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Another river, another sea

What drives regular American college kids' rage against Israel when - I'm guessing - they weren't raised to hate Jews?
The Quinobequin river, also known as The Charles in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Copyright (c) 1992 by Hugh Taylor
The Quinobequin river, also known as The Charles in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Copyright (c) 1992 by Hugh Taylor

As a 1988 graduate of Harvard College, I wish to speak with you, the current student body, and your contemporaries, about a country that has been the subject of a great deal of controversy in recent years. Formed out of a remnant of the British Empire, its white settlers brutally displaced an indigenous population, relegating them to squalid camps while they took over their lands. These colonizers then set about establishing a country based on racist principles, in which whites had all the power and wealth. You hate those white colonizers, don’t you? No punishment would be too extreme in evicting them from their stolen land, correct? I’m talking, of course, about the United States. What country did you think I was describing?

Oh, I get it. You thought I meant Israel, a country formed by the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. In recognition of the historical fact that the Jews had been the indigenous population of what was then called Palestine for 3,000 continuous years, the British, who oversaw the transformation of Ottoman territories into independent nations, proposed to create a Jewish state in that place.

And, in acknowledgement of the Arab population of the area, which arrived as conquerors (actual colonizers, if you will) from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, the British also proposed the establishment of an Arab nation in a large swath of Palestine. The United Nations approved this plan in 1947, and we are now in the 76th year of independent Jewish and Arab nations happily coexisting in the region formerly known as Palestine.

Just kidding. The surrounding Arab countries launched an openly genocidal war against the new Jewish state in 1948 and lost. The war displaced about 500,000 Arabs, who found themselves living in refugee camps. This was a tragedy, but their plight was the result of a war that Israel did not want and did not start. The Arab countries, which were responsible for these refugees but did nothing to help them, also violently expelled 800,000 Mizrahi Jews (“Brown people,” in your lingo), most of whom fled to Israel. There has been no compensation for their losses and trauma.

Despite these truths, we now have you, mostly white Americans, marching en masse across Harvard Yard, and many other campuses across the country, carrying Palestinian flags and screaming, “From the river to the sea, Palestine should be free!”

The question arises: How could regular American kids like you be getting up to such hateful antics? That’s easy, say my friends. You’re all antisemites. I’m not so sure.

I could be wrong, but the accusation of antisemitism feels simplistic. I doubt you were raised to hate Jews, though perhaps I’m being naïve.

So, what is driving privileged young white Americans like you to have such powerful rage against Israel? Part of it, I think, comes from a commendable passion for justice on behalf of people you see as victims of oppression. You may be shocked and angry about what you perceive as excessive use of military force by Israel. If you’re up for a fact-based dialogue about why you are terribly misinformed about all this, I’m available.

Until then, the better answer can be found on the banks of the Quinobequin river, which runs past Ninnimissinuok on its way to the Ojibwe kiččikamy ocean. Never heard of the Quinobequin? Maybe you know it as the Charles River, which flows past Harvard, cutting across a land the Wampanoag tribe called Ninnimissinuok. It juts out into the Ojibwe kiččikamy, which we palefaces call “the Atlantic.”

The Quinobequin river, also known as The Charles, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Copyright (c) 1992 by Hugh Taylor

If you’re like two-thirds of current students, passing through Harvard on your way to a job in finance, consulting, or technology, you are likely quite aware that you’re sitting on land stolen from indigenous people who were wiped out by English settler colonialists in the 17th century. These settlers then imported millions of enslaved Africans to do the hard work of building the world’s richest nation, the fat of which you are now ready to gorge upon.

Whatever will you do with the inevitable feelings of guilt and shame that come from receiving such a grotesque and unearned bounty? One option is to admit that the good life you’re living is the result of plunder and genocide. That would require honesty and self-awareness, qualities that are in pretty short supply in Harvard Yard right now. Your other choice is to find someone else to blame.

In search of a performative expiation of your guilty consciences, you join a movement, secretly funded by greedy Arabs, that purports to avenge the wrongs done to (falsely labeled) people of color by the Jews, the ultimate white people. The accusation is utter nonsense, but it is still very compelling for spoiled young Americans who feel they need to do some “good” before joining Goldman Sachs and ripping off America’s working poor.

Knowing that you are an illegal inhabitant of a land between a river and a sea, you get out and screech that another land shall be liberated from a river to a sea. It’s hard to know even where to start with this. If you want to do battle with white colonizers, perhaps start by looking in the mirror. But you don’t. With Israel, you can feel good about fighting the good fight against white oppressors without any inconvenient and uncomfortable examination of your own role in settler colonialism. This is a psychological phenomenon called projection. We all do it, and it can be quite dangerous.

It’s possible I have this backwards, though. Maybe your shame leads you to empathize with the group that actually did illegally colonize the land of Israel centuries ago: the Arabs. When Arabic-speaking invaders conquered the land the Romans called Judea, because it was where the Jews lived, they stole it and called it their own. The river, the Jordan, had been named by Jews a thousand years before Mohammed was even born.

So, how do you justify the Muslim extermination of the indigenous Jewish inhabitants of the land, who live to the west of a river named by the Jews before Islam existed? That’s a psychological phenomenon called self-delusion and it’s also quite common and dangerous. It’s also appealing. Perhaps when you see Muslim colonizers and the Arab world, amidst which Israel represents less than 2% of the land and population, you see yourself. By joining their cause, you rationalize your own complicity in the genocide of Native Americans and the theft of their land.

Even considering all of this, it still seems odd that so many of you are driven to passionate support of a cause based on lies that wouldn’t survive a five-minute visit to Wikipedia. Violently fighting for a lie seems a bit crazy, but it’s nothing special these days. Organizing your life around lies is routine for ignorant, lethal fanatics. Maybe it’s time to admit that you are one.

About the Author
Hugh Taylor is an observant Jewish writer and essayist whose work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Huffington Post, and The Washington Spectator. He has worked at Silicon Valley startups and in the Fortune 100. He earned his BA and MBA at Harvard University.
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