An excellent Atlantic article on the false “decolonization” narrative for Gaza

October 31, 2023 • 11:15 am

The big news is still the war between Israel and Hamas, and one of the most thoughtful articles about it was just published in the Atlantic. A reader sent me an archived link where you can access it clicking on the screenshot below. The writer, Simon Sebag Montefiore, is identified as “the author of Jerusalem: The Biography and most recently The World: A Family History of Humanity.” Wikipedia, where he has his own page, says he’s ” a British historian, television presenter and author of popular history books and novels.

This is must reading for several reasons: it speaks the truth about Hamas and their leftist supporters in the West who celebrate its butchery; it shows the futility of calls for Israeli withdrawal, and it debunks the “settler-colonizing” myth that underlies must of the West’s demonization of Gaza. It limns what’s necessary for a “two state solution”, but, at the same time, excoriates Netanyahu, his government, and the settlement of the West Bank.  While I wouldn’t call it biased towards Israel, some might think so, yet it condemns the country and its leadership for how it’s run the West Bank.  And it’s in the Atlantic, which is getting more and more rational and less “progressive.”

Click below

All I can do is give some quotes (indented) and comment on them (flush left). I’ll try to group them under headings.

The problem: the misguided behavior of many Westerners, based on a false narrative:

Whatever the enormous complexities and challenges of bringing about this future, one truth should be obvious among decent people: killing 1,400 people and kidnapping more than 200, including scores of civilians, was deeply wrong. The Hamas attack resembled a medieval Mongol raid for slaughter and human trophies—except it was recorded in real time and published to social media. Yet since October 7, Western academics, students, artists, and activists have denied, excused, or even celebrated the murders by a terrorist sect that proclaims an anti-Jewish genocidal program. Some of this is happening out in the open, some behind the masks of humanitarianism and justice, and some in code, most famously “from the river to the sea,” a chilling phrase that implicitly endorses the killing or deportation of the 9 million Israelis. It seems odd that one has to say: Killing civilians, old people, even babies, is always wrong. But today say it one must.

How can educated people justify such callousness and embrace such inhumanity? All sorts of things are at play here, but much of the justification for killing civilians is based on a fashionable ideology, “decolonization,” which, taken at face value, rules out the negotiation of two states—the only real solution to this century of conflict—and is as dangerous as it is false.

The narrative: “imperialist settler colonialism”

Today’s Hamas apologists and atrocity-deniers, with their robotic denunciations of “settler-colonialism,” belong to the same tradition but worse: They have abundant evidence of the slaughter of old people, teenagers, and children, but unlike those fools of the 1930s, who slowly came around to the truth, they have not changed their views an iota. The lack of decency and respect for human life is astonishing: Almost instantly after the Hamas attack, a legion of people emerged who downplayed the slaughter, or denied actual atrocities had even happened, as if Hamas had just carried out a traditional military operation against soldiers. October 7 deniers, like Holocaust deniers, exist in an especially dark place.

The decolonization narrative has dehumanized Israelis to the extent that otherwise rational people excuse, deny, or support barbarity. It holds that Israel is an “imperialist-colonialist” force, that Israelis are “settler-colonialists,” and that Palestinians have a right to eliminate their oppressors. (On October 7, we all learned what that meant.) It casts Israelis as “white” or “white-adjacent” and Palestinians as “people of color.”

This leftist analysis, with its hierarchy of oppressed identities—and intimidating jargon, a clue to its lack of factual rigor—has in many parts of the academy and media replaced traditional universalist leftist values, including internationalist standards of decency and respect for human life and the safety of innocent civilians. When this clumsy analysis collides with the realities of the Middle East, it loses all touch with historical facts.

Why the settler-colonizing trope is false for Gaza and somewhat false for the West Bank (Montefiore is not talking about the West Bank here)

Contrary to the decolonizing narrative, Gaza is not technically occupied by Israel—not in the usual sense of soldiers on the ground. Israel evacuated the Strip in 2005, removing its settlements. In 2007, Hamas seized power, killing its Fatah rivals in a short civil war. Hamas set up a one-party state that crushes Palestinian opposition within its territory, bans same-sex relationships, represses women, and openly espouses the killing of all Jews.

