SEATTLE — (Analysis) In his 2007 book, “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East,” which celebrates the proto-Zionism of the early American colonists and the bonds between 18th century Puritanism and the ancient “Children of Israel,” Michael Oren leaves out some important information.
What did the historian and former Israeli ambassador to the United States leave out? Notably, the American impulse to ethnic cleansing and its parallels with the history of the state of Israel.
British historian Nicholas Guyatt recently published a chapter of his new book, “Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation,” in Salon. Even devout students of American history may be surprised to learn there about lesser-known aspects of 18th and 19th American history regarding slavery and the treatment of Native Americans.
Guyatt, who teaches American History at Cambridge. begins with Thomas Jefferson, the author of the immortal phrase on which the republic was founded: “all men are created equal.” Though Jefferson may not have included enslaved people and free black Americans in this formulation, it eventually became clear that there was no reasonable way to exclude them. From the early 1770s and even as governor of Virginia, he attacked the institution of slavery. Of course, he also owned slaves and did not emancipate them on his death as he could have.
Guyatt crystallizes Jefferson’s ambivalence in his correspondence with another young Virginian, Edward Coles, who served as the private secretary of President James Madison. When Coles encouraged Jefferson to help devise a plan to end slavery in the United States, Jefferson admitted the institution is unjust. But he hesitated in the face of the obvious conclusion that it must be uprooted. Guyatt writes:
“Jefferson conceded that ‘the love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people.’ But what would happen to them (and their white neighbors) if slaves were suddenly set free? For decades, Jefferson’s anxieties about integration had weakened his antislavery convictions. Coles had his own solution: he would take his freed slaves to the western states and forge a new life with them there. Jefferson was alarmed by this plan to ‘abandon’ them in the midst of white people. He urged a different solution: slaves should be freed gradually and on condition that they leave the United States.”
Jefferson was one of the earliest proponents of this conviction that freed slaves could not and should not be integrated into American society. Throughout the 19th century, white American liberals suggested that it was most benevolent for black people to be repatriated to Africa. Though Jefferson lived alongside, loved, and sired the children of Sally Hemmings, the notion of racial “amalgamation” was anathema to the most progressive whites of the era:
“Abolition, the most obvious way to resolve that contradiction, would convert slaves into citizens at a stroke. But the vast majority of white Americans were nervous about what freed people might do next. Slavery had denied African Americans an education and an opportunity to better themselves, and it had given them ample reason to resent the people who had benefited from their bondage.
These anxieties crowded the minds of slaveholders and reformers alike and encouraged a third way of thinking: if slavery was immoral and multiracial citizenship was beset with difficulties, perhaps black people could be freed and resettled away from whites. This plan was usually known as ‘colonization,’ and Jefferson was one of the first people in North America to endorse it.”
National leaders as varied as Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and even President Madison served as presidents of the American Colonization Society, the leading white organization seeking both an end to slavery and return slaves to Africa, which founded the nation of Liberia in 1821.
Even Abraham Lincoln favored this plan, Guyatt writes:
“When he addressed a group of free blacks in Washington in the summer of 1862, with the war’s outcome uncertain, Lincoln insisted that they had a duty to leave the country and build a separate nation for African Americans. ‘You may believe you can live in Washington or elsewhere in the United States,’ he told them. ‘This is (I speak in no unkind sense) an extremely selfish view of the case.’”
It is sad to think that had he lived, Lincoln would have worked as tirelessly for colonization as he had fought for emancipation during the Civil War.
Democracy or Jewish state: The Israeli conundrum
The founders of the modern state of Israel faced a similar conundrum. They claimed their new nation was both a homeland for the Jewish people and one based on democratic principles. But this state could never be a homeland for two peoples, nor could it ever grant full, equal rights to its non-Jewish citizens, if it wished to remain a Jewish state.
David Ben-Gurion, among others, faced a fateful decision: Should the Zionist movement embrace the democratic aspect of its principles and offer full freedom to all citizens regardless of religion? After all, this is the promise inscribed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that the state of Israel will “promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants” and “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex.”
Or should it embrace its role as the national movement of the Jewish people?
