Settle for what? Phoebe Maltz Bovy on a Jewish existential dilemma

Where, on planet Earth, would a Jew not be considered a settler?

This is a serious question, one to which I have yet to get a satisfactory response. I posted about it and a few joke replies arrived (“Florida”) but it does seem as if a lot of people are stumped.

We’re living in a moment when much of the left has embraced the idea that social justice is the global struggle against “settlers.” Whether actual Indigenous North Americans want this or not, this is what the self-righteous have honed in on. It’s a line of thought that predates the current war in Israel and Gaza, but that is, let us say, having a moment.

As an ostensibly progressive worldview, it poses some problems for Jews. And no, not just pro-Israel ones, or Jews who are for some reason rah-rah 19th century colonialism. If you’re meh on Israel, and think Jewish rootlessness is our cosmopolitan charm, and say to hell with ethno-nationalist homelands and whatnot, let us be citizens of the world, then more power to you, but good luck squaring this with a progressive movement that classifies everyone across the globe as either home, displaced from home, or invading someone else’s house.

This is why I’m going to have to say that I do think, in this case, language matters. Insisting on a global anti-settler movement is different from, for example, supporting Truth and Reconciliation. Demanding human rights and fair treatment is different from declaring some percentage of the population as occupiers based on their ancestry.

So I will repeat the question. Where is a Jew not—per these definitions—a settler?

In North America, all Jews who are not Indigenous—and that would be the vast majority of us—are settlers, according to the understanding that defines all such populations as such. Not just Jews whose ancestors literally settler-colonized Canada back in the day, but even those who arrived last week. (Syrian refugees in Canada: also settlers, by this definition.)

In Israel, according to anti-Zionist understandings, all Jews are settlers. Not just Jews living in the settlements. Not just Jews living in the post-1967-specific borders. An Israeli Jew in Tel Aviv is, by the understandings of those who think Israel itself it illegitimate, no matter its borders or leadership, a settler.

How about Europe, then? I have this vague recollection of something happening, 1930s-1940s-ish, where it was decided that Jews, long understood by many to be a foreign element (thus the antisemitic hurling of go back to Palestine), were extremely not in their own rightful homes when on that continent.

If a modern Jewish nation-state had, as some are furiously posting these days, been put in Europe, rather than ever so colonially in the Middle East (never mind the historical connection of Jews to that land, never mind Mizrahi Jews), that theoretical state would have displaced someone and would have been a settlement, and therefore unacceptable. “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.”

It’s even “settlement” when Jews are in our “native areas,” one is reminded, perusing the Wikipedia page of Birobidzhan.

Unable to settle in the areas they were from, some Jews were resettled within the former Soviet Union. How did that work out? Not great, but to stay on point, I have put certain words in bold: “Logistically and practically, settling Birobidzhan proved to be difficult. Due to inadequate infrastructure and weather conditions of the area, more than half the Jewish settlers who relocated to Birobidzhan after the initial settlement did not remain.”

It ought to be—it is—possible to care about currently or historically displaced peoples without dividing the world into those who have a historic right to live where they do, and those who are effectively gentrifiers (whatever their financial position) and should scram. The down-with-settlers approach is tricky for refugees generally, but is particularly weak when it comes to stateless ones, who show up, uninvited, and don’t even have a homeland to be sent back to. Jews at this point have a state, but a state that is itself often considered mere settlement.

There is nowhere on this planet that I could live without it being very problematic of me to do so. Which rather forces my position. As long as I’m alive, I have to occupy space somewhere.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on the website formerly known as Twitter. She also holds forth on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.