Jews Don't Belong in Palestine (How Palestinians See Things)

News Abroad

Mr. Tignor is professor of modern African history at Princeton University, the author of Capitalism and Nationalism at the End of Empire" (1998), and is a writer for the History News Service.

Daily we search for explanations of the violence in the Middle East. Is it the vaunted clash of civilizations? A centuries-old conflict between Islam and the West? Civilization vs. terror or the modern vs. the archaic?

Our confusion will disappear if we place the conflict within the historical framework of decolonization struggles. Violence has accompanied decolonization whenever the goal of political independence is blocked. Violence has ceased only through outside intervention. At its core the Palestinian-Israeli clash is about political independence and ending colonial status.

The Palestinian struggle is part of a late twentieth-century drive of colonial peoples to become sovereign nation-states. Much of the fury behind the Palestinian opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza arises from the Palestinians' belief that they are the only colonized people completely frustrated in their wish to live under their own rulers.

Israel is rarely described as a settler state, such as the former colonial Algeria, Kenya, Southern Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique and apartheid South Africa. Zionists insist on Israel's historic right to Palestine, but in fact only Europe's imperial power made Israel's creation possible. Starting with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the British promoted the settlement of European Jews in Palestine much as European colonial states encouraged settlers to migrate to Africa.

If we think of Palestine as a settler state similar to the European settler states in Africa, the present horrifying dispute takes on familiar characteristics. The roads to independence in African settler states were bloody, marked in every instance by massacres and inflated propaganda on all sides.

While the European-sponsored settlers in colonial Africa were at first better organized politically than the non-European groups living alongside them, the non-European populations caught up. They insisted on their right to self-determination. In all cases, the goal of statehood that late-developing nationalists embraced required outside intervention.

In four of the territories (Kenya, Algeria, Mozambique and Angola), still formally under European colonial rule when violence began, European settlers fiercely opposed power-sharing. They believed that they faced uncivilized, barbaric adversaries. Ultimately, the French, the British, and the Portuguese tired of defending settler interests and conceded independence to the nationalists.

Southern Rhodesia-Zimbabwe and South Africa followed more tortuous routes to independence for their black majorities. Their political conditions resembled those in occupied Palestine today. Both states required outside intervention to realize the political goals of their disenfranchised black populations. In Southern Rhodesia and South Africa no formal imperial ruler was available to negotiate the transfer of power.

What the rebels did in these two countries was wage guerrilla warfare and appeal to the international community. An international embargo on Southern Rhodesia and international pressure on South Africa, coupled with vigorous internal nationalist movements, eventually brought independence under majority rule to the peoples of both countries.

The lesson from these African struggles for independence is that while nationalists can make life violent, often unbearable, for settler populations, by themselves they cannot succeed. An imperial power, if there is one, must make the critical decisions to curb the ambitions of colonial or external settlers, such as the Israelis, and assist the indigenous population, in this case the Palestinians, to realize statehood. Where the outside power departs, as the British did in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa, and in 1948 when the state of Israel came into being, international pressure on the successor state is vital.

Even with the support that settlers enjoyed from their imperial backers, things did not turn out well for the European settlers in colonial Africa. They lost their bid to monopolize power. Large numbers fled Angola, Mozambique and Algeria. No doubt these outcomes inspire some Palestinians to believe that history favors them and that they will ultimately inherit all of colonial Palestine.

Yet not all the parallels argue for this outcome. In the first place, proposals for partitioning the settler territories in Africa between European and indigenous populations were never seriously discussed. The two-state arrangement has been an option in Palestine from the time that the British established a colony there.

