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Is Egalitarian Zionism Wrongful Colonialism?


Many observers argue that in its very beginning, Zionism was an instance of wrongful settler colonialism. Are they right? I will address this question by examining the vision of Egalitarian Zionism in light of various theories of the wrongfulness of colonialism. I will argue that no theory decisively supports a positive answer.

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  1. See, e.g., Gershon Shafir, “Zionism and Colonialism: A Comparative Approach,” and Uri Ram, “The Colonization Perspective in Israeli Sociology,” both in Ilan Pappé (ed.), The Israel/Palestine Question, (London: Routlege, 1999).

  2. Most Zionists deny this charge. I will try to avoid this debate.

  3. I borrow this term from Chaim Gans’s Hebrew translation of his A Just Zionism: on the Morality of the Jewish State (Oxford University Press, 2008). See also Chaim Gans, A Political Theory for the Jewish People (Oxford University Press, 2016), at Chap. 3.

  4. This essay discusses only some views concerning the distinct wrongfulness of colonialism (those explored by David Miller, Lea Ypi, Anna Stilz and Arthur Ripstein). I discuss only in footnotes the “territorial” approaches to colonialism elaborated by Anna Stilz and Margaret Moore, as well as the libertarian approach developed by Christopher Heath Wellman. I should also note the writers whose views I analyze do not directly address E-Zionism. Hence, I deduce potential objections to Zionism from their views, and in response to these objections, argue that, properly understood, their views potentially license some kinds of unconsented, unilateral “national” settlement in inhabited territories. Miller, Ripstein, Stilz or Ypi are not responsible for my reading of their views.

  5. I discuss the collaboration between just defenders and unjust aggressors fighting together in an armed ethnonational conflict in Yitzhak Benbaji, “A Just War theory for a Four-Sided Armed Conflict” forthcoming in Washington University Review of Philosophy.

  6. Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Norton, 2001) at p. 10.

  7. Ari Shavit, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Spiegel & Grau, 2018), at p. 12.

  8. Shlaim: “Weizmann…did not accept [Arab Palestinians] as equal partners in negotiations on the future of the country. According to him, these negotiations had to be conducted exclusively between Britain and the Jews” (Shlaim, The Iron Wall, p. 10).

  9. Avi Shlaim, “The Balfour Declaration and its Consequences” in Roger Louis, ed., Yet More Adventures with Britannia: Personalities, Politics and Culture in Britain (London: I. B. Tauris, 2005) p. 251–270, at p. 253 (emphasis added). The first narrative presents the most prominent leader of Zionism, David Ben-Gurion, in the same light. According to Shlaim, Ben-Gurion was insincere in proclaiming that “the Arabs of Palestine did not constitute a separate national entity but were part of the Arab nation and that, moreover, there was no inherent conflict between the interests of the Arabs of Palestine and the interests of the Zionists” (Shlaim, The Iron Wall, p. 18).

  10. See, Gans, A Political Theory for the Jewish People, at p. 72–83.

  11. Ibid. at p. 4.

  12. Some historians hold that the national identity of Arab Palestinians was formed as a reaction to Zionism. Still, no one seems to deny that Palestine was viewed by Arabs in the region (in and outside Palestine) as part of their national homeland. See Yehushua Porath, The Palestinian Arab National Movement, 1918–1929, vol. I (London: Frank Cass, 1974), at Chap. 1.

  13. Benni Morris, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (Yael University Press, 2008), at p. 8.

  14. Ibid. Epstein was one of the founders of a small movement, Brit Shalom, that advocated a Jewish-Arab dialogue whose fruits should be bi-nationality and equal rights. See Yosef Gorni, The Arab Question and the Jewish Problem [Hebrew] (Am Oved, 1985) at p. 48–51 and 173-4.

  15. Gorni, ibid., at p.72.

  16. The Israel Declaration of Independence (1948).

  17. Ari Shavit, My Promised Land, at p. 62.

  18. Anita Shapira, Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881–1948 (Stanford University Press, 1999), at p. 189. Indeed, “…Zionists had initiated a proposal acknowledging the equal right of the Arabs to Palestine. The parity plan presented the vision of two autonomies, developing separately, side by side.” (ibid. at p. 192).

  19. Hillel Cohen, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917–1948 (University of California Press, 2008), p 3 and pp. 66–94. Prominent Arab minimalists included the Hashemite kings Faisal and Abdullah and their Palestinian follower, Rajeb Nashashibi. Salient maximalists included Haj Amin el Husseini, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam and Amin’s nephew, Abedel-Kader el Husseini.

