From the very onset of Zionist colonialism in Palestine, enormous efforts were undertaken to control the telling of the story
From the very onset of Zionist colonialism in Palestine, enormous efforts were undertaken to control the telling of the story

From the very onset of Zionist colonialism in Palestine, enormous efforts were undertaken to control the telling of the story

Border bottom in style of Palestinian embroidery
Border bottom in style of Palestinian embroidery
Myth: Israel was created as penance for the Holocaust
Israel was created as penance for the Holocaust

From the very onset of Zionist colonialism in Palestine, enormous efforts were undertaken to control the telling of the story. A new grand narrative was created, one which lionized the settlers and demonized the Palestinian natives -that is, if the Palestinians were even acknowledged. Like all foundational mythologies, it was half-baked, contradictory, and twisted the truth to the point of breaking it many times over. Consequently, many misunderstandings surrounding the establishment of Israel are common to this day.

For instance, the myth that the United Nations created Israel is frustratingly widespread. So too is the belief that Israel was established by the world community because of -or even as penance for- the Holocaust. This imbues the creation of Israel with an air of legitimacy, of righting wrongs, and learning from the past. This, of course, is nonsense.

Zionism and Palestine

Nearly 80 years before the Holocaust, a group which came to be known as the “Bilu pioneers” came to settle in Palestine. It was comprised of primarily Russian Jewish settlers who viewed their mission in Palestine as a pioneering one towards “the physical upbuilding of the land as contributing toward both a revitalization of the Jewish nation and the reemergence of Jewish masculinity and virility”. While this group predated Zionism as a political movement as we understand it today, it would not be unreasonable to call it proto-Zionist.

Unsurprisingly, and like all colonialist movements at the time, they had the same condescending and racist attitude towards the Palestinians living there. In a rare moment of reflection, one of the group leaders, Chaim Chissin, wrote the following entry in his diary, after failing to grow any crops:

“Whenever the Arabs told us that it was already too late to sow barley, or that the land was unsuited for it, we never hesitated to tell the ‘barbarians,’ with considerable self assurance, ‘Oh, that doesn’t matter. We’ll plow deep, we’ll turn the soil inside out, we’ll harrow it clean, and then you’ll see what a crop we’ll have!’ We provided ourselves with big plows, sunk them deep into the soil, and cruelly whipped our horses which were cruelly exhausted. Our self-confidence had no limits. We looked down on the Arabs, assuming that it was not they who should teach us, but we who would show these barbarians’ what a European could accomplish on this neglected land with the use of perfect tools and rational methods of cultivation. The only trouble was that we ourselves knew about European methods of cultivation only from hearsay, and our agriculturalist, too, knew very little [about conditions in Palestine].”

The Bilu pioneers would be followed by other groups, such as the Hibbat Zion. Some would fail and leave, others would remain. However, the shift in the quality and organization of Zionist colonialism would begin in 1897. Convened in the Swiss city of Basel, the first Zionist congress included over 200 delegates from all over Europe. The program of the congress called for establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, and to begin coordinating the settlement of Zionists there. The Zionist congress distinguished itself from previous attempts at settling Palestine by being the first to organize and marshal colonization efforts in a centralized and effective manner.

All of these efforts to colonize Palestine began nearly a century before the Holocaust, and was already picking up steam after the first world war. By the end of the 1800s, Theodor Herzl -the founder of political Zionism- was sending out letters to imperialist powers all over the globe in an attempt to elicit their aid in colonizing Palestine. Perhaps the most infamous is his letter to Cecil Rhodes, arguing that Britain recognized the importance of “colonial expansion”:

You are being invited to help make history,” he wrote, “It doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia Minor; not Englishmen, but Jews. How, then, do I happen to turn to you since this is an out-of-the-way matter for you? How indeed? Because it is something colonial.”

Following from the above, the colonization and ethnic cleansing of Palestine were a precondition for the success of the Zionist movement, and these were being planned long before even the first world war. This was encapsulated by a conversation overheard and documented by Moshe Smilansky in 1891:

“We should go east, into Transjordan. That would be a test for our movement.”

“Nonsense… isn’t there enough land in Judea and Galilee?”

“The land in Judea and Galilee is occupied by the Arabs.”

“Well, we’ll take it from them.”

“How?” (Silence.)

“A revolutionary doesn’t ask naive questions.”

“Well then, ‘revolutionary,’ tell us how.”

“It is very simple, we’ll harass them until they get out… Let them go to Transjordan.”

“And are we going to abandon all of Transjordan?” asks an anxious voice.

“As soon as we have a big settlement here we’ll seize the land, we’ll become strong, and then we’ll take care of the Left Bank [of the Jordan River], we’ll expel them from there, too. Let them go back to the Arab countries.”

The international order

The second problem with this misconception is that it assumes that world powers operate based on a system of morals, or that they can be compelled to “do what is right”. A cursory glance at history would show how misguided an idea this is. While the French waxed poetic about defeating fascism in the wake of the second world war, they were committing genocide against the people of Algeria. French intellectuals would write about how the various peoples of the French colonies were better off living under their domination. Since then the “Allies” would prop up tyrannical and bloody regimes the world over to protect their interests. As de Gaulle once famously said, France has no friendsonly interests.

