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October 1, 2016 / 28 Elul, 5776
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Debunking the ‘Palestinians as Native Americans’ Myth

In one anti-Israel protest outside of Nablus, Palestinians even dressed up like Native Americans in order to make a political point.

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Various anti-Israel groups argue that the Palestinians are like Israel’s “Native Americans. However, the truth of the matter is that the Jewish people are the closest thing to an indigenous people within the Holy Land, while the Palestinian Arabs ancestors sprung out from centers of empire.

Despite all of the facts proving the contrary, some anti-Israel activists have falsely compared the Palestinians to the Native Americans. For example, during this year’s Palestinian Solidarity Week at the University of Maryland at College Park, the UMD Students for Justice in Palestine hosted a lecture titled “Two Trails of Tears: From Turtle Island to Palestine.” In this lecture, the UMD Students for Justice in Palestine held a discussion on “settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing, broken treaties and racist policies as a form of systematic oppression for the Palestinian and Native American peoples.”

Unfortunately, the UMD Students for Justice in Palestine is not the only anti-Israel group to seek to compare the Palestinian cause to the Native American struggle. This type of rhetoric disregards Jewish history within the Land of Israel dating back to antiquity and is an attempt to re-write history by anti-Israel groups in order to belittle the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. This propaganda is so popular among anti-Israel groups that in one anti-Israel protest outside of Nablus, Palestinians even dressed up like Native Americans in order to make a political point. Many Native American’s find this offensive and an unethical form of cultural appropriation.

As Ryan Bellerose, a member of the Métis nation in Canada, wrote in the Metropolitan,

The Palestinians are not like us. Their fight is not our fight. We natives believe in bringing about change peacefully and we refuse to be affiliated with anyone who engages in violence targeting civilians. I cannot remain silent and allow the Palestinians to gain credibility at our expense by claiming commonality with us.

I cannot stand by while they trivialize our plight by tying it to theirs, which is largely self-inflicted. Our population of over 65 million was violently reduced to a mere 10 million, a slaughter unprecedented in human history. To compare that in whatever way to the Palestinians’ story is deeply offensive to me. The Palestinians did lose the land they claim is theirs, but they were repeatedly given the opportunity to build their state on it and to partner with the Jews — and they persistently refused peace overtures and chose war. We were never given that chance. We never made that choice.

According to Ward Churchill, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, 12 million Native Americans used to inhabit North America in 1500. They were the continent’s first original indigenous human inhabitants and some of the tribes referred to their ancestral homeland as Turtle’s Island. Yet today, after experiencing massacres, persecutions, outright racism, ethnic cleansing, systematic oppression, and having their traditional lands colonized by European settlers who refused to permit them to live beside them even if they were peaceful and adopted aspects of European culture, their population size was reduced to 237,000 by 1900.

During the infamous Trail of Tears, about 20,000 Cherokees were forcefully expelled from their homes and sent on a death march, where up to 8,000 of them perished. The Cherokee nation endured all of this suffering, despite the fact that they were very much assimilated into the society, rejected utilizing violence, and had legal documents in their possession demonstrating what land was supposed to belong to them. It was one of the darkest chapters in American history.

Despite all Palestinian propaganda points to the contrary, the Palestinians are not Israel’s “Native Americans.” In fact, the Jewish people, composed of the twelve tribes of Israel, not Muslim Palestinian Arabs, made up the majority of the population in Israel up until 135 CE, when the Jewish people through massacres, brutal oppression, persecutions, and ethnic cleansing were forcibly made into a minority within their own country. Just like the Native Americans, the fact that Jews were made into a minority within their own country does not rob them of their indigenous status nor does it imply that they abandoned their country.

In fact, Jews continued to live in Israel throughout history, regardless of which regime was in power. The Jewish Virtual Library estimates that in 1517, well before the Zionist movement existed, there were only around 300,000 people living in Eretz Yisrael, where 5,000 of them were Jewish. According to the Ottoman Turkish Census of 1893, there were 371,959 Muslims, 42,689 Christians, and about 9,000 Jews living in Israel. These statistics demonstrate that Jews were living in the Land of Israel well before Zionism and the Balfour Declaration. Muslims were never the sole inhabitants of the land like the Native Americans were in the United States.

Arab Muslims only started to arrive in Israel in the seventh century and only made up a majority of the population in Mamluk times, 1260-1560. Yet, most modern Palestinians are not even descended from Arab Muslims who arrived in the seventh century.

Yoram Ettinger, for example, has written in Israel Hayom that:

Palestinian Arabs have not been in the area west of the Jordan River from time immemorial; no Palestinian state ever existed, no Palestinian people was ever robbed of its land and there is no basis for the Palestinian claim of return.

Most Palestinian Arabs are descendants of the Muslim migrants who came to the area between 1845 to 1947 from the Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, as well as from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Bosnia, the Caucasus, Turkmenistan, Kurdistan, India, Afghanistan and Balochistan.

On March 31, 1977, Zahir Muhsein executive committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organization said in an interview with the Dutch newspaper Trouw,

The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity.

In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct ‘Palestinian people’ to oppose Zionism.

For tactical reasons, Jordan, which is a sovereign state with defined borders, cannot raise claims to Haifa and Jaffa, while as a Palestinian, I can undoubtedly demand Haifa, Jaffa, Beer-Sheva and Jerusalem. However, the moment we reclaim our right to all of Palestine, we will not wait even a minute to unite Palestine and Jordan.

There are even some Arab Muslims who are prepared to admit the historic truth that the Palestinians have not been in Israel for all eternity. Even Rashid Khalidi, a prominent anti-Israel, Palestinian academic, wrote in his book Palestinian Identity, “There is a relatively recent tradition which argues that Palestinian nationalism has deep historical roots.” He continued, “Among the manifestations of this outlook are a predilection for seeing in peoples such as the Canaanites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Philistines the lineal ancestors of the modern Palestinians.” Khalidi cautioned against making such assertions and argues that Palestinian national identity is relatively modern.

However, the fact that the Palestinians are not the original inhabitants of Israel nor ever lived as the sole exclusive people within the Holy Land is not the only reason why the UMD Students for Justice in Palestine and other anti-Israel groups are incorrect in their assessment.

While the Native American population has shrunk from 12 million people in 1500 to 237,000 in 1900, the world’s Palestinian Arab population has grown from 660,641 in 1922 to 11.2 million in 2011. Furthermore, while the Native Americans in the Trail of Terrors were forced off their ancestral homeland and sent on a death march, the Palestinians in 1948 were given the option of having their own state on part of the Jewish nation’s ancestral homeland, while the Arab inhabitants of the Jewish state were to be granted equal citizenship rights.

The Palestinian Arab leadership chose war instead and approximately 750,000 Arabs fled their homes, never to return, while 160,000 Arabs refused to flee and became Israeli citizens. To date, the Palestinians have rejected every offer to have a state to call their own on part of the Jewish homeland, while Israel’s Arab population has been thriving and now represents 20 percent of the population. Given these facts, how can one refer to the Palestinian situation as settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing, systematic oppression, racism and broken treaties? Ironically, unlike in the Native American situation, the only ones who have broken peace treaties are the very people who falsely claim to be Israel’s Native Americans. As Winston Churchill once stated, “A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.”

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Rachel Avraham

About the Author: Rachel Avraham is a news editor and political analyst for Jerusalem Online News, the English language internet edition of Israel's Channel 2 News. She completed her masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University. The subject of her MA thesis was: "Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab media."

The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.

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