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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Is Israel a Colonial State? The Political Psychology of Palestinian Nomenclature

Filed under: Europe and Israel, International Law, Palestinians, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 576     March-April 2010

  • Israel’s creation, far from being a foreign colonial transplant, can actually be seen as the vanguard of and impetus for decolonialization of the entire Middle East, including a significant part of the Arab world, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
  • What is not popularly recognized is how the Arab world benefited from the Balfour Declaration and how it served the Arab world in their nationalist goals and helped advance their own independence from the colonial powers of England and France.
  • Despite the essentially parallel processes of independence from colonial and protectorate influence over the first half of the twentieth century, only one of the national movements at the time and only one of the resulting states, namely Israel, is accused of being “colonial,” with the term “settler-colonialist” applied to the Zionist enterprise
  • This term, however, can assume validity only if it is assumed that the “settlers” have no indigenous roots and rights in the area. As such, this is yet another example of psychological manipulation for political purposes. The notion of “settler” dismisses any historical or biblical connection of Jews to the area. Hence, the importance of denial of Jewish rights, history, and claims to the area.
  • Lest there be any confusion about what a “settler” is, those who use the terminology “settler-colonialist” against Israel clearly mean the entire Zionist enterprise, including the original territory of the State of Israel in 1948. The “colonial Israel” charge is thus rooted in an ideological denial of any Jewish connection to the ancient Land of Israel.

Psychological factors often play a role in the development of political views. In the Israel-Arab conflict, one of the ways in which psychological factors operate is in the formation of “mantras” that do not necessarily reflect either the historical record or applicable international law.1 Examples include the use of descriptions of occupation as “illegal”2 and the determination that there is a “right” of resistance3 or a “right” of return.4 When used over and over again, these descriptions, despite their questionable legitimacy, can alter perceptions. Once perceptions change, attitudes and behavior change as well, leading to partial and ultimately biased views of historical and political reality.

Language thus becomes an important psychological tool both in correctly describing events and in perpetuating beliefs based on narratives that do not accurately reflect history. Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad is among those that have portrayed Israel as a colonial entity based on an illegitimate and racist movement, namely Zionism.5 In the eyes of many, it is a foreign element implanted into the Middle East where organizations such as the United Nations6 and political activists such as Chomsky7 describe Arabs as “indigenous” and Jews as “immigrants.” The charge of colonialism has become a major theme in criticizing Israel throughout the academic world and is part of the language of the discourse.8 The language of “colonialism” and its related terms (e.g., ethnic cleansing) have been incorporated into academic coursework even in Israel.9 An examination of the actual history and events related to the Middle East, in general, and Palestine, in particular, however, fails to confirm the reality behind the “colonial Israel” moniker. Israel’s creation, far from being a foreign colonial transplant, can actually be seen as the vanguard of and impetus for decolonialization of the entire area, including a significant part of the Arab world, following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

The Beginning of the End of Colonialism in the Middle East: The Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration is historically viewed as the document that first recognized the rights of Jews to a national home and independence in Palestine. Accordingly, it is perceived in the Arab world as a document that began what was seen as an illegitimate process of dispossessing Arabs from their lands. What is not popularly recognized, however, is how the Arab world benefited from the Balfour Declaration and how it helped advance their own independence from the colonial powers of England and France. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the Peel Commission Report of 1937, which stated:

The fact that the Balfour Declaration was issued in order to enlist Jewish support for the Allies and the fact that this support was forthcoming are not sufficiently appreciated in Palestine. The Arabs do not appear to realize in the first place that the present position of the Arab world as a whole is mainly due to the great sacrifices made by the Allied and Associated Powers in the War and, secondly, that, insofar as the Balfour Declaration helped to bring about the Allies’ victory, it helped to bring about the emancipation of all the Arab countries from Turkish rule. If the Turks and their German allies had won the War, it is improbable that all the Arab countries, except Palestine, would now have become or be about to become independent states.10

The Balfour Declaration, thus, not only served as the stimulus for Jewish independence, but, curiously enough, served the Arab world in their nationalist goals as well. This was largely seen outside of Palestine, but insofar as Palestine is concerned, there was initially an absence of nationalism with a distinct “Palestinian” identity. The Peel Report notes, “The Arabs had always regarded Palestine as included in Syria.”11 The plan, under an agreement between Emir Feisal and Chaim Weizmann (the Feisal-Weizmann agreement), was that the Arabs would recognize Jewish rights and independence over Western Palestine as called for in the Balfour Declaration, while Feisal’s family would retain control of Syria and the area known as Trans-Jordan. The failure of this agreement, and the resultant conflict that ensued, was a result of the French refusal to relinquish their colonial control and recognize the rights of Emir Feisal in Syria.12

