Is Zionism “Settler Colonialism”?

Israel’s critics and enemies often refer to Zionism as “settler colonialism.” This charge intensified after Hamas broke an existing ceasefire agreement, invaded southern Israel, and brutally murdered more than 1,200 people on October 7, prompting Israel’s declaration of war. Within weeks, rather than supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, pro-Palestinian protests erupted around the world, complete with signs using such phrases like “Zionism is Settler Colonialism” to describe the State of Israel.

Though Israel’s earliest Zionist settlers (those immigrating to Israel in the first and second waves of Aliyah from Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s) referred to themselves as colonists, it was in the broad sense of establishing settlements in a territory they previously inhabited. Does that qualify as “settler colonialism”? And is that what Zionism is all about?

What Is Settler Colonialism?

Let’s first define colonialism. Colonialism the process of a country taking full or partial political control of a more vulnerable country or territory by exploiting its people and natural resources. The colonizers, often by force, attempt to impose their religion, language, cultural, and political practices on the indigenous population. With colonialism, the “mother country” of which the colonists are from advances its economic, cultural, or religious interests by implanting their own people on foreign soil.

Settler colonialism is a type of colonialism characterized by the replacement and elimination of indigenous populations with settlers who establish their own societies in the land to occupy it and establish sovereignty over it permanently.

Settler Colonization and Zionism

Those who say Zionism is settler colonialism tout Jewish immigration to and settlement of Israel as an attempt to push Arab inhabitants out of the land to create an exclusive ethno-state. However, Zionism—the belief that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination in the land to which they are indigenous to—does not fit the true definition of settler colonialism for several reasons.

  1. Jewish settlers have never been an extension of any “mother country.” Rather, the early settlers met the definition of refugees escaping persecution. Those who call Israel a settler colonialist nation redefine the term “refugee” to mean “oppressor” and ignore the long history of the Jewish people’s connection to their ancestral land — as well as the continuous existence of a Jewish community whose ancestors never left. The first Olim (immigrants) who came to Israel in the late 1800s left Russia to build a new society based on their ancient roots in the land of Israel, not to represent Russian interests.
  2. Early Jewish settlers legally purchased land across then Ottoman Palestine from absentee landowners, many of whom were Arabs. The settlers did not attempt to displace or push out Arabs living in the land; rather, Jewish settlers believed Arabs, many who were struggling to survive, would benefit from the wealth and progress Jews brought with them and welcomed Arabs to be a part of it.
  3. Early Jewish settlers were not entering a land to which they had no historical connection but were attempting to reinhabit a piece of real estate and revive a culture, language, and religion that had prevailed there almost three millennia prior.
  4. Arabs are not indigenous to Israel; the Jewish people are. Their continual presence in their promised land goes back 4,000 years to the time of Abraham, corroborated by archaeological, biblical, and extrabiblical evidence.
  5. Much of the Jewish population in Israel today is not even from Europe but the Middle East, expelled from Arab countries upon the State of Israel’s birth in 1948.

Charactering Zionism as a “settler colonial” enterprise is based on false information and a skewed view of history. It is a lie political in nature that does not describe Israel’s origin or current population.

The media and academia’s attempts to frame Zionism as settler colonialism reveals this generation’s elevation of political activism over critical inquiry. It is yet another smear campaign bent on undermining Israel by challenging its founding and disconnecting it from the family of nations.

—by Susan Michael, ICEJ USA Director, creator of Israel Answers, the American Christian Leaders for Israel (ACLI) network, and Out of Zion podcast

Susan Michael, ICEJ USA Director
Publish Date: 
Tuesday, May 14, 2024