectively demonise an entire society on one side of the conflict. In Israel, this plays into the hands of the Israeli right and its oft-professed view that the country has no “partner for peace”. For the Palestinians, the notion that their legitimate rights to self-determination can somehow be achieved by international pressure to “decolonise” Palestine (whatever that may mean) rather than through patient, painstaking negotiation and mutual compromise is simply a cruel hoax.

And those of us who have the luxury of physical and emotional distance should reject dangerous conspiracy theories and instead recognise the importance of empathy, moderation and respect for the rights of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

  • Michael Rubin, director, Labour Friends of Israel (LFI)
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