Arab Denial of Jewish Rights and History in Palestine

The breakdown of the Feisal-Weizmann agreement and the reversal on Arab acceptance of the Balfour Declaration launched a period of Arab nationalism accompanied by violence between Jews and Arabs. Today, despite the documented history of the Jewish people in the area that was known as Palestine and Feisal’s acceptance of the Jewish presence there, the Arab world continues to deny this history, both in official policy and in popular media. The U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report of 2009 notes that Palestinian Authority textbooks “often ignored historical Jewish connections to Israel and Jerusalem.”13

This thinking is reflected in the charters of both leading Palestinian movements. The Palestinian National Charter of 1968 declared the Balfour Declaration null and void and said: “Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood.”14 The issue of recognizing Jewish as opposed to Israeli rights remains a sticking point between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.15 The Hamas Covenant makes several statements expressing Islamic hegemony over the area known as Palestine, along with several references to the Jews usurping Palestine and challenging Islam.16

Academic circles in Palestinian Arab society also subscribe to these notions. Al-Quds University posts a “History of Jerusalem”17 that repeatedly implies that the Jewish “narrative” is a “myth”; that King David, whose very existence is questioned, was probably part of an “idealized” community of “Israelites” that had no connection to Jerusalem; that those “Israelites” never experienced an exodus from Egypt (Al-Quds claims this “story” was “appropriated” from a Canaanite legend); that Joshua’s conquest never took place; that Solomon’s Temple was actually a center of pagan worship; and that the Western Wall was probably just part of a Roman fortress. In the Al-Quds rendition of the “conquests” of Palestine, Jews are not even mentioned, although ancient Egyptians, Hittites, Philistines, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Muslim Arabs, Mamlukes, Ottomans and British are. Jews are nowhere to be found in the history of the land and have nothing to do with its past.

In popular Palestinian media, the notion of lack of historical connection between the Jews and Palestine has also been promoted, such as with television broadcasts denying any Jewish connection to the Western Wall.18 This belief is so pervasive that even Israeli-funded institutions have been exposed to it. In Jerusalem, the Tower of David Museum’s head Arabic-speaking guide was dismissed19 after implying that there were no Jewish roots in Jerusalem, stating, in a Palestinian television interview, that the museum’s documentary film was “full of historical lies and historical deceptions.”20

The Connection between the Charge of Colonial Israel and Denial of Rights

The concerted effort in Arab circles to deny Jewish roots in Palestine/Israel is critical to claims of Jewish colonialism in Palestine. Palestinian spokespersons claim that since Jews are members of a religion and not a nation, any nationalistic aspirations based on a specific territory are invalid.21 The notion of Jews as a foreign entity in Palestine was advanced and popularized through the work of the late Edward Said in his seminal work, Orientalism,22 which continues to be seen as a foundation for post-colonial thinking in academia today.

The historical reality is quite different from what the Arab narrative, which has been adopted by many in academic and intellectual circles, presents.

The Colonial Background of the Entire Middle East

As a result of their colonial conquests, much of the Middle East area was under the control of the Ottoman Turks from 1516 through 1917. British colonial history includes their gaining control of the Gulf area between 1861 and 1899, turning the area into what one source called “a British lake.”23 British officials would decide which of the prominent tribal families in the Gulf region would eventually become the rulers of the states that would eventually emerge. French colonialists took over Algeria in 1830, conquered Tunisia in 1881, and took control of Morocco in 1912.

Neither Jews nor Arabs enjoyed any modern independence in the area, which, by the end of World War I, had been under colonial control for many years. As a result of the mandate system that developed after the war and the secret Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, British and French colonial interests were drawn and defined.

Decolonialization Following the Ottoman Defeat

Starting around the period of World War I, the entire Middle East underwent a process of decolonialization with the emergence of national movements. Jewish nationalism was consistent with the Balfour Declaration, which, after being incorporated into the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, uniquely called for settlement of Jews in Palestine as part of the Jewish National Home, without reference to their place of origin. Just as the British supported the Jewish national claims to Palestine, a number of source documents show that they also encouraged Arab nationalism as a tool in their own conflict against the Ottomans.24

The mechanism for the transformation from colonial independence for the majority of new states was the mandate system. Both the British and French mandates eventually yielded sovereignty to the populations of the Middle East as multiple independent states came into being. With Israel, the Jewish state was reconstituted, while the various tribal Arab populations that stemmed from the invasion of the seventh century25 now began carving out areas of influence and sovereignty. The Jews, far from being colonialists, were the beneficiaries of a national movement that aimed to renew Jewish sovereignty, but also which, along with Arab national movements, ended colonial control by forces that had no historical or indigenous roots in the region.

Indeed, it is an error to assume that Britain, as the mandatory power, gave the Jewish people their rights to claim Palestine. The 1922 Palestine Mandate specifically refers to the “historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine.” Rather than creating a new right, the Mandate recognized a pre-existing right that clearly pre-dated the colonial powers.