Very strange company for leftists.

Of course, some protesters chanting “from the river to the sea” may have no idea what they’re calling for; they are ignorant and believe that they are simply endorsing “freedom.” Others deny that they are pro-Hamas, insisting that they are simply pro-Palestinian—but feel the need to cast Hamas’s massacre as an understandable response to Israeli-Jewish “colonial” oppression. Yet others are malign deniers who seek the death of Israeli civilians.

At the heart of decolonization ideology is the categorization of all Israelis, historic and present, as “colonists.” This is simply wrong. Most Israelis are descended from people who migrated to the Holy Land from 1881 to 1949. They were not completely new to the region. The Jewish people ruled Judean kingdoms and prayed in the Jerusalem Temple for a thousand years, then were ever present there in smaller numbers for the next 2,000 years. In other words, Jews are indigenous in the Holy Land, and if one believes in the return of exiled people to their homeland, then the return of the Jews is exactly that. Even those who deny this history or regard it as irrelevant to modern times must acknowledge that Israel is now the home and only home of 9 million Israelis who have lived there for four, five, six generations.

Most migrants to, say, the United Kingdom or the United States are regarded as British or American within a lifetime. Politics in both countries is filled with prominent leaders—Suella Braverman and David Lammy, Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley—whose parents or grandparents migrated from India, West Africa, or South America. No one would describe them as “settlers.” Yet Israeli families resident in Israel for a century are designated as “settler-colonists” ripe for murder and mutilation. And contrary to Hamas apologists, the ethnicity of perpetrators or victims never justifies atrocities. They would be atrocious anywhere, committed by anyone with any history. It is dismaying that it is often self-declared “anti-racists” who are now advocating exactly this murder by ethnicity.

. . . Even when the word decolonization does not appear, this ideology is embedded in partisan media coverage of the conflict and suffuses recent condemnations of Israel. The student glee in response to the slaughter at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and other universities; the support for Hamas amongst artists and actors, along with the weaselly equivocations by leaders at some of America’s most famous research institutions, have displayed a shocking lack of morality, humanity, and basic decency.

. . . Whenever you read a book or an article and it uses the phrase “settler-colonialist,” you are dealing with ideological polemic, not history.

Why the narrative holds, to some extent, for the West Bank:

I should also say that Israeli rule of the Occupied Territories of the West Bank is different and, to my mind, unacceptable, unsustainable, and unjust. The Palestinians in the West Bank have endured a harsh, unjust, and oppressive occupation since 1967. Settlers under the disgraceful Netanyahu government have harassed and persecuted Palestinians in the West Bank: 146 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem were killed in 2022 and at least 153 in 2023 before the Hamas attack, and more than 90 since. Again: This is appalling and unacceptable, but not genocide.

. . . Israel has done many harsh and bad things. Netanyahu’s government, the worst ever in Israeli history, as inept as it is immoral, promotes a maximalist ultranationalism that is both unacceptable and unwise. Everyone has the right to protest against Israel’s policies and actions but not to promote terror sects, the killing of civilians, and the spreading of menacing anti-Semitism.

See also the conclusion below.

The “white” Israeli versus the “Palestinians of color” trope:

Even more preposterous than the “colonizer” label is the “whiteness” trope that is key to the decolonization ideology. Again: simply wrong. Israel has a large community of Ethiopian Jews, and about half of all Israelis—that is, about 5 million people—are Mizrahi, the descendants of Jews from Arab and Persian lands, people of the Middle East. They are neither “settlers” nor “colonialists” nor “white” Europeans at all but inhabitants of Baghdad and Cairo and Beirut for many centuries, even millennia, who were driven out after 1948.

Why Israel is demonized? (For Montefiore, it’s not just because they’re “white adjacent” and Palestinians are “people of color”, or simply because Israel is a Jewish state)

The open world of liberal democracies—or the West, as it used to be called—is today polarized by paralyzed politics, petty but vicious cultural feuds about identity and gender, and guilt about historical successes and sins, a guilt that is bizarrely atoned for by showing sympathy for, even attraction to, enemies of our democratic values. In this scenario, Western democracies are always bad actors, hypocritical and neo-imperialist, while foreign autocracies or terror sects such as Hamas are enemies of imperialism and therefore sincere forces for good. In this topsy-turvy scenario, Israel is a living metaphor and penance for the sins of the West. The result is the intense scrutiny of Israel and the way it is judged, using standards rarely attained by any nation at war, including the United States.

