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The Curious Rise of ‘Settler Colonialism’ and ‘Turtle Island’

The Curious Rise of ‘Settler Colonialism’ and ‘Turtle Island’

Recently, I stood on a windswept street corner in Brooklyn and watched a river of pro-Palestinian protesters move past, as police officers tracked their path. A number of demonstrators had heads swathed in kaffiyehs, and some wore face-obscuring black masks. They waved Palestinian flags and placards denouncing Israel in many different ways.

Defund the settler-colonialist state demanded one. Another stated Land back!, echoing the Native American movement to reclaim lost territory in the United States.

Two women held tight to a Decolonization from Turtle Island to Palestine banner as a gust tugged at it. Turtle Island alludes to the creation story of the Lenape tribe of the Northeast, and some academics and Native activists treat it as a de facto Indigenous name for the settler-colonialist U.S.

Settler colonialism—academic jargon for the violent process by which colonial empires empower settlers to push out and oppress Indigenous inhabitants and form a dominant new society—is a term much in vogue among activists and academics on the left. To talk of settler states and oppressed Indigenous people, and claim an umbilical connection between Palestinian struggles and those of Native Americans, is to construct a morality tale stripped of subtleties—a matter not of politics, but of sin.

Israel, in this view, is not a flawed and contentious democracy engaged in a war with an enemy that vows to destroy it. It is a settler-colonialist state built upon the oppression and exploitation of Indigenous Palestinians. A left-wing kibbutznik who lives a few miles from Gaza and drives sick Palestinians to Israeli hospitals is no less a colonialist than a right-wing theocratic settler who brandishes an automatic rifle and insists on the annexation of stolen lands on the West Bank.

The Brooklyn protesters chanted: “We don’t want no two states! We want ’48!” This was a radical cry to rewind 1948, the year of Israel’s founding. The yearning was to dissolve Israel so that the Palestinians might inherit the land, as the slogan goes, from the river to the sea.

Language is ever contested in wartime. Israeli officials are assiduous in referring to Hamas leaders and fighters as terrorists. That description is rigorously accurate, given the horror that Hamas perpetrated on October 7, even as the application of the term can make it too easy to rationalize the vengeance and death that have fallen on a far broader number of Palestinians.

Many supporters of the Palestinian cause insist on using the terms settler colonialism and Indigenous, the better to render Israel and Israelis as an oppressive other. To assail a colony of outsiders with an “imagined” connection to Palestine, as some left-wing scholars put it, makes it all too easy to brush aside the practicalities of coexistence with an Israel that is now 75 years old and has about 9 million citizens, including about 2 million Arabs.

Settlers, the theory goes, are mere pawns of imperial patrons, and impermanence is implied. Settlers can be uprooted, sojourns violently terminated. What matters is that Indigenous people reclaim their rightful inheritance.

The Australian historian and anthropologist Patrick Wolfe, who died in 2016, is widely seen as one of the intellectual founders of settler-colonialism theory. This form of colonialism, he wrote, is premised on “the elimination of the native” through genocide and coercive policies that turn survivors into “white people.” This process, Wolfe explained in a 2012 interview at Stanford University, is a “‘winner take all,’ zero-sum game whereby outsiders come to a country and seek to take it away from the people who already live there, remove them, replace them.”

Any reasonable measure of European colonial empires and the westward trail of American settlers can locate exploitation, racism, and bloody conquest. Wolfe’s theories resonate deeply in left-wing corners of academia. Prominent American universities from UCLA to Yale offer courses in settler colonialism; British universities have research centers devoted to it; papers in journals debate its finer points and expand the discussion to include the subjugation of native people as a laboring class. Many divine in settler-colonialism theory a global explanatory power, applying it not only to the U.S. and Wolfe’s native Australia—where Europeans dominated and marginalized the Aboriginal population—but to Indonesians in West Papua, Indians in Kashmir, and Moroccans in Western Sahara.

Wolfe and many of his fellow theorists tossed down a final desultory intellectual move. Surveying a worldwide tapestry of colonial oppressions and conquests, they insisted that a single nation offered the sharpest and most troubling example of settler colonialism: Israel. Never mind that Australia and the U.S. are both hundreds of times larger. Wolfe wrote that Israel was unique for its Jewish founders’ deceptive ideological sleights of hand, their “self-hatred,” and the denial of its oppression and “extirpation” of the Arabs. “Zionism rigorously refused, as it continues to refuse, any suggestion of Native assimilation,” Wolfe wrote. “Zionism,” Wolfe insisted, “constitutes a more exclusive exercise of the settler logic of elimination than we encounter in the Australian and U.S. examples.” To single out the Jewish state in this way is to echo ancient and ugly tropes.

The prospect that “Indigenous people” might drive out the Israeli settler colonialists strikes settler-colonialism theorists as just and inescapably stirring. “Israel is a stolen land, and that’s what the Zionists don’t want to think about or accept,” the UCLA history professor Kyle T. Mays, an Afro-Indigenous scholar and a member of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, told me. He said he does not personally condone violence. But he added, “Until that land is returned to Palestinians, you will continue to feel the violence that they experience.”

The notion that Indigenous violence is inevitable, even liberatory, has gained chilling traction on the American left. “One could (and should) very well argue that in a settler colonial context, there are not such things as civilians,” the Palestine-issues committee of the Democratic Socialists of America wrote in June on X (formerly Twitter). “It’s total folly to compare settlers perpetrating pogroms to resistance groups deploying violence to liberate themselves.”

More assumptions flow from this conceptual fountainhead. If Israel is a violent settler colony, to propose a two-state solution would enshrine injustice. Even a rump Israeli state would rest on stolen land. “What do you want the Palestinians to do? It’s not like they’ll say, ‘We’ll split our land 50–50,’” Mays told me. “Condemning people for violently resisting oppression makes no sense.”

Just by way of concentrating the mind, let’s remember the specific nature of the violent resistance practiced by Hamas, whose fighters began the morning of October 7 by breaking a cease-fire with Israel and ended by killing children, raping women, and slaughtering parents in front of their children. Decolonization turns out not to be metaphorical.

I put the question of settler colonialism to Roger Berkowitz, the academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. He said he is taken aback both by the speed with which the ideological construct of settler colonialism has entered the global discourse and by how intently people who espouse the theory focus on Israel. Berkowitz was careful to say he does not see them all as anti-Semites, although the word anti-Semitism does keep leaping to his mind.

In invocations of settler colonialism, Berkowitz hears progressives giving up on effecting change through political means. “The left has replaced its faith in proletarian subjects and utopian solutions with a view of the Indigenous as innocent and oppressed. It’s an ethics rather than a politics.”

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, prominent radical American Indian activists saw in Israel a symbol of an Indigenous people regaining their land and reviving their language. Since then, however, many Native American activists came to strongly embrace the Palestinian cause alongside anticolonial struggles in Algeria, Ireland, and South Africa. If their “Indigenous cousins” can liberate Palestine, the underlying logic suggests, so Indigenous Americans might set free Turtle Island tomorrow.

“We want U.S. out of everywhere. We want U.S. out of Palestine. We want U.S. out of Turtle Island,” the University of Minnesota professor Melanie Yazzie, who is Navajo, said at “From Minnesota to Palestine,” a panel in December sponsored by Red Nation, whose politics run sharply left. “The goal is to dismantle the settler project that is the United States.”

To talk of dismantling an American settler state of 330 million people is to take a rhetorical flight of fancy. It is less a program than a millenarian dream––a “prophecy,” as Nick Estes, a University of Minnesota historian who is a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and a co-founder of Red Nation, has written. Unlike Hamas leaders who explicitly and repeatedly call for Israel’s violent elimination, Native activists and academics say they have in mind not a bloody Indigenous uprising but a socialist revolution against liberalism and capitalism, to demolish national borders and police forces, and upend a racist system that, in Estes’s words, seeks “to kill us off, confine us to sub-marginal plots of land, breed us white.” This might occur in concert with sympathetic descendants of settlers. As Estes told me: “I can imagine a world where we can live together in a common project that does not require my people to be dominated.”

Morality tales offer poor stand-ins for politics, and discourage an honest engagement with history, which is often messy and fractured. The question of who is Indigenous in Israel and Palestine involves layers of complication. One of the holiest sites in Islam, the venerable al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, was built in the seventh and eighth century and sits atop the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. The first temple was completed there in the 10th century B.C.E. and predates the foundation of Islam by 1,500 years.

In the modern era, Jewish refugees fled Europe during the rise of fascism in the 1930s and then with the hot breath of the Holocaust at their backs. Many potential havens, not least the United States and Australia, barred all but a relative handful of Jews. The British colonial territory known as Palestine loomed as a sanctuary. A smattering of Jews had lived there in villages—Indigenous settlements, in today’s argot—continuously for millennia. At the same time, a much larger Arab majority had lived in Palestine for generations piled atop generations.

The writer and historian Sol Stern, who once was a man of the left and has moved rightward, told me he would not deny that early Zionists were colonial settlers. But he balks at any comparison with a British colonial living a raj lifestyle in India or a French pied noir settler running a farm in Algeria just a day’s journey across the Mediterranean from metropolitan France. Jews fleeing death had few choices and nowhere to return. “You’re on a burning ship, and so you jump and land on a raft,” Stern said. Other people were displaced, he added, and they deserve consideration. “What do you do? You try to come to a settlement with them.”

The events of 1948 offered yet more complications. Arabs and Jews exchanged slaughters. Many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were left stateless even as Arab governments expelled many hundreds of thousands of Jews from homes across the Arab world. Today the Mizrahi Jews, as the Indigenous Jewish residents of the Middle East are known, comprise slightly more than half of Israel’s population.

No one now holds a monopoly on pain. For a Palestinian family in 1948 to have lost a treasured family home, a farm, a business was a grievous wound. Nor can the horrors of October 7 justify the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the deadly vigilante violence with which Israeli settlers there enforce their writ. Yet the answer to injustice won’t be found in slogans that wish away the existence of Israel or, for that matter, the United States.

The passage of time and much violence and cohabitation speaks only to the poverty of using loaded terms such as settler colonialism and Indigenous to locate moral certainty in the Israeli-Palestine dispute. A land of contention and suffering is not a promising place in which to claim such rhetorical clarity.

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