Democracy, apartheid, settler-colonialism: what is Israel?

31 May 2021
D Taylor

Israel is one of the strangest countries in the world. Its supporters say that it’s the only democracy in the Middle East, a beacon of liberal values in a repressive and superstitious region. It’s a place where even the military are queer-friendly and pro-vegan, a country founded by the inheritors of Europe’s socialist traditions. But those same international supporters include many of the world’s most prominent right-wing authoritarians, from former US President Donald Trump to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the British fascist Tommy Robinson. (I’ll never forget attending a small protest in Melbourne against Trump’s move of the US embassy to Jerusalem; across the road, a little fascist mob waved a sea of blue-and-white Trump and Israeli flags.) Israelis themselves are broadly on the world’s extreme right: 70 percent of them supported Trump’s re-election, according to a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute. Yet support for Israel is, in most Western countries, something like a consensus in mainstream politics, expressed not just by the Donald Trumps of the world, but equally by the Joe Bidens.

What kind of country is this? How can its conduct, its internal politics and its international supporters all so flagrantly contradict its self-representation as an enlightened democracy? Labelling Israel is a difficult and controversial issue: is it apartheid, settler colonialism or something else entirely? And what do those labels mean for the struggle to liberate Palestinians?

It’s harder and harder to call Israel the “only democracy in the Middle East”, even for those who accept the myths of capitalist democracy itself. After all, millions of its subjects have no real rights; they can’t even be called second-class citizens, because so many Palestinians living under Israeli military rule are denied citizenship. This legal framework helps the Israeli state kill, imprison and torture Palestinians with impunity, stealing land and engaging in ethnic cleansing, while pretending to adhere to liberal and democratic political values. But, as the Palestinian author Hadar Eid, who lived for years in South Africa, says: “Apartheid South Africa considered itself a democracy. Its institutions were indeed somewhat democratic, but only for the white citizens of the country”. Put simply, Israel is not even a normal capitalist democracy: Palestinian Arabs under its rule are deeply oppressed and disenfranchised.

So, over time, the analogy between Israeli and South African apartheid has become more common. That claim is seen as so damaging to Israeli interests that Zionists have fought hard to define it as a form of anti-Semitism. The US-based Zionist lobby group, the Anti-Defamation League, published year-by-year reports on its attempts to suppress “Israeli Apartheid Week” events, while four Jewish Democratic members of the US Congress recently declared that apartheid comparisons are “antisemitic at their core”. But even relatively mainstream human rights groups, like Human Rights Watch and the Israel-based B’Tselem, have publicly declared that Israel is an “apartheid state”, backed up by extensive analysis of the systematic discrimination and oppression faced by Israel’s Palestinian subjects, including those who have citizenship rights.

What’s the significance of this analogy? Comparing Israel to South Africa draws attention to the racialised nature of its so-called democracy and the way that oppression of Palestinians permeates the structure of the whole society. But it also suggests analogies to the struggle that brought down the hated South African regime. The fight against South African apartheid involved a global movement in solidarity with those struggling within South Africa itself. Trade unions, the left and anti-racist activists engaged in solidarity work: boycotting South African products and cultural events, organising strikes to undermine South Africa’s international trade and so on. Much like the South African freedom fighters, Palestinian activists are slandered as bloodthirsty savages who are motivated by tribal resentment and sinister world views. Their oppressor also has international support (South Africa’s apartheid regime was backed by most Western powers, as well as Israel itself), and their liberation will require international solidarity.

But there is also an important difference between South Africa and Palestine. Palestinians need even more militant, powerful global support. South African apartheid was not ultimately brought down by global boycotts, although they were an important part of the fight. The South African working class were the agents of their own liberation: they built a powerful movement within South Africa, based heavily in the trade unions, using the economic and social power of Black workers to destabilise and ultimately destroy the racist political structures that had dominated for decades.

Palestine is different. Israel does not seek to exploit Palestinians in key industrial sectors like South Africa’s mines. Quite the opposite: for decades, Israel has tried systematically to exclude Palestinians from the economy, to ethnically cleanse and “Judaise” the region. That means Palestinians, who have struggled with such courage and determination for so long, are lacking much of the industrial power that allowed South Africans to challenge the apartheid system. This is part of the significance of understanding Israel as a “settler-colonial society”.

