In a recent New York Times column by Roger Cohen (20 April 2018) deploring Israel’s violent stance in dealing with Gaza demonstrators, he ended with the following: “Shabtai Shavit, another Mossad director, from 1989 to 1996, said: ‘Why are we living here? To have our grandchildren continue to fight wars? What is this insanity in which territory, land, is more important than human life?’”
The answer is not that difficult. The “inanity” rests on the fact that Israel’s Declaration of Independence begins with a call from the land, from Eretz Israel, to return. That is the dream of Zionism. Further, the land was never defined, but the opening paragraph harks back to ancient Israel that occupied both the east and west banks of the Jordan River. Ben Gurion’s document feeds the dreams of the right. The next question arises: who is to be invited and welcomed to live on that land?
First and foremost, Jews. (Go to see the movie, Red Sea Diving Resort when it is released, the story of the secret headquarters of the Mossad in Sudan for the sea and airlift of the Beta Israel fleeing Ethiopia.) The land shaped the spiritual, religious and political identity of Jews. Further, after their expulsion, they “never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration of their cultural freedom” as the Declaration of Independence declares. And, in recent decades, they did return and en masse, in spite of restrictive legislation. Further, those who returned really did make “deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture.” They did know how to defend themselves, or learned, but there is a debate over the extent to which they loved peace. Further, they did bring “the blessings [and curses] of progress to all the country’s inhabitants,” but not equally, as they aspired “towards independent nationhood.”
The heroic narrative of what they accomplished certainly resembles historic reality. It is not a fable. But the story of those who did return is in part. The implication is that the ancestors of the Ashkenazim who led the crusade of return were descendants of those forced into exile. This tale is certainly true of Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews. But not in the same proportion of Ashkenazim. Though the DNA of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews show significant amounts of Middle Eastern ancestry and “Diaspora Jews from Europe, Northwest Africa, and the Near East resemble each other more closely than they resemble their non-Jewish neighbors” (Ostrer and Hammer), we now know via those DNA studies that, through maternal lineages, a substantial majority of Ashkenazi have considerable European ancestry.
One connection is with Tuscans from Italy. The largest majority of Ashkenazim descend from eastern European stock, such as the Khazars, who converted to Judaism. As a result, vast swaths of eastern Europe were once governed by Jewish kings who spoke and wrote Hebrew, followed Jewish holidays and religious customs, and circumcised their boy children when they were 8 days-old. Belarus towns and cities like Minsk had Jewish majorities. It appears that Arthur Koestler was partially correct (cf. Eran Elhaik) when he made the original claim that Jewish Ahkenazim trace their heritage back to the Khazars. (The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire)
But the problem is created by the last two clauses in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. In a condescending way, it is these returnees who bring with them the blessings of progress. On the other hand, those to whom they purportedly bring that blessing do not belong nor want to belong to the nation aspiring towards statehood. In other words, the Zionist bring an economic benefit – assuming they do – but they also bring a political deficit, for the Jews are not returning so that the country’s inhabitants who are not Jewish can realize their political aspirations. Nor does the Jewish nation welcome them to join in that aspiration. “The First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country,” not the right of all the inhabitants to self-determination. “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people (my italics) to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.”
This is the right of return and national self-determination in the declaration was claimed as a “natural” right. Joined with that natural right were historic rights conferred by international recognition (The Balfour Declaration, the endorsement of the League of Nations, the UN resolution on partition), by the historical calamity of the Shoah and by the service and sacrifices in WWII performed by a multitude of Jews. Further, that “natural” right to self-determination was not recognized in the document for Palestinians.
In the U.S. Declaration of Independence, those natural rights belong to individuals, not a nation. Further, it is not a right of self-determination, but a right of an individual to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, the latter interpreted as the right to acquire wealth ad infinitum. Those individual rights predate the formation of any government rather than being the result of a successful expression of national self-determination. Governments, according to the U.S. constitution, derive their just powers from the governed. In Israel, the government derives its right from historical precedents, the ancient history of the Jews as a self-governing polity and the modern international resolutions of the Balfour Declaration, the League of Nations and the 1947 UN partition resolution.
There is no right of revolution in the Israeli declaration as there is in the American one if a government “becomes destructive” as a result of a “long train of abuses and usurpations” to serving the goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of its members. In that long list of grievances, of injuries and usurpations, which make up about two-thirds of the American declaration, two are noteworthy for our purposes. “He (the king) has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
What a difference almost 250 years make when, under a Trump administration, the government copies the practices of King George III and obstructs laws for naturalizing foreigners and refuses to pass laws to encourage migration to the U.S. The American Declaration of Independence, much more than the Statue of Liberty defined the U.S. as a nation that welcomed new arrivals and offered them citizenship.
In comparison, although the Israeli declaration promises to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants…based on freedom, justice and peace,” the proclamation of the State of Israel declares that, “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.
Immigration, though not explicitly closed to others, targets only Jews who are defined as “exiles” returning to the land of their ancestors. Nevertheless, even as an explicit Jewish state, not only will the rights of all inhabitants, Jew or non-Jew by culture, language, religion, be guaranteed, but they will all be guaranteed equal social and political rights. But no right of return. If they previously fled or if forced to flee or they chose to flee in the war that was already underway, implicitly, there was no right of return.
The American Declaration of Independence does contain one very horrific passage. “He [King George III] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Two different constituencies are cited in this paragraph. The first are the Loyalists, those who sided in the conflict with Britain. The King is accused of exciting “domestic” insurrection, that is, rebellion against the rebellion. What chutzpah!
Of the 2.5 to 3 million in the thirteen colonies, 500,000 were estimated to have been Loyalists. Their leaders and soldiers who fought on the side of Britain – about 100,000 – were driven out. (Thomas B. Allen (2010) Tories Fighting for the King in America, America’s First Civil War) Some, like John Butler, had very large landholdings which were confiscated; the Loyalists received no compensation, even though the Jay Treaty that ended the War of 1812 “advised” states to offer restitution. That never came. The rebels were traitors. After all, Butler had organized and financed the Butler rangers who fought a guerilla war against the Continental army. On the other hand, those who did not flee or were not expelled enjoyed equality with and shared in the rights of the victorious revolutionaries, except for the black slaves. In contrast, about 3,500 Black Loyalists (other than slaves of Loyalists) who fled to Canada, did so as free men.
Imagine what would have happened if those who fled had not defined themselves as Loyalists wanting to stay under the sovereign rule of Britain but instead demanded a right of return. Would the U.S. have allowed these “traitors” to return? The evidence suggests that they would not be permitted and were not given such a right. However, in re-inventing themselves as having left for positive reasons, the Loyalists made new lives for themselves in Canada or, if they went to Britain, there as well.
The Israeli declaration is silent about expelled or self-exiled Arabs from Eretz Israel, but subsequent actions clearly demonstrated that the Israelis followed, not only the American precedent, but every other treatment of defeated persecuted ethnic or religious groups driven from a country in a time of inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife. The original modern refugees, the Huguenots, were guaranteed new homes in Germany and in Britain and in other Protestant lands. They were guaranteed what we now call non-refouement. They were not given a right of return and were not offered a way back.
But the part of the passage in the American declaration that is of even greater interest is the following: the king “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Native Americans were savages and not civilized people. King George III had made treaties with them as nations worthy of recognition. This made the frontiers closed to American settlement. Some argue, and I believe with considerable justification, that the War of Independence was primarily fought, not over taxes without representation, but over the right to move west and settle the lands beyond the frontier in lands that the King had recognized as sovereign indigenous land.
In the process of Americans defining their own rights and manifest destiny to move west and conquer the frontier lands, the Indians were called savages guilty of slaughtering men, women and children wantonly. Maligning Indians in this way has been an inherent part of American culture since the founding of the American state. After all, their great hero and first president, George Washington, had been a land speculator in the territories that had been guaranteed by King George III as the sovereign land of native peoples.
Further, in their declaration, Americans celebrate mob rule, such as the wanton destruction in the Boston Tea Party in 1773, with some colonists disguised as “Indian Savages,” thereby blaming then for destroying property. It was not the first or only time. The conflict started with the protest in 1765 against the Stamp Act when mobs destroyed the manor houses of Andrew Oliver and Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, wrecked the furniture and stole jewels. Mob rule is an inherent part of the American tradition. The riots of 1773 were met by Britain suspending the Massachusetts Legislature, an action that lay behind the complaint in the Declaration of Independence that the king was responsible for “suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.”
It seems clear that the Palestinians who fled or were forced to flee did not follow the Loyalist model, but rather the Jewish model of clinging to and praying for return, now for 70 years and perhaps eventually for thirty times as long to rival the Jews.
What is a declaration of independence for some, is not for others.