Stencils reading "Nakba" are defaced with graffiti reading "one" and "more." That is, one more Nakba. Neve Tzedek, Tel Aviv, 2023. (Photograph by Adrien Zakar)

By Esmat Elhalaby

Perhaps it’s apt that a dying political ideology seeks redemption in a dead discipline. As the Israeli government and public become ever more vocal and defensive about their daily practice of abuse and murder, as another Nakba is initiated with impunity and in fact legally sanctioned, liberal Zionists continue to dwell in what Saree Makdisi has called a “culture of denial.”[1] Purportedly aghast at what their Israel has become, some intellectuals—rather than honestly reckoning with the past—resort to desperate exercises in obfuscation. A new book edited by Stefan Vogt, Derek Penslar, and Arieh Saposnik, Unacknowledged Kinships: Postcolonial Studies and the Historiography of Zionism (2023), seeks both to rescue Zionism from its history of violence in Palestine and delegitimize efforts for Palestinian liberation. 

“Complexity” is the order of the day. A history of colonialism that has become clearer by the hour, both because of its increasing desperation on the ground and the efforts of committed scholars to carefully expose its methods and rhetoric, is made opaque. Devoting all their energies to language, to the cherry-picked utterances of one or another Zionist, at the complete exclusion of the material reality of Zionism in Palestine or Israel’s insidious role in the Arab world or across the three continents, is the basis of this endeavor. The editors claim—as Penslar has done since his well-known and widely criticized 2001 article “Zionism, Colonialism and Postcolonialism”—that Zionism cannot be understood as “colonial” because it was both an anti-colonial nationalist movement (even “subaltern”) not a colonial enterprise projected from a metropole and a postcolonial, developmentalist, state like so many others.[2] And if one must reluctantly claim Zionism as colonialism and Israel as colonial, that can only be done in reference to the events of 1967 and after (and even then, with extensive hand-wringing, or in the case of Johannes Becke’s contribution to the volume, tendentious comparison). The colonial project in Palestine explicitly initiated at the end of the nineteenth century by European Zionist settlers, facilitated by the British Empire in the 1920s, accelerated in the 1930s, consecrated in 1948, and continuing to this very day, is rendered irrelevant.

For the editors and a number of the contributors, “postcolonialism” refers principally to the work of Homi Bhabha and his notion of “the in-between.” The binary of colonizer and colonized is deemed insufficient for understanding Zionism by the editors, and Bhabha’s writing on the “hybridity” and “instability” produced by colonialism is taken as a guiding gesture.[3] Recourse to Bhabha and the wielding of his work explicitly against that of the anti-colonial Edward Said—Unacknowledged Kinships foil from its first paragraph onwards—has its origins in the reception of Anglo-American postcolonial theory in Israel during the 1990s. The journal Teoria ve Bikoret, founded in 1991 in Jerusalem and edited until 1999 by the Israeli philosopher Adi Ophir, was the principal forum for post-colonial theory in Israel. “Academic and journalistic texts” Ella Shohat writes of this period, “have fashioned a kind of folk wisdom that posits Homi Bhabha as having surpassed Said.” “Without engaging in any depth Said’s oeuvre,” Shohat continues in an indispensable 2004 article for the Journal of Palestine Studies “or the varied debates around postcolonial studies, the facile recital of the Bhabha-beyond-Said mantra has come to be an entrance requirement for ‘doing the postcolonial’ in Israel.”[4]

Thirty years later, the editors of Unacknowledged Kinships seek novelty. The reasons for which are political, they argue. The collaboration of postcolonial studies and Zionist historiography, the editors hope, “could help overcome the destructive competition that often exists between the struggles against racism and the struggles against anti-semitism, in favor of a joint effort to confront past and present forms of exclusion, subordination, and persecution” (5). What the editors clearly mean is that they would prefer if anti-colonial and anti-racist organizers and intellectuals would desist from criticizing Zionism and Israel on anti-colonial and anti-racist grounds. The editors are explicit later in the introduction when they claim that postcolonial scholars’ support for Palestinians and BDS is partly due to their “sometimes insufficiently complex view of the conflict” (15). The editors take ambiguity—the other keyword that dominates the book—as “the very foundation of postcolonial studies” (15). Ambiguity, they argue, must be reaffirmed.