Of greater importance, European settlers in Africa failed to maintain the support of the metropolitan powers. The Algerian colonists could not convince the French that Algeria was French. The South African whites were unsuccessful in promoting the ideology that they represented the forces of civilization against African primitivism. In contrast, Israel still enjoys widespread support in Europe and North America. It is seen as a viable, moral and democratic polity. Since the critical factor in anti-colonial nationalist struggles in settler territories is the favor of the great powers, the Palestinians face formidable obstacles.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has reached a critical moment. A partition of this war-wracked land into two states has a chance to succeed. For the first time, the Arab regimes of the area have publicly accepted a two-state formula. Moderate Palestinians and Israelis favor it. The moment has to be seized, with the Americans acting as the essential outside mediating and intervening power, lest the extremists on both sides come to the fore with their visions of a single state, whether Palestinian Arab or Jewish, encompassing the entirety of Palestine-Israel.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Charles Barton - 7/26/2002

Professor Tignor's neo-Marxis annalysis is flawed in Srveral respects: 1. Tignor ignosres the true nature of the ancieth relationship between Jews and Israel. It is a relationship which every Moslem and Christian Palestinian should understand since both the Koran and Christian scriptures acknowledge the tie between Jews and the Land of Israel. It should simply note that at Passover and on other festive occasions, the entire Jewish Nation recites the words, "Next year in Jerusalem." This has been going on for well over 1000 years. For most of this time a steady stream of religious Jews has returned to Israel. Moslem opression kept the Jewish population from becoming a majority in the land of Israel prior to the 20th century.
2. The Land of Israel was opened to Jewish immigrants, not by the European Powers, but by the Moslem Ottoman Turks. The Turks first invited Jews to enter their empire following the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. Indeed Jews emigrated to the Land of Israel from that event onward.
3. Although Zionism and the frequently uncertain cooperation of Britain played a role in the development of the proto-state of Israel, anti-semetic pogroms and Nazism played a far more important role. It is fair to say that without Hitler their could not have beenan Israel. It is also the case that the refusal of Western European states and the United States to accept an large flow of Jewish refugees, directed that flow in the only possible direction, to Israel.
4. What's wrong with settler states? The two American Contenants are organized into a series of post-settlement states that claims European heritage. Add to that Austrailia and New Zealand. Does Tignor also wish to dispairage the history of these nations as well.

Chris Messner - 5/13/2002

Mea Culpa,

I withdraw my overblown protest. i do apologize, but many others have posted in such a vein seriously as of late.


William Heuisler - 5/11/2002

Dear Mr. Dixon,
Now you've done it. Aipac has yanked my funding and I'm being attacked by LABA (Let Aztecs be Aztecs). It's a cruel world.
Please reread Tignor's piece. Note how the professor's premise of our "confusion" and its dissipation stands on the legs of "conflict between Islam and the West" and "violence has accompanied decolonization". He also cites "civilization vs terror" in revealingly clumsy apposition to the first leg. Then, in the name of giving the Palestinian viewpoint, he wanders in search of equivalancy.
Aside from the obvious contradiction from thesis to argument, my principle objection is to the continua of moral equivalence granted Democracies and Despotisms, defenders and aggressors, pizza bombers and soldiers solely on a historical victim status based on color and ethnicity. Professor Tignor uses modern terms like European Imperialism and decolonization as though we all agreed with their usage. We all don't. He uses history to make arguable points in Africa but ignores history in the Middle East. If Israelis are colonials and Palestinians indigenous victims, the 1947 UN vote was theft. European Imperialists? Who invaded whom? And when? Tignor uses modern buzz-words to further confuse centuries of conflict, make martyrs of non-whites and demonize Europeans. Who does Tignor think drove Greeks out of Asia Minor and Goths out of Central Anatolia? Anthropologists have found distinctly Caucasian settlements and skeletal remains in the Southern Gobi Desert. So what? Since when have certain racial or ethnic groups had the right to certain geographic locations, notwithstanding conquest? I object to the modern politically correct use of anti-Western doctrine to make racist points about victim status.
Now I'll probably get audited by the IRS.
Best wishes, Bill Heuisler