This does make sense to me, but I don’t think one can leave out that Israel also happens to be a Jewish “imperialist” state. There are other liberal democracies that are or have been “colonizers” but don’t get criticized as much.

The “right of return” idea:

In this brutal war, Israelis did indeed drive some Palestinians from their homes; others fled the fighting; yet others stayed and are now Israeli Arabs who have the vote in the Israeli democracy. (Some 25 percent of today’s Israelis are Arabs and Druze.) About 700,000 Palestinians lost their homes. That is an enormous figure and a historic tragedy. Starting in 1948, some 900,000 Jews lost their homes in Islamic countries and most of them moved to Israel. These events are not directly comparable, and I don’t mean to propose a competition in tragedy or hierarchy of victimhood. But the past is a lot more complicated than the decolonizers would have you believe.

Out of this imbroglio, one state emerged, Israel, and one did not, Palestine. Its formation is long overdue.

Note that Montefiore calls for a two-state solution. I agree, but think it’s impossible for the time being—not until both the West Bank under the PA and Gaza under Hamas get new leadership. The PA, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, is deeply corrupt and cannot be a good-faith negotiator. This is what the author says about it:

Why Palestine needs new leadership before we get a two-state solution:

The Palestinians have legitimate grievances and have endured much brutal injustice. But both of their political entities are utterly flawed: the Palestinian Authority, which rules 40 percent of the West Bank, is moribund, corrupt, inept, and generally disdained—and its leaders have been just as abysmal as those of Israel.

. . . This month, the Hamas terrorists unleashed their slaughter in part to undermine a peace with Saudi Arabia that would have improved Palestinian politics and standard of life, and reinvigorated Hamas’s sclerotic rival, the Palestinian Authority. In part, they served Iran to prevent the empowering of Saudi Arabia, and their atrocities were of course a spectacular trap to provoke Israeli overreaction. They are most probably getting their wish, but to do this they are cynically exploiting innocent Palestinian people as a sacrifice to political means, a second crime against civilians. In the same way, the decolonization ideology, with its denial of Israel’s right to exist and its people’s right to live safely, makes a Palestinian state less likely if not impossible.

Some truths about Hamas:

Although there is a strong instinct to make this a Holocaust-mirroring “genocide,” it is not: The Palestinians suffer from many things, including military occupation; settler intimidation and violence; corrupt Palestinian political leadership; callous neglect by their brethren in more than 20 Arab states; the rejection by Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, of compromise plans that would have seen the creation of an independent Palestinian state; and so on. None of this constitutes genocide, or anything like genocide. The Israeli goal in Gaza—for practical reasons, among others—is to minimize the number of Palestinian civilians killed. Hamas and like-minded organizations have made it abundantly clear over the years that maximizing the number of Palestinian casualties is in their strategic interest.

, , . Since its founding in 1987, Hamas has used the murder of civilians to spoil any chance of a two-state solution. In 1993, its suicide bombings of Israeli civilians were designed to destroy the two-state Olso Accords that recognized Israel and Palestine. This month, the Hamas terrorists unleashed their slaughter in part to undermine a peace with Saudi Arabia that would have improved Palestinian politics and standard of life, and reinvigorated Hamas’s sclerotic rival, the Palestinian Authority.

It is telling, but still strange, that the Western press, and many progressives, use “equal body counts” as a surrogate for “equal morality in conducting war” when they know that Hamas not only uses civilians as human shields, guaranteeing more civilian deaths, but actually wants Palestinian civilians to die. Why else would they put their headquarters under hospitals and rocket launchers in populated areas? Further, almost everyone knows that Israel does its best to not kill civilians (see above). If the war were purely a military conflict, with civilians kept out of the way (that’s the reason Israel has urged Gazans to move south), far, far fewer Palestinians would be killed.  “Body count equity” is simply not the way to judge whether the war is proceeding on a legal basis, or whether it’s a “just war”.  Already people are judging it an “unjust” war, but I don’t agree.

