Amanda Taub has a very smart piece up at the New York Times about the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar, in which she describes ethnic cleansing as an inevitable outcome of the the definition of a nation as the means for a given people to attain “self-determination.”
Self-determination means not only defining what a nation is, but also who belongs in that nation and who is an outsider. And during times of political upheaval, when national identity comes under pressure and different groups compete for claims to self-determination, such definitions can provide an impetus for mass violence and even genocide against those deemed to be outsiders.
Others have made related points– from Benedict Anderson’s landmark work on the nation as an “imagined community,” to Norman Finkelstein’s critique of self-determination as a desideratum in Israel and Palestine, to Orwell’s famous essay on Nationalism.
Taub’s piece has a notable flaw. When she relates the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya to other cases, she cites several majoritarian abuses: of Sri Lankans Tamils, and Jews and Muslims and Roma in Europe.
Most countries have a majority ethnic or religious group whose customs, culture and religion dominate public life. But ethnic or religious definitions of the “nation,” when translated into political priorities, put minority citizens at a disadvantage….
The Roma have long been treated as perpetual foreigners. Regardless of their legal citizenship, they are seen as traveling interlopers who are not part of a nation’s civic identity or culture. That has led to entrenched prejudice and discrimination that regularly spill over into violence.
And the Jews, particularly before World War II, were also often treated as perpetual aliens who were not truly part of the nation.
Of course, Taub’s list could go on and on, but one obvious exclusion is the ethnic cleansing of 700,000+ Palestinians by Zionists to create a majority-Jewish state in Israel in 1948. The excuse that Taub’s piece is general doesn’t really hold. She is keenly interested in the experience of Jews historically, and Muslims today. Both these matters touch on the Palestine example. As do the haunting photographs of Rohingya in the Naf River approaching Bangladesh, reminiscent of Palestinians crossing the Jordan or debarking at Jaffa harbor during the Nakba.
Memories of the Nakba are being widely reclaimed today (as the Holocaust was remembered in the 1970s). The Nakba is ours because it involves the American relationship to Israel and Palestine. The Palestinian refugee issue is central to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which Netanyahu and Cuomo and Clinton denounce, which AIPAC is taking on in the US Congress. Bernie Sanders has mentioned the Nakba in a major speech, David Remnick mentioned it just a couple weeks back in The New Yorker, and Nakba recognition was an issue in the effort to discredit the new head of the Center for Jewish History, David N. Myers, who for his part has celebrated the recently-revived account of ethnic cleansing by an Israeli veteran, Khirbet Khizeh.
Myers repeatedly referred to Zionist “expulsions” of Palestinians and said, “the deep wound of the Nakba must finally be exposed to the light of day.” An opinion the New York Times does not share. I conclude that the omission is glaring; and it is yet another case of official media being indifferent to Palestinian conditions.
A good place to start: Donna Nevel has lately published a “Facing the Nakba” curriculum.
Thanks to Donald Johnson.