If the U.S. Carried Out Ethnic Cleansing, Why Shouldn’t Israel?
I’m always pleased to hear people argue that Americans shouldn’t criticize Israel for being a nation created and maintained through ethnic cleansing, seeing as the United States was established through ethnic cleansing too. Not because I think it’s a persuasive argument, but because the fact that this argument is being made at all is a measure of just how far the debate on Israel-Palestine has progressed.
It wasn’t too long ago that Zionists claimed Palestine was “a land without a people”. Even when it wasn’t explicitly stated that Palestine was an empty land we treated it as if it was, by effectively excluding Palestine and Palestinians from discourse about Israel.
So it’s a huge step forward that today even some defenders of Israel acknowledge that Palestine was already populated by an overwhelmingly non-Jewish population, which had to be ethnically cleansed if a Jewish state were to be established there. It might sound odd to claim that “Yes we ethnically cleansed them, but you did too” is a step forward, but compared to “Palestinians never existed” it really is.
So why isn’t it persuasive to argue that we shouldn’t criticize Israel for doing something we did too (beyond the obvious cliche of two wrongs not making a right)?
Well first, because timing matters. Ethnic cleansing was internationally acceptable centuries ago. So was selling fellow human beings into slavery, or hanging children for stealing a loaf of bread, or a thousand other things that we now look back at in horror. What was once considered acceptable behavior isn’t necessarily considered acceptable now. Today we reject all those behaviors as barbaric.
We believe now that people have human rights that are not dependent on their ethnicity. We have a body of international law making it illegal to trample those rights, a body of law that ironically was inspired at least in part by the experience of European Jews when they were a persecuted minority in World War Two.
Parts of that body of international law – such as The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – specifically affirm the right of people who have been forced out from their homes by violent conflict to return to those homes.
In fact we (i.e. the US) insist today that the repatriation of ethnically cleansed people is a prerequisite to resolving international conflicts, and we made it a condition of the agreements that ended the armed conflicts in Kosovo and East Timor. (I recently blogged about the uncompromising stand the US and UK took against the ethnic cleansing of Kosovars from the former Yugoslavia, here).
So the first difference between American and Israeli ethnic cleansing is that the US did its ethnic cleansing centuries ago, when it was not illegal or socially unacceptable, whereas Israel is still engaged today in its dispossession of Muslim and Christian Arabs. Even as you read this, Palestinians in Jerusalem are living in tents in their own back yard, having been evicted from their homes because they are not Jewish.
Timing might not matter if you’re discussing the morality of ethnic cleansing in a theoretical setting, but in practical terms – if you’re actually displacing human beings right now from their homes because they’re the wrong “sort” of people, ethnically speaking – it really does.
If you’re committing a crime right now, the argument that someone else got away with it hundreds of years ago isn’t much of a defense. Try committing a hate crime today and explaining to the judge that he or she should let you off, because hundreds of years ago we didn’t have hate crimes legislation so people then got away with the same thing you’re accused of now. See what your lawyer thinks of that strategy.
A second dissimilarity between the American and Israeli experience is the way in which the two countries deal with the outcome produced by their respective ethnic cleansing. Although it would be impossible for the US to undo the past and restore Native Americans and North America to what it was before European immigration (even if it wanted to), it did allow for a more equitable present and future for both the indigenous and immigrant populations by making Native Americans full citizens of the state that now exists where they lived first.
What are the prospects of Israel overcoming the legacy of its ethnic cleansing by making itself a multi-ethnic democracy for indigenous and immigrants alike?
As long as Israel defines itself in terms of sectarian privilege for just one of its peoples, there is no possibility at all that its ethnic cleansing will have the same outcome as in the US. Because if Israel were to allow equal rights to everyone in the land it claims for itself regardless of ethnic-religious background, the sizable non-Jewish part of the population in “the only democracy in the Middle East” would simply vote itself free of Zionist rule, and sooner rather than later.
Israeli ethnic cleansing cannot possibly have an outcome analogous to US ethnic cleansing because Israel remains committed to minority rule.
