The Cause of Anti-colonialism and Liberation is One: Fayez Sayegh’s Zionist Colonialism in Palestine

Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.

United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379, 10 November 1975

The Syrian-Palestinian academic and diplomat, Fayez Sayegh (1922-1980), a delegate of Kuwait’s Mission to the UN in the mid-1970s, was the principal author of the landmark resolution quoted above. Much to the chagrin of the US, whose representative described it as a “great evil… loosed upon the world”, the resolution was sponsored by the Arab states, and strongly supported by the Soviet Union and a large swathe of the newly independent states of the Global South. Sixteen years later, Israel refused to participate in the Madrid Conference without its abrogation. With the opposing influence of the Soviet bloc gone, the US then exerted all its influence to ensure the resolution was repealed.1The New York Times reported that “United States embassies around the world were instructed to put maximum pressure to secure the repeal”. It went on to state that the vote “reflected the shifting political currents of recent years, the Persian Gulf war in particular, which split the Arab and Islamic worlds, and the changes in the former Soviet bloc, fostered by the collapse of Communism”. It remains the only UN General Assembly resolution to meet such a fate. Although short lived, it had served as global recognition of a position that Sayegh and his colleagues advocated for tirelessly over the preceding decades – one which had already been endorsed by a number of non-Western international organisations including the Non-Aligned Movement and the Organization of African Unity.

A vital institution in this effort was the PLO’s Palestine Research Center (PRC) in Beirut, as established by Sayegh in 1965. In its heyday, a who’s who of Palestinian cultural and intellectual figures including Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish, Isma’il Shammout and Fayez’s younger brother, Anis, worked for or contributed to the centre. Over almost two decades, it released more than four hundred publications about the Palestinian cause in multiple languages including Arabic, English, French, Spanish and even Esperanto.2The centre also published a quarterly periodical in Arabic called Palestinian Affairs. This literature was distributed globally and was used in efforts to garner international support for Palestine. Organisations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) released statements of solidarity with the Palestinians that were informed directly by PRC publications. The Centre’s work was brought to a halt following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. During the subsequent occupation, its archive and library were looted by Israeli troops and a bombing gutted its Beirut headquarters, killing twenty people and injuring dozens more – many of them staff members.3Responsibility for the bombing was claimed by a group called the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners (FLLF) which was later revealed to be “a creation of Israel, a fictitious group used by senior officials to hide their country’s hand in a deadly ‘terrorist’ campaign”. These attacks were part of a broader Israeli assault in which its forces “wiped out most of the Palestinian educational and cultural institutions they could get their hands on”.

The first monograph released by the PRC, Sayegh’s Zionist Colonialism in Palestine in 1965, is a concise and powerful study of the origins, character and strategies of the Zionist movement. It epitomises the stirring and informative literature the Centre excelled at producing. Given the clarity of Sayegh’s analysis and the prescience of his conclusions, the book remains strikingly relevant more than fifty years since it was written. Contrary to the liberal-Zionist myth that Zionism began as a noble cause, but has been corrupted and dragged rightwards since 1967, Sayegh explains how Zionism was a colonialist and racist enterprise from its inception.4On this issue, see Steven Salaita, Israel’s Dead Soul, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011). The present climate – in which there is an ongoing campaign by the US and Israeli governments (and affiliated Zionist pressure groups) to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and, therefore, delegitimise opposition to Israel, makes the book’s arguments all the more pertinent. 

