Past is Present: Why settler colonialism still matters


Below is the announcement for our upcoming conference on Settler Colonialism in Palestine, in London, March 5-6, 2011. More importantly, as with the conference, it attempts to address the imperative to articulate Palestine from a “settler colonialism” perspective. The collective hopes that the conference will result in a stronger incorporation of settler colonialism as an analysis in our scholarship and political work–as it has historically proven to be one of the most effective paradigms for common struggle across the social justice terrain.

As we think about upcoming Israeli Apartheid Weeks, and other initiatives around the country, this paradigm could be particularly useful in orienting us around the kinds of activisms we build, the kinds of movements we work with, and opens us up to new collaborative possibilities.

On 5-6 March 2011, the Palestine Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London will hold its seventh annual conference, “Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine.” This year’s conference aims to understand Zionism as a settler colonial project which has, for more than a century, subjected Palestine and Palestinians to a structural and violent form of destruction, dispossession, land appropriation and erasure in the pursuit of a new Jewish Israeli society. By organizing this conference, we hope to reclaim and revive the settler colonial paradigm and to outline its potential to inform and guide political strategy and mobilization.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often described as unique and exceptional with little resemblance to other historical or ongoing colonial conflicts. Yet, for Zionism, like other settler colonial projects such as the British colonization of Ireland or European settlement of North America, South Africa or Australia, the imperative is to control the land and its resources — and to displace the original inhabitants. Indeed, as conference keynote speaker Patrick Wolfe, one of the foremost scholars on settler colonialism and professor at La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia, argues, “the logic of this project, a sustained institutional tendency to eliminate the Indigenous population, informs a range of historical practices that might otherwise appear distinct–invasion is a structure not an event.”

Therefore, the classification of the Zionist movement as a settler colonial project, and the Israeli state as its manifestation, is not merely intended as a statement on the historical origins of Israel, nor as a rhetorical or polemical device. Rather, the aim is to highlight Zionism’s structural continuities and the ideology which informs Israeli policies and practices in Palestine and toward Palestinians everywhere. Thus, the Nakba — whether viewed as a spontaneous, violent episode in war, or the implementation of a preconceived master plan — should be understood as both the precondition for the creation of Israel and the logical outcome of Zionist settlement in Palestine.

Moreover, it is this same logic that sustains the continuation of the Nakba today. As remarked by Benny Morris, “had he [David Ben Gurion] carried out full expulsion–rather than partial–he would have stabilised the State of Israel for generations.”[ii] Yet, plagued by an “instability”–defined by the very existence of the Palestinian nation–Israel continues its daily state practices in its quest to fulfill Zionism’s logic to maximize the amount of land under its control with the minimum number of Palestinians on it. These practices take a painful array of manifestations: aerial and maritime bombardment, massacre and invasion, house demolitions, land theft, identity card confiscation, racist laws and loyalty tests, the wall, the siege on Gaza, cultural appropriation, and the dependence on willing (or unwilling) native collaboration and security arrangements, all with the continued support and backing of imperial power.

Despite these enduring practices however, the settler colonial paradigm has largely fallen into disuse. As a paradigm, it once served as a primary ideological and political framework for all Palestinian political factions and trends, and informed the intellectual work of committed academics and revolutionary scholars, both Palestinians and Jews.

The conference thus asks where and why the settler colonial paradigm was lost, both in scholarship on Palestine and in politics; how do current analyses and theoretical trends that have arisen in its place address present and historical realities? While acknowledging the creativity of these new interpretations, we must nonetheless ask: when exactly did Palestinian natives find themselves in a “post-colonial” condition? When did the ongoing struggle over land become a “post-conflict” situation? When did Israel become a “post-Zionist” society? And when did the fortification of Palestinian ghettos and reservations become “state-building”?

Such an alignment would expand the tools available to Palestinians and their solidarity movement, and reconnect the struggle to its own history of anti-colonial internationalism. At its core, this internationalism asserts that the Palestinian struggle against Zionist settler colonialism can only be won when it is embedded within, and empowered by, the broader Arab movement for emancipation and the indigenous, anti-racist and anti-colonial movement-from Arizona to Auckland.

SOAS Palestine Society invites everyone to join us at what promises to be a significant intervention in Palestine activism and scholarship.

For over 30 years, SOAS Palestine Society has heightened awareness and understanding of the Palestinian people, their rights, culture, and struggle for self-determination, amongst students, faculty, staff, and the broader public. SOAS Palestine society aims to continuously push the frontiers of discourse in an effort to make provocative arguments and to stimulate debate and organizing for justice in Palestine through relevant conferences, and events ranging from the intellectual and political impact of Edward Said’s life and work (2004), international law and the Palestine question (2005), the economy of Palestine and its occupation (2006), the one state (2007), 60 Years of Nakba, 60 Years of Resistance (2009), and most recently, the Left in Palestine (2010).

