Settler colonialism in any form—including Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank—is illegal under international law and will not be tolerated.
~Letter from Rashida Tlaib, Mark Pocan, and ten other members of Congress to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken
This is part of Israel's larger plan of racist colonial expansion throughout East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
~Instagram post from Lena Headey
As public school educators in the United States of America, we have a special responsibility to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people because of the 3.8 billion dollars annually that the US government gives to Israel, thus directly using our tax dollars to fund apartheid and war crimes.
~Statement from United Educators of San Francisco
I am in awe of the international solidarity with Palestinians against settler-colonialism and ethnic cleansing. Liberation is within our reach.
~Twitter post from Mohammed El-Kurd
What we are witnessing today, in the words of Mouin Rabbani, is “a threshold crossed.” Whether used by international bodies, politicians, labor unions, or celebrities, words like “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “settler colonialism” have entered the mainstream. Israel’s most recent attempts to displace Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah, coupled with the efforts of local activists to expose the violence used to displace and silence, has clearly widened the scope of language mobilized to characterize and criticize Israel.
This language, however, is not new—like any, it has a history. Perhaps most long-standing are terms like “colony,” “colonialism,” and “settler colonialism” to describe Israel. In fact, labeling Zionism as colonial in form, whether by Jews or Arabs, from a critical or celebratory stance, is as old as Zionist settlement in Palestine. What I seek to elucidate is that there is a long-standing scholarly critique that parallels the popular one. This tradition predates the creation of the state of Israel and is Jewish, Arab, and inter-generational. It is also theoretical, well-researched, and global. I find that this intellectual history is not just that; it holds importance in buttressing against those who conflate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
On a practical level, the issues with the conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are clear. Yet, this has not stopped the accusation that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic, whether it comes from the Right or Left. Realistically, maybe nothing can stop the conflation, given its potency in silencing critics of Israel. But it is my hope that the missing link is knowing, publicly acknowledging, and teaching the history of this intellectual tradition—one that was not only polemical, but strove to be factual and evidence-based.
First Generation: Abram Leon and Constantine Zurayk
Abram Leon’s 1946 La Conception Matérialiste de la Question Juive (titled in the 1950 English translation as The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation) may be the first publication to theorize that Zionism is a form of colonialism. Leon was a Jewish, Polish, and Trotskyist Orientalist who met his death in the gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1944. His book, released posthumously, was, by his own charge, a “scientific study of Jewish history.” Quoting Marx, Weber, Pinsker, and Ruppin, and moving swiftly from the Roman conquest through the present day, Leon argues that Jewish suffering is, above all, tied to capitalism. Leon then conceives Zionism as a reaction to the status of Jews under industrial capitalism—what he refers to as “capitalist decay”—and “the product of the imperialist era,” where “the whole world is colonized, industrialized, and divided among various imperialisms.” What he refers to as “Zionist colonization” in Palestine would fail because it “wishes to resolve the Jewish question without destroying capitalism.” He elaborates:
Even admitting that Anglo-American imperialism will create some kind of abortive Jewish state, we have seen that the situation of world Judaism will hardly be affected…[.] Under conditions of capitalist decay, it is impossible to transplant millions of Jews. Only a worldwide socialist planned economy would be capable of such a miracle... [.] By misconstruing the real sources of the Jewish question in our period, by lulling itself with puerile dreams and silly hopes, Zionism proves that it is an ideological excrescence and not a scientific doctrine.
Leon’s predictions on the death knell of capitalism and the improbability of long-term Zionist settlement in Palestine were, of course, proven wrong. Furthermore, his argument that Jews constitute a people-class, with a particular economic function—that of a merchant—has been criticized by some as “economic antisemitism.” Yet, the terminology by which he described Zionism, as colonial and settler in design, and his argument that it is unable to solve anti-Semitism, has endured. Constantine Zurayk may be the most famous of the early intellectuals thereafter to use similar language in his conceptualization. Zurayk was born in Damascus, trained at Princeton University, and a faculty member at the American University of Beirut. He is most famous for coining the term Nakba or "disaster" in his 1948 The Meaning of Disaster, to characterize the loss of the Arabs in the recent, first, Arab-Israeli war, particularly the devastation for Palestinians and the refugee crisis thereafter.
Beyond the “material collapse [from the loss] is a moral collapse. ”This “moral and spiritual regression” predated the 1948 war and was the product of Zionist “colonies scattered in Palestine[.]” Zurayk contends that there had never been a psychological trauma so egregious as, “A country [is] seized from its people to make a homeland for fragments of mankind who settle on it from the various regions of the world and who erect a state in it despite its inhabitants...[.]” Here, Zurayk not only conceives Zionism as an ideology based on colonial settlement. He also rebukes the Zionist myth of Palestine as a land without a people and exposes the irony that the Jewish diaspora, the result of displacement, would displace others.
Zurayk did not cite Leon’s 1946 work, but he shared his sentiment that Zionism was not the answer to Jewish suffering. “No!,” Zurayk writes,” The global Jewish question will only be solved on the basis of the spread of religious tolerance and the strengthening of the principles of human dignity.” In this way, while perhaps not collaborators, both Leon and Zurayk worked from similar positions. Zionism, they argued, was an ill-suited colonial ideology, designed, from the beginning, towards long-term settlement.
Second Generation: Fayiz Sayigh and Maxime Rodinson
Like Leon and Zurayk, a second generation of scholars to criticize Zionism in the 1960s, including Fayiz Sayigh and Maxime Rodinson, were Jewish, Arab, and shaped by crisis and war. The difference was the explicitness of their critiques. Sayigh demonstrates this in the title of his book: Zionist Colonialism in Palestine. It was not Sayigh’s first book; originally from Tiberius, he had been living in the United States since the 1940s and writing and teaching since the 1950s. It was, however, the first book published by the Research Center of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1965.
From the first pages on, Sayigh describes Zionist colonialism “as the instrument of nation-building, not the by-product of an already fulfilled nationalism.” This was one reason Sayigh believed Zionism was different from other, European settler formations, with the latter’s nationalism as the impetus for colonization. Another distinct feature of Zionism, according to Sayigh, was its “racist conduct pattern.” While European settlement was not anti-racist, Sayigh finds it was not prefaced on the destruction of other races, like Zionism. Even if radical, this claim was not new. It built from those like Zurayk, who argued that the “goal of Zionist imperialism...is to annihilate one people [qum] to replace it with another people.”
Maxime Rodinson was no less critical than Zurayk or Sayigh in his Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?. Rodinson’s biography was similar to the earlier Abram Leon. He was a Jewish, French, Marxist Orientalist. He also admired Leon—even if he disagreed with some of his arguments, including that Jews were a people-class—writing an introduction for the 1968 updated French version of The Jewish Question.
In his earlier, 1967 book, based on an article he published in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes right before the Arab-Israeli war of that year, he claimed that “creat[ing] a purely Jewish, or predominately Jewish’s state in an Arab Palestine…could not help but lead to a colonial-type situation and to the development (completely normal, sociologically speaking) of a racist state of mind.” Unlike Sayigh though, Rodinson believed this logic was very similar to European colonialism. Consequently, given these historical continuities, it should be unarguable that Zionism was colonial in nature. Rodinson concludes by reasoning, if this was such a simple characterization to establish, why he dedicated over one-hundred pages to it:
I have taken so many words… because of the desperate efforts that have been made to conceal [the characterization. I]t seems to me that the term colonial process is very suitable, considering the obvious parallel with [European] phenomena that everyone agrees to designate in this way.