In his youth, Sayegh was a prominent member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party but left after disagreements with its founder, Antoun Saadeh. He went on to complete a PhD on Existential Philosophy at Georgetown University, before holding a number of academic and diplomatic positions, mainly in the US. Surprisingly unfeted now, he was, at one time, one of the most prominent spokespersons of the Palestinian cause in the West and renowned as a master debater – a “calm and careful speaker [who] used language precisely”.5 Sayegh’s dignified but uncompromising style can be observed in this wide-ranging 1974 interview with William F. Buckley Jr. Sayegh was also “famous for citing, by heart, paragraphs of given UN resolutions, dates of issuance, and books with page numbers”.6Anis F. Kassim (ed.), The Palestine Yearbook of International Law, 1998-1999, (Leiden: Brill/Nijhoff, 2000). His gift for communication is also evident in his writing, and Zionist Colonialism in Palestine is notable for the ease with which it translates complex historical developments into succinct, accessible language. Divided into four chapters – I) The Historical Setting of Zionist Colonialism, II) The Alliance of British Imperialism and Zionist Colonialism, III) The Character of the Zionist Settler State and IV) The Palestinians’ Response: From Resistance to Liberation – the book’s short length belies both its scope and importance. 

When Sayegh was writing, the Palestinian cause did not enjoy the level of awareness or support it now does in progressive circles in the West, and Israel’s reputation as an ostensibly ‘plucky’ young state in an ‘unfriendly neighbourhood’ had gained it widespread admiration, notably on the left. It was in this context that he approached the topic. 

In the foreword, Sayegh points out the paradox that Israel was established when European colonisation had begun to retreat elsewhere. As such, the fate of Palestine was an anomaly, for at the very moment that others were beginning to enjoy their right to self-determination, the people of Palestine found “itself helpless to prevent the culmination of a process of systematic colonization”.7Fayez Sayegh, Zionist Colonialism in Palestine, (Beirut: Palestine Research Center, 1965), V. This process led to them losing not only political control over their country, but physical occupation of it too – “deprived not only of its inalienable right to self-determination, but also of its elemental right to exist on its own land”.8Sayegh, VI. 

The Historical Setting of Zionist Colonialism

Sayegh skilfully analyses the formation of the Zionist movement up until the outbreak of the First World War in the book’s opening chapter. He explains that, although it emerged in the context of late nineteenth century European nationalism and colonialism – and was thus heavily imbued with their ideological temper – Zionist colonization in Palestine was distinct from European colonization elsewhere in three crucial ways.

Firstly, unlike other European settlers, typically animated by economic or “politico-imperialist” motives, Zionist colonists “were driven to the colonization of Palestine by the desire to attain nationhood for themselves, and to establish a Jewish state”.9Sayegh, 4-5.  

Secondly, while other European settlers tolerated the existence of indigenous populations, whom they commonly exploited as cheap labour, Zionism’s aims – both territorial and political – could not be achieved so long as the Palestinians remained on their land. Therefore, unlike other European colonialist projects of the period, it “was essentially incompatible with the continued existence of the ‘native population’ in the coveted country”.10Sayegh, 4-5. 

Finally, other European settlers could rely on the protection of their imperial sponsors to assist them settling in their chosen territory. By contrast, not only did the Zionist movement lack such support at this stage, it was likely to encounter resistance from the Ottomans.

Sayegh assesses the programme the Zionist movement adopted to counteract these obstacles along three lines: organisation, colonisation and negotiation. In so doing, he makes it clear that unlike many of their ideological heirs in the present day, Zionists of this formative era had no qualms acknowledging the explicitly colonial nature of their venture. 

Organisationally, as the movement lacked “a state-structure in a home-base of its own to master-mind and supervise the process of overseas colonization” it needed to build a quasi-state structure in its place.11Sayegh, 6. The World Zionist Organization, active to this day, was established in 1897 for that purpose. With regards to the process of colonisation itself, the haphazard, “mixed philanthropic-colonial venture” pursued previously with limited success was replaced with a more systematic approach.12Sayegh, 2. This entailed the establishment of several institutions from 1897 onwards, all geared towards planning, financing and facilitating the arrival of Zionist colonizers in Palestine – these included The Jewish Colonial Trust, The Colonization Commission and The Jewish National Fund. 