For more information on the SOAS Palestine Society 7th annual conference, Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine:

SOAS Palestine Society Organizing Collective is a group of committed students that has undertaken to organize annual academic conferences on Palestine since 2003.

[i] Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event, Cassell, London, p. 163

[ii] Interview with Benny Morris, Survival of the Fittest, Haaretz, 9. January 2004,

20 Responses

  1. Richard Witty
    February 19, 2011, 9:46 am

    Objecting to residence is a fascist argument, pretending to be progressive.

    It is an argument against immigration, against the sentiment of “give me your tired, your poor, your hungry…” in favor of “only historically present ethnicities have rights”.

    It is racism, pretending to be opposition to racism.

    • Ethan Heitner
      February 19, 2011, 10:41 am

      Settler colonialism is not immigration. It is not about “residence.” Go to the conference and you might learn something!

    • Citizen
      February 19, 2011, 11:25 am

      Hey, folks, Witty just gave us all an invite to immigrate to his place. Whatta guy!

    • Colin Murray
      February 19, 2011, 12:20 pm

      The objection isn’t to generic residence. It is to residence on stolen land. It boggles my mind that after all this time you just can’t seem to get your head around the fact that Israel colonies are planted on ground ethnically cleansed at gunpoint. Objection to race-based armed robbery and squatting isn’t fascism.

    • Donald
      February 19, 2011, 12:26 pm

      Immigration isn’t the same as settler colonialism. Immigrants don’t necessarily intend to take over the land for their own group.

      Incidentally, if you want to say that the majority of the Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the early 20th century had no intention of taking over, you might be right for all I know. I’d defer to any historian who has done a careful study of the attitudes of individual immigrants. But it’s clear that the Zionist leadership wanted to establish a Jewish state with or without the consent of the Palestinians. Not very democratic, is it?

      BTW, as a supporter of immigration, you should support the movement of Palestinians back to their original homeland. Oh, wait, the great reconciler only applies such reasoning to his own group.

      • Richard Witty
        February 19, 2011, 2:28 pm

        As the majority of original “settler-colonists” were refugees escaping persecution following genocide, I disagree with your categorization as opportunist claptrap.

        In many of the settlements, individuals have resided for two or more generations. For MANY it is the place where they have lived their whole lives, HOME.

        It is difficult to reconcile, but I would hope that dissenters would apply the theme that they demand of Jews and applaud of “Never again, to ANYONE.”

        The declaration that “you are not the original inhabitants” is the theme of the pogroms. It is best abandoned by so-called humanists.

        Another remedy must be sought.

      • RoHa
        February 19, 2011, 6:48 pm

        “the majority of original “settler-colonists” were refugees escaping persecution following genocide”

        The early settler colonialists were Zionists who wanted to take the country away from the Palestinian Arabs.

        If you are talking about the refugees from Nazi Europe, they arrived later.

        Did they reject and work against the Zionists?
        Did they support the Palestinian Arab calls for a unified democratic state in Palestine?

        Perhaps some of them did.

        But the rest became settler colonialists by supporting the Zionists. Whining about them being refugees from persecution does not diminish the wrong they committed.

      • pjdude
        February 20, 2011, 1:52 am

        As the majority of original “settler-colonists” were refugees escaping persecution following genocide, I disagree with your categorization as opportunist claptrap.

        irrelevant. their status and wealth don’t matter. the could be the richest and most privilaged or the poorest and most mistreated they still didn’t have a right to palestinian lands and rights.

        In many of the settlements, individuals have resided for two or more generations. For MANY it is the place where they have lived their whole lives, HOME.

        again irrelevant the length of time they and theirs have lived thier as nothing to do if they are their legally. the simple fact is no matter how much you want it is merely a place of residence for thge the Israeli thugs. it is a hame only for the rightful owners

        It is difficult to reconcile, but I would hope that dissenters would apply the theme that they demand of Jews and applaud of “Never again, to ANYONE.”

        your right never again to anyone hence why the thieves need to get the boot so the owners can move back in.

        The declaration that “you are not the original inhabitants” is the theme of the pogroms. It is best abandoned by so-called humanists.

        it is however kind of the basis for property ownership and despite you propaganda we shouldn’t use kangaroo courts the property should be just returned to its lawful owners.

        Another remedy must be sought.

        why must another remedy other than recognizition of human rights be sought?

