In response to a Facebook post wondering at the uncritical commitment to Israel insisted upon by the American far-right, and their insistence that any wavering from that commitment is “anti-Semitic,” I wrote the following essay:
Being critical of Israel is not necessarily “anti-Semitic,” just as being critical of America is not necessarily “anti-American” (and, for that matter, being critical of any given religious order, movement, or individual, isn’t necessarily an affront to “God”). Israel and America are both nations, more like than unlike others despite the mythologies surrounding them.
Israel and America have had an important strategic relationship, confused and exaggerated by two religious communities that have become overzealously committed to America’s unflagging and unquestioning support of Israel, even to the point of to some extent ceding our own sovereignty to Israel. Those two groups are, of course, the American Jewish community, which has always been overwhelmingly blindly and fanatically pro-Israel (though not without many exceptions, Jews who are first and foremost humanists and are first and foremost concerned with our shared humanity), and, now, conservative evangelicals, who have their own religious reasons for feeling a zealous commitment to Israel (having something to do with their interpretation of the requirements for the Rapture, as I understand it, rather than any sincere love of Israelis) combined with their own ultra-conservative, ultra-nationalist leanings.
Israel’s history and pre-history are also both critical threads in a complete understanding of the geopolitical landscape into which it has woven itself, and the moral implications of that choice. The one thing that isn’t relevant to anyone but Israelis themselves is their ancient, religious-based claim to the land: Every parcel of land on the face of the Earth has changed hands –far more often by violently imposed than by peacefully mutual means– many, many times over the ages, and the current legitimate claims of one racial/ethnic/religious group that had been in continuous possession of that parcel for about a thousand years prior to the Israeli colonization and usurpation of that parcel had, up until that point, the far superior claim to legitimate rights over that parcel.
So, one thread in the tapestry to understand is the very legitimate grievance of the Palestinians, whose currently and extant ancestral land was colonized by a group of Europeans who decided to call it their own and create a state explicitly dedicated to their own culture and religion on it, instantly reducing the pre-existing inhabitants to the status of second-class citizens. Another thread of the tapestry is the recognition of the strong and compelling push factors that induced that European population to do so, though the legitimacy of those push factors (i.e., a history of violent oppression, culminating in the Holocaust), as horrific and empathy-inducing as they may be, can’t justify colonizing and oppressing another, unrelated, foreign people. (That injustice experienced by the Palestinians, however, does not justify and excuse their own atrocities committed since the establishment of the state of Israel, a lesson to those who forget their humanity in the midst of their commitment to other abstractions.)
But another fact of our geopolitical history is that it is a story of borders drawn and redrawn, populations placed and displaced, by endless series of combinations of militant initiative and gross injustices, so that once some new formation becomes a fait accompli, the injustice of its formation becomes less relevant than the reality of its existence. No modern nation on Earth can claim not to trace its roots to the military conquest of other peoples and the drawing of lines in the sand based on that conquest (if there are a few tribes scattered about the world, who still have some identity of themselves as a nation, who never occupied land they took from others, they are an exception to the rule defined more by the circumstances they encountered than by some idealized superior moral quality of their own). For that reason, Israel’s right to exist should not be brought into question; the Israelis aren’t going anywhere, and any agenda that insists they do at this point can only become a source of gross inhumanity.
Finally, there is the issue of the Israeli-American relationship and their combined and separate relationships with the rest of the Middle East and the rest of the world. America quickly recognized Israel’s right to exist, in part to avoid having to absorb millions of European Jewish refugees in the wake of World War II, in part due to the presence of large numbers of Jews in America who strongly favored supporting Israel, in part due to a sense of the inhumanity that had been inflicted on the Jews in the chapter of world history just preceding the establishment of the state of Israel and some generalized debt of humanity to them that that chapter incurred, and, undoubtedly, in part due to recognition of the strategic value of such an alliance. And America quickly formed a strategic partnership with Israel, becoming Israel’s staunchest and invaluable military and economic supporter in return for having a country-sized base of operations and proxy agent in a region of the Earth very much at the vortex of historical geopolitical struggle and conveniently located near the Eastern Communist Block.
This meant that the hatred of the Arab world toward Israel for colonizing and usurping what had been an Arab country became generalized to the United States as well, and, in some ways, raised to a higher pitch against the United States, whose superior wealth and power and secularity all piqued the jealousies and religious animosities of many in that region of the world. America, the rich, secular, militant supporter of the small power that had ensconced itself on previously Arab land, easily became “The Great Satan” in the popular Arab mind (and, yes, the animosity toward America in the Arab world, while far from universal, is very wide-spread).
