The False Comparisons Between the Jewish and Aboriginal Peoples of Canada

There’s a baseless movement on the part of some influential Canadian Jewish individuals and organizations- a movement that underplays the recent history of Israel and gravely insults Holocaust victims and their surviving family members- to align their political interests and goals with those of Canadian aboriginal power elites. This movement also unsuccessfully attempts to compare Jewish history and the present political situation of Israel with the present political situation of aboriginal Canadians and their history in Canada, as portrayed by aboriginal elites.

As explained by David S. Koffman in his article, Suffering and Sovereignty; Recent Canadian Jewish Interest in Indigenous Peoples and Interests, [1] (“Koffman”):

“Two overarching themes emerge as the central axes around which revolve recent Canadian Jewish interest in Indigenous peoples and issues: suffering and sovereignty. Firstly, Jewish efforts to articulate terms for solidarity with Indigenous peoples, in general or with specific First Nations or Inuit groups, sprang from a sense of sympathy with hardships and historical predicaments Indigenous communities faced and face. Though the sufferings of the Jewish people and Indigenous peoples have been inexactly mapped onto one another, the attachments that many Canadian Jews have to the legacies of oppression, resistance, and recovery have profoundly shaped their eagerness to contemplate and engage Indigenous issues in particularly Jewish ways. This impulse to highlight suffering has produced a sense of affinity for some Canadian Jews with Indigenous peoples, bonded by the deeply emotional legacies of persecution as a creative force of identity. This impulse has been nearly uniform among Canadian Jews.

A second theme that Canadian Jews’ engagements with Indigenous people and issues that has risen steadily in salience since 2008 is national self-determination, which is distinct from, but sometimes related to suffering. This theme makes use of the notion that Jews are an indigenous people – a solidarity claim with First Nations and Inuit, but not Métis, that seeks to advance arguments about the nature of Jewish belonging in the Middle East, in or on the biblical land of Israel. Unlike the theme of suffering, the sovereignty theme is far from uniform in its application by Canadian Jews. On the contrary, Canadian Jews have deployed this theme in multiple and competing ways. The two themes, suffering and sovereignty, are intertwined in a dynamic and unresolved tension, with one theme (suffering) grappling inherently with powerlessness, and the other (sovereignty), grappling inherently with power.”

Koffman describes a Jewish-sponsored joint mission to Jerusalem in 2006 where, according to Bernie Farber, head of the Canadian Jewish Congress at the time, they “shared stories of the Shoah and residential schools and felt each other’s pain in wiping out generations, the loss of culture and the failed attempts to destroy our traditions.”

Koffman describes Montreal Rabbi Schachar Orenstein saying at a public event in 2008 that Judaism:

 “…emphasizes connection with and appreciation of nature, and that the Jews, like the First Nations, emerged from tribes. We too are an aboriginal people, an ancient people with deep roots to the earth.”

Koffman writes of a 2013 Huffington Post article by Phillipe Assouline that argued that Canadian Jews:

 “…have a special duty born of shared experience to actively support First Nations’ efforts “to be a free people in their own land” quoting from the Israeli national anthem. “Their fight is every Canadian’s fight, but it is ours in particular,” he claimed, going so far as to suggest that “Jewish experience can serve First Nations as a guide to preserving an ancient culture through displacement and persecution and turning it into a thriving democracy.”

Koffman describes Mr. Farber writing in 2015:

“I began to see a synergy between the tragic histories of our two peoples. We, too, were an aboriginal people faced with prejudice, bigotry, and genocide. As a Canadian Jew, I believe we have much to share with and learn from our First Nations. We’re two peoples that have for so long travelled different, yet in some ways parallel roads…Our Jewish history is one fraught with all of these (Indigenous) elements; exile, inquisitions, pogroms and even genocide.”

