The loathsome debate over Israel’s ‘right to exist’ makes an excellent case study. It illustrates the difference between forming a state through annihilation of indigenous people — North America — and the creation of a state through international law — Israel.
The settlement of America by Europeans is the story of incessant warfare between European powers and indigenous peoples. It is the story of exploitation of Indians and betrayal. From the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, from north to south, there were bitter conflicts, massacres, removal policy — what we call ethnic cleansing today. The founding of America only intensified the fighting and made it more ruthless. The Reader’s Companion to American History states that military force alone did not destroy Indian resistance: “Only in conjunction with railroad expansion, the destruction of the buffalo, increased numbers of non-Indian settlers, and the determination of successive governments to crush any challenge to their sovereignty had white armies overwhelmed the tribes”.
The history is far from simple. In the New England colonies, there was an effort at rapprochement and cooperation. Still, the results constitute a large stain in the development of North America.
Canada’s founding nations, the English and the French, did not wage war against the Indians but did negotiate treaties which they subsequently violated or disregarded and established residential schools to assimilate Indians, which resulted in the horrors and abuse all Canadians know only too well.
What about the founding of modern Israel? Put aside the fact that there were Jewish kingdoms — Saul, David, Solomon — thousands of years before the existence of Christianity and Islam. Put aside the fact that Jews were expelled by the Babylonians and then the Romans and tried to live for 2,000 years far from their ancestral homeland in a hostile Europe whose hatred resulted in dislocation, expulsions, pogroms and the Holocaust. The return to Zion — and it was unmistakeably a return — was made necessary by a relentless, violent, murderous Europe, east and west.
Let us, however, focus on recent history. The renowned Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, in his book The Case for Israel, writes about the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Even before the Balfour Declaration, though, there was a Jewish national home in Palestine: “The Jewish refugees…had established this homeland on the ground without the assistance of any colonial or imperialist powers. They had relied on their own hard work and in building an infrastructure and cultivating land they had legally purchased”.
There had never been a Palestinian state in that area. It was not a question of carving out a Jewish homeland from an existing Palestinian state but, instead, allocating “a 45,000 square-mile area of land that had been captured from the Ottoman Empire and was populated by Arabs, Jews and others.” The Balfour Declaration became a matter of binding international law when the League of Nations made it part of its mandate.
Churchill wrote that it is “manifestly right that the scattered Jews should have a national centre and a national home and be reunited and where else but in Palestine with which for 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated? We think it will be good for the world, good for the Jews, good for the British Empire, but also good for the Arabs who dwell in Palestine…They shall share in the benefits and progress of Zionism”.
The San Remo conference of 1920 confirmed the pledge contained in the Balfour Declaration and the U.N. Partition Plan for Palestine was adopted by the United Nations in 1947.
The contrast between the European and North American subjugation and annihilation of indigenous peoples and the Israeli legal route to nationhood could not possibly be more striking.
Europeans and North Americans lecturing Israel on nationhood is a travesty of history. It reeks of hypocrisy. It would appear that history, facts and truth do not fare well against entrenched myth and prejudice. Mark Twain wrote that nothing so needs reforming as other peoples’ habits. Those attempting to delegitimize Israel had best tend to their own failings.
Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the University of Waterloo (Canada)