Why I’m thankful America didn’t turn out like Israel.
By Rosa Brooks
That's not as nonsensical as it may sound. The Pilgrims who established our American Thanksgiving ritual thought about Israel a great deal: both they and the larger group of Puritan settlers who followed them a decade later saw themselves as New Israelites, forced into the wilderness by religious persecution.
Given that history, Thanksgiving is a good time to contemplate the parallels between the United States and Israel. After a week of front-page news about Israel and the violence that has increasingly come to define it, this is also a good time to count our blessings--for despite many parallels, the United States is, thankfully, not Israel. Not yet.
Tradition tells us that the first Thanksgiving feast took place in the autumn of 1621, as the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest. On December 12, 1621, Robert Cushman preached the earliest surviving sermon to the Pilgrims. God, said Cushman, had opened "a way...for such as have wings to fly into this Wilderness," so that "as by the dispersion of the Jewish church through persecution...a light may rise up in the dark." A New Israel had sprung up in New England.
If the early American setters saw parallels between themselves and the ancient Israelites, we modern Americans can also find parallels between the American Pilgrims and the Jewish Zionists who settled in Palestine between the late 19th and mid-20th century.
After all, America and Israel share similar origin tales: the Pilgrims who set sail from Plymouth, England in 1620 did so against a backdrop of European religious wars, massacres, and persecution; while the Jews who founded the modern state of Israel fled centuries of European anti-Semitism and the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust.
Each of the two groups imagined themselves to be settling a mostly empty wilderness: "We found the place where we live empty, the people being all dead and gone away," reported Cushman in 1621. Three hundred years later and almost 5,000 miles away, Jewish Zionists sought "a land without a people, for a people without a land." Palestine "remains at this moment an almost uninhabited, forsaken and ruined Turkish territory," enthused Israel Zangwill, an early Zionist, in 1902. He later realized his mistake ("Alas... The country holds 600,000 Arabs"), but by then the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine had picked up unstoppable momentum.
Both the Pilgrims and the Zionist settlers--separated as they were by centuries and miles--underestimated the staying power of the local inhabitants. In the "New Israel" of New England, Cushman observed that the natives who initially appeared were "very much wasted of late, by reason of a great mortality that fell amongst them three years since." (Though Cushman probably didn't know it, the "great mortality" stemmed from smallpox, typhoid, and other diseases unwittingly brought by European fishermen.) With regard to the "poor heathens," wrote Cushman, "Our care hath been to maintain peace amongst them."
The Native Americans turned out to have opinions of their own about the European "errand into the wilderness," however, and over the next decades, European encroachment onto Native American land increasingly led to conflict. New England saw the Pequot War of 1637, for instance, followed by King Phillip's War of 1675-6, which killed hundreds of settlers and thousands of Native Americans.
The Zionists who settled in Palestine found themselves similarly mired in conflict. As the region's Jewish population increased from just over 10 percent in the early 1920s to about 33 percent after World War II, tensions with the Arab majority went up as well. By the late 1930s, attacks on Jewish settlements by Arab militants were matched by retaliatory attacks on Arabs by Jewish paramilitary groups.
Here, however, Israel's path began to diverge from that of early America. The Native Americans were already badly weakened by epidemic disease and internecine conflict by the time European settlers arrived in force. Although bloody skirmishes between Europeans and Native Americans continued until well into the 20th century, by the mid-1700s the native population had ceased to pose an existential threat to the European colonists, and the emerging nation could turn its attention to other matters. To the colonists, all this was a sign of God's providence. To the Native Americans, it was just a tragedy.
In Palestine, things were different: the Arab inhabitants declined to die out of their own accord, leaving the Jewish settlers surrounded by displaced, aggrieved locals. Escalating attacks and counter-attacks embroiled the Israelis in a cycle of violence and retaliation. In 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state, war immediately broke out with Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq. Israel prevailed--but in the nearly seven decades since then, Israel has remained in a state of intermittent war.
That it did so is hardly to our credit, since the American Republic was built upon the virtual destruction of the Native Americans. Our peace and prosperity owe much to happy accidents of geography--how lucky to have oceans on two sides!--and more to the suffering of others (slavery, too, casts a long shadow).
In other words, Americans should be thankful their ancestors were more successful at genocide than Israelis have been? Hmm.
For more on the Indian-Palestinian connection, see Mass Murder in Gaza and Hiroshima and Gazans, Indians Have Right to Resist.