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A July 4 Special Commentary: Patriots, Refugees And The Right of Return

When the War of Independence began, it quickly assumed the nature of a civil war. Those opposing the declaration of statehood fought alongside the organized armies of their kinsmen that invaded the territory of the infant state from all directions. The fighting was bloody, and the opponents of independence used terrorism against the population defending statehood. The country was partitioned between the areas of the new state and the territories remaining under the rule of the foreign invaders.

As the fighting dragged on, the opponents of independence began a mass exodus. In most cases, they left because they feared the consequences of staying on as a political minority or because they simply opposed on principle the new political entity. In some cases, they refused to live as a religious minority under the rule of those practicing an alien religion. In some cases, they were expelled forcibly. They fled across the frontiers, moving their families to live in the areas controlled by the armies of their political kin. From there, some joined the invading forces and launched cross-border raids. When the fighting ceased, most of the refugees who had fled from the new state were refused permission to return.

The events described above did not transpire in 1947-49, but rather in 1775-1781. The refugees in question were not Arabs, but Tory “Loyalists” who supported the British against the American revolutionists seeking independence. During the War of Independence, large numbers of Loyalist refugees fled the new country. Estimates of the numbers vary, but perhaps 100,000 refugees left or were expelled, a very significant number given the sparse population of the thirteen colonies.

While there are many differences, there are also many similarities between the plight of the Palestinians and that of the Tory refugees during the first years of American Independence. The advocates of Palestinian rights are in fact clearly in the same political bed with King George’s allies who fought against American democracy and independence.

Like all wars of independence, both the Israeli and American wars were in fact civil wars. In both cases, religious sectarianism played an important role in defining the opposing forces, although for Americans taxation was even more important. (Israelis suffered under abominable taxation only after Independence.) Among the causes of the American revolution was the attempt to establish the Anglican Church, or Church of England, as the official bishopric of the
colonies. Anglicans were the largest ethnic group opposing independence in the 1770’s, as were Palestinian Muslims in the 1940’s, although in both cases other religious/ethnic groups were also represented in the anti-Independence movement.

Those fearing the possibility of being forced to live as minorities under the tyrannical religious supremacy of the Anglicans and Muslims, respectively, formed the forces fighting for Independence. The Anglicans and Muslims hoped to establish themselves with the armed support of their co-religionists across the borders. New England was the center of patriotism to a large extent because of the mistrust of the Anglican church by the Puritan and Congregationalist majorities there. The later incorporation of separation of church and state in the U.S. Constitution was largely motivated by the memory of would-be Anglican dominance.

Among the leaders of the Tory cause were many Anglican parsons, perhaps the most prominent being one Samuel Seabury, the Grand Mufti of the Loyalists.

In both wars of independence, the anti-independence forces were a divided and heterogeneous population, and for this reason lost the war. In the American colonies, the Tories included not only Anglicans, but other groups — including Indians, Scots, Dutch, and
Negroes — who feared for their future living under the rule of the local political majority. Tory sympathy was based on ethnic, commercial, and religious considerations. Where Loyalist sentiment was strong enough, namely in Canada, the war produced partition, with territories remaining cut off from the newly independent state.

When Independence was declared, the populations of the opposing forces were about even in both 18th century America and 20th century Palestine. The exact distribution of pro- and
anti-Independence forces in the American colonies is not known, but the estimate by John Adams is probably as good a guess as any, namely, one third patriot, one third Loyalist, and one third neutral.

When fighting broke out, civilians were often the first victims in both wars. The Tories formed terrorist units and plundered and raided the territories under patriot control. The southwestern frontier areas of the colonies, like the southwestern border of Palestine, were scenes of particularly bloody terrorism. In South Carolina the Tory leader Major William Cunningham, known as “Bloody Bill,” became the Ahmed Jabril of the struggle, conducting massacres of patriot civilians. Tory and anti-Tory mob violence became common. The historian Thomas Jones documents many cases of Tories burning patriot homes, but claims the patriots seldom did the same.

Terrorist raids were particularly common along the New England coast and up the Delaware. General Sir Henry Clinton organized many guerilla raids upon patriot territory. Loyalists also
launched assassination plots, including an attempt to murder George Washington in New York in 1776. Among the terrorists participating in that plot was the mayor of New York City.

There were Loyalist insurrections against the patriots in every colony. Tory military

activity was particularly severe in the Chesapeake, on Long Island, in Delaware, in Maryland, and along the Virginia coast. As violence escalated and spread, the forces of the revolution took countermeasures. Tories were tarred and feathered. Indiscriminate expulsions sometimes took place. Tory areas were sometimes placed under martial rule, with all civil rights, habeas corpus, and due process suspended.

Queens County, New York, a Loyalist stronghold, was put under military administration by Continental troops, and the entire population was prohibited from travel without special documents. General Wooster engaged in wholesale incarceration and expulsion of New York Tories. The Continental Congress called for disarming all Loyalists and locking up the “dangerous ones” without trial. New York Loyalists were exiled to Connecticut and other places, and sometimes used in forced labor.

Loyalists were sometimes kidnaped and held hostage. In some colonies, expressing opposition to the Revolution was grounds for imprisonment. In some colonies, Loyalists were excluded from practicing law and from some other professions. Tories were frequently stripped of all property rights, and had their lands confiscated. In colony after colony, Acts of Banishment forced masses of Loyalists to leave their homes and emigrate. The most common destination was the Canadian maritimes, with others going to the British West Indies, to England, and to Australia.

In both the Israeli and American Wars of Independence, anti-independence refugees fled the country in order to live in areas under the control of their political allies. Many who opposed
independence nevertheless stayed put. After the wars ended, these generally found the Devil was not as bad as they had feared, and were permitted to live as tolerated political minorities with civil rights. (This in spite of the fact that many refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new states, sometimes for decades.)

The colonies/states that had banished Loyalists refused to allow them to return, even after a peace treaty was signed. In most cases, property was never returned. There was fear that returning Tories could act as a sort of fifth column, particularly if the British took it into their heads to attempt another invasion. (Such an invasion took place in 1812.) The newly independent country, like Israel, initially resolved many of its strategic problems through an
alliance with France.

The Tory refugees were regarded by all as the problem of Britain. The American patriots allowed small numbers to return. Others attempted to return illegally and were killed. But most
languished across the partition lines in eastern British Canada, mainly in what would become Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The refugees would never be granted the “right to return.” In most cases they would never even be granted compensation for property; Benjamin Franklin was among the leading opponents of any such compensation.

At this point, the similarity between the Palestinian refugees and the Tory Loyalists breaks down. The British, unlike the Arabs, did a great deal to settle their refugees, rather than force them into festering camps, and allotted $20 million for their resettlement. The Tory refugees quickly became a non-problem, and never played any subsequent role in British-American relations.

Nevertheless, an interesting thought-experiment might be to imagine what would have occurred had the British done things the Arab way. Tory refugees would have been converted into terrorist cadres and trained by British commandos. They would have begun a ceaseless wave of incursions and invasions of the independent United States, mainly from bases along the Canadian frontier. The British, Hessians and their allies would have launched a global
diplomatic campaign for self-determination for the Loyalist Americans. They would have set up an American Liberation Organization (ALO) to hijack whalers and merchant marines and
assassinate U.S. diplomats.

Benedict Arnold would have been chosen ALO chairman and would have written the Tory National Charter under the nom de guerre of Abu Albion. The British would have organized
underground terrorist cells among the Loyalist population that had not fled. Britain and her empire would have boycotted the new country commercially and pressured others to do the same, asserting that the national rights of the Loyalist people were inalienable and eternal, no matter how many years had passed since the refugees fled. International pressure would have been exerted on the U.S. to give up much of its territory and to internationalize Philadelphia.

For more than fifty years the position of the American State Department has been that Israel should grant the Palestinian refugees the “right to return,” that Israel is liable for the suffering of the refugees and should be responsible for their resettlement. The State Department also thinks the refugees should be represented at Middle East peace talks. The State Department is sympathetic to calls for recognizing the rights of the refugees to self-determination and
political expression.

The State Department, in other words, is exhibiting Loyalist Tory sympathies. A large portrait of Benedict Arnold should grace the office of every “Arabist” at Foggy Bottom.

Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book ‘The Scout’ is available through Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steven_plaut@yahoo.com.

About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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