The third avenue, negotiation, entailed a diplomatic effort to try and foster the political conditions conducive to colonisation. This consisted primarily of an unsuccessful attempt to gain support from the Ottomans through financial and other incentives and, to a lesser extent, by making similar overtures to Germany and Britain. As summarised by Joseph Massad, “Zionism could only be realised through a colonial-settler project, which its founders understood was achievable only through an alliance with colonial powers”.

Concluding the first chapter, Sayegh makes an important point: notwithstanding its growing organisation and militancy, up to the outbreak of the First World War, the Zionist movement’s success had been limited. Its appeal remained narrow – Zionists constituted a tiny percentage of the Jewish population worldwide – and colonisation had proceeded so slowly that after thirty years, Jews still accounted for under 8 percent of the total population of Palestine and were in possession of no more than 2.5 percent of its land. Furthermore, the movement had not been able to gain the patronage of the Ottomans or any other imperial power.13Sayegh, 8.  

The Alliance of British Imperialism and Zionist Colonialism

A key turning point occurred during the First World War when the Zionist movement formed an alliance of convenience with Britain. It is this development and its implications that Sayegh analyses in the book’s second chapter. Britain’s pre-war policy towards the Ottoman Empire had been concerned with maintaining its territorial integrity in Asia. This approach changed once the Ottomans joined the Central Powers, leading Britain, France and Tsarist Russia to draw up plans for the anticipated division of the spoils. 

Subsequently, Britain’s desire to keep any rival European power away from the Suez Canal – crucial for securing the sea passage to India – led it to renege on an earlier agreement that would have seen the ‘internationalisation’ of most of Palestine in the case of an Ottoman defeat. In its place, Britain began to lean towards the Zionist movement, realising that a ‘Jewish homeland’ in Palestine could provide Britain with the pretext needed to place the territory east of Suez under its control – or what Ronald Storrs, the first British governor of Jerusalem, described as “a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”. As Sayegh puts it in characteristically succinct fashion, “[r]eciprocal interests had thus come to bind British Imperialism and Zionist Colonialism”. 

It was in this context that Britain made the now infamous Balfour Declaration on 2 November 1917, proclaiming its support for the establishment of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. This promise was then incorporated into the text of the Palestine Mandate, awarded to Britain by the League of Nations in the aftermath of the war. Once Britain established its rule, it wasted little time in fostering the conditions needed for Zionist colonisation to flourish. 

Sayegh explains how the British authorities, ignoring Palestinian opposition, opened the country up to Zionist immigration and allowed the settler community to establish what by 1937 had become a “state within a state”.14Sayegh, 14 (quoting Britain’s Palestine Royal Commission, 1937). Britain permitted the Zionist community to run its own schools and maintain a military force, while at the same time denying the Palestinian community analogous facilities and suppressing their attempts at self-determination. After thirty years of Mandate rule, the Zionist settler-community had grown twelve times in size since 1917 and represented almost one third of the total population of Palestine.15Sayegh, 15. Perhaps more importantly, under Britain’s auspices, it had developed what Sayegh terms “its own quasi-government institutions and a sizeable military establishment”.16Sayegh, 15.  

Britain had not entered into this partnership altruistically, so in order to justify its continued presence, whenever Zionism “sought to accelerate the processes of state-building… Britain pulled in the opposite direction to slow them down”.17Sayegh, 15. Sayegh details succinctly how this irresolvable tension ultimately caused the alliance to break down – violently so by the end of the Second World War. Britain’s depleted condition and India’s looming independence lessened its interest in maintaining its presence in Palestine, and the growing opposition of the newly-emerging independent Arab states forced Britain “to exercise some restraint in its formerly whole-hearted support for the Zionist cause”.18Sayegh, 15. Crucial too was the growing Arab nationalist movement from below and the protests, boycotts, general strikes and guerrilla attacks it carried out across the region.