  20. Among others, Gorni quotes Nagiv Azuri, a Palestinian official, who argued in 1902 (!) that the Jews intend to re-establish King David’s ancient Kingdom over all of Palestine. Gorni, The Arab Question and the Jewish Problem, at p. 6.

  21. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, “The Iron Wall” (Originally in Russian, Razsviet) 4.11.1923.

  22. For a comprehensive presentation of the Arab anti-Zionist ideology, see Yehushua Porath, The Palestinian Arab National Movement, 1918–1929, vol. I, at Chap. 1.

  23. Quoted in Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, Israel and the Family of Nations (Routledge, 2009) at p. 44.

  24. I offer a fuller account of this aspect of the E-Zionist vision in Yitzhak Benbaji, “Zionism and Political Liberalism: The Right of Scattered Nations to Self–Determination”, Theoretical Inquires into Law 21, (2020): 229–254. The historiography offered in Dmitry Shumsky, Beyond the Nation-State: The Zionist Political Imagination from Pinsker to Ben–Gurion (Yael University Press, 2018) shows how close the E-Zionist ideology reconstructed in the text to the views several Zionist leaders formed.

  25. See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), at p. 291 − 92. For an influential reading of Rawls’s neutralism, see, Jonathan Quong, Liberalism without Perfection (Oxford Scholarship Online 2010), and Alan Patten, Equal Recognition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), Chaps. 4–5.

  26. Some views entail that there is a deep difference between a two-state solution and a one-state solution for Palestine. For example, according to Christopher Heath Wellman (“Immigration and Freedom of Association,” Ethics 119 (2008): 109–41) the state’s freedom to associate implies a pro tanto right to exclude would-be immigrants to it. Assuming that the Arabs of Palestine had a right to an independent state, Wellman’s argument implies that they might permissibly deny Jews citizenship in the state to which they were entitled. Wellman’s argument does not imply that Arabs had a right to rule out a two-state solution for Palestine. Moreover, as Sarah Fine notes, (see her “Freedom of Association is Not the Answer”, Ethics 120, (2010): pp. 338–356), Wellman’s argument supports a state’s right to “exclude would-be immigrants from obtaining citizenship status,” but not a right to exclude immigrants from the state’s territory (p. 343).

  27. Anna Stilz develops the concept of an alienating state in explaining why benevolent annexation of a territory of one state by another would be wrongful. See, Anna Stilz, “Decolonization and Self-Determination, Social Philosophy & Policy 32 (2015): 1–24, and her Territorial sovereignty: A philosophical exploration (Oxford University Press, 2019), p. 99. She argues that a legitimate state respects the capacity of its citizens to make judgments about who should rule them. Now, Cara Nine (see her “Self-determination, group identity and the common will”, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 6 (2020): 1–8) convincingly argues that without appealing to identity-based considerations, it is difficult to explain why citizens’ desire to be ruled by a particular institution rather than another that implement exactly the same policies ought to be respected.

  28. Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore, The Size of Nations (MIT Press, 2003), at p. 14.

  29. David Miller, “Responsibility and International Inequality in the Law of Peoples,” in Rex Martin and David A. Reidy (eds.), Rawls’s Law of Peoples: A Realistic Utopia? (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), at p. 191.

  30. John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Harvard University Press, 2001), at p. 108.

  31. Following Stilz, I will assume that occupancy right is “primarily grounded in the claims of individuals to reside in a particular place, and derivatively attributed to the groups in which they participate” (Stilz, Territorial Sovereignty, p. 36).

  32. The term “located life plan” is Anna Stilz’s. See her “Occupancy Rights and the Wrong of Removal,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 41 (2013): 324–356, at p. 338.

  33. Ronald Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality (Harvard University Press, 2000) at p. 68, 151-2.

  34. See Stilz’s analysis(Territorial Sovereignty, p. 162) of Steiner’s globalized equality of resources ideal (Hillel Steiner, An Essay on Rights (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1994), 236). Stilz argues that any application of this ideal needs a shared metric that allows a common evaluation of the land viz., a regime that “imposes contested property concepts on those who do not share them.” The “global auction” disadvantages societies that happen to occupy territories with economically valuable land that they do not wish to exploit.

  35. I take this to be Stilz’s view: “Though the earth’s living space is not a tradable commodity, …the interests of outsiders in settling an area must be weighed against the intentional projects of the locals, by some objective (not relativist) criterion, and could sometimes override them” (ibid. 164).

  36. Note, though, that if E-Zionists could have established a national home elsewhere, or if a national home in Palestine was not very important to them, then frustrating the Arab Palestinian shared located life plan is unfair.

  37. David Miller, “Territorial Rights: Concept and Justification”, Political Studies 60 (2012): 252–268, at p. 263. Miller himself does not see his theory as having anti-Zionist implications.

