Iam very grateful to Zeev Sternhell for the seriousness with which he has approached my book, The Returns of Zionism, and for the lengthy review essay he has written on it.footnote1 Sternhell’s has long been the most consistent social-democratic Zionist voice in Israel’s public life. His Founding Myths of Israel is an outstanding critique of the ideology of Labour Zionism in general, and of A. D. Gordon, the Second Aliyah’s father figure and ideological mentor, in particular.footnote2 It delivered an authoritative, scholarly coup de grâce to any lingering universalist pretences that Labour Zionism may still have had when Sternhell was writing it. In dozens of Haaretz articles, he has indefatigably attacked the post-1967 Occupation and the illegal settlement project in the Occupied Territories, as well as the Israeli manifestation of neo-liberal globalization and dismantling of the welfare state. It is testimony to his courage and integrity that, on 24 September 2008, an Israeli settler placed a bomb on the doorstep of his home. Sternhell was injured by the explosion.

But while I have every respect for the depth of feeling that has gone into Sternhell’s response to The Returns of Zionism, I cannot help wishing he had engaged with the book’s actual arguments, above all with regard to alternative modern Jewish nationalisms and to the settler-colonialist nature of the Zionist project. Thus he discusses at length the anti-Semitism of the French Third Republic, and Herzl’s response to it, but offers no critique of the other, more progressive and less völkisch Jewish nationalisms in Europe at the time—Autonomism, Bundism, or Bernard Lazare’s anarcho-revolutionary Judaeo-nationalism—which were not at all colonial. These currents rejected the premise that emancipation should be conditioned by assimilation—whereas Zionism, whilst rejecting assimilation, regarded the two as synonymous. These modern Jewish nationalisms were truly secular, for they rejected the Old Testament as a religious text, in stark contrast to Zionism, whose secularity is limited to the rejection of rabbinical Judaism. As Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin has put it, the logic of Zionist Israeli secularity is, ‘There is no God, but He promised us the Land.’

Inherent in these modern expressions of Jewish nationalism was the resolution to change the societies within which the Jews existed and to challenge the exclusiveness of the European nation-state. Equally central was the willingness to work with Jews as they actually were, even if this was accompanied by a modernizing confidence in collective and individual improvement. Zionism, by contrast, shared the hegemonic view of both anti-Semites and progressives like George Eliot that national societies were organic and homogeneous, and therefore the Jews—an extrinsic element in the national body within this logic—should emigrate, and replicate the same exclusive type of national society in a piece of land deemed ‘empty’ in the East; this is what Daniel Deronda and Mirah Lapidoth were presumably planning at the end of Eliot’s novel. Zionism, moreover, accepted that there was something irremediably wrong with Jews as they actually were—so long as they remained ‘in exile’. They needed to be territorialized in order to be normalized.

From the moment Zionism’s goal became the resettlement of European Jews in a land controlled by a colonial European power, in order to create a sovereign political entity, it could no longer be understood as ‘just’ a central or east European nationalism; it was also, inevitably, a white-settler colonialism. For Herzl, this would ultimately ‘whiten’ the Jews, making them acceptable to white Christians, like the Prussian Junker Kingscourt in Altneuland. For Zionists, the framing of European national societies as exclusively organic was not only acceptable but desirable; they simply thought the Jews should have their own ilk elsewhere. I demonstrate this in micro-historical fashion, bringing to the fore, as Ansatzpunkt, the moment of bifurcation between the thought of Herzl, the sovereign settler, and Bernard Lazare, the ‘conscious pariah’.footnote3 Sternhell misses the subtlety of this method entirely, and confuses it with an attempt to excavate beginnings that then unalterably determined the ensuing history of Zionism and Israel/Palestine. What is gained by this type of micro-historical interpretation is the combination of a historicist understanding of the protagonists within the bounds of their context, on the one hand, with the benefit of hindsight that yet does not spoil the story’s unfolding.

