Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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American Values on the West Bank
I grew up next door to New Canaan, Connecticut. I never thought much about the name of the town; it was simply an upscale New York suburb that happened to be the location of several family graves. Only as a young teenager did I realize that my neighboring town was named for a special “place” in the Bible, and only much later did the significance of associating land once occupied by indigenous Americans with a name justifying its occupation by a “chosen” group of settlers to whom the land was “promised” really sink in. Other places have towns named Canaan, but Connecticut Puritans seemed particularly zealous in attaching themselves to the Biblical narrative of the Promised Land, including not only New Canaan, but also Canaan and North Canaan.
A recent study of Jewish settlers in the West Bank found that while U.S. citizens make up roughly two to three percent of Israel’s population, roughly fifteen percent of the Jewish population in the occupied territories of the West Bank is comprised of U.S. citizens. Interviews with these settlers suggest that they carried with them an enduring American vision that continues to justify occupying land where Palestinians have lived for generations.
The researcher of the study, Sara Yael Hirschhorn of Oxford University, suggests that American settlers “believe Jews should have the right to live wherever they want in the Holy Land and certainly anywhere under Israeli sovereignty. To them,” she says, “this is a deeply American vision.” Bobby Brown, a settler from New York and former advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu, says “that feeling of pioneering, of encouraging people to reach their full potential in a new and exciting self-created community reflects everything we were taught about America’s beginnings and America’s greatness.”
Ask most of the 60,000 American settlers on the West Bank what values they carried with them from the United States and they are unlikely to name anything akin to the exploitation and extermination of our Native American population. Mordechai Reich, who moved to the West Bank town of Efrat in 1994, no doubt speaks for many of his fellow American settlers when he says that “for me, Israel is a young country where individual contributions add up to create significant change. In that sense, it is a land of opportunity, just as America is.”
But opportunity, freedom, individual accomplishment, and transparency aren’t the only or even the chief American values on display in the West Bank. The first three centuries of white European presence in North America are a history of occupation accomplished through disease, treachery disguised as treaty, and military action. Tribes were removed, cultures erased, names changed, movement restricted, resistance crushed, reservations established, and land redistributed into territories open only to white settlers. And while red bodies were pushed aside, destroyed, or quarantined, many of these occupied lands were handed over to enslavers who would use them to expand the regions where black bodies could be exploited. In some cases the Exodus narrative was quite intentionally employed; in other cases divine promise was redefined as Manifest Destiny. Either way, white entitlement to the land was enshrined.
If for some of the founding generation of the modern state of Israel the narrative is one of sanctuary from anti-Jewish violence in Europe, for others the narrative is one of divinely sanctioned possession. For non-Jewish adherents it comes in the form of Christian Zionism, possession of the land linked not only to the narrative of the Exodus, but to their particular narratives of Christ’s second coming. And as in the story of Native genocide, the values expressed are those of entitled possession requiring the removal and sequestering of those who once inhabited the land.
United States military and political patronage of Israel is usually couched in the language of peace and security, of support for the “only democratic society in the Middle East.” But to American West Bank settlers and their Christian and Jewish supporters here, that patronage is rooted in a different set of values, namely of entitlement to possess and to occupy claiming a divine promise for legitimation and leaving trails of tears in both places. Those quite willing to repudiate the values that undergirded the genocidal Indian policies of colonial settlers and of the U.S. government in the 19th and early 20th centuries need to be asked why they allow those same values to continue justifying an illegal occupation on the West Bank.
John H. Thomas
September 10, 2015