By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
“Obama would probably be aghast if he were told by someone that ‘the United States cannot permanently occupy Mexican land,'” wrote former Israeli Defense Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Moshe Arens in a recent article. He went on to note, “Obama surely knows that his birthplace of Hawaii, once an independent nation, had been taken over by the United States in an 1893 coup, becoming the 50th state more than 60 years later in 1959. So who is the ‘occupier’? Can ‘occupation’ lead in time to a peaceful accommodation as it did in California and Hawaii?” Arens makes a compelling point that America and many other countries were established after conquest and occupation of disputed territories, little different than what Israel has done in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
However there is something disingenuous in these assertions that Israel’s 49 years of rule in the West Bank over millions of Palestinians is akin to the US conquest of the American West. The essential difference is that residents of those areas that America conquered became US citizens with equal rights under American law. It may have taken generations for some of them, such as Native-Americans or African-Americans, but they did become citizens and they received an equal right to vote. Yet when it comes to Israel’s policy in the West Bank, there is no intention to extend voting rights or citizenship to Palestinians. In Jerusalem where Palestinians received residency, but not full citizenship, the Israeli government has been actively taking away the residency rights of those who don’t meet criteria (even if they are born in the city). The granting of citizenship to those Jerusalem resident Palestinians who do apply for citizenship has dramatically decreased. In 2012 426 of 719 applications received citizenship. In 2015 only 24 of 829 applications did. This year, only four people. The message is clear. Israel wants to rule over millions of Palestinians, but does not want them receiving citizenship.
Enter the Americans
An estimated 60,000 American citizens are living in Jewish communities, often called settlements, in the West Bank, according to research carried out by Sara Yael-Hirschhorn. The actual number may be higher if one includes areas of East Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. Some of these Americans were born in Israel, but a large number of them are olim, or immigrants to Israel. They make up as much as 15% of the population of the Jewish communities in the West Bank. Why do Americans, who make up only 2.25% of Israel’s population, make up 15% of the population that chooses to live over the Green Line, that chooses to live among Palestinians who have no citizenship in any country.
I often argue with those who try to draw parallels between the US and Israel’s policies, or complain that the West bank should not be seen as an “illegal occupation,” but merely as “disputed territory.” They say “there are no Palestinians” and “this area was taken from Jordan” and “under the San Remo Conference Israel has rights to the West Bank.” All this justification for Israel’s actions runs into one large elephant in the room.
Ok, so the West Bank is disputed territory? But the rights of the Palestinians are indisputable. There are around 2.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank who lack basic civil rights, either rights to self-determination and their own state, or rights to be citizens of the Israeli state which rules over them. When one suggests that Palestinians deserve inalienable rights, the responses from the pro-Israel crowd, and particularly those Americans who live in the West Bank range across numerous excuses [with my answers]:
-Palestinians are lucky to live in the West Bank, they are better off than Syria [That’s like saying Mexican-Americans are “lucky” to live in the US and therefore could have their citizenship removed]
-In America there are territories where people can’t vote. [But they have citizenship at birth, they can move from those territories, such as Puerto Rico, to Maine. Only American Samoa is an exception]
-Arabs in Judea and Samaria are in paradise. [So then why don’t Americans in Jewish communities switch places with them?]
-America stole the land from the Indians [So? Does that make other land theft acceptable?]
When I asked on Facebook, “How many American citizens living in the West Bank will be voting in US elections, while their Palestinian neighbors lack basic civil rights,” I received similar responses:
-Palestinians should give up terrorism. [Less than .01% of Palestinians are convicted terrorists, they have given up terrorism and why is that a prerequisite for citizenship?]
-Jordanians denied Arabs in the West Bank rights too. [So, why does one country’s violations make others acceptable?]
-Palestinians have a right to vote for their leaders, look at Mahmud Abbas. [Yes, they have a right to vote in a quasi-state, but they want a full state and rights to travel, like you have.]
-The Palestinian Authority denies them rights to vote in elections, so that’s their problem. [The fact that a country abuses its citizens doesn’t give other countries a right to abuse them.]
-Jews have lived here for thousands of years, Arabs are newcomers and squatters. [Just because people are newcomers doesn’t invalidate their rights, most Jewish Americans are newcomers to the US, but they have rights, don’t they?]
-They have citizenship in Jordan.[No, they mostly don’t.]
-It’s the Palestinians responsibility to elect responsible leaders. [Many Americans have chosen Donald Trump, so should they not have rights now?]
-The Arabs attacked Israel in 1967, so it’s not Israel’s fault it conquered the West Bank. [The fact a country attacked another country, doesn’t give the winner the right to take over the second country and deprive all its people of rights for generations.]
