new left review: palestine, settler colonialsm and gabriel piterberg’s returns of zionism


Zeev Sternhell, ”In Defence of Liberal Zionism’ (a review of Piterberg’s Returns of Zionism), New Left Review 62 March 2010.


The aim of The Returns of Zionism is clear, and Piterberg does not hide it: the total de-legitimization of the Jewish nation-state founded in Palestine. A quarter of a century ago, this idea had a certain novelty; it aroused curiosity, especially as Zionist historiography was characterized by conformism, not to say an antiquated and dusty quality; but since then the anti-Zionists have established their own conformism and become stuck in its mire. At the same time, Israeli historiography has liberated itself from many of its traditional weaknesses, very comparable to those of the French or German historiographies of the 19th and 20th centuries. Moreover, the extreme politicization of anti-Zionist discourse and its considerable exposure in the media have not benefited research. One could say that, like post-modernism, anti-Zionism has aged badly. But if works whose aim is the de-legitimization of the Jewish national movement and the State of Israel are legion, Piterberg’s is distinguished by its high intellectual standard and the general culture of the author. This does not mean that he succeeds in avoiding the usual faults of the genre; but if he does not discover America, his book has sufficient merit to deserve an in-depth critical reading.


For Piterberg, there can be no solution except for the end of the Jewish state. Any other nationalism can transform itself, but the only future for ‘settler colonialism’ must be the total disappearance of the state it produced. […] First of all, a colonization that is not comparable to any other colonial society in its social and economic structures cannot be called a colonization. If Mandate-era Jewish Palestine was not based on any of the characteristic features of a colonial society—the exploitation of a native work-force; the confiscation of the natural riches of the country; a monopoly of political power that created two different classes of inhabitants, citizens and others who had no rights—it could not have been a colonial society. The truth was rather the opposite: in order to build a nation, the Jews of Palestine formed themselves into a self-sufficient and closed society. The cult of manual labour and the necessity of creating an infrastructure for the reception of new immigrants helped to prevent the emergence of exploitative relationships.


The founders of Israel, the young people who came to Palestine a few years before and after the First World War, never hid their intentions. The aim of Zionism was the conquest of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state. Berl Katznelson, the labour-movement ideologist, never thought there could be any doubt about it: ‘The Zionist enterprise is an enterprise of conquest’, he said in 1929. And in the same breath: ‘It is not by chance that I use military terms when speaking of settlement.’ In 1922 Ben-Gurion had already said the same: ‘We are conquerors of the land facing an iron wall, and we have to break through it.’ That is why the Jewish Labour Movement was never a socialist movement like the others, nor was the Histadrut ever a trade-union organization like the rest. The Labour Movement was mobilized to build the nation; for the sake of national unity it abandoned any real intention of changing society. Equality was not an aim as such. The social services—at that time perhaps the most advanced in the world outside the Soviet Union—were those required by the worker, conceived as a soldier in the great army of conquerors of the land, for a people that needed a home more than any other national community in Europe.

The conquest of the land was thus an existential necessity. Zionism was a stringent nationalism, a radical nationalism; but to claim that the arrivals were white settlers driven by a colonialist mind-set does not correspond to historical reality.

Gabriel Piterberg, ‘Settlers and their States’ (His response), New Left Review 62 March 2010.


Politically, the most consequential theme is the thorny C-word, colonialism. I am frankly baffled by Sternhell’s misrepresentation, or misunderstanding, of my arguments for situating the Zionist project in Palestine and the state of Israel within the framework of comparative settler-colonialism. He attempts to refute them by stating that the Zionist venture in Palestine was not based on the exploitation of native Arab labour and that it did not have ‘monopoly of political power’. But the fundamental point about a white-settler colony—New England, Virginia, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina—is that it is predicated on white labour, on complete closure vis-à-vis the natives, on gradual territorial expansion, under the bayonets of a metropole colonial power for as long as necessary; and on the creation of a self-sufficient economy that can attract more settler immigration. Contrary to Sternhell’s allegation that this notion is ‘dated’, a buoyant field of comparative settler colonialism has produced some of the most penetrating new studies of these societies over the past decades. Their starting-point is the recognition that, from the 16th century on, European expansion and conquest produced two related but clearly distinguishable forms of colonialism. One was metropole colonialism, in which the European powers conquered and ruled vast territories, but without the emigration there of Europeans seeking to make these territories their national home: British India is a good example. The other type was settler colonialism, in which conquest brought with it substantial waves of European settlers who, with the passage of time, sought to make the colony their national patrimony. This process entailed a relationship with the indigenous people that could range from dispossession to elimination, or from slavery—which for the most part did not use the native population—to cheap labour, depending on the economic and social formation of the given settler society.

The achievements of the comparative study of settler colonialisms have been at once scholarly and political. Several of these colonies gave birth to powerful nation-states which have asserted their own hegemonic narratives, nationally and internationally. The comparative field not only questions these narratives, through countervailing evidence and interpretation; it also offers an alternative account of the social formations themselves. In the process, three fundamental features common to these hegemonic settler myths are undermined. The first of these is the putative uniqueness of each settler nation; the second, their privileging of the settlers’ intentions, as sovereign subjects, at the expense of the natives’ consciousness. Third, the supposed inconsequence of the natives to the form each settler society takes; in other words, the conflict with the natives is not denied, but the fundamental role that this conflict has played in shaping the identity of the settler nation is written out. It is within the typology of settler colonialisms that I place the Zionist colonization of Palestine and the state of Israel—a move which surely should have put to rest the tedious contention that Zionism could not be termed a colonial venture because it lacked the features of metropole colonialism; as if anyone were suggesting otherwise. What its apologists fail to confront is the settler-colonial paradigm.

I am by no means the first to suggest it.

Pointing to the groundbreaking works of Gershon Shafir and Patrick Wolfe, Piterberg then goes on to illustrate in greater depth the value of applying the settler colonialism paradigm to the Zionist designs of Israel. In doing so he makes an exquisite defence of his recent book, The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel (Verso 2008) – a watershed for settler colonial studies and critical revisionism on Israel/Palestine.

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