This analysis was popularised by Arab nationalists. But over time, revolutionary socialists took it up too, returning to the pre-Stalinist tradition of Marxist hostility to Zionism. This was a breakthrough: Israel’s founding was supported by Stalin’s USSR, and, for decades, many Western leftists were trained to see the foundation of Israel as the successful culmination of the Jewish people’s struggle for national self-determination. Early Israeli society was strangely dominated by institutions of the broad left, like its trade union federation Histadrut and the socialist and labour parties to which it was linked. Many saw Israel’s co-ops, the kibbutz movement, as a form of socialism in the tradition of the nineteenth century utopians and anarchists, who built intentional communities based on egalitarian production and communal living.

But as the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell points out in his Founding Myths of Israel, Israeli “socialism” was really a disguised form of nationalism. Organised by the Israeli “labour” movement, early Zionist settlements were a “paradise for capitalists”, as their founders supported free market policies to attract investment. The Histadrut was not just a union: it was, for a period, the country's biggest employer as well, owning Israel's biggest bank, its main shipping line, and massive industrial conglomerates. The Histadrut was a Zionist state-building institution that also controlled the country's union movement, enforcing class collaboration and racial segregation. Israeli “socialism” was not based on class struggle, but on the vision of militarised national unity based on ethnic and racial solidarity, and a populist alliance of “producers”—workers and bosses—against “parasites”. In this, it shared much with the distorted version of “socialism” that Stalinism had promoted throughout the world.

Its vision, in Sternhell’s words, was “the organic unity of the nation and the mobilization of all classes of society for the achievement of national objectives”. Israeli “socialism” meant displacing the native Palestinians through violence and terror, and replacing them with a hyper-nationalist society in which there would supposedly be no need for class struggle. But as Israeli General Moshe Dayan declared at the funeral of a kibbutz member in 1956, “Without the steel helmet and the cannon, we cannot plant a tree or build a house”.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, as Israel became a firm ally of Western imperialism and acquired more territory through military conquest and settlement, a new understanding took root throughout the left. The renowned Marxist historian Maxime Rodinson published a book, Israel: A Colonial Settler State?, and Israeli revolutionaries grouped around the newspaper Matzpen and its influential theorist Moshé Machover adopted a similar analysis, influenced by the brilliant Palestinian Arab Trotskyist, Jabra Nicola. The establishment of Israel, they argued, was not an act of national liberation of the kind Marxists should support: an oppressed people finding their freedom at last. It was, and remained, an act of colonisation. A “settler colony”—or what Machover now prefers to call an “exclusion colony”—is based on driving out the native population from participation in the new national economy that is being established on their traditional lands.

This is how Israel was formed, and how it continues to expand. Israel has around 8 million citizens, of which around half a million are “settlers” engaged in the active theft of Palestinian land. This makes Israel stand out among capitalist states. Its society is highly militarised through permanent occupation and land theft; a big minority of its Jewish population are active participants in that process, while the majority have supported it by serving in the military, through Israel’s mandatory conscription.

In recent years, the phrase “settler colonial” has become predominant in the global solidarity movement, used by both Palestinian and non-Palestinian activists. But it’s not used just to describe Israel. It's increasingly common to claim that countries like the US and Australia support Israel because they, too, originated as settler-colonial societies, and share some kind of spiritual or moral connection on that basis.

This argument can be attractive—and there is value in connecting the dispossession of the Palestinians to the genocidal establishment of those countries. Many Australians and Americans are familiar with the genocides that founded their states, and drawing the connection might help people who are familiar with the horrors of early colonialism to take early steps in understanding the suffering of the Palestinians today. But as an explanation for Australia’s and the US’s links to Israel, it doesn’t stand up. For one thing, although Australia and the US were established through this kind of colonialism, they have not been defined by it for a long time. Half a million Jewish Israelis have acquired their dwellings by taking up arms and fighting the native population for them, and the remainder are mostly recent descendants of people who immigrated in order to support this project. This simply doesn’t apply in Australia or the US. Arguing that Australia and Israel are the same can be especially problematic when the obvious conclusion is drawn that, for example, Palestinian refugees in Australia are “settlers” in the same way as Jews from Brooklyn who use military power to force their way into a Palestinian family’s house in East Jerusalem. This doesn't help build solidarity; it confuses and undermines it.