Montefiore’s conclusion:

Hamas’s atrocities place it, like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, as an abomination beyond tolerance. Israel, like any state, has the right to defend itself, but it must do so with great care and minimal civilian loss, and it will be hard even with a full military incursion to destroy Hamas. Meanwhile, Israel must curb its injustices in the West Bank—or risk destroying itself— because ultimately it must negotiate with moderate Palestinians.

The last phrase is the rub: where will the “moderate Palestinians” come from? After this war, Palestinians will be angry, like wasps whose hive has been poked, and surely (especially given the antisemitic and anti-Israel propaganda ubiquitous in Palestinian schools), a cohort of young terrorists will be ready to go. How will Palestine prevent them from taking over

I don’t know the answer, and that’s why I despair of a two-state solution.

h/t: Carl

28 thoughts on “An excellent Atlantic article on the false “decolonization” narrative for Gaza

  1. In haste:

    Frantz Fanon
    The Wretched of the Earth

    Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface describes decolonization. Essential reading. This is a cherished piece of literature (to some).

    Also see Freire’s notion of decolonizing the mind. Closely related.

    1. While watching/listening to various justifications of Hamas’ rape, torture and murder of civilians, on social media, TV, and radio, many of the them will invariably mention Freire in some sort of clever, ‘academic’ attempt to defend rape, violence, and murder. They will also throw in words and phrases like “oppressed”, “oppressor”, “settler colonialism” and “brown bodies” as justifications for their views.

      In the past few years, many of these same people insisted that “words are violence”. Then again, they also said “silence is violence”!

  2. A reader had posted a link to Montefiore’s article earlier. It starts off “It seems odd that one has to say: Killing civilians, old people, even babies, is always wrong. But today say it one must.” It was well worth reading again. He also says that civic society and the shocked majority should now assert themselves. I think a way for this majority to come together should be found, for the common good.

  3. I read this as well. Excellent article. The Atlantic has been publishing some good pieces on the excesses of the radical left lately. This one is most explicit about how they have become fellow travelers with terrorists.

    1. I can’t get the link to work. Which issue of thr Atlantic is it in? I’m a long-time subscribet, but have fallen a bit behind😬

  4. This is an excellent article. I am liberal but do not understand why many in the far left support Hamas. This is insightful and worth returning to.

  5. Excellent to remember that the noisy opponents of “settler colonial Israel” are invariably the same people who celebrate Representative Ilhan Omar as “the first Congressperson” from her immigrant group etc. etc.. It is also worth remembering that celebrants of this sort always insist that the Egypt-born and raised Yasser Arafat was indigenous to Palestine, while Israeli Finance Minister Smotrich (whose grandfather Shimon belonged to the ancient Yishuv of Jerusalem) is a “settler colonialist”.

    Could it be that the pop-Left’s sheer incoherence on these matters will now undermine its cultural influence? As scholars of “decolonializing” this and that, and wizards of critical gender theory, continue their usual apologetics for Hamas, maybe this will finally expose the fraudulence of their academic charades. Maybe the “global Left” of Professor Judith Butler has finally reached an inflection point like the one USSR apologetics reached after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, or after the invasion of Hungary in 1956.

  6. S J S Montefiore is regarded, not just in the UK but Internationally, as one of the finest ‘Historians’ writing today. All his books and broadcast opinions are meticulously researched and factually correct (‘In the Court of the Crimson Tsar’, about the Stalin years, is a shocking but absolute must read).
    When HE writes or says something, you know it’s been thoroughly thought through and therefore carries real ‘weight’.

    1. I agree with you about Sebag-Montefiore. I mentioned the Stalin bio on here yesterday, and it really is a must read. I already knew and had read a lot about Stalin, but I never realised just what a monster he was until I read that bio. I was familiar with the millions of innocents sent to the Gulag, tortured rivals, show trials, officials killed as scapegoats, millions used as German canon fodder. But it’s what he did to his family and ‘friends’, his closest colleagues and their families, often on little more than a whim. No one was safe. He killed most of his in laws, he murdered the young wife of his long time personal secretary (and mother of their young daughter) and simply told him we’ll find you a new wife. Molotov had been devoted to him for 30 years, yet Stalin put his wife in jail and was plotting to kill Molotov when he died.

