As bombs descend on Gaza and the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) slowly infiltrates the urban spaces of Gaza protesters around the world have taken to the streets.
Pro-Israeli demonstrators demand the return of hostages taken during the brutal attacks of October 7th, 2023. Reeling from the emotional impact of the barbarity of the attacks they have allowed no compromise in their support of Israel. The violent attacks of October 7th are placed in a long history of anti-Jewish discrimination in Europe and North America. Israel is presented as a birthright and a needed bulwark against anti-Jewish violence.
Pro-Gaza supporters have focussed on the developing humanitarian crisis caused by the IDF and the history of Palestinian expulsions from the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 to the present. They highlight the long history of occupation and the ongoing economic marginalization of Palestinians. Central to this focus has been the deployment of the conceptual apparatus called 'settler colonialism.'
There is a long history of academic research into the economic marginalization and containment of Palestinians under the control of the State of Israel. A former classmate of mine, Avi Bornstein, conducted his doctoral research in the occupied West Bank in the 1990s.
"With a strong focus on labor and production processes, often missing from anthropological accounts, looks at how shifting border practices have produced an apartheid system through which Israelis control and subordinate Palestinians. Bornstein details the patterns of openings, closures, tightenings, bypasses, and changes in procedure and staff, particularly those that accompanied the political transformations of the 1990s. He traces these patterns along the Green Line but also within the West Bank, along the border with Jordan, and in access to countries of the Gulf" (Rhoda Kanaaneh, 2001)
Bornstein uses a political economic framing that highlights how the control of labour power is facilitated by the creation and maintenance of borders that define who has rights and what those rights might be. His detailed historical chapter very carefully outlines the processes leading the creation of the occupied West Bank. The idea that Palestinians of either Jewish or Muslim or Christian faiths were 'Indigenous' [in the sense of the UNDRIP] was not part of Bornstein's analysis or something found within the mainstream discourse at the time. However, this was to change.
In 2016 Stephen Salaita published a book explicitly linking Indigenous North America with Palestine. While he wasn't the first, he was at the center of an intellectual debate that was normalizing the idea that Palestinians were more than just a marginalized nationality:
"Palestine scholars and activists increasingly use the language of Indigeneity and geocultural relationships to describe the political, economic, and legal positions of Palestinians. For instance, in referencing Natives and Palestinians, Sa’ed Adel Atshan speaks of “our shared history as Indigenous peoples who have faced ethnic cleansing by European colonists.” The adoption of such language is a rhetorical act meant to situate—rightly, based on considerable evidence—Palestinian dispossession in a special framework of colonial history rather than as an exceptional set of events brought forth by ahistorical circumstances. The language identifies a perceived sociohistorical familiarity with other dispossessed communities, in this case North American indigenes. The declaration that Palestinians are not merely native or original but indigenous to the land colonized by Israel, not a completely new phenomenon but one growing in frequency" (Salatia 2016:4).
Salatia does much to popularize and make relevant the idea that Palestinians are the 'Indians' of the mid-east. His analysis centers ideas of settler colonialism. This parallels a rising deployment of the idea of settler colonialism in Indigenous Studies (as it shifted into mainstream and became more heavily influenced by 'critical' theory). Yet, the term carries with it a fundamentally flawed analysis. A range of diverse experiences with particular histories are lumped together to imply a conceptual similarity that blurs important differences.
I have always been wary of the analytic value of settler colonialism. It groups together a wide range of experiences divided by geography, time frame and particularity. That isn't inherently problematic - many social models do just that, generalize via abstraction from the specific to the universal. In doing so, however, the historical particularities of specific locales are lost. That, I contend, undermines effective social resolution of intractable problems. At the same time I find the discursive and rhetorical use of the concepts of 'settler' and 'settler colonialism' potentially useful, even if I find them analytically weak.
The rhetorical utility of 'settler colonialism' lies in it's ability to draw a sharp line between right and wrong, good and bad. It lumps all those (new immigrant or old; white, asian, or black) who are not Indigenous into one category. It simplifies and it allows clarity in discourse. But its solution is muddled. How does one 'decolonize' a settler state? Send the settlers home? Adopt the settlers into the Indigenous world? Throw out the colonial state apparatus and replace it with 'the' Indigenous one?
Settler colonialism places the emphasis on displacement and repeopling. It ignores the historical moment in which an act of colonialism may have occurred. It posits the primary contradiction of struggle as between settler and displaced. It ignores the class formation within both the colonial state and the the society of the displaced. It is a recipe for perpetual conflict in which there is no practical resolution. It is, almost, a natural outgrowth of a state that deliberately constrains, marginalizes, and displaces one people in favour of another.
Even with the rhetorical utility of settler colonialism I am left staring at it's inability to bring us to any productive resolution. The idea of settler colonialism draws upon an experience in which the displaced feel the enmity of their displacers; but we need to act against this experience as it clouds our judgement.
When I think, for example, of the idea of settler colonialism in British Columbia I can recognize the trauma of colonial displacement and know it has had real effects. But was it because of settlement? Or was it something else? Yes newcomers came to laxyuup Gitxaała (where I am from), but they weren't initially overwhelming. They were disruptive, yes, but not due to their numbers. They disrupted with new technology, disease, and new economics. They were driven by an economic system based in capturing labour power and extracting value. The tactic may have been colonialism, but the underlying driving strategic force was capitalism, not settlement. Analytically this last point is important as it points toward a way to reconcile First Nations and British Columbians that is not reliant upon demonizing each other.
The history of Gaza and the wider region within which we now find Israel is complicated (but complication does not mean incomprehensible). As beguiling as presenting Palestinians as Indigenous and Israel as primarily colonial, a more robust analysis is needed. Stepping aside from the language of settler colonialism might be what is needed analytically.
Dialling the analytic clock back to works by people like Avi Bornstein is one place to begin. Bornstein's overview of the history of the region documents the complexities and the implications of local capitalism acting in a wider global framework. He doesn't shy away from criticism of Israel. At the same time his political economic analysis acknowledges the variety and heterogeneity within both Israeli and West Bank society - something that conceptually settler colonialism does not.
Analyses like Bornstein's leave a door open for reconciliation based on class alliance, not enmity. They lead us to ask what drives the particularities of history. Why this spot and not another. Who accommodated, who resisted, who provoked, who ignored? How did this happen? Conceptually settler colonialism preempts these questions from the start as a priori assumptions of the settler colonial model. Reconciling historically opposed parties will require truth and concessions, not retribution and continued violence.