Settlers Supporting Settlers: Towards an explanation of the US/Israel relationship

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This essay contextualizes U.S. support for Israel as well as the various groups that comprise the U.S. Zionist movement(s) in the context of American settler colonialism by examining the ways in which white settler colonies interact and support each other. It does not offer a single explanation for U.S. support but rather examines one of several interconnected reasons.

Settler colonies’ racializations are made first and foremost during the process of colonization. The settlers racialize the native population – and at the same time, themselves – as part of dispossessing them. But racialization happens both locally and globally and is often inconsistent. This essay examines only the white settler colonies that agree with each other’s racial formations. For example, Chile is a white settler colony yet U.S.-Chilean relations are not included as Chilean settlers are ambiguously racialized as ‘Latin@s’ in the United States, despite being white settlers in Chile. An informal coalition of settler colonies active internationally from the late 1800s through the present does exist. It includes Australia, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, Rhodesia, South Africa, the U.S. and U.K..

Settler colonialism is first and foremost an organization of power established by settler sovereignty while simultaneously eliminating native sovereignty and, most often, the native population. Reductively put, every five acres of New Zealand is five acres less of Aotearoa. But settler colonialism is not limited to interactions between settler and native. It is an organization of power informing all settler society policies including foreign policy. One such foreign policy articulation is the way white settler colonies form alliances based upon recognizing each other as in a mirror.

Israeli settlers in the West Bank, 2012.
Settlers in the West Bank, 2012.

“Tell me what company you keep and I’ll tell you who you are”

The Myths & Facts website is a project evolved from the Myths and Facts texts AIPAC began publishing in the 1970s. Eli Hertz notes in the “The U.S.-Israel Special Relationship” series that “the affinity between Israel and the United States draws on the fact that both countries are democracies and share a host of other enlightened values, including a similar defining ethos as nations of immigrants,” (After a time, all settler societies call themselves ‘nations of immigrants,’ and not ‘nations of settlers’). Hertz continues, “both nations were built by waves of refugees or persecuted immigrants who sought religious, political, or economic freedom.”

U.S. President Barack Obama made a similar appeal to U.S.-Australian solidarity during a 2011 address in Darwin, Australia. “The bonds between us run deep. In each other’s story we see so much of ourselves. Ancestors who crossed vast oceans – some by choice, some in chains. Settlers who pushed west across sweeping plains. Dreamers who toiled with hearts and hands to lay railroads and to build cities. Generations of immigrants who, with each new arrival, add a new thread to the brilliant tapestry of our nations.”

Former Israeli ambassador Naftali Tamir offered an uglier, more honest version in a 2006 interview with Haaretz calling for closer cooperation between Australia and Israel. Tamir said, “Asia is basically the continent of the Yellow race. Australia and Israel do not belong to it – we basically belong to the White race.” Further, “Israel and Australia are like sisters in Asia. We are located in Asia but without the characteristics of Asians, our skin is not yellow nor are our eyes slanted.” In these examples settlers call for solidarity with other settler societies based on the mere fact of being settlers themselves (Here Barack Obama is positioned solely in his role as President of a settler colony. Black people , whether native or not, are not settlers in white settler colonies that deny their very humanity).

Indigenous removal is the practice that binds the settler colonies but apart from the far right-wing, it is absent from settler discourse. There is a shared narrative of building nations without destroying the nations they encountered, of conquest without any conquered. The conscious alliance building is not around indigenous removal but around the racial and economic formations indigenous removal produced.

Settler discourse points to other settler colonies to determine who will be allowed to join the colony. Harvard University professor George Borjas writes in The Washington Post, “While the United States has proven cautious about addressing [what kind and how many immigrants it wants], several other ‘nations of immigrants’ (including Canada, Australia and New Zealand) have far more proactive approaches to immigration: They have devised systems that are designed to favor people who will contribute economically to the country and who will assimilate quickly.” Borjas’ 2001 article is predated by around a century by the various anti-Asian policies that South Africa, Australia (under the Banner of “White Australia”), the U.S. (especially in California) and Canada (especially in British Columbia) developed to restrict Asian immigration. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds examine in depth how the various settler colonies’ anti-Asian policies influenced each other in their 2008 volume Drawing the Global Colour Line. Australia, Canada and South Africa during this period reoriented from British towards American imperialism precisely to affirm racist immigration policies that crystalized their respective formations of ‘white’. While the UK half-heartedly defended rights of imperial subjects the U.S. offered unconditional support for white supremacist immigration and colonization policies in the other white settler colonies.

Like all organizations of power settler colonialism is normative, so even critiques of the racist immigration policies like those Borjas advocates can still affirm indigenous removal. Judd Yadid writes in Haaretz about Australian Jewish hostility to South African Jewish immigration. “Those Australian Jews that criticize the influx and eccentricities of their South African brethren should show more empathy, and be mindful of the fact that they themselves are the offspring of immigrants. In fact, the entire non-indigenous population of the great southern land were once newcomers.” Yadid’s examination looks beyond Australian Jewish nativist hostility to South African Jews to critique Australia’s racist immigration policies. Yet in the end he manages to use a critique of xenophobic racism to declare permanent settler colonialism. All mainstream and much left-wing migrant justice discourse in settler colonies does this, again under the banner of ‘nation of immigrants’.