While Rodinson and Sayigh were of a similar intellectual milieu, connecting Palestine to colonial designs and decolonization plights elsewhere, they did not work together nor cite each other, much like Zurayk and Leon. This may have more to do with publishing conventions and writing styles, as I do not think either would have taken issue with the substance of the other’s arguments. Later, Rodinson would work with one young, Lebanese man inspired by the Palestine cause: Imad Nuwayhid. That man, who my research currently focuses on, would engage and expand upon the scholarly critique of Zionism.
The Youth Pass on the Tradition
Nuwayhid was a student, traveler, hotel employee, and a budding leftist intellectual. Based on conversations I have had with Nuwayhid’s family over the years, Imad likely met Rodinson in Paris in 1968 at the age of 24. Apparently in a session at a cafe, Rodinson instructed Nuwayhid to translate Leon’s book from French to Arabic and he did just that. Nuwayhid’s translation (titled in Arabic, Al Mafhum al-Madi lil-Masala al-Yahudiyya) was published only a year later in Beirut with a translator’s introduction. In this five-page essay, Nuwayhid first lauds Leon’s study for being the “first scientific attempt to analyze the economic and social role of the Jew across history.” He then explains why Arabs must read Leon, including “a necessity to enrich the Arab revolution in a scientific study in order to help it clearly understand the nature of the [Zionist] enemy.”
Beyond the why of translation, and like other translators of his age and era, Nuwayhid also intervened in knowledge production. He wrote the following about where he believed Leon’s work fell short:
[t]he historical study which Leon wrote—for its academic importance—is not enough to understand the real paradox that exists in the Arab region today, which is a reflection of the main paradox in the world, between the national liberation movement in the Third World, on one hand, and between imperialism, on the other. And Israel, as an embodiment of the Zionist movement, does not only play the role of the protector of imperial interests in the Arab East, but the hideous exploitation of the Palestinian people. Israeli imperialism is settler colonialism, from its objectivity reality—economically and socially—for the Jewish colonizers Colons [in French], [colonialism] makes them—consciously or unconsciously—the true exploiter of the Palestinian and Arab masses.
Through his words, Nuwayhid continues the tradition from Leon through Sayigh. With twenty years of scholarship and history at his back, Nuwayhid can write, with little need for exegesis, that Zionism is settler colonialism, whether Zionists know this or not. And like those before him, Nuwayhid pleads that Zionism is not the answer. He even states that Arab resistance to Zionism within Israel would instill “a wide awareness of the ‘Jewish’ popular section of the true enemy” who would, instead, fully invest in “the Marxist solution for the Jewish question.”
Putting Jewish in scare quotes, was not a slight towards Jews, but a way to remind his Arab readers that not all Jews were, or had to be, Zionists. This distinction was central to the long-standing, inter-generational tradition. Zurayk uses the phrase “Zionist Jews” when criticizing the ideology, while Sayigh’s book was not titled Jewish Colonialism, but Zionist. Indeed, these Jewish and Arab intellectuals separated Jewishness and Zionism from the very beginning, embedding it in their critiques of Zionism. Whether it was Zurayk or Sayigh, Rodinson or Leon, Imad was a student of these scholars, and an active part of the scholarship, forged through transnational translation and exchange.
The Not So Radical Radicalization of the Mainstream
Perhaps the threshold for mainstream criticism of Israel has been recently crossed, but not without backlash. The rebuke of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar since 2019, as well as Rashida Tlaib’s continual support of her, is suggestive of some of the risks one takes by characterizing Israel as an apartheid state or culpable of war crimes. In an article for the Heritage Foundation, titled “Why Black Lives Matter sides with Hamas Against Israel,” Mike Gonzalez claims that Omar and Tlaib’s positions are “fanning the flames of antisemitism while in actuality denying the rights of Jews to lawfully possess property in their own homeland.” Beyond the title of the article, and, again, the conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, what is notable here is why Gonzalez attacks these two. These politicians, and others public figures—celebrities, teachers, activists—are targeted in no small part because their descriptions of Israel and Zionism have been deemed radical across the political spectrum, especially in the United States. They were also deemed radical when the inter-generational, Arab and Jewish tradition was formed through scholarship the 1940s-1960s. Like their successors, they criticized Zionism and Israel directly and clearly, labeling it as colonial in form and intention, full stop. The difference is their discourse was more than a means to denounce Israel—they conceptualized and evinced how the ideology was similar to other colonialisms and a tragic solution for the real problem of anti-Semitism.
