academic boycott and settler colonial studies


As long ago as 2001, faculty at Stanford convened a Mellon Foundation seminar at the Stanford Humanities Center on “Settlement, Race, and Sovereignty in North America, South Africa, and Israel/Palestine,” examining similarities and differences, paving the way for other comparative studies. Today there is at least one transnational journal, Settler Colonial Studies, with essays on a wide range of settler societies. Understanding how the United States is founded as a settler society with the exclusion of indigenous people and the expropriation of their land is not a calumny but an aid in understanding all of the further developments of the United States, including the “plantation colonialism” of slavery and the necessity of importing workers as immigrants. Scholars now examine a wide range of societies with this rubric, including New Caledonia (with French settlers and native people), Fiji (South Asians brought by the British and native people), Korea (during the Japanese occupation), Taiwan (the exclusion of indigenous people), Liberia (with the settlement of African Americans dominating native Africans), the more famous “white settler colonies” (Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, with its two major settler populations, English- and French-speaking), and the failed French colony of Algeria. A recent issue of Settler Colonial Studies features a comparative study of Nazi Germany’s expansion with settlers in the East with the US expansion of the frontier on the West. These are historical developments, and examining and debating their similarities and differences is not an exercise in calumny but necessary to understanding and ultimately dealing with the legacies of history in an honest, clear-eyed fashion — which of course is an important goal of humanistic scholarship.


Like all settler colonial societies, the formation of Israel has its own unique features. However, as a colonizing project modeled after European efforts, early Zionist leaders felt it was essential to have sponsorship by a great power, seeking a charter first from the Ottoman Sultan and then the Russian Czar. Eventually, the British Empire, as it was about to conquer Palestine during World War I, agreed to sponsor the establishment of a “Jewish national home.” The fact that the agenda of the Zionist leadership did not ultimately entirely fit British policy does not negate the initial tutelage, just as the 13 American colonies’ struggle for independence does not erase their colonial origins. Israel was planted in Britain’s hothouse, and it continues to seek a great power sponsor. Since the 1960s, that role has been played by the United States.


Many believed that Israel was part of that movement and, particularly because of its kibbutzim and other socialist features, that it would play a progressive role in world politics. This view began to shatter when Israel established its capital in Jerusalem, contrary to the 1947 UN partition plan and General Assembly Resolution 303 of 1949 on the international status of Jerusalem, and when it refused to repatriate Palestinian refugees in contravention of UN General Assembly Resolution 194. The government of Israel invented the myth that the refugees fled in response to Arab orders — a claim Walid Khalidi first debunked in well-researched articles published in 1959 and Israeli historian Benny Morris massively refuted based on declassified Israeli documents. When Israel joined with France and Britain to invade Egypt in 1956, many began to realize that the Israeli government was more interested in allying with the former colonial powers than with the postcolonial world. Today, many of those socialist appearances have been swept aside and Israel has become a garrison state to serve its own colonizing interests as well as those of the United States, even if those interests are not completely identical.

Let’s Have Reasoned Debate, Not Distortion and Calumny: A Reply to Russell Berman’, by Hilton Obenzinger, Joel Beinin & David Palumbo-Liu, for LA Review of Books (27 April 2014), in response to Russell Berman’s ‘The Goal of the Boycott’. 

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