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Wilf's Colonialism Denial

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Friday, April 20, 2012




Palestine Center Brief No. 230 (20 April 2012)


By Yousef Munayyer

In her piece “Zionism Denial,” Member of Knesset Einat Wilf rightly argues that Zionism, and not the Holocaust, led to the creation of the modern state of Israel. But in the process of making her argument she significantly distorts the history of Zionism.

Wilf does not define Zionism and instead leaves it to the reader to engage in the literary acrobatics necessary to conclude that Zionism was never a “colonial project”. She also minimizes the role European anti-Semitism played in sparking the Zionist movement, but one needs only to read the first pages of Herzl’s seminal Der Judenstaat to know that these claims can’t be true.

First, Wilf would have us believe that Zionism was not a “colonial project”. Today colonialism has a negative connotation, and as a member of Knesset it might be difficult for Wilf to confront such a specter of history, but inconvenience is no excuse for misleading readers.

Exhibit A in the ‘Zionism is Colonialism’ file, and perhaps sufficient evidence in and of itself, is a letter written by Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism (one of Wilf’s “visionary Jewish thinkers and leaders”), in his diary and intended for Cecil Rhodes, perhaps the most identifiable figure with English colonialism. Rhodes is the namesake of the former British Colony of Rhodesia (note: it is today called Zimbabwe, Rhodes is not a name native to Southern Africa) and the man who contributed this gem of a colonialist maxim for posterity: “I would annex the planets if I could.”

Herzl writes to Rhodes in his diary on Zionism,

You are the only man who can help me now….it is a big- some say, too big –thing. To me, it does not seem too big for Cecil Rhodes… You are being invited to make history…It is not in your accustomed line; it doesn’t involve Africa but a piece of Asia Minor, not Englishmen but Jews…How do I happen to turn to you seeing this matter so remote to you? How? Because it is colonial, and because it presupposes an understanding of a development that requires 20 to 30 years…put the stamp of your authority on the Zionist plan…

Herzl wanted to write to Rhodes to ask the most recognized proponent of colonialism of the day to vouch for the colonialist plan of Zionism.  If Einat Wilf does not think Zionism was a colonialist project, maybe she should take that up with Theodor Herzl.

Second, Wilf says Zionism is the "national liberation project" of an "indigenous people."  While many Jews might think of themselves as part of a single nation and while a tiny percentage of Palestine's inhabitants where Jewish a century ago, calling Zionism the "liberation project" of an "indigenous people" would seem to require a redefinition of the meaning of the word "indigenous."

While many Jews may trace their lineage to ancient forefathers of Biblical times, the people who were natives of the land, the Palestinian Arabs, do as well. What makes Wilf's suggestion that Zionism—which brought Jews from outside of Palestine into it—was a movement of 'indigenous people' even worse, is that she makes no mention of the fact that the Palestinian Arabs were native to the land before the advent of Zionism.

Interestingly, in an infamous letter Theodor Herzl wrote to the Palestinian mayor of Jerusalem in 1899 arguing unconvincingly  that colonialism would benefit the Arabs of Palestine, he too used the word ‘indigenous’…to describe the native Arab population.

A third and perhaps most dangerous idea put forward in Wilf’s piece is that Arab actions bear some sort of responsibility for the severity of the Holocaust. If the Arabs had just accepted Zionism (signifying their own dispossession), then World War II might have turned out differently. This is a very slippery slope that leads to blaming the Arabs for the genocide of millions of Jews in an effort to justify the effects of Zionism on the Palestinians.

Imagine if someone had made the argument that if the Jews just never came to Europe there would have been no Holocaust. We would rightly call that anti-Semitism. So why is it acceptable to suggest the Arabs deserve blame for essentially being what even the founder of modern Zionism called an “indigenous people” who were resisting a “colonial project”?

The most revealing part of Wilf’s argument is that to defend Zionism and its colonial history in the twenty-first century, Wilf found it necessary to reinvent Zionism entirely.

Zionism’s colonial origins are as much an undeniable fact of history as its colonial settlements in the West Bank are undeniable facts on the ground. We cannot hide from either of these realities if Israelis and Palestinians are to ever see peace.

This article originally appeared on Newsweek/The Daily Beast.

Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center. This policy brief may be used without permission but with proper attribution to the Center.

The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.

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