There could be no question of his choice. From the very beginning, Ben-Gurion recognized the Arab minority as a mortal danger to the Zionist enterprise. In his letters and diaries he regularly contemplates either depopulating Palestine of its Arab community or expelling them. He wisely recognizes that they will reject their subservience to the new Jewish majority, and he anticipates they may resist and even fight against it. He asserts clearly that if the Arabs refuse to accept the inevitable, then they must go:
“ … [W]e can no longer tolerate that vast territories capable of absorbing tens of thousands of Jews should remain vacant, and that Jews cannot return to their homeland because the Arabs prefer that the place [the Negev] remains neither ours nor theirs. We must expel Arabs and take their place. Up to now, all our aspirations have been based on an assumption – one that has been vindicated throughout our activities in the country – that there is enough room in the land for the Arabs and ourselves. But if we are compelled to fight – not in order to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev or Transjordan, but in order to guarantee our right to settle there – our [military] power will enable us to do so.”
In his book, “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” Ilan Pappe also quotes a statement by the future Israeli prime minister written to his son, Amos, in 1937: “The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war.” By 1954, with the Brown vs. Board of Education landmark Supreme Court ruling, the U.S. finally made a commitment to fully integrating the former slaves and their offspring into American society. That decision finally broke the hold of the “separate but equal” doctrine by which Jim Crow ensured the supremacy of Southern whites in race relations. Brown was the first blow in the civil rights movement, which finally offered descendants of slaves their full freedom in American society.
Unlike white American liberals on the issue of freed slaves, Ben-Gurion didn’t much care what happened to the Palestinian refugees. That was one reason the 750,000 Palestinians expelled in the Nakba were scattered to the wind in refugee camps among the frontline Arab states (Egypt-Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria). In a way this suited Israel, because the more scattered the refugees, the harder it would be for them to organize and regain their lost patrimony. Indeed, Israel has always observed the colonial dictum that a divided, weakened enemy is best for maintaining control.
Both white American liberals and the Zionist leadership recognized an inherent danger to their enterprise in the Other (blacks and Arabs, respectively). Both proposed a similar solution: in Israel it was “population transfer” (known today as ethnic cleansing), and in the U.S. it was “colonization.”
Despite its enthusiastic adoption by Marcus Garvey in the early 20th century, the idea of colonization never succeeded. The vast majority of black Americans remained here. By 1954, with the Brown vs. Board of Education landmark Supreme Court ruling, the U.S. finally made a commitment to fully-integrating the former slaves and their offspring into American society. That decision finally broke the hold of the “separate but equal” doctrine by which Jim Crow ensured the supremacy of southern whites in race relations. Brown was the first blow in the Civil Rights movement, which finally offered descendants of slaves their full freedom in American society..
Israel chose a different route. It expelled over half of its Arab inhabitants, ensuring what Ben-Gurion considered vital: a permanent Jewish majority. But because he permitted almost a million Arabs to remain, he could eliminate neither the stain of expulsion nor the stain of a permanently subservient minority Arab population.
This de facto policy of expulsion continues today in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, especially those in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israel’s punitive siege on Gaza is designed to drive as many Palestinians to emigrate as possible.
There are also policies in place which deprive Palestinians of permanent residency or citizenship if they live outside of Israel for a period longer than a few years. Palestinian citizens of Israel face a range of discriminatory laws and policies which deny their communities the right to expand, including refusing building permits to absorb the growing population. They are denied the right to live in Jewish communities. Palestinian villages and municipalities are severely underfunded compared to their wealthier Jewish counterparts. This means that education, healthcare and jobs are effectively denied to the Palestinian minority.
All of this is a not-so-subtle reminder to Palestinians that they are a tolerated, but unwanted minority. The message is that if they don’t like it here, they can go elsewhere. And many do. The Palestinian national poet, Mahmoud Darwish, went into self-imposed exile in the 1960s and was only permitted to return a few months before his death in 2008. One of Israel’s most gifted Palestinian screenwriters and journalists, Sayed Kashua, emigrated to the U.S. during the 2014 war in Gaza.
Contemporary polls of Israeli Jewish opinion find as much as 48 percent favoring “transfer.” Politicians as popular as Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, who are sure to vie for the role of prime minister some day, propose variations on “population transfer” that would complete Ben-Gurion’s job by further reducing the Palestinian demographic threat.
Ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and Israeli Palestinians
In his latest work, Nicholas Guyatt raises yet another disturbing aspect of 19th century American racism: the removal of the Native American population through forced marches, like Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears, and the gradual transfer of indigenous peoples to massive reservations, where they were essentially dumped so as to be “out of sight, out of mind” for the rest of the country.
