Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914 By Gershon Shafir
[Shafir] "excavated the impact of settler colonial thinking in Europe upon the early Zionist settlers. For instance, the impact of the attempt by the German state in the east Prussian marshes to dispossess the Poles who had a hold on the land there and to basically Germanise that area in the closing part of the 19th century. This project was very influential on the settlement experts of the Zionist movement, especially Arthur Ruppin, who is probably the most important individual in the history of early Zionist colonisation."
Q: Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is a fundamental and radical critique of the early history of Zionist settlement in Palestine. Can you tell us more about it?
A: I think that Gershon Shafir's book is probably the most important landmark in the study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because he's the one who really introduced into it the framework of comparative settler colonialism. I think it's the most fundamental book for understanding the challenge to the Zionist Israeli hegemonic story about Israel-Palestine from 1882 onwards. Although the book is quite well known, people seem not to understand that this actually is a much more radical criticism of how Israel came into being than the story of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which has got a lot more attention.
Q: What do you mean when you talk about the framework of comparative settler colonialism?
A: This is a field of study that looks comparatively at white settler colonial societies since the 16th century, and makes a conceptual distinction between metropole colonialism (eg, British India) and settler colonialism (eg, the US, Australia and Argentina). This implies neither that all settler societies are identical nor that their historically distinct trajectories should be discarded; rather that they are comparable and that the comparison adds invaluable insight to the study of these societies. The importance of comparative settler colonialism is, furthermore, also an ethical and political concern. Many settler projects gave birth to powerful nation states, which have asserted their hegemonic narratives nationally and internationally.
The comparative field not only serves to refute these narratives through evidence and interpretation but also creates a language that offers a powerful historical alternative to the hegemonic narratives conventionally generated by these settler societies. Most potently, perhaps, this field unmasks the attempt to create settler narratives in which the identity and institutions of the settler nation is bifurcated and separated from that of settler-indigene relations. What is unyieldingly insisted upon is the fact that the dispossession and elimination of the indigenous people is not one of many facets of the settler nations' history: It is the most pivotal and fundamental constituent of what they actually are.
Q: How does this book differ from the previous histories written about early Zionist settlement in Palestine?
In three ways, but they are all interconnected. First, he introduces the framework of comparative settler colonialism to the understanding both of the history and the ongoing politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shafir's book first appeared in 1989 and more than 20 years later it is quite clear that as a critical framework the comparative settler colonial paradigm is the one that's becoming more and more acceptable to those who want to understand the conflict.
Second, he has completely refuted the traditional Zionist narrative whereby there were two separate historical trajectories of two self-contained communities – the Zionist settlers and native Palestinians – which were impregnable to one another. The first trajectory is the Jewish community of settlers in Palestine, the Yishuv, and then Jewish society as it developed in Israel. The other is that of the Palestinians, or the local Arabs, which Zionist historiography says had a completely different trajectory, nothing to do with that of the Jewish side.
What Shafir shows is that they actually shaped one another and that the most important feature for understanding who and what the early Jewish community was and Israeli state is, is the conflict with the Palestinians. The need to dispossess the Palestinians is not an extraneous factor in the history of the Yishuv and the Israeli state; it's the most important constituent of what it actually is. Third, Shafir presented a viable alternative to the purely ideational way – which is typically Zionist – of telling the story of the creation of the Jewish state as a set of wonderful ideas that realised themselves on the ground. He puts much more emphasis on the socio-economic foundation of this conflict and how the settler-colonial need for land and labour really shaped the conflict rather than utopian ideas imported from Europe.
Shafir rejects the idea that the kibbutzim were first set up by the Jewish settlers in Palestine because of their socialist beliefs. Instead, he argues they were the most effective way of settling the land and providing work for Jewish immigrants.
This was the big innovation that he introduced. To argue that Zionism was colonial in the same sense that the British were colonial in India or Africa is, of course, nonsense. It was settler colonialism. It was an attempt by a community of European immigrants to carve out for themselves a country in a colony that was conquered by Britain, the imperial power. At least until 1967, the conflict with the Palestinians was not a conflict between a metropolitan colonial power and natives. It was a settler colonial clash between two national movements. One was a national movement of white settlers and the other was an indigenous national movement reacting to this threat. No one is arguing that this is a conflict in which the coloniser comes to exploit the resources and native population of the conquered territory and is eventually driven out. The colonial settlers always come to stay and carve for themselves a national patrimony. As one of the founding scholars of comparative settler colonialism, Patrick Wolfe, famously wrote: "Invasion is a structure, not an event." So in this sense the transformation of our understanding of the history of Israel/Palestine that Shafir introduces is really paradigmatic.
I would like to add that when you read this book – which I think is magnificent but is not easy to read as it's a complex argument – you see how he excavated the impact of settler colonial thinking in Europe upon the early Zionist settlers. For instance, the impact of the attempt by the German state in the east Prussian marshes to dispossess the Poles who had a hold on the land there and to basically Germanise that area in the closing part of the 19th century. This project was very influential on the settlement experts of the Zionist movement, especially Arthur Ruppin, who is probably the most important individual in the history of early Zionist colonisation.
Original piece in The Browser