Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Strategies and Principles

London, 5 December 2004


Settler Colonialism as Genocide

Implications for a Strategy of Solidarity with the Palestinians

John Docker, Australian National University


I would first like to express my pleasure to the conference organizers for inviting me to come to London from Australia. It is an honour to be here. It is also a great pleasure to see again Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, whom I met for the first time in London in May 2004, and Ilan Pappé, who visited Canberra and Sydney in August 2004. It has also been a delight to meet in person Nur Masalha and Mona Baker after the exchange of so many friendly emails across the world.

I have been writing critiques of Israel and Zionism since the middle 1980s. In April 2002 I co-organized with Ghassan Hage an Australian boycott of research and cultural links with Israel. My co-organizer Ghassan Hage, of the Anthropology Department, University of Sydney, is well-known for his writings on nationalism and ethnic and cultural identities in Australia. I should say how the Australian boycott call came about. I saw on emails that were coming around that Steven and Hilary Rose with significant others had sent an open letter to The Guardian calling for a moratorium on all future cultural and research links with Israel at European and national levels. I immediately emailed Steven and Hilary, asking if I could put my name to their call. Steven kindly emailed back saying no, you can't, the call is for European academics only, and you'll have to organize your own. This was excellent advice, because, as I soon realized, the situation in Europe and Australia is quite different: the kind of funding projects that Israel is involved with in terms of the European Economic Community don't – not at least as far as I know or anyone else we talked to knows – exist in Australia.

Accordingly, I quickly sent an email to Ghassan, suggesting we should put out a call for a boycott, saying there may be an extra effect in that it would be a dual call from an Arab Australian person and a Jewish Australian person. Ghassan at once agreed, and then – he in Sydney, while I was in Canberra – sent emails back and forth working out the wording. Our call went out, and was quickly signed by some one hundred of the most interesting humanities academics and intellectuals in Australia. When it became public, there was some degree of furore, with stories in the papers including interviews with Ghassan and me, accompanied by Australian government ministers denouncing us. I can't speak for Ghassan's post-boycott call experience here. For myself, the Vice-Chancellor of my institution the Australian National University defended the right of university staff to engage in controversy. Predictably, I received from Zionists more or less unpleasant emails, phone calls, and letters, and I gathered from Ghassan that he'd received much the same. I was not surprised by such – invariably anonymous – ad hominem attacks, since vilification is pretty well all that Zionism has left in its intellectual armoury. Some who signed also received insulting and violently phrased emails, and they, not being used to such things as I was from previous occasions when I'd publicly critiqued Zionism, were understandably shocked. I also received many supportive phone calls and emails, including from people who said they would have signed the call if they had seen it in time.  

Because our call did not involve questioning specific scientific and funding agreements that pertain in Europe in regard to Israel, our call was largely symbolic. We did call for a boycott of research and cultural links with Israel, we urged our colleagues not to attend conferences in Israel, and we asked them to suspend any existing exchange or linking arrangements and to refuse to distribute scholarship and academic position information. Whether these things occurred or not I don't know. But symbolic protests – as the great Gandhi knew well – can be powerful, perhaps in changing in quiet and invisible ways the climate of opinion around an issue. In any case, when Hanan Ashrawi visited Australia in 2003 (while I was away in the US) to accept the Sydney Peace Prize, the reception of her was certainly friendly and supportive, to the annoyance of the Australian Zionist community, which had tried, in various backhanded behind-closed-doors ways to prevent her from speaking in particular places, for example in the Great Hall at the University of Sydney. When such Zionist behind-the-scenes interventions and pressures became known, there was much adverse public commentary on the Zionists and their sabotaging actions, anti-democratic in spirit, hidden from public view. It quickly emerged that some in the Sydney Jewish community were embarrassed, and said they had felt pressured by Melbourne Zionists to attempt to besmirch Dr Ashrawi's reputation and visit.

