Apartheid Israel

Is Israel a settler colony like South Africa?: A guest column

This blog is fortunate to get regular contributions from Tom Mitchell, a scholar who has carefully analyzed the similarities and differences between Israel, South Africa and Northern Ireland. He sent me a summary of a longer article. I thought I would publish it, as people on the far left often claim that there is little difference between South Africa under apartheid and contemporary Israel. And people on the right deny that there is any similarity. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between. In addition. peaceniks like me often point to the reconciliation achieved in Northern Ireland as a sign of hope and a shining example for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tom offers some insights into the similarities and differences.

Tom is the author if Native vs. Settler: Ethnic Conflict in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, published in 2000 by Greenwood Press. He then took some of the unused material from that book and wrote a second one, Indispensable Traitors: Liberal Parties in Settler Conflicts, also published by Greenwood two years later. Below is the summary of an article published in the Journal of Conflict Studies in the Winter 2004 issue. It is scholarly and not polemical, which means some of you will have no use for it, but I hope the rest if you dive in and follow his analysis.


Conventional wisdom in much of Western academia is that Israel is a settler colony, and that this means that it is another apartheid state a/la South Africa. Below is analysis showing why I believe that the first half of this equation is true, but the second half is false. The strategies employed to bring peace in South Africa and Northern Ireland were very different, so it is important to determine which one Israel more closely resembles. This determines why we should go with mediation and not sanctions.

Israel’s politics is characterized by the following six main features:

1) Numerous political parties are in the Knesset, which in turn results in weak coalition governments.
2) There are powerful religious parties with no equivalent in the West and comparable to Islamic parties in the Third World (Indonesia, Turkey).
3) Israeli politics is populated with many former senior military officers, creating a class of Arab-fighter politicians comparable to native-fighter politicians in the U.S. and S. Africa.
4) In the past, there were two important parties (Herut, Ahdut Ha’Avoda) that were paramilitary parties. Their descendants are the two main Israeli parties today.
5) The Arab question or native question has been the main issue in Israeli politics, dividing parties of the left and right since before independence.
6) In Israel, Jews and Arabs have a different legal status under formal law constituting a legal distinction between settlers and natives.

These six features can be divided into two groups: the first two, which are not features of settler societies, and the last four, which are features of settler societies. The combination of the last four features makes Israeli politics a variant of settler politics—the political features that are typical of independent settler colonies such as the United States, South Africa, etc. that are also democracies.

When looking for settler societies to compare Israel with, I looked for societies that were a) democratic; b) involved in prolonged conflict with the native population; and c) either independent or at least autonomous. This last requirement eliminated nearly all of the dependent settler colonies that were run by local representatives of the European settler power rather than by the local settlers.

I found three societies that could usefully be compared with Israel: Northern Ireland, antebellum America, and South Africa. Each of these three societies is useful for comparing with a different aspect of Israel.

Northern Ireland exhibits all of the above six features except for number 3 (because the UK is responsible for its security). The United States exhibited traits 3,5, and 6, and briefly had a multiparty system between 1828 and 1860 but no coalition governments. South Africa exhibited traits 3, 5, and 6 and had a genuine multiparty system from 1910 to 1950 and had two stable two-party coalition governments in the interwar period. Thus, if one looks at it, Israel has more of these settler traits than any of the three societies being compared with it. Northern Ireland lacks a native-fighter politician class, while both the U.S. and S. Africa lack paramilitary parties.

Northern Ireland can most usefully be compared with Israel when examining the peace process with the Palestinians and interparty and intraparty dynamics. Because it is only a province of the UK, it has no foreign policy and so cannot be used for comparison of foreign policy with Israel. But because the Arab-fighter politician class is such an important feature in Israeli politics, comparisons of Israel with Northern Ireland need to supplemented with either the U.S. or S. Africa. .

South Africa can be divided into three main periods: the period of the Boer republics from 1860-1900; the Union of South Africa from 1910-1950; and the Republic of South Africa from 1961-1994. African-fighter politicians were most important in the South African Republic (ZAR or Transvaal), particularly from 1881 to 1900. But the ZAR had a weak two-party system rather than a multiparty system, had no standing army, and had less than 10,000 men voting in its presidential elections during this period. So it is clearly not suitable for comparison with Israel.