Without going through and answering each of these claims fully, it is clear that there are a litany of excuses made for why people can live their entire lives under Israeli rule and never have a passport, never have a right to travel, never have the basic human rights that most of the Israeli citizens, some of whom are Americans, receive at birth.
That’s the strangest thing of all. A Palestinian who was born in 1967 is now forty-nine years old. But tomorrow, an American citizen can move to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship and move to a Jewish community next to the 49-year old Palestinian. The American now has two citizenships, and the Palestinian has none, and that’s a strange thing. When the American decides to raise children, her children receive citizenship in two countries automatically. The 49 year old has children who receive no rights, to any state.
There seems something fundamentally strange about a situation like this. And this is where the American side comes into play. Moshe Arens compares the situation in Ramallah, Jenin or Efrat to what America did in Hawaii. But consider the story of Arens for a second. He was born in Lithuania in 1925. In 1939 he moved to the US with his family and in 1948 came to Israel. Like many Jewish immigrants to the US his family would have had the ability to obtain American citizenship. If millions of Jews who arrived in the US had been denied US citizenship for generations, they would surely have spoken out about this basic violation of their Civil Rights.
Yet, oddly, the same Americans who would be the first to protest for their own civil rights in America, and the first to stand up for Jewish rights in Israel, are also some of the first to step forward and excuse the denial of the same rights to Palestinians. Let’s pretend even for a second to accept the view some try to put forward that “there are no Palestinians.” Ok, but there are millions of people in the West Bank who lack passports and citizenship and live as non-citizens in their own country. They are born there and die there and have lived there for generations. “They are recent immigrants to the West Bank,” say some of the excusers. But so are the American immigrants who just arrived a few years ago and moved to the West Bank. So why do immigrants from Boston or New York get more rights to live in the West Bank than people from Ramallah and Tulkarm?
“Settling”, a very American ethos
I spent years teaching American Studies at Al-Quds University to Palestinian M.A students. Often when I would reference the US Declaration of Independence and figures such as Thomas Paine or Patrick Henry, Palestinians found commonality in these figures. “He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures…quartering large bodies of troops among us,” one of the students read out loud once. This is a quote from the Declaration signed on July 4th of 1776. Many of the grievances found in 1776 in what became the United States are similar to Palestinian grievances.
The perception that Palestinians are somehow completely foreign and different to the American experience is wrong. For instance some claim that Palestinians glorify terrorism or “martyrs.” But they perhaps forget that the Union Army marched to battle singing ‘John Brown’s Body,’ a song of martyrdom. “His body lies mouldering in the grave, his soul is marching on, he’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord.” When Patrick Henry intoned “Give me liberty or give me death,” at the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1775, that slogan which still finds expression in New Hampshire license plates which shout “live free or die”, does that slogan not find expression in the seeming willingness of Palestinians to die in their cause, even if one finds their methods often abominable?
The endless military rule imposed on Palestinians with no way out, no path to a state, no path to rights in Israel, helps create and feed the violence and anger that exists. “The question of the future is how best to keep these millions from brooding over the wrongs of the past and the difficulties of the present…toward a larger, juster and fuller future,” wrote civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois in 1903.
So how do we explain the tendency for American immigrants to Israel to choose a West Bank abode, to want to live next to Arabs who lack rights, to want to live in a situation diametrically opposed to the rights their own ancestors demanded and received in the US? How can it be explained that those people who demand rights to in the US and demand them in Israel, so easily overlook the fundamental desire for the same rights among Arabs in the West Bank?
It can be partly experienced by the flip side to the American search for rights as embodied in 1776. It can be explained by the desire for the life on the frontier. The frontier was brutal and it was revolutionary. It provided breathing space, and a place to fulfill dreams and individualism, and for religious inspiration, but it was not a place of rights. On the frontier in Texas or Arizona territory the American settlers did not care about rights for Mexicans or black slaves, native-Americans or Chinese “coolies.” The white settlers often lacked basic rights. They were carving out new states, in such a state rights were transitory.
Most Americans who move to the West Bank do so for religious and ideological reasons. Some do so for economic reasons. Unlike other immigration waves to Israel, Americans come with more wealth and skills and can choose where to live rather than be housed in “absorption” centers throughout Israel. But economic and religious reasons alone don’t explain the unique and outsized role of Americans in the West Bank, just as ideological reasons alone don’t explain why Americans are disproportionately represented in left-wing human rights organizations in Israel. Both cater to a desire at Americanization of Israel.
The West Bank experience caters to the fantasies and desires of American Zionists who immigrate to Israel. The claustrophobic life inside the Green Line is not interesting. It is full of the hallmarks of old 1950s Israel with its regimented social lines, its ethnic divisions, its acceptance committees, its old social style housing inspired by Stalinist planners. It’s lack of individualism. And parts of it look like Arizona or Miami, if people wanted to live there they could just stay in America.