Unacknowledged Kinships represents a step back even from the work of the “Post-Zionist” “New Historians” whose efforts to reveal the machinations of Zionist colonialism in Palestine was first published in the 1980s. While those Israeli historians and historical sociologists freely admitted Zionism’s colonial nature in Palestine, the latter-day post-colonialists that Vogt, Penslar, and Saposnik have assembled, ignore this history, disappear Palestinians, and denigrate the scholarly activity of generations of Palestinians and their supporters who have accounted for Zionism from the standpoint of its victims, as Edward Said famously put it.

Accounting for Zionism’s diversity or its pre-settler history does not absolve Zionism from being colonial, settler, and otherwise. The majority of the book’s contributions narrate Zionist lives and ideas by assiduously, tendentiously, avoiding the colonial activities of their subjects. Tracing Martin Buber’s positive evocations of the East without mention of Buber’s presence on Palestinian land and his occupation of Palestinian homes, as Stephen Vogt does in his chapter, is to ignore a key site of Buber’s orientalism. The location of the imagination is central to its articulation. Certainly, Zionism emerged in relation to European ideas of both Jews and Arabs as being outside of history, like other lesser and darker peoples. “In that sense,” Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin concluded in a 2013 article, “Zionism in its early stages emerged as what indeed should be considered an anti-colonial national movement resisting oppression and defending against measures similar to those employed in colonies.” “But here the parallel ends,” he continued with clarity:

and the consequences of this ambivalent position in the Zionist context were different and even opposite. While Zionism as an idea and a movement in Europe and elsewhere contained an early critical approach to modernity and liberal Europe, its realization in the east, in Palestine, resulted in accommodating Jewish consciousness to the European colonial framework as part of Europe versus the East and as the realization of a common Western Jewish-Christian vision.[5]  

While the editors claim the historiography of Zionism, in reality theirs is a historiography for Zionism, a Zionist historiography seeking desperate renewal. In seeming response to Raz-Krakotzkin, the editors write in their introduction that in addition to Europe, Palestine and “in many other non-European spaces Zionist movements developed as well” (13). “Moreover,” they go on, “Zionists claimed a land outside of Europe not as a colony, but as their ancestral homeland” (13). While the latter part of that sentence is certainly true, and a core part of Zionist ideology, to argue that Zionists did not claim Palestine as a colony is a lie and nothing less. As is undoubtedly well-known to the editors, Zionists regularly and repeatedly referred to their efforts as a colonial project as countless historical studies have demonstrated, most recently Areej Sabbagh-Khoury’s meticulously researched and powerfully argued Colonizing Palestine: The Zionist Left and the Making of the Palestinian Nakba (2023). Moreover, the claim of Palestine as a homeland marked Zionism as more than simply another nationalism. In her review of The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History (2018), Nadia Abu El-Haj carefully critiques the effort therein to define “the colonial” as “excess” and frame histories of Palestine and Israel in terms of competing nationalisms, without attention to the structure of settler-nationhood. “The distinction of Zionism,” Abu El-Haj makes clear, “is that it was a settler-nation from the very start: that is, it was a colonial project of settlement that imagined itself as a project of national return. Not only was there never any ideological space between the national and the settler-colonial. In contrast to settler-nations elsewhere (the US or Australia, for example), there was never any temporal distance either.”[6]

Every chapter in Unacknowledged Kinships seeks to eclipse the settler-colonial history of Zionism. A chapter by the historian Orit Bashkin, who has otherwise contributed to modern Arab intellectual history and the social history of Iraq and Israel in a series of well researched books, provides an overview of the recent scholarship on Arab Jewry. The chapter’s value, however, is diminished by an incoherent conclusion. “Finally, Zionism,” Bashkin writes, “was not simply a foreign movement imported from Europe and Palestine, as the postcolonial school would have it, or a natural response to Arab Fascism, as the conservatives have argued. Rather it was a local option, one among many, that appealed to Jews, especially as Arab national elites let them down and the conflict in Palestine seemed to have determined the lot of Jews outside it” (208). The conscription of some Arab Jews into Zionism does not make it local. Does the presence of American nationalism among some Indigenous or Black people make the United States any less a settler-colonial or slave society? Zionism was not “imported” from Palestine to elsewhere across the Arab world. The transplantation of a racial ideology that pitted “Arab” against “Jew” was a European Zionist project. All the major leaders of the Zionist movement in Palestine were European. Of the thirty-seven signatories of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, “all but two… were from Central or Eastern Europe,” as Ussama Makdisi reminds us.[7] To name Zionism “local” is to elide again, as this volume seeks to do, its colonial function.

The chapter on Zionist “Asianism” by Rephael Stern and Arie Dubnov outlines the efforts of a handful of Zionist intellectuals to imagine the Jewish homeland as an Asian place and the interactions between Zionists and Asian nationalists in India. Given the closeness of the two countries at present—India is the world’s largest purchaser of Israeli arms—this research is of particular importance (Teoria ve Bikoret devoted its Summer 2015 edition to “India/Israel”). But the authors side-step fundamental aspects of this history. In an effort to represent “Jewish Orientalism” as distinct from the purportedly “totalizing binary view” of Edward Said, they claim that the Jewish (namely Zionist, Israeli) Orientalism they recover was not one “that looked at the East only as an exotic space to be discovered, colonized, and ruled” (258). Orientalism, as a discipline with deep roots in the surveillance practices of the Yishuv and profound state patronage after 1948, was a colonial form of knowledge whose principal subjects—indeed—victims were the Palestinians. This is unambiguous.

The volume ends with contributions from two token postcolonialists, Dispesh Chakrabarty and Ato Quayson. They devote considerable space in their pieces not to Zionism, but modern Jewish history and its links to colonial and postcolonial studies. A well-known kinship (as it were) that Said himself regularly noted (a point the editors themselves admit). In his interview with one of the editors, Chakrabarty raises the example of Hannah Arendt and mostly avoids commenting on Zionism. When pressed, Chakrabarty concludes in the manner of a politician, stating that he does not wish to “minimize” the suffering of the Jewish people or the Palestinian people (287).

Quayson however, reveals himself a fellow traveler in the editors’ campaign, readily adopting their prejudice and the logic of the Israeli security state. In his Afterword to the volume, Quayson writes that the events at the 1972 Olympics in Munich were “stomach churning” as he observed them as a child in Ghana and that unlike “the foreign policy positions being taken by African states” the Israeli raid on Entebbe Airport in 1977 “served to consolidate the Israelis as heroes in our young eyes even further” (298). Quayson is certainly welcome to recount his youthful impressions (although readers may wish to consult proper histories of African and Third World solidarity with Palestinians in the same period to read alongside such anecdotes). But Quayson’s reliability is thrown into serious doubt when he turns to the 1982 massacres of Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. He characterizes them simply as a “public relations disaster” which “created a bitter taste toward Israel for many people in the postcolonial world” (299)—although apparently not for Quayson. While Israel’s complicity in the massacres is well-documented and well-known, Quayson seeks to absolve Israel by both raising doubts about these facts and justifying Israel’s actions due to the “complex geopolitical calculus” that Israel and its adjuncts in Lebanon were apparently working under, namely the perennial specter of Iran. Why? In the end Quayson makes clear his opposition to BDS, “something I personally think precipitously abandons the possibility of dialogue and collaboration with progressive Israel-based scholars” (299).

Postcolonialism, then, for Quayson and the editors, is wielded as a weapon against Palestinian tactics for liberation. Transfiguring Zionism into anti-colonialism and Israel into a postcolonial entity, is not only an abuse of history and language, but an attack on Palestinians. “I hope,” Penslar wrote in one of his other efforts to obfuscate Zionist colonialism, “that Palestinian scholars will respond favorably to my critique.”[8] In this regard, it’s prudent to recall the words of Walter Rodney’s famous address “African History in the Service of Black Liberation,” delivered at Montreal’s Black Writers’ Congress in 1968: “…the guy oppresses you and then he selects your terms of reference [for you]. Even when you’re fighting him you use his terms of reference. But what I am trying to suggest here is that we have to break out from those terms of reference.”[9]


