On Zionism

A paper I wrote in 2022 for UCSD history.

Posted by Ivy Duggan on Thu, Nov 30, 2023
Last edited on Wed, Mar 13, 2024

Is Zionism Inherently Colonial?

Ivy Duggan

Originally written for a UCSD History Class, turned in on February 17, 2022. I wrote this as an Ashkenazi Jewish-American, and I stand by it today.


One of the most important and enduring questions in Middle Eastern politics is some variation of the title of this paper. With the increase of awareness of colonial and colonial-related systems and the movement to ‘decolonize’ all manner of state apparatus, there are growing concerns that the current nation state of Israel has, in part or in full, in past or in present, committed colonial acts and furthermore that those acts are morally bad or evil. In this paper, I argue not just that the state of Israel is currently colonial, but that it has been colonial not since 1948 or the British interwar mandate, but since its inception as early as the end of the 19th century. From its inception, Western European Zionism is colonialism, and it necessitates violence against people who have a rightful claim to the land that is currently occupied by the government of Israel.


To begin, we must define a few terms: Zionism, Colonialism, and Nationalism. When researching this topic, the initial question started as: Is Zionism colonialism? Or is it nationalism in some aspect? For the purposes of this paper, the following definitions of these terms will be used. Zionism is the ideology started in the late nineteenth century that the Jewish people of the world have a right or deserve in some manner to return to the land of Palestine or Israel, not just as religious pilgrims, but as a distinct political and governmental entity. They do not want to occupy the land as citizens of another government, but want the government to be controlled by and for the interests of Jews. Nationalism is the belief that one’s country or group is superior to another or all other groups. It must be to the detriment of other groups; pride is not nationalism. It requires acts that specifically work to decrease the living conditions or status of others. Colonialism is similar to nationalism, but it requires that the superiorist attitude is used to justify the placement of colonists and/or policy that impinges on or harms another country or group. Discrimination inside of a country against immigrants is a form of nationalism, while colonialism is the discrimination of colonists/colonial governments against the native people of a colony’s land.

Zionism’s Disregard for Natives

One of the key aspects of colonialism, and as such, Zionism, is the idea that the native people who live in a colonized area will “benefit” or “not mind” the influx of colonists and colonial power. Zionism was already reflecting this idea before the turn of the 20th century. On March 19th, 1899, Theodor Herzl replied to a criticism by Yussuf Diya. Diya stated that Palestine was already inhabited, and that Jewish immigrants would not be welcomed. Herzl deflected this by stating, as many colonizers had before him, that the colonization effort “would benefit the people of that country [the people in Palestine already]”.1 This was also noted in a humorous, yet tragic quote by some of the rabbis of Vienna, “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.”2 The blatant refusal of recognizing either the existence of Palestinians or their value echoes many “civilization” efforts, such as what has happened to the native populations of: the United States of America, Canada, Mexico, and Haiti; that is merely a non-exhaustive and simplified list from one hemisphere. Ignoring the people who are native to an area (native meaning already living there) is a hallmark of a colonization effort.

Additionally, while seldom discussed and often downplayed in accounts of this conflict, Palestinians, while not as unified of an identity as today, held great opposition to the Zionist immigration. Whether or not this opposition is couched in anti-semitism is a debate for another paper, but it was present nonetheless. Palestinian opposition to Zionism was not small, muted, or minor. There were newspapers in the early 1900s criticizing this foreign encroachment3 as well as armed uprising and demonstrations in the interwar period.4 This even crossed religious lines, as “Palestinian Muslims… usually agreed with those Palestinian Christians who led the public opposition to Zionist immigration”.5 In addition, even other Arab nations wanted to have the land of Palestine, such as the concept of Palestine being a part of a “southern Syria”6, which is at least a claim to Palestine that is socially and geographically close. If for a second we believe that people have a right to self-determination, then the only way that non-native Zionists can justify rule over Palestinians who resist them is that Palestinians are not people.

