Towards a De-Occidentalist Perspective on Israel: The Case of the Occupation

Johannes Becke. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 33, Issue 1. March 2014.


One would be hard-pressed to guess in what geographical region (and precisely in what historical era) a country might be located that scholars compare to fifteenth-century Spain (Walid Khalidi), sixteenth-century England and seventeenth-century South Africa (Donald Akenson), the eighteenth-century United States (Baruch Kimmerling), or nineteenth-century France (Ian Lustick)—not to mention, of course, twentieth-century Nazi Germany (Joseph Massad). The most common explanations for this dislocation of Israel from comparative research on the Middle East (crystallized in the budding field of “Israel Studies”) focus on the detrimental feedback effects between geopolitical conflict and scholarly analysis; competing claims to moral exceptionalism; the “artificial separation between Jewish and Oriental studies”; or Israel’s cultural hybridity given the population’s “somewhat Mediterranean look and flavor … not found in any other Western state.”

Foucauldian poststructuralists might feel tempted to analyze Israel as a heterotopia, a counter-site or “a kind of effectively enacted utopia … outside of all places … most often linked to slices in time—which is to say that they open onto what might be termed, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronies.” In contrast, postcolonialists in the tradition of Homi Bhabha might trace this uncanny “classificatory confusion” back to centuries of Jewish colonial mimicry (or strategic acculturation) under both Christian and Islamic regimes of epistemological supremacy: “The ambivalence of colonial authority repeatedly turns from mimicry—a difference that is almost nothing but not quite—to menace—a difference that is almost total but not quite.” In the case of the Jews in Europe, anxieties about this cultural ambivalence were frequently resolved by discursive Orientalization. This article analyzes the mirror-image of this phenomenon, namely the Occidentalization of the Jewish State in the Middle East. More specifically, the article analyzes Israel’s occupation as the focus (or in psychoanalytic terminology the umbilicus) of this process of culturalist othering.

The argument is presented in three steps. First, the article discusses the discursive Occidentalization of Israel as what Murray Edelman calls a “condensation symbol,” a highly evocative symbol that epitomizes the ontological difference between a fetishized colonizing “Occident” and the colonized “Orient.” The article suggests two interconnected approaches in order to de-Occidentalize Israel: While Occidentalist discourse analysis uncovers the traces and tropes of Occidentalist thinking, a de-Occidentalist perspective on Israel reconceptualizes the Jewish State as a postcolonial state in the Middle East.

Second, the article applies the method of Occidentalist discourse analysis to the recent historiography of Israel’s occupation. In principle, different Occidentalist understandings of Jewish nationalism are scattered among a wide variety of intellectual positions ranging from Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy and radical diasporism to Arab nationalism and political Third Worldism. Israel’s occupation, however, frequently serves as a bridging frame for these disparate intellectual movements who agree on hardly anything except for the characterization of Zionism as “a typically European ‘colonial project,’ characterized by ‘racial’ superiority and territorial expansion.” A close reading of the recent historiography of Israel’s occupation uncovers three trademarks of Occidentalism—a tendency to situate Israel outside of history; a systematic neglect of Palestinian resistance as “heroic but vain”; and a deep-seated exceptionalism.

Third, in order to make the case for a de-Occidentalist perspective that recontextualizes the Jewish State as a postcolonial state in the Middle East, the article develops a historical-institutionalist argument for treating Israel’s occupation as a case of postcolonial state expansion typical of the third wave of irredentist projects during and after the process of decolonization.

Israel and Occidentalism

Recent developments in research on Israel point to a laudable trend of investigating historical parallels between the Zionist project and other Jewish societies, revolutionary states, or movements of national liberation by colonized peoples. Perhaps the most elaborate response to repeated calls to expand this comparativist endeavor into an analysis of Israeli institution-building as a case of postcolonial state formation is Derek Penslar’s nuanced application of Partha Chatterjee’s framework of postcolonial nationalism “by placing Zionism in Asia, as it were.” But even Penslar’s comprehensive argument that “the Zionist project was historically and conceptually situated between colonial, anti-colonial, and post-colonial discourse and practice” stops short of engaging the causal linkages between postcolonial state formation and Israel’s territorial expansion after the Six Day War by claiming that “post-1967 Israel became not only a colonial state but also an imperial one.”

From a global historical perspective, the idea that after 1967 “Israel underwent a rapid evolution into a colonial state” is a surprising categorization since similar policies of systematic demographic engineering were undertaken by a broad variety of postcolonial states in order to establish political control and a more legitimate claim to contested territories throughout the process of decolonization. Examples of “strategic settlement projects” by postcolonial states include the establishment of Han Chinese settlers in Tibet and Xinjiang, Indian settlers in the disputed mountain ranges close to China, Indonesian settlers in East Timor and West Papua, Moroccan settlers in Western Sahara, and hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrant workers in Lebanon. So what explains the widespread exceptionalism vis-à-vis Israel’s territorial expansion and the ensuing occupation in both scholarly and political discourse? This article argues that the phenomenon can be traced back to the discursive formation of Occidentalism. Echoing Said’s critique of Orientalism, one might argue that Israel through the prism of Occidentalism is not Israel as it is, but Israel as it has been Occidentalized.

