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October 13, 2020

Is Israel Exempt?


This year an historic moment took place at the 92nd Academy Awards. New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi introduced an award by saying,“The academy would like to acknowledge that tonight we have gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, the Tataviam and the Chumash. We acknowledge them as the first peoples of this land on which the motion picture community lives and works.” This was the first major event to publicly acknowledge America’s dark history.

Earlier in October, The U.S. Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) launched a program calling on all individuals and organizations to open public events and gatherings with such acknowledgements. Since then, more than 7,000 people have downloaded the program and many have put it into practice, with hundreds signing the pledge to make acknowledgement a regular custom. As the website notes, “acknowledgment is a simple, powerful way of showing respect and a step toward correcting the stories and practices that erase Indigenous people’s history and culture and toward inviting and honoring the truth.”

This reckoning with our cruel colonial past is representative of a growing trend in America. It may soon be commonplace, even policy, to open events and gatherings by acknowledging the Indigenous inhabitants of the land. If this practice were widely adopted in all classrooms, conference settings, places of worship, sports stadiums, town halls, and other cultural venues millions would be exposed to the names of the traditional Indigenous inhabitants of the lands they are on. It would also acknowledge the trauma that still exists on those lands. Northwestern University website states, “Land acknowledgements do not exist in a past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process, and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation.” Mary Lyons of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe says, “When we talk about land, land is part of who we are. It’s a mixture of our blood, our past, our current, and our future. We carry our ancestors in us, and they’re around us. As you all do.”   

Many Americans know it is important to know the story of how we have come to reside on the land we call home, we want to know the truth. As historian Heather Cox Richardson so aptly puts it “ a nation grounded in fiction, rather than reality, cannot function.” We are quickly moving into an era where we cannot help but be cognizant of the language we use to talk about our past. We can no longer cover up our history to fit a myth of innocence, we must use terms like genocide, ethnic cleansing, stolen land, and forced removal to reflect actions taken by our colonizer ancestors. When we are able to see the reality of what brought us to this moment and acknowledge it, we might begin to heal as a nation. As an American I am in support of this, yet it makes me wonder if other Americans who support this initiative would feel the same if those were the names of Palestinian villages.

It was one of the hottest days of the year when I visited the village of  Tantura.
Tantura was once a thriving fishing village in Palestine, today it is an Israeli beach resort. As I stood there I could feel the trauma rooted there under the hot sand. Tourists sat under the soothing shade of their umbrellas and swam happily in the warm salty sea, but the past still lingered. The story of Tantura is the story of man’s inhumanity to man, it is the story of  collective grief and survival. Like the trauma here in America, the trauma of what happened to hundreds of villages like Tantura needs to be acknowledged.

We stood there on that beach that hot August afternoon sweat streaming and heard the entire story. A grandson of one of the villagers who had been killed gave us a tour. He told us how the men of the village were lined up and shot on the very spot on which we stood, the women and children ran to the next village for help. His father was one of the children who survived the massacre.

Today there is broad consensus among scholars that Palestinians suffered an ethnic cleansing in 1948. Tantura was one such village that fell victim to this policy. In 1948 Tantura was within the area designated by the United Nations in the Partition Plan for the Jewish State. Some residents had been involved in the Arab uprising against Jewish immigration. On May 9, 1948, the Israeli government decided to “expel or subdue” the village. According to a local commander, the people of Tantura were ready to surrender in early May, but not prepared to give up their arms. They felt a need to protect themselves from those who had come to take their homes. Most of us have a place to call home, a place we love, a place we would defend with our very lives if need be. It is no secret that many Americans hold the second amendment near and dear to their hearts. Can we understand what it means when home is a place you have to fight for? Would Americans so easily lay down their own arms? Perhaps we cannot imagine a world without this sort of defense because we know how easily strangers can come and rip it all away.

 At a Committee on Foreign Affairs meeting in 1922 New York Representative Albert Rossdale argued that Palestinians did not have rights to their lands, that the theft of Palestine created a situation somewhat akin to that of the American colonists in their struggle with the American Indian. He said “For like the early American settlers on this continent , the Jewish colonists frequently had to till the soil with a rifle in one hand and a hoe in the other . The Nomadic Arab raiders, on a smaller scale, are fighting the civilization of the Jewish settlers as the Indian fought the American settlers on this continent in the early days.”  Just as we must reckon with the colonial sentiments behind such a statement by an American official, we must also reckon with our support of colonialism elsewhere.

Some will ask how does this help, to bring this up? We hear the same thing in America about slavery, about our Jim Crow legacy, how does it help to stir up the past? Perhaps we are not stirring anything up because it was never settled. In Palestine this took place only seventy years ago. I think if my own grandfather had been lined up with a group of men from my hometown, shot dead while my grandmother and my father ran to the next town for protection, I might consider it as part of my present existence. As Mary Lyons says our ancestors are in us, and around us. I wonder how one can process a trauma that is still ongoing? How many memories still live under the sands on the edge of that bright blue sea? As the man who was giving the tour began to cry, I could feel the realness of that trauma, too real for words. I wondered how Israel had become exempt from this global reckoning?

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