In 2015, according to Koffman, Adam Moscoe, of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, called on Canada to adopt and implement the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the framework for “reconciliation” with Indigenous Peoples. (UNDRIP)

In September of 2021 Mr. Koffman himself chaired a gathering at the Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto entitled National Teshuvah: Indigenous Reconciliation and Canadian Jewry, the public announcement for which[2] described Canada as facing “an ongoing process of reckoning and reconciliation with the violence and trauma inflicted upon the indigenous communities”, and asked, “How can we, as Jews, examine our responsibilities and take action towards healing? What are the resonances between Jewish and Indigenous stories of intergenerational trauma and healing?”

How ill-considered and historically wrong these Jewish claims are! How flawed are the assumptions underlying them! How insulting to the memory of Holocaust victims they are!

The Jews never experienced a “loss of culture”, as averred by Mr. Farber. Despite 1800 years of exile, mistreatment and persecution, and partly due to that, and with no land base of their own during all that time, their culture- their written culture- centered around the portable and translatable ” Book” which preserved it against all the terrible depredations of history they suffered- amazingly and awesomely, with no precedent for this in history, always flourished.

There was never a “wiping out of generations” of Indigenous peoples.

Yes, as said by Rabbi Orenstein, Jews emerged from tribes, but that was 2800 years ago!

Since at least the time of their expulsion from their ancient homelands by the Romans their scattered, collective experience has been the opposite of tribal.

Mr. Moscoe, by touting UNDRIP, suggests that Jews are champions of aboriginal sovereignty in Canada, totally ignoring the fact that the state of Israel, the Jewish Promised Land, only came into being as the result of the military conquest and expulsion of the true aboriginal, cultural “nation” that inhabited the lands that now comprise Israel: the Arabs. Would he advocate UNDRIP for the Arabs of Israel? I think not. Would he say that the Arab peoples of what was previously known as “Palestine” should be a “free people in their own land”, as he bizarrely said about Canada’s aboriginal peoples? I think not.

And to equate Indigenous residential schools with the Shoah, as Mr. Farber does, is simply an assault on history and reason, and, as stated, a grave insult to the memory of Shoah victims.

Koffman breaks down this overall situation into two categories: suffering and sovereignty. I will do the same.

SUFFERING

The world-ending sufferings of Jews in the decades before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 were a million times worse than anything that happened to Canada’s aboriginal peoples as a result of their contact with and resulting cultural and technological domination by Europeans and Euro-Canadians. Aboriginal peoples “lost” their culture passively, from, by embracing European technology and capitalism, moving away from it, and from which there was no going back. It was never “stolen” from them. The history of the Jews itself proves that a culture cannot be “stolen” from a nation with the will and the wherewithal to keep it.

What happened to our aboriginal peoples was historically trivial compared to, for example, the pogroms in Russia, Ukraine and Poland that occurred before and immediately after World War One (100,000 murdered) [3] and compared to the Holocaust. (6,000,000 murdered!) There were no pogroms against aboriginal peoples, as falsely stated by Mr. Farber.

There were no “exiles” or “inquisitions” in relation to Canada’s aboriginal peoples, as charged by Mr. Farber. (Unless one considers the now clung-to internal exile represented by the Indian reserve. When Trudeau Sr.’s White Paper offered Indigenous leaders an end to this internal exile they refused it.)

Aboriginal peoples in Canada did not suffer genocide in any way, shape or form, including “cultural.”

It’s an insult to the memory of pogrom and Holocaust victims to even suggest that the aboriginal and Jewish experiences have anything in common or have one iota of moral equivalency. It so trivializes the catastrophic sufferings, ending with their mass murder, of those millions of innocent fathers, mothers, grandparents, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters- those millions of persons, each with a name, each with an identity. We have a sacred duty to remember these persons, and to usefully and progressively incorporate their memory and the reality of their sufferings into our civic lives. Facile comparisons such as the above constitute a breach of this sacred duty.

 Murray Sinclair’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its Summary set up this “cultural genocide” falsehood as follows:

“For over a century the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of elimination, cause Aboriginal people to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.”