Our unfailing support of Israel’s own sometimes overly aggressive reactions to their own perceived insecurity has not helped this modern historical animosity between America and the Arab world. All of this combined with our support of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, in order to use them as proxies to repel the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s, and our choice to leave abruptly once that was accomplished, leaving a tribally-contested power vacuum and a whole lot of very deadly state-of-the-art military hardware and weaponry. As a result of that latter choice, a very bloody civil war ensued in Afghanistan, for whose intensity we were in part correctly blamed, resulting in the establishment of the Taliban, who hated us for all of these reasons involving our relationship with Israel; our secularism, wealth and power; and the deadly and bloody ruin we had set their country up for.
So our support of Israel has come at a high price, a high price that we should have been glad to pay if that relationship really were as morally perfect as some pretend it is. In reality, we incurred the enmity of the Arab world in part by taking a very strong side in a complex regional relationship that required more of an honest broker from what is in fact the global hegemon (The U.S.). (The extent that we failed to be an honest broker can also be exaggerated; our shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East has often played a very valuable role in resolving conflicts there, and forging new alliance where enmity had existed, such as between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan.) This is a difficult error to correct at this point, but one which we should strive to correct by taking a harder line with Israel, not rescinding our alliance, but insisting on more restraint, accountability, and accommodation from those often wayward allies of ours.
On a comment thread of a map of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, one poster was adamant that it was completely inappropriate to refer to the Holocaust experienced by those peoples at European colonists’ hands as “genocide,” making very unconvincing legalistic and semantic arguments. After a bit of back and forth, he finally got very angry, and let loose with a rejection of the very notion that there was anything about that conquest that anyone should feel in anyway ashamed of. This was my response:
After all the meaningless noise, we get to the truth: It isn’t the word you object to after all, but rather the acknowledgement of the magnitude of the historical brutality and inhumanity that went into the formation of this nation! We can’t say “genocide,” not because its role as a legal term prohibits us in casual conversation from using the word in a way in which it is commonly used (oops), not because it is an insult to Jews (oops), but because, by god, how dare we insult your ancestors and nation by emphasizing the brutality of its formation!
And that’s the whole point, isn’t it? You oppose the use of the word not in SERVICE to “truth,” but in OPPOSITION to it; not because it’s too imprecise, but because it cuts too close to the bone.
We are determined to emphasize, and you are determined to de-emphasize, the very real brutality of the conquest of this enormous nation and the clearing away of the indigenous population, a brutality whose magnitude is not adequately captured by ANY word. You resent the use of the strongest word available, because it gets us one step closer to a sense of the true magnitude of the inhumanity involved, rather than, as you prefer, keeping us one step further away, in the ideologically convenient haze of historical semi-amnesia.
You don’t want to own the past because you DO want to own the present and future. The more we acknowledge the brutality of the past, the less free we are to continue it. That’s what this is all about: A battle of narratives, whether to be the jingoist chauvinists we have too long been and too many want us to remain, continuing to blithely trample on humanity while surrounded by the arrogant and self-serving halos of “American exceptionalism” and “manifest destiny,” or to be a people aspiring to true greatness of spirit and consciousness, recognizing without diminution the errors of the past in service to doing better in the present and the future.
Preamble: History, Mythology, Judgment, and Analysis.
The American holiday of “Thanksgiving” is, at its most basic level, simply our version of the harvest festival common to all currently or historically agricultural societies. And the mythologized historical story we base it on can be appreciated for the morally instructive fiction that it is, rather than condemned for omissions and oversimplifications. It’s a beautiful story, after all, and if it presented itself as such, rather than as sterilized history, it would be completely inoffensive: Two peoples, profoundly alien to one another, converging in a wilderness familiar to one and hostile to the other, coming together in friendship and mutual support, and celebrating their solidarity with a great feast. We don’t want to, nor should we, abandon the warm emotions of goodwill evoked by such a story. But we allow those emotions to do us better service if we retain them within the context of the more complex reality within which that feast occurred, and within which, in a more general sense, our lives are still lived.
I did not refer to the Thanksgiving story as revisionist history, because it is largely accurate, as far as it goes. It is not so much revisionist as it is oversimplified and abbreviated with a bias. The complexities, the respective strategic calculations and miscalculations, the betrayals and differences in world view, are all as instructive as the fable itself, and instruct us in what is required to make that fable more of a reality in the future, on the global stage.
