Jews, like other peoples, have been much affected by the history of colonialism and empire. The Babylonian exile and the Roman dispersal were formative in constructing Jewish identity. Life within the Islamic empires stamped the experience of Mizrahi Jews in much the same way as, later, life in the Tsarist and Austro-Hungarian Empires molded the experience of the Jews of Europe. In 1917, it was British imperial policy that led to the Balfour Declaration and the subsequent Palestine Mandate, creating the Jewish National Home. The intersection of the Jewish experience with Empire should be a matter of scholarly attention, but it rarely is. This book does much to make good that absence. Its focus is on both the Jewish role in European colonialism and the impact of European colonialism on Jews. The editors have assembled distinguished scholars who offer rich and diverse accounts of Jews as colonialists and of the Jewish contribution to colonial policy. It ends with a rich debate on the question of whether Zionism itself is a colonial movement.
Part 1: The Jews and Colonialism
European colonialism lasted from the Spanish conquest of parts of central and South America in the early 16th century until the final gasp of the Portuguese Empire in Africa in the 1970s. In these four and a half centuries the political geography of the world was transformed. The boundaries of all contemporary states in the Americas and nearly all in Africa were set in this process. Perhaps even more dramatic than the physical changes was the emergence of new ways of thinking about the world. European colonialism became the means of circulating the European Enlightenment – encoded as it was with the binaries of modernity versus backwardness, civilisation versus barbarism and progress versus decay.
Jews necessarily occupied an ambivalent position in all of this. In parts of the colonised world they were among the subject peoples. On the other hand, in the metropolitan countries, especially in France and Britain, while Jewish minorities were most often seen as alien and hailing from the Orient, they had the same opportunities to become colonists or to contribute to colonial policies as their fellow citizens. In the first two sections of this collection these ambiguities are explored. The range of material is impressive. Collette Zyntnicki suggests that French colonialism reinvents the Jewish past in the Maghreb while Susannah Heschel reminds us of the role of Jews in developing the influential school of German Islamic studies. There are chapters that take us to the role of the Vichy regime in Morocco (Daniel Schroeter) and to the anti-Jewish riots in Tunisia in the 1950s (Maud Mandel). There is an incisive comparison by Israel Bartal of the Jewish experience in the French and Russian Empires. The collection is a challenge to the relative silence about the influence of colonialism on the Jewish experience, offering an important first step in correcting that.
In his chapter on mid-19th century England, Adam Mendlesohn introduces us to Moses Joseph, a British Jew who was deported to Australia after a conviction for theft in 1827 – one of 384 Jews who suffered the same fate between 1788 and 1830. Despite his inauspicious arrival in Sydney, Joseph managed to rise from a small shop-keeper to a major land-owner and shipping tycoon by the 1850s. He is now seen as a founding member of Sydney’s Jewish community and his coat of arms is part of a stained-glass window in the University of Sydney. Having made his fortune he returned to London, obtained a pardon, and became a respectable member of the Jewish community. While Joseph was making his way in Australia, Jacob Phillips – who had been a bankrupt from Birmingham – was importing guns and luxury goods to Hong Kong. Colonial adventures revived his fortunes and he too returned to Britain to became an active supporter of communal causes. These stories are not at all exceptional. Many Britons had the same experience of seeking their fortune in the Empire. What is so striking about Mandelsohn’s chapter is the very ordinariness of the Jewish involvement in colonialism: Jews acted just like their fellow citizens.
For Jews in the colonised world the experience was very different but could be equally transformative. Frances Malino suggests that the modernising impact of French colonialism in Morocco encouraged the emergence of a ‘New Jewish Woman’. She tells of Messody Parinete, born into a middle-class Sephardi community in Tetuoan in 1877, who became integrated into French culture through the activities of the Alliance Israelite Universal (AIU). Parinete, as with the colonialised elite in general, was acculturated to republican ideals. Like many Jews from the north of the country she found Jews further south somewhat perplexing. In re-opening a Jewish girls school in Fez in 1909 she worked to overcome what she saw as backwardness in the community – and campaigned against the institution of child marriage. She saw the world through the prism of French colonialism and wanted to extend progress to what she conceived as the backward sector of the Jewish community. The civilising mission is thus not a gift bestowed by the coloniser but rather a process in which a layer of the colonised society is seduced to become its best exponent. What is interesting in this example is that a French Jewish organisation (AIU) provided the means of mediating the colonial encounter. The result is the emergence of a woman activist who not only fought for change within the Jewish community but also became a campaigner against discrimination policies against Jews by the colonial authorities.
