What is ‘Settler Colonialism’?

A rally and march in support of Palestinians in Brooklyn, Dec. 2, 2023. In bitter debates from Israel to Africa to America, invoking a brutal history has become a powerful accusation. (Kirsten Luce/The New York Times)
In the intense war of words over Israel's war on Gaza, a particular phrase has popped up repeatedly. At protests, on flyers, and in some mainstream publications, it is common to see Israel described, or more likely, condemned, as a ‘settler-colonial’ state.اضافة اعلان

The concept of settler colonialism originates in academia, where its use has surged over the past two decades, particularly in case studies of specific places. It has also been widely taken up on the activist left, invoked in discussions of gentrification, environmental degradation, financial capitalism, and other subjects.

The term ‘settler colonialism’ may combine two words that are very familiar. But in combination, the term can land as a moral slander, or worse.

Israel, described as a settler-colonial enterprise, means that it was formed by waves of Zionist Jewish arrivals who pushed Arab inhabitants out to create an exclusive ethnostate.

A structure, not an event
Historians have identified many forms of colonialism. Some involve trade or natural resource extraction managed from afar. Others involve systematic exploitation of a local labor force, with the profits sent back to the imperial center.

Although uses differ, settler colonialism generally refers to a form of colonialism in which the existing inhabitants of a territory are displaced by settlers who claim land and establish a permanent society where their privileged status is enshrined in law.

The concept emerged from postcolonial studies, which arose in the 1960s and 1970s to understand colonialism from the point of view of the formerly colonized across the world. Among the key thinkers was Afro-Caribbean psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, whose classic 1961 book “The Wretched of the Earth” argued that colonized people were justified in using violence to throw off their oppressors. Fanon’s ideas are echoed in today’s conversations.

Additionally, many scholars trace the current sense of settler colonialism, and its exploding influence in academic circles, to a British-born Australian scholar and the author of the 1998 book “Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology,” Patrick Wolfe.

Wolfe's book, which focused on Australia, where white settlers portrayed themselves as coming to an ‘empty land,’ incorporated numerous quoted phrases. Wolfe wrote, "Settler invasion is a structure, not an event." In other words, it is not a historical episode that concludes, but rather a set of relationships embedded in the legal and political order. Furthermore, he asserted that it is built on ‘The logic of elimination’.

Wolfe also told an interviewer at Stanford University in 2012, “It is a winner take all, a 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 and displace them, and take over the country, and make it their own.”

The term gained ground across various disciplines, often revolving around the notion of an effort to eliminate existing populations. In instances from the 20th century, although those populations were not entirely eliminated, they did become dominated.

The essays in “Settler Colonialism in the 20th Century,” looked at examples including various European settlement projects in Southern Africa, French colonization of Algeria, Japanese expansion in Korea and Manchuria in the 1930s, Nazi plans to resettle ethnic Germans in occupied Poland, and Jewish immigration to Palestine between 1882 and 1914. The book however did not discuss the US despite the concept having deep roots in Native American studies.

In a photo provided by the Library of Congress, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby enters Jerusalem in December 1917, after the British took control from the Ottoman Empire. The British Mandate of Palestine lasted until 1948. (Library of Congress via The New York Times) 

Moreover, Ned Blackhawk’s book “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of US History,” which won 2023’s National Book Award for nonfiction, refers frequently to settler colonialism.

From the Margins
Since 2005, the term ‘settler colonialism’ has continued to spread in scholarly circles, migrating into political science, literary studies, musicology, and many other fields.

A Political Scientist and Professor of Law at Boston College Law School, Aziz Rana is the author of the 2010 book “The Two Faces of American Freedom,” which argues that settler colonialism lies behind both the nation’s enduring racial hierarchies and the emancipatory possibilities of its political tradition.

When he was in graduate school in the early 2000s, Rana said that some scholars used the concept. However, it remained ‘really at the edge’ of fields such as US history and US political science.

Rana added that it changed, as scholars of the US began to embrace new thinking about race, slavery, and Native Americans, and as the Iraq War and its aftermath forced a rethinking of the traditional consensus that the US was not an empire.

At the same time, the term migrated out of the academy and was embraced by the activist left, where it became useful for drawing connections across a broad range of issues.

“Movement activists have very consciously sought solidarities across efforts to confront anti-Black racism, Native American dispossession and immigrant mistreatment,” Rana stated. “The concept has been a powerful way of showing the links across these experiences.”

Israel as a settler colony
The idea of settler colonialism is mostly charged in discussions around Israel, whether it is used to describe Israel’s current settlements in the Occupied West Bank or the processes that led to the founding of the state itself in 1948.

The argument appeared as early as 1967, in French Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson’s book “Israel: Fait Colonial?” It was published in English in 1973 as “Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?”

More recently, a prominent Palestinian American historian at Columbia University, Rashid Khalidi drew on it in his bestselling 2020 book “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017.”

In bitter debates from Israel to Africa to America, invoking a brutal history has become a powerful accusation.

In an interview, he said the concept was present in Palestinian writing of the 1920s and 1930s, even if non-Arabic-speaking scholars were not reading it. He said it also reflected the self-conception of early Zionists, who primarily came from Eastern Europe.

“This was a movement that saw itself as operating as a colonial project under the sponsorship of the British, who controlled Palestine from 1918 to 1948,” Khalidi said. “They made no bones about it until World War II. They called themselves settlers. They described their process as colonization.”

As for the US, the idea of settler colonialism lies behind the land acknowledgments, which recognize and name the Indigenous inhabitants of places, which has become commonplace across universities and cultural institutions.

To some observers, including some Indigenous critics, those acknowledgments are just toothless moral theater. But Rana argues that taking the idea of settler colonialism seriously allows for a more honest view of how the US, not just its territory, but its enduring legal and political structures, was formed.

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