Was Zionism a Form of Colonialism?

We’re unpacking the journey of the Zionist — from the beginning of the Roman exile in 70 CE to the present — its relationship with the Arabs in Mandatory Palestine, and its equation to colonialists today. Rooted in the historical word for the Land of Israel, Zion, the word Zionist may not actually be as “modern” as you thought! In fact, Zionists have been around for thousands of years. The Land of Israel has a long and winding past that touches on many peoples, cultures and events, and the complex and rich history of Israel’s path to statehood is abundant with often-overlooked facts. 
Enduring understandings are available in the PDF version of the educational resources.

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. How would you explain Zionism to someone who had never heard of the term? Would you explain Zionism by referring to the 19th-century modern political movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine or would you explain the two thousand-year yearning of the Jewish people to return to their ancient homeland, the Land of Israel and have self determination there? What are the implications of explaining Zionism in each of these ways?
  2. Read this quote which was mentioned in our video which describes the approach many Jews had while in exile: “The better the Jews became as a people, the closer they were to coming home. The harsher they were treated in exile, the better as a people they needed to become.” How do you think this approach affected the Jewish people living outside of the Land of Israel? Was it a beneficial or detrimental approach?
  3. What are the implications of multiple indigenous peoples living in one land? Why is this such a contentious challenge within the modern State of Israel?
  4. ​​In the early days of Political Zionism, when the idea of forming a Jewish homeland in Palestine was still a far-fetched dream, there was a push by Territorialist Zionists to establish a Jewish homeland in East Africa (known as the Uganda Plan). Ultimately, the Zionist movement succeeded in establishing the Jewish state in the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people which was then British Mandatory Palestine. Do you think that if the Jewish state had been established in East Africa, it would have been an example of colonialism? Why was establishing the Jewish state in Israel different?
  5. Dr. Noam Weissman explains that there are two ways of looking at colonialism. Colonialism with a “lowercase c” refers to the movement of a people from one area to another to settle that land and create communities there. This is what the Zionist movement did by helping initiate the mass immigration of Jews to their ancestral homeland during a time in which mass atrocities against the Jewish people was the norm. The other version of colonialism, with a “capital c”, is about extending the power of one country over another in order to extend their hegemony and derive financial gain while expanding an empire. This type of colonialism is in line with British colonialism which existed in pre-state Israel.Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionist Zionist movement (1880-1948) wrote the following about the Arabs of Palestine in his famous piece “The Iron Wall” in 1923:

    “Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised. That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of “Palestine” into the “Land of Israel.””

    Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism wrote the following in his iconic pamphlet “The Jewish State” in 1896:

    “Here two territories come under consideration, Palestine and Argentina. In both countries important experiments in colonization have been made, though on the mistaken principle of a gradual infiltration of Jews. An infiltration is bound to end badly. It continues till the inevitable moment when the native population feels itself threatened, and forces the Government to stop a further influx of Jews. Immigration is consequently futile unless we have the sovereign right to continue such immigration.”

    Both Jabotinsky and Herzl used the term “colonialism” when discussing Zionism. What do you think they meant when they used this term? Are they referring to “lowercase c” or “capital c” colonialism? Do you think their use of the term was different from the way the term is used today?

  1. Compare and contrast the terms Zionism and Colonialism. In a practical sense, can you understand why some people would try to tie the two concepts together or do you think it is more related to each side’s narrative? Explain your answer.
  2. Watch this video about the conspiracy surrounding the origin of Ashkenazi Jews. How does this conspiracy theory play into the hands of the claim that Zionism is colonialism? How is this theory offensive to both Ashkenazi and non-Ashkenazi Jews?
  3. Play our Kahoot about “Was Zionism a Form of Colonialism”?
  1. Put yourself in the shoes of a Jewish refugee from Iraq immigrating to Israel upon the establishment of the State of Israel. You’ve just experienced violent antisemitism in your home country and you are now returning to the land of Israel, something you and your family have prayed for for thousands of years. How do you feel upon hearing somebody refer to Zionism as colonialism? Alternatively, put yourself in the shoes of a Palestinian Arab living in Israel before the state was established. Your family has lived in the land for generations and you don’t know another home. How do you feel about the comparison of Zionism to colonialism?
  2. In reference to the fact that many describe Israel as a refuge for white European Jews who in turn became oppressors of the Palestinians, Israeli activist and writer Hen Mazzig writes “As an Israeli, and the son of an Iraqi Jewish mother and North African Jewish father, it’s gut-wrenching to witness this shift.” Put yourself in the shoes of a Mizrahi Jew. How would you respond to the claim that Israel is a colonialist enterprise and why is this re-framing of Israel problematic?
  3. Read articles 18 and 19 from the Palestinian National Charter written in 1964 (prior the 1967 Six-Day War):Article 18: The claims of historic and spiritual ties, ties between Jews and Palestine are not in agreement with the facts of history or with the true basis of sound statehood. Judaism because it is a divine religion is not a nationality with independent existence. Furthermore the Jews are not one people with an independent personality because they are citizens of the countries to which they belong.

    Article 19: Zionism is a colonialist movement in its inception, aggressive and expansionist in its goals, racist and segregationist in its configurations and fascist in its means and aims. Israel in its capacity as the spearhead of this destructive movement and the pillar for colonialism is a permanent source of tension and turmoil in the Middle East in particular and to the international community in general.

    Why do you think this document tries to define Judaism and Zionism? How do you feel about somebody else trying to define something connected to your religious or national identity? How do you view the connection between Judaism and Zionism and what role does Zionism play in your life?

  1. Unpacked for Educators (videos and resources):
  2. Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State
  3. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, The Iron Wall
  4. Jewish Virtual Library, Zionism: Is Zionism Colonialism?
  5. J-TV, Myth-Busting: “Israel is a Colonial State Created to Atone for the Holocaust”
  6. Yossi Klein Halevi, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor (book), Letters 1-2 (p.17-26)
  7. Hen Mazzig, Op-Ed: No, Israel isn’t a country of privileged and powerful white Europeans

Unlock these resources with a free account

Don’t have an account? Sign up now

Access these resources with a free account!

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Unlock the interactive quiz with a free account

Don't have an account? Sign up now

By using this website, you agree to our use of cookies. We use cookies to provide you with a great experience and to help our website run effectively.