Partisans of Israel have often asked: On a planet overflowing with war, famine, and cruelty, why does the world pay so much attention to what’s happening in Gaza (and the West Bank) in comparison with other horrors? The implied or explicit answer is that this must be due to antisemitism.
This question held more power during Israel’s past attacks on Gaza — e.g., Operation Cast Lead from 2008-2009, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, when Palestinian casualties measured in the thousands rather than the tens of thousands. The current war, Operation Swords of Iron, is in fact one of the grimmest things currently happening on Earth.
And that’s the key thing, of course — Israel is now before the International Court of Justice charged with genocide. Americans have an obvious reason to focus on its actions, given that they could not happen without our financial and diplomatic support. But what explains the intense interest of everyone else, not just at the present moment, but for the decades and military offensives before? The answer is both clear and important to understand: People across the globe are particularly appalled by Israel’s violence because it is a manifestation and symbol of European colonialism, plausibly the most terrifying and destructive ideology in human history.
This is a difficult concept for most Americans and Europeans, especially the white ones, to get their minds around. To start with, there’s been an effort in the higher-toned areas of the U.S. media to deny that Israel has much to do with European colonialism in the first place.
This is an extremely peculiar denial of reality and can be ignored. The founders of Zionism and Israel, from Theodor Herzl to Ze’ev Jabotinsky to David Ben-Gurion, stated clearly that they were engaged in settler colonialism. This is a specific form of colonialism in which settlers migrate to a territory and attempt to permanently take over the land from its present occupants. For instance: the United States of America.
Everyone has to face this: The question of Israel is the question of whether European colonialism can make peace with the rest of the world without obliterating it.
To begin with, European colonialism is the most significant political fact of the past 500 years. Christopher Columbus arrived in the Western Hemisphere in 1492. By the start of World War I in 1914, Europe and the U.S. controlled 85 percent of the world’s land mass.
This required atrocities and barbarism across the planet on a mind-warping scale. Spain worked as many as 8 million Indigenous people and enslaved Africans to death mining silver from one mountain near the Bolivian city of Potosí. Belgium, which seems today like a tiny, inoffensive land of talented cyclists, conducted a campaign of murderous colonialism that killed perhaps 10 million people in Congo. During the 19th century, the U.K. imposed conditions on India that murdered 30-60 million people via starvation.
And this barely scratches the surface of this history of violence and blood, a history that was always combined with hilariously self-congratulatory justifications. For instance, the first seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony depicted an American Indian pleading “come over and help us.”
The French writer Hilaire Belloc famously described the basic facts of Europe’s conquest of the world by putting them in the mouth of a character literally named Blood:
Blood understood the Native mind.
He said: “We must be firm but kind.” …
He stood upon a little mound,
Cast his lethargic eyes around,
And said beneath his breath:
“Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”
The Maxim Gun was the first fully automatic machine gun.
The rest of the world remembers this, even if the descendants of the perpetrators do not. As Samuel Huntington, the late conservative Harvard University political scientist, once put it, “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”
To understand what colonialism means to the rest of the world, white Americans and Europeans should consider that 20th century fascism, including the Holocaust, was in a profound sense the child of colonialism. If you like your horrifying history in entertainment form, this is examined at length in the 2021 HBO documentary series “Exterminate All the Brutes.”
This perspective is not the product of Harvard professors driven mad by wokeness; just ask Adolf Hitler. On the eve of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, he told a small group of companions, “We’ll take away its character of an Asiatic steppe, we’ll Europeanize it. … Our colonists will settle. … There’s only one duty … to look upon the natives as Redskins.” Hitler welcomed white people in general, not just Germans, to take part: “All those who have the feeling for Europe,” he said, “can join in our work.”
At the same moment in the U.S., my grandfather Lewis Hanke — a historian of the Spanish colonization of the Americas — also saw Germany’s project as comparable to European colonialism, except he thought that was a bad idea. One of his students later wrote, “As Hitler voiced the extremities of racism, Hanke encountered it in the records of the conquest, and he sensed the connection.”