  38. Ibid. at p. 259 − 61.

  39. Ibid. at p. 263.

  40. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, “The Iron Wall”.

  41. As Hanoch Dagan shows, in many contexts, legal property rights do not involve a right to exclude. See, Hanoch Dagan, Property: Values and Institutes (Oxford University Press, 2011.) Compare, Cara Nine “The Wrong of Displacement: The Home as Extended Mind”, Journal of Political Philosophy 26 (2018): 240–257.

  42. See, e.g., John Simmons, “Historical Rights and Fair Shares,” Law and Philosophy 14 (1995): 149–84, at 181.

  43. Miller, “Territorial Rights: Concept and Justification”, p. 252. Indeterminacy threatens Stilz’s theory of occupancy rights as well. Unlike Miller, she denies that “[o]ccupancy could be primarily grounded in the collective claim of a group to its ‘homeland’” (ibid.). Like him, Stilz does not have the conceptual resources to identify the scope of derivative occupancy rights that groups hold. (Cf. Margaret Moore, “Occupancy Rights: Life Planners and the Navajos,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 23 (2020): 757–765, p. 762). Sarah Fine (“The Ethics of Immigration: Self‐Determination and the Right to Exclude,” Philosophy Compass 8 (2013): 254–268) employs this fact in rejecting Stilz’s argument for the right of natives to exclude newcomers from “their” land.

  44. Ibid. at p. 253.

  45. Ibid.

  46. Due to scope restrictions, I won’t be able to discuss Anna Stilz’s and Margaret Moore’s “territorial” arguments against colonialism. I believe that any anti-Zionist argument based on their views can be handled in the way I handle the Miller-based anti-Zionist argument in the text. Stilz argues that a non-state (apolitical) people might have a derivative pre-institutional group right over a territory. A community of hunters and shepherds holds, as a community, the right to the territory in which its members trade goods with each other. Moore construes occupancy rights as primarily group rights. See her A Political Theory of Territory (Oxford University Press, 2015) pp. 111–34). Both views imply that it would be a mistake to treat “America, the negro countries, the Spice Islands, the Cape, and so forth as if they were ‘countries belonging to no one’” (Anna Stilz, “Provisional Right and Non-State Peoples”, in Katrin Flikschuh and Lea Ypi (eds.) Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives, (Oxford University Press, 2014) at p. 211.) A non-state people have a right to exclude foreigners from their territory (ibid. at p. 202). Both arguments leave room for a benign settler colonialism in places over which there are no group rights. E-Zionism claims that Palestine had many areas that meet this condition.

  47. Anna Stilz, “Provisional Right and Non-State Peoples”.

  48. See, especially, Lea Ypi, “What’s Wrong with Colonialism”, Philosophy & Public Affairs 41 (2013): 158–191.

  49. Arthur Ripstein, “Kant’s Juridical Theory of Colonialism,” in Katrin Flikschuh and Lea Ypi (eds.) Kant and Colonialism: Historical and Critical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, 2014). Stilz, Ypi and Ripstein base their commentaries on Immanuel Kant, “Toward Perpetual Peace,” in Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 311–52, esp. at p. 329 ff. (originally published in 1795), and on Immanuel Kant, “The Metaphysics of Morals,” in Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 353–604, especially at pp. 353 ff., 490 ff. (originally published in 1797.)

  50. Stilz, “Provisional Right and Non-State Peoples”, p. 203.

  51. Anna Stilz, “Why Do States have Territorial Rights?” International Theory 1 (2009): 185–213, at p. 207.

  52. Stilz, “Provisional Right and Non-State Peoples”, at p. 203.

  53. Ibid.

  54. As Laura Valentini observes, Ypi’s argument can be read in two different ways. On the first interpretation (adopted in the text) colonialism is “distinctively procedurally wrong insofar as it involves the subjection of the wills of individual members of colonized groups to colonizers’ control [i.e.,] whenever …laws… are imposed upon them without their voluntary consent.” See, her “On the distinctive procedural wrong of colonialism,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 43 (2015), pp. 312–331, at 314. Valentini correctly observes that this “wrong” occurs in every democratic state, and that, therefore, Ypi’s requirement should be weakened in one way or another. The other interpretation says that “[w]hat explains the distinctive wrong of colonialism is a failure, on the part of colonizers, to track the collective’s will—e.g., by not acquiring its voluntary consent” (ibid.). Valentini seems right that the corporate reading is implausible. Arguably, Ripstein’s Kant expresses the intuition that the corporate interpretation fails to capture.

