The ‘untamed wildernesses’ of Israeli and American colonialism

A June editorial in +972 Magazine examined the (non-)utility of the argument “Who started it in 1948?” One thing that struck me about the points of the argument regarding the disposition of land in the British Mandate of Palestine was how similar the Zionist claim that the Jordan River Valley is an integral part of Israel sounds to arguments made centuries earlier over a different river valley that was once as contested as the Jordan River Valley is today: the Ohio River Valley in the United States.

In the 1760s and 1770s, the Ohio River Valley was a flashpoint that loomed large in foreign and American consciousnesses. Multiple wars were fought over it, military outposts were built throughout its boundaries, people argued that its seizure was tantamount to national survival, and officially sanctioned (by George Washington, no less) ethnic cleansing took place after the American Revolution as settlers and land speculators crossed the Appalachian Mountains into the region.

It all began when the British (doesn’t everything?) fought the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, largely to check French political ambitions in Europe. The colonies were a secondary combat theater, but the war had the bonus outcome of driving the French from the fertile Ohio River Valley, a prize sought by many colonials, from Virginia plantation owners (including George Washington) to New England merchants and farmers. Britain, however, did not think unregulated settlement was a good idea. The British thus issued the Proclamation of 1763 (without consulting any of the colonial legislatures), which severely restricted the expansion of colonial settlement westward and turned over most of the Ohio River Valley to allied Native Americans. British forts went up to enforce the boundary lines and British soldiers began evicting those American settlers and traders who were there illegally. Americans were furious.

At the heart of the colonists’ rage (the rebellion against the Crown wasn’t all about taxes, despite what you may hear from conservatives today) was the belief that the Native Americans, weren’t worthy of possessing the land they inhabited. They weren’t natives, they were transients (and savage ones at that). Even though the British did begin to chip away at Indian territories to appease the colonials, it was not enough for them.

Sound familiar? While the Arab invasions of (present-day) Israeli territory in 1948 may indeed have been the catalyst for the expulsion of Palestinians, the aforementioned perceptions about strangeness, inferiority and savagery were the precipitants for the Nakba – and Israel’s ensuing distorted claims that the former inhabitants now have no claims to the land).

The issue of legality is what made the Proclamation of 1763 especially galling: it implicitly recognized that the Native Americans were, well, Native Americans and legally entitled to the land they lived on, something a very vocal number of colonists (including most of the now-deified “Founding Fathers”) absolutely refused to accept. Here is how the mythmaking gets going: You couldn’t “give” these people ownership of the land. “Ownership” was alien to them (actually, it wasn’t, but subtleties like that didn’t matter). These people weren’t white (i.e., they were inherently inferior). They had no paperwork to denote land ownership (except sometimes they did – but like certain UN Security Council resolutions, the settlers selectively recognized them).

And, worst of all to American sensibilities, the natives didn’t even farm the land. All that “vacant land” going to waste! That the American continent was a wilderness before European settlement is an assumed historical fact.

And it is just that: assumed.

Americans have long failed to realize that the “wilderness” was actually one of the most intensive examples of arboriculture ever practiced in human history: rather than rely on fields, Native Americans managed the forests for game and crops (and often did practice farming, just not to the extent that the European colonists did). The untamed wilderness myth only got worse as time went on, because people moving west increasingly came upon depopulated landscapes. Just a few years before, these landscapes had been heavily managed by native populations, but they now lay fallow, rendered vacant by disease, warfare and ill tidings of the rapacious white man’s approach. The real (or imagined) vacancy of the land is necessary for any colonial enterprise to succeed: the land has to “belong” to those not even on it yet. Sometimes it helps to force the vacancies along.

Israeli assertions that Zionism has made the “desert bloom” and that the Arabs were incompetent farmers have taken on the same justificatory tone (both moralsitic and scientific) as the untamed wilderness myth in the U.S. The blooming dessert meme also explains why the present water situation in Israel has become a major environmental issue and the Israelis have had to destroy so many Palestinian orchards – to conserve water, perhaps?

But these orchard demolitions reveal an inherent problem with the wilderness narrative: the land is inhabited. The Founding Fathers, though unhappy with Indian land claims, recognized that the natives did live there (duh, that was the whole problem!) and, obviously, since they lived there in numbers, knew that they were able to feed themselves. The “wilderness” mythology is, in fact, a largely modern invention in both Israel and America.

So how does one end up glossing over this? The simplest solution is for the people at the time to have already gone and created a “wilderness” through scorched earth tactics, as the 1779 Sullivan Expedition to the Ohio demonstrated. Largely forgotten today, it was launched four years into the American War for Independence and was regarded as an extremely important military effort at the time. George Washington himself ordered it, making it comparable to David Ben-Gurion’s decision to launch the October 1948 invasion of Galilee.

Like the Galilee operation, the Sullivan Expedition had been given the same objective: secure the territory for future settlement by evicting the native population. Washington, who was known among the Iroquois as “The Devourer of Villages” ordered the expedition to:

“Lay waste all the [Indian] settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner; that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed.

“After you have very thoroughly completed the destruction of their settlements; if the Indians should shew a disposition for peace, I would have you to encourage it . . .”

Washington wasn’t sending an army out just to burn down a few dozen native tents – he was sending them to burn down dozens of native villages (comparable in size to the average colonial village) until the natives sued for peace.

Regarding that, though, he cautioned his officers over what “peace” in these circumstances meant:

“It is likely enough their fears, if they are unable to oppose us, will compel them to offers of peace, or policy may lead them to endeavour to amuse us in this way to gain time and succour for more effectual opposition. Our future security will be in their inability to injure us . . . and in the terror with which the severity of the chastizement they receive will inspire them. Peace without this would be fallacious and temporary.”

Ben-Gurion made the Israeli association (in tactics and justification) with this era in American history quite clear during the 1948 War of Independence. His biographer, Michael Bar-Zohar, says that Ben-Gurion told his head officers “the American Declaration of Independence . . . [has] no mention of the territorial limits. We are not obliged to state the limits of our State.”

Galilee was, like Ohio, supposed to remain in the hands of its native inhabitants (that was the UN plan). But, once the natives were cleared by the invaders (in Ohio’s case, by the Americans’ burning of Indian villages and their food stocks just before the onset of winter; in Galilee’s, this was achieved by forced evictions and massacres of Arabs that “encourage”  a mass exodus), the now-”empty” land could be peopled by the settler. The narrative then became that the settlers had the virtue of divine providence; they were fighting for their lives; the natives didn’t think of themselves as natives until after they abandoned their land when a fight that they started turned sour for them, etc.

Over time, it becomes easier to forget about these actions and to go along with the post-victory narrative that the land was always “empty” and “uncultivated” (even though men like Washington and Ben-Gurion knew that this was not the case because they planned their campaigns on the premise that their forces were going to have to seize and destroy at least a few dozen native settlements in order to claim victory). This forgetting is less prevalent (relatively speaking) in Israel today because 1) it happened only sixty-odd years ago and 2) there are a lot more Palestinians than Native Americans alive today. But in any case, history is fickle, whether it spans half a dozen or two dozen decades. History, written by the victors, always tends to focus more on the eras of expansion that follow the eras of displacement.

Small wonder that both Israel and the U.S. rely on their selective memories to justify their actions and find common ground in their narratives of expansion (not narratives of dispossession, but of provident growth, of democracy and technology triumphing over feudalism). Israel serves a useful purpose from a military standpoint, true, for the U.S. but also serves a useful ideological one as a complement to the manufactured American historical narrative.

Selective memory is more or less how consensus is made in any society, particularly a colonialist one. In most Belgian historiography, you’d think that King Leopold II of Belgium was one of the best things to ever happen to the Congolese, or was at least no worse than any other colonizer (rationalization is always a form of justification). Japanese government officials and the media referred to “incidents” in China in the years leading to WWII rather than “battles” (a euphemism sometimes repeated in postwar history textbooks). “History is a series of lies on which we agree,” as Napoleon once said.

And, as we’ve already heard, the Israelis made the desert bloom and the U.S. tamed the virgin wilderness (the Arabs and Indians being footnotes and irritants in the blazing pace of progress set by kibbutz dwellers and homesteaders, respectively).

Two Manifest Destinies (yes, the Jewish National Fund uses that language), two peoples harnessing underutilized resources to better the whole world through economic and democratic beneficence. The expansionist “Age of Jackson” in America can be seen again in Israel – through a line of self-serving historiography extending from the Sullivan Expedition and the Trail of Tears to the Nakba and the Six Days War.

As Adam Hochschild puts it in King Leopold’s Ghost:

“And yet the world we live in – its divisions and conflicts, its widening gap between rich and poor, its seemingly inexplicable outbursts of violence – is shaped far less by what we celebrate and mythologize than by the painful events we try to forget.”

Update: The original version of this post included a quotation attributed to Ben-Gurion re the ethnic cleansing of the Galilee that is not supported by scholarly sources. Commenter Robert Werdine pointed out the error, which I regret.

