There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population – Moshe Dayan
This essay is not really about politics; it’s about how politics reflects mythology, how together they create the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and how we call these stories “history.” As such, it should be read in the context of my other writings on the myth of American innocence.
When 15th-Century European explorers “discovered” (a phrase used until only a few years ago) the “new world,” the power of myth enveloped their images of its indigenous inhabitants. Christopher Columbus initially wavered between the “noble savage” projection (innocent, generous children) and its opposite (sub-human, treacherous savages). Quickly, the latter won out. “Indians” were shameless, naked fornicators and idolaters.
Perhaps more importantly, their notions of ownership condemned them in the eyes of the whites. They had no respect for or even any concept of private property. In maintaining the land collectively, they were the original red communists. “They are fit to be ruled,” wrote Columbus; they could be trained to be industrious slaves. When this prediction proved unrealistic, the Spaniards responded with genocide and eventually with the mass importation of Africans.
The Europeans were generating a new mythology (actually, not so new, as we’ll see). And this story was based on an idea about land: empty land. The land itself was full of potential. However, wrote John Locke, “…land that is left wholly to nature is…waste.” And as early as the 1570s, allegorical personifications of “America” as a female nude appeared in European art. “Virgin” land evokes fantasies of defloration. Sir Walter Raleigh was quite clear about that: Guiana “…hath yet her maydenhead.”
This is deliberately constructed mythic language. The indigenous people had, of course, worked the land for eons. They were farmers, not pony-riding Sioux warriors, as later stories would portray them. And the land was hardly empty. The pre-1492 population of the Western Hemisphere was over 100 million.
To justify what were essentially unprovoked military invasions, Christians (they were not calling themselves “white” yet) needed to differentiate themselves from these people. The way to do this was to merge sexual and racial ideology.
Although observers noted that Native Americans had never known prostitution or venereal disease, the process of “othering” required that they be perceived as unable to control their bodily impulses. Intellectuals debated whether they even had souls. Some argued that they were children, to be protected and civilized, while others claimed they were “natural slaves” (Aristotle’s term), set apart by God to serve those born for more lofty pursuits.
This is an essential component of America’s creation myth. It sings of people who came seeking freedom from religious persecution, charged with a holy mission to destroy evil, save souls, carve civilization out of darkness – and get rich. R.W.B. Lewis wrote that this story saw “…a divinely granted second chance for the human race…emancipated from history…Adam before the Fall.”
The story was a hopeful one, and it evoked the oldest of mythic themes: the New Start. But it was so moving to the white invaders because they imagined the entire adventure in Biblical images. Columbus called his voyages the “enterprise of Jerusalem” and the Pilgrims saw themselves as Israelites, leaving Egypt/England for the “New Jerusalem.” They were living out, in real time, the mythic stories that had fed their imaginations for centuries.
Unfortunately, however, to the extent that it bears any relationship to the archeological evidence, an unbiased reading of the Old Testament reveals that the Exodus story is intertwined with the original invasion – and genocide – of Palestine, which like now, had an indigenous population that the invaders were intent on replacing through holy warfare. What do you suppose happened to the population of Jericho once the “walls came tumbling down?” Joshua 5:20-21 lays it out clearly:
…at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.
The Biblical Jehovah had little concern for the Other:
Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Later, we recall, King David defeated the Philistines. It is more than a linguistic/historical oddity that the word for “Palestine” in Arabic is “Philistina.”
Three thousand years later, the English Puritans reasoned that since God had guided them in their crossing of the waters (another Biblical image), they now had the sacred responsibility – or, from the native’s perspective, license – to seize and utilize the land.
Here is the most essential point: from the start, our American stories of domination came packaged in the language of liberation. Is it any surprise that even now, we still tell ourselves that we invade other nations to make them free? Everyone had a role to play: whites were the Chosen People, America was the Promised Land and Native Americans were the Philistines. This is the foundation of the Myth of American Innocence.