      Monster doesn’t do him justice. It’s a tough read, but I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

  7. “The Palestinians in the West Bank have endured a harsh, unjust, and oppressive occupation since 1967.”

    This allegation does not bear up under scrutiny for several reasons:

    1) You can not “occupy” territory which belongs to you. There is every reason to believe that under International law, Israel’s 1948 borders are still valid, and they extend from river to sea.

    2) You can not “occupy” territory without boots on the ground, according to at least two International law judgements. Israel withdrew its permanent forces decades ago from Judea and Samaria.

    3a) The entire occupation narrative is driven by the United Nations. It depends on a tortured mischaracterization of the Geneva Convention, which has not even been applicable since 1995 at the latest. Simply put, a section of the GC states that the conquering nation may not “transfer” populations into/ out of the territory of the defeated nation. This section has nothing to do with individual citizens deciding to move into the (disputed) territories, it is about forced national large-scale transplantation of huge numbers of either the winners or losers of the war.

    There are multiple examples around the world of citizens moving into former countries districts, exactly as Israel has done. The UN has never cited the Geneva Convention or objected to such settlements. They do it only for Israel. So, when they speciously claim that it is International law which Israel is breaking, please realize that true International law applies to all nations, not just one – or it is not “International” law.

    3b) The Geneva Convention only applies to nations at war. The disputed territories were illegally occupied by Jordan 1948-1967. Jordan ceded all claims to the area when it signed a => peace treaty <= with Israel in 1995. Similarly, the PLO and Israel signed a peace treaty known as the Oslo Accords which is currently applicable.

    Settlements are allowed by the Oslo Accords in the disputed territories in their respective proper areas A,B, and C; this is where Israel builds its new neighborhoods. The Palestinians often, and to some extent, a few Jewish settlers build in the wrong place. Israel destroys these houses and then gets accused of oppression and property destruction.

    4) The Mandate for Palestine is still valid International law. Its laws did not end when the British Mandate (Britain's administrative term) ended, and the MfP actually encourages settlement by Jews in their homeland.

    1. What internationally recognized court holds that the Mandate for Palestine continued to exist after 15 May, 1948, let alone up to today? What such court holds that the Mandate could legally continue to exist once the state of Israel was recognized?

    2. If the West Bank is Israel’s, so are the people that live there. Just give the Arabs in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (not just Arab Israelis) equal voting rights then. I’m all for a one state solution.

        1. That’s not what he’s saying at all. Probably you shouldn’t put words i people’s mouths. He very clearly said to give Arabs equal voting rights, which they currently do not have. This isn’t saying to exterminate a population. It’s to integrate.

          1. Probably you should be civil and not rude. As everyone knows, including Israelis and Palestinians, mixing people from both areas in a single state will be the end of the Jews: more war and, since Palestinians outnumber Jews it’ll be a genocide. You are either blind or ignorant not to recognize this.

            Probably you should go away.

  8. Excellent article…to be read in full. Solidified some of my thoughts from the past two weeks’ readings and brought in new facts that I was not Ware of. Thanks for the reference!

  9. There will never be a two-state solution until the Palestinians, both the populace and their leaders, accept the fact of Israel. Look what happened when the Israelis left southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Does anyone believe that it would be any different, and be far more catastrophic for Israel, if they gave the current Palestinian Authority total control (a State) on the West Bank?

  10. Telling statements by Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), one of the godfathers of the Woke Left’s decolonialism/postcolonialism:

    “Decolonization, which sets out to change the order of the world, is clearly an agenda for total disorder.

    Decolonization, therefore, implies the urgent need to thoroughly challenge the colonial situation. Its definition can, if we want to describe it accurately, be summed up in the well-known words: “The last shall be first.”

    In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives. For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists. This determination to have the last move up to the front, to have them clamber up (too quickly, say some) the famous echelons of an organized society, can only succeed by resorting to every means, including, of course, violence.

