Yesterday, Israeli-British historian Avi Shlaim published a notable article titled “Perfidious Albion and Israel-Palestine – British policy towards Palestine reveals a persistent pro-Israeli bias, from Lord Balfour to Theresa May”. In this impressive and wide-panoramic historical appraisal of a century, he calls the Balfour Declaration “a classic colonial document”, relates to current British policy on Israel and Palestine, and summates by saying that “today Israel controls 90 percent of mandatory Palestine and the Palestinians are still stateless. There are many reasons for the Nakba, the catastrophe that overwhelmed the Palestinian people. The treachery of Perfidious Albion was only one factor but not an insignificant one.”
This reminded me of an exchange I had with him last year at the University of Lund (Sweden), just across the waters from Copenhagen where I live. Shlaim was lecturing together with Swedish Göran Rosenberg about Israel-Palestine. Shlaim had made a comment on the occupation of 1967 that had caught my interest. It was one word. Colonialism. That’s how he regarded it. When it was time for Q&A, I made use of the opportunity, and mentioned my view of 1948 vs 1967, saying that 1948 was also an occupation in very real terms (I’d written about that here), and asked him why, if he regards the 1967 occupation as a colonization, he would not also regard the 1948 establishment of Israel and the ensuing paradigm of occupation as colonialism. Which is to say, Israel has been a colonialist venture from the start.
Shlaim paused for a short while, eyed a person in the audience, (who turned out to be his wife, I later learned), smiled, and said to me succinctly:
“You know what? I agree with you.” He paused again and added: “15 years ago, I would not have said this”.
He continued, qualifying that he still saw 1948 Israel as legitimate because it was recognized by the UN; but I got the answer I was interested in. It was not only interesting in regards to the colonialism issue but in terms of how Shlaim himself admits to have moved on the subject. The 15 years that he mentions as a point where he would not have said the same, take us back to 2001, just after he published his seminal book ‘The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World’.
After the lecture, I was approached by a British lady. I did not know at the point that she was the great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George, who was British Prime Minister at the time of the Balfour Declaration, nor did I realize she was Avi Shlaim’s wife. We had a short discussion about my question, and Avi came over shortly after. He presented the lady, to my surprise, as his wife, and we had a conversation. Avi said, that the reason he was smiling to her when I had asked the question, was that she frequently asks him this question, also during lectures, and that they often discuss it.
This is not a mere trivial question or matter. If Israel is a colonialist venture from the outset, then we are speaking about a century of colonization of Palestine, enabled and supported by British colonialist interests – even in modern times. As Shlaim’s admission to have moved intellectually on the subject reveals, this is not merely a question of reality – but rather of a perception of reality.
It is relatively easy to understand the reality of the 1967 occupation as colonization. It bears all the stark hallmarks of racist colonialism, with its ethnic cleansing, exclusive settlements, theft of resources, Bantustanisation of the local population, separate roads, Apartheid rule and all the rest of it. The die-hard Zionists are perhaps struggling to clutch at the last morally exonerating straws, but they are few and weak. Some on the right do not even attempt to conceal the intents to colonize the rest of historical Palestine, they simply consider it a ‘return’. But the colonization of Palestine from the outset – that is, a Zionist colonization, that is a concept that has been far more difficult to contend with, particularly for Zionists and for the Holocaust-guilt ridden international community. After WW2, Colonisation was on decline and had lost popularity. Whilst early Zionists had discussed colonization of Palestine quite freely, it was becoming a term that should be put away, politically incorrect. Israel was to be painted not as a colonizer, but as a ‘Jewish State’ for a supposed ‘Jewish nation’ that was merely fighting for its existence, in self-defense, in a surrounding ‘hostile neighborhood’ of Arab states, including local Arabs.
Classical colonization typically involves a mother state. In the 1967 occupation paradigm, it is relatively easy to see that Israel is the mother of the settlements. Whilst they are not on its territory and illegal under article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention, Israel provides them with protection, infrastructure and legitimacy (if not immediately, mostly post-facto). But in the case of Israel as established in 1948 – who is the mother? Israel and its Zionist lobbying have always sought a surrogate/adoptive mother, in that Jews were not really a nation, and had no mother country to start out from. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 is thus a central ‘adoption certificate’ for this ‘orphan nation’, as it were. In time, Israel found other ‘mothers’ to adopt it, and it should be rather clear that its mother today, and since late 1960’s, is USA. That ‘mother country’, which provides Israel with more than half of its global military aid, is Israel’s protector. Like a mother to a junkie adolescent, the mother provides the junkie with more money to buy more drugs (arms). The mother complains that the junkie doesn’t listen to reason, apparently not realizing that providing more does not cause the child to be more respectful of his patron – it only proves to it, that it can get whatever it wants and do whatever it wants. So the child roams the streets and shoots down Palestinians, because it seems to cost nothing. And what if the adolescent also possesses nuclear weapons and you know that they can blow up the Middle-East if they are upset? Let’s not upset little Israel.
But USA is not the only country seeking to be Israel’s mother. Being Israel’s mother apparently offers political gain. Theresa May merely has to declare herself a “passionate friend” of Israel at the Conservative Friends of Israel annual business lunch (almost all Tories are members of CFI), call it a “thriving democracy”, a “beacon of tolerance”, “an engine of enterprise and an example to the rest of the world”…”a country where people of all religions and sexualities are free and equal in the eyes of the law” – and then you’re in. It’s ‘unbreakable’.
May says that the Balfour Declaration “is one of the most important letters in history”, and that “it demonstrates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people. And it is an anniversary we will be marking with pride”.
And that pretty much says it all. This has been a century of Zionist colonialism over Palestine, with the willing and cynical collusion of the powers that be, at the cost of the Palestinians. And it’s about time we began realizing it.