      • Miura
        February 19, 2011, 7:31 pm

        Reminds one of this Letter to the Editor as part of an ‘exchange’:

        We are told that Avishai Margalit [NYR, June 28] is a Professor of Philosophy, and yet his notion of appropriate analogy is — to say the least — defective. In reviewing Chomsky’s book I had raised the question as to whether an alien immigrant population of European Jews, claiming communal or national rights in Palestine, on the basis of what God said and what an imperial power had promised them, could ever have avoided a clash with an indigenous Arab population already resident there, and unanimously against a Jewish homeland being set up on what they considered to be their land. This, says Margalit, is a nasty racist question, rather like Enoch Powell denying “colored people” the right to enter Britain. To the best of my knowledge, the blacks who were formerly British colonial subjects (and milked by Britain for centuries) make no claim to set up a black commonwealth in Britain nor, so far as I know, have they acted to drive out 65 percent of the resident population, as a prelude to occupying and ruling the whole of the British Isles, nor, to the extent that I have read and heard, is there any black leadership asserting that 2000 years ago London was promised to black residents of Uganda or Jamaica. Nor finally, has any black movement taken over Britain and legislated a Right of Return for all blacks everywhere while at the same time denying any such rights to the dispossessed and excluded inhabitants.

        Any analogy between Arab Palestinians and British racists could therefore only be the result of an ideological deformation so strong as to distort even a philosopher’s thinking. Put this down also to what is often referred to as the Zionist dream, although why anyone should now dream in so dishonest and tediously pious a manner as Margalit’s is puzzling. The dream doubtless explains Margalit’s unattractively self-congratulatory mode, especially the way he goes on about Israeli democracy. It’s symptomatic of course that he makes no mention of the 650,000 Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, who are second-class “non-Jews.” The merest honesty would have compelled some acknowledgment of the basic problem: that the imposition of a rigid distinction between Jew and non-Jew has led to the numerous crises which Margalit has done an ineffective job of glossing over.

        Edward Said
        Columbia University

      • RoHa
        February 20, 2011, 6:38 pm

        Good one, Miura.

        But I expect that in future threads Witty will drag up this “immigrants/refugees from persecution” line again.

        He has an impressive ability to ignore and forget refutations of his nonsense.

  2. Potsherd2
    February 19, 2011, 10:28 am

    It’s time for Europe to stand up and take the lead on this issue, cutting the US out, as it has demonstrated its bad faith.

    • Philip Weiss
      February 19, 2011, 10:38 am

      you’re right pots; i believe even the PA understands this.

      • eee
        February 19, 2011, 11:17 am


        The EU cannot possibly do this because its foreign policy needs to be consensual. There are a few countries in the EU that are stronger supporters of Israel than the US. The Czech Republic and Poland come to mind. And of course there is Germany which will never agree to apply real pressure on Israel.

        Furthermore, only the US can give Israel the security guarantees it requires. The US is the only game in town and negotiations are the only method of reaching a solution.

      • Citizen
        February 19, 2011, 11:33 am

        Time for the US to take its soldiers and hardware out of Germany; they don’t need them and we can’t afford to keep them there. Let the EU do what it wants about the fact that Israel has bragged it could nuke all of Europe if it felt like it. Which reminds me, time to drop all aid to Israel too–for the same reasons. Time for US to look in, for EU to look out. Time to take off Israel’s baby diapers and let the world see what it leaves around the area. Let Israel get its own pooper-scooper.

      • Richard Witty
        February 19, 2011, 2:30 pm

        Time to propose an approach, rather than just complain.

      • Citizen
        February 20, 2011, 7:14 am

        For starters, Rice should rescind her veto, and vote again in favor of condemnation of all Israeli settlements as a minimum precondition to chatting at the peace table. The whole world except Israel will support this revised US stance at the UN.

  3. MHughes976
    February 19, 2011, 11:02 am

    Well, do you think us Euros are people of real good faith? Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Merkel, Cameron?
    I must admit that I think Hague’s done a better job than Clinton, though not so decisively better that I would hope for great things from him. Mind you, there was a time when I loathed Hague and thought rather well of Blair and Clinton, now Ms. Veto, so my judgement doesn’t have an impeccable track record.

  4. tommy
    February 19, 2011, 11:19 am

    The word settler should not be used to describe the vicious, armed vigilante squatters stealing Palestinian land using militant tactics backed up with the force of a US armed Israeli military. The word settler invests the squatters with a legitimacy they do not deserve and is used to endear them to Americans who have a past of using resistance to ‘settlers’ on indigenous peoples’ land to eliminate the indigenous peoples. Americans think they are the cavalry saving civilized people from barbarians. The so-called settlers are the barbarians.

    • Citizen
      February 19, 2011, 11:50 am

      Here’s a modicum of insight as to who the settlers are, and what they want, circa December 2009: link to

      • Citizen
        February 19, 2011, 11:56 am

        As Phil and Richard Silverstein pointed out some time ago, and the MSM belatedly, those who fund the settlers abuse the US tax system to do so, but don’t expect the IRS to do anything about it: link to

        But watch those IRS guys and girls go after the Muslim organizations in the US!

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