Looking at colonialism from another perspective Ethan Katz carefully weaves together the stories of three French Jews who played a critical role in colonial politics: Joseph Reinach, Léon Blum and Rene Cassin. As a group, their lives spanned from the high-point of empire in the mid-19th century to the post-colonial 1970s. Léon Blum, the socialist politician and Popular Front Prime Minister, will be well-known to many readers. The jurist Rene Cassin will be equally well-known as one of the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Joseph Reinach should be better known. He was a lawyer and politician who had been a formidable supporter of Alfred Dreyfus. In the First World War, he became a champion of reforming the status of Muslim colonial subjects in North Africa (Jews had already become French citizens in Algeria in 1870). Reinach pointed out that despite the German campaign to win over the Muslim world to their side in the war, a quarter of a million North African Muslims had enlisted with the French Army. Such a massive contribution to the war effort should not go unrewarded because, as Reinach put it, he that has ‘shed with us his blood has the right to our liberty and justice’ (133). After the war, he continued his campaign to extend the rights enjoyed by French citizens to the colonial peoples. Katz shows that Reinach’s arguments are, however, framed within the colonial narrative. Reinach believed that the colonial peoples’ participation in the war on the side of France demonstrated their attainment of civilisation. To some degree Reinach anticipated decolonisation when European colonial powers – except for the Portuguese – granted independence once they judged that the colonised peoples had attained a state of civilisation sufficiently advanced for self-government.
Both Blum and Cassin are also seen as reformers. Blum promoted Jewish-Muslim relations and in the 1930s sought, unsuccessfully, to extend the franchise in Algeria. Interestingly this would have been far more limited than Reinach’s proposals as the vote would have been given to about 21,000 Muslims on the attainment of military rank or higher education. Blum’s socialism was very much connected to the republicanism of the French Revolution, and he saw the colonies as benefitting from exposure to the latter. In power, he sought to implement such values in the most enlightened way. Cassin, now buried in the Pantheon in Paris, is forever associated with the cause of human rights. However, as Katz explains, human rights were not seen by Cassin as standing in opposition to colonialism. He believed that human beings needed ‘maturity’ to exercise those rights. So, like Reinach and Blum, Cassin’s apparently progressive arguments went with the grain of the French colonial mission.
Nevertheless, these three figures stood for emancipation whereas many other French officials and politicians did not. Katz makes the case that their fight against antisemitism was a factor that informed their politics. What is less clear is to what extent being Jewish did. Whether they expressed a particularly Jewish sensitivity can be contested. What is more certain, as Katz explains, is that even these progressive voices for reform and human rights were couched within a colonial discourse that ran deep.
Part 2: Zionism and Colonialism
Tara Zahra reminds us that Zionism itself is a complex political phenomenon concerning much more than emigration to Palestine. Jewish nationalism broadly defined, she suggests, was not only a reaction to the growth of nationalism in Eastern and Central Europe, but was complementary to it. Emigration to Palestine was sometimes seen as a way of securing the Jewish communities in Europe. Zionism, in this narrative, looked to the creation of a Jewish national center in Palestine, but not necessarily a homeland for all Jews. Indeed, this was very much evident in the debates in early 20th century Zionism, where comparisons were made between the Irish and the Jews. Ireland could be seen as national center that nourished the vast Irish Diaspora. Likewise, the Jewish presence in Palestine, it was hoped, would concentrate political, cultural and scientific resources that would renew and strengthen Jewish identity and at the same time make the Jewish Diaspora more secure. She concludes: ‘Understanding the relationship between Jews, Zionism, and colonialism, ultimately requires that we consider the multiple varieties of colonialism that flourished in Europe at the turn of the century as well as the multiple varieties of Zionism.’ (187)
In David Feldman’s chapter on Zionism and the British Labour Party we explore the attitude of a party that held power at two fateful moments for the Jews of Palestine. This chapter is of particular interest as Feldman was a vice-chair of the Chakrabarti Inquiry into Antisemitism and other forms of Racism in the Labour Party in 2016. He begins with the well-known observation by Archibald Thornton that ‘the Labour Party was always a strong supporter of Zionism’ (193). Feldman says that this assessment needs qualification given the record of the Labour governments of 1929-1931 and 1945-1951. However, he then claims that for ‘most of the twentieth century the sympathies of Labour Party politicians and activists were overwhelmingly with the Yishuv and then, after 1948, with Israel.’ (193). This is a curious view as he acknowledges that when in power Labour governments adopted policies that were decidedly against the Yishuv and Israel. It was the MacDonald government that attempted to restrict both immigration and land purchases by Jews, and the Passfield White Paper that proposed these policies, giving the impression that Jews already owned a great deal of land. In fact, Jewish land ownership only amounted to about 6 per cent of the total when the Mandate ended in 1948. It should be noted that Lord Passfield was none other than the socialist intellectual Sidney Webb, who once stated that Polish Jews in London were a ‘constant influence for degradation’.
The 1945 Atlee government was even more problematic as it enforced the rigid immigration quotas that had been adopted in 1939. This meant that the British military did all they could to stop Holocaust survivors reaching Palestine, forcing many to return to Europe, and interning 18,000 in Cyprus. When the 1947 UN partition plan, which provided for the creation of Jewish and Arab states, was put to vote, Britain abstained. The UN sought to send a commission to Palestine to make preparation for partition but the British refused its entry. After the Declaration of the State of Israel in May 1948, Feldman claims (as did the Chakrabarti report) that ‘the Labour government moved swiftly to recognise the new state’ (194). It did nothing of the kind. While the Soviet Union took days, the British took eight months before recognising Israel simply as de facto; it was not until April 1950 that Britain agreed to full de jure status. Britain also abstained on the two votes to admit Israel to the UN.
This record should more than qualify the view that Labour supported Zionism. Had Prime Minister Clement Atlee and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin got their way, there would have been no Jewish state. While Feldman may be correct that for much of the 20th century Labour appeared to support Zionism, in truth, when it counted most, it did not. The attitudes of some Labour politicians towards Jews and Zionism, such as Sydney Webb and Bevin indicate that the phenomenon of antisemitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party is not new. The Labour Party’s relationship to Jews, the Yishuv and Israel has been more uneven than many would like to believe.
Part 3: Between colonialism, anti-colonialism and post-colonialism?
The last section of the book begins with Derek Penslar’s previously published essay ‘Is Zionism a Colonial Movement?’ Joshua Cole and Elizabeth Thompson each write a critique of the piece and the book ends with Penslar’s reply. This exchange is the academy at its best, with little point scoring and just a genuine exchange that seeks to understand the character of Zionism through logical discussion. It is a model of how the debate should be handled and demonstrates the poverty of much of the more ideologically charged material on this topic which is passed off as scholarship.
Penslar is a leading figure in Israel studies, has held chairs at Toronto, Oxford and Harvard, and is the author of Zionism and Technology. In his original essay he was painstaking in his approach, seeking to avoid the binary position ‘on the relationship between Zionism and colonialism’ which ‘is the attempt to establish complete congruence or total separation between the two phenomena’ (276). He claims that his essay ‘contends that the Zionist project was historically and conceptually situated between colonial, anti-colonial and post-colonial discourse and practice’ (276). He accepts that Zionism made appeals to the interests of the Great Powers and is ‘shot through with Orientalist conceptions of Arab degeneracy and primitiveness’ (276). On the other hand, he thinks that ‘the pre-state Zionism possessed anti-colonial elements’ (276). After the creation of the State, Israel ‘like many countries in Asia and Africa, translated the anti-colonial rhetoric of victimisation into a triumphant post-colonial discourse of technical planning and state socialism’ (276).
The focus of the debate is whether the Yishuv can be mainly characterised as an example of settler-colonialism. As Penslar explains, this question is complicated by the various forms that settler-colonialism took. The term encompasses many different examples such as the Afrikaners before the Union of South Africa in 1910, the settlement of Australia by convicts, and of New England by religious dissidents, as well as the French pattern of settlement in Algeria. As a result, it is simply not possible to hold up a simple template and see if it fits the case of Zionism. Penslar’s own work has been informed by the Indian post-colonial scholar Partha Chatterjee, who in another context has argued that no forms of colonialism conform to a simple identifiable type. There is, he argues, no colonial project. Penslar’s case is that Zionism should be seen in-between the colonial and anti-colonial.
Elizabeth Thompson, however, argues that when ‘we look at what Zionists both said and did in Palestine before 1948, we find little European anti-colonialism and an intimate alliance of the settlers with the British mandatory (colonial) state’ (317). Her essay concentrates on the period 1917–1921, which covers the time between the Balfour Declaration and the negotiations over the terms of the League of Nations Mandate and the Palestine-Order-in-Council, which set up the British administration. However, while it is quite true that the Zionists worked hard first to achieve the Declaration and then to ensure that the first the occupation authorities and then the civil administration worked in their interests, so too did the Palestinian Arabs. Both the Zionist movement and the Arab nationalists were at the Peace Conference arguing for their respective visions of the post-war Middle East. After the failure of the Greater Syrian movement in 1920 – which included Palestine – the Palestinian Arabs turned to an active diplomacy in London hoping to influence the aims and structure of the Mandate. It seems problematic to suggest that one side was attempting an ‘intimate alliance’ while the other was anti-colonial.
