One of the most unnerving aspects of the far-right agenda in America is the effort to stifle discussion about the nation’s founding in genocide and forced labor.
I don’t buy the idea, pushed by some conservatives, that a nation should present a whitewashed version of history in school curricula in order to ensure young Americans develop an appropriate sense of national pride and generalized optimism about the country. Pride and optimism can’t be genuine if they’re based on half the story.
The irony in Donald Trump’s claim that removing statues of Confederate generals is tantamount to “erasing history” was almost too much to bear in that regard: The point of removing monuments to slavery is to confront history.
Even if you set aside the systematic erasure of Native American society and the brutal enslavement of Africans, the story we tell ourselves about the country’s founding is romanticized to the point of being divorced from reality.
America, we tell ourselves and our children, is a nation forged in a noble struggle to throw off the yoke of monarchical tyranny — the greatest experiment in democracy the world’s ever known.
In reality, America is a nation forged in bloody guerrilla warfare waged by settlers irritated about taxes. That murderous aversion to taxation lives on today. The founders’ high-minded ideals about liberty, equal rights, free will and self-determination extended to white men. No further.
Whether at the personal or societal level, you can’t make any progress by lying to yourself. Over the past half-dozen years, the truth has increasingly become taboo in America. Conservatives, and particularly right-wing firebrands, claim that’s a natural reaction (a counterbalance) to an “extreme,” society-wide leftward lurch among universities, corporate boardrooms, the entertainment industry and so on. But facts are nonpartisan. There’s no such thing as “extreme” facts. There are uncomfortable facts, but failing to come to terms with them won’t change anything. Facts are immutable.
Over the past month, Americans have been asked to view the modern day equivalent of a Native American war party rampaging through a colonial settlement as an example of “pure, unadulterated evil,” as Joe Biden described Hamas’s attack on Israel — unprovoked depravity committed by savages against civilized people minding their own business.
Any effort to contextualize the situation is to side with “the terrorists,” to abide ISIS-like debauchery, to be an anti-Semite and, implicitly, to be a Nazi. In short, if you endeavor to explain the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict to people who aren’t apprised, you’re an ISIS-Nazi. The only way to shed that label is to accept, uncritically, the interpretation of a far-right government that’s unabashedly ethnonationalist.
This situation is highly amenable to the well-poisoning fallacy for two reasons:
- Americans have a visceral fear of Islamic extremism after watching jumbo jets collide with skyscrapers. The American far-right traffics regularly in anti-Semitic dogwhistles, but if there’s a message powerful enough to override and temporarily supplant the rising tide of virulent anti-Semitism in the country it’s, “Deranged Muslims knifed the babies!”
- Americans are famously (and deliberately) stupid. The only countries Americans can reliably identify on an unlabeled map are the US and, on “smart” days, Canada. The Israel-Palestine conflict is among the most complex, intractable disputes in the world. To understand it is to be i) proficient in both modern and ancient history, ii) deeply familiar with post-War geopolitical jostling, iii) reasonably well-versed in world religion, iv) capably adept at discussing Mideast power dynamics and v) intimately apprised of the full history of US-Israeli relations. Suffice to say the percentage of Americans who can check those boxes is vanishingly small.
Given that, the bar to clear for the Netanyahu government to galvanize unflinching support among the US electorate for whatever the Israeli military wants to do in Gaza is quite low: “Before you feel sorry for Gazans, remember that Muslims killed the babies!”
It’s become clear to me over the past several weeks that there’s little hope in overcoming that message among those who are insufficiently informed about the history of this conflict. Note that the goal of overcoming that message obviously isn’t to absolve Hamas. Although there are no pictures, I can assure you the aftermath of Native American raids on settler communities in colonial America was horrific. The perpetrators aren’t absolved by the fact that their culture was in the process of being extinguished from history. The goal, rather, is to inform — to make people smarter. The truth can’t be taboo, even if it’s uncomfortable.
I’ve searched and searched this month for an account of the truth that’s measured, concise and unapologetic so that I could cite it for readers who are genuinely interested. Given the complexity of the issues and the high emotions engendered first by Hamas’s rampage and then by Israel’s response in Gaza, such accounts are hard to come by. Finally, though, I found what I was looking for buried near the tail end of an Ezra Klein interview with Amjad Iraqi, a London-based Palestinian policy analyst and a Palestinian Israeli citizen.
Klein (an American Jew), asked Iraqi what he (Klein) should say to his Israeli friends when they contend there’s “no safety” for the Jewish people in Israel in equality. Klein summarized the position among his contacts in Israel. “The fear of annihilation, the fear of eradication lurks deep in the Jewish soul and that’s not going away and for real reason,” he said. “Palestinians want us gone and at times when our politics have been softer… there were suicide bombings in cafes and discothèques. There is no safety for us in equality.”
Again, Klein wasn’t speaking for himself. He was putting the question he’s often asked to Iraqi: “I’m curious what you would tell me to answer when they say, ‘That all sounds nice, but the first thing we need to be able to guarantee is that our children aren’t killed.'”
His interlocutor proceeded to deliver the most concise, accurate assessment of the situation that I’ve read thus far, and I think it’s imperative that those of you who might not fully grasp the realities of this conflict come to terms with the truth because, as Klein put it late last month, channeling Spencer Ackerman’s celebrated critique of America’s response to 9/11, the idea that to add context “is to undermine the purity of condemnation” is “an absurd way to think.”
Via Amjad Iraqi, speaking to Ezra Klein for a November 7 interview:
As much as myself and my people come with the cost of this, I understand why Jewish-Israelis have — the way that Zionism has manifested itself. I understand why that’s come about, just psychologically speaking. But if that’s the case, then it begins with being a little bit honest about what the political project is in Israel.
That if the lesson of Jewish history, of anti-Semitism, very violent anti-Semitism all the way up to the Holocaust, if the lesson of that — and this is what Zionism kind of began to take hold, especially — that the lesson is to become powerful overlords, then we need to be a bit blunt about that.
Beginning with that, Israel actually is not a democratic state. Israel is not a light unto nations. Israel is an ethnonationalist colonial project who can only see survival by being an ethnonationalist colonial project. And if that’s their decision, that’s their decision.
But one of the most infuriating things [is] that everyone’s pretending that Israel is something that it’s not. And what’s been darkly refreshing about this far-right government is that they’ve also been very unapologetic, saying we don’t need to apologize. We do want laws and policies that weed out Palestinians. We do want laws and policies that kick them out of their land. We do want a purely Jewish supremacist state regardless of democracy or vote. Democracy does not matter.
And this has been the practice. This has been the experience of Palestinians.
If that’s the case, then I think for American Jews, they need to come face-to-face with that reality and stop kidding themselves that Israel is a democratic model of Jewish self-determination. It’s an apartheid model. And American Jews then need to ask themselves: Are those really where their values align?