And that leads directly into the third area where the “it’s just like the Native Americans” analogy breaks down. Not all settler states are alike; and although Israel and the US have ethnic cleansing in common, demographically speaking they belong to two distinctly different kinds of settler state.
This is a point that Prof Ian Lustick, Chair of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, made in Abandoning the Iron Wall: Israel and “The Middle Eastern Muck”; published in the Fall 2008 edition of Middle East Policy, and downloadable in PDF format here.
In short: when European immigrants settled the West, they faced a sparse population of Native Americans, and benefited from an apparently inexhaustible pool of reinforcements provided by massive and continuous immigration from Europe into the US. By comparison, Zionism – confronted with the challenge of creating a Jewish settler state in a land whose sizable pre-existing population was only 3% Jewish, and anti-Zionist Jewish at that – has never been able to induce the majority of the world’s Jews to immigrate.
Even if it somehow did, it still has a relatively small pool of perhaps 14 million world Jews to draw immigrants from (and this is not going to change significantly, regardless of how many Amazonian “lost tribes of Israel” it manages to unearth). The result is that even after expelling three-quarters of a million non-Jews from Jewish Palestine/Israel between 1947 and 1953 in order to temporarily dissipate the “demographic threat”, Israel is again today facing a Palestinian majority, because of its determination to keep expanding into those remaining areas of Palestine with an overwhelming Muslim and Christian majority.
Today it remains an allegedly “Jewish and democratic state” within the borders it claims for itself only by disenfranchising two-thirds of the native Palestinian population therein.
So the US belongs to that group of settler states which through sheer force of numbers overwhelmed the indigenous population in the initial phase of settlement, and was able over the longer term to adopt generally liberal democracy as its form of governance, with full citizenship for settler and indigenous people alike. Other settler states in this group would include Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Israel as a Zionist state does not fit in this group. It belongs to that other group of settler states which had enough military might to forcibly establish control over the native population during the first wave of settlement, but failed to achieve an early and decisive demographic advantage.
Settler states of this type include Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa, French Algeria and before the modern era, the Crusader Kingdoms. They live under permanent “demographic threat”, and are generally reduced to increasingly violent but ultimately futile repression. In the long term, this type of settler state… well, they don’t have a long term.
They stay afloat for 120 years on average, before a more-or-less violent extinction; because ethnic cleansing leading to minority rule that is maintainable only through permanent conflict is not a sustainable model. This is the group of settler states to which Israel – 62 years old, and already well into violent repression and existential hysteria over how many babies its Arab subjects are having – belongs.
That final difference seems to me the most significant of all, in practical terms. We can have a theoretical discussion about the evils of ethnic cleansing, divorced from time and place and outcome, and we can perhaps agree that in principle our ethnic cleansing is no better morally than anyone else’s. But – without trying to sound amoral here – we don’t live in a theoretical world. If the US practiced ethnic cleansing in the past that resulted in a somewhat liberal democracy that is sustainable over the long-term, while Israel is practising an ethnic cleansing that creates a repressive and ultimately unsustainable system of minority rule, that seems to me a rather significant real-world difference.
Past ethnic cleansing in North America isn’t right now destabilizing an entire region that is armed to the teeth, possibly on the verge of a nuclear arms race, and of strategic interest to the most powerful nations in the world because of its oil resources; but Israel’s ethnic cleansing is.
When Israel finally succeeds in driving itself off the cliff that it has been determinedly chugging towards for decades, it’s going to take along everyone associated with it. That makes Israel’s ethnic cleansing a pressing concern to everyone who’s going to end up being dragged down by it, in a way that the injustices of the early American West simply aren’t.
1. Palestinians dressed as native Americans hold signs in English addressed to the U.S President against Israel’s separation barrier during a one-day conference called ‘Save Jerusalem’ organized by Palestinian organizations at the Cultural Center of the West Bank town of Ramallah Thursday March 31, 2005. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
2. The Crusader fortress of Krak des Chevaliers, nr Homs, Syria. Via The First Post.

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