European colonial movements came in different flavors, and Zionism was unique in that its members — certainly after World War II — were fleeing not just persecution, but also extermination. Still, it was of psychological necessity shot through with colonization’s standard ideological racism. Rudolf Sonneborn, an American who would go on to make a fortune in the oil business, was secretary of the Zionist Commission in Palestine following World War I. He reported that “the average [Arab] is inferior even to our average Negro … I believe there is very little to ever fear from them. Besides, they are a cowardly race.”
This was also true for Christian Zionists. George Biddle, a friend of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the ultra-WASPy descendant of the original settlers on the Mayflower, took this view in an article in The Atlantic after visiting Israel shortly after its 1948 founding. First, Biddle enthused about how Israel would serve Western interests. Then, he explained that Arabs were “foul, diseased, smelling, rotting, and pullulating with vermin and corruption.” Fortunately, they “were about as dangerous as so many North American Indians in modern mechanized war.”
The fact that European Jewry were the greatest victims of the racism that was central to this worldview, which Zionism adopted (in a less virulent form), is one of the most bizarre twists of human history.
In any case, Europe’s centurieslong reign of piracy and mass death should make it clear why people around the world — including such far-flung, surprising places as South Korea and Peru — look at Israel’s action in Gaza with particular concern. It is not a coincidence that the genocide case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague was brought by South Africa with the participation of Irish lawyers.
But what happens now? No one knows.
Israel was, in a sense, both too early and too late. If it had been founded earlier, it could have massacred the entire Arab population, just as the United States killed most Native Americans and Australia wiped out huge swaths of the country’s Aboriginals. Then there would be no Palestinians left for the world to be concerned about.
On the other hand, if it had come along later, Zionists might have believed that they should join forces with the decolonization movements across the Mideast and the world in the 1950s and 1960s. But in our timeline, an Arab nationalist approached Ben-Gurion about fighting the U.K.’s colonial forces together while Palestine was still under the British mandate — and Ben-Gurion reported him to the British.
In any case, despite the dreams of the Israeli right, the “expel and/or kill them all” solution is (probably) no longer available. But it’s also extremely difficult to imagine a South Africa outcome, in which Jewish Israelis accede to becoming a minority in a one-person, one-vote, one-state Palestine.
Meanwhile, some parts of the Arab world fantasize about an Algeria analogy, in which (after massive bloodshed) the colonists go back to where they came from. Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, recently claimed every Jewish Israeli “has a second nationality and has his bag ready.” This is both factually false and extremely foolish. Israelis are not going anywhere any more than Americans or Australians are.
That leaves a two-state solution, one Israeli and one Palestinian. The problem here is that the Israeli government has, with rare exceptions, never been willing to accept this. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just reiterated that stance this week.
But if the October 7 attacks showed anything, it’s that it will be difficult for Israel to simply continue on its current path. If the brutalization of Gaza does not end with a future with hope for Palestinians, there will sooner or later be more October 7s, conducted by Palestinians or others, on greater scales. The Israeli revenge will be greater still. The country is therefore on a path to its own destruction, along with the destruction of a big chunk of the rest of the world. Given the momentum of European colonialism, that is plausibly inevitable, and therefore many of us are doomed.
However, history is not foreordained. It is still possible to imagine a future in which the Israeli version of European colonialism reconciles itself to living with the rest of humanity. That in turn could show the path toward other badly needed reconciliations across the world. Such a future wouldn’t make any side happy; on the contrary. But it’s far preferable to the alternative. As the Israeli writer Amos Oz once perceptively explained:
Tragedies can be resolved in one of two ways: there is the Shakespearean resolution and there is the Chekhovian one. At the end of a Shakespearean tragedy, the stage is strewn with dead bodies and maybe there’s some justice hovering high above. A Chekhov tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed, absolutely shattered, but still alive. And I want a Chekhovian resolution, not a Shakespearean one, for the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy.