Settler colonialism is not an ‘academic fad’

Somdeep Sen

Palestine solidarity activists have claimed their space in mainstream politics and demanded the dismantling of the Israeli settler colonial project. But this has raised a very elementary question: “What is settler colonialism?”

Some commentators were quick to dismiss this charge of settler colonialism against Israel as “just another form of anti-Semitism”. Others insinuated that “settler colonialism” is nothing but a trendy academic theory conjured up by left-wing academics and activists.

But settler colonialism isn’t just an academic fad. It’s a real political project that has scarred the past and present of Indigenous communities around the world.

A central feature of this project is that it seeks to erase the Indigenous population to make way for the establishment of a settler society. Ideologically, this erasure is seen as justified and inevitable because, for the settler, the Indigenous don’t have any distinct peoplehood or any historically rooted claim to the land they inhabit. So, when faced with the civilisational, technological and military superiority of the settler state, it is all but expected that the “barbaric” Indigenous society would simply capitulate and “go away”.

We see this in depictions of clashes between westward settlers and indigenous communities in American folklore. They usually end with the demise of the latter. I saw a similar narrative in the apartheid-era Voortrekker Monument, dedicated to Boer frontierism, outside Pretoria. Exhibits there celebrate the white settler as having brought the “light of civilisation” to the untamed southern African hinterlands.

Israel-Palestine is no different. The ideology of erasure was written into the founding myth of the State of Israel – the myth that Israel was built on “a land without a people for a people without a land”. A popular slogan among Zionists, it helped both perpetuate the assumption that the “Holy Land” was virgin territory and characterise Palestinians as not “a people” with a distinct identity, and therefore lacking any legitimate claim to the land.

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