It is also the foundation for what I’m calling the Myth of Israeli Innocence. Ironically, the 19th Century Europeans who created the philosophy of Zionism were partially inspired by the American myth, which in turn had been inspired by the Hebrew story.
The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand’s book The Invention of the Jewish People argues in part that a small group of European intellectuals essentially invented the story of ancestors who been expelled from their homeland centuries before in order to create the emotional climate for Jewish nationalism.
Another Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, explains how the story of a people needing to return to their ancestral land coincided with the agendas of two powerful interest groups. The first was Protestant Evangelism, which advocated for “Christian Restorationism” :
The Christian world, in its own interest, adopted the idea of the Jews as a nation that must one day return to the holy land. This return, in their view, would be part of the divine scheme for the end of the world, along with the resurrection of the dead and the second coming of the Messiah…The theological upheavals of the Reformation beginning in the 16th century produced a clear association, particularly among Protestants, between the idea of the end of the millennium and the conversion of the Jews and their return to Palestine.
Zionism was therefore a Christian project of colonization before it became a Jewish one…A powerful theological and imperial movement emerged that would put the return of the Jews to Palestine at the heart of a strategic plan to take over Palestine and turn it into a Christian entity…
Christian restorationism is a perfect example of what Joseph Campbell called a “de-mythologized world” because it literalizes Biblical mythology, and secular persons find it comically fraudulent. But any observer of the bizarre relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and such contemporary right-wing televangelists as John Hagee, a man who is absolutely dedicated to the eventual conversion (or, failing that, the destruction) of all Jews prior to the Apocalypse, can see how influential this view remains.
The second interest group was British (and later, American) imperialism. In making the case that Jews were a nation belonging to Palestine, and therefore should be helped to return to it, Pappe notes,
They had to rely on British officials and, later, military power… (Lords) Shaftesbury, Finn, Balfour, and Lloyd George liked the idea because it helped Britain gain a foothold in Palestine. This became immaterial after the British took Palestine by force and then had to decide from a new starting point whether the land was Jewish or Palestinian—a question it could never properly answer, and therefore had to leave to others to resolve after 30 years of frustrating rule.
Now, our American responses to news of the latest Israeli crimes in Gaza or the West Bank are crafted by several factors:
1 – An American political establishment (both Republican and Democratic) and corporate media that have favored the Israelis in such a one-sided manner for over sixty years that we can only conclude that Israel has functioned during that time as a surrogate for American foreign policy. As always, we ask Cui bono? Who profits?
2 – An immensely well-funded, fundamentalist-Protestant establishment – the contemporary inheritors of the Christian Restorationists – whose expectations of Armageddon and fulfillment of “prophecy” require this violence to hasten the coming of the “End Times.”
3 – Residual guilt, perhaps, for the Holocaust.
4 – Generations of unrelenting, racist demonization of Arabs.
As a result, most Americans over a certain age still tend to see Israel as the innocent victim of crazed, Muslim terrorists. This is a generation that was raised on movie and TV Westerns. But this essay is not really about politics. As always, I’m interested in the myths that we unconsciously enact.
All of the above factors rest upon and help sustain the most recent expression of the mythic framework I’ve been describing: “empty,” un-utilized land; victimized people in search of a homeland; a city on a hill; the highest of ideals; the best of intentions –and significantly – ferocious savages – Others – who attack the good, innocent people of Eden for no reason whatsoever.
We’ve seen this all before. It seems so familiar at the gut level because it is one of the foundation myths of Western culture, of America, and with curious circularity, of Israel.
The crazy course of the 20th century produced a population of genocide survivors, the truly innocent victims of the Holocaust. In most cases these people could not return to their home countries. Many who attempted to do so suffered further violence and persecution. Without a doubt, the Jews of Eastern Europe required an innovative resolution to a thousand years of scapegoating and massacres.
For history to offer them justice and hope, however, it was necessary to revive the old narrative, the simplistic, Hollywood version popularized by the movie Exodus – and to scapegoat a second group, the indigenous population of Palestine. This required elaborating several myths. The first two were the familiar narratives of Jewish victimization and chosen people which together had always seemed to cancel each other out. Jews were both the winners and losers of history.
The third myth was that of the Promised Land, which we have seen had already been enshrined in American mythology. The fourth is closely related to the third, and is crucial to the Zionist project: the “wandering Jews” who had been expelled from the Holy Land 2,000 years before and had been yearning to return to Eretz Yisrael ever since.
The fifth myth was the idea of “empty land.” As we have seen, it originated in the Mosaic story. However, like any narrative that does not arise organically from people indigenous to the land, it is rife with contradictions, and they relate directly to our American story.
Since neither the Hebrews nor the Europeans found unpopulated lands, the settler colonization project required that they develop rationalizations of how those people did not deserve their lands, the Philistines because they were pagan idolaters and the Native Americans because they did not practice private land ownership. Both groups were savages, barbarians, barely human. They were, in fact, dangerous because they might infect the innocent newcomers with their evil ways.
If the land was empty of anyone of value, it was easy to slide into the next fiction: perhaps there really were no people there at all. Or if they were there, human progress demanded that they be removed. Once the invaders internalized these notions, anything – including genocide – was possible, acceptable, inevitable and eventually logical.
Both groups of invaders could now perceive the indigenous people as lacking merit. In Protestant terms, they were guilty of original sin and therefore deserving to be mistreated. And they could resolve the contradiction of victim/chosen by seeing themselves as the innocent targets of unprovoked military attack (otherwise known as popular resistance), yet selected by God to multiply and be fruitful. In Protestant terms, they were among the elect.
Here, the American and Israeli myths almost seem to merge on the question of “A land without people for a people without land.”
This was a phrase first used in 1843 by the Christian Restorationist clergyman Alexander Keith, a Scott. And he had a distinct agenda. American evangelists soon used it it in their campaigns to return the Jews to the Holy Land – to hasten the Second Coming of Jesus. But it certainly was no surprise that Americans would be so excited about this idea; it was a fundamental aspect of their own mythology, which itself had been born in Old Testament language. All they had to do was substitute the phrase “deserving Jews” for “deserving Christians.” In a further political irony, their ideology continues to motivate millions of American Protestants in their political and financial support of American Mid-East policy.
Ten years later, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, President of the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews, wrote to Prime Minister Aberdeen that Greater Syria was “a country without a nation” in need of “a nation without a country…Is there such a thing? To be sure there is, the ancient and rightful lords of the soil, the Jews!”
Some intellectuals argued that the phrase meant “a people” – a self-determined national entity. If the Holy Land was populated by “Ottomans” or “Arabs” whose loyalties were primarily to Islam or some pan-Arabic identity, then it was open to be inhabited by a more deserving “people.” See Diana Muir’s essay to see how complex this debate has actually been.
In 1878 some 460,000 people resided in Palestine, three percent of whom were Jewish. The first Zionist settlers arrived four years later, and they soon learned that Palestine was not “empty.” They reported back to their colleagues in Europe: “The bride is beautiful, but married to another man.”
Granted, people were living there, quite a lot of them in fact. However, as in the 16th century American myth, the Zionists used their own standards to determine that the inhabitants (Muslims and quite a few Christians) were not making full and efficient utilization of the land. Once again, we see a crudely drawn distinction between European settler colonialism, motivated by the highest and most sacred of ideals, and lazy, undeserving (and eventually violent) “others,” barely surviving because they had no work ethic.
But we are not talking about the pronouncements of a few academics. We’re talking about the growth and acceptance of a myth, even if this was a new one. And the horrors of World War Two invested it with further meaning. By the mid-1950s, most American children were learning that the early Jewish settlers – the Kibbutzniks – had found a useless, baking desert and turned it into an agricultural Eden of well-tended farms and orchards. Although the popular narrative never mentioned that most of these people were socialists, their image still fit perfectly into the mythic narrative. However, Pappe argues that Palestine
…was not a desert waiting to come into bloom; it was a pastoral country on the verge of entering the 20th century as a modern society, with all the benefits and ills of such a transformation.
