“Settler Colonialism” is Just History

Resettlement, mass migration, and civilizational change are not historical outliers, but the historical norm. Lambasting them as evil is the peak of absurdity.

The term ‘settler colonialism’ has been widely bandied about in regards to Israel since the Hamas atrocities of October 7, mostly by leftists seeking to vilify the Jewish state and excuse or ‘contextualize’ the mass murder carried out by Palestinian terrorists. It has been echoed in protest movements, by online activists, and in serious news and opinion journalism. It has been applied not only to Israel as a nation, but to the United States and most of the West as well. The argument goes that any sort of resistance to such “settler colonialism” for the purpose of reclaiming “stolen land” is justified, if not necessary. The denizens of these purportedly-imperialist nations are therefore fair game for violent “resistance.” In the now-infamous words of a Yale professor (!): “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.” Those who use this terminology to make their preferred political points may sound intelligent to the layman, as they are using academic jargon in such a confident manner. But what does this term actually mean? And does it apply to Western history or the Israeli-Hamas conflict?

In its original instantiation, “settler colonialism” was a relatively neutral, descriptive term meant to distinguish between imperialisms. For instance, the Second British Empire (1783 – circa 1945) gained some territories that were meant for large-scale settlement and others which were more economic or strategic in their motivations. The Dominions, as those settlement colonies were eventually known, comprised lands like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. These were regions where significant numbers of white settlers populated a land area that was relatively sparsely populated before European contact. Britain also had colonies – the majority, in fact, of their imperial holdings – that were not the site of large-scale white settlement; India, Malaysia, Uganda, Nigeria, and Burma come to mind as examples. This sort of dichotomy between settlement colonies and other imperial territories was repeated – to varying extents – by the other major world empires of the 19th century. The use of the term “settler colonialism” in this mien is reasonable, descriptive, and helpful to the reader of history.

Unfortunately, the modern academic use of the term is fraught with ahistorical moral judgment, exudes left-wing political ideology, and is so exclusively defined as to be made meaningless beyond its use as a signaling device.

Before we get to its embrace by the modern academy, let’s take a quick detour to the Cold War. During that “long twilight struggle,” the information space was as serious a battlefield as any. The Soviet Union developed several stratagems for propagandizing against the West, perhaps the most effective and long-lived of which was the positioning of the USSR as the primary anti-imperialist force in the world. Given the raft of decolonization which occurred after the Second World War, the developing world became the focus of much geopolitical competition; being viewed as sympatico with those anti-colonial efforts was a net benefit diplomatically. To support this broad effort, academia was called upon to legitimize the Soviet anti-imperial bona fides and delegitimize the West, particularly the United States, as imperialist powers. This is the origin of the idea that Zionism is an imperialist tool of the West (more on which later), as well as the general basis for the “settler colonialism” field writ large. All of which returns us to the present.

A map of ethnic population movements during the late Roman Empire. Clearly, this sort of displacement and migration were part and parcel of historical reality.

The field of “Settler Colonial Studies” evolved out of the wave of academic progressivism which crested in the US in the 1990s. It was a conscious offshoot from the heavily politicized Indigenous Studies field, and the apple certainly did not fall far from the tree. According to Patrick Wolfe, one of the popularizers of the term, “settler colonialism” is inextricably linked to genocide, is an exclusively European phenomenon, and is based around “the organizing grammar of race.” In the incredibly esoteric article linked above (seriously, don’t put yourself through reading that unless you need sleep), Wolfe argues that all European imperialism fits the settler colonial paradigm and is inherently eliminationist in nature. Later settler colonial theorists have disputed the focus on eliminationism, instead arguing that European settler colonialism can be both eliminationist and exploitative. To-mato, to-mahto, right? Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute states that settler colonialism “is based on the theft and exploitation of lands and resources that belong to the indigenous” and confidently states that “History and current conflicts have shown that this ongoing system of oppression is mainly based on racism and white supremacy.”

Altogether, one can just barely cobble together a general definition of “settler colonialism” from the convoluted academic gobbledygook that masquerades as legitimate scholarship. Here goes: “settler colonialism” is a morally abhorrent phenomenon exclusive to modern Western nations, which are founded and continuously run on the exploitation and genocidal elimination of non-white peoples who are labeled “indigenous” (read: righteous). As you can tell, this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I do think it summarizes fairly well the current discourse around the idea of “settler colonialism.” The term is meant entirely to cast aspersions on the societies and history of the West, while idealizing any and all non-Westerners as perpetual victims.

In “settler colonial” discourse, European Americans are evil and Native Americans and African Americans are good; the British are evil and the Indians are good; the Spanish are evil and the Aztecs are good; and, of course, the Israelis (read: Jews) are bad and the Palestinians are good. For any student of real history, this is moral and factual idiocy. But the term – and the concomitant academic field – is not merely misapplied or too narrowly defined, it is entirely bunk. In reality, “settler colonialism” is just a synonym for “history.” It is not a purely – or even primarily – European phenomenon, it has existed in every expanding or migrating non-nomadic society for all of recorded history, and it is not at all an “ongoing system of oppression.”

Population movement and resettlement of newly-conquered lands have been the norm since at least the development of agriculture, and thus sedentary societies, over 10,000 years ago. A more powerful, advanced, or simply lucky group of people comes in, displaces the former residents, and builds their own society on the ruins of the old. This is called “history,” not “settler colonialism.” Of course, the people and civilizations that initially occupied modern-day territories are not generally the current occupants of those regions. Some have migrated, some have been absorbed into other societies, and others have disappeared altogether. Nobody is weeping over the fact that the Visigoths no longer control Spain, that the Vandals are not the occupants of North Africa, or that the Scythians have essentially vanished. There are no mass marches in Western cities pushing for the Turks to return to Central Asia and give Turkey back to its prior occupants. There isn’t widespread rending of garments over the fact that the Etruscans are not dominant in Italy or that the Picts are missing from Scotland. The civilizations that displaced these prior denizens have in many cases been displaced themselves by more recent migrants.

