October 7: The Tragedy of the “Debate”

Three months after its barbaric attack on southern Israel, Hamas published a memorandum explaining its actions. “The events of October 7 must be put in their broader context,” it said. That broader context, according to Hamas, is “all cases of struggle against colonialism.” Zionism is a “colonial project,” according to the memorandum, and Israel is therefore an “illegal entity.” These days this is not an uncommon analysis. In the West, Zionism’s relation to colonialism has become a political shibboleth, shouted from the streets and the campuses. According to the rules of the present discussion,  tell me whether you think that Zionism is colonialism and  I will tell you whether you are a Zionist apologist or an  antisemitic bigot.  The confusion here is not only political but also intellectual.  The primary task of theoretical terms such as colonialism  and imperialism is to elucidate the facts, and to offer an explanation of the facts that may be critically examined. They are not meant to serve as badges of ideological loyalty. These abstract terms must be judged as concepts before they are admitted as slogans. The first question, then, is whether the post-colonial framework is helpful for making sense of the situation. Is it useful for understanding the unrelenting crisis tormenting Palestinians and Israelis? More urgently, is it helpful for resolving it?  Let us begin at the beginning. Like other colonial efforts, Zionism was a European movement that aimed to transpose Europeans (and, later, non-Europeans) to a land populated by non-Europeans. It strove to create a European state, or state-like, entity in the Levant. Prima facie, this sounds like colonialism. But it is hardly the whole story. Zionists never saw themselves as shouldering “the white man’s burden,” as Kipling infamously put it. Jews took to Palestine to escape persecution and squalor, not to

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