And when Israel’s alliances are examined, there is not a universal rule of ex-settler-colony solidarity. Some of Israel’s strongest supporters are not former settler colonies, but former colonised countries. India was one of Britain’s most hideously oppressed colonies; after a long struggle it won independence in 1947, and for decades Indian politics was seen as broadly pro-Palestine. Now, under its far-right leader Narendra Modi, it has shifted to a much stronger pro-Israel position. Modi himself was the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. His nativist “Hindutva” nationalism should be a bad spiritual match for a settler-colonial society, but many other leaders and cadres of his right-wing party are even more rabidly pro-Israel than Modi himself. Why? It's not just about anti-Muslim prejudice: as Vijay Prasad writes, “India’s policy [towards Israel] shifted in 1991. It had to do with the eagerness to be a subordinate ally of the US”. India’s attitude towards Israel is defined by its shifting position in the blocs of global imperialism. In establishing friendly relations with Israel, India joins ex-colonies like Egypt, whose nationalist rulers have been irreplaceable allies of the Israeli state for decades; Sri Lanka, where the genocidal Sinhala-chauvinist government has acquired invaluable military hardware from Israel; Ethiopia, another important purchaser of Israeli arms; and many others.

On the other hand, China’s practice of settler colonialism in Xinjiang—where Han Chinese settlers are imported to secure China’s political control over this economically important region—does not receive support from kindred spirits in the former settler colonies in the West. And that’s not just because of racism; after all, the US and Australia were hardly hotbeds of pro-Jewish racial feeling in the decades around the establishment of Israel. Solidarity between current and former settler-colonies is not what shapes international relations.

Israel is supported by the West because it’s more than just a settler colony. It is, as was first pointed out as early as 1951 by the Israeli Ha’aretz paper, a “watchdog” for Western imperialism in the Middle East. It is supported by Western powers as an important military ally in a strategic region. Unsurprisingly, they mostly turn a blind eye to their ally’s crimes. In Israel’s case, the crimes are occupation and land theft. Other regional allies of the West—like Saudi Arabia and Egypt—are similarly excused for their different crimes, while China and Russia make excuses or ignore the atrocities of their own local clients and collaborators. Israel’s international alliances are defined by the dynamics of contemporary imperialism, not historical settler colonialism. The alliances aren't based on some fellow-feeling that binds countries with similar origins. They're based on power and interest.

What does this mean for Palestinian strategy? Israel is a settler-colonial society, backed up by powerful Western imperialist allies, and that means that Palestinians need allies even more urgently than the South Africans. They are largely excluded from the Israeli economy, and it’s hard to challenge from within. Some socialists have argued that this means they need to reach out to the Israeli Jewish working class. Not all Israeli Jews are settlers, and some do courageously stand in solidarity with the Palestinians. But the history of Israel means that the Jewish workers of that country are among the region’s most politically conservative, particularly on the key question of imperialism. Almost every institution of the Israeli workers’ movement was involved in organising the ethnic cleansing of the native population, and almost every Israeli worker is from a family background of multi-generation political support for the Zionist project. Meanwhile, generations of revolutionary, pro-Palestinian Israeli Jews have emigrated from the country (including Moshé Machover himself). That has led Israeli Jewish workers to have a terribly distorted consciousness, and attempting to win their support creates a tendency to water down criticism of Zionism itself.

The most important allies of the Palestinians will have to be the Arab and Muslim workers throughout the Middle East. They have the numbers and the power to shake the foundations of the region’s political order, as the South African workers did. To liberate the Palestinians, they will have to rise up and revolt against their own regimes, which are complicit in the network of imperialist alliances and blocs that have oppressed the people of that region for so long. The heroic struggle of the Palestinians, and those who speak out and take action as part of the global solidarity movement, can help give courage and inspiration to that future uprising.

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