Military politicians were also important in the Union of South Africa, which did have a three- to four-party system, a standing army, and a much larger population. There were no military conflicts with the native population of South Africa, however, during this period. Politics was centered on ethnic disputes between Afrikaners and English-speakers rather than on the native question. During the Republic of South Africa under apartheid, there was only one elected African-fighter politician, General Magnus Malan. This indicates that South Africa is not a particularly useful supplementary case for looking at internal politics in Israel.

The U.S. had a weak three-party system from 1828 to 1848, with the third party being mainly represented at the local and state levels rather than the federal level, present only in the North, and combining with one or both of the two main parties to form new parties. With its presidential system. it completely lacked coalition governments. But the U.S. did have a party, the Whigs, that was dependent on the charisma of former generals to head its tickets. And it did carry out transfer of the native population, the Indians of the East to the West. This latter subject comes up off and on in Israeli politics since the 1940s. The Whigs can usefully be compared to Labor, the Democrats to the Likud, and the third parties (Antimasons, Liberty Party, Free Soil Party) to Mapam and Meretz. The Know Nothings or American Party of 1854-57 can also be compared to Tommy Lapid’s Shinui Party both as a nativist party and with its sudden success and sudden collapse. Beyond that party comparisons are not available.

South Africa is useful for comparing with Israel’s regional defense policy. South Africa and Israel both were/are peripheral countries in conflict with the core of their region. In the Middle East the core is Arab states. In sub-Saharan Africa the core is made up of independent African states and the white settler colonies were the periphery. South Africa and Israel had similar strategies of supporting minority peoples in the Arab countries and black neighbors such as the Kurds in Iraq and Christians in Lebanon and Sudan, and the Ndebele in Zimbabwe and various minority peoples in Namibia. Both countries also engaged in numerous cross-border raids and invasions. In this regard it is useful to compare Israeli policy in Lebanon and South African policy in Angola.

Between 1967 and the mid-1990s Israel was dependent on migrant Palestinian labor from the territories in the same way that white South Africa was dependent on black labor from the homelands (bantustans). But this migrant Palestinian labor is much reduced today as a result of Israeli recruitment of East Asian and East European workers in reaction to the Islamist terrorist campaign of the 1990s and the Al-Aksa Intifada.

Likud plans for a Palestinian state under Sharon could also fairly be compared to South Africa’s bantustan system. Any plans for leaving a Palestinian state made up of several non-contiguous parts can be compared to most of the South African homelands in particular the KwaZulu and Bophutatswana homelands. With the above in my opinion, the usefulness of the South African comparison has exhausted itself.

The purpose of making these comparisons is not to delegitimize Israel. It should be borne in mind that the Israeli Jews are not only settlers but also returned natives, that is the original population of the country that returned with the support of the international community. So in its origins Israel is a unique settler society. But as a result of the ongoing native-settler conflict with the Palestinians, Israel developed features typical of other settler societies.

The comparisons are not meant to replace traditional methods of political analysis of Israeli politics and policy, but to augment them. When radio telescopes, X-ray telescopes and infrared telescopes were developed, astronomers did not stop using optical telescopes but merely used these new instruments to give a fuller picture of distant galaxies and our own galaxy. I make these comparisons in the same spirit. If Dan will indulge me, I will explore the lessons of Northern Ireland and the U.S. for Israel in two further pieces.

25 thoughts on “Is Israel a settler colony like South Africa?: A guest column

  1. “””I found three societies that could usefully be compared with Israel: Northern Ireland, antebellum America, and South Africa.”””

    Again, I would urge you to note that the antebellum south was a slave society. The relationship between blacks and whites was the relationship between (in the vast majority of cases) masters and slaves.

    South Africa was a slave society until 1835 in Cape Province and until the Boer War in the North.

    In an earlier exchange Mr. Mitchell compared slavery in the South to dueling as an example of the type of detail which one can ignore for the purposes of his analysis. Slavery in the South was not a minor detail which the analyst can abstract away.

