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The Origins of Zionism

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front cover of the book "the hundred years war on palestine: a history of settler colonialism and resistance, 1917-2017." the cover states that it is a New York Times bestseller at the top, and states the author's name, Rashid Khalidi. the bottom of the photo shows a scene of a village in palestine that is crumbling.

Front cover of “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine.” Credit: Macmillan Publishers

For the last 6 months, the world has been witness to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Outsized, and unprecedented attacks on the people of Gaza, and support from western countries for these Israeli attacks have led to a situation where Gaza is being referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison. 

In this episode with Gaza-based reporter Rami Almeghari, we talk to Rashid Khalidi about his book “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine” in order to learn more about the very early history of the zionist movement in Palestine and his argument that it was, from the start, a settler-colonial endeavor.


  • Rami Almeghari – Palestinian reporter from Gaza
  • Rashid Khalidi – Historian and Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University

Episode Credits:

  • Host: Salima Hamirani
  • Reporter: Rami Almeghari 
  • Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Amy Gastelum, and Lucy Kang
  • Executive Director: Jina Chung
  • Editor: Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong
  • Engineer: Jeff Emtman 
  • Digital Media Marketing: Anubhuti Kumar


  • Komiku – “Blue”
  • Doctor Turtle – “Leap Second”
  • Chris Zabriskie – “Take Off and Shoot a Zero”
  • DAM – “Resale in Zenzana”
  •  رسالة من زنزانة – دام – “A Letter From a Prison Cell”
  • Montplaisir – “Ridiculous”

More Information:


(Making Contact Button)

(fade in music)

Salima Hamirani: I’m Salima Hamirani, and on today’s Making Contact,-

Rashid Khalidi: by the late 1930s, by the early 1940s, it was perfectly clear. That to create a Jewish state in an Arab country would require the dispossession of a very large proportion of the Arab population and that’s what happened in 1948.

Salima Hamirani: we talk to Rashid Khalidi about his new book, The Hundred Years War on Palestine, A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance.

Rashid Khalidi: Israel has created a situation where no one is going to be able to take control of Gaza and where there’s likely to be continued resistance in the West Bank probably armed resistance in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip for an indefinite period.

Salima Hamirani: Stay tuned, all that and more coming up.

(fade out music)

Rami Almeghari:  over the past week, mainly over the week, and Israel has intensified its strikes, air strikes on various parts of the territory, including the southern, the middle, the northern Gaza Strip, as well as Gaza City, (fade out under narration)

Salima Hamirani: Welcome to Making Contact, I’m Salimah Hammourani. You’re listening to the voice of Rami Almaghari. Rami has reported from Gaza for decades for Pacifica Radio, and for us, here at Making Contact.

Rami Almeghari:  as the Israeli army has stormed already the Shifa Hospital, which is a &major hospital in the Gaza Where a few thousands of people have been stranded there, including patients, wounded, doctors, nurses, and other staff of the hospital. (fade out under narration)

Salima Hamirani: Rami was forced to flee his family home in northern Gaza when the Israeli bombing began. , And for a while he was sending us audio reports of the situation around Palestine.

Rami Almeghari:  In fact, other developments in Gaza have been unfolding coincidentally, as Israeli airstrikes have hit.

Salima Hamirani: This one is from November of 2023 (date)

Rami Almeghari:  For the third time in the past 40 hours, the Indonesian hospital in northern Gaza Strip, they hit nearby the hospital, around the hospital. People have been reportedly killed and others injured. (fade out under narration)

Salima Hamirani: Rami, like many Palestinians, is effectively now a refugee on his own land. Over 30, 000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli troops since October 7th, and Gaza is currently the most dangerous place on earth to be a journalist.

Rami Almeghari:  for making contact, Rami al Mihari, in Gaza.

(music fade in)

Salima Hamirani: if you’ve listened to most of the Western press, the focus is on October 7th as the beginning of the war. But the war in Palestine started decades ago. Before October 7th, before the Intifadas or the Camp David Accords, even before World War II. if we really want to understand what’s happening in Gaza right now, we have to understand that very early history, which is when Zionists first set their sights on Palestine. And to be honest, it wasn’t a history that I knew all that much about, so I sat down for an interview with Rashid Khalidi.

Rashid Khalidi: I teach. At Columbia University, where I’m the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies.

Salima Hamirani: because I just read his book, The 100 Years Worn Palestine, and Rashid said he had some specific reasons for writing this book. First, he wanted a more accessible account of Palestinian history. So not so academic, but he also wanted to combat some misconceptions.

Rashid Khalidi:  I had a very strong thesis that this is not a conflict that’s been going on since time immemorial. It’s a conflict caused by imperialism and the rise of modern nationalism. That there was no hostility between Arabs and Jews before the rise of Zionism and modern Arab nationalism and the, and the intrusion of British imperialism into the Middle East after World War I. And finally that Israel, while it represents a national project of Zionism was established as a settler colonial project. Those two things are actually not contradictory.

Salima Hamirani: And for today, we’re going to focus on a pivotal piece of Palestinian history, the very early Zionist movement and the subsequent settling of Palestine with the help of the British and later on the United States. And we hope that today’s interview will help us to understand how we got to where we are today.

Salima Hamirani (from interview): Rashid, to start let’s talk about the idea of Zionism because for many of us in the modern world we’ve come to perceive Zionism as a decolonial movement or even an indigenous one but you argue in your book that actually in the beginning Zionism had no problems calling itself a colonial endeavor and that Zionists even aligned themselves with the big colonial powers of the time.So talk to me about Zionism as a colonial movement and then how it rebranded itself into a decolonial one.

Rashid Khalidi: Absolutely. I mean, the founder of modern political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, made no bones about it. At one point he said something like we’ll be a barrier for Europe against the barbarism of Asia. So, they saw themselves as Europeans persecuted in Europe, but nevertheless Europeans. And they described what they were doing in terms of colonialism. I quote Zionist leaders in the 1920s. I quote in particular Zev Jabotinsky, who’s the founder of probably the most influential trend in Zionism. Since the 1970s the revisionist trend, which, you know, fathered the Likud party, which has dominated Israeli politics for the last 50 years. And he was quite explicit in talking about this as a colonial endeavor. He was quite explicit in talking and understanding that any colonization necessarily produces resistance by the indigenous population.

Salima Hamirani: in an article written in 1923 that Arabs would never peacefully cede their land because no indigenous people have ever ceded their land to colonizers without a fight. even explicitly compared Zionism to the kind of settler colonialism seen in the Americas.

Rashid Khalidi: And the fact that people dodge and weave around the idea of this project being a colonial one means that they’re completely ignoring the writings of people like Herzl, the writings of people like Jabotinsky, and The self perception of the early Zionist movement that one of the most important land purchase agencies was something called the Jewish Colonization Agency, later rebranded as the Palestine Jewish Colonization Agency. It existed until 1958. So that was, that was not just how other people perceived this. Palestinians or other Arabs. That’s how they perceived themselves. I mean, they saw they had a claim to the land, they believed their claim, you know, entitled them to do whatever they wanted, and they intended to establish a Jewish state in a predominantly Arab land on the basis of that claim, but operating as a settler colonial project. Now, what happens in World War II, Which is the beginning of the era of decolonization is a switch by the Zionist movement having been backed by the British up until World War II in an era where colonialism and settler colonialism were in good odor in the world. I mean, League of Nations and the great powers considered colonialism a good thing.

Rashid Khalidi: And so Zionism had no problem in self identifying as a colonial movement. But the Zionist movement fell out with the British. After the British changed their policy in 1939, and from that point on, when they were in conflict with the British, they began to see themselves as an anti colonial movement, and to rebrand themselves, and sell themselves as anti colonialists who struggled against British imperialism. British imperialism established the Zionist pre state. British imperialism made possible an increase in the Jewish population of Palestine from about 6 percent to 31 percent between 1917 and 1939. So the idea that this was not the spoiled stepchild of colonialism and British imperialism is absurd. But that rebranding was very successful in the era of decolonization

Salima Hamirani (from interview): So do you think that, I mean, yes, it was a colonial movement from the jump but do you think that all of the early Zionist settlers realized that they would have to violently crush the Arabs in order to maintain land?  Not at the beginning. I think there was a lot of self delusion. Um, In his diary Herzl wrote that we will spirit The poor population across the borders discreetly so that they understood that what they were trying to do was an embarrassing thing to remove the indigenous population, but they intended to do that. Now, he said, spirit them across the frontiers, implying that that could be done easily. Presumably with bribery or other inducements

Salima Hamirani: early Zionists might have been optimistic that the indigenous Arabs that they were displacing would calmly move out of their homes and off of their land. but the idea of benevolent displacement didn’t last long if it was even real in the first place. Of course, the Palestinians resisted and began fighting back

Rashid Khalidi: They understood that, that as Jabotinsky wrote in that 1923 article, the objective was to transform Palestine into the land of Israel. And that meant their dispossession. This is pictured as the irrational Muslim hatred of Jews or some other absurd in some other absurd fashion. But in fact it was as Jabotinsky pointed out, this is the natural resistance of an indigenous population to a colonial project. And so over time, the more hardheaded Zionists, like David Ben Gurion, who later on became the first prime minister of Israel, recognized that forcible removal of the population. the euphemism that was favored from the 30s onwards was transfer. What it meant was expulsion and ethnic cleansing. Dispossession. Would be necessary. So, by the late 1930s, by the early 1940s, it was perfectly clear. That to create a Jewish state in an Arab country in a country that as late as 1948 had a 65 or 66 percent Arab majority would require the dispossession of a very large proportion of the Arab population and that’s what happened in 1948.

Salima Hamirani: 1948 was the year of the Nakba, which we’ve covered a lot here at making contact . The Nakba or the catastrophe was the mass displacement and ethnic cleansing of Arabs living in Palestine in order to make way for the State of Israel.

Rashid Khalidi: you couldn’t have done what Israel did in order to create a majority Jewish state failing. You know, the kind of massive immigration they had been hoping for in the 20s and the 30s. The Jewish population as a proportion of the whole increased, it’s true, from 7 percent to about 31 percent by 1939. But that wasn’t a majority. And so force was necessary.

Salima Hamirani (from interview): Yeah. And I mean, sort of relatedly, I’ve heard Netanyahu in the past talking about Arabs in some pretty racist ways, and this is far before October 7th. much as colonial empires view the people that they’re subjugating. And so there’s this contradiction sometimes in the way that Zionists talk about themselves as being indigenous to the Middle East, and yet viewing the Arab world as inferior and barbarous.

Rashid Khalidi: Well, I, I mentioned, I mentioned Herzl talking about a barrier against the barbarism of Asia. I mean, that idea that we are Europeans and we represent enlightenment and they are non Europeans and they represent darkness, if you want. Was how should I say, extremely widespread among Europeans. And that was the world view that European Jews shared with other Europeans. A racist view based on a sense of superiority. Over the natives, over the indigenous peoples.

Salima Hamirani (from interview): Right. And that’s also interesting because there were already Jewish people living in Palestine, but they weren’t, I guess, European Jews. There were Jewish communities who were predominantly Arab in culture. Is that right?

Rashid Khalidi: That’s correct. Most of the Jewish population of Palestine were, in fact, Mizrahi Jews, Eastern Jews. Either indigenous Jewish populations that had been there for enormously lengthy periods of time. Sometimes had always been there. Or other, other immigrants to Palestine from places like Yemen other Arab countries. As well as many Ashkenazi Jews who had come for reasons of prayer or study. Or pilgrimage and who had stayed. And so you had a non Zionist, in many cases, anti Zionist Jewish population, the majority of the Jewish population of Palestine, right up to World War I. Probably fit into that category. The number of European Jews who came there for political reasons inspired by Zionism were still probably a minority as late as World War I. And near right, as far as Arab Jews were concerned, whether in Iraq or in Palestine or in Syria or Lebanon or elsewhere generally speaking they shared the culture, the language, the cuisine. Of their Muslim and Christian neighbors. They spoke Arabic, they were separated by religion, obviously, but , they shared the same culture, generally speaking.