The Mandate also calls for the Jewish people to begin “reconstituting of their national home,” essentially stating that they were going to rebuild a national home that had been there before. Many of the Arab states, in contrast, were modern fabrications of the British and the French.

The Process of Independence

A look at a map of the Middle East will show that national movements eventually became national entities, with tribal factors largely accounting for the division of the area into independent countries. North Yemen became independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1918. The Hashemite monarchy in Iraq was granted independence in 1932 from England. Saudi Arabia (originally Hejaz and Nejd), although never colonized after World War I, became an independent kingdom in 1932 as well. Egypt, occupied by England since 1882, gained full independence in 1952. Lebanon and Syria became independent from the French Mandate in 1943 and 1946, respectively. Another Hashemite family in Jordan was granted independence in 1946 in territory originally a part of the Palestine Mandate. Independence also was eventually achieved by the British protectorates of Oman (1951), Kuwait (1961), South Yemen (1967), the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar (1971).

In addition to the formation of the various Arab states noted above, Jewish national self-determination was obtained in Palestine with the independence of Israel in 1948. While the dispute with the Arab residents of Palestine continues, the colonial entity, namely Britain, relinquished control in 1948. Prior to Israel’s legal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza following the hostilities of 1967, Jordan illegally occupied the West Bank, while Gaza was administered by Egypt.

The fact of the matter was that in 1948, during its war of independence, Israel acted as an anti-colonial force. The troops of the Arab Legion of Transjordan fought under a British commander, and had British as well as Arab officers.26 The British, clearly a colonial power, had treaty obligations to both Egypt and Jordan. At one point Hector McNeil, British Minister of State, threatened to “defend Aqaba if necessary.”27 British units were stationed in Egypt near the Suez Canal, the British were suspected of supplying sensitive intelligence information to Egypt, and the Israeli Air Force even clashed with a RAF squadron based in Egypt, downing five planes in 1949.28 While Israeli weapons came mostly by way of Czechoslovakia, the Arab states were equipped with weapons from the old colonial powers, Britain and France.29

Indeed, at the United Nations in 1949, when Britain and Italy submitted a draft resolution to put Libya under UN trusteeship, and deny it independence, Israel refused to go along with the colonial powers. By Israel abstaining, the British-Italian resolution did not get the required two-thirds support and was defeated.30 In short, both militarily and diplomatically, Israel served as an anti-colonial force during its early years.

Language and Perception: “Settler-Colonialism”

Despite the essentially parallel processes of independence from colonial and protectorate influence over the first half of the twentieth century, only one of the national movements at the time and only one of the resulting states, namely Israel, is accused of being “colonial.” The accusation of colonialism against Israel is not without difficulty. Since the traditional definition of colonialists exploiting the native population and resources does not broadly apply to Jews and Zionism, how then, to continue the narrative of Israeli colonialism? The answer was the application of another type of colonialism, that of the “settler-colonialist,” to the Zionist enterprise.31

This term, however, can assume validity only if it is assumed that the “settlers” have no indigenous roots and rights in the area. As such, this is yet another use of language to shape perceptions and another example of psychological manipulation for political purposes. Unlike any other “settler-colonial” state in history, Israel stands alone in that there is no identifiable foreign power that can be identified as the colonial entity. It goes without saying that the notion of “settler” also dismisses any historical or biblical connection of Jews to the area. Hence, the importance of denial of Jewish rights, history, and claims to the area.

The notion of Israeli colonialism, however, is so established in certain academic and political circles that its colonial identity is never questioned, and “settlers” are automatically considered agents of a colonial effort.32

Lest there be any confusion about what a “settler” is, despite the impression of some that the term applies only to those Israelis who have established communities in disputed territory after 1967, those who use the terminology “settler-colonialist” against Israel clearly mean the entire Zionist enterprise, including the original territory of the State of Israel in 1948.33 In fact, many contemporary Palestinian activists blithely and routinely assume, in their writing, that all Israelis are colonialists and all of “historic” Palestine has been occupied (e.g., Qumsiyeh,34 Abunimah35).

Reestablishing Accuracy: Cognitive Dissonance and Confirmation Bias

The “colonial Israel” charge is thus rooted in an ideological and cognitive denial of any Jewish connection to Palestine and the ancient Land of Israel. This can be either through a belief that the connection is weak because of the passage of time,36 or, as has been the case in Arab circles and in some revisionist Israeli ones,37 by flatly denying Jewish roots in the area.

Cognitive dissonance is the phenomenon whereby established beliefs are challenged by new, conflicting information that arouses a challenge to those core beliefs. Confirmation bias, on the other hand, is the term applied to seeking evidence that validates prior attitudes and beliefs. When confronted with dissonance, some may alter their beliefs to conform to the new information, but many, especially those that are ideologically invested with and committed to a particular view, continue in their established attitudes by adding justifications or interpretations that support or “confirm” the original cognition.

Just as committed Zionists would not accept a colonial narrative, presenting facts and arguments in response to accusations against Israel would not change attitudes for anti-Zionists, even when their core beliefs or attitudes feeding that position are challenged. In practice, ideologues seem to respond to challenges through “confirmation bias,” seeking information consistent with their ideology that supports their core beliefs when dissonance is aroused.38 Attempting to change attitudes, thus, would appear to have a chance for success only when these attempts target those who are not predispositioned or biased towards particular political ideologies and when the information is accurate, not tendentious, and based on solid data.

The mechanism of dissonance reduction that is most central to the “settler-colonialist” argument is the notion that Jews do not constitute a national entity and thus cannot possibly have legitimate rights to what was known as Palestine. For those who are familiar with Jewish history and traditions, such as the specifics of the Jewish legal system applicable only in Israel or the role of the “Land of Israel” in Jewish liturgy, the speciousness of these notions is self-evident. For many others, however, this is either not recognized or not relevant.39 Challenging these beliefs involves two overlapping mechanisms: First, a firm recognition of the reality of Jewish roots and historical sovereignty in the area, and second, an acknowledgment that the modern reconstitution of Jewish nationalism was achieved through a legitimate process consistent with international law and the right to self-determination. Both tenets are taboo and are not even subject to discussion for many anti-Zionist ideologues.

Ideology, when unyielding and unbending, will be resistant to any cognitive dissonance.40 That is why, despite the historical record, the core notion of Israel as a “settler-colonialist” nation will continue to resonate in circles where nationalism is frowned upon, where religious history is irrelevant, where post-modern ideologies are entrenched and philosophically embraced, and where the notion of Jews as a people is not recognized.

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1. I.J. Mansdorf, “The Political Psychology of Postcolonial Ideology in the Arab World: An Analysis of ‘Occupation’ and the ‘Right of Return’,” Israel Studies, vol. 13, no. 4 (October 2007):899-915.



4. R. Lapidoth, “Legal Aspects of the Palestinian Refugee Question, Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, no. 485, September 1, 2002.


6. Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Israel: Overview, 2007,


8. R. Aharonson, “Settlement in Eretz Israel – A Colonialist Enterprise? ‘Critical’ Scholarship and Historical Geography,” Israel Studies, 1(2) (Fall 1996):214-229.


10. (ch. II, para. 19, p. 24).

11. Op. cit., para. 23, p. 2.5

12. Op. cit., para. 25-28, pp. 26-28.







19. P. Cidor, “Obliterated in Translation,” Jerusalem Post, January 7, 2010.

20. PA TV (Fatah), November 13, 2009.


22. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

23. Y. Tareq,  J.S. Ismael, and K.A.J. Ismael, Politics and Government in the Middle East and North Africa (University Press of Florida, 1991), p. 453.

24. “British Imperial Connexions to the Arab National Movement,” in G.P. Gooch and Harold Temperley, eds., The Last Years of Peace – British Documents on the Origins of the War, 1898-1914, Vol. X, Part II (1938), pp. 824-838.

25. W.I. Saadeh, “The Three Phases of Arab History, Excerpt from ‘History of Arab Thought’,” Arab-American Affairs, vol. 32, no. 211 (June-July 2004),

26. T.N. Dupuy, Elusive Victory: The Arab-Israeli Wars, 1947-1974 (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), p. 121.

27. N. Aridan, Britain, Israel and Anglo-Jewry 1949-1957 (London: Taylor and Francis, 2004), p. 8.

28. Z. Tzahor, “The 1949 Air Clash between the Israeli Air Force and the RAF,” Journal of Contemporary History, 28 (1)(1993):75-101.

29. Zach Levey, “Arms and Armaments in the Middle East,” Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa, 2004,

30. Gideon Rafael, Destination Peace: Three Decades of Israeli Foreign Policy (New York: Stein and Day, 1981), pp. 21-22.

31. M. Rodinson, Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (Pathfinder Press, 1973).


33. Op. cit., 20, 21.




37. S. Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2009).

38. C.S. Taber and M. Lodge, “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs,” American Journal of Political Science, 50(3) (2006):755-769.

39. F.M. Perko, “Contemporary American Christian Attitudes to Israel Based on the Scriptures,” Israel Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, (Summer 2003):1-17,

40. B. Nyhan and J. Reifler, “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions, in Political Behavior, in press. J. Bullock, “The Enduring Importance of False Political Beliefs,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Albuquerque, New Mexico, March 17, 2006.

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Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, PhD, is an Israeli psychologist who has published widely on the subject of political psychology as it relates to the Israel-Arab conflict. He also directs the SWU leadership program in Israel-Arab studies at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem.