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Settle This One For Me

Why ‘settler colonialism’ is just a fancy way to say you don’t like Israel.

A pro-Palestinian protester holds up a sign during a march in London, United Kingdom, on October 21, 2023. (Photo by Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Dear Reader (Don’t worry, we won’t fine you if your kids are unruly while you read this),

Let’s talk about “settler colonialism.”

This appears to be one of these phrases that gives people permission to justify murder and rape—of “settler colonists.” Patrick Wolfe is often credited with coining the term in the 1990s, though he drew on work going back to the 1960s. Here’s a relevant passage from Wikipedia:

During the 1960s, settlement and colonization were perceived as separate phenomena from colonialism. Settlement endeavors were seen as taking place in empty areas, downplaying the Indigenous inhabitants. Later on in the 1970s and 1980s, settler colonialism was seen as bringing high living standards in contrast to the failed political systems associated with classical colonialism. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the field of settler colonial studies was established distinct but connected to Indigenous studies. Although often credited with originating the field, Australian historian Patrick Wolfe stated that “I didn’t invent Settler Colonial Studies. Natives have been experts in the field for centuries.”  Additionally, Wolfe’s work was preceded by others that have been influential in the field, such as Fayez Sayegh’s Zionist Colonialism in Palestine and Settler Capitalism by Donald Denoon.

While I think the intellectual history of the term is very interesting, I don’t want to go down any deep rabbit holes (though the titles Zionist Colonialism in Palestine and Settler Capitalism do betray how those unnamed native “experts in the field” are mere ornamentation for a decidedly more narrow ideological approach). Suffice it to say, lots of historians talked about settler colonialism long before the term and basic idea took on its cachet in the 1960s. 

So, what’s the basic idea?

While I typically don’t consider Wikipedia to be authoritative on such matters, it’s still useful because it is illustrative of what might be called a rough consensus of what people interested in the topic think it means. So here is their explanation of what the term and concept mean:

Settler colonialism occurs when foreign settlers arrive in an already inhabited territory to permanently inhabit it and found a new society. Intrinsically connected to this is the displacement or elimination of existing residents and destruction of their society. Because settler colonialism entails the elimination of existing peoples and cultures, some scholars describe the process as inherently genocidal. It may be enacted by a variety of means, ranging from mass killing or removal of the previous inhabitants to assimilation

Settler colonialism is distinct from migration because immigrants aim to integrate into an existing society, not replace it.

I haven’t seen anything that makes me think this isn’t a serviceable explanation of at least what people who use the term mean when they use it. 

So, here’s another way of thinking about what settler colonialism is: history. It’s not the same thing, of course. History includes crop rotation, the Gutenberg Bible, the invention of the wheel and canned goods, and all sorts of other things. My point is that there is literally nothing new to the concept or the phenomenon. Every continent save for Antarctica has seen a lot of stuff that fits this description of settler colonialism. The history of Russia is the story of such colonization. Russians waged merciless wars throughout Eurasia on both indigenous peoples and rival colonial settlers from antiquity onward. The Soviet Union moved vast populations out of some regions and imported Russian speakers. In fact, Russia is doing it right now in eastern Ukraine. The Chinese are likewise doing it as we speak in Tibet. 

The Vikings did this stuff. Indigenous tribes and civilizations in the Americas were settler colonists. The Middle East and North Africa were once a patchwork of hundreds—thousands?—of distinct ethnicities, tribes, nationalities, faiths, and peoples. The early Muslim armies, from Muhammad to his numerous successor regimes, like the Greeks, Persians, Hittites, Parthians, and Romans before them, did a ton of settler colonization over the centuries. 

Not every colonizing effort involved the eradication and replacement of an entire indigenous people, but if you think about it for a moment, most of the textbook examples of settler colonialism didn’t do that either. As legitimate as Native American or Australian aboriginal grievances clearly are, there are still many Native Americans and “First Australians” around today. 

I’m going to get to Israel in a minute, but before you say, “Israel is different” you should bear in mind that there are a great number of Palestinians alive today. According to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics the worldwide population of Palestinians has increased sixfold since the founding of Israel. There are more Arabs living in Israel today than there were Arabs living in all of so-called Palestine in 1948. In other words, if Zionism is the explicit practice of genocide against Palestinians, the supposedly uber-competent Israeli war machine is really, really, bad at genociding. They’re so bad at it that reasonable observers—in short supply these days—might conclude that they’re not actually interested in genocide. 