Just as the U.S. had to decide what to do with the black people who would be freed from slavery, it also had to decide what to do with the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who were perceived as blocking the path of westward expansion.
Though Americans at first believed that Native Americans might be gradually absorbed into the greater society, the Indian Wars which raged throughout the 19th century convinced whites that they could not live in peace with this minority population.
Blacks could be sent back to Africa, but there was nowhere to repatriate Native Americans to — this land was, after all, their native land. Thus, leaders like Jackson resolved to remove the Native Americans, who were perceived as an obstruction to American progress, to a suitably westward barren place.
The Cambridge historian notes the parallels between the colonization project and the forced removal of Native Americans:
“Both were premised on the idea that contact between non-whites and whites tended to ‘degrade’ the former, preventing them from achieving their natural potential and making equal citizenship all but impossible. Both promised a happier future for non-whites beyond the borders of the United States in self-governing and prosperous offshoots of the American republic. Crucially, both were couched in terms of benevolence. Missionaries and religious reformers took the lead, anchoring their good intentions with a simple promise: colonization should be voluntary. When African Americans and Native Americans expressed wariness or outright opposition, the white architects of colonization insisted that blacks and Indians would eventually realize the benefits of resettlement and willingly leave the United States.
… [T]hings didn’t turn out this way. Andrew Jackson was so determined to remove Native peoples from the southeastern states that he abandoned the pretense of consent, exchanging colonization for expulsion.”
But it wasn’t just the adherents of Manifest Destiny like Jackson who embraced these principles. Liberal elites grabbed onto it, too:
“White reformers, politicians, and churchmen believed that non-whites could only realize their innate potential as human beings—and perhaps even their equality with whites—by separating themselves from the American republic. …
Colonization proposals were crafted by intellectuals, reformers, and politicians—men (and occasionally women) who saw themselves as ‘liberal’ in their sentiments. … With few exceptions, the architects of racial separation in the early republic emphatically denied that blacks or Indians were permanently inferior to whites. Instead, they spoke of their duty to help non-white people complete their journey toward ‘civilized’ status.”
Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian minority also recalls the United States’ subjugation of its indigenous peoples. The early Zionist movement understood that for it to succeed, it must incorporate hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new Jewish immigrants.
In his writings, Ben-Gurion made clear that he understood that this would likely displace Arab inhabitants. For him, it seemed like a minor injustice compared to the far greater good of creating a homeland that would ensure to sovereignty of the Jewish people.
The American attitude toward Native Americans was that they were “in the way;” that they interfered with God’s plan to settle and civilize the New Land. Therefore, they had to be swept aside. Zionists similarly justified the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba.
Where the US and Israel diverge: Finding a clear path forward
Despite these similarities, there are key differences between the American and Zionist models. Most Americans have come to realize that slavery and racism are Original Sins for which this country must atone. To realize the vision of our nation as a democratic republic, they understand that these injustices must be addressed. In the past 60 years, the civil rights movement and the laws which it advocated have changed the nature of our society. They have not healed all the wounds nor repaired the injustice of a century of slavery and the ensuing decades of Jim Crow “separate but equal.” But the path is clear and the goal is in sight.
Israel, on the other hand, has never fully grappled with, or understood, its Original Sin: The Nakba. Steeped in denialism, Israel has never resolved the contradiction between an ethnic state and a democracy.
The only path forward that leads to a constructive resolution of these conflicts involves breaking with the tradition of Israel as a state which privileges Jews over non-Jews. It involves offering full, equal rights to non-Jewish citizens. It involves recognition that Israel is a homeland of two peoples, not one.
As Israel has no founding document like the Constitution or Bill of Rights, and as it had no Founding Fathers with the foresight and wisdom to lay out a path for the nation to realize its full potential as a democratic republic, Israel has stumbled. It now faces a crisis. So far, it has chosen a path leading to a political theocracy, a Jewish version of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This approach reminds me of the closing line of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
One hopes that some day Israel will, either voluntarily or under pressure from the global community, move forward into a future that is unencumbered by the deep sins of its past. That will only happen by acknowledging these sins and making reparations, as well as addressing the pain and suffering they have caused the indigenous Palestinian people.