Colonizing Palestine: How Socialist-Zionism helped 'redwash' the Palestinian Nakba
Can an ideology of international socialism and fraternity between peoples be reconciled with the Zionist settler-colonial project?
This is one of the central questions in the book Colonizing Palestine: The Zionist Left and the Making of the Palestinian Nakba, recently published by Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Sabbagh-Khoury focuses her study on the interactions between three kibbutzim established by the Socialist-Zionist movement Hashomer Hatzair and the indigenous population in neighbouring villages in the Jezreel Valley, an area north of Jenin and south of Haifa.
Hashomer Hatzair (“The Young Guard”), was founded in 1913 in Galicia, a region that currently spans Poland and Ukraine. Hashomer Hatzair would later have an important role in the organization of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 against the Nazis.
"Settlers held a humanitarian worldview paired with a disregard for the material privileges of settler colonialism.”
In Mandatory Palestine, the Zionist settlers and the indigenous population (mostly Arabs but also containing a Turkmen minority that lived in the area for generations) were involved in an uneasy cohabitation for over two decades in the western side of the fertile Jezreel Valley, which the Arabs know as Marj Ibn ‘Amer.
In 1948, the villagers were completely expelled by the Haganah, the main Jewish military organization before the creation of Israel. The kibbutzim soon took over the deserted lands.
With the founding of the Mishmar HaEmek kibbutz, Hashomer Hatzair established a foothold in the Jezreel Valley already in 1926. Sabbagh-Khoury describes this initial period, in which the Socialist-Zionist movement expanded its presence by establishing two new kibbutzim in 1935 and 1937, as “colonialism by purchase.”
The purchase of lands by institutions such as the Jewish National Fund or the Palestine Land Development Company had both an economic and a political dimension.
As Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling explains, while the Zionist movement wanted the price of land to be simply determined by laws of supply and demand, “as soon as the land was in Jewish hands, it would no longer have a purely economic meaning, but would acquire a national significance.”
This gradual expansion of Hashomer Hatzair’s lands was facilitated by two factors. First, and on a more general level, the British Mandate in Palestine privatized land ownership in the country.
The result was that land previously owned by the Ottoman government became available for purchase and most of it was bought by Zionist organizations.
Second, large areas of the Jezreel Valley were owned by absentee landlords from Lebanon and Syria. These landlords were content to sell their lands to Zionist institutions and had little regard for the consequences that befell the local peasants or 'fallahin'.
Although the few farmworkers who had previous explicit agreements with landowners received compensation when the lands were sold, the majority of fallahin lost access to the land where they had worked and lived for decades.
In her research for Colonizing Palestine, Sabbagh-Khoury has carried out profound research in the archives of the three kibbutzim established by Hashomer Hatzair.
It is from their perspective, which is much better documented in written records than that of the indigenous population, that the author narrates the interactions between both groups.
The engagement with the primary sources found at the kibbutzim helps us understand, among many other aspects, how the settlers perceived the fallahin’s resistance to their loss of land.
Sabbagh-Khoury writes that “the settlers would attribute tenants’ resistance to external pressure by the national leadership and not to the distress resulting from the population’s localized dispossession.” The landless fallahin played a major role in the 1936-39 Great Arab Revolt but the Hashomer Hatzair settlers generally saw the revolutionary peasants as devoid of agency and being manipulated by the local elites.
"The tension between solidaristic socialism and settler-colonialism, which Sabbagh-Khoury captures brilliantly throughout the book, was a constant since the foundation of the first Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz in 1926 and only grew bigger in the following decades"
The progressive encroachment of Palestinian lands resulted in conflict between the settlers and the local communities, with occasional crossfires, fights over the fencing of the land newly settled by Hashomer Hatzair, or the uprooting of fruit trees planted by the settlers.
Still, the settlers and the indigenous population occasionally engaged each other in less conflictual contexts. Especially at times of reduced tensions between the two communities of Mandatory Palestine, children would play together, trade relations would develop, and advice on agricultural issues would be exchanged.
Even so, these relations were always taking place within a broader framework marked by the expansion of the Zionist settler-colonial project in Palestine. As Sabbagh-Khoury explains, based on the documentation of the kibbutzim, some settlers received special teaching in Arabic and local traditions and were designated to be the main conduits of interactions with the surrounding villages. In the early 1940s, the intelligence dimension of these contacts gained prominence and “lay the groundwork for such relations becoming assets of strategic power in the 1948 war.”
A settler of Mishar Ha-Emek explained decades afterwards how a group of settlers specialized in contact with the Arabs sought to visit an Arab village in 1945 relying on long-standing ties but were not welcome, in contrast to normal practice.
The settlers’ objective was to draw an accurate map of the place that could be useful to the Haganah. Considering the final purpose of the education in Arabic and local customs that some settlers received, one is reminded of Edward Said’s thesis in his groundbreaking book “Orientalism”: that knowledge of the Orient is not only an intellectual enterprise but an instrument of domination.
Hashomer Hatzair represented the radical left-wing within the Zionist movement, and it advocated for bi-nationalism in historical Palestine even after the foundation of Israel.
By deciding to establish relations with neighbouring villages, Hashomer Hatzair moved away from the practices of most other Zionist settlement movements. The settlers often held ambivalent feelings regarding the dispossession of the indigenous population.
In the village of Abu Zureiq, the Haganah killed ten inhabitants and destroyed all the houses in 1948 to prevent the return of the villagers. In the Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz of Hazorea, near Abu Zureiq, a teacher reflected on the events that had taken place in the village: “I was glad that we were being rid of the village, but on the other hand I am wholeheartedly against murder and warfare.”
Sabbagh-Khoury aptly sums up this apparent contradiction when she writes that the Hashomer Hatzair settlers held “a humanitarian worldview paired with a disregard for the material privileges of settler colonialism.”
Less convincing is the author’s reflection that the case of Hashomer Hatzair proves that capitalism is not the only social system underpinning settler-colonialism.
Although this might very well be the case on a broader level, the author herself explains that it was the accumulation of funds by relatives of the settlers and other sources of foreign capital that allowed Hashmer Hatzair to buy their first lands in Palestine. The inequality in access to capital between the fallahin and Hashomer Hatzair contributed greatly to tilting the balance in favour of the Socialist-Zionist movement.
Sabbagh-Khoury offers a conclusive answer to the question of whether a socialist ideology could be reconciled with settler colonialism. She writes that “left-socialist values did not motivate significant protest in response to the uprooting of Palestinian villages before and during 1948.”
The tension between solidaristic socialism and settler-colonialism, which Sabbagh-Khoury captures brilliantly throughout the book, was a constant since the foundation of the first Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz in 1926 and only grew bigger in the following decades. After the Nakba in 1948, it was no longer possible to deny that within the Socialist-Zionist settler movement, the latter ideology had clearly prevailed over the former.
Marc Martorell Junyent is a graduate of International Relations and holds an MA in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society from the University of Tübingen (Germany). He has been published in the London School of Economics Middle East Blog, Middle East Monitor, Inside Arabia, Responsible Statecraft and Global Policy
Follow him on Twitter: @MarcMartorell3