Israel is not a colonial state. If anything, it’s the reverse

Israeli air force CH-53 Sea Stallion military helicopter flies over as people gather with Israeli national flags
Israeli air force CH-53 Sea Stallion military helicopter flies over as people gather with Israeli national flags

A distorted narrative painting Israel as a country of “colonisers” has become an accepted truth, particularly among a generation whose concept of global politics has been formed by social media sized snippets.

It is a tawdry falsehood. Given that many Israelis were driven out of surrounding Middle Eastern countries and many others were survivors of the Holocaust, branding them “colonial” is laughable – but also deeply dangerous.

My own grandfather was nine when, in 1935, his parents managed to get him out of Mashhad in north-east Persia (now Iran) – a city where being Jewish was punishable by death – to the safety of Jerusalem, where his grandparents lived. Following pogroms in Mashhad a century earlier, those who weren’t murdered or didn’t manage to escape were forced to convert.

But while outwardly those converts kept Islam, even taking Arabic names (my Jewish grandfather took the name “Abdul Rachman”), at home they preserved their identity and traditions. My grandfather, who moved to London in his 20s, would tell me about their underground synagogues, clandestine matzah baking on Passover and secret Shabbat observance.

He also remembered being told to play on the streets and make as much noise as possible. It was only when he was a little older he realised the din was to disguise the sound of the “shofar” being blown on Jewish New Year – and the tragic price they would have paid if they had been discovered.

In Baghdad my husband’s grandfather wasn’t having a great time either. The Jews of Iraq had lived happily under British rule but, after Iraqi independence, anti-Semitism increased. Jews were no longer allowed to hold public office, their houses were regularly looted. Riots saw them murdered and abducted. Most of the Jews fled, leaving everything they possessed behind.

If you can spot a colonialist in this story so far, please do stop me. These are just two of the forgotten pieces of Middle Eastern history that feed into the story of Israel. An estimated 850,000 Jews were driven out of their homes in countries including Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, Iran and Libya, many joining the Jewish communities that had been in Israel for millennia.

The Holocaust survivors, who arrived after liberation in 1945 and more in 1948, also don’t fit the colonial bill. For the Jews who came before the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was still the motivation. They may have been white but they don’t fit the “white oppressor” narrative they’ve been branded with. Those people, so many desperate and destitute, turned swamps into farmland and literally made the desert bloom.

If anything, the story of Israel is the very inverse of colonialism. When Israel gained independence in 1948 the indigenous population, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Druze, were given the vote. And it became a beacon for women’s suffrage in the Middle East, particularly for Muslim women. Israeli-Arabs are now part of the fabric of society – they are judges, broadcasters, soldiers, sportspeople and politicians. The Muslim party United Arab List was part of the 2021 coalition.

That’s the inconvenient truth that doesn’t fit the social media narrative. There were of course other Muslims who fled Israel in 1948, or were forcibly evicted. Some went to the West Bank and others to the Gaza Strip, where many of their descendants still live.

But it’s important not to give that story the social media treatment too, and erase its historical context. It happened during a war, after Israel was attacked by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. So many of these details have been erased, distorting Israel’s history and its very story of existence. This casting Israel as a colonial force and branding the concept of Zionism as malevolent is crushing real debate rather than encouraging it – and stoking hatred with it.