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Israel Studies 1.2 (1996) 214-229

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Settlement in Eretz Israel — A Colonialist Enterprise?
"Critical" Scholarship and Historical Geography*

Ran Aaronsohn

A bitter polemic has recently developed among academics and the general public about Post-Zionist thought, which is essentially a local variant of the world-wide school of post-modernism. This debate has been spearheaded by those who identify themselves as "new historians," and whose arguments are supported by "revisionists" from related disciplines, particularly so-called "critical" sociologists. According to their claims, there is a principled disagreement between themselves and researchers of the "old" school—the "mainstream"—on the philosophical, methodological, and content levels. Unlike a large number of the responses to post-Zionist writings, which have focused upon the first two levels, the present paper is concerned with a substantive examination of the contents on which the debate has raged. 1

On the level of content, many Israeli "new" historians and their post-Zionist colleagues focus on the study of particular events in the history of the Arab-Jewish conflict over Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel], which serves as the decisive factor for them in the modern history of the country. By tracing back the roots of this conflict, several have addressed the subject of the beginnings of Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. They have studied this subject on the basis of "new" or "critical" principles, and their results differ markedly from what, until now, have been the accepted research findings.

fie shall discuss here some arguments, methodologies, and conclusions concerning the beginnings of the settlement of the country as presented in the studies of the new critical scholars (as opposed to mainstream researchers), and particularly of Israeli historical geographers. As one who has dealt [End Page 214] with this problem on the basis of "old" methods of research, I will attempt to respond to the critics. As an historical geographer, the point of departure and center of gravity of my discussion are not the Zionist movement, its ideological sources, and organizational tools, but, rather, the actual developments and concrete manifestations of settlement in situ. During the course of the discussion of the methods and approaches that have been taken toward this subject, we shall also discuss several of the underlying ideological and disciplinary elements in the claims of the "innovators." For my purposes, these are but peripheral means of clarifying the central issue: the universal nature of Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel from its beginnings.

A "New" Perspective

One of the central arguments of many of the post-Zionist scholars is that Israeli scholars need to make use of "concepts derived from theory, and comparative tools" in order to free them from errors resulting from personal involvement when studying the past of their own society. 2 Thus, one ought not emphasize the specific uniqueness of local history—as in the "Palestine-centric approach"—nor examine it from a nationalist-oriented and prejudiced viewpoint—as in "the Zionist-centric approach." Instead of these narrow and biased orientations, one should analyze what occurred in the universal context of immigration and settlement and in the framework of a colonialist model.

According to the new historians, the ideological background to Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel is similar to that of European colonialist settlement in various places in the world, such as South Africa and Algeria. Alongside ideology, in Israel there operated what is referred to as "the mechanism of colonialism." 3 According to this claim, even if Zionism was initially a nationalist movement with good intentions toward the Arabs (i.e., the "natives")—a view with which not all the ere not actually realized in reality. In fact, Zionist settlement resulted in dispossessing Arabs of their land and exploiting them as a cheap labor force, as occurred in similar instances throughout the world. Moreover, linguistic-literary analysis of the forms of discussion and education in the Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community in Palestine] society betrays cultural suppression reflecting economic and political...


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