Politically, the most consequential theme is the thorny C-word, colonialism. I am frankly baffled by Sternhell’s misrepresentation, or misunderstanding, of my arguments for situating the Zionist project in Palestine and the state of Israel within the framework of comparative settler-colonialism. He attempts to refute them by stating that the Zionist venture in Palestine was not based on the exploitation of native Arab labour and that it did not have ‘monopoly of political power’. But the fundamental point about a white-settler colony—New England, Virginia, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina—is that it is predicated on white labour, on complete closure vis-à-vis the natives, on gradual territorial expansion, under the bayonets of a metropole colonial power for as long as necessary; and on the creation of a self-sufficient economy that can attract more settler immigration. Contrary to Sternhell’s allegation that this notion is ‘dated’, a buoyant field of comparative settler colonialism has produced some of the most penetrating new studies of these societies over the past decades. Their starting-point is the recognition that, from the 16th century on, European expansion and conquest produced two related but clearly distinguishable forms of colonialism. One was metropole colonialism, in which the European powers conquered and ruled vast territories, but without the emigration there of Europeans seeking to make these territories their national home: British India is a good example. The other type was settler colonialism, in which conquest brought with it substantial waves of European settlers who, with the passage of time, sought to make the colony their national patrimony. This process entailed a relationship with the indigenous people that could range from dispossession to elimination, or from slavery—which for the most part did not use the native population—to cheap labour, depending on the economic and social formation of the given settler society.

The achievements of the comparative study of settler colonialisms have been at once scholarly and political. Several of these colonies gave birth to powerful nation-states which have asserted their own hegemonic narratives, nationally and internationally. The comparative field not only questions these narratives, through countervailing evidence and interpretation; it also offers an alternative account of the social formations themselves. In the process, three fundamental features common to these hegemonic settler myths are undermined. The first of these is the putative uniqueness of each settler nation; the second, their privileging of the settlers’ intentions, as sovereign subjects, at the expense of the natives’ consciousness. Third, the supposed inconsequence of the natives to the form each settler society takes; in other words, the conflict with the natives is not denied, but the fundamental role that this conflict has played in shaping the identity of the settler nation is written out. It is within the typology of settler colonialisms that I place the Zionist colonization of Palestine and the state of Israel—a move which surely should have put to rest the tedious contention that Zionism could not be termed a colonial venture because it lacked the features of metropole colonialism; as if anyone were suggesting otherwise. What its apologists fail to confront is the settler-colonial paradigm.

I am by no means the first to suggest it. The pioneer systematic analysis of Zionist Israel as a settler project was the late Baruch Kimmerling’s Zionism and Territory, in 1983. At the end of the same decade, Gershon Shafir’s magisterial Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict brought the method of comparative settler colonialism to bear upon the early phase of Zionist colonization, from 1882 to 1914, and later upon the nature of the Israeli state. Shafir demonstrated that, although certain features were historically specific to Zionism, it is perfectly comparable to other settler projects; and that what shaped the nature and institutions of the Jewish colonization of Palestine was not just the project’s intrinsic ideologies but the settler–indigene struggle itself. Shafir underscored the distinction between metropole and settler colonialisms, and helped to refine the taxonomy of the latter. In particular, he distinguished two types of settler colonies: the ‘plantation’—which he adapts to the context of Palestine by calling it the ‘ethnic plantation’—and the ‘pure settlement colony’. The plantation type prevailed in the initial phase of Zionist settlement in Palestine, known as the First Aliyah (1882–1903), which saw the arrival of some 20,000–30,000 immigrants. Informed by the model of French Algeria and guided by Rothschild’s technocrats, it was a social formation in which, from a settler vantage-point, what was needed from the natives was both land and cheap labour. With the arrival of the Second Aliyah (1904–1914), and some 35,000–40,000 immigrants, the crucial passage from plantation to pure settlement occurred, in a process that Shafir meticulously documented and interpreted with great insight: