Does Zionism explain the success of Israel? It might seem an odd question but it was raised by Israel Studies scholar Derek Penslar in a talk in Oxford this week which analysed the fates of several settler colonial movements. In a tour d’horizon he looked at the New England Puritans, the French in Algeria, and South Africa and apartheid. Each one was similar to Israel and yet different in crucial respects, which led to the failure of one and the dismantling of a system of racial supremacy and subjugation in another.
His argument was that Zionism has proven it is different through its success, success implicitly being defined as surviving the fate of pieds noirs in Algeria who left en masse after a crushing war but also as maintaining its system of Jewish supremacy in a state for Jews. Zionism, he argued, had succeeded in creating a bond with the territory in question while those others failed, because it had an ideological framework for its place in that land that was in place before the project took off, they “mediated the land through textual sources,” both old and new, and because, interestingly, it has developed a technology-based economy producing goods the world needs without the need for native labour. By comparison, the French effort to create internalize the land of Algeria through conceptualizing it as part of the ancient Roman empire, reclaimed by Rome’s successors, was stale and ultimately unconvincing, while South Africa was vulnerable to the campaign to end apartheid because it required the subjugated population to man its economy, despite the best efforts to quarantine and section off the undesired element.
I think there are problems with this argument. It’s highly teleological for a start: Were those other settler colonial projects always destined for the successes and failures they led to? If Israel is a success, why would Zionist ideology be the prime reason for that success? If the French in Algeria had not made such terrible mistakes in rejecting indigenous Algerians’ demands for political arrangements prior to the war, then perhaps the pieds noirs would never have had to leave. Indeed, the idea that they would leave only emerged at the very end of the 1954-62 war; they may have managed to stay like the white settlers who stayed in Rhodesia when it became Zimbabwe. If that had been the case, it might not be so easy to daub the colonial experience and its guiding ideology as a failure. Similarly with Israel, barely a decade of finding ways of avoiding Palestinian labour seems a tenuous basis for judging Israel as successful in avoiding an apartheid-style revision of its political contract. In rendering the carving of a Palestinian state out of the territory under Israeli control virtually impossible, what outcomes may Israel have created for itself in the future? I doubt we will be thinking of Zionism as so successful if in 20 or 30 years time the state finally gives in and grants citizenship to Palestinians of the West Bank. The survival of the state thus far in its current format is due in large part to geopolitics and Western/American support.
The process of Zionist “nativization” of and on its chosen land of colonization that Penslar points to is important, but Zionism’s problem was and remains the native non-Jewish population, and thus its angst is not really to do with liberal pangs of conscience over the collateral damage of its achievements, in the manner of successful colonialisms, but rather about fear of the future of the project, since its goals remain unachievable and its end-point unknown.