What’s wrong with colonialism?

by Avigail Abarbanel.  Printed with permission by the author. Originally article published in Mondoweiss. http://mondoweiss.net/2018/01/whats-wrong-colonialism/

Avigail Abarbanel was born and raised in Israel. She moved to Australia in 1991 and now lives in the north of Scotland. She works as a psychotherapist and clinical supervisor in private practice and is an activist for Palestinian rights. She is the editor of Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012).


I remember many years ago sitting through a seminar at Macquarie University in Sydney during my Honours studies in Politics. That particular seminar focused on Western colonialism in the South Pacific, and modern Western imperialism in general. I remember one thing vividly from that class that remained etched into my mind. It was a question that the lecturer asked us repeatedly and insistently. ‘Why is it so important for indigenous people to maintain their identity? What is so bad with a particular way of life or culture disappearing?’

At the time I could not think of an answer. In fact none of us was able to answer it. I remember feeling like a rabbit in the headlights. Every bit of me told me this was very wrong, but I couldn’t explain why. It was the mid-nineties, and only four years after I had moved to Australia from Israel. I was ignorant about what colonialism or settler-colonialism are, and their legacy. I was still blind to the Zionist settler-colonialism in which I grew up, and did not register the fact that by virtue of being white, I automatically embraced the settler-colonial power structure in Australia too.

 The entire topic was taught in a sanitised way, and in what I now recognise as an apologist Western attitude with a strong white Western bias. That lecturer did not ask his question to get us to think critically about colonialism. He really meant for us to consider that there is nothing wrong with cultures disappearing and being replaced with other cultures, not by a natural, organic process of social and cultural evolution, but by force and coercion employed by someone coming in from elsewhere.

 I didn’t understand at the time that the disappearance of a culture by force is always in the context of psychopathic control, that it is in effect a rape, an exercise of pure power; that it is always in the service of, and for the benefit of the coloniser’s ruling classes. Colonialism is never for the benefit of the colonised, and it is always carried out in the context of a system of violence, control, and domination.

 Colonisers do not knock on the door of the colonised, and ask politely if it is OK to borrow a cup of sugar and a couple of eggs. There is no equality of power, and the colonised cannot respond politely that they have nothing to give, or alternatively choose to offer the cup of sugar and two eggs. The key factor here is choice. The colonisers step in with superior weaponry, efficient bureaucracy and organisation, all supported by an ideology of superiority and entitlement, and they take. It’s theft of land, resources, culture. It is rape on every level. It is taking what isn’t theirs without asking permission, and without concern for the impact that this has on the ones from whom they are taking.

 Colonisation is an exercise in objectification. Others exist only as a resource for the coloniser, not in their own right. In psychotherapy, we recognise this easily as a psychopathic power structure that is harmful and extremely dangerous to the victim. It can lead to psychological annihilation, and often to death, either directly, or as a longer-term consequence of the psychological destruction.

 Colonisation ultimately has to be accompanied by a ‘policy of elimination’, as Patrick Wolfe calls it. Without a policy of elimination the exercise cannot succeed. There will be resistance. Colonialism is ultimately about the bottom line, material gain. Or in the case of Israel’s settler-colonialist project in Palestine, in the service of the goal of establishing and securing an exclusively Jewish state in the whole of historic Palestine. As many colonisers throughout history have learned the hard way, colonialism can backfire. When too many resources have to be diverted to quashing resistance, it can end up in a loss rather than gain for the coloniser. The dynamic of resistance is at the heart of the success or failure of colonial projects. An effective policy of elimination is therefore crucial for colonial success because it tackles the problem of resistance directly.

 Elimination does not just mean killing a lot of people, or eliminating an entire people. A policy of elimination means also, the annihilation of the indigenous people’s identity, or ‘spirit’. The spirit of a people (or of an individual for that matter) isn’t something that can be quantified or measured. But it is nonetheless as real and as tangible as the art, craft, customs and traditions, cuisine, history, relationships, and stories that a culture contains. It’s about how a culture expresses its own unique experience of life.

 Cultures are never monoliths. They are diverse and multifaceted, but are still identifiable as different and unique from other cultures. A culture to a group, is what an identity is to an individual. Take that away, and only a shell is left. Humans do not live well as shells, either as groups or as individuals. It’s like being a zombie, an animated physical form devoid of a soul. Culture and identity are both driven by, and are an expression of the essence of existence, the ‘life force’ if you will of a group or an individual. They are intertwined. Damage one, and you compromise the other.

 In the lives of individuals, the equivalent of colonialism is the experience of being affected by someone with a personality disorder. So many clients with such a history describe being left feeling ‘like a zombie’, an empty shell. In psychotherapy, we have to help these clients reconstruct their sense of identity and self by helping them rediscover what is important to them, what their interests are, their values, feelings, thoughts and beliefs, and how they like to express them. It’s a huge job.

 Kamel Hawwash’s excellent article, ‘Israel implements a deliberate policy to terrorise Palestinian children’ (Middle East Eye, 4th January 2018) made me think of how cunning Israel is in its attempt to destroy the essence of the Palestinian people, their very ‘life force’, their spirit. Attacking children is an aspect of the policy of elimination that isn’t focused on numbers, but on breaking the spirit of resistance.

 One of the biggest injuries you can inflict on adults is to render them powerless to protect their own children. As Hawwash says, “The knock on the door, the shouting of a name, the forced entry into a bedroom, can happen to any Palestinian child and without warning. No regard for age or circumstance is given.” If the Israeli forces can rape their way into a family’s home and do whatever they wish to the children, what power does the parent have left to protect the children?

 The trauma this produces, the way it breaks the spirit of people, is beyond what anyone can imagine. Only when you work closely with clients who were put in that situation do you catch a glimpse of the devasta
tion this causes. The guilt and the trauma are beyond what even excellent psychotherapy can help repair. Most parents would not be able to even conceive the idea of not being allowed to protect their own children. But this is both the threat and reality that every single Palestinian parent both in the colonised West Bank and in Gaza are living with.

 Leaving parents powerless to protect their children destroys families and chips away at the social ties and links that are such an important aspect of what makes a culture what it is. This is calculated and intentional, and I believe it falls under the UN definition of genocide along many other Israeli practices. But then again when is settler-colonialism not a type of genocide?

 To answer that nasty question of that lecturer whose name I do not remember, What’s wrong with the disappearance of a culture (due to colonialism)? What is wrong with it is precisely the same thing that is wrong with a rape.

This article appeared in our Just Voices magazine (issue 15, 2018) on Decolonisation and Indigenous Solidarity.