This is the context of the establishment of Israel; it was supported by the hegemonic imperialist powers of the time, not because they suddenly grew a conscience, but because it was deemed strategic for their interests. A glimpse at the political landscape today reveals that remarkably little has changed with this arrangement. While Western countries pay lip service to the façade of a “rules based international order”, their actions betray their intentions. Human rights are only as useful as their ability to be instrumentalized to their benefit.

Listening to western diplomatic statements justifying sanctions on Russia, for example, you’d be forgiven for thinking international law was a holy set of commandments, faithfully adhered to as a matter of principal. However, you’ll soon snap out of it when you hear the same diplomats prevaricate and collectively shrug when asked to comment on Israeli annexation of territory, or the brutal war crimes in Yemen. Germany, which loves to act contrite and endlessly prattles on about how many lessons it learned from its genocidal past, couldn’t even pretend to care that it is supplying nuclear-capable submarines to an Apartheid state, by the admission of the largest human rights organizations in the world.

It is not a coincidence that Israel has always enjoyed the backing of the colonial powers of the world, especially the settler colonies which share similar origin stories, and it is not a coincidence that Israel is basically a client state of the world’s imperialist hegemon. Israel was useful to these powers at the time of its establishment, and it continues to function as an outpost for imperialism in the region today.

The Holocaust was undoubtedly one of the greatest tragedies of modern history, where millions of innocents were murdered in an unspeakably cruel and industrialized manner. Also true is that this was not the reason for the creation of Israel, which had its colonial seeds planted nearly a century prior. It was not remorse that motivated the colonial powers to support Israel, powers which were actively committing genocide against multiple colonized populations. Framing the creation of Israel as repentance for the Holocaust is not only historically inaccurate, but deliberately paints the legitimate rejection of its creation at the expense of the Palestinians as complicity with Nazi genocide. It transfers Europe’s guilt onto Palestinians, where they become the embodiment of everything the grandchildren of fascists claim to despise in their grand quest for (empty, symbolic) redemption. A redemption with the theatrics and loud proclamations of regret and change, but none of the substance. At the end of the day, nothing can justify the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, who share no blame for the barbarity of Europe’s pogroms and genocides.

Palestine has always been home to countless refugee populations; Jewish people fleeing persecution and finding a safe home in Palestine was never the issue. The issue is that these ideals of coexistence were never reciprocated by the Zionist movement, who showed disdain towards Palestinians from the very beginning and sought to take over the land. It sanctioned its own settlers working with Palestinians, even calling Arab labor an “illness” and forming a segregated trade union that banned non-Jewish members.

In 1928, the Palestinian leadership even voted to allow Zionist settlers equal representation in the future bodies of the state, despite them being a minority who had barely just arrived. The Zionist leadership rejected this, of course. Even after this, in 1947 the Palestinians suggested replacing the Mandate with the formation of a unitary state for all those living between the river and the sea, to no avail. These gestures were brushed aside, as they did not benefit the Zionist leadership who never intended to come to Palestine to live as equals.

For decades Palestinians have been massacred, their homes stolen and destroyed, ethnically cleansed into refugee camps and denied their right of return. The notion that these colonial powers were ever concerned about Jewish safety as they fomented the conditions that made pogroms possible and denied Jewish refugees safety within their own borders is absurd. So too is the idea that Jewish people from all over the world must all live in a singular nation-state in the Middle East where they are a demographic majority to be safe, that the eradication of anti-Semitism around the world is a lost cause, and that whatever violence is wreaked upon Palestinians for the maintenance of this regressive demographics-obsessed state is justifiable.

It would instead behoove us all to question what it really means to make sure that never again can millions be so dehumanized as to make their dispossession and their violent deaths be widely seen as justified. The way that the Israeli government and Israeli society at large legitimize the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the name of this state, which includes but is not limited to calling Palestinians death-loving terrorists incapable of loving their children, brazenly discussing rape as a form of collective punishment, and pontificating the logistics of the mass-transfer of Palestinians to other countries, is in fact laying the groundwork that makes mass extermination feasible.

Western countries who were complicit in the Holocaust and in other genocides against colonized peoples did not and cannot wash their hands of these crimes by backing a racist settler-colonial project. To believe so is to deny the actual historical conditions that made creating the state of Israel possible, and to keep us all further away from a world free of racist colonial oppression and its bloody consequences.


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Further reading
  • Kayyali, Abdul-Wahab. “Zionism and Imperialism: The Historical Origins.” Journal of Palestine Studies 6.3 (1977): 98-112.
  • Hughes, Matthew. “From Law and Order to Pacification: Britain’s Suppression of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936––39.” Journal of Palestine Studies 39.2 (2010): 6-22.
  • Kamel, Lorenzo. Imperial perceptions of Palestine: British influence and power in late Ottoman times. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.
  • Khalidi, Rashid. The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017. Metropolitan Books, 2020.
  • Pappe, Ilan. The idea of Israel: A history of power and knowledge. Verso Books, 2014.
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