The US, the triumphant and emerging global hegemonic power, offered Zionism the prospect of an alternative Western sponsor for what would prove a “new fateful phase of its capture of Palestine”. Described by Sayegh as a “willing candidate” for such a role, the US then “led a European-American majority to overrule the opposition of an Afro-Asian minority” in the UN, and endorsed “the establishment of a colonial Zionist state in the Afro-Asian bridge, the Arab land of Palestine”.1916. Two years after the release of Sayegh’s book, and in language seemingly informed by it, the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association condemned Israel as “an imperialist base and… tool used for aggressive purposes against Arab states in order to delay their progress… and as a bridge-head which neo-colonialism relies on in order to maintain its influence over African and Asian states”. 

Concluding this chapter, Sayegh explains that Israel’s “vital and continuing association” with imperialism, its introduction of Western colonialism into Palestine and its “chosen pattern of racial exclusiveness and self-segregation renders it an alien society in the Middle East”.20Sayegh, 19. As its founding figure, David Ben-Gurion, himself proclaimed: “The State of Israel is a part of the Middle East only in geography”.21David Ben-Gurion, Rebirth and Destiny of Israel (New York: Philosophical Library, 1954), 489. It is the distinctive characteristics of this state that Sayegh assesses in the next chapter. 

The Character of the Zionist Settler-State

The racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regimes in Zimbabwe and South Africa have a common imperialist origin… having the same racist structure and being organically linked in their policy aimed at repression of the dignity and integrity of the human being.

Organization of African Unity, Resolution on Palestine, August 1975

The three defining characteristics of the Zionist settler-state as defined by Sayegh are (1) its racial complexion and conduct; (2) its addiction to violence; and (3) its expansionist stance.22Sayegh, 21. 

As Sayegh maintains, racism “is not an acquired trait of the Zionist settler-state. Nor is it an accidental, passing feature of the Israeli scene. It is congenital, essential and permanent… inherent in the very ideology of Zionism”.23Sayegh, 21. Belief in the national oneness of all Jews – based on ostensibly common ancestry, not a religious or linguistic-based identity, is a central tenet of Zionism.24As Sayegh notes, at this time relatively few Zionists were “believing or practising Jews” and Hebrew “was resuscitated only after the birth of Zionism”, Sayegh, 21. Sayegh identifies three corollaries this explicitly racial identification gives rise to: “racial self-segregation, racial exclusiveness, and racial supremacy”.25Sayegh, 21. It is these characteristics which made the forced removal of the indigenous population of Palestine central to the Zionist project. 

Prior to the successful implementation of Plan Dalet and the resultant Nakba of 1948, the Zionist movement had contented itself with segregation from the Palestinians through instituting a systematic boycott of their produce and labour. Contrary to liberal-Zionist journalist Owen Jones’ claim that “[t]he collective communities of the kibbutzim seemed like incubators of a new socialist society”, a principle was established that “only Jewish labor would be employed in Zionist colonies”.26Sayegh, 25. The Histadrut or General Organization of Jewish Workers was established in 1920 specifically for this purpose, and as early as 1895, Theodor Herzl, the “spiritual father” of Israel, was planning to “spirit the penniless population [i.e. the Palestinians] across the frontier by denying it employment”.27Sayegh, 26. Indeed, organisations such as the Jewish National Fund “vigilantly ensured the observation of that fundamental principle”.28Sayegh, 25.  

Sayegh, further demonstrating the racial exclusiveness inherent to the Zionist project, highlights the treatment that Palestinians who Zionist forces were unable to dislodge in 1948 have received since. He argues that through the systematic oppression of this internal population, Israel “has learned all the lessons which the various discriminatory regimes of white settler-states in Asia and Africa can teach it”. Sayegh outlines the manifold official and unofficial oppressive measures these Palestinians faced – measures that have only grown more onerous and engrained since then – and remarks that, whereas “the Afrikaner apostles of apartheid… brazenly proclaim their sin, the Zionist practitioners of apartheid in Palestine beguilingly protest their innocence”.29Sayegh, 27.