Zionism was a settler colonial movement, similar to the movements of Europeans who had colonized the two Americas, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand…The problem was that the new ‘homelands’ were already inhabited by other people. In response, the settler communities argued that the new land was theirs by divine or moral right, even if, in cases other than Zionism, they did not claim to have lived there thousands of years ago. In many cases, the accepted method for overcoming such obstacles was the genocide of the indigenous locals.
Historians are gatekeepers of the cultural consensus, and few are truly objective. In this case, it’s clear that many are conflicted about what happened and who was to blame over the next sixty years. Depending on their personal agendas, they blame the Jews, the Arabs or the British. But one of the key players, Major-General Orde Charles Wingate, an admitted Christian restorationist, trained and led the “special night squads” of Jewish guerrillas (or death squads, from the Arab perspective) that engaged in collective punishment of Palestinian villages. Jewish leaders such as Zvi Brenner and Moshe Dayan claimed that Wingate had “taught us everything we know.”
And most historians agree that in 1947-1949 the Israeli army perpetrated over thirty massacres, destroyed over 530 Palestinian towns and villages and forcibly expelled some 750,000 Palestinians (whose numbers have since grown to over seven million refugees). American Professor Norman Finkelstein states:
According to the former director of the Israeli army archives, ‘in almost every village occupied by us during the War…acts were committed which are defined as war crimes, such as murders, massacres, and rapes’…Uri Milstein, the authoritative Israeli military historian of the 1948 war, goes one step further, maintaining that ‘every skirmish ended in a massacre of Arabs.’
From the first Zionist settlements in the 1880s (when the U.S. Army was completing its forced removal of the Native Americans to concentration camps, otherwise known as “reservations) all the way through to the current (U.S.- subsidized) impasse, we have the same historic contradiction: In a place where the land was already occupied, the revival and prosperity of one population meant the violent exile of another one, or what we now refer to as “ethnic cleansing.”
In one case – the ancient city of Lydda – they forced between 50,000 and 70,000 Palestinians out into the desert. The world has erased the memory of this event, but the Palestinians remember it as the Lydda Death March. Think “Trail of Tears.”
(A historical side note: I have heard that some descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 still hold the keys to their former front doors, just as many Palestinians hold the keys to their pre-1948 homes.)
But why was it so easy to convince the world, and especially Americans, that, despite the Holocaust, these people should not remain in the land of their ancestors? Because this story was sold to a willing public as merely a variant of our American origin myth.
Even so, it was necessary – the myth required it – to so demonize the Palestinians as to imply that they were somehow less than human, as countless Israeli politicians have implied:
There was no such thing as Palestinians; they never existed. – Golda Meir
The Palestinians are like crocodiles… – Ehud Barak
(The Palestinians are) beasts walking on two legs. – Menahim Begin
But another Israeli leader, David Ben Gurion, understood the reality behind the myth quite well, and felt secure enough (due to American support) to spell it out:
If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country. It is true God promised it to us, but how could that interest them? Our God is not theirs. There has been Anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see but one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country. Why would they accept that?
Myths, especially origin myths, are messy. They are not logical or consistent. And they borrow liberally from each other, as I have shown. But it gets even messier in this case. Consider how these iconic phrases of the 20th century flow almost interchangeably into each other in our imagination: Indian reservations. Palestinian refugee camps. Vietnamese strategic hamlets. Ghetto. In each case, a population is segregated from the dominant society, and always (originally a Christian conceit) for their own good. Eventually that population becomes less than human.