Historical mythology is simultaneously delightful and disturbing. It’s as delightful as any mythology, full of pageantry and exaggeration, mind-candy not dissimilar to a Homeric epic, or even a Dickens classic, full of spirits that visit us, and happy endings that vindicate our belief in ourselves, in our nation, and in our gods. It is disturbing because it blurs rather than clarifies history and its lessons, not, as some believe, by turning villains into heroes and heroes into villains, but rather by relegating ordinary complex people who are a little of both to one or the other category in order to serve our hunger for self-legitimation through historical amnesia.
But the truth, told well and lavishly, is as marvelous as our exaggerations and distortions, more informative than our revisions, and, for all the tragedy that is embedded in it, no less encouraging to our souls. For it is through the subtle and complex realities of history that we can learn the lessons of how to do better, and how to combine the humility and discomfort of self-criticism with the sincere commitment to the highest ideals, serving those ideals far more effectively than our mythologies ever could.
I am not talking about a different morality play, one which simply switches the roles of heroes and villains in an inverse but equal oversimplification of reality. That is too similar to the one we should seek to transcend. What we need is a story about people, infused with less judgment and more clarity, neither cleansing history of our sins, nor reducing it to a caricature of “critical thinking” which is the mere inversion of the non-critical thinking it mirrors rather than transcends.
The Story: Enlightened Self-Interest and Mutual Goodwill Undermined By Waves of Newcomers and an Inevitably Decisive Disparity in Military Power.
(For a more complete narrative, with perhaps an exaggeratedly favorable view of the Pilgrims, see http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mosmd/, from which some of the narrative below is drawn. See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wampanoag_people and http://www.mayflowerfamilies.com/colonial_life/pilgrims.htm).
When the pilgrims arrived on the shore of North America, they may not have realized that they were the forerunners of a demographic and military onslaught. The Pilgrims (the Separatists seeking only religious freedom from the Church of England), unlike the rest of the Puritans (seeking to “purify” the Church of England and impose their beliefs on others), were a relatively tolerant and accommodating people, seeking freedom for themselves and not seeking to deprive it to others. These pilgrims, however, did harbor well-intentioned but ethnocentric and intrusive ambitions of bringing Christianity to the “heathen” people of the New World.
But the story of the Mayflower and the establishment of Plymouth Colony isn’t just a story of flight from religious persecution; it is also the story of English mercantile interests, for the merchants who financed the voyage sent some of their own along as well, expecting (but not getting) a return on their investment.
The story of these early settlers suffering disease and hunger in their first months, with about half dying off, and then, while recovering their strength, encountering the native Wampanoag tribe and forming an alliance with them, is well known and basically accurate. The Wampanoag were a hospitable people, and had previously befriended and cared for English and French explorers in the region.
When Samoset (an Abnaki Indian from Maine who had acquired some rudimentary English when explorers had kidnapped him and taken him back to England) walked into Plymouth Colony with a friendly greeting a few months after the Pilgrim’s arrival, the Pilgrims learned from him that the nearest Indian village was that of the Nemaskets, a Wampanoag tribe of about 300 people. The Pilgrims also learned from Samoset that Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, was then staying with the Nemaskets.
The Pilgrims reluctantly allowed Samoset to spend the night, but watched over him with a certain degree of distrust. Samoset returned with five more Indians a few days later, bringing with them some tools the Pilgrims had lost in the woods, as well as furs to trade. Samoset returned a couple of days later with Squanto, who spoke English with perfect fluency.
Squanto’s assistance proved invaluable to the Pilgrims, for he taught them the skills they needed to survive in that foreign place, such as how to catch and use fish as a fertilizer for corn, squash, and beans, a technique which proved especially useful to the Pilgrims, whose English seeds they had brought with them did not fare well in the New England soil.
Squanto and Samoset convinced the nearby Wampanoag that the Pilgrims were peaceful, and that it would be in everyone’s interests to form an alliance. The Pilgrims gained the obvious advantage of having friendly advisers and protectors nearby in this unfamiliar land, while the Wampanoag gained the prestige and implicit threat to both enemy tribal confederations and rebellious Wampanoag tribes that came with the alliance with English arms.
The Wampanoag themselves had been weakened by epidemic (probably European borne plague) in recent years. The Narraganset, an insular tribe, had had virtually no contact with European explorers and settlers, and so were less weakened by plague. As a result, the Narraganset had become an expansionist power in the area. The Wampanoag had hoped that their alliance with the English would help fortify them against the Narraganset threat.
The alliance, in turn, worried the Narraganset Indians, concerned that the Wampanoag and English would attack them. After years of being delayed by wars with the Pequots and Mohawks, the Narraganset finally launched a pre-emptive attack on the Wampanoag, which, with the help of the English, the Wampanoag successfully deflected.
It would be understandable for Massasoit not to have anticipated the eventual overwhelming power that the English would bring to the region, and beyond: A small band of near-starving settlers did not portend a tsunami of colonization, conquest and displacement. The Indians had no experience of any other civilization –other than the trickle of explorers and, now, settlers– and had no frame of reference for contemplating the onslaught to come. Even if Massasoit had had any inkling of it, military resistance (slaughtering colonists and all others who tried to land on those shores) could only have delayed the inevitable; no preferable strategy to alliance existed. Better to have these powerful newcomers on the side of the Wampanoag than of a rival Indian nation.
Despite the probable differing understandings of what the treaty, allotting 12000 acres to Plymouth Plantation, meant (due to different conceptualizations of land ownership and usage), there seems to have been a great deal of genuine good faith and friendliness between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. The Pilgrims nursed Massasoit back to health when he was sick, and were staunch allies of the Wampanoag against Narraganset aggression.
But, intentional or not, the Pilgrims had opened the way for a flood of less well-intentioned colonists. The Puritans that soon followed, with overwhelming numbers, took the land rather than paid for it or asked permission for its use, as the Pilgrims had done. Increasingly, the newcomers subjected the indigenous people to the invaders’ laws, violently punished resistance and suppressed rebellion, and began the relentless destruction of a world and a way of life.
The Lesson of History.
What is the lesson of history in this case? It’s not that the alliance between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag was a bad choice by either, or that the disaster for the Wampanoag, and all Indians, that followed could have been avoided by some other strategy. But neither is it that good will and mutual cooperation among some triumph over all.
While it could have been less brutal and more accommodating, and a healthier synthesis could have been realized, the reality is that either the military or cultural conquest, and either the displacement or assimilation of the Indians, was more or less inevitable (not to say morally justifiable), given the historical context and the realities of human avarice. People can and will dispute this, and insist that the European invaders could have respected indigenous rights and sovereignty, restricting themselves to the small enclaves that the indigenous people willingly granted them, but, as much as we might wish that to be true, it was as far removed from reality as the more general version of the same belief, that we “could have” lived in a virtual paradise of peace and prosperity since almost the dawn of human history, had we only worked more cooperatively in our collective interests to do so.
Differences in power prevail, usually in brutal and unjust ways, unless and until the interests of both those who are prevailing and those who are not converge on some more mutually beneficial arrangement. That is not a fact that can be wished away. Some factions will be ahead of the curve, and pursue what will later be perceived to be an advanced morality, but they do not erase the tendency; they only create islands of relief from it.
That’s what our Thanksgiving story is; an island of goodwill and friendship between two very disparate peoples, in a brutal world whose brutality was destined to wash that island away. And it is all the more poignant for its seeming futility in retrospect, because our celebration of it is a testiment to how compelling such stories are: The more such islands we create, and the more we celebrate them, the better off we will be, because they reinforce those frames and narratives of our minds which appreciate and reach for such outcomes, and inhibit those frames and narratives of our minds which rationalize the brutality which too often prevails.
Just as the sins of the past cannot be erased, neither can humanity’s shining moments, those islands of goodwill in an otherwise relentlessly brutal tide. We should celebrate them, not as romanticized symbols of an unreality, but as real moments of the triumph of the human soul, against the odds and against the trend. Despite the strategic calculations, mutual distrust, and fundamental misunderstandings woven into it, and despite the difficulty of verifying the first “Thanksgiving Day Feast,” the friendship of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag is an indisputable fact of history. It deserves our reverence, all the more so in light of the ways in which the goodwill it symbolizes was so cruelly betrayed by others who came later.
The lesson of history is that brutality is the norm, and mutual goodwill the struggling little zygote of hope that flickers within it. The ideologies that glorify brutality, that rationalize indifference to the welfare of others, to social justice, to common cause in the face of an inevitably shared fate, should be weakened every Thanksgiving Day, if those who give thanks do so reflectively, thinking not just about what they have to be thankful for, but what others, and generations of others past, have been deprived of in order to secure it.
Let’s all thank providence for the bounty we have been graced with, and for the minds and hearts capable of understanding that there is no bounty richer and more rewarding than working together in the shared endeavor of life, whether with friends and neighbors, or across borders and ideological chasms, sitting down to the shared feast of life in a spirit of mutual goodwill, committed to being as humane and enlightened as a small band of religious zealots and a decimated Indian tribe 390 years ago.