John Dixon - 5/10/2002

Dear Chris,

To clarify my position. I was trying to make fun of Heuisler. He does afterall take the implied position that Israel and the Aztecs etc. are all on a par morally speaking. Of course I don't really think he means that, though he is welcome to correct me. I think he is just using a sophistical charge of inconsistency to show "cultural bias" in Tignor's piece as a way to discredit him. Not that pointing out inconsistency of that sort can't be a good thing. It's necessary if you want to expose the self-interest of people who criticize various states or cultures including people who criticize Israel (which in its conduct is not much better or worse than any other state in my view). If an Iraqi official or a corrupt PA crony or an Egyptian government sycophant or some hate-dripping Hamas leader in villa in Lebanon criticizes Israel's treatment of Palestinians, it is surely appropriate and can do some real good to point out his failure to criticize his own regime's use of political repression and torture or his own support for murder of innocent people etc. Or for that matter if a US official denounces human rights violations in Cuba or China, it is appropriate and can do some real good to note that he ignores the very same abuses in Indonesia or Columbia. But isn't it absurd to call Tignor culturally biased because, in calling Israel a colonialist state, he fails also to criticize the colonialism of all sorts of regimes throughout history including the Aztecs? Is there any pressing moral reason in the here and now for denouncing Aztec colonization of the indigenous peoples of the valley of Mexico in the 15th century? But surely there are living human beings whose happiness is at stake in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And real US taxpayers whose understanding of the issue could make a real difference to people on both sides being manipulated by their governments. So why should Tignor have to denounce Mohammed as a conquering colonialist (which surely he was) in the same breath as he criticizes Israel? Who could ever criticize any state for any form of exploitation or abuse of power if he or she at the same time had to criticize every other instance of such abuse throughout history? The argument seems to me either pedantic and absurd or a stock form of discrediting anyone who dares to voice a criticism of Israel.

Chris Messner - 5/10/2002

Interesting that an, apparently, supporter of Palestine doesn't note the other civilizations, but instead chooses the Aztecs and Mongols to reference. Gee, you must wish to invoke the 'savagery' of these cultures, referencing the moral standing. But aren't we supposed to look at the context of the culture? My, what a bigotted and racist attitude.

Hmmm, Aztec human sacrifice, Palestinian murder-suicide bombing...both done to honor a God...hmmm


John Moser - 5/9/2002

Professor Offner makes some excellent points. I'm surprised, however, that nobody has mentioned the fact that the Palestinian Liberation Organization was formed in 1964--three years before the Six Day War, in which Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. In other words, the PLO obviously couldn't have been out to "liberate" the occupied territories, because they weren't occupied at the time.

So what was the PLO out to "liberate"? All of Palestine--in short, Arafat wants nothing less than the destruction of Israel. In this light, his refusal to accept Barak's generous offer is perfectly understandable.

John Moser
Ashland University

Arnold Offner - 5/9/2002

I agree with Professor Tignor that the Palestinian Arab/Israel conflict (and tragedy) requires a two state solution, and have long believed that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank and other "occupied" areas, assuming appropriate border changes related to security or other vital matters.

But Professor Tignor's historical suvey does ignore critical aspects of modern history. Britain hardly ever encouraged Jewish emigation to Palestine. Even when there were only about 65,000 Jews and 750,000 Arabs in post-World War I Palestine, Arab assaults on Jews caused the British to limit Jewish emigration to a small "economic absrobtive capacity." When Nazi Germany's policies caused many European Jews to flee to Palestine in the 1930s, Arab attacks led the the British Commission of Sir Robert Peel to propose parttion, but the Arabs fought this. Then Prime Minister Chamberlain's White Paper in 1939 limited Jewish emigration to 75,000 over five years, curbed land sales to Jews, and pledged an independent Arab State.

During and after World War II the British (and Arabs)bitterly fought Jewish emigration--even FDR's and Truman's proposed 100,000--to Palestine, and every effort at an Anglo-American solution for some sort of federal state (with the British running foreign policy/defense etc) was fought by the Arabs (as well as some Zionists).