In the U.S. example, African Slavery is as foundational as, and part of, Indian Removal. Both have helped build solidarity between some white settler colonies. It does not have a parallel in every example except at the reductive level of labor exploitation (as in Yemeni Jewish labor in Palestine, convict labor in Australia, etc.). Yet the hegemonic conceptual framework by which ‘white’ emerged as a racialization diametrically opposed to ‘black’ and ‘native’ was produced to a significant degree through the colonization of South Africa by the Dutch and Turtle Island by the British (later U.S.) during successive periods as centers of global empires. The decades long tripartite alliance between South Africa, Israel and the United States where the latter two materially and ideologically supported settler rule in the former is in part due to African Slavery’s afterlife of Jim Crow and Apartheid united under the banner of American imperialism and settler rule. Anti-blackness today informs U.S. Zionists’ support for Israel’s brutal anti-African policies even as those policies were originally developed to keep out purged indigenous Palestinians.

The mutual recognition that ‘they are like us’ amongst White settler colonies breeds frequent solidarity and joint political action. A full accounting of the Settler International in action would narrate a significant part of the 20th century. In numerous United Nations General Assembly votes on the question of Palestine, Israel is nearly alone in voting against the resolutions. Among the very few countries that regularly vote the Israeli side are Australia, Canada and the United States. The United States and Israel were two of the few countries that supported settler rule in South Africa nearly until the end and the three nations built the backbone of “counterterrorism” policies and technologies based upon tactics and philosophies developed to support settler rule in each. The U.S. and Israel supported the South African apartheid regime with arms and trade assistance while Israel also contributed troops for combat fighting. John Collins in his book Global Palestine narrates how the famous 1948-49 Berlin Airlift was carried out by “a who’s who of settler colonialism,” (United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the UK, the latter governing settler rule in Northern Ireland and Southern Rhodesia at the time). The list goes on and on.

Far Apart Settlers Together

San Francisco 49ers mascot.
San Francisco 49ers mascot.

Settler colonies, apart from the far Right-wing, rarely pronounce or conceive of their solidarity in terms of indigenous removal and doing so is unnecessary. Settler colonialism is an organization of power like capitalism, patriarchy or White supremacy. Its power is not just political and geographic, but also discursive producing a settler normativity – what Elizabeth Povinelli described as the “organization of sociality on the basis of the naturalness of a civilizational displacement.” It need not be spoken or even consciously thought in hegemonic discourse. It is basic to settlers’ understanding of the world. A common example in the United States is the popular NFL football team the San Francisco 49ers. The original ‘forty-niners were populist genocidaires. The historical formation of the ‘forty-niner is inextricably tied to genocide and the conquest of California’s indigenous populace. Yet the football team is discursively divorced from the practices of the actual ‘forty-niners. Indigenous removal is so basic to the settler cosmology that its daily celebrations of the genocidaires – on currency, in street, school and team names, on monuments, in holidays, etc. – pass unnoticed (by the settlers). Settler normativity is as much part of foreign policy as it is in American governance.

This is the lens through which we should understand American Zionists – Christian, Jewish or others – supporting Israel or the Israeli vigils in support of South African Apartheid and other such manifestations. They are settlers supporting settlers. Settler normativity informs this support. Without the Israel Lobby the United States would still support Israel for reasons of settler colonialism as foreign policy as it did for South Africa, Rhodesia and elsewhere. In this reading American settler colonialism explains the existence of the Israel Lobby more than the Israel Lobby explains U.S. support for Zionist settler colonialism.

Anti-Zionism as Counternormativity

The strange mix of ferocity and dismissal in U.S., Canadian and Australian support for Israel and rejection of Palestine is too best understood through settler normativity. It is only counternormative discourse that is so heavily attacked in the U.S. Criticism of Israel is rejected with a fury approaching that directed at feminists, anti-racists and anti-capitalists, especially intersections thereof. It is to the extent that sometimes when native organizers and scholars in the U.S. critique Zionism some Palestine-solidarity activists can’t even understand that it is criticism of Zionism because U.S. settler colonialism is being similarly indicted! Noting that Israel is just like the U.S. is seen as a defense of Israel rather than critique of both the U.S. and Israel. The Israel Lobby could only dream of such discursive power. But settler normativity explains it well. When settler rule in Palestine falls, it will (likely) be the first modern example of settler rule falling when the settlers formed a majority of the population in the colony for any amount of time. That should be (Beautifully! Wonderfully! Literally!) unsettling to other settler societies, even those where settlers are the vast majority of the population.

There is much more to U.S. support for Israel, especially the actual role Israel plays in U.S. empire as a weapons promoter and lab, arms conduit, subcontractor and regional heavy. But important too is settler colonialism and the real threat Palestinian liberation poses to settler colonialism elsewhere.

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The Ulster unionists are the descendants of the settlers in Northern Ireland and they overwhelmingly support Israel. The following link provides an insight into the clear similarities in the British plantation of Ireland and that of the zionist one in Palestine. “The Plantation of Ulster (Irish: Plandáil Uladh; Ulster-Scots: Plantin o Ulstèr)[1] was the organised colonisation (plantation) of Ulster – a province of Ireland – by people from Great Britain during the reign of… Read more »

Every once in a while, you read something that tells you something so fundamental about yourself that even after 68 years you say: how did I not know this? I now have the answer to why the US and Australia support Israel so unequivocally.

Tamir said, “Asia is basically the continent of the Yellow race. Australia and Israel do not belong to it – we basically belong to the White race.” Further, “Israel and Australia are like sisters in Asia. We are located in Asia but without the characteristics of Asians, our skin is not yellow nor are our eyes slanted.”

Australia is not in the continent of Asia. it is in Australia/Oceania.

Tamir needs to walk around the campuses of Australia’s universities – one gets the impression that at least half of the faces are Asian. Of course many of these are on temporary student visas, but Australia currently has over 180,000 immigrants each year (that’s close to 1% of the current population) and the top two countries providing those immigrants are India and China. Australia’s support for Israel really stems from the Zionist control of… Read more »

Many thanks for this tremendous article, Jimmy!

It rings true and clear as a bell, much to my dismay.

(I always appreciate your contributions to MW)