Colonizing is a complicated phenomenon, often changing the culture of the colonizers almost as much as that of the colonized. (Israel is supposedly a European-Jewry colonial project, which is funny given how hard it is to find a bagel or a brisket in Tel Aviv.) The Roman colonization of much of Europe and the Mediterranean world started as little more than shakedowns of weaker tribes and nations. Over time, the rulers of (many of) those lands increasingly saw themselves as Romans, as the term lost its ethnic connotations. At the same time, quite a few Roman emperors weren’t even born in Italy, never mind Rome. There were—to the extent such labels make sense today—Balkan, Syrian, Bulgarian, Danubian, and Arab emperors of Rome. 

I’ve always been fascinated by how long it took for France to become a nation of French speakers. At the time of the French Revolution only about a third of the population even spoke French. The history of England is the history of competing kingdoms and invaders, with intense battles—physical, linguistic, cultural, and legal—that unfolded over centuries. Similar points can be made about the history of Africa, China, India, the Americas, and well, everywhere, except possibly a handful of remote tribes and islands.  

Such things are important to keep in mind, because when you read a lot of eggheads who use terms like “decolonization” or “settler colonialism” they have all sorts of grandiose ideas about what colonization means. It’s not just an ethnic or racial thing they explain using some very silly vocabulary; it’s also a conceptual thing, encompassing economic systems, theology, etc. “Colonizing” is often a shorthand for crushing diversity, dissent, or cultural distinctiveness. Last week I noted how a lot of critical theorists, the postliberals of the left, believe that ideas like free speech and human rights are illegitimate Western impositions. They’re somewhat right about the Western imposition part. But the illegitimate part requires a lot more argumentation.

But I’ll just make three observations about the evils of “colonizer” projects. 

First of all, cultural evolution has always been about borrowing what might be called “best practices” from other cultures. I personally think the case for liberalism’s superiority to other forms of political and economic organization stands independent of the fact that the Pale Penis People first came up with a lot of it. Chinese dictator Xi Jinping insists on elevating traditional Chinese medicine as equally valid to “Western” medicine. I think that framing is mostly garbage. Western medicine is simply code for using medical science. Medical science as practiced in, say, Japan is better than most—I’d guess all—“traditional Western medicine.” I mean, pre-Scientific Revolution Europeans used a lot of leeches and eye-of-newt folk remedies. In other words, science’s legitimacy resides outside considerations of ethnicity or tradition, everywhere.

Second, a lot of the stuff that passes for “anti-colonial” or “anti-Western” ideas are equally Western and colonial. After all, many of the anti-colonizers in Asia, Africa, and South America were explicitly neo-Marxists. Many of the national liberation movements were inspired by Marxist and Marxish thinkers. Where do they think Marxism comes from, if not from a paranoid German scribbler from Trier, Prussia? To take on example, Frantz Fanon—who popularized the idea that anti-colonial violence was self-justifying and righteous—was speaking and writing entirely within a Western framework. And when he renounced his worst ideas, he was again drawing on Western humanist ideas. 

When the Chinese attack Western ideas, they often do it in the language of the Western intellectuals who declared war on their own societies. Why? Because they learned from the Bolsheviks how to weaponize the West’s ideals against the West. It’s not like the Chinese actually care about the modern conceptions of racism or anti-racism which are both Western constructs. They love to lecture America about our shameful legacy of slavery, while nearly 6 million people live in modern slavery in China today. Most of those people aren’t Han Chinese. You know why? Because the Han supremacist Chinese Communist Party is very racist. 

Last, lots of colonizing ideologies are non-Western. The Salafists and other Muslim extremists are keen on wiping out the diversity within Islam itself. Muslim Sufis have been persecuted for centuries and still are today. Sunni extremists want to homogenize the Muslim world in accordance with their definitions of legitimate Islam. Rohingya people are subjected to horrible persecution in Myanmar.

Now, none of this is intended to forgive or justify imperialism or settler colonialism. Most of human history is full of horrible people doing horrible things to other people for pretty horrible reasons. Progress is a very fraught word depending on the context, but I think a reasonable person can say with a high degree of moral confidence and analytical rigor that it’s a good thing the West turned its back on such things. I also think one can say with the same degree of moral confidence and analytical rigor that it would be a good thing if non-Western countries abandoned such projects as well. 

Which brings me to Israel. 