In the event, despite its nomenclature, Mandate Palestine became effectively a British colony. The Palestine Order-in-Council (1922) followed the pattern set in other colonies. The High Commissioner occupied the position of governor with the same powers, the Colonial Office in London became ultimately responsible for the country, and its officials filled the key positions. Appeals from the Palestinian courts were heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, as with other British colonies.
The creation of the Jewish National Home was at the center of both the Mandate and the Order-in-Council. For Thompson, its dual objectives of encouraging Jewish immigration and the ‘close settlement of the land’ illustrate features of settler colonialism. However, in the first years of British control the Jewish population did not grow significantly. In the first census in 1922 it reached just under 84,000 having been about 55,000 in 1917. That was not as dramatic as it appears as the Ottomans had expelled 27,000 Jews in 1915 and so the Jewish population was back to its pre-war level. Over the 30 years of British rule the Jewish population did increase dramatically to 650,000 by 1947 (a UN estimate). And Thompson is quite correct, as Penslar says, that colonial and orientalist imagery were common in Zionist discourse at the time. But does this make the Yishuv akin to the French in Algeria for example?
The presence of orientalist imagery of Palestinian Arabs in much Zionist literature does not necessarily prove that the movement was colonialist. After all, even in the report of the UN Special Committee on Palestine in 1947, we find this: ‘Jews will bring to the land the social dynamism and scientific method of the West; the Arabs confront them with individualism and intuitive understanding of life.’ Such views, unfortunately, were secreted deep in the discourses of international society. What is unusual is that the Zionist movement generally did not seek to conquer and subject the Palestinian Arabs to their will. The assumption that ran through its policies was that the country would have to be shared in some manner between the two peoples. As a result, throughout the Mandate period most Zionist factions proposed some form of confederal, bi-national or federal solution. Nor was there any attempt to deny the Palestinian Arabs their right to self-determination. Thus, both ideologically and politically, the Zionist movement did not share the common view of settlers toward the indigenous populations in settler colonies.
The principle of self-determination is central to Zionist thought. As Penslar points out, Zionism was not created in 1897 but had much longer antecedents and was based on a historical narrative of a people forcible dispersed from their home who sought to return. This is quite unlike the early phase in the European settlement colonies where the initial populations did not believe that they were creating national societies. Individuals rather sought freedom and adventure in a ‘new world,’ and most planned to return home. For Jews making Aliyah – literally ascending to the land of Israel – the situation was more complex. Herzl’s novel Altneuland was prescient in this respect. The novel’s old/new dichotomy reveals another feature of Zionism, which was the task of transforming the Jews as a people. This was no civilising mission toward the Palestinian Arabs, but toward the Jews themselves. I am not referring here to Mizrahi Jews, much discussed in this book, but to all Jews. Zionism set itself the task of liberating the Jews from exile, and this meant breaking from old habits, patterns of thought and the very language of exile. ‘The New Jew’ was a theme of Zionist propaganda in the 1920s and 1930s. The old land would not just be redeemed by its people, but would, in turn, redeem them.
Joshua Cole is concerned that Penslar’s question, despite its elegant response, merely returns the debate about Zionism to the ‘polemical hothouse’ (313). Cole is quite correct the origins of the question, Is Zionism as colonial movement, are indeed political. More than that it is question that was posed in the midst the of the anti-colonial era of the 1960s. Fayez Sayegh’s book Zionism Colonialism in Palestine appears in 1965 and Maxime Rodinson’s article Israel: A Colonial Settler State was published in 1967, for example. It was not how the Arab delegations to the UN characterised Zionism in the debates about the partition plan in 1947. Zionism was described as illegitimate, aggressive and expansionist but it was mostly seen as conduit for Bolshevism rather than colonialism. The occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem sharpened questions about the character of Zionism. Fifty years later the occupation does resemble a colonial situation. Israel looks like a colonial state in the West Bank with the bureaucratic and military paraphernalia which has created different legal regimes for the Palestinians and the Israeli settlers. It is this experience that has nourished the idea that Zionism was colonial from its inception. However, looked at from another direction, the real experience of Israeli colonialism surely undermines the argument that Yishuv were part of colonial settlement all along. Like the Palestinians today, the Yishuv were vulnerable to shifts in imperial policy, subject to a colonial bureaucracy and in the 1940s suffered under a major military crackdown. The perspective of comparative political history offered in this book provides us with a method for addressing a question which cannot be ignored.
Colonialism and the Jews is scholarship at its best, offering us new ways of thinking through difficult political questions. The volume reminds us that sound research and reasoned argument, while not an alternative to politics, can play a critical role by extracting the poisonous passion that mars so much political debate and clarifying the terms for political progress.