The use of the term “Occidentalism” follows Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit’s Occidentalism and should be distinguished from the term “Occidentalism”/”post-Occidentalism” employed in Latin American postcolonial studies which might be translated more adequately as “Westernism” and “post-Westernism.” In the latter context, it is understood as “not the reverse of Orientalism but its condition of possibility, its dark side (as in a mirror).” Consequently the focus of analysis shifts from stereotypical representations of an exotic Orient to the colonial self-image or “the concerns and images of the Occident that underwrite their representations of non-Western societies, whether in the Orient or elsewhere.” In contrast, Buruma and Margalit discuss Occidentalism as a regressive, conspiratorial, and anti-cosmopolitan critique of “Western” modernity. They argue that the assumption of highly specific, pernicious, and time-transcending features that constitute the discursive fiction of the “Occident” is much older than the Arab-Israeli conflict. Occidentalism also predates “Orientalism in reverse” or self-Orientalization, a process that maintains the binary distinction between “Europe” and “Asia” but switches the moral connotation. While Orientalism in reverse adopts Western assumptions about the eternal nature of the Orient in order to celebrate them in a display of ostentatious self-empowerment, Occidentalism can be described as a “process of alienation and objectification of the West into a kind of ur-explanation, in which specific issues and concerns are blended into a cultural definition of otherness applicable to every and all situations.”

Buruma and Margalit trace Occidentalist thought back to early critiques of capitalist modernity fleshed out most systematically in German romanticism “for the first Occidentalists were Europeans.” As they point out, since Occidentalism is culturally non-specific, its discursive patterns can easily be diffused across civilizational boundaries in order to be translated and localized into the discursive structures of such diverse frameworks as Japanese nationalism, German fascism, or political Islam. Yet the common binary motifs of Occidentalism tend to survive these processes of conceptual translation, when, for instance, the soulless cosmopolitan city is contrasted to the authentic village of “natives,” the self-interested materialist merchant to the self-sacrificing warrior, the scientific-rationalist mind to holistic-intuitive spirituality, and moral degeneracy to hard-earned puritanical virtue.

The problematic nature of Occidentalism consists not in the obvious diagnosis that Israel (despite being “a society built by non-Westerners”) is closer to the model of Western modernity than its neighbors in terms of economic development, democratic institution-building, and general way of life, but in a culturalist fundamental attribution error, “a tendency for people to make dispositional attributions for others’ behavior, even when there are clear external/environmental causes.” By identifying Israel as part of the global “West,” explanations of its state formation (including its territorial expansion) focus not on strategic interaction, regional power dynamics, or historical context, but on presumed deep-seated and time-transcending characteristics, notably a colonizing will to power, a rootless and cosmopolitan civilization, disdain for the “natives,” and an unquenchable thirst for material resources.

In the jargon of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Israel’s Occidentalization can thus be described as a process of discursive Entstellung (distortion) by Verdichtung (condensation) into the ur-metaphor of a fictitious “Occident.” Occidentalist depictions of Israel as the epitome of the dark side of European modernity are rarely as pithy and easily discernible as Ahmed Shukeiri’s claim that “Zionism was nastier than Fascism, uglier than Nazism, more hateful than imperialism, more dangerous than colonialism.” More often Occidentalist motifs are woven into representations of the Jewish State with more subtlety (and arguably with considerably less malign intent). Take for instance a common textbook on modern state formation in the Middle East by Roger Owen, which nonchalantly depicts Zionist immigration to the Land of Israel as part of a broader process of establishing “local European settler communities, whether of the same nationality as the ruling power, like the French in Algeria, or another, like most of the Jews in Palestine.” A closer look at nationalist symbols (such as language and flag) might have revealed that these Zionist immigrants claimed a Hebrew rather than “another” (which precisely?) European nationality. Many among them might even have expressed strongly “anti-European and anti-Western sentiments.” But Owen does not stop at the culturalist Occidentalization of Zionist immigrants as “European settlers.” In a curious anachronism of racialized Occidentalization, he speaks of “the presence of a white settler community in Palestine.”

Zionist immigration to the Land of Israel as the establishment of a “white settler community”? This fairly mainstream textbook passage would have surprised not only those Jewish immigrants fleeing European anti-Semitism precisely as non-whites, but even more so their non-Jewish contemporaries among Owen’s predecessors at Harvard (constantly worried about the admission rate for members of “the Hebrew Race”) and even Lord Balfour himself (who famously warned of “a people apart” in his defense of the 1905 Aliens Act directed against Jewish immigration to the United Kingdom). In other words, while nineteenth-century Orientalization turned the Jews in Europe into an “Orientalisches Fremdlingsvolk (a foreign Asiatic people),” twentieth-century Occidentalization turned the Jewish State in the Middle East into a “white settler community.”

Similar to Orientalism, different forms of Occidentalism can be distinguished: academic (or pseudo-academic) Occidentalism as manifested in research on Western cultures and societies, ontological Occidentalism as the assumption of a stable ontological difference between “Europe” and “Asia,” and political Occidentalism as the array of strategies to counter, undermine, and overturn alleged strategies of Western expansionism. The State of Israel plays a central role in all three forms of Occidentalism—or rather the Occidentalist cliché of Israel as “the symbol of idolatrous, hubristic, amoral, colonialist evil, a cancer in the eyes of its enemies that must be expunged by killing.” Israel represents a core issue for academic Occidentalism (most prevalent in the discipline of postcolonial studies), is frequently portrayed as a civilizational fault line in ontological Occidentalism, and constitutes a key bridging frame for political Occidentalism (Third Worldism).

Within academic Occidentalism, Israel is allocated a central place in the discipline of postcolonial studies where it is frequently analyzed as “a typically European ‘colonial project,’ characterized by ‘racial’ superiority and territorial expansion.” The discipline’s normative hierarchy of “Palestine at the top, followed by the Arab nation and the Islamic world … [as] the long-suffering victims of Western racism, American imperialism, and Israeli Zionism” can only partially be traced back to Edward Said. In fact, his Palestinian nationalism should rather be considered as the root cause for the diffusion of his oeuvre despite numerous shortcomings. In the same way that his depiction of a time-transcending discursive formation of Orientalism “simply lends strength to the essentialistic categories of ‘Orient’ and ‘Occident,’ representing the ineradicable distinction between East and West, which [Said] is ostensibly set on demolishing,” Occidentalist categories dominate his analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict, crystallized in his claim that “so far as the Arab Palestinian is concerned, the Zionist project for, and conquest of, Palestine was simply the most successful and to date the most protracted of many such European projects since the Middle Ages.”

Israel is thereby turned into a central symbol of ontological Occidentalism, a position that assumes that the creation of a tiny Jewish state in the ancient Jewish homeland somehow reveals profound and meaningful insights into the deeper nature of civilizational fault lines. As an ontological assumption, this position is fairly immune to empirical refutations although many valid arguments have been raised, for instance, against what Avi Bareli terms the “Colonialist School” in Israeli historiography that interprets Jewish diaspora nationalism as a case of European settler-colonialism: the Zionist movement had no metropole; Zionist settlement did not aim at economic enrichment; Jewish immigrants did not politically control the territory; support by imperial powers shifted (in the end, Jewish independence had to be imposed against colonial Great Britain); the Zionist movement neither exploited local labor nor intended to spread any mission civilisatrice; and of course, unlike British settlers in Aotearoa (New Zealand), Jewish immigrants could point to centuries of cultural, religious, economic, and migratory ties to the Land of Israel.

Yet by definition empirical arguments cannot refute ontological assumptions. Therefore ontological Occidentalists will inevitably trace even the most contradictory and hybridized cultural tendencies back to their own axiomatic dichotomies. For instance, planning Tel Aviv according to contemporary European architectural standards allegedly expresses “the inherently colonial constitution of the project of modernity” while enjoying contemporary Middle Eastern cuisine follows the hidden colonial logic of the “Israeli cultural theft and appropriation of Falafil and Hummus (traditional Palestinian and Levantine Arab dishes) as Israeli Jewish dishes, or Dabkah (traditional Palestinian and Levantine Arab line-dancing) as Israeli Jewish folk dancing.”

Historically this phenomenon can be traced back to the earliest days of mutual culturalist projections in the struggle between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism:

each has tended more and more to identify the other with the main opponents which it is fighting. The Zionists, bringing with them into Palestine the outlook of the Dispersion, regard Arab hostility to them as only another aspect of that blind unreasonable anti-Semitism which they have known in Europe. They think of the Arab nationalists as Fascists, or as mercenary tools of the Fascists. The Arabs on their side see in the Zionists those European characteristics which they particularly resent: the arrogance and the disrespect for tradition. They regard Zionism as an example of that Western penetration which it is essential for them to control and to meet on equal terms, if their whole heritage is not to be destroyed. More particularly they regard it as the tool, the partner or even the master of Western Imperialism.

The Palestinian identification of Jewish immigrants as “European settlers”‘ should therefore not be dismissed as a “consciously worked out Machiavellian myth”; indeed cultural alienation more so than political domination is the overwhelming argument in the earliest Occidentalist literature that identifies Israel as a “settler-colonial state” due to the “introduction of a foreign element, to the detriment of an indigenous population (in the usual meaning of these terms).” Yet in addition to “a certain sad irony in describing the Zionists and the migration movement that they created as a movement of Europeans to the East, since the Jews were in effect expelled from Europe in a long, painful and complex process that reached its horrible nadir in the mid-twentieth century,” this culturalist proxy war seems bizarre in its projection of grandiose narratives on a territorial struggle between two fairly similar national movements over the same tiny piece of land in the Middle East. In a way, the Occidentalist reading seems as unconvincing as the proxy war narrative in the Cold War which interpreted a clash between two forms of militarized state socialism (with respectively Jewish-nationalist or Arab-nationalist flavors) as a struggle between “liberal democracy” and “communism.”

Historically, contemporary ontological Occidentalism could be understood as the intellectual legacy of political Occidentalism. Especially for the indeterminate Third Worldism of what Benjamin Rivlin and Jacques Formarand term a somewhat hodgepodge “tricontinental anti-Israel coalition,” the narrative of Israel as an alleged “settler-colonial state” provided a strong (and maybe the only) bridging frame. This phenomenon is concisely captured in their description of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Algiers in September 1973, which became “bogged down in disagreement and squabbling among delegates; most notably between Qaddafi and Castro. The Third World was finding it difficult to speak with a single voice and the conference appeared on the verge of collapse.” It was only the question of the Middle East that “enabled all participants to end the conference on a note of agreement, at least on one issue—condemnation of Israel. Israel was unambiguously bracketed with Portugal, South Africa and Rhodesia as a colonialist and racist state; and the Palestinians with liberation movements in Africa and Southeast Asia.”

After the demise of Third Worldism, transnational political Occidentalism is nowadays largely reduced to Querfront (cross-front) alliances between anti-Zionists from the radical socialist left and the radical Islamist right on British university campuses or in the comment section of Al Jazeera’s English-language website. Yet both ontological and academic Occidentalism are alive and kicking. As the mirror-image of Israeli Orientalism towards the Arab world, Occidentalism forms the backbone of the “politics of uniqueness” that prevents comparative research on Israel and its neighbors although in principle “[neither] Zion nor Palestine convey any epistemological or moral privilege.”

The Persistence of Occidentalism

To the theologically informed reader, the rhetoric of outrage in Occidentalist discourse on Israel such as the claim that “the plight of the Palestinians is worse than was that of black South Africans under apartheid, and Tel Aviv’s behavior is more harshly expansionist than was Pretoria’s” rings of the age-old gentile resentment against the doctrine of Israel’s election as the “skandalon of sovereign grace.” Rashi captures this argument in his commentary on the opening verse of the book of Genesis:

For if the nations of the world should say to Israel: “You are robbers, because you have conquered the lands of the seven nations” [of Canaan], they [Israel] could say to them, “The entire world belongs to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, He created it and gave to whomever it was right in his eye. Of His own will He gave it to them and of His own will He took it from them and gave it to us.”

To the less theologically inclined reader, motifs of Occidentalist discourse might not bear the trace of resentment, but of resistance. Following James C. Scott’s conceptualization of infrapolitics as “essentially the strategic form that the resistance of subjects must assume under conditions of great peril,” the Occidentalization of Israel’s rule over the occupied territories after 1967 could best be understood as the “hidden transcript” of a population under siege. Scott defines this “hidden transcript” as a “collective cultural product. Whatever form it assumes—offstage parody, dreams of violent revenge, millennial visions of a world turned upside down—this collective hidden transcript is essential to any dynamic view of power relations.” The widespread diffusion of Occidentalist motifs as the subversion not just of Israel’s irredentist claims to the West Bank and Gaza, but of the legitimacy of Jewish diaspora nationalism altogether should thus be understood as one of the more successful chapters of Palestinian resistance against Israel’s occupation.

Yet even as a “hidden transcript,” Occidentalist perspectives on Israel’s occupation as the endeavor of a “settler-colonial state” cannot be outright rejected as pure fabrication. Robert Wistrich indeed traces surprising amounts of contemporary Occidentalist rhetoric back to Soviet anti-Zionist propaganda throughout the Cold War: “The USSR publicly encouraged … equations of Zionism with anti-Semitism, fascism, and Nazism at the United Nations. Indeed, as early as 1965, the Soviets had formally proposed that Zionism be linked to colonialism, racism, and other imperialist evils.” But he notes himself with regard to Israel’s colonization of the occupied territories: “As with many caricatures, one may reject the exaggeration in this picture yet recognize the grain of truth without which it would be inconceivable that people who are by no means anti-Semites could come to believe in such simplistic notions.”

The persistence of Occidentalist discourse on Israel as a “settler-colonial” state could thus be historicized as a time-specific Third Worldist argument about the legitimacy of Israel that gained additional persuasive power and analytical value based on Israel’s colonization of the occupied territories after 1967. Yet the diffusion of Occidentalist motifs can also be traced back to their constitutive value: Occidentalism constitutes collective identities, alleviates anxieties about cultural hybridity, and enables the claim to subject positions of moral and ethnic privilege.

For Arab anti-Zionism, the Occidentalization of Israel as “simply the most successful and to date the most protracted of many such European projects since the Middle Ages” is critical to alleviate anxieties about the deeply uncanny nature of Jewish nationalism: while the migratory return of dispersed Jewish natives to their ancestral homeland uncovers the repressed trauma of the Arab colonization of large parts of the Middle East, the Zionist call for self-rule as a “dhimmi rebellion” reveals the epistemological violence behind the Islamic claim to a civilizing mission.

For Jewish opposition to Zionism, the Occidentalization of Jewish diaspora nationalism accords with the racialized identity politics of post-Zionist soul-searching: Depicting Zionism as “European settler-colonialism” makes Ashkenazi Jews a bit more white and Sephardic Jews a bit less so. In a peculiar struggle for ethnic privilege, the Occidentalization of Jewish nationalism enables Sephardic post-Zionists to retroactively reimagine themselves as “Arab” Jews and “victims” of Zionism snatched from “their Arab homelands.” At the same time, Occidentalism provides Ashkenazi post-Zionists with the opportunity of reinventing themselves as “white” Sabras, equipped with the dubious privilege of white guilt, “a validation of white liberal superiority as a more sensitized, and thus morally refined, whiteness.”

For European non-Jews, the Occidentalization of Israel as “the incarnation of the negative properties Europe has succeeded in overcoming—its colonial past, its ethnic divisions, its institutionalized racism, its excess of violence”—serves the critical function of providing a vessel “into which Europe can project all that is violent in its own past and present and preserve the good for itself.”

Finally, especially for the political left in the historical European settler-colonial states throughout the Commonwealth and in Latin America, the Occidentalization of Jewish diaspora nationalism helps to alleviate anxieties about repressed coloniality in the remarkable attempt to become (in the words of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega) “every day … more anti-imperialist, more anti-racist, more anti-Zionist, more anti-apartheid, more anti-colonialist, more anti-neocolonialist.”

De-Occidentalizing Israel

Israel’s Occidentalization is so entrenched that the research agenda of de-Occidentalizing the Jewish State consists in a double movement—uncovering Occidentalist motifs in both political and scholarly discourse and suggesting alternative paradigms that privilege common institutional legacies of both Israel and its Arab neighbors in order to highlight their shared characteristics as postcolonial (and in principle post-Ottoman) states. This process of de-Occidentalization should be carried out carefully in order to avoid two potential fallacies—the fallacy of re-Orientalization and the fallacy of a relapse into Eurocentricity.

Concerning the fallacy of re-Orientalization, the project of de-Occidentalization should explicitly not be misunderstood as the idea of re-Orientalizing the Jewish State by claiming it to be part and parcel of the “Orient” because, allegedly, when “viewed from the perspective of history, culture, demography and temperament… Israel can rightly be considered a normal Middle Eastern state.” Quite a few characteristics of Israel’s history do stand out in comparison to its neighbors and it would be outright absurd to deny the “eccentric aspects of Jewish nation-building, i.e. colonizing an inhabited land in the name of return to an ancient home.”

Not every structured comparison between Israeli and European statecraft (including practices of European colonialism!) should therefore be accused of engaging in Occidentalism. For the analysis of legitimation strategies as a tool of coalition-building within liberal democracies, Stacie Goddard’s careful comparison between Israel and Northern Ireland could hardly be replaced with a case study comparing Knesset politics to the arcane wheeling and dealing inside the Moroccan makhzen (the patronage network surrounding the royal palace), even though the idea sounds enticing. For a study of the reversibility of territorial expansion as part of the struggle over cultural hegemony within democratic institutions, Ian Lustick’s case selection of comparing Israel’s control over the West Bank and Gaza with Great Britain and Ireland (1834-1922) and France and Algeria (1936-62) might be justified, although crucial features of the essentially contested nature of postcolonial states in the Middle East are lost in comparison. Yet with regard to Israel’s occupation, equations with European colonialism inevitably tend to fall short when it comes to explaining and categorizing the original moment of state expansion: France and Great Britain established colonies beyond the sea as a typical state practice of European imperialism—Israel expanded beyond contested borders as a typical state practice of postcolonial states in the Middle East.

Concerning the fallacy of a relapse into Eurocentricity, the critique of Occidentalist thought, particularly within postcolonial theory, should not be misunderstood as a reaffirmation of Eurocentricity. On the contrary, the critique of Occidentalism aims to contribute to “provincializing Europe” (in other words, to de-centering global history) by exposing the cultural code of Occidentalist antimodernism as an indelible part of European modernity. Traces of Occidentalist thought within postcolonial theory could thus be characterized as a case of what Oswald Spengler terms “historical pseudomorphosis” or the inadvertent adoption of Eurocentric motifs even into the very critique of Eurocentricity. Walter Mignolo describes the project of contesting Eurocentricity as “de-colonial” thinking or the conscious “de-linking from the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality.” Consequently, de-Occidentalist perspectives on Israel could be described as the systematic de-linking from regressive critiques of modernity that understand Jewish nationalism as an expression of the logic of coloniality.

But uncovering these and other Occidentalist motifs can only be the first step of de-Occidentalizing Israel. In order to move beyond analyses that overemphasize Israel’s alleged Europeanness, the second step should be the search for alternative paradigms that encompass both Israel and its Arab neighbors. A particularly promising theoretical framework for these comparisons might be historical institutionalism which is slowly emerging as a paradigm in the discipline of International Relations. Historical institutionalism turns to time itself as a dimension of politics, complemented with a special focus on institutions as “the political legacies of concrete historical struggles.” In particular, for comparative case studies within the de-Occidentalist paradigm of Israel as a postcolonial state, a more rigorous focus on the long-term effects of political institutions might be a powerful tool for analyzing “colonial institutions as long-run causes.”

The overall research objective of this “close comparison of kindred politics within a geocultural region… as a valuable laboratory for working out explanations of institutional change that may have much broader theoretical application” can be described as the development of typological theory. Typological theory seeks to identify “both actual and potential conjunctions of variables, or sequences of events and linkages between causes and effects that may recur. In other words, it specifies generalized pathways.” Instead of forcing Israel and its neighbors on a Procrustean bed of implausible homogeneity, typological theory thus focuses on their undeniable differences but seeks to analyze them as varieties of the same type of phenomenon.