But the West Bank is the new frontier of Israel, a place of change and happening. Palestinian Arabs are part of that landscape, but they are disregarded because they don’t really matter in the fulfillment of the “dream” of living Zionism and being at the forefront of the spear of Israel’s policies.
Here is where the janus-face of America comes together. The America imagined in 1776 in rebellion against British tyranny was one that had its own inequalities and denial of rights. It took almost 200 years to right those wrongs. It is often forgotten that Native-Americans did not all receive the right to vote until after 1924, and some did not receive full rights until 1957.
The American experience in the West Bank and the outsized role that Americans have played in the settlement movement are part of this janus-face. They want rights, Jewish rights to areas of ancient Jewish inhabitation where the Jewish faith was forged, such as Hebron. But they have little interest in what should be the rights granted to Palestinians long ago. It seems ridiculous that an American living in a community near Nablus can drive to the beach in Netanya, but his Palestinian neighbor cannot. But no matter.
Power and reality
In contrast to the power Israel has in the West Bank over Palestinians, it is met with the reality of the international community’s unwillingness to recognize that power. When US President Barack Obama said at the United Nations that “Israel recognizes that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land,” he was repeating a theme he has hammered on for eight years about. When the US changed the “location” of Shimon Peres’ funeral to read not “Jerusalem, Israel”, but just “Jerusalem” it illustrated the long-term US refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. No country in the world recognizes Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem.
This creates a strange situation in which Palestinian rights appear to be supported and recognized by the world, but are denied on the local level. The zealotry with which they are denied by some of the Americans who have moved to the West Bank seems to increase, even as the international community digs in its heels for them. When I first came to Israel in 2004 and attended a Shabbat dinner in Hebron, it was a bit shocking to see how much the American students relished the opportunity to lord it over the local Arabs. They enjoyed the power. They liked having soldiers to protect them. It switched something inside them. From a powerless and bourgeois lifestyle abroad, here was a sort of conflict-like situation where power was clear. On an individual level it seemed liberating to my classmates and peers, to finally be among Palestinians and have more rights then them. “Keep them away,” they said.
They enjoyed too much the feeling that these people in Hebron were second class non-citizens, and that there were streets upon which only these American tourists could walk. I visited Americans living in Gush Katif before the Disengagement in 2005 and found the same view. They relished the feeling of living among more than 1 million Arabs who had no rights. There was some thing strange about it, but understandable. People enjoy power. People immigrated to the New World to escape stifling Europe and to acquire power. There is no doubt that the power some Muslims from the West feel in countries such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia is liberating, finally they feel above and on top of the “kaffirs”, the others. But this appeal to power is not a healthy one.
For Americans historically it has certainly always been a bit of a fantasy to live out the European colonialism that they revolted against. Americans such as William Walker who invaded Nicaragua, or men like Henry Crabb who tried to invade Sonora in Mexico, wanted to experience colonialism and conquest. Americans did the same in Liberia, Hawaii, and in Brazil where Confederate officers immigrated. Americans never got to have the power that colonial-era Europeans had in Africa and Asia, but they replicated it in other ways. They had it briefly in the Philippines, in Vietnam, in Germany in 1946 and in Japan the same year. They had in Cuba and Haiti. But never truly could they experience it for the long term.
The American experience in the West Bank, in miniature, there is a brief chance to experience power, even as they feel they are fighting many enemies, including local terrorists, European activists and the international community that all seeks to deny their “right” to be there.
The excuses that are employed to deny Palestinians rights are paired with the excuses employed to explain why people who immigrated to Israel a year ago from California should enjoy more rights than an old man from Jenin who is their neighbor. Excuses have to exist because people don’t want to admit: I like having more power than my neighbors, I wish I could have lived like this in the United States but I couldn’t. No one wants to admit they just like having power over others. The real question to ask them when it comes to the excuses is, if you truly think the Palestinians are being treated decently, why don’t you give up your numerous citizenships and live like them for a few years. No rights to travel, no trips to the beach, and see how it goes.
There may continue to be an ethnic and religious conflict between Israel and the Palestinians regardless of whether they achieve statehood or more rights, but that doesn’t make the denial of those rights acceptable or logical. As long as Israel refuses to accept Palestinian rights to self-determination, the same rights Israel accords itself and which is central to some Zionist arguments about Jewish rights; and also denies Palestinians any rights to Israeli citizenship or to travel and receive equal passports, there will continue to be a hypocritical and contradictory situation in the West Bank. Ironically, large numbers of Americans are at the forefront of that contradiction.