And don’t forget ethnic cleansing and concentration camps. Consider that Adolf Hitler, architect of the phrase “master race,” openly admitted that he learned his genocidal ideas from studying American history, as I write in Chapter Eight of my book:
…twenty-seven (American) states passed eugenics laws to sterilize “undesirables.” A 1911 Carnegie Foundation “Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” recommended euthanasia of the mentally retarded through the use of gas chambers. The solution was too controversial, but in 1927 the Supreme Court, in a ruling written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, allowed coercive sterilization, ultimately of 60,000 Americans. The last of these laws were not struck down until the 1970s…Meanwhile, in Mein Kampf, Hitler praised American eugenic ideology, and in the 1930s, Germany copied American racial and sterilization laws. Years later, at the Nuremberg trials, the Nazis would quote Holmes’s words in their own defense.
Master race? Consider Menachem Begin again:
Our race is the Master Race…We are as different from the inferior races as they are from insects. In fact, compared to our race, other races are beasts and animals, cattle at best…human excrement. Our destiny is to rule over the inferior races. Our earthly kingdom will be ruled by our leader with a rod of iron. The masses will lick our feet and serve us as our slaves.
The idea of ethnic cleansing is so indefensible, so morally repulsive, so evocative of what Germany had done to these same Jews, that it requires still more mythologizing. In this case, it requires the common narrative that the Palestinians chose to leave. Pappe, however, reveals that there has always been a master plan for the expulsion on the Palestinians. The Israeli government still insists that Palestinians – even those beleaguered residents of Lydda – became refugees because their leaders told them to leave. But
…there was no such call—it is a myth created by the Israeli foreign ministry…What is clear is that the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians can in no way be justified as a ‘punishment’ for their rejecting a U.N. peace plan that was devised without any consultation with the Palestinians themselves.
(Here, Pappe is using the common meaning of myth as “untrue.” But we need to remember that the “myths” we are talking about are the stories that people tell themselves about other people but which are in fact stories about themselves.)
In order to justify these crimes, it has been necessary to demonize the actual victims, just as Americans demonized the “wild Indians,” or to forget them entirely, as Israel attempts to do with its barrier wall in the West Bank.
It has been easy to do this partially because the Jews really had suffered like few others, but also because the Western World in general and the American public in particular have long been steeped in mythic narratives that told only the colonizers’ versions of history. And this has resulted in two generations of liberal and even leftist Americans (PEPs – “Progressive Except for Palestine”) who regularly criticize the crimes of U.S. foreign policy yet innocently defend similar behavior when Israel perpetrates them.
The common justification is that Jews must have a place where they can be safe. There’s nothing wrong with that statement – it should of course be true for everyone – unless we remember how it implies the idea of a divinely Promised Land, and the fact that only Antarctica has no indigenous people.
So this notion requires the pseudo-innocence that is generated in the context of literalized religion and black-and-white, “us-or-them” thinking. This form of innocence – undiluted goodness and purity – requires an equally undiluted evil Other to be measured against, so that, once again, “we” can know who we are because we are not them. As the title tune to Exodus proclaims, This land is mine. God gave this land to me. The only other option, the honest one, would be: we know who we are because we are the ones who stole this land.
So in order to construct a mythology that (at best) ignored and (and worst) terrorized the Palestinians, it was necessary to expand and elaborate the narrative of Jewish victimization. The story, of course, is a thousand years old. But it took its real energy from twenty years of the twentieth century – the Holocaust and American Westerns – and from the relentless media propaganda that followed.
Let’s be clear about how media gatekeepers limit the terms of debate, as I write in this essay, with false equivalencies. Of course Palestinians have committed terrible atrocities. But there simply is no equivalency between their actions and the long-term, collective punishment in Gaza and the West Bank, or in the mass deportations of 1948. And let’s be clear about this: collective punishment is a war crime.
The Israeli stance was not always so monolithic. But as a million citizens (many of them fed up with the nation’s contradictions) have emigrated in the past twenty years and right-wing fundamentalists have proliferated, the haters and their myths have won out. Uri Avnery, the Israeli writer and peace activist, writes that the Israeli army is filled with “teenagers who are indoctrinated from the age of three in the spirit of Jewish victimhood and superiority.” For a broader perspective on indoctrination, read here.