    You do not disorganize a society, however primitive it may be, with such an agenda if you are not determined from the very start to smash every obstacle encountered.”

    (Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. [1961.] Translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004. pp. 2-3)

    1. Indeed

      I put the following up before – I find it absolutely insane, that anyone wrote this let alone Sartre.

      from Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth – this is the preface written by Jean-Paul Sartre in (Sept. 1961, p. lxi, 60th ann. ed. 2021, Grove Press, NY) (bold added):

      “They would do well to read Fanon; for he shows clearly that this irrepressible violence is neither a storm in a teacup, nor the reemergence of savage instincts, nor even a consequence of resentment: it is man reconstructing himself. I believe we once knew, at one time, and have since forgotten, the truth that no indulgence can erase the marks of violence: violence alone can eliminate them. And the colonized are cured of colonial neurosis by driving the colonist out by force. Once their rage explodes, they recover their lost coherence, they experience self-knowledge through reconstruction of themselves; from afar we see their war as the triumph of barbarity; but it proceeds on its own to gradually emancipate the fighter and progressively eliminates the colonial darkness inside and out. As soon as it begins it is merciless. Either one must remain terrified or become terrifying -which means surrendering to the dissociations of a fabricated life or conquering the unity of one’s native soil. When the peasants lay hands on a gun, the old myths fade, and one by one the taboos are overturned: a fighter’s weapon is his humanity. For in the first phase of the revolt killing is a necessity: killing a European is killing two birds with one stone, eliminating in one go oppressor and oppressed: leaving one man dead and the other man free; for the first time the survivor feels a national soil under his feet. In that moment the nation does not forsake him: it is there wherever he goes and wherever he is-always by his side, it merges with his freedom.”

      He goes on about the colonial army’s response.
      Keen readers will notice [1] gnosis – “self-knowledge …” – and [2] hermetic alchemy – “… through reconstruction of themselves” ; and perhaps the dialectic – Americans underwent violent revolution too, so it’s ok if we do it, because we do it without all the evil things and it comes out better.
      I found this excerpt to differ significantly from other copies out there, so I assume it is due to translation from French. The word “kill” and “gun” are consistent, though I was confused about humanity as a weapon.

  11. Excellent read. Thanks Jerry for highlighting and your commentary. I’ll be sharing this one.

    Not sure if been mentioned here before, but this was also good by the Atlantic:

    And an excellent blog post from Times of Israel:

    Also, and I have I mentioned this before but promise I don’t work for them, an Apple News subscription gives you access to Atlantic, Nat Geo, Times of London, Popular Mechanics and a host of others for about the same price as one Substack subscription. Very good value I think.

  12. I must say right upfront that I am truly ignorant of much of the history and background on this subject. I have tried to read about the subject and always feel more confused at the end than I was before I started. I suspect I am not alone.
    Many things about this are hard to grasp. One of them, is reflected on the following paragraph of the excellent article you shared.
    “Some of this is happening out in the open, some behind the masks of humanitarianism and justice, and some in code, most famously “from the river to the sea,” a chilling phrase that implicitly endorses the killing or deportation of the 9 million Israelis.”
    When I read “from the river to the sea,” I immediately think of the map of the UN Palestine Partition Plan of 1947 ( Does that not depict both Palestine and Israel “from the river to the sea?” I believe that plan is long dead and I also believe that it is dead because the Palestinians did not agree to it. But why is it that believing, very likely naively, that such a map could be a possible solution and that it depicts two states “from the river to the sea”, is “code … that implicitly endorses the killing or deportation of the 9 million Israelis?”
    I hope my comment/question is not taken as insulting/provocative as that is the opposite of my intention.

  13. One thing that I have heard but didn’t see mentioned in the history is that while Jews were kicked out of Arab lands in 1948, the Jews paid the Palestinians that they displaced for their land, often at highly inflated prices. If anyone has any further info on that, pls comment. Also overlooked, I think, is the value the Israelis have added to the real estate since 1948.

    And BTW, much of what you have posted since Oct 7 has been helpful to an old HS GF, who is Jewish, but who despite having spent time on a kibbutz in the early ’70s is pretty secular. But her daughter is pro-Palestine, which causes her much anguish.

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