Common Grounds

Zionism and colonial modernity

February 20, 2024

Source: Mondoweiss



Published January 16, 2024


Palestinian resistance is a decolonial struggle against Israeli settler colonialism and U.S. imperialism. This resistance is also confronting the brutal nature of colonial modernity, which is exemplified in Zionism.

Zionism and colonial modernity

Screenshot from a video showing Israeli soldiers saluting the Israeli flag while singing the Israeli national anthem on a beach in Gaza in November 2023



"We are seeing this fault line between the imperial West and large parts of the neo-colonized world currently on display at the International Court of Justice, where South Africa is charging Israel with genocide against Palestinians.


The US, UK, and Germany oppose the case South Africa brought forward. In contrast, many countries from the Global South support it.

The stand against colonial modernity must be made now.


This means nothing short of the end of the US-led Western imperialism."



The ongoing destruction of Gaza is too difficult to describe and put into words. What makes this moment even more painful is that this is not the first time that Palestinians have experienced a genocidal operation. The 1948 Nakba and the ongoing Nakba of the Palestinian people add to the pain and horror that Palestinians everywhere are today experiencing and feeling. It is critical to emphasize also that this not the first time that colonized peoples, more broadly, have experienced such unimaginable brutalities over the last 500 or so years of colonial modernity.


Colonial modernity is the development of modern social, economic, and political life (the nation-state, private property, individualism, capitalist division of labour, international law, etc.) in and through the European colonial project from the 15th century onwards, which is marked by the genocide, enslavement, and slaughter and exploitation of millions of colonized people.


Zionism, as a modern political ideology, is a child of this colonial modernity and arguably its most clear manifestation in our world today. Following in the footsteps of other colonial projects, the genocide of the colonized Palestinians was always the only path that Zionism could have traveled.


Zionist ideology dates back to the late 1800s when it emerged in Central and Eastern Europe. This occurred during what may be described as the apex of colonial modernity. During this time, the colonial racialization of human beings into distinct races that ranked them in a clear hierarchy was well underway and had become institutionalized. Eventually, this form of racialization in the colonies, institutionalized and operationalized in ways never seen before in the history of empire, turned inward into Europe.


Long cast as the scapegoat for Europe’s problems, European Jewish communities, who were as European as any other European, became racialized as an “inferior race of Semites” that is “diluting the purity of the superior Arian white race.” This form of racialization would culminate in Nazi Germany when they carried out their unforgivable “Final Solution.” The German empire had previously and unforgivably unleashed this genocidal violence on the Herrero and the Nama in South Western Africa. The Holocaust was not an anomaly of modernity, as conventional wisdom in Euro-America holds, but rather, as was evident to colonized people brutalized by the European empires, the horrific manifestation of the core features of colonial modernity.


Well before the Holocaust, Zionism sought to address this racialization of Jewish communities and answer the “Jewish Question” of antisemitic Europe. The problem with the answer of Zionism, however, is that instead of challenging the spurious and violent racialization of Europeans into “Semites” and “Aryans,” instead of standing up to the European colonial project and joining together with colonized and racialized communities across the world to dismantle colonial modernity and the Euro-American colonial project, Zionism proposed an answer whereby they would join the project of colonial modernity. They proposed that European Jews should leave Europe and establish a European-style state in the lands of the “Orient.” This approach sealed the fate of Zionism and its path well before Zionists began colonizing the lands of Palestine beginning in the early parts of the 20th century and continuing until today.


The land was, of course, already inhabited by Palestinians who had been living there for centuries and had clearly developed a sovereign existence on the land, meaning they had formed a clear and distinct relationship between the Palestinian people and the land.


Zionists understood very well that they had to expel the indigenous Palestinian people in order to settle the land with European Jews and create the Zionist entity. Without the British empire, which saw the Zionist project as an asset for its imperial interests in the region and as relieving it of the “Jewish Question,” this would have been impossible to achieve. Hence began the “special relationship” between Western imperial forces and the Zionist project. They were “special” because they were both part of the same project of colonial modernity. The exact same methods of racialization and settler colonization that marked the British Empire and the U.S. Empire came to mark the Zionist project. The racialized dehumanization, the genocidal violences, and the techniques of concealing the brutal reality of racism and colonialism are essentially all the same.


However, there are some typical arguments raised that Zionism and Israel do not constitute a settler colony.


The first is that Zionist Jews did not have a home metropole. This talking point omits the critical point that, like all settler colonial movements, the Zionist movement enjoyed imperial support from one of the Euro-American empires, beginning with the British and now with the child of British settler colonialism on Turtle Island, the U.S. empire. It does not matter that the settler colony does not reproduce the nationality of the metropole in the colony because this is what distinguishes colonialism from settler colonialism. Settler colonies tend to often have contentious relations with the imperial center over the question of nationality and over strategic interests, which in some cases even lead to war, such as in the case of the U.S..


The second talking point is that European Jews are indigenous to the land and are simply returning to their homelands. Nobody denies the long history of Jewish existence on these lands. In fact, these lands have been home to a multitude of religions and cultures, and this should be celebrated. The reality of human existence is interconnected and hybrid, and we should cherish this fact. But Zionism does not do that. It takes this complex edifice of hybridity and intermixture and asserts that only Jewish history on these lands matters. It violently turns the beautiful interconnectedness of multiple histories into a distorted mono-history that only recognizes Jewish presence, and, most critically, advances the idea that only Israeli Jewish sovereignty can exist on these lands. This erases the Palestinian people and seeks to expel them from their lands and from history. Only absolutist racial thinking, which is a staple of the project of colonial modernity, can lead to this kind of political project of mass elimination. Indigeneity is not about “who was there first,” “the original inhabitant,” or “pure blood,” but about a political positionality that resists colonial modernity and advances an alternative to it, which is why only the Palestinian can occupy the positionality of indigeneity in this case.


Third is the talking point that, unlike the European settler colonial project, Jews are not seeking wealth but rather safety and security. The reality is that all settler colonies have a mixture of settlers with varying intentions and motivations. Although difficult to measure exactly, many settlers do not migrate with the intention to expel native inhabitants, steal their lands, and generate wealth for themselves, but are rather motivated by the desire to escape persecution in their homelands. Certainly, many migrate with the former intentions in mind, or those become their intentions after they arrive on colonized lands. But the question of how many fall into which category is not that relevant, because, more important is that the political project is settler colonial. That is, all settlers, regardless of their intentions and motivations, become conscripted into the settler colonial project by the settler state and its institutions. This is as true of the settler colony of Canada, for example, as it is of the settler colony of Israel.


Finally, and related to the third point, we hear that the Israeli state consists of not just Ashkenazi European Jews but also Mizrahi Jews from across the Arab world, Iran, and elsewhere, and therefore cannot be called a European project. Whether Israeli Jews are Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, they are all conscripted into the Israeli settler colonial project, and that project is political in the mold of European colonial projects. Because Zionism is a European project and is infused with the racial thinking of white supremacy, we, of course, find structural and interpersonal racism against Mizrahi Jews and Black Jews across the Israeli state and society. But all of these forms of intra-society racism are secondary to the foundation of the dehumanizing racialization of Palestinians: that is, the racist idea that Palestinians constitute an inferior race of human beings to Jews. Thus the white supremacy of Europe is here primarily replicated as Jewish supremacy over and against the colonized Palestinian. We see the devastating consequences of this racialization on full display today. One of the reasons why the majority of Israelis support this genocide is because they have been conditioned for decades to think that Palestinians do not live a human life. Thus, it becomes simpler for them to think that you cannot kill what never had a human life to begin with.


When we properly situate the Zionist project within this larger picture of colonial modernity, we begin to understand why the Israeli state is behaving in this brazen genocidal manner today. You cannot make sense of their operation from the perspective of a liberal democratic state simply protecting its security. Indiscriminate mass killing of Palestinian civilians is clearly not a path towards security. But you can understand this behavior as the continuation of a genocidal settler colonial project that is part and parcel of colonial modernity. The indiscriminate mass killing of Palestinian civilians becomes, in the colonial worldview, a “rational” action to achieve the end goal of a Jewish majority inhabiting all of the lands from the river to the sea.


Conversely, you can only understand Palestinian resistance as a decolonial struggle against Israeli settler colonialism and U.S. imperialism specifically, but also against colonial modernity more generally.


This is the struggle that not only Palestinians, but millions around the world are also waging. Earlier, I mentioned that Zionism emerged at what may be described as the apex of colonial modernity. I cannot say “apex” for certain because we find ourselves in a moment where colonial modernity could renew itself. The Israeli genocide of the Palestinian people is being watched around the world. It is horrifying to what seems to be the majority of the world based on the worldwide protests we are seeing, but it is also sending a message to proponents of colonial modernity in Western Europe, North America, and indeed elsewhere, that settler colonial genocide is still possible in our world today. Israel is currently providing a blueprint for such colonial aspirations, and this might encourage more of these genocidal and colonial projects, not their end.


If the 19th century is to be the apex of colonial modernity, then the millions of people around the globe who want to truly decolonize this imperial world order must make a stand and end the age of colonial modernity. We are seeing this fault line between the imperial West and large parts of the neocolonized world currently on display at the International Court of Justice, where South Africa is charging Israel with genocide against Palestinians. The U.S., UK, and Germany are opposing the case brought forward by South Africa, whereas many countries from the Global South, such as Namibia, Bolivia, Colombia, The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and others, are supporting it. More action along this fault line is needed. There is no time to waste. The stand against colonial modernity must be made now. What this means is nothing short of the end of the US-led Western imperialism.


Specifically, this means ending the power and dominance of multinational corporations (such as the campaign against Starbucks), a radical reform of the United Nations that begins with abolishing the Security Council and creating a democratic system in its place, formulating localized economic plans for regional stability and prosperity that includes a refusal to pay “debts” to Western countries and financial institutions that have robbed the world’s majority blind for centuries, the dismantling of cultural and educational systems that center the West, recentering the natural environment as a grand gift that supports and enables human life not as “resources” to be recklessly extracted by human beings, the re-emergence and flourishment of Indigenous sovereignties across Turtle Island and elsewhere, among many other things.


If we are to take something from this moment of unfathomable horror and pain, let it be the renewal of the call of decolonial liberation across the world: let us build a world that will, in fact, be hospitable for the habitation of not just the glorious multitude of human beings, but all life.


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