But the crucial decision was the Nov. 1947 UN vote (33-13, with Britain abstaining) for partition and two real states, with the Arabs getting by far the better package. But the Arabs fought this, and then all the Arab states declared war when Israel came into being on May 14, 1948. There followed varieties of conflicts and wars (1956, 1967, 1973), and Arab states resisted any recognition of Israel's right to exist until Anwar Sadat went to Jeruslam and he and Menachem Begin came together (sort of)at the Camp David in 1978....

But progress since then has been slow, and Yasser Arafat's rejection of Ehud Barak's offer in summer 2000 was a colossal mistake and tragedy...

So yes, let's get on with a two state solution and a dignified and peaceful life for all parties in the area. But in trying to promote this, let us not schematize history in a way that ignores the complexity of it all.


Arnold A. Offner
Cornelia F. Hugel Professor of History
Lafayette College
Easton, PA 18042

William Heuisler - 5/9/2002

Trite but loaded terms like "European Imperialism" and "decolonization" illustrate the cultural bias I was critiquing. To use the same jargon, my point: Palestinians are as much Eastern or Southern Imperialists as the Jews are European Imperialists. Throughout history there has been conquest and settlement by various peoples. Twentieth Century Western-self-hatred is the culprit in the writings of many "correct" intellectuals and usually clarifies point of view rather than inquiry. By the way, does "decolonization" only apply to Caucasions? Bill Heuisler

Scott Spector - 5/9/2002

I did not understand the original editorial to be attacking Israel for being the last European colonial settler state to be overthrown. He suggested that the comparison would be useful because, (1) this is the context in which [many] Palestinians may see the situation, (2) the history of the Zionist enterprise is inextricably interwoven with the history of European imperialism, and (3) there are striking parallels between the current violence and the violence that has accompanied decolonization processes historically. All of these points are well supported in the editorial, indeed are hard to rebut. The author did not seem to me to suggest that Jews did not belong in the Middle East or that a Jewish state there is "illegitimate", but that the historical model of European settlement and decolonization is instructive to keep in sight to help understand the current situation. A lot more can be said about how this is the case--saying more would in any event be more productive than attacking the author of an insightful article.

John Dixon - 5/8/2002

It is refreshing when a defender of Israel admits that the Jewish state has no greater moral standing from an historical perspective than do the Aztecs and the mongols. I wager that AIPAC will not be hiring him to write fundraising letters anytime soon, however.

Comment - 5/8/2002

Princeton University is apparently not getting its money's worth in the History Department. Professor Tignor's carelessly truncated research for his 5/6/02 editorial does not reflect serious scholarship nor does it even bother to predate this century.
Cherry-picking history for debating points does not work unless the points actually mirror history. Spartan colonists settled Taranto; Mongol colonists settled Buda and Delhi; Aztec colonists settled Mexico City; Turkic colonists settled Kosovo. Why are these colonialisms not decried by the Professor? What about the indigeneous victims? When do these conquest-exploitations become incorrect in the Ivy League? When do we call for the end of colonialism in Wales? When do we ask Chief Buthelezi to give back Hlobane and Mkuze to the Hottentot?
Never. Only the correct oxen must be gored.
This History Professor at Princeton defines Jews in Israel as colonists and the Arabs as exploited peoples; has he forgotten Leo III of Constantinople or Charles Martel? Seven hundred years after an inconvenient Jew was born in Judea the Moslem world exploded into an orgy of killing and conquest that extended from the borders of China to 50 miles from Paris.
Colonists are in the beholder's eye. The Professor might consider switching to Political Science.
Best, Bill Heuisler Tucson, AZ

drm - 5/8/2002

This fellow can think no better than he can spell.

aaron frucher - 5/8/2002

The parrallels drawn between palistine and African colonization are truly a stretch. Considering that Israel was created out of the same kind of nationalist gurilla war against the English as is discribed in Africa, and that a German war against them caused the imperitive for statehood at the time. How can one say that they had the imperial backing of a settler state in Africa?

Square1 - 5/6/2002

The argument of this article contradicts its title. This is not the first example of mismatched titles on this website.