Victimhood and superiority, of course, are contradictory terms that can only be resolved by recourse to mythic thinking.
Now, the longest colonial occupation in modern history is impossible without the $8 billion in unconditional U.S. aid that flows annually to Israel. Yet despite having the fourth largest army in the world, and despite the obscene disparity of casualties between Israelis and Palestinians, most Israelis believe their own propaganda. They are racist, violent and fascist, and they are deathly afraid of the Other.
This is why the political expression of this myth is so hard to disentangle. We all remain stuck in this endlessly repeating tragedy not for the lack of political solutions. Israel’s economy is absolutely dependent on American aid. Any American president – at any single moment in the last fifty years – could have immediately brought peace to Israel/Palestine by simply threatening to plug this financial pipeline.
But this will never happen until American public opinion (perhaps the politicians will follow) finally rejects the necessity of an American empire and the corollary that Israel is its indispensable surrogate.
And if you are not aware of the extent to which both the political class and the religious leadership are willing to go to maintain what Noam Chomsky calls “manufacturing consent,” consider that 36 states are debating or have already enacted anti-BDS legislation.
We’re stuck because we can’t perceive the myths that invisibly determine our responses to history. And when we can’t identify the emotional ties generated by mythic narratives, we can’t perceive how politicians manipulate us. A fundamental aspect of this ongoing tragedy is that the Israeli myth of innocence is so bound up with our own, and with our own imperial project. No American politician on the national stage – not Bernie Sanders, not Elizabeth Warren – had the courage to challenge this story until the 2020 Democratic primaries, and Bernie got slammed for it.
And we must eventually admit – it will have to begin here – that one of the most appealing – and appalling – of those narratives took its modern appearance in this land in the seventeenth century. We will have to admit that this crazy idea of racial purity generated a holocaust in the twentieth century, and that the victims of Nazism have continued to apply that same ideology in Palestine, making themselves into God’s chosen race and the Palestinians into a disposable population. Or perhaps not completely disposable. Consider the stereotyped image of African-Americans in our own myth. Any society built upon lies needs to keep at least some of the evil Others in constant view as potential scapegoats and to remind the good citizens of just how good they are.
As long as we insist on our own purity and innocence, we must have an Other to project our darkness upon. And the longer we require the Other to do this, to dwell in our own underworld, the angrier he/she will get. So we apply one of the basic insights of Depth Psychology to politics. The Other who is actually ourselves, but whom we refuse to acknowledge, will turn deadly, because he will feel like he has nothing to lose.
Update: This essay dates primarily from January 2013. I wrote the final sentence in a poetic mode, referring back to the mistreated god of The Bacchae, and toward the simple psychological truths of repression, projection and the inevitable, angry return of the repressed.
Gaza, with two million residents in 141 square miles, is the third most densely populated political unit in the world, following only Hong Kong and Singapore. Due to the Israeli and Egyptian border closures and the Israeli sea and air blockade, the population is not free to leave or enter, nor allowed to freely import or export goods.
Gaza is a concentration camp, no more, no less. And now, Gaza is running out of water.
In July of 2014, in the midst of “Operation Protective Edge,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri lamented:
Our backs are to the wall and we have nothing to lose…In Gaza we have nothing, and we have nothing to lose…Let us live in dignity, and you will receive quiet and love in return.
After the cease fire, another Hamas leader spoke:
If we don’t witness a change for the good in our lives over the next few weeks, another war will erupt soon…It’s impossible to live this way any longer. We have nothing to lose any more. People hoped that after the war, something would happen. We’d feel change in the offing, we’d finally breathe, but nothing has changed.
Four years later, amid the crazy distractions of the Trump era, most of us have forgotten that Operation Protective Edge killed 2,300 Gazans, including over 500 children, and that Barack Obama immediately replenished the Israelis’ ammunition.