February 24, 2009

Tough questions about Palestinians and Indians

E-mailer Davey reports a debate between radio talk-show host Ray Taliafero and a woman caller about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Davey was somewhat impressed by Ray's tough questions. I'll provide the answers that the woman couldn't.

Are we being hypocrites in this Middle East conflict?Anyway to make a long story short, he started out his shift by talking about the sordid history of mankind and land ownership. He maintained that most countries that exist today are the result of harsh conflict and an entire people being conquered. He said throughout our history superior gun power and military might has been the order of the day with the spoils of war going to the victor. He suggested that what we are seeing in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine is a continuation of that and ideally he wanted to see a way in which future generations could get along.

A woman from neighboring San Rafael called up furious at Ray for his suggestion. She laid into him and told him it was outrageous that we have a group of people taking over the lands of another group of people and we should be ashamed of supporting such an atrocity. She said we should do everything in our power to correct this egregious wrong. The Palestinians have a right to their land they have been there for centuries.
True, but that isn't the point of this posting.Ray asked the woman how he felt about us as Americans being landowners to a place where we came in, displaced and massacred a people to the brink of extinction. The woman said she was bothered by it. Ray asked if she was bothered enough to leave her comfortable home in San Rafael? Was she outraged enough to demand that we give land we conquered back to those original inhabitants? The woman had no answer and said she felt bad, but we need to stop Israel.The point of signing the treaties was so Euro-Americans could legally occupy the Indians' land. No one is asking today's Americans to give back this land.

What they're asking is for today's Americans to uphold their end of the bargain. That includes funding Indian services at whatever level is required.

But what if we decided to abrogate the treaties? We no longer give the Indians anything and they get their land back. Is that a possible solution?

Assuming we could negotiate the endless details, I wouldn't have a problem with this. I don't presume that a tribal government is worse than our federal or state governments. As long as my rights were protected, I don't think I'd care who "governed" me.

What is our responsibility?Ray pressed on by insisting she answer the question: What is our responsibility to those we stole land from?To uphold the treaties we signed to the fullest extent possible. And to do everything in our power to right the historic wrongs.The woman said that was centuries ago. We now get along with Native Americans and worked everything out with them. Ray went off and asked what date and time did we suddenly conclude it was ok for us to be here and that the slaughter of millions was now just a tragic bygone?It's never been okay for Americans to "be here" while stealing the Indians' land. That's why some of us call it our "original sin."

The treaties were perhaps the best of a bad lot of remedies. Because of them, I don't think we have to give the land back.

But I don't think they absolved America of its moral crimes either. We forced most of these treaties on the Indians and then we broke them. As it says below, we're still guilty of land grabs and other legal and moral crimes.

As for the inevitable argument that today's Americans aren't to blame for the acts of their predecessors, see above about our responsibility. Today's Americans vote for today's government, so they're ultimately responsible for upholding the treaties and righting the wrongs.

If you don't like this responsibility, move to another country. Go somewhere where the conquerors haven't signed treaties with the conquered. While you're a US citizen, you own a small share of this nation's rights and its responsibilities.From the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock to the Buffalo soldiers who were the descendants of slaves, most of us here in the US come from a people who in one way or another participated in land grabbing. Should we not reverse those wrongs? He noted that we are still land grabbing Native Lands even in 2008.I'd say it's too late to actually "reverse" the wrongs and return America to a pristine state. But it's not too late to right the wrongs with remedies ranging from economic development to healthcare to education.The woman had no answer for him.The woman should've used me as her lifeline. ;-)

Give up our "comfortable spots"?Ray left us with a hard question to answer. While we fight to stop the killings in Palestine and recognize that them losing their land his blatantly unfair, should we simultaneously be fighting for our country to honor broken treaties and should we be giving up our comfortable spots and insisting it go back to Native Peoples?Honor the treaties? Yes. Give up our comfortable spots? No. That's not possible or necessary because of the treaties we swore to uphold.

Actually, we should think about giving up our "comfortable spots" in huge suburban tracts because the sprawl is using up our finite land and resources. We should think about living in high-density, mixed-use communities and leave the land as untouched as possible. But that's a topic for another day.

Returning to the Middle East conflict for a minute, Israel's land grab after the 1967 war has never been okay. The Palestinians have never signed a treaty giving up their territorial rights. The conflict is recent enough that no one can claim it's too late to "reverse the wrongs."

For all these reasons, the two cases are different. It's not inconsistent to say Israel should give back the land it took but America doesn't have to.

Just about everyone thinks the Israelis and Palestinians should negotiate a land-for-peace agreement. This kind of solution might've worked after the American theft of Indian lands, too. Instead we signed land-for-benefits treaties and now they're the status quo.

For more on the subject, see The Indian-Palestinian Connection.

Below:  A stylized version of the wall that keeps Palestinians "on the reservation."


gaZelbe said...

I read a recent article entitled "The Sand Creek Logic of the Gaza Massacre". (http://www.pslweb.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=10911)

The author compares the Israeli method of land theft in Palestine to the U.S. method of land theft in 19th century Colorado.

The article makes it abundantly clear why so many Native Americans empathize with the Palestinian position. To many of us, the situation seems very, very familiar.

gaZelbe said...

Here's a link in case you can't see the whole URL in my previous comment.

The Sand Creek Logic of the Gaza Massacre