Ilan Pappé: Zionism as Settler-Colonialism

Ilan Pappé speaking at the conference The Israel Lobby and American Policy in Washington, DC, on March 24, 2017. (photo: Phil Portlock)

Keynote address: “The Value of Viewing Israel-Palestine Through the Lens of Settler-Colonialism.”

By Ilan Pappé / Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
March 24, 2017

Zionism is not an event. It is a structure, and it’s a setter colonialist structure.

. . . What I’m going to argue today, this afternoon, is that as much as the lobbies are important in affecting and influencing American policy, there is a basic and fundamental misunderstanding of what the conflict in Palestine is all about, including among those American diplomats, pundits, politicians who see themselves champions of Palestinian rights.

The level of — I wouldn’t call it ignorance, because these are very educated well-read people, so ignorance would not be a fair concept here — the level of blindness, or the level of ignorance in the sense of ignoring certain chapters rather than not being able to understand reality, this level is so high that it really makes it impossible, even when you have a period in which the lobbies are not strong or even when you have a president who is more pro-Palestinian than anyone before him. The level, the depths, of that ignorance is so significant that it would not allow the two other factors, even if they are diminished or weakened, to influence fundamentally the American policy and, in association, the reality on the ground.

Now, what is missing? And this is what I would like to point out. What is missing is an understanding of the nature of Zionism, the nature of the Zionist project in Palestine — not as a nostalgic journey into the past, but as a current analysis. The late and amazing scholar of settler colonialism, Patrick Wolfe, said famously that settler colonialism is not an event. It’s a structure. Zionism is not an event. It’s a structure, and it’s a settler colonialist structure. It was a settler colonialist structure in 1882, and it is a settler colonialist structure in 2017.

You don’t appease a settler colonialist project by dividing Palestine into two states. That will never appease the settler colonialist project. The only way to challenge a settler colonialist project is to decolonize the settler colonialist project. This challenge has not been digested by American policymakers, including those who regard themselves as open-minded, balanced — if you want — objective above the situation.

I don’t blame them, because to talk about decolonization in the 21st century is abnormal. Colonialism, in our mind, belongs to the 19th century. Decolonization belongs to the first half of the 20th century. But in the 21st century, if we will not resell or return to these fundamental concepts of colonialism and decolonization, we will not move forward toward a solution in Israel and Palestine.

I will give you examples of how the narrative, the discourse, the conceptual framework of settler colonialism can lead us to a different view on the reality today, not just about the reality in the past. I will begin with something that, even here, I think, is sometimes accepted maybe not intentionally, maybe unconsciously, but is part of the American heritage of dealing with conflicts such as Israel and Palestine. This is the idea that in Palestine you have a conflict between two national movements, and then everything else comes out of this analysis. If these are two national movements, we have to satisfy both of them. We have to divide the land between both of them. They share responsibility for the conflict equally. We should find a way of satisfying their aspiration equally.

Now, it doesn’t matter, of course, that when you translate this paradigm of parity to a percentage of territory or demography, of course it was never suggested by any mediator — whether they were Americans or non-Americans — that the land would be divided 50/50. That was never in the cards. But even the idea of 22 and 78, or the 55 and 45 of 1947, was based on this false analysis that what you have in Palestine is a genuine struggle between two national movements.

[Read the full presentation with Q&A here . . . ]