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Ben-Gurion University
Gabriel Piterberg and the settler colonialism fallacy at Ben Gurion U 15th Annual Workshop of Middle Eastern Studies





On May 31, 2010, UCLA Professor Gabriel Piterberg gave a lecture entitled “the Literature of Settler Societies: A comparative approach” at Ben-Gurion University’s 15th Annual Workshop of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies.    In this particular lecture, he claimed that Israel was guilty of settler colonialism and that Israel has a “hegemonic narrative both nationally and internationally.”   To prove this point, he cited the dislocation of the Palestinian people, claiming that the “dispossession of native peoples is not one of many factors of the native-settler history, but the most fundamentalist constituent of what they actually are.”    What Piterberg failed to grasp is that settler colonialism is a complicated concept that includes more elements than simply the dislocation of a territories population and if these other elements, such as the existence of an imperial metropole and imperial strategic direction and support, are not included in the equation, something cannot be considered to be settler colonialism.    Nevertheless, these facts did not stop Piterberg from arguing that Israel is an example of settler colonialism.


In the lecture, Piterberg claimed that Zionist literature “consists of cultural imperialism” because it is “predicated on the appearance of the colonized and the subsequent disappearance,” which is “something that facilitates colonial sexual moments.”   For example, “the process of looting Palestinian land after 1948 under the pretense of them being absentees existed for colonial sexual excitement.”    To illustrate this point further, Piterberg draws on two pieces of literature.   One of them is from colonial Algeria and the other one is from Israel.   By doing this comparison, he is trying to prove that Israel’s situation is comparable to colonial Algeria.   To prove the relevance of such an absurd comparison, he claimed that both colonial Algerian and Israeli literature engaged in “domestic Orientalism” by writing about “wild sex with Orientals.”    In Israeli literature in particular, he cited the existence of “vulgar sex, promiscuity from the women’s perspective, hyper-masculinity for Israeli men, white women fantasizing about wild sex with the colonized men, etc.” as proof that Israel is indeed a settler colonial society.    What Piterberg fails to grasp is that literature is just literature.    One cannot use fiction to make a serious allegation such as claiming that Israel looted Palestinian land for sexual excitement or that Israel had a deliberate premeditated policy to expel the Palestinians or that Israel is a settler colonial society.   


But despite the fact that the arguments in favor of Israel being a settler colonial society are very weak since the Jews lacked an imperial metropole, did not enjoy imperial strategic direction or support, and a series of other key elements that are crucial for a situation to be labeled to be settler colonialism, this did not stop Piterberg from using the settler colonialism argument in relations to Israel during his interview with the Voices of the Middle East and North Africa on June 9, 2010.    In this interview, Piterberg referred to Israel as “an unresolved settler case in the sense that in the other cases the settlers either succeeded in eliminating the natives or were overcome by the natives and eventually left.”    In the Israel-Palestine case, according to Piterberg, “the settlers have become significantly more powerful than the natives, but have not removed the natives yet don’t resign themselves to the existence of the natives and their rights to equality.”   Thus, “it is this frustration that emanates from incredible asymmetry of power that can’t result in the native’s removal.”   Piterberg believes that this is the best explanation for Israel’s reaction to the Flotilla as well as other cases of “violence and wanton destruction.”   By making this argument, Piterberg not only dismisses Jewish claims of indigenousness to the land, but also falsely argues that Israel seeks to expel the Arabs from Greater Israel or at the very least keep the Palestinians in an unequal subservient position.   The reality, however, does not support Piterberg. Israeli policy has consistently supported a two-state for two peoples solution that would grant the Palestinians equality, but the Palestinians have consistently rejected this generous Israeli offer because they prefer to be stateless than resign themselves to Israel’s existence.   It is the Palestinians and their supporters’ lack of ability to compromise that has led to cases like the Flotilla as well as other cases of “violence and wanton destruction.”  


But as if Piterberg’s arguments in favor of a connection between Israel and settler colonialism were not problematic enough, he claimed that the Israeli reaction to the Flotilla was based on “absurdities and lies:” that “atrocities were hidden behind a smokescreen that Goebbels would have been proud of.”   Piterberg neglects to note that the Israeli government’s assertions regarding the Flotilla are backed up by video documentation of the operation itself, a statement by Mavi Marmara Ship Captain Gokkiran Gokhan who confirmed that the IHH engaged in premeditated violence, and even statements by various Flotilla participants where they made anti-Semitic comments and said that they aspired to be shahids.   But aside from that, any comparison between the Flotilla and the Holocaust is simply ridiculous, since one really cannot compare nine IHH activists’ dead after trying to break a blockade and directing violence against IDF soldiers with the murder of six million Jewish men, women, and children for no reason other than the fact that they had Jewish blood. 


Nevertheless, the most problematic aspect of the interview was the fact that Piterberg has decided to list a series of false reasons in order to call upon people to support BDS.   According to Piterberg, because Israel “has been getting away with murder for too long” and “has paid no price” for her actions, it creates a hindrance to a change in Israeli policy.    He claimed that Israel is holding “a million and a half people at ransom for no real reason,” that Israel is controlling US policy through its Israel Lobby, that Helen Thomas and other critical reporters have been silenced for “not towing the Zionist line,” that the US was ok with Rachel Corrie’s “murder” because Israel did it, and Israel is utilizing the “persecution complex” in order to manipulate people into supporting Israel.   The fact that Israel’s blockade is directly related to a terrorist group taking over Gaza, that the oil lobby in the US is more powerful than the Israel Lobby, that Helen Thomas was fired for making the insensitive anti-Semitic comment that Jews should move back to Germany, that Rachel Corrie was killed by accident because she deliberately decided to halt an IDF operation by standing in the way of a bull-dozer,  and that plenty of people would genuinely support Israel because of her merits and genuine sympathy does not seem to occur to Piterberg.    Regardless, he uses these faulty reasonings to state that “contemporary Jewish society is becoming increasingly intolerant, fascist, and doesn’t take blame or responsibility” and that “change within Israel is like change within South Africa: it will only happen when” Israel starts “paying a price for occupation and violence.”   Piterberg concludes the interview by referring to the Knesset’s reaction to MK Haneen Zoabi as “a fascist reality,” despite the fact that the response she got was due to her treacherous actions, and stating that change “depends on the BDS movement getting more momentum” and that he hopes that it is, but states that whether or not it will “remains to be seen.”  The fact that the situation in Israel is nothing like apartheid in South Africa and that Israel has democratic processes to deal with various grievances does not seem to register with Piterberg.  


The author is an MA student at Ben-Gurion University and an intern for Israel Academia Monitor.               





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