I should explain some geocultural differences here amongst Australian Zionists. The Jewish community in Melbourne has always been regarded, and has presented itself, as the centre and soul of pro-Israeli sentiment and activity. Melbourne Zionism is perhaps more like Zionism in New York: abusive and denunciatory of anyone who opposes Israel in any way, and making it very difficult for anyone, including anti-Zionist Jews like myself, to hold contrary opinions. I know this from personal experience, when I was hissed while speaking at a session on Jewishness at the 2001 Melbourne Writers Festival. Historically, the Sydney Jewish community has been regarded by Melbourne Zionists as unfortunately rather hedonistic and lacking in fervour for the cause.

In our public letter, Ghassan and I stressed how much we saw Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza as part of a long relentless process of   “colonisation”, and we called for a boycott in similar spirit to the boycotts against apartheid South Africa. I think, though we did not say this in the letter, we were so mindful of Israeli colonisation because of all the critiques – critiques we had engaged in ourselves in our separate writings – of Australia as a settler-colony, a settler-colony like other settler-colonies historically established by the British Empire, including the mandated colony of Palestine, whose colonialism Israel continued in its own ways during and after 1948. When I say Israel is a settler-colony, in comparable ways to other ex-British colonial societies like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, I have in mind, for a theoretical start, the late Maxime Rodinson's classic analysis, first published in 1967, Israel: A Colonial Settler State? As the years have gone by, I regard Rodinson's careful and subtle critique as more salient than ever, especially if we connect his notion of Israel as a colonial settler state to recent genocide theory.

At this point, I would like to comment on the theme of the conference, “Resisting Israeli Apartheid”. I agree that Israel has been creating apartheid-like conditions that can be compared to bantustans. But my strong feeling is that Israeli ‘apartheid' is as it were a sub-topic of Israeli genocide, genocide conceived in its historical relationship to settler-colonialism around the world. I'll end my talk by very briefly discussing this issue.

An all-important question here is: how is genocide to be defined? Usually, especially in the 1970s, 80s, and into the 90s, genocide has been defined as a devastating episode of mass murder, with the Holocaust as the extreme and appalling example. But genocide studies in the last few years – in a rapidly changing international field – has become interested in a much broader conception of genocide, one that is not centred on the Holocaust.

In particular, genocide studies has returned to the original definition of genocide made by Raphaël Lemkin in 1944 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. There, in chapter nine, Lemkin defined genocide as composite and manifold: it signifies a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of the life-world of an oppressed group. Such actions can but do not necessarily involve mass killing. They involve considerations that are economic, political, cultural, social, legal, intellectual, spiritual, biological, physiological, religious, and moral. Such actions involve considerations of health, food, and nourishment. And such actions involve an attack on the honour and dignity of a people.

Lemkin went further in his definition: he also conceived genocide as a two-fold process of destruction of the national pattern and life-world of an oppressed group, and the attempted imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor: “This imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the oppressor's own nationals.” When Lemkin escaped Nazi Europe and found refuge in the US in 1941, he assembled the research material for his 1944 book but also began writing chapters for a second book, on the history of genocide, that remained unpublished when he died, in 1959. In these unpublished manuscripts, Lemkin researched the historical relationship between genocide and settler-colonialism, including the post-1492 colonisation of the Americas, including his new home in North America. In his orginal defintion, and in these unpublished writings, Lemkin constitutively and inherently links genocide with colonisation.

Given Lemkin's wide-ranging definition of genocide – Lemkin after all invented the term! – it is clear that Israel constantly and daily pursues the aim of genocide against every aspect it can of the Palestinian life-world; and such actions may include forms of apartheid, as well as direct killing of Palestinians. What the implications of Israel being a genocidal state are for a strategy of support for the Palestinian people I don't know. In his writings Lemkin worked out a methodology of genocide situations, which included analysis of the genocidist group, dissent within the genocidist group, responses of the victims of genocide, and the responses and actions of other groups. Clearly all these categories have salience in discussing Israel, dissenters within Israel, and support from the United States. I look forward to discussing these issues further with you.


Thank you.


John Docker,

Humanities Research Centre,

Australian National University