When asked why Israel needs to exist, most supporters of the state will give you an argument that includes the Holocaust in some way. I can remember my grandmother saying to me that if Israel had existed during World War II, there would not have been a Holocaust. True enough, but do we really need to look back more than 60 years ago to prove why a persecuted group of people, such as the Jews, need a state to call their own? I don’t think so.
As 2014 begins, there are still millions of people who do not have a nation-state or autonomous homeland of any kind. Some are more well-known than others, but their common thread is that they face an extraordinary level of persecution that often does not allow them to nurture their own cultures, traditions and languages. For Israel-haters, the Palestinians are of course the causecélèbre. And yes, they do face a tremendous amount of persecution, but much of it is not at the hands of Israelis, but rather fellow Arabs. In Lebanon, for example, they are not entitled to citizenship or many other basic human rights. They are confined to their refugee camps and only allowed to work in the most menial of jobs. Actually, a good chunk of the Palestinian population throughout the Arab world still lives in the same refugee camps that were created after they left what became Israel. Their fellow Arabs, who talk a good game when it comes to defending the Palestinians against the so-called Zionist enemy, have made little effort to improve the lives of Palestinians living within their borders. But of course, contrary to what all the anti-Israel cheerleaders out there will tell you, there are other stateless peoples quite worthy of our attention.
The Kurds, for example, are perhaps the biggest ethnic group that do not have a country of their own. They are spread throughout several countries, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They never willingly accepted their inclusion into any of the aforementioned states, and even when they were promised autonomy after the First World War, they didn’t get it. As decades have come and gone, the Kurds have been subjected to repeated massacres at the hands of dictators, like the late Saddam Hussein, who slaughtered countless numbers of them in northern Iraq using his chemical weapons arsenal. In Turkey, Kurds have even been prevented from using their own language and have been subject to prosecution and jail time for doing so. And in Syria, the Kurds in the northeast of the country continue to struggle against both the brutal regime of Bashar Al-Assad and terrorists backed by Al-Qaeda, who strive to impose their tyrannical form of Islamic Sharia law on them.
A much lesser-known group, the Rohingya Muslims, is also without a homeland of their own. In fact, neither Burma nor Bangladesh, the two countries which the Rohingya inhabit, will afford them the rights of citizenship, or any rights for that matter. The Burmese government insists that they are an unwelcome religious minority in the largely Buddhist country and come from Bangladesh originally. At the same time, the Bangladeshis insist that the Rohingya are not their responsibility either, and so these people are caught in the middle, stateless and hopeless. They have been subjected to repeated massacres at the hands of both the Burmese military and their non-Muslim neighbours. Many of them have fled to refugee camps in Bangladesh, where they have no freedom of movement and are forced to live in the most squalid conditions.
Even in Europe, where the Holocaust took place, one group of people continues to suffer from relentless and sometimes life-threatening persecution. The Roma, themselves victims of the Nazi Holocaust, continue to wonder the continent as they have for centuries. They often live in third world conditions in makeshift camps as they have repeatedly been denied housing, jobs or social services. Forced evacuation of their camps is not uncommon. And in today’s Europe where economic conditions are harsh and unemployment is rampant, the Roma are an easy scapegoat along with Jews and any other ethnic or religious minority. Attacks on Roma by fascist gangs have increased along with the economic hardship. Even here in Canada, our government has made efforts to ensure that no new Roma immigrants reach our shores, arguing that they are not entitled to any form of asylum because they are fleeing “safe countries” – the same “safe countries” in which they live in conditions not fit for a dog, let alone a human being.
But of course, here at home we have our own stateless people – Native Canadians. Yes, these are the people who lost their independence as Canada, created by the descendants of European explorers and colonists, encroached deeper and deeper onto their land. They too often live in squalid, third world conditions, stripped of their land, their culture, their languages and their way of life. Fortunately, for those of us who love Canada and love being Canadian, the vast majority of Native Canadians do not seek independence and would be content with some form of limited self-governance. The same cannot be said of theQuébécois since many of them do seek independence, though I would not consider them to be a stateless people in the same way that I consider the Kurds or Roma to be stateless. After all, the Québécois have twice rejected independence and although they remain part of Canada, they at least have a significant degree of control over their own destiny and have used it to nurture and entrench their own language, customs and culture, sometimes to the detriment of the province’s English speaking minority.
My point is that before those of us who support Israel immediately go back in time to the atrocities of the Holocaust to justify the state’s existence, we should take a closer look at different peoples around the world who still don’t have a nation-state to call their own and who, as a result, continue to be persecuted even to the point that their lives are threatened. I am almost certain that without Israel, the fate of the Jewish people would be very similar to that of the Kurds, Roma or other stateless peoples. In fact, I need not remind anyone reading this that even with Israel, Jews still face significant persecution and even threats of future genocide. That being said, I would still argue that the best way to protect a nation, its culture and the lives of its people, is for that nation, whoever it may be, to seek an independent nation-state or at least a limited, self-governing entity, because not having one threatens a nation’s existence.
First published on January 13, 2014