From 1948 we have to go back a century to see how our modern thinking developed.
In order to invent an ideology that justified the replacement of one people by another, it was necessary to elaborate on 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. Uri Avnery, the Israeli writer, 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.” Victimhood and superiority, of course, are contradictory terms that can only be resolved by recourse to mythic thinking.
The third myth was that of the Promised Land, which we have seen had already become part of the 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.
I don’t have the time in this essay to address this particular narrative, but I invite you to read Schlomo Sand, who deconstructs this story and argues that the first generation of European Zionists essentially invented it in the mid-19th century.
The fifth myth was the idea of “empty land.” As we have seen, it has its origins in the Mosaic story. However, like any story that does not arise organically from the indigenous people, it is rife with contradictions, and they relate directly to our American story.
Since neither the Hebrews nor the Europeans found unpopulated lands, the 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, hardly human at all (did the Native Americans have souls?).
Both groups were, in fact, dangerous because they might infect the innocent newcomers with their evil ways. If the land was empty of anyone of value, perhaps there really were no people there. Or if they were there, human progress demanded that they be removed. Once the invaders internalized these notions, anything – including genocide – was possible, acceptable and inevitable.
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. The early Zionists found a phrase that encapsulated all this: “A Land Without a People for a People Without a Land.”
Curiously, it was a Scottish clergyman who coined the phrase in 1843 to describe the situation in Palestine. And he had a distinct agenda. By the 1880s, American evangelists were using 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. And the televangelists who are most vocal in this regard have made it quite clear that their only interest in aiding Israel is to bring on Armageddon, after which all Jews will be forced to convert or die. Check out the rantings of John Hagee. Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows.
By 1900 some, not all, Zionists were speaking of a land without people, although it was clear that Palestine had a considerable population. 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. However, no one bothered to ask the actual persons – 700,000 of them – who traced their ancestry back to pre-Biblical times on that land.
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, I and 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. Although the popular narrative never mentioned that these people were socialists, their image still fit perfectly into the mythic narrative. The people of the land (Arabs – a derogatory term) had not made proper use of it. They had been wasting it. Does this sound familiar?
In 1948 the Israelis evicted 800,000 people, destroying over 600 villages and towns. In one case at least – the ancient town 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.”
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 got his genocidal ideas from American history:
…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. (from my book, Chapter Eight).
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.
Decades later, 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 Israel and Gaza, most Israelis (many progressives have emigrated) believe their own propaganda, both sides of it. They identify as racially superior, 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 because there are no political solutions, but because we can’t perceive the myths that invisibly determine our responses to historical events.
And when we can’t identify the emotional ties generated by mythic narratives, we can’t perceive how politicians manipulate us.
As long as we – Americans and Israelis – insist on our own purity and innocence, we must have an Other to project our darkness upon and to fear. And the longer we require the Other to do this, to dwell in our own underworld, the angrier he/she will get. 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. This is the price of resolving a contradictory narrative with more contradictions.
I wrote most of this essay in 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 what we might call eruption. In July of 2014, in the midst of the bombardment of Gaza, I found these quotes by Hamas spokesmen:
Our backs are to the wall and we have nothing to lose.
Let us live in dignity, and you will receive quiet and love in return.
After the cease fire I found this one:
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.
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. On Independence Day of 2015, no American politician – not Bernie Sanders, not Elizabeth Warren – has the courage to challenge this story.