Occidentalist Motifs in the Recent Historiography of Israel’s Occupation

This section criticizes the recent historiography of Israel’s occupation on three main accounts that can be traced back to Occidentalist discourse. First, many theoretical accounts of Israeli expansionism suffer from a lack of historicity which results in “modes of writing that can be called ahistorical history, which purport to address the relationship of past to present but do so without interrogating the way processes unfold over time.” Second, poststructuralist accounts in particular ascribe only an epiphenomenal role to Palestinian resistance. Third, so far the literature has failed to develop a historically grounded comparative perspective.

Existing accounts of Israel’s occupation are characterized by a specific form of ahistoricism—bracketing out the historicity of Israel’s territorial expansion based on the illusion that “all international systems are equivalent (isomorphic) and have been marked by the constant and regular tempo of a chronofetishised present, which paradoxically obscures some of the most fundamental constitutive features of the present international system.” Despite its allegedly genealogical focus, this form of ahistorical history (most prominent in the “Colonialist School” of Israeli historiography) results in a unique dislocation of the case from time (by detaching it from the era of decolonization and postcolonial state formation) and space (by bracketing out regional factors of interstate relations in the Middle East). Four specific fallacies of ahistorical history can be distinguished—the epochal fallacy, story plucking, leapfrogging legacies, and doing history backward.

The epochal fallacy describes the anachronistic framing of Israel’s expansion as colonial, thereby adopting a historically, culturally, and legally specific framework of foreign domination in order to describe a process in a different time period, with a different cultural disposition, and a different legal framework. Israel’s occupation is distinguished precisely by its noncolonial features: historically, in accordance with the normative standards of a postcolonial world, the claim to rule over the captured territories was not based on classic European colonial arguments, but on their contested legal status after two decades of Egyptian military occupation (Gaza Strip) and unlawful Jordanian annexation (West Bank). Culturally, the expansion process was not based on exploring and conquering foreign lands, but on the reestablishment of a Jewish presence in the West Bank 19 years after the ethnic cleansing of its Jewish inhabitants. Legally, Israel never extended its full sovereignty over the area or treated the Palestinian population as colonial second-class citizens, but as a population under military occupation.

Story plucking describes the tendency to essentialize Israeli rule based on the notion “that there is an essence of being colonized independent of what anybody did in a colony.” By picking and aggregating anecdotal evidence of different forms of control into a timeless depiction of all-encompassing and pervasive super-complexes of control, some theorists imagine a Foucauldian panopticon whose alleged effectiveness and powerful steering capacity would surprise scholars of complex forms of governance.

Leapfrogging legacies describes the tendency to jump from conditions that were identified as causal factors or historical parallels to the explanandum without taking into account intervening periods. For the literature on the Israeli occupation, there is a systematic tendency to ignore the almost twenty years between state foundation in 1948 and state expansion in 1967, thereby creating the illusion of a seemingly uninterrupted process of territorial expansion that merely differs in tactics but not in substance.

Finally, doing history backward describes the tendency to retroactively smooth out the genealogical trajectory that led to the contemporary constellation of powers. This perspective results in a largely conspiratorial outlook on the history of the Zionist project that jumps uninterruptedly from the “colonization of Palestine” via the “domination of Arab states” to the “search for global influence.”

In addition to a tendency towards ahistorical history, the interpretation of Israel’s territorial expansion as a form of European colonialism often goes along with a notion of resistance as “heroic but vain.” Despite the broad literature on Palestinian narratives and practices of resistance embedded in a complex strategic culture that stretches from the nativist themes of ṣumūd (steadfastness, often symbolized in the olive tree as “the ultimate symbol of rootedness”) to the warrior ethos of niḍāl (struggle, or the “defining quality of the Palestinian culture of resistance”), there is a notable trend in recent theorizations of the historical trajectory of the occupation regime to treat resistance as epiphenomenal.

The claim to provide a better analytical focus on power is often the declared point of departure for poststructuralist approaches which, to their credit, sometimes indicate that this endeavor might underestimate the impact of resistance. Nonetheless there is a notable blind spot for Palestinian politics of resistance—one discussion of escalation during the second intifada fails even to mention the militarization of Palestinian political violence while merely describing “Israel’s underlying project of undermining the Palestinian social fabric while preventing a full-fledged humanitarian disaster.” But this problem goes deeper than the (nonetheless worrisome) trend to take relish in poststructuralist nebulosity by defining the occupation regime for instance as “an unstable set of technologies of power that open and limit a space of action and reaction for their subjects.” By ignoring the interactive nature of power relations, poststructuralist theorists are ontologically blind to the processes of political contestation that have shaped the history of the occupation over time.

This becomes clearer when looking at Neve Gordon’s more sophisticated attempt to analyze occupation history and not merely the instruments of control—theorized by other authors for instance as “an amalgam of surveillance methods involving Foucauldian ‘discipline’ and Deleuzian ‘control'”—or the dimension of institutional stability, allegedly caused by “disparate rationalities and mechanisms of power whose heterogeneity reinforces the overall effectiveness and perseverance of this regime.” But Gordon’s historical analysis of Israel’s occupation explains changes in Israeli policies of coercive rule as the result of “the interactions, excesses, and contradictions within and among the controlling practices and apparatuses,” thereby ignoring already on the ontological level any potential impact of resistance.

