A partial examination of the history of state formation and global conflict suggests that we can consider it an established truth that most, if not all, nation-states rely founding myths. The founding myth of the United States is that European “explorers” “discovered” a “vast wilderness” sparsely populated with “merciless Indian savages” who, over time, faded away under the march of “civilization.” Today we recognize this as a morally grotesque whitewash of the actual story, namely that the European “explorers” were really genocidal killers who plundered and pillaged their way across the continent under the doctrine of “manifest destiny.” As the late University of Texas professor William Newcomb Jr. observed in his 1974 study on the continent’s indigenous population North American Indians: An Anthropological Perspective, “low population estimates” of the indigenous civilization that preceded the European invasion “had the effect of making the European conquest of North America more palatable to white Americans.” Moreover, anthropologists were of the view that “displacing a million or so Indians North of the Rio Grande and ultimately reducing their population to half that number is far easier to rationalize or ignore than is the extirpation of ten or fifteen times that number.”
The official seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony captures this murderous ideology perfectly in the illustration of an indigenous man holding a downward pointed spear with a scroll flowing from his mouth bearing the inscription “come over and save us.” Rightly, this kind of imagery and brutality shocks the conscience of ordinary people, yet similar myths abound today about the founding of Israel in 1948. One illuminating example of this can be found in a recent Thomas Friedman interview with President Obama that appeared in the New York Times. Asked what he thinks about Israel, Obama responded “It is amazing to see what Israel has become over the last several decades … To have scratched out of rock this incredibly vibrant, incredibly successful, wealthy and powerful country is a testament to the ingenuity, energy and vision of the Jewish people.” As pleasant and unproblematic as this description sounds, it completely revises the actual events of Israel’s founding, which was not the emergence of a nation “scratched from rock” but the forceful imposition of a another nation atop the ruins of Palestinian villages evacuated in a campaign of ethnic cleansing known as the nakba.
This traumatic confrontation with colonialism, an integral part of the Palestinian experience, is completely ignored in Obama’s response despite the fact that it’s accepted as uncontroversial among credible scholars. As Dr. Norman Finkelstein observes in his brilliant study on Israeli criminality Beyond Chutzpah “today there is a broad consensus among scholars that Palestinians suffered ethnic cleansing in 1948… ” Israeli journalist Amira Hass makes a similar observation. In her book Drinking the Sea at Gaza, she recognizes “the long history of dispossession that had begun in 1948, when more than 700,000 Palestinians (of a population of some 1.3 million) became refugees, forced to leave their land as the Jewish national home came into being.” It’s therefore extremely disturbing to hear Obama ask “How can you preserve a Jewish state that is also reflective of the best values of those who founded Israel.” If the actual historical record, and not the mythology concocted by propagandists, matters these “values” would certainly include massacres of civilians (re: Deir Yasin) and the mass expulsion of indigenous populations. A Times article that appeared in October of 1948 captured the horror of the ethnic cleansing in evocative terms:
“… in Beersheba itself, once a thriving center for camel trading, a few inhabitants remain, and at present members of the Israeli army are systematically looting the houses which survived the bombing. It is perhaps an ancient and tacitly accepted rule of war that troops should make themselves comfortable at the expense of the vanquished … “
How strikingly prescient these words were as Israel proceeded in its colonial project decades after this catastrophe, all “at the expense of the vanquished.” It is with this knowledge that Obama’s evasions of the historical record appear not only intellectually irresponsible but unambiguously immoral. And this immorality is reinforced when he showers the architects of this ongoing tragedy with praises and accolades. Take for example Ariel Sharon, a war criminal who participated in countless atrocities, for example the Qibya massacre and the killings at Sabra and Shatila. President Obama described him as someone who “dedicated his life to the State of Israel.” This is an awfully sanitized way to describe a man who in a 1953 attack on the El-Bureig refugee camp commanded a unit that threw bombs “through the windows of huts where refugees were sleeping.” Furthermore, as the refugees attempted to flee the terrorist assault “they were attacked by small arms and automatic weapons.” This massacre, which is credited for helping to “launch Sharon’s career”, left an estimated 50 refugees dead (Israeli figures). None of these inconvenient facts are highlighted in Obama’s glorification of a state struggling to maintain “its democratic and civic traditions.” Much like the character of Uncle Ruckus from Aaron McGruder’s critically acclaimed television series The Boondocks, President Obama continually goes out of his way to lavish racists and war criminals with praises, all the while perpetuating vulgar stereotypes about the Arab menace. In his interview with Friedman he recycles the racist cliche that Israel is a model of civilization marooned in an ocean of savagery, stating “others can cause Israel pain,” because Israel is in “a really bad neighborhood.”
Language of this kind dovetails perfectly with the ethnocentric and supremacist rhetoric of Israeli leaders repeatedly warning the Israeli public of the looming “demographic problem”, namely too many brown people in a Jewish state. Sentiments of this kind would delight Uncle Ruckus, who finds no shame in “thanking the white man for the sunrise, for the land [he] walks on, and the air [he] breathes.” Ruckus also maintains a shrine devoted to “special white people in his life” like John Wayne (“the great white man who didn’t take no shit from niggas, injuns nor Mexicans”), George Bush Sr., and Barry Manilow. Likewise, Obama maintains his “shrine” to the “special white people in his life.” This shrine is adorned with pictures of people like Shimon Peres, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom who has lived a life “nothing short of extraordinary.” For instance, it was “nothing short of extraordinary” when Peres followed in the footsteps of Israeli Prime Minister Manachem Begin and upheld the idea that Israel had a “biblically endorsed right of possession” to the West Bank. On the territorial status of the West Bank Peres proclaimed “There is no argument in Israel about our historic rights in the land of Israel. The past is immutable and the Bible is the decisive document in determining the fate of our land.” Perhaps if Peres was an extremist of the Islamic variety who insisted that the Holy Qur’an was the “decisive document in determining the fate our land,” he would have been exiled from President Obama’s hallowed pantheon of “special white people” but this isn’t the case, therefore Washington’s incarnation of Uncle Ruckus is free to hail him as a “true founding father,” to ample applause.
It’s therefore little wonder that Obama was able to boycott the Durban Conference Against Racism under the pretext that the UN was unfairly “singling out” Israel. Apparently, Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv’s “great white man”, also must be protected. Apart from Israeli criminals, another luminary in Obama’s sacred shrine is George W. Bush, who exercised “incredible strength and resolve … as he stood amid the rubble and the ruins of Ground Zero, promising to deliver justice to those who had sought to destroy our way of life.” Incidentally, Bush’s position in the shrine may be more elevated than that of Peres since Obama has not only honored him in word, but, more significantly, in deed, primarily through his continuation of the crimes for which his predecessor should have been punished, facts easy to perceive in the President’s recent colloquialism about violating the Geneva Conventions (“We tortured some folks”).
Underlying this enthusiastic embrace of empire and colonialism is a deeply dehumanizing portrait of those on the other side of the gun, in this case Palestinians. Unless these simplistic and racist conceptions are abandoned, these foundational myths will persist as will the intense efforts to excise from historical memory narratives which give voice to the profound suffering and loss of those living under occupation. The indignity and cruelty of occupation make necessary an honest reckoning with these imperial revisions of history and those who stubbornly ignore reality in favor of fairy tales, whether they come in the form of humanitarian killers dedicated to principles of “peace” or an ultra-violent terrorist state “scratched” into existence from a singular rock.
The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk
North American Indians: An Anthropological Perspective by William W. Newcomb, Jr.
Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky
Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse and Abuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History by Norman G. Finkelstein
Drinking the Sea at Gaza by Amira Hass