Yet, as Maxime Rodinson argued in his 1967 book Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?, this conceptualization should not be radical at all. He wrote:
What is involved here are facts...[.] It is quite obvious that this [Zionism] is a colonial process…[.] There was a settlement of colonists [, a] major part of the native population was displaced, [and] the settling of the colonists and the setting up of the state brought to the rest a fate over which they had no control.
As academics, educators, and students of history, I believe it is our job to remind all, at every turn, of the scholarly evidence and analysis that has been available on Zionism for the last seventy years or so. Like other controversial characterizations, this one was not always obvious or mainstream. It has been brought to life, first and foremost, by those who experience, expose, and critique Israel, past and present.
***I thank the editorial board of Jadaliyya for reviewing an earlier version of this article and providing thoughtful feedback.
 Zackary Lockman, Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1907-1948 (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), 29 and Rashid Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017 (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2020).
 Abram Leon, La Conception Matérialiste de la Question Juive (Paris: Editions Pioneers, 1946).
 There were, of course, early twentieth-century Jewish (Israel Zangwill) and Palestinian intellectuals (Isa al-Isa) that criticized Zionism. However, to this author’s knowledge, Leon was the first to do so as an outgrowth of theory and historical analysis. For earlier critiques, see Hani Faris, “Israel Zangwill’s Challenge to Zionism,” Journal of Palestine Studies 4, 3 (1975): 74-90 and Khalidi, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, 26-31.
 For information on Leon’s background, including his beginnings in Hashomer Hatzair, a labor Zionist organization, see Abram Leon, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation (New York: Pathfinder Press, Inc, 1970), 14-31.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 263 and 265.
 Ibid., 264.
 Ibid., 270.
 Stephen H. Norwood, Antisemitism and the American Far Left (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 200. To be sure, Leon was reductive (Jews as merchants, only), but to claim this amounts to anti-Semitism is also reductive, obscuring the point Leon attempts to make: capitalism is at the root of Jewish suffering.
 For information on Zurayk and the English translation of his work, see Constantine Zurayk, The Meaning of the Disaster, trans. Bayly Winder (Beirut: Khayat’s College Book Cooperative: 1956), vii-viii.
 Constantine Zurayk, Ma’na al-Nakba (Beirut: Dar al-‘Alum lil-Malayin, 1948), 9.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 89.
 I thank Yoav Di-Capua, and his book No Exit, which introduced me to Sayigh and Rodinson’s 1967 Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?. Di-Capua, No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre & Decolonization (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018).
 For a biographical sketch on Sayigh, see Ibid., 6-7.
 Fayez A. Sayigh, Zionist Colonialism in Palestine (Beirut: Research Center, Palestine Liberation Organization, 1965), 2.
 Ibid., 21
 Zurayk, Ma’na al-Nakba, 24.
 For more on Rodinson, see Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 7-8.
 Ibid, 84.
 Ibid., 101.
 Abram Leon, Al-Mafhum al-Madi lil-Masala al-Yahudiyya, trans. Imad Nuwayhid (Beirut: Dar al-Tali‘a lil-Taba‘a wa al-Nashr, 1969), 5-6.
 I thank Fadi A. Bardawil and his Revolution and Disenchantment for inspiring this line of argument. Bardawil, Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).
 Leon, Al-Mafhum al-Madi lil-Masala al-Yahudiyya, 6.
 Ibid., 9.
 Zurayk, Ma’na al-Nakba, 76.
 Rodinson, Israel, 101-2.