    I hope that Mr. Mitchell can keep the existence of slavery in the South in mind when performing his analysis.

  2. I’m not sure why the term “settler society” is relevant anymore.

    There are no more “new worlds”, to colonize. All of the world is occupied, and much much moreso than Israel/Palestine was at Israel’s founding. (Including there. The population of the region was around 1 million in 48. Now its what, 11 million?)

    In Israel in particular, in spite of “designs” of some early prominent Zionists to make the whole area a Jewish homeland, most early Jewish residents, the pioneers, were refugees as much as colonizers.

    There is a revisionism of seeing the current status as if it always was.

    I don’t think its possible to present the term “settler society” as relevant, without the implication of choosing narrative.

    There is no objective story.

    Its not “if it looks like a duck”. Its more the Hindu tale of an elephant described as a pillar (legs), or hose (trunk), or a leaf (ears), or tank (body) depending on one’s perspective.

  3. I am sure that it looks like a settler society to Palestinians.

    And, that the children of Jewish refugees are no longer, while the children of Palestinian are still.

  4. Jonathan,
    When looking at S. Africa for purposes of comparison I basically start about 1880, and have noted why even the 1880 to 1900 period is not very useful. Technically, the Boer republics did not have slavery–at least not legally. In 1877 Britain annexed the Transvaal and even after the first Anglo-Boer War maintained suzerainity over it. So legally the Boers didn’t have slavery, although many of them illegally continued it through the kidnapping of black children from neighboring tribes just as many Mormons continue to practice polygamy even after the church outlawed the practice.

    In the late 1980s Donald (?) Kennedy wrote a book comparing American foreign policy during the Cold War with several modern empires including the Spanish, Austro-Hungarian, and British to make the case that America suffered from imperial over-extention. Spain was a slave society and Britain was until 1834, but the features he focused on were revenue, military spending, and overseas commitments not domestic arrangements.

    When looking at antebellum America I concentrate on the political role of military figures not on slavery per se. Although I did write a book on antislavery politics to look at the position of small antislavery parties that were in a minority within the society and advocating an unpopular position. The analogy here is with Meretz and its views on the Palestinian question. But you should actually wait and see the lessons that I draw rather than prejudging it.

    I define “settler society” as one in which there are at least two main ethnic groups with an ethnic division between a preexisting population and an immigrant population and that the latter arrived between the early 16th century and the 1960s during the modern age of European imperialism. This fits Israel. It also fits the other cases that I compare it with. I use it to exclude ethnic conflicts like that in Kosovo where the two ethnic groups have been present in the territory for a millineum or more.

  5. “””# Tom Mitchell Says:
    March 31st, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    My title is Dr. Mitchell.”””

    Like you, I have a Ph.D. I got mine at the University of Virginia School of Engineering in 1987.

    I feel that since we are not health care professionals we ought not to insist that others refer to us as Dr. Mitchell or Dr. Mark.

    My mother had a doctorate in psychology, and it made sense for her in her practice to be Dr. Mark. On the other hand my father, who also has a doctorate in engineering, is not Dr. Mark. He was Dean Mark or Professor Mark in his work environment.

    All we are doing is talking on a blog. I don’t wish to refer to others as Dr. X, and others ought not to refer to me in that way.

  6. That which does not have slavery, or some condition which is analogous to slavery, is not like the Antebellum South at all.

    “””Although I did write a book on antislavery politics to look at the position of small antislavery parties that were in a minority within the society and advocating an unpopular position. The analogy here is with Meretz and its views on the Palestinian question.”””

    If you are writing about the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine, and you wish to make analogies with the relationship between blacks and whites in the Antebellum South, then you damn well better have some institution in Israel/Palestine which is analogous to slavery.

    The condition of “apprentices” in northern South Africa up to the time of the Boer War is an example of slavery, or something so analogous to slavery that the difference is not meaningful.

    Same with the serfs in 19th century Russia, Cambodians 35 years ago, and so on.

    Convicts in Tasmania 175 years ago had a status which may well have been analogous to that of slaves.

    Indentured servitude, including modern day exploitation of illegal immigrants in many nations, might in some cases be analogous to slavery.