Unacknowledged Kinships is part of a larger ecosystem of incoherence. In a recent issue of the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, a journal edited by Ato Quayson himself, Daniel Boyarin offers a reflection on what he phrases the “new Jewish question.” “As a so-called White theorist having been taught by Black thinkers,” Boyarin proposes a theory of Judaitude, rehearsing the well-known debates between Fanon, Césaire, Memmi, and their interlocutors.[10] Many, including myself, have profited from Boyarin’s critique of Thoedor Herzl and Zionism’s effacement of a rich Jewish intellectual inheritance. His latest reflections follow along a similar theme, thinking through what a deterritorialized Jewish nationalism might look like. The piece draws from a larger, then forthcoming, now published by Yale University Press book entitled The No-State Solution, which he claims is his phrase, but was first proposed as an idea—in English at least—by Sophia Azeb in 2014 (of course she goes unmentioned). Indeed, no Palestinians are mentioned or cited. In any case, whatever the merits of Boyarin’s approach in his manifesto, is not my interest here. More relevant are the circumstances of their publication.

The piece was published with seven responses attached, some of them are measured, reasoned, indeed, academic, like Partha Chatterjee’s riposte to Boyarin’s theory of the nation. But others take the opportunity—why, we can only guess—to attack the methods and tactics of Palestinian liberation on the international stage. Olga V. Solovieva, for example, writes that “the plight of blindness to opposition is especially characteristic for American discourse where we are invited to boycott the Israeli academics, artists, and intellectuals, most of whom oppose their government’s policies toward Palestinians, and thus to help this very government in their efforts to suffocate dissent.”[11] In a remarkable move, Palestinians and their supporters become the ones contributing to the ever-rightward descent of a government which since its inception has sought their annihilation, assimilation, expulsion, and disappearance. Moreover, Solovieva’s understanding of the boycott is wrong, as its opponents seem to always forget, the call for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel is a call for boycotting Israeli institutions, not individuals.

Faisal Devji, in a piece that rehashes the arguments of some of his recent books on Pakistan and Gandhi, takes the opportunity to scold supporters of BDS with insidious comparisons. Arguing that “BDS has taken on the role that states and the international community are meant to play by imposing punitive sanctions on a criminal regime. This effort is inadvertently mitigated by the movement’s weakness and so its own vulnerability to sanctions of many kinds. Such vulnerability gives BDS its moral idealism, but this is promptly squandered by the desire to speak in the name or at least in place of the state and international order.”[12] Inexplicably, a stateless people, many of whom without even a passport to their name, endlessly abused by a state-system which restricts their movement and blocks their access to those legal mechanisms of international governance, are condemned for attempting even the smallest pragmatic use of that system. Shall we also condemn Six Nations of the Irouquis’s appeal for sovereignty to the League of Nations or the Civil Rights’ Congress historic charge of genocide against the United States presented to the United Nations in 1951?

Palestinians and their supporters, Devji goes on to argue, would do well to heed the example of the Gandhian refusals which mobilized millions against the British in India. No mention is made, of course, that Palestinians have been practicing civil disobedience in their land since before the State of Israel even existed. Or that the General Strike in Palestine in 1936 was the longest in human history (perhaps only surpassed by the hartal that consumed Kashmir in 2020). While Palestinians are daily arrested, maimed, and murdered for stepping out into the street or opening their lips, when dozens of Palestinians participate in wave after wave of hunger strike as they’re stuffed into cages, Devji, our Thomas Friedman, dares to ask where is the Palestinian Gandhi?

Devji claims that Palestinians and their supporters don’t possess the concept of love necessary to overcome their condition. They have not made the necessary sacrifices, he claims: “the BDS movement demands sacrifice only from those among its supporters who live in or have connections to Israel and the territories it occupied.”[13] What is striking is that again the words Palestine, or Palestinian, or liberation are completely absent from Devji’s article. It’s unsurprising, then, that Devji enthusiastically endorses Vogt, Penslar, and Saposnik’s collection.

While the intensity of this recent obfuscation is surprising, given the massive corpus of work the authors are forced to deny, this pattern of response goes back to the very beginnings of Postcolonial Studies. We may recall that in the pages of Critical Inquiry in 1989, Daniel Boyarin and his brother Jonathan wrote a long response to Edward Said’s’ “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors,” to which Said responded in turn. The Boyarins told Said that he was being unfair to the capaciousness of Zionism. And that he was insufficient in his acknowledgement of the Holocaust and antisemitism. Said responded:

I would have thought the Boyarins’ reminder—monumental in its irrelevance to the suffering Palestinians—ought to be addressed to their fellow Jews, precisely those soldiers and politicians who are now engaged in visiting upon non-Jews many of the same evil practices anti-Semites waged against Holocaust victims who are ancestors and relatives of present-day Israelis. This deeply offensive attitude of the Boyarins dilutes the expressions of support for Palestinian self-determination that they occasionally allow themselves. What they cannot accept is that the Palestinian and Israeli positions are not symmetrical today, and that whatever the horror of Jewish suffering in the past it does not excuse, abrogate, or exonerate the practices of the Jewish state against the Palestinian people.[14] 

Said dealt with such demands his entire life. We may also recall that Said’s “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” was published in the very first issue of the academic Marxist journal Social Text, only to be rebutted tediously a few issues later by Ronald Aronson. We may even remember a little more than a decade ago, also in Critical Inquiry, when Saree Makdisi wrote a careful critique of a museum of Zionism that was meant to be built—and now has been built—atop a centuries-old Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem—his essay was buried in a litany of juvenile responses.

Draw your own conclusions about the incessant need for the Anglo-American academy to delegitimize and denigrate Palestinian ideas in the name of dialogue. And perhaps it’s shocking that a major journal of Postcolonial Studies—a field ostensibly opposed to the continuing impact of colonialism on all our lives—can be so frank in its contempt for Palestinians. But the obfuscation, elision, and erasure of Palestinian history, the denigration of Palestinian political movements, and the traffic in lies, is shameful. It neither moves the critical study of Zionism forward nor does it expand the possibilities for a just future in Palestine. It is, at bottom, a practice of desperation.


Esmat Elhalaby is an Assistant Professor of Transnational History at the University of Toronto.

[1] Saree Makdisi, Tolerance Is a Wasteland: Palestine and the Culture of Denial (Oakland: University of California Press, 2022).

[2] Derek Penslar, “Zionism, Colonialism and Postcolonialism,” Journal of Israeli History v. 20 n. 2-3 (2001), 84-98.

[3] Stefan Vogt, Derek Penslar, and Arieh Saposnik, eds., Unacknowledged Kinships: Postcolonial Studies and the Historiography of Zionism (Waltham: Brandies University Press, 2023), 10. References to pages from this book are hereafter made parenthetically in text.

[4] Ella Shohat, “The ‘Postcolonial’ in Translation: Reading Said in Hebrew,” Journal of Palestine Studies v. 33 n. 3 (2004), 65.

[5] Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “Exile, History, and the Nationalization of Jewish Memory: Some Reflections on the Zionist Notion of History and Return,” Journal of Levantine Studies v. 3 n. 2 (2013), 56.

[6] Nadia Abu El-Haj, “A ‘Common Space’? The Impossibilities of a New Grammar of the Holocaust and Nakba,” Journal of Genocide Research v. 22 n.1 (2020), 146.

[7] Ussama Makdisi, Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 195.

[8] Derek Penslar, “Toward a Field of Israel/Palestine Studies,” in Bashir Bashir and Leila Farsakh, eds., The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 192.

[9] Walter Rodney, “African History in the Service of the Black Liberation,” Small Axe v. 5 n. 2 (2001), 80.

[10] Daniel Boyarin, “The New Jewish Question To the memory of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, הי”ד,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry v. 9 n. 1 (2022), 46.

[11] Olga V. Solovieva, ‘Not just for their own use …’: Solidarity in Times of Discord,” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry v. 9 n. 1 (2022), 77-78.

[12] Faisal Devji, “Comments on ‘The New Jewish Question’” Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry v. 9 n. 1 (2022), 88-89

[13] Devji, “Comments,” 89.

[14] Edward W. Said, “Response,” Critical Inquiry v. 15, n. 3 (1989),636.