I don’t think it’s the settler-colonial project the haters claim. Jews have been in the land of Israel for millennia. The idea of creating a Jewish homeland there is not new, but thousands of years old because that’s where the original Jewish homeland was (you can look it up). A majority of Jewish Israelis are Mizrahi—i.e. Jews whose ancestry has always been in the Middle East or North Africa—and the reason why most moved to Israel wasn’t to ethnically cleanse the land of Arabs or Muslims, but because they were ethnically cleansed from Arab and Muslim lands after the creation of modern Israel. 

I also don’t think all Israeli expansions into various “settlements” are wise or justifiable, nor do I think the most fanatical proponents of a Greater Israel are doing Israel any favors. But if we’re going to come to the aid of the baby killers and rapists of Hamas by providing “important context” as everyone from MSNBC hosts to U.N. poohbahs like to do, it’s worth noting that when Israel’s neighbors spend 70-plus years insisting that all Jews need to be eradicated or expelled from their homes, some Israelis are going to become bad neighbors. 

Israel is not trying to convert Israeli Muslims and Christians to Judaism. What Israel is trying to do is convert all of its citizens to liberal democracy. Personally, I think that is a wholly legitimate and desirable project for a liberal democratic regime. But if you come from an intellectual tradition that lionizes the resistance of “oppressed peoples” and demonizes liberal democracy as an inauthentic and therefore illegitimate system for non-Westerners (or even Westerners), of course you’re going to hate the fact that Israel is liberal democratic nation in the heart of the illiberal Middle East. This part of the equation is often overlooked by defenders of Israel, who want to reduce all attacks on Israel as antisemitic. 

But that’s the thing. The Israel haters make that conclusion very easy to reach. And that’s my real complaint here. Anti-colonial settler-ism looks remarkably pretextual to me. It’s a bit like the folks who insist that identity politics is great for “historically oppressed people” but recrudescent racism when practiced by white people. For instance, racial hate crimes rightly incense the liberal conscience when the criminals are white. But when racial hate crimes are conducted by non-whites on whites or Asians, suddenly we’re told that we need to understand the very complicated “context.” In other words, a lot of identity politics amounts to delineating acceptable forms of discrimination—while hiding behind the language of anti-discrimination. (And for the record, I don’t like identity politics for white people, either.) 

I’d have a lot more respect for the anti-colonial schtick used to justify hatred of Israel if it led the same people to hate any other country. Or forget hate, because hate can be a corrupting emotion. I’d settle for a little intellectual consistency. I mean, just as a practical matter, you’d think some of these people would at least go through the motions on other fronts just to prove they’re not just Jew-haters.

Indeed, it is amazing to me—though sadly not mysterious—that so many at home and abroad can denounce imperialism and settler colonialism, as they claim to define it, while not caring a whit about Russia’s criminal project in Ukraine right now. The Russians are absconding with thousands of Ukrainian children and “reeducating” them as Ukraine-hating Russians, and the response is basically, “Who cares?” The Russians are genocidally bent on erasing Ukrainian nationality, and the apologists seem to think it’s fine because that’s just what Russians do. The Russian Orthodox Church is allegedly setting up a private militia to fight in Ukraine, and the folks who love to invent fantasies about Israel’s theocratic militarism couldn’t care less. China is trying to erase the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, and Turkey will put you in prison if you even suggest the Kurds are a nationality deserving of a nation. But saying “settler colonialism” is some abracadabra word that magically confers moral superiority to those openly cheering terrorist butchers and cavalierly calling for Israel to be erased from a map. 

It’s almost as if opposition to settler colonialism isn’t really about settler colonialism.

Various & Sundry

I’m writing this from Prague where I am on an unscheduled, impromptu visit with my daughter, who’s doing a semester abroad here. It’s been absolutely wonderful to be back in one of my favorite cities, but even better to see my kid. I’ll have more thoughts on Prague—but probably not my kid—down the road. Also, Thursday was the one-year anniversary of my mom’s passing. I’ll probably have more thoughts on that, too. But I didn’t have it in me to meditate on all of that. 

Canine update: The Fair Jessica got home on Thursday after a hellish day of canceled flights. Zoë was there to greet her with ample enthusiasm, but I didn’t get a video because it was in the wee hours and Jess brought most of the luggage home with her. Pippa has really enjoyed her special visit with Kirsten, though I think it was starting to dawn on her that if she spent much more time there she’d be reclassified as a small or floofy dog, a designation she emphatically rejects. We’re less sure of how much Zoë liked being left behind alone with the cat and the housesitter, but all accounts are that she thrived as well

ICYMI

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Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.