Finally the literature fails to develop a regionally comparative perspective despite Michael Barnett’s insistence that “[not] only might Israel and the Arab states share many of the same traits and concerns, but these shared characteristics might have similar origins.” Regarding research on the Israeli occupation however, this functionalist understanding of similar causal origins resulting in different, yet comparable outcomes is often rejected on the basis of one-sided analyses of Israel’s state formation. This ahistorical focus on alleged colonial characteristics of the Zionist project as an explanation for post-1967 expansionism risks sliding into what Marc Bloch calls “the obsession with origins.” He explicitly warns against the confusion of historical origins with causal inquiry for political reasons:

In popular usage, an origin is a beginning which explains. Worse still, a beginning which is a complete explanation. There lies the ambiguity, and there the danger!… [History] oriented towards origins was put to the service of value judgements…. So in many cases the demon of origins has been, perhaps, only the incarnation of that other satanic enemy of true history: the mania for making judgements.

When it comes to research on the Israeli occupation, comparisons between Israel and colonial states, and in recent years increasingly with South African apartheid, often tend to be undertaken by scholars with a specific agenda. The case selection in these comparisons is rarely based on the potential for analytical insight so much as on the potential for denunciation. While one may or may not agree with the normative impetus behind this research objective, as a research method these comparisons tend to cloud theoretically informed judgment.

The problematic nature of analogical thinking also extends to more hybridized frameworks like the label of Israel as an “immigrant-settler society,” seemingly diluting the accusation of colonialism. Like other forms of diaspora nationalism (such as the Greek and Armenian cases), Zionism clearly differs from other forms of modern nationalism in the Middle East by its political project of reclaiming for a community “severely fragmented by exile, dispersion and a minority enclave existence” an “ancestral homeland, preserved as a symbol and shared memory, and to give it practical shape through processes of liberation and colonization.” Yet this problematic confusion between an immigrant society based on diaspora nationalism and a settler society based on European colonialism permeates comparative studies frequently based on the triad of Zion, Ulster, and South Africa.

In a revealing twist to the notion that Jewish nationalism might be a form of settler-colonialism, Donald Akenson turns this notion on its head. Based on a Protestant literalist reading of the Mosaic covenant which ignores the profound “ambivalence of Israel’s election” (best captured in the notion of the “suffering servant,” the “yoke of the Torah,” and Jacob’s wrestling with the angel), he traces both European settler-colonialism and Israel’s post-1967 expansion back to a time-transcending “Hebrew covenantal structure [that] has lasted from the middle Bronze Age to the present.” According to Akenson, modern-day Israel behaves not only like a settler-colonial society, but all settler-colonial societies behave like ancient Israel by following “the conceptual grid for the Chosen People’s protection of their righteousness … not much different from modern racist thinking.” Consequently, following the role model of the ancient Israelites, alleged settler-colonial societies like Israel can safely be assumed to be inherently racist (“We must recognize the horror of ‘mixing’ that covenantal cultures inherit directly from the Hebrew scriptures”), arrogant (“To keep the deal that is the covenant, a society must be uncompromising, adamantine, self-contained”), vengeful (“[Such] polities are apt to draw particularly sharp definitions of who their enemies are and to be thoroughly unforgiving to them”), and even prone to human sacrifice (“Blood sacrifice, on behalf of the land and for the benefit of the corporate entity of the Israeli people, has developed as a major motif in Israeli popular culture”). Here Israel’s Occidentalization comes full circle: Israel is not claimed to be a settler-colonial state because it is of European origin, but European settler-colonialism itself is claimed to be Jewish at heart.

Towards a Typological Theory of Postcolonial State Expansion in the Middle East

What could represent an alternative paradigm to Occidentalist theorizing on Israel’s occupation? Particularly attractive comparative cases for a de-Occidentalist perspective on Israel’s rule over the territories conquered in 1967 might be Syria’s protectorate over Lebanon after its military intervention in the Lebanese civil war in 1976 and Morocco’s partial annexation of Western Sahara since 1975. By marking two polar types of political incorporation (full-scale incorporation in the Moroccan case, non-incorporation in the Syrian case), they allow a more precise localization of Israel’s settlement project on the spectrum of possible policies of expansionism. Other polar types in the Middle East might of course be found in Jordan’s unlawful annexation of the West Bank in contrast to Egypt’s mere occupation of the Gaza Strip.

All three cases of Israel, Syria, and Morocco follow the same general pathway that could be defined as postcolonial state expansion, a phenomenon characterized by the systematic and long-term expansion of postcolonial state institutions across contested borders and the resulting coercive rule over a neighboring territory and its population. Robert Young defines this overall phenomenon as “comparable, but somewhat different kinds of anti-colonial struggles in those countries more recently occupied” typical for the “postcolonial era.” In addition to Israel’s occupation and the Moroccan annexation, his list also includes Tibet, Taiwan, and Kashmir which might arguably be complemented with the cases of West Papua and East Timor.

Typically this process of territorial expansion is based on postcolonial irredentism, in other words the notion “in the minds of nationalists [that] the territory of the state in its present form may not be the homeland but a part of a larger homeland still to be pursued.” In terms of postcolonial irredentism, the three cases even share the considerable gap between territorial maximalism vis-à-vis much more moderate territorial gains: Greater Israel (as imagined by the founder of Revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky) would have encompassed not only the West Bank and Gaza (in other words, all of Mandatory Palestine) but Transjordan as well; Greater Morocco (as imagined by Istiqlal founder Muhammad Allal al-Fassi) was supposed to encompass not only Western Sahara but also large parts of Algeria, Mali, and literally all of Mauritania; and Greater Syria (as imagined by Antun Sa’adeh, founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party) would have stretched all the way from Southern Turkey to the Suez Canal, including Syria, Lebanon, Mandatory Palestine, large parts of Iraq and Transjordan, as well as Cyprus.

Irredentist nationalism with its obsession with the past marked by “atavistic feelings for territory and for kith and kin” is not unique to states emerging from colonial rule. In fact irredentism has been a recurring feature accompanying the emergence of newly independent nation-states. Naomi Chazan counts four waves of irredentist nationalism, namely, the contested delineation of core European states like Germany and Italy in the late nineteenth century, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires after World War I, the process of decolonization after World War II, and finally the breakdown of the Soviet empire. In the third wave of postcolonial irredentism, however, newly independent states were faced with a new situation in which territorial expansion, while at first attractive and relatively easy to carry out, was normatively and institutionally untenable in the long run. In contrast to colonial-era state expansions (like Saudi Arabia’s conquest of the Hejaz, the fateful creation of Greater Lebanon, or even South Africa’s control over Namibia), these military conquests conflicted with a fundamental normative shift that came to define the postcolonial era: “In the sense that it is no longer acceptable for states to take territory against the wishes of the inhabitants and to govern the people there without political representation, colonialism is over.”

Consequently, in the long run, all three cases of territorial expansion failed to become normalized due to the societal norms of a postcolonial world in which “the decolonizations of the postwar era extinguished the category of colonial empire from the repertoire of polities that were legitimate and viable in international politics.” Based on this explicitly anticolonial consensus that came to define the institutional framework of the United Nations, policies of expansionism were condemned to failure because of widespread support for different forms of resistance ranging from armed political violence down to James C. Scott’s “infrapolitics.” Consequently, like Israel’s rule over the occupied territories, even after almost four decades of ongoing annexation and colonization “not a single country in the world recognizes Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara—not even Morocco’s closest friends and allies.”

Admittedly the approach of comparing really existing “Greater Israel” to “Greater Morocco” and “Greater Syria” is not entirely unproblematic: putting the three cases together means first of all taking them out of preexisting categories. In the Syrian case, this approach would mean de-linking Syria’s satellization of Lebanon from the category of “protracted military interventions.” Interestingly however, previous analyses of the Syrian-Lebanese case as a form of military intervention already tend to make a strong case for treating Syria’s military presence as a much more systematic form of state expansion: “Syria, in words and deeds, has made it abundantly clear since the crisis began in 1975 that it has never had any intention of getting out of Lebanon…. From Syria’s standpoint, its presence in Lebanon is a fulfillment of historical rights.”

De-Occidentalizing Israel might thus not only help to reconceptualize the Jewish State within its historical and geographic context; the approach could also shed light on the idiosyncrasies of its Arab neighbors. Theorizing a general pathway of postcolonial state expansion seems more adequate to explain Morocco’s territorial expansion into Western Sahara than the anachronistic charge of “settler-colonialism.” A comparative angle seems also particularly helpful for the Syrian-Lebanese case still caught between denunciatory accusations and the official Ba’athist euphemism of a “military presence” that was allegedly “necessary, legal and temporary.”


A de-Occidentalist perspective on Israel’s occupation not only elucidates the shared features of irredentist nationalism and territorial expansion that are relevant for other postcolonial states in the Middle East as well. The analytical value of a regionally comparative perspective on the three cases of Israel, Syria, and Morocco consists precisely in highlighting their respective uniqueness. The process of state expansion accentuated the essential dilemmas of each postcolonial state project. In the Israeli case, for mere demographic reasons this dilemma might be simplified as the trade-off between a Jewish and a democratic state (or more precisely between a Jewish ethnocracy and a Jewish ethnic democracy). In the Moroccan case, the denial of a Sahrawi nation exposes a more fundamental unease over other ethnic breaking points, particularly the Berber question. Finally, in the Syrian case, the satellization of Lebanon exposed the brutality and corruption of Alawite minority rule in the Ba’ath state. Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 might in fact have been an early symptom for the decline of the Assad dynasty and the subsequent return of the proverbial “struggle for Syria.”

With regard to the broader relevance of a de-Occidentalist research agenda, a stronger focus on the long-term effects of colonial and Ottoman rule as a shared paradigm of Israel and its Arab neighbors might contribute to strengthening intraregional comparisons which are currently most developed in the area of state-minority relations, state-diaspora relations, war mobilization, state strength, and the political impact of the security sector. But in addition to Israel’s geographic recontextualization as a Middle Eastern state, the historical recontextualization as a postcolonial state might strengthen research on Israel from a transregional perspective—after all, Israel shares more (and arguably less belligerent) characteristics with other postcolonial states outside of the Middle East than just irredentist nationalism and territorial expansion.