And none of this is exclusive to Europe; colonialist enterprises have existed across the globe and throughout time. Empires of conquest and settlement operated in the Middle East, India, Africa, and the Americas long before European “settler colonialism” entered the scene. In many cases, European control and domination of these regions paled in comparison to that of their previous tenants. Mughal control of India was not surpassed by the British Raj until the late 19th century, for instance. Not only that, Europeans were just as often victims of this sort of displacement as were their more ‘ethnic’ compadres. In some cases, Europeans were conquered by non-white empires: the Moorish Empire in the Iberian Peninsula, the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, and the Mongols in Russia are prime examples. I highly doubt the peoples oppressed by the Aztecs, Ashanti, or Khmer cared about the ethnic background of their conquerors. The Ashanti are a particularly excellent historical riposte to the claims of European exclusivity of “settler colonialism”; they defeated several other tribal groupings in West Africa and resettled their land after literally selling them into chattel slavery, either to Arabs or to <gasp!> the evil Europeans. Sounds like white supremacy to me!

Fine, you say, the concept of “settler colonialism” as used by academics and activists seems pretty suspect when applied to the past. What about the present? What about Israel?

With respect to the present day, the term is used exclusively against the West, particularly the United States and the broader Anglosphere. But these are among the most diverse, pluralistic societies on the planet. The indigenous[1] populations they displaced were mainly destroyed by novel diseases, not genocide – which, in the legal definition of the term, requires intent. The ‘indigenous’ populations that remain have had some significant successes politically and economically, despite other failures. None of these Western ‘imperialist’ nations have colonies today in any sort of real sense; none of them are settling in new areas and seeking to replace the existing ethnic population; none of them are at all rooted in genocidal ideology.

What about the case of Israel? The previous assertions all apply to Israel as much as they do other Western nation-states. But the case of the Jewish state is even more poorly suited for accusations of “settler colonialism.” First of all, Jews are indigenous to the Levant and have deep roots in the region that have lasted thousands of years. Not only is this attested to by the historical record – the Second Temple was obliterated by the future Roman emperor Titus in 70 AD, as written about contemporaneously by Flavius Josephus – but also archaeological evidence. Recent digs in the city of Jerusalem have shown Jewish presence dating back over 3000 years, far before any sort of permanent Arab settlement of the area. Jewish civilization in the territory of modern Israel has continued since the time of King David, even if Jews were the minority population for much of that period. There is no Jewish homeland other than Israel; this is evinced in the religion itself, which constantly yearns for return to Jerusalem and the eventual reestablishment of the Temple. The Zionist push for a Jewish state in the land of Israel is the return of an indigenous population that has been forced into diaspora for millennia. One would think that the academics and activists that constantly harp on indigenous rights would celebrate the Zionist project, but they certainly do not. Perhaps one should inquire as to why that may be. Let the reader make up his own mind.

As we have seen, the whole “settler colonialism” paradigm is basically meaningless with respect to the past, the Western present, and Israel. So what, if anything, is it good for? The assertions made of “settler colonial” nations do apply, however, to one specific country in the modern day: China. Communist China under Xi Jinping fits the model almost perfectly: it is based around Han supremacy, deliberately attempts to extirpate local cultures, and explicitly seeks to replace indigenous ethnic population with Han settlers. This is happening right now in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia, where indigenous populations are being destroyed in a campaign that can be described as “settler colonialism.” Indigenous women are forced into marriages with Han men, Mandarin – a foreign tongue – is the only language of instruction in schools, and millions of indigenous people are surveilled, abused, imprisoned, and killed for the fact of their very existence. Yet, for some inscrutable reason, the proponents of “settler colonialism” as an academic descriptor fail to ever mention China. They are far too busy castigating the West for fantasy abuses to open their eyes to the very real abuses happening in the world as it is.

And therein lies the problem with the whole “settler colonialism” conceit – it is entirely a political project meant to vilify the West and deify the rest. And that makes it a useless concept except as a heuristic to identify bad faith interlocutors. In that respect, it is useful indeed.

[1] I would genuinely dispute the characterization of Native American tribes or the Māori as entirely indigenous in the strict sense of the term; by the time of European conquest, the composition of these peoples in each region was far different from that even a few hundred years earlier. The Aboriginal population of Australia, on the other hand, is basically the platonic ideal of indigeneity.

4 thoughts on ““Settler Colonialism” is Just History

  1. Excellent post and excellent points, though I do imagine people would reject to “it is not at all an ongoing system of oppression”, considering the harsh realities for the indigenous peoples in Canada, America or in Australia. There’s bound to be leftover issues from recent colonialism, and I fear people would otherwise read the post as a dismissal of those and fail to take in the argument that we otherwise really need to hear.

  2. Thank you! Have been waiting for an essay like this one that actually clarifies the word “indigenous”. I’m personally offended as it is used for ‘native Americans’ where over the millennia there have been many cycles of legitimately-called Native Americans!!

    More recently, the Palestinian people have been kicked out of literally every Arab country over the last century or so. Is this the result of “indigenous” people there refusing to be displaced by them?

  3. You are correct. Every land on Earth was previously settled by earlier states or tribes which were subsequently displaced/wiped out by newcomers who then claimed they were originally from the land. The only exception to this settler-colonization are a few of the Pacific Islands.

    China and Russia are no different from the European nations except their settlement was overland (south and west for China, south and east for Russia).

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