Who’s indigenous here?

Take up the White Man’s burden, The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought. – Rudyard Kipling, 1899

The other day I was talking with friends and the discussion turned to the unique situation of Israel as a nation-state that constantly has to justify its existence. Other countries may be engaged in struggles over who will be the dictator, president or ruling party, but I can’t think of another one whose very being is controversial.

For example, last year Iranian ‘Supreme Leader’ Ali Khamenei called for the destruction of the “barbaric, wolflike & infanticidal regime of Israel” and the dispersal of the Jews that had emigrated to Israel from some other place:

All the original people of Palestine including Muslims, Christians and Jews wherever they are, in Palestine or in refugee camps in other countries or just anywhere else take part in a public and organized referendum. Naturally the Jewish immigrants who have been persuaded into emigration to Palestine do not have the right to take part in the referendum. …

the ensuing government … will decide whether the non-Palestinian emigrants … can continue living in Palestine or should return to their home countries.

This is illuminating, because it exposes the narrative that underlies most anti-Israel arguments. You know, when you say “Israel is completely legitimate under international law” and they say “who cares, you stole Palestinian land and colonized the indigenous inhabitants.”

That is the line that always ends the discussion. Israel is gay-friendly? Who cares, you are just bringing that up to distract us from your crimes against the Palestinian people. Israel is a democracy? Who cares, it’s built on someone else’s property. Because Israel is said to be a “settler-colonial state,” a European interloper parasitizing an indigenous Middle Eastern people, we have no moral or legal right to be here.

In the 19th century, colonialism was considered legitimate. “Take up the White Man’s burden,” wrote Kipling, and do the natives a favor despite their often violently-expressed ingratitude. But today, there is no greater national sin than exploitation of indigenous peoples.

There is only one small flaw in this argument, so beloved by leftists and academics: the Jewish people are indigenous to the Land of Israel, and the so-called ‘Palestinians’ are the colonists, invaders and occupiers of other people’s land. Like so much of their rhetoric, Arabs calling themselves ‘indigenous’ to our land is a precise inversion of reality, an employment of the big lie technique.

Here is one modern definition of ‘indigenous people’ (from Jose R. Martinez Cobo):

Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.

This historical continuity may consist of the continuation, for an extended period reaching into the present of one or more of the following factors:

  • Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them
  • Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands
  • Culture in general, or in specific manifestations (such as religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, means of livelihood, lifestyle, etc.)
  • Language (whether used as the only language, as mother-tongue, as the habitual means of communication at home or in the family, or as the main, preferred, habitual, general or normal language)
  • Residence in certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world
  • Other relevant factors.

The Jewish people in Israel are occupying their ancestral lands, and they have a common ancestry with the only ‘original inhabitants’ that still exist as a people. There are no more Philistines, Jebusites, Hivites, etc. (despite the fantasies of the Arabs). There are still Jews, with a religion, culture and language whose connection to the original inhabitants is well-documented.

It is true that the Jewish population of Israel and Judea fluctuated throughout the centuries, as the land was invaded and colonized by Romans, Arabs, Ottomans, British, etc. But the continuity was unbroken while the Jewish people suffered the vicissitudes of an indigenous people oppressed by colonial powers. Some Jews remained in the land and others went into exile throughout the world, but our peoplehood persisted.

The Arabs consider Western support for the establishment of a Jewish state a colonialist usurpation of their indigenous rights. But in fact it was the recognition, by Balfour and others, of the truly indigenous status of the Jewish people that justified the formalization of the Jewish people’s right to the land, from the river to the sea, which was ultimately expressed by the Mandate for Palestine.

The Mandate for the first time concretized our moral right to the land as its historical owners into a legal right under international law. It is ironic that Israel, whose right to exist is seen as controversial, actually has a stronger moral and legal justification for its sovereignty than others – like Jordan, truly created by colonial fiat, or Saudi Arabia, the product of violent conquest.

On the other hand, the so-called ‘Palestinians’ – although they make wild claims to be descended from ‘original’ inhabitants like Canaanites or Philistines – are primarily descendents of people who migrated into the land, a few going back as far as the Arab conquest in the 7th century. Most of them, however, arrived after Muhammad Ali’s expedition from Egypt into Syria around 1830; and the migration accelerated after the Zionists began to improve and develop the land in the 1880s.

Jewish nationalism has existed for thousands of years. But a strictly ‘Palestinian’ consciousness did not develop among the Arabs in the region until they began to confront what they saw as the threat of Jewish sovereignty in the early 20th century; and even then, much of the opposition to a Jewish state was based on a more diffuse Arab nationalism. A distinct Palestinian people didn’t emerge until the mid-1960s with the advent of the PLO. And the central tenet of ‘Palestinian’ culture is its violent hatred for and struggle against Jewish sovereignty.

Yasser Arafat and others have done their best to deny Jewish provenance in the land of Israel, claiming that there was no Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and so forth. But the archaeological evidence – which continues to be discovered – is overwhelming, despite pseudo-academic attempts to refute it.

Unfortunately, it’s not only our enemies who have adopted the upside-down narrative of indigenous Arabs and colonizing Jews. When our own government rests its argument for our continued presence in Judea and Samaria on security considerations rather than our moral and legal right to the land, it is as if someone has stolen your car and then asks to keep it because he needs a car to drive to work.

When our own government agrees to limit construction in certain parts of the land of Israel or agrees that any ‘settlements’ we keep after a peace agreement must be swapped for other bits of land, the implication is that we do not truly own the land even though we control it. But while we certainly may decide that we want to waive the right to some of our land in the interest of peace – assuming that this is possible – we are not morally obligated to do so.

The Europeans, with a history of being colonial oppressors, smugly insist that we are morally obligated to give away part (or all) of our country. But we are not them. Although some of our ancestors were exiled to Europe and other places, we did not give up our peoplehood in exile. We belong to the land of Israel and it belongs to us.

The Zionists did not arrive as colonists from Europe after 1945 and dispossess the long-rooted Palestinian people, as their narrative tells us. The true story is that Jews were here all along, an oppressed and colonized indigenous people like many others. One of our distinctions, though, is that we succeeded in throwing out the European colonialists and achieving the self-determination that is the highest political goal of an indigenous people.

Now it’s up to us to keep it against those, like Khamenei, who wish to end it.

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