Yet still, even those relatively early in the Zionist movement had realized that Palestinians were not going to be passive onlookers as their land was colonized. Chaim Weizmann realized that this was a faulty assumption7, but Ze’ev Jabotinsky was one of the only early Zionists willing to say what others ignored. He stated, very eloquently, in his piece “On the Iron Wall (We and the Arabs)”, that Israel could not exist without violence against the Arab population.8 Who better to be an ally to such a violent campaign than Britain? Who else had created Iron Walls and subjugated millions across the planet?

Zionism’s Relation to Colonial Powers

If exhibiting the same colonial hubris and mindset is not proof enough of a colonialist mindset, Zionism has always clung to recognized colonial powers, not the least of which is Britain. If we ignore Herzl’s attempted courting of Kaiser Wilhelm II9, notable anti-Semite and ruler of a country that had very expansionist ideals, Herzl would go on to meet with government officials from the British Empire, infamous for subjugating and colonizing many places, perhaps most notably India. Chaim Weizmann would continue this trend, eventually gaining the Balfour Declaration, another important document in Zionist Colonialism.10 Guilt by association may not be legal in court, but if a movement’s top members are wining and dining members of a government that had self-declared colonies in both hemispheres, it should cause us to consider if this movement is indeed, colonial.

The Balfour Declaration is seen by some scholars, such as Rashid Khalidi as the start of a “war” against Palestinians by Zionists. War or not, the Balfour Declaration is a glaring piece of colonial thought. It was uttered as a statement to the world at large that Jews would have their rightful place in Palestine, even though they only made up 6% of the population at the time.11 It is hard to view a powerful nation, such as Britain, backing a project to create a Jewish state in a place where the 94% of the population is not Jewish, as anything other than a colonial attempt.

Zionism and Nationalism

For Jewish people who had been oppressed by various governments throughout much of history (the Inquisition, Pograms, the Holocaust), even the idea of a Jewish nation is relief. In this way, if Jews can be treated as a people, which is reasonable, it could be viewed that Zionism is not colonialism, but a form of nationalism for the people who have not had a nation. However, the so-called nationalism of Zionism again explicitly requires a place to create a nation, and the chosen place of Palestine had a people who had lived there. The Jewish population was such a distant minority from the rest of the population that the idea of a government that is inherently Jewish ruling over that region at this time in history must be colonial because it upholds an alien control over another population’s land and society.

Zionist Leaders versus Zionist Adherents

The judgements about Zionism in this paper are mainly condemnations of the ideology and those that have created it, in addition to those that follow the ideas to the most extreme. The religious pilgrims who had lived in Palestine before this are excluded, and even to a degree, many of the postwar immigrants were not acting in malice. Even if most were fleeing persecution, the movement itself is colonial. All of the substantial effects of Zionism, such as the Balfour Declaration, the British mandate state, the founding of Israel, the expansion of those borders in 1967, and others, are colonial because they have not been purely for the benefit of Zionists, but explicitly entangled in the detriment of the Arabs and non-Jewish communities that have lived there. There is no Israel without the subjugation of Palestinians.


Zionism is inherently colonial. Its architects were colonialists, its adherents are colonists, and it has been under the life support system of colonial nations since its inception. To be a Zionist is to support a modern day colonial regime.


  1. Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017 (New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2020), 5-7. ↩︎

  2. Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 3. ↩︎

  3. Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War, 28. ↩︎

  4. Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War, 43-51. ↩︎

  5. Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017), 38. ↩︎

  6. Smith, Palestine, 104-105. ↩︎

  7. Shlaim, The Iron Wall, 9-10. ↩︎

  8. Shlaim, The Iron Wall, 12-16. ↩︎

  9. Sebag Simon Montefiore, Jerusalem: The Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 452-456. ↩︎

  10. Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War, 24. ↩︎

  11. Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War, 24. ↩︎