Events since the publication of Sayegh’s book offer grim confirmation of his assertion that Israel is addicted to violence. Since 1965, it has perpetuated an unbroken line of violent acts against the Palestinians too long to list here – both in and outside of Mandate territory. Echoing Sayegh’s analysis, after Israeli snipers had massacred Palestinian protestors on the Gaza border in May 2018, Saree Makdisi commented, “[i]t is not possible for a settler-colonial regime to racially enable one people at the expense of another people without the use of violence”. 

Furthermore, the target of this violence has not only been the Palestinians, Israel has also committed multiple aggressions against neighbouring states, including Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. It forcibly depopulated the Golan Heights in Syria and has illegally occupied this region since 1967. Israel has also played an integral role in the ongoing war against Syria, repeatedly launching air strikes against it in recent years. This trend underlines Sayegh’s prescient observation that Israel is perpetually expansionist in nature, for not only has it consistently expanded the territory under its control, it has refused to ever declare its borders

The fate that befell the PRC itself – subjected to multiple acts of violence by Israeli forces during its expansionist war against Lebanon in 1982 – offers particularly direct evidence of Sayegh’s tragically accurate foresight. As he wrote, expansion to the borders of so-called Eretz Israel “is the ‘unfinished business’ of Zionism. It cannot fail to be the main preoccupation of the Zionist movement, and of the Zionist state, in the future”.30Sayegh, 38.  

The Palestinians’ Response: From Resistance to Liberation

In the book’s final chapter, Sayegh analyses the Palestinians’ responses to Zionist colonisation. He divides this into five stages, beginning with the Palestinians’ initially welcoming attitude to the early Jewish settlers,31Sayegh notes that even Herzl himself commented on the “friendly attitude of the population”, Sayegh, 39. moving through the various phases and avenues of resistance the Palestinian community put up against both the British authorities and Zionist forces up to 1964 with the formation of the PLO. In spite of this resistance, that reached its pinnacle in the Great Palestinian Revolt from 1936 until 1939, the bulk of the Palestinian population was forcibly dispossessed in 1948 – their “unyielding resistance and their costly sacrifices had failed to avert national catastrophe”.32Sayegh, 46.  

Sayegh stresses that these sacrifices were not made in vain, however, for “[r]ights undefended are rights surrendered. Unopposed and acquiesced in, usurpation is legitimized by default.”33Sayegh, 46. The Palestinians’ unyielding resistance and affirmation of their rights and heritage therefore ensured that Israel has “remained a usurper, lacking even the semblance of legitimacy”.34Sayegh, 46.  

Though he stresses that liberation must be spearheaded by the Palestinians themselves, Sayegh contends that the “problem of Palestine… is not the concern of Palestinians alone”. Israel’s commitment to expansion is also a threat to the security and territorial integrity of the Arab states. Furthermore, as a colonial venture, “which anomalously came to bloom precisely when colonialism was beginning to fade away, it is in fact a challenge to all anti-colonial peoples… “For, in the final analysis,” Sayegh writes, “the cause of anti-colonialism and liberation is one and indivisible”.35Sayegh, 51.  

He concludes that as a system “animated by doctrines of racial self-segregation, racial exclusiveness, and racial supremacy” – that then translates those doctrines into “ruthless practices of racial discrimination and oppression” – the political systems erected by Zionist colonialism in Palestine must be recognised as a menace to all those “dedicated to the safeguarding and enhancement of the dignity of man. For whenever and wherever the dignity of but one single human being is violated, in pursuance of the creed of racism, a heinous sin is committed against the dignity of all men, everywhere”.36Sayegh, 52.  

At a time when solidarity with the Palestinians is increasingly under attack, slandered as anti-Semitic or even criminalised, Sayegh’s words serve as a timely reminder of why such solidarity has never been more important to express. 

Louis Allday, a writer and historian, is the founding editor of Liberated Texts.

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Fayez Sayegh