About Paul Mutter

Paul Mutter is a contributor to Mondoweiss, Foreign Policy in Focus and the Arabist.
Posted in American Jewish Community, Beyondoweiss, Israel/Palestine, Middle East, Nakba, Settlers/Colonists, US Policy in the Middle East, US Politics

{ 17 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. RE: “The ‘untamed wildernesses’ of Israeli and American colonialism” ~ Paul Mutter

    MY COMMENT: A SUPERB AND INCREDIBLY PERCEPTIVE COMMENTARY/ANALYSIS!!!

    SOMEWHAT RELATED, BY IRA CHERNUS, 01/20/11: “…White Americans, going back to early colonial times, generally assigned the role of ‘bad guys’ to ‘savages’ lurking in the wilderness beyond the borders of our civilized land. Whether they were redskins, commies, terrorists, or the Taliban, the plot has always remained the same.
    Call it the myth of national security — or, more accurately, national insecurity, since it always tells us who and what to fear.
    It’s been a mighty (and mighty effective) myth…”

    ENTIRE COMMENTARY – link to tomdispatch.com

  2. Mr. Mutter,

    I have been unable to confirm the authenticity of the following quote you have attributed here to Ben Gurion:

    “We must use terror, assassination, intimidation, land confiscation, and the cutting of all social services to rid the Galilee of its Arab population.”

    Can you tell me where and when Ben Gurion ever made such a statement?

  3. annie says:

    robert, the link in the article says it comes from the koenig report. i assume it means the koenig memorandum.

  4. chayma100 says:

    The European settlers who came to “america” were not fleeing persecutions and pogroms.

    The USA should be dismantled and the land given to Mexico.

    • Citizen says:

      chayma100, source for your blanket statement?

      “The New England colonies, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland were conceived and established “as plantations of religion.” Some settlers who arrived in these areas came for secular motives–”to catch fish” as one New Englander put it–but the great majority left Europe to worship God in the way they believed to be correct. They enthusiastically supported the efforts of their leaders to create “a city on a hill” or a “holy experiment,” whose success would prove that God’s plan for his churches could be successfully realized in the American wilderness. Even colonies like Virginia, which were planned as commercial ventures, were led by entrepreneurs who considered themselves “militant Protestants” and who worked diligently to promote the prosperity of the church.” link to loc.gov

  5. RoHa says:

    As a side issue, I notice that the British get condemned by various parties both for being nasty to the natives and (in the case here) for not being nasty enough.

  6. Scott says:

    It’s kind of like the Israeli Likudniks, who responded to Obama’s settlement freeze gambit by dressing up as Indians and picketing the US embassy in Tel Aviv. Brought to you by mondoweiss.

  7. Taxi says:

    Damn good breakdown, Mutter.

    I would just like to add that zionists always claimed that Palestinians were incompetent farmers with no agricultural understanding or heritage etc. Zionists would point to neglected and arid Palestinian fields for example while omitting the fact that Palestinians couldn’t tend to their farmland efficiently because israel was acutely rationing their water. Palestinian farmers would literary pray for rain cuz it was the only way to bypass the zionist’s policy of starving and dehydrating the land itself. This constitutes both a humanitarian AND an ecological crime.

    And as for the Ohio River… deary dreary me… so much blood and romance down the banks of Ohio – remember this 19th century murder ballad:
    “I asked my love to take a walk
    To take a walk, just a little walk
    Down beside where the waters flow
    Down by the banks of the Ohio.”

  8. Paul Mutter says:

    An Explanation From The Author On The Correction:

    The quote mistake was entirely my fault. I trusted the source I obtained it from, but since this is a quote with a storied history, I went and ordered the 1967/1978 biography (“Ben-Gurion: The Armed Prophet,” by Michael Bar-Zohar) to cross-check the quote. After searching through these biographies, I couldn’t find the quote as it was cited in other scholarly sources, so it seems that they and I are all mistaken. The biographer who I refer to in the updated article does support (in chapters 17-22 of the 1967 edition; his 1978 edition is the same way) the assertion that B-G planned to displace the Arab population of Galilee and other regions by military means, but does not do so using the language I originally posted. As far as I know, that language is someone else’s other than B-G’s, or a fabrication. The article has been corrected to reflect the error. I thank the commenter Robert Werdine for questioning the accuracy of my citation.

    • Paul Mutter says:

      *As far as I know NOW, the above should read

      • Mr. Mutter,

        Thank you for your reply. I would not wish to leave the impression that I was in any way inferring that you were deliberately misquoting Ben Gurion, only that I was unable to confirm it’s authenticity. In the course of my academic work, I have more than once trusted sources that have turned out to be unreliable or mistaken. It happens to all of us.

        Best regards,

        Robert Werdine

  9. Paul,

    I look forward to your posts here.