Is settler colonial history urban history?

By Efrat Gilad, Graduate Institute Geneva

Tel Aviv, “the First Hebrew City” founded in 1909, is also referred to as “the city that begat a state”. This celebratory proverb illustrates how the city’s capitalist ventures were the economic and cultural catalyst for the future state. While Jerusalem had its spiritual significance and Haifa served as a center of British economic interests, Tel Aviv operated as the Jewish capital throughout British rule (1917-1948). The city attracted Jewish settlers to Palestine and served as an urban refuge for those settlers who became disillusioned from the glorified image of rural life. A cultural hub, business epicenter and headquarters of several Zionist institutions, Tel Aviv, in other words, was a settler-city that begat a settler-state.

Screen Shot 2020-02-07 at 12.58.50

Tel Aviv Street, 1935, © National Library of Israel

The history of Tel Aviv as settler-city (hyphenated thusly I suggest, to be read as one concept) begs to look elsewhere for additional examples where settler-cities were a crucial component in creating states. Yet, while some scholars have pointed to the mundane activities of urban settlers as imperative to, and representative of, the settler colonial system, historiography deems urbanism as inherently antithetical to the concept of settler colonialism even in the face of overwhelming demographic and economic evidence disproving such a dichotomy.

ALG postcard map FA

1888 Map of Algiers, Highlighting the Kasbah

In contrast to colonial grand plans, self-image, and historical representations, only very few European settlers settled in the countryside. While in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia Europeans formed a fraction of the population, they disproportionately dominated cities such as Casablanca, Algiers, and Tunis. Often living in coastal towns, Europeans did not till many soils, but worked as clerks, shopkeepers, and bureaucrats. Similarly, while the glorified kibbutz attracted much historiographical attention, the vast majority of European Jews settled in Palestine’s cities. The same could be said for Italians in Ethiopia and settler societies in South Africa and South America. Yet while historians recognize the gravitation of settlers towards cities in individual cases, this trend has yet to be acknowledged as a dominant component of settler colonialism. As historians, the generalizability of this trend has evaded us.

Part of the issue has to do with terminology. As Michael Goebel noted, the fact that most settlers went to cities “sits uncomfortably with the imagery conjured up by the term ‘settler’.” Indeed, as “settler” is an extension of “colonizer,” derived from the Latin “farmer” or “cultivator,” the imagery of rurality has restricted our ability to conceptualize settlerism beyond smallholders. The conventional focus on frontiers and pioneers has drawn us to the edges. So has the emphasis on land and labor. But scores of urban settlers point to a history from the middle: of metropolises and middle classes. And those metropolises, as recently illustrated on this blog, even in their configuration are inherently settler colonial. If we consistently find the settler-city at the heart of settler colonial systems, was the city in fact the belly of the beast?

Omaha 1867

Omaha, Nebraska, 1867

Other disciplines have noticed the union between settler colonialism and cities. Geographers, anthropologists, and urban studies scholars have called to “urbanize” settler colonial studies. This call includes reading present-day gentrification, suburbanization, and urban segregation as settler colonial legacies, as well as “discovering” the city as a frontier for settler–indigenous encounters. David Hugill refers to these works as multidisciplinary efforts to construe colonialism’s role in the production of cities. But here I ask the opposite; could we think of the city’s role in the production of (settler) colonialism?

Global urban history and global microhistory might be especially well situated to ask how the city produced colonialism rather than how colonialism produced cities. A comparative approach might be especially favorable in figuring out where this phenomenon was prominent empirically and thus promising conceptually. Here I suggest a preliminary attempt towards hypothesizing the role of settler-cities in the production of colonialism with Tel Aviv as a main example. Using Tel Aviv, we can think about the dynamics of a settler-city by means of three categories: land and labor, the “non-city,” and the relations between settlers and colonial powers.

Celebrating Tel Aviv as the “city that begat a state” illustrates a result but only hints at a historical process. Diverging from triumphant titles, my prism into Tel Aviv’s history is rather lowly: meat, slaughter, and slaughterhouses. As European Jews poured into Jaffa and Tel Aviv during the 1920s and 1930s, accommodating their appetite for meat, especially beef, became a major endeavor in a country of limited supply. Delving into the history of meat in Tel Aviv, I trace the dynamics of a city in the making; the movement of people towards it, their domination over land and space, and the transformation of that space according to their desires.


Patagonia. Courtesy © of Marcos Furer Photography

Within the global history of meat, where the domination of space occurred on a gargantuan scale, Tel Aviv is but a peripheral example. Suffice it to think of the cowboys and gauchos of Australia, U.S., Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and New Zealand, who led their massive herds of livestock, devouring lands and feeding empires. Yet coincidently, like these territories, Tel Aviv too, was part of a settler colonial project. Its citizens’ desire for meat drove the city’s development, even if in a different manner and scale of the meat producing giants of the Southern hemisphere. And, incidentally or not, Israel’s meat consumption today is on par with these carnivorous capitals. Making this connection, implies an inherent link not only between imperialism and meat, but settler colonialism and meat. Here, we can start to examine how Tel Aviv’s history embodies the dynamics of settler colonialism when urban history meets meat.

A Side Street Addis Ababa, 1930 NYSA_A3045-78_B15454

A Side Street, Addis Ababa, 1930. © New York State Archive

Land and labor, a frequently examined topic within settler colonial rural contexts, should also consider urban lands and urban vocations. In producing states, the appropriation of land and the production of capital by urban settlers was equally important as was the seizure of agricultural lands. In Tel Aviv for example, building a slaughterhouse separate from that of Jaffa’s was designed to produce vital revenue for the young city. A slaughterhouse was considered essential for Tel Aviv’s urban development: taxes, jobs, associated businesses, and no less significant – more land. The location chosen was telling of a settler-city: not in Tel Aviv’s existing boundaries but beyond them, allowing the city to expand. As nineteenth- and twentieth-century slaughterhouses were built far from city centers, due to modern sensibilities to the sights, sounds and smells of slaughtered animals, this meant a distant location allowed to take over the entire area between it and the city. The specific plot Tel Aviv chose, and the British government approved, is also noteworthy here. Although deemed “vacant” by Ottoman and later British rule, the legal status of the plot was contested in court by local Palestinians. They lost the case. The slaughterhouse was then the first municipal institution Tel Aviv gained, paving the way towards its separation from Jaffa, and eventually its takeover.

Le Corbusier's Addis Plan 1936

Model of Le Corbusier’s (Unrealized) 1936 Plan for Addis

Tel Aviv’s separation from Jaffa is also indicative of another commonality it might share with other settler cities. In its early days, Tel Aviv boasted an image of a modernist European alternative to old “Arab” Jaffa, fondly referred to by inhabitants and administrators as a “European city in the Orient.” In a similar manner, urban settlers elsewhere were said to be recreating Europe with examples from Africa or South America. Beyond imagery or lifestyle, Emanuele Ertola shows how, as opposed to old colonial cities, Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa was considered a clean slate, essentially a “non-city,” ready to be rebuilt for Italian settlers. Addis Ababa, Tel Aviv, and of course French Algiers, illustrate how settler cities often rose against the backdrop of a “non-city” or in juxtaposition to an existing city, essentially creating two cities within one. With settlers using a plethora of justifications to erase as they constructed, examples from Vancouver suggest how rediscovering the “city before the city” holds historical value in dismantling that erasure.

Finally, as Lorenzo Veracini identified, settlers functioned far from, or semi-independent to, a European sovereign. This insight points to a particularly promising path towards conceptualizing the settler-city, as it was the city, more so than the rural sector, which created a system that served settlers more than it did empires, and the foundations and institutions to inherit the state. In other words, British imperialism enabled, but did not create, the Jewish settlement in Palestine. The Zionist movement gained from, but did not plan on, the expansion of Tel Aviv. The city’s mammoth growth, driven by urban settlers and local administrators, was an ideological obstacle for a Zionist movement that idealized the countryside. Yet, demographically, economically, and eventually politically, it was a triumph. It was the city that begat the state.

If urban settler demographics are a commonality rather than an anomaly, and urban settlers’ undertakings effectively created the foundations of their future states, is settler colonial history urban history?


Efrat Gilad is a Ph.D. Candidate in International History at the Graduate Institute Geneva and an SNSF Doc.CH Fellow. Her research focuses on food and nutrition as entry points to broader discussions about the exchange of ideas, goods, and the movement of people during the twentieth century.


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