America’s Palestinians: Lessons from The American Indian Experience for Israel-Palestine

John Ross, leader of the National Party of Cherokees, who felt that ceding another foot of land to the United States would spell the end of the Cherokee Nation.

John Ross, leader of the National Party of Cherokees, who felt that ceding another foot of land to the United States would spell the end of the Cherokee Nation.

Israel is often and repeatedly compared with South Africa, and a quick search on the Internet and in newspapers of the debate on the Occupied Territories, on UN Security Council resolutions condemning and calling and end to the occupation, and on the effectiveness and limitations of BDS tactics will turn up copious references to and comparisons of Israel/Palestine with South Africa. The comparisons are worth making, and it is easy to see the image of Bantustans superimposed on the ever-shrinking West Bank and on ever-brutalized Gaza. While the comparisons are worth making, a less contemporary precedent exists with much more foreboding and potentially damaging implications for the future of Israel/Palestine: namely, the experience of the pre-bellum settler colonialists of the United States with respect to the American Indian and the present settler colonialists of Israel.

It will be our argument going forward that the prospects of Palestine turning into a weak and impotent set of reservations within an economically dominant Israel, much as the ”Indian Nations” have become over the last 200 years, is not irrelevant, and that while it’s been discussed and commented on in the past, the comparison begs further discussion and analysis, both analytically and tactically, if it is to be avoided. Indeed, if we are to assess effective strategies to end the occupation and achieve a lasting peace in the region, the lessons of the American Indian can serve as a very lively and rich context in which to place the discussion and debate of Israeli occupation and Apartheid, perhaps moreso than the example of South Africa.

1      Pious Hypocrisies

The economic and political subjugation of so-called ”natives” was certainly something that characterized all of European colonial efforts in the New World, with few exceptions. Horror stories about Spanish conquistadors and English missionaries abound. Of course, the American experience is no different in this regard. Despite Alexis de Tocqueville’s beaming assertion that, as regarded the genocide and obliteration of the Indian tribes, ”it is impossible to destroy men with more respect to the laws of humanity [than did the Americans]”, the obliteration of the American Indian serves till today as an extraordinary stain on the American historical record.

And, speaking of the historical record: there would certainly be more shame in it, were the story of the Indians to be taken more seriously, and not relegated to a footnote somewhere obscure, in the subterranean depths of academic squabbling. Quoting at length from Howard Zinn’s well-known and esteemed history of the United States:

Thus began the history, five hundred years ago, of the European invasion of the Indian settlements in the Americas. That beginning, when you read Las Casas – even if his figures are exaggerations (were there 3 million Indians to begin with, as he says, or less than a million, as some historians have calculated, or 8 million as others now believe?) – is conquest, slavery, death. When we read the history books given to children in the United States, it all starts with heroic adventure – there is no bloodshed – and Columbus Day is a celebration.

Past the elementary and high schools, there are only occasional hints of something else. Samuel Eliot Morison, the Harvard historian, was the most distinguished writer on Columbus, the author of a multivolume biography, and was himself a sailor who retraced Columbus’s route across the Atlantic. In his popular book Christopher Columbus, Mariner, written in 1954, he tells about the enslavement and the killing: ”The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”

That is on one page, buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance.

Certainly, the danger exists, and is realizing itself in surprising and shocking ways, of  similar historical revisionism in Israeli schools and intellectual discourse. References to Palestinians as ”primitive farmers” abound, and the Indianization of Palestinians continues.

Besides plain propaganda, what can additionally be drawn from the experience of the American Indian in the case of Palestine is a sense of what Mark Twain, speaking of the U.S. involvement in the Spanish-American War referred to as ”pious hypocracies”. The U.S. government entertained dozens of treaties with various Indian nations over the decades, most of which were never intended to be kept. As an example, the Cherokee Nation, one of the last five remaining Native tribes east of the Mississippi into the 19th century, had signed 25 treaties with settlers and the U.S. government by 1819, but maintained control over less than 15% of its original territory. The PLO-Hamas today control roughly 22% of historical Palestine, and that number is shrinking every day, and the number of ”bilateral treaties” is increasing, putting Palestine on the map to disappear from the map, much like the Cherokee nation, destroyed by the forced evacuation of southern Indians in the Trail of Tears.

One sees very similar behavior on the part of the Israeli regime as the early US governments practiced. Though numerous treaties have been signed, most importantly the Oslo Accords of 1993, the state of Israel, like the U.S. government of Jefferson and Jackson, does not intend to uphold the content of any of the treaties it signs, which serve merely as fig leaves, ”pious hypocrisies” to be recited for television cameras, but forgotten as soon as the cameras turn off. In fact, the tendency of leaders like Netanyahu to side with settlers in the case of disputes – territorial or political – is very reminiscent
of the stance of Andrew Jackson, who had fought alongside various Indian tribes in the Creek Wars, but who virtually universally sided with the states and with settlers when land disputes with tribes came up.

2     New Echota & Jerusalem

In many ways, the production of cultural output, both political, intellectual and otherwise, is an essential tool for colonized peoples to overcome their own subjugation. One can certainly ascribe the fervor preceding the American and French revolutions to the prolific literary output by the intelligentsia of the time. And, this tool can and has been used by victims of settler colonialism as well. As Katie Marisco states of the Cherokees in an excellent and thought-provoking study of the Trail of Tears,

In the mid-1820s the tribe therefore developed a constitution that provided for a two-body legislature, a court system, and a head chief to lead what the U.S. government came to acknowledge as the sovereign Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee declared its capital to be New Echota in Georgia, on the Oostanaula River. As a Cherokee named Sequoyah had established a written alphabet for his people in the early 1820s, it wasn’t long before New Echota was the site of a printing press that published books and a news paper called the Cherokee Phoenix.

There is a certain draw and importance to the production of cultural output, and a number of clear images stick out as potential linchpins for the Palestinian cause. For example, a number of scholars have maintained the centrality of Jerusalem to the  Palestinian struggle, and there is reason to think it so. Even relatively non-demagogic American popular culture (a scarcity so apparent nowadays, the term is becoming an oxymoron) equivocates ”Jerusalem” with Israel. For a very recent example of this, refer to the repeated equivocation in the latest season of House of Cards, where Frank and Claire Underwood are constantly worried that ”Jerusalem” is sabotaging a lasting peace in Israel-Palestine. Certainly, a prospect so remote from reality one needs the Tube to envision it.

Back on planet Earth, individuals like Jan de Jong have made tactile recommendations that Palestinians

should consider themselves part of a larger unit,” of which Jerusalem is not just Shari Salah ai-Din and Sultan Suleiman Street, but a city ”from AI-Azzariah to the Beit-Hanina-Shufat area, [where they] can think how to make a prospect for development there.”

Creating such a vision, de Jong suggests, ”will cause people to believe in it.” Ultimately, whether such a vision will find more success than those publicized by the Cherokee Phoenix remains to be seen, but the initiative is certainly worth the effort, and the prospect of uniting the likely 7 million Palestinians and their supporters in the world around their cultural and historical center are certainly worthwhile. Reminding the world from time to time of the fact that Jerusalem is contested terrain, and the capital of Palestine according to international law, would certainly also strengthen the perception of Israel as a belligerent, hasbara-ridden aggressor, a largely true perception.

3     On Historic Handshakes & the PLO

There is a certain tendency for functionaries to take actions that, while not necessarily advantageous to those they represent, further their own interests. This is in many ways the manner in which corrupt autocracies work. Indeed, one can interpret the PLO in this light as one possibility. Writing critically of the ”historic handshake” of Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, Edward Said concludes that

from the secret negotiations in Oslo between the PLO and Israel to the Israeli-Jordanian agreement proclaimed in Washington, and after, there has run a clear and, to me, unnecessary line of Arab capitulation by which Israel has achieved all of its tactical and strategic objectives at the expense of nearly every proclaimed principle of Arab and Palestinian nationalism and struggle. Thus Israel has gained recognition, legitimacy, acceptance from the Arabs without in effect conceding sovereignty over the Arab land, including annexed East Jerusalem, captured illegally by war.

Without declared international boundaries, Israel is now the only state in the world to be recognized as ”legitimate and secure” by its neighbors: the formula is unprecedented. Always disunited and dithering, the Arabs have simply lost the will to resist. They now hope to gain acceptance from the United States and Israel by negotiations begun through an act of abjection that betrayed both the cause of liberation and the people – Arabs, Jews and others – who sacrificed their lives on its behalf.

Whether Said’s assertions are indeed factual is a matter of debate, though they certainly represent a dissenting voice from within the Palestinian community and additionally and importantly raise a vital issue regarding the structure and organization of opposition. That question is the degree to which power should be concentrated or delegated in organizations representing the political interests of scattered and oppressed peoples. If Arafat and his cadre were granted – or simply usurped – the responsibility for laying out the path to Palestinian sovereignty, what makes his claims valid and his commitments binding for the rest of the Palestinian diaspora? The fact of the delegation, or the assent of those he represents? How does one avoid the mistakes of the leadership leading to a splintering of the constituency?

For another parallel example from the American experience, within the Cherokee Nation, two divergent camps developed, with two competing visions for the future of the tribes. The National Party represented a conservative position which sought to protect the lands the tribe was entitled to by law and treaty, and the Treaty Party saw the increasingly dire circumstances facing the Indian tribes in the country under the Jackson presidency, and sought to get ”the best deal imaginable” under the circumstances. Ultimately, the Treaty of New Echota, signed by the latter group and representatives of the State of Georgia and the Federal Government, paved the way for the expulsion of the Cherokee from their – legally possessed – tribal lands:

John Ross, acting as an agent for the National Party, was occupied in Washington, D.C., and was unaware of the meeting in New Echota. The fateful decisions rendered there on December 29 would later shock him and countless other Cherokee to the core. Namely, the Treaty of New Echota explicitly stated that “The Cherokee nation hereby cede, relinquish, and convey to the United States all the lands owned, claimed or possessed by them east of the Mississippi River, and hereby release all their claims upon the United States for spoliations of every kind for and in consideration of the sum of five millions of dollars.”

In fact, many at the time saw the capitulation of the Treaty Party in similar fashion as Said and others did the PLO in September 1993, even though the latter’s capitulation was arguably not as complete. Not least of these were members of the Treaty Party themselves, who described their actions in the following manner:

[The Treaty Party delegates] express . . . the sorrowful conviction that it is impossible for them, in the present state of things, to retain their national existence and to live in peace and comfort in their native region. They therefore have turned their eyes to the country west of the Mississippi . . . and they express the opinion that they are reduced to the alternative of . . . [migrating] to that region or of sinking into a condition but little, if at all, better than slavery.

Whether the PLO leaders felt a similar resignation at having signed their ”death warrants” is unclear. What is certain, however, is that the Palestinian struggle is not settled. No ”final stage” to Oslo was ever arrived at (largely because it was never seriously entertained by Israel). A free and sovereign Palestine can, in fact, act as a beacon for other historically oppressed peoples, like the American Indians, and others.

4     Organizing the End of Occupation

Certainly, it is clear that the Palestinians carry the brunt of the organizational  responsibility of achieving their sovereignty. However, that does not mean that others carry no responsibility. As part of the problem with Israel-Palestine is that the cards are so unequally stacked, this creates a space for Americans, Europeans and others to act. Speaking of the situation leading up to the ”capitulation” at Oslo, Mark Levine writes

The dynamics that produced the Oslo process are many and complex. . . – beginning with the eruption of the Intifada in December 1987, then encompassing the PLO’s renunciation of violence a few months later, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union a year after that, and the growing public consciousness that the world was entering a new era of globalization – created significant hopes that a permanent  resolution of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict was on the horizon.

The reality was rather different. Israel’s primary benefactor, the United States, had triumphed in the cold war. Israel’s most dangerous enemy, Iraq, had been vanquished in the Gulf War of 1991. Palestinians were in a weakened position after several years of the intifada, not least because Arafat’s seeming support for Saddam alienated the wealthy Gulf rulers, who had previously provided financial support to the Palestinian struggle.

And, in that vein, Israel saw itself in a strong position to relinquish its historical  Stonewalling and to sign what was ultimately a rather favorable treaty with the ”Natives” of Palestine. Of course it was all the while breaking the terms of the treaty, as its  example, the United States, the ultimate pious hypocrite, had done nearly 200 years earlier with its own Indians.

If it is the Palestinians’ responsibility to organize the resistance to colonization and achieve a situation that enables them to win rights granted to them by numerous international bodies, including the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, then the unevenness of the playing field must to some degree be rectified. This is the responsibility of Americans and others internationally, whose governments continue to either support, or remain complicit in, the horrendous actions of the modern settler-colonial state of Israel. Indeed, short of changing the parameters of discourse within the
US and European and other countries, the Palestinians are left in a rather miserable position.

Indeed, to paraphrase Andrew Jackson responding to the ruling that the State of Georgia had no right to evict Indian tribes save for on their own conditions, ”Let the International Criminal Court and the UN raise an army to defend their rulings and proclamations.” Short of shifting the opinion of powerful states to supporting the basic rights enshrined in international law, very little will likely change in the Occupied Territories, and the Bantustans will come more and more to resemble tired and impotent Indian reservations, perhaps even given the token casinos the Federal Government granted the Indians for appeasement in the cruelest of historical jokes, but beyond this,
no reparations and, more importantly, no right of return for the more than 50% of Palestinians living abroad, not as vacationers, but as refugees.

Victories like academic boycotts and disinvestment campaigns in the United States and Europe are substantive and the result of organizing efforts encompassing a growing strata of professional and lay activists. However, the work must also be taken up on the political level (this means by parties) if it intends to succeed, and mass mobilization is the only real way to do this. If political parties are made to feel the wind is blowing in that direction, a shift in stance will be largely seen as inevitable. Recent moves in many European parliaments, including the French and British parliaments, reflect this fact. A similar such situation would have been unimaginable a mere ten years ago. However, the work is not over and the louder the protest and grievances, the less able certain figures of influence will be to ignore the obviously shameful situation in the Occupied Territories. We should take a lesson from America’s Palestinians.


[Note: Formal references for this article will be forthcoming.]

About Jerome Nikolai Warren

I am a German-American who has ties to both countries. I speak fluent German and English, and passable Spanish and French. I can also mutter and curse in Turkish and Russian. I am at present a grad student of economics in Germany. In a prior life I studied dabbling, basically (religious studies, philosophy, political science) at the University of Alabama. My favorite piece of music is probably the Mass in B-minor by J.S. Bach, my favorite artwork is "The Blue Rider" by Kandinsky; my favorite building is New York's Pennsylvania Station, sadly demolished in 1963. I tweet (rarely) @dagmarholstadt, and also manage this site's Twitter account @OfContradiction.
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