  55. Kant as quoted in Stilz, “Provisional Right and Non-State Peoples”, p. 208.

  56. Ypi, “What’s Wrong with Colonialism”, 181.

  57. Ripstein, “Kant’s Juridical Theory of Colonialism” p. 149.

  58. Ibid. 159.

  59. Ibid.

  60. Ypi, “What’s Wrong with Colonialism?”

  61. The way Kantians conceive the right and the duty to associate is very different from the view defended by Wellman. (See his and Phillip Cole, Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude? (Oxford University Press, 2011), at p. 46 − 8.) Wellman argues that a golf club—that unlike marriage, friendship or a learning group is not an intimate association—has a presumptive right to exclude potential new members even on sexist grounds. Wellman’s view seems to imply that Arab Palestinians might refuse to associate with Zionists who were seeking a fair partition of Palestine, just because they are Jews.

  62. The guidance provided by the political critique of European colonialism is somewhat limited in cases the local community is divided territorially or ideologically. In such situations, the theory leaves too many questions open. Who is the representative of the Arabs of Palestine: minimalists like the Hashemite kings Faisal and Abdullah and their Palestinian follower, Rajeb Nashashibi, or maximalists like Haj Amin el Husseini? Was there one non-state, colonized people in Palestine, more, or were the Arabs of Palestine part of a larger Arab nation(s)? See especially, Cohen, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, pp. 66–94.

  63. This argument is inspired by Gans’s argument for the status quo in Palestine; see, Gans, A Just Zionism, at p. 38–40.

  64. Ypi, “What’s Wrong with Colonialism”, at p. 182.

  65. Ibid.

  66. Ibid.

  67. Cara Nine, “Colonialism, Territory and Pre-Existing Obligations,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (online, 2020) p. 5. Nine insists that “historical residents cannot enforce the existing terms of their political association onto resistant newcomers, because this would violate the obligation to include them in negotiations that set the terms of the political association itself” (ibid.). Still, Nine agrees with Ypi’s conviction that “[e]ven if claims to appropriate land and resources can sometimes be permitted, no legitimate institutions can be constructed on their basis” (Ypi, “What’s Wrong with Colonialism”, at p. 184). Daniel Weltman shows, however, that Nine’s arguments leave room for justified unilateral settlements by newcomers who suffer no persecution. See, his, “Colonialism, Injustices of the Past, and the Hole in Nine,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (online, 2020).

  68. Ripstein, “Kant’s Juridical Theory of Colonialism,” p. 168.

  69. Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 1997), at p. 102. For a recent study on the Zionists land-buying in Palestine see, Manal Totry-Jubran “Constructing ‘Private’ Historical Justice in State-Building” Theoretical Inquiries into Law 21 (2020): 305–342.

  70. Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity, p. 96. Khalidi describes how the Ottoman Public Debt Administration (i.e. the Ottoman Empire’s European creditors) legislated privatization laws whose implementation, via large absentee landlords, led to the massive alienation of land from native agriculturalists and its availability for “legal purchase” by Zionists.

  71. Quoted in Stilz, “Provisional Right and Non-State Peoples”, p. 208. In this respect, the Zionist colonization resembles other colonial projects: “[C]ontrary to the common belief that the Indians were ruthlessly deprived of their land, almost every part of [Massachusetts] that came to be inhabited by the whites was purchased” (from a report of the commissioner of Indian affairs reported in 1872 quoted in Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (Simon and Shuster, 2017), at p. 50. The Native Americans were made an offer that they couldn’t refuse.

  72. Arthur Ripstein, Force and Freedom (Harvard University Press, 2008) at p. 239.

  73. Cohen, Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917–1948 at p. 3.

  74. Thanks to Arthur Ripstein for discussing these points with me.

  75. The idea of reasonable chance of success is analyzed in the just war theory. See, e.g., Daniel Statman, “On the Success Condition for Legitimate Self‐Defense”, Ethics 118 (2008): 659–686.

  76. Gans, Just Zionism, at p. 50.


"Previous versions of this paper were presented in seminars in Tel-Aviv University, Universit?t Bayreuth and in Yale UniversityMiddle East Legal Studies Seminar.I thank the participants in these events for theiruseful comments and to the organizers of these seminars Alice Pinheiro Walla Owen Fiss and Anthony Kronmann. I amindebted to Chaim Gans, David Luban, Assaf Sharon, Anna Stilz, Michael Walzer, Dror Yinon, Lea Ypi, and especially, ArthurRipstein, for many conversations and written comments. The Israeli Research foundation supported this research (grantnumber 396/18)."

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Benbaji, Y. Is Egalitarian Zionism Wrongful Colonialism?. Philosophia (2022).

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  • Zionism
  • Colonialism
  • Kant
  • Territorial rights
  • David Miller
  • Arthur Ripstein
  • Lea Ypi