    I know that you will not be able to present such an analogous institution in Israel and Palestine. You may try, but if you do then your analogy will not stand up to the scrutiny which it will receive.

  7. Jonathan,
    I have no problem with you referring to me by my first name, I only wish if you use a title to use the correct one.

    Read the third part, if Dan runs it, and you’ll understand why I used the U.S. I used the U.S. as a whole and not the South.

    I use settler society or settler colony because it is a more defined subset of immigrant societies. In ethnic studies it is fashionable to use the term “deeply-divided societies.” And Israel qualifies under that. But there are many types of deeply-divided societies and I prefer to use the most relevant.

    I’m bothered by the decision of many in the media to eschew the term terrorist for militant. I think that people will get the idea that the Black Panthers went around blowing up buildings and indulging in suicide bombings. This is what happens when one substitutes a politically correct term for one that is more precise.

  8. ALL societies are immigrant societies.

    Children imprint “home” in their minds, but no community was always there, Jewish OR Palestinian, even Native American. (The Australian aborigines and Central Africans come the closest having resided in Africa and Australia across a glacial epoch. No other community comes close.)

    Isn’t power the issue worth considering, how it came to be, and how it is used currently?

    And, then prospects for mutual health?

    If a community develops faster than another, is that a bad thing?

  9. Jonathan,
    Actually although I think the North is closer to Israel than the South in that it was the section with the multiparty system, the two main parties were national. But in my previous remarks I compared the South to the West Bank.

  10. Richard,
    I don’t understand most of your last post.

    While many societies may attract immigrants at some point, the number of societies that have a high composition of foreign-born members is much lower. And the number of countries with one ethnic group traveling across the sea to live in a country that another ethnic group considers to be its own is lower still. But there are a number of settler societies or societies with settler populations particularly in the Americas and Oceania. But the number of those that fit the criteria I mentioned in my article was very limited indeed.

    Israel certainly fits the definition of a settler society. In the Old Yishuv in the 1870s there were about 20,000 Jews. Many of these were old men who had come to die there. With just natural increase the Jewish population of Eretz Israel would probably be at most about 100,000-150,000 today. Look at what it really is and you see the difference made by immigration.

    I think the resistance to the label of settler society comes from three things:

    1) Israel’s opponents use it as a form of delegitimization.
    2) People have a very narrow idea of what constitutes a settler society because they focus on just one or two examples.
    3) I think that Jews, like Palestinians, are still into trying to out-victim the other side and so anything that throws into question that victim status is consciously or subconsciously rejected.

  11. I agree with your three points in context.

    In the scheme of things, the period of appearance of permanent settlement is recent, and largely likely to be temporary.

    Every country in the west, mostly in urban areas, has a large composition of foreign born, and of those that primarily identify with their historical culture, more than the prevailing.

    The prevailing culture in most lands in which there is a great amount of intercultural interchange, changes.

    Certainly, New York culture is a VERY different prevailing culture than it was 150 years ago, even as there are some continuing themes and relationships.

    I was exposed to a concept of social identification associated with a yogic practise that I immersed in for a decade. That characterized three/four primary types of social identification, of conformity/association.

    1. Geographic – That defense of a territory defined a people. Relative to common enemies, threats. Common sentiment, ideology, fraternity was secondary. Psychologically, it was described as relying on “reptilian” function of the brain, in the sense of the relevance of skillsets to defend.

    2. Social – That social association, sentiment, ideas, culture defined a people, regardless of where they settled. Having a home place was secondary to having a home people. It was described as “mammalian”, in the sense of the relevance of skillsets to identify and sustain as a community (independant of site).

    3. Humanist – That the ideal/fantasy of universal human fraternity defined a people, that culture and geography were secondary characteristics to the ideal of universal compassion. It was described as “human”, in the sense of the relevance of skillsets to imagine and realize ideal.

    4. Neo-humanist – That the ideal of human fraternity extended to all living, eco-social fraternity.

    The implication was of a heirarchy, that the neo-humanist view as dominant in one’s and one’s associations were “better” than the humanist, which was “better” than the social, which was “better” than the geographic.

    I find the reference of “justice” oriented around “they were always there” to be a dance of the “reptilian” with the “human idealist”. You can’t really tell if those asserting it are advocates of human fraternity and acceptance, or of defensive exclusion.

    In the life of Jewish culture, Jews never previously had a home-land that they would ever have any attraction to defend in the “reptilian” manner. Jews were social and idealists, wanderers but coherently Jewish.

    In Israel, Zionists went from utopian settlers (not dominant), to warring refugees (1945 – 1948), to warring boundaries (1948 – 1973), to dominant potential ethnic cleansers.

    The Pilgrims, Puritans, Boers, Zionists were originally primarily social in orientation with idealist thread.

    Islamic culture is in a state of confusion as to whether it is primarily geographic and exclusive, social, or humanist and to what extent it will accept other characteristics of references within it.

    Even humanists live somewhere physically, and live in coherent societies with defining sentiment and association.

    Again, what role do you see dominance playing in your methodology of “settler society”?

  12. Is Tom trying to make the point that Israel is like the USA?

    “””While many societies may attract immigrants at some point, the number of societies that have a high composition of foreign-born members is much lower.”””

    The USA currently has a high proportion of foreign born members, perhaps as high as Israel’s.

    “””And the number of countries with one ethnic group traveling across the sea to live in a country that another ethnic group considers to be its own is lower still.”””

    Europeans and Native Americans?

  13. Richard,
    Dominance is important. If total dominance is established through either the extermination, cultural marginalization, or assimilation of the existing native culture than it no longer becomes meaningful to speak of a society as a settler society, it has become a post-settler society. This is the case with the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, etc. In other societies the settlers lose dominance and are either forced out or flee as in Algeria, Angola, Mozambique, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. Or they are assimilated into either a society controlled by the natives or into a compromise negotiated society as in South Africa or many countries in Latin America.

    It is only in countries where the settlers and natives are still in either actual conflict–Israel/Palestine–or potential conflict–N. Ireland–that it makes sense to emphasize the settler nature.

    In mandatory Palestine it was the British who were dominant and both ethnic groups in conflict subordinate. Initially the Arabs were advantaged vis a vis the Jews because of their numbers. This changed during the Arab Revolt because the Arabs lost much of their intelligentsia in the revolt and the remainder in late 1947 and early 1948. The Jews were also better organized militarily as a result of their alliance with the British during WW II. This is why I am skeptical of Arab claims to moral superiority–they were unwilling to compromise when they had the advantage.

  14. Is it possible to use the term “settler society” in a manner that is only descriptive, or does it necessarily connotate a pejorative?

  15. “””It is only in countries where the settlers and natives are still in either actual conflict–Israel/Palestine–or potential conflict–N. Ireland–that it makes sense to emphasize the settler nature.”””

    Tom is confusing “settler” with “soldier.” This is contrary to dictionary definitions of the terms. Americans who settled in Hawaii 150 years ago were settlers but not soldiers.

    Americans in Iraq are soldiers but not settlers. These are two different concepts.

  16. Jonathan,
    I think you are confused.

    Much of the conflict in N. Ireland is between working-class Catholics and Protestants. Most of the 3500 deaths came from terrorism–most from the republicans followed by the loyalists. Deaths from soldiers lag way behind. The roots of the conflict go back to the Protestant Plantation under King James I in the first decade of the 17th century. Both sides commemorate a whole series of events from the conflict since then.

    The conflict in Israel-Palestine (mandatory Palestine or Eretz Israel if you prefer) has been ungoing since the 1920s, the first murder of a Jew by an Arab for political reasons occurred in 1909. A continuing aggravating point for the conflict is the continued settlement in the West Bank of settlers who deprive Palestinians of land, and in their wake bring in the soldiers to protect them. These soldiers are either settlers or the children, grandchildern or great-grandchildern of settlers.

    Look up the term settler in the dictionary and see what it says.

  17. Jonathan,
    Look up definition 3b of “to settle” in the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary.

    Then think what is the English translation of the Hebrew term for the Jewish community in Palestine before independence–the Yishuv.

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