Salima Hamirani (from interview): So Rashid, we’ve covered some of the early ideals of the Zionist movement in terms of its colonial aspirations, but the early Zionist movement was small and colonizing an entire territory requires a lot of arms and money. So talk to me about how Zionists began seeking out colonial funding or colonial backers and I’m especially interested in why the British decided to support Israel so strongly

Rashid Khalidi: The primary reason was strategic. The British, since early in the 20th century, had been worried about the defense of the eastern frontier of Egypt, which was a vital stepping stone on the route to India. And the empire, the crown and the jewel of the empire was India, so control of the Suez Canal, which runs through Egypt, was absolutely vital strategically to the British Empire. And British planners and strategists and generals and the committee of imperial defense were all worked up by around 1905 1906 with the problem of the defense of Egypt from the east. And Palestine is the country to the east was the focus of their concern.

The other important strategic factor is that Palestine is at the Mediterranean terminus of the shortest land route between the Mediterranean. And the gulf and in that same period, the British were realizing that the building of a railway, would enable transport quite rapidly between Europe and the Mediterranean and the gulf. And the Indian Ocean, and they wanted to control that shortest land route, controlled the Suez Canal, and for the same reasons. And so when you look at the Sykes Picot partition frontiers of 1915 1916, you see a strip of land running from Palestine across to Basra. Under British control which is the, how should I say, the instantiation of that British strategic priority that Britain must control not just the shortest sea route, but also the shortest land route.

That’s the reason they were interested in Palestine. And the Zionist movement came along, and they developed a transactional relationship. We will support your project. In exchange for our, our using that as the pretext for our being in Palestine

in the words of a British official who was actually the first military governor of Jerusalem, a man named Sir Ronald Storrs what Britain was trying to establish was a little loyal Jewish holster in a sea of hostile Arabs. And I think that sort of sums it up.

Salima Hamirani: We’re about to head into a break, but stay tuned. We have a lot more to discuss with Rashid Khalidi about his book, The 100 Years War on Palestine.

Break Music fade in

Salima Hamirani: We’re just jumping in to remind you that you’re listening to Making Contact. If you like today’s show and want more information, please visit us online at for show links and behind the scenes information, or to leave us a comment. And now, back to the show.

Break Music Fade out

Salima Hamirani: Welcome back to Making Contact, I’m salima Hamirani, and today we’re talking about Rashid Khalidi and his book, The 100 Years War on Palestine. In the first half of the show, we looked at the early Zionist movement as a colonial endeavor, and how the British became its primary benefactor. Without its help, Israel would not exist today.Or at least, not today. The mass migration to Israel that slowly displaced the Palestinians could not have happened. However, although Israel still received support from the British government, the United Kingdom is not Israel’s primary supporter. That, of course, is the United States

Salima Hamirani (from interview): So Rasheed, Great Britain had been a huge supporter of Israel. What happened? Why did Great Britain lose interest?

Rashid Khalidi: Well, this is before the establishment of Israel. But the Jewish agency, which had been established by the British as a sort of quasi government, quasi Zionist, quasi government of the Jewish population of Palestine switched because the British had switched. And the British switched for reasons linked to the original strategic reasons that had made them want to control Palestine by 1939, they had had enormous difficulty in mastering a massive nationwide Palestinian revolt that had lasted from 1936 to 1930, which had required. The sending of over 100, 000 British troops and police to Palestine and which had cost a fortune to the British exchequer and had only, been suppressed with the greatest difficulty. Between 14 and 17 percent of the adult male Palestinian population were either killed, wounded interned or arrested or exiled and the British realized by 1939 that they were on the brink of World War II. There was a restive Arab population in Palestine. There was fury and rage throughout the Arab world and in fact, far beyond in the Muslim world, including in India about what Britain had done in Palestine. And the British realized we’re going to have to fight in the Middle East. We’re going to have to fight Mussolini. We’re going to have to fight Hitler. They could see the war coming. And so Britain changed its policy.

It had to cater to Arab sentiments. It had to cater to sentiment in India. Secretary of State for India and the Viceroy are writing the Cabinet and telling them, this is an Indian problem now. What you are doing in Palestine is a problem for us in India. They could not send Indian troops to quell the Palestinian uprising because they couldn’t be sure of their loyalty. There was so much support and sympathy. For the Palestinians in India, and I think that’s an indication of the strategic reasons for which Britain changes course and in 1939 Issues at what’s called a white paper in which they limited Jewish immigration, which had been unlimited up to that point They limited Jewish land purchase which had been unlimited up to that point and they shifted for the first time to talking about an independent Palestine, which would have had an Arab majority.

Now there were all kinds of poison pills in this, which meant it probably never would have taken place. But from the Zionist perspective, this was a betrayal. The Zionist always read the pledge in the Balfour Declaration of a Jewish national home as a Jewish state. And in fact, Lord Balfour and, and Lloyd George and Churchill had assured Weizmann that that’s what they meant when they said. A Jewish national home. They meant when you have a majority, you take it over. It’s yours, and so, they, in their disappointment and in their anger you had the beginning of a rebellion in the Jewish community in Palestine against the British.

And a search for new patrons. The Zionist Project needed a new patron. They tried the Germans and the French before World War I. They had succeeded with the British during World War I. And during World War II, they managed to find two exceedingly powerful patrons, which were the United States and the Soviet Union. And those are the powers that ended up backing the establishment of Israel through a General Assembly resolution in 1947.

Salima Hamirani: At the time, the United States was not the global power that it is now, but the U. S. already had a deep interest in Zionism

Rashid Khalidi: The main motivation, I would argue, was electoral and strategic for the United States taking the approach that it did after World War II. The United States wanted foothold in the Middle East. The United States wanted to ease the British out and take their place. The United States was very impressed, in particular, once the Arab Israeli war started, with the military prowess. Um, And so whether it was oil companies or the defense department or others as well as the president who had his own electoral concerns, different parts of the U. S. government saw alignment with Israel as advantageous to the United States.

Rashid Khalidi: Truman famously once said, before 1948, to a group of American diplomats who were serving in different Arab capitals, and who said to the president that he should moderate his support of Zionism, he said, Gentlemen, I have many constituents who are concerned for the success of Zionism. I don’t have any who are concerned for the Arabs. And that was an electoral consideration for a president who barely got elected in 1948 and so that for him was a, a factor as it was a factor for LBJ as it is a factor for Joe Biden.You cannot ignore the electoral. importance of this issue for certain important segments of voters and certain important segments of donors, especially to the Democratic Party, but now also to the Republican Party.

Salima Hamirani (From interview): Yeah, you know when I was reading that section about how the US became interested in Israel, what really stood out to me was how good the Zionist movement was at reading the global stage. According to Turkey, or I guess at that time the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain, , and then knowing or seeing that the U.S. was becoming a huge colonial power, and, and easily sort of wooing, uh, American politicians, that’s something that the Palestinians just weren’t able to do very easily.

Rashid Khalidi: you’re absolutely right. I mean, the shrewdness of the Zionist leadership before the establishment of Israel and of Israeli leaders since then in sensing shifts in the global balance of power. Is, is really quite remarkable. Of course, it’s a function of the fact that they understand that the project is dependent on outside support.

You cannot establish a Jewish state in a majority Arab country, and keep that Arab majority out, and keep them, hold them down, and resist support for them by their Arab neighbors, unless you have massive external support. They have to be sensitive. They had to be from the moment of the establishment of modern political Zionism. And they have to be, today, during the Gaza War, extremely sensitive, at least to the support of the United States and the former colonial powers in Europe, who are In effect, the metropole of this colonial project, the center. Without that center, I mean, Israel is a powerful independent state. It has nuclear weapons.It is the fourth largest army in the world. It’s technologically superior in many ways. It has a huge army. We’re seeing four divisions in Gaza, several divisions along the Lebanese frontier. How many armies have eight or ten or twelve divisions?

And yet it is dependent, completely dependent in some respects on external support. Israel would be in dire shape were it not for American vetoes in the Security Council. The Israeli artillery would not have shells to fire were it not for the United States.

And so this remarkable prescience and concern about the international balance of power is a function of the absolute dependence. Of the Zionist project and since then of the state of Israel on external support from specifically from the United States and Western Europe.

(Fade in Music)

Salima Hamirani: There’s a lot more in Rashid Khalidi’s book, The 100 Years Warm Palestine, and you can find links to his work on our website. But we wanted to end here because right now, for the first time, the colonial backing that Israel has normally depended on is under threat.

Protest Clips: clips of protests- fade out under Rashid)

Rashid Khalidi: we’re speaking to each other at a time of, of, you know, terrible anguish in Gaza and in Palestine and among people who have any kind of moral sense and, and there’s no, at the time we’re, we’re talking to each other, there seems to be no end in sight.

Salima Hamirani:  Protests around the world have reignited an interest in Palestine and the history of the Zionist movement there. There have even been open allegations of genocide against the Israeli government. So to end, we want to talk about what that means for the region.

(Fade out Music)

Rashid Khalidi: Think that Israel has sowed the seeds of a disastrous situation for itself in terms of more intensive occupation of the West Bank and intensification of colonization of the West Bank and what will inevitably be a reoccupation of Gaza, I think.

Israel has created a situation where no one is going to be able to take control of Gaza from Israel and where there’s likely to be continued resistance in the West Bank probably armed resistance in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip for an indefinite period.  Whatever happens militarily, whether Israel succeeds in defeating the armed resistance in the Gaza Strip. It won’t end resistance there. There’s no way it can do that. In fact, it’s probably generated a whole new wave of people who will rise up against the occupation. 75, 000 people who have been killed and wounded so far. I mean, there are 20, 000 people dead. There’s seven or 8, 000 people missing. Most of them are dead. There are, I believe, around 50, 000 people. So we’re talking about 75, 000 people and the war is nowhere near over. We could have many, many more killed and wounded and maimed and missing. And that will generate. Enormous anger and hostility among Palestinians for a very long period going forward.

Salima Hamirani: The numbers cited by Rashid are from late last year, when we first talked. That number is a lot higher now. And it’s also important to note that Israel’s long term strategy is unclear, but one thing is certain, and it’s something that Jabotinsky pointed out in that 1923 article we mentioned at the beginning of the show. Whether or not Hamas is overthrown, the war will probably create a bigger, stronger, and more determined resistance.

Rashid Khalidi: Where that leads, I don’t know. What the impact of that on the Arab world is, I don’t know. You have in the Arab world regimes that are based on repression of what their people want, not allowing them to express themselves, in most cases. Most of these regimes, whether they’re absolute monarchies or whether they’re military dictatorships, Are terrified of their people and the fact that public opinion in the Arab world is extremely deeply affected by what’s happening in Palestine is a wild card. It’s impossible to say which way that’s going to go. You have in Lebanon and you have in Yemen and you have in Iraq forces that and in Syria, some forces that are, you know, Militarily engaging in this war to a limited extent. But otherwise Arab regimes are quiescent. They’re trying to do things diplomatically, but there are ineffective how that will work itself out in the future. I don’t know.

Finally you have the United States and Western Europe, which are the. You know, the metropole for this project, which are the allies of Israel and have are the absolutely essential backers of Israel without which it would be in a parlous situation, how this war will affect support for Israel in these countries. Again, it’s impossible to say there seems to be a trend. In the United States and at least in Great Britain towards a deeper sympathy for the Palestinians and towards a greater unwillingness to give Israel the kind of blank check that the American and British and European governments have traditionally given it. How that will work out is impossible to say.

Salima Hamirani: and however it does work out, we’ll continue to follow the war in Gaza here on Making Contact for the rest of this year. That was Rashid Khalidi talking about his book, The Hundred Years War on Palestine, and that does it for today’s show. If you’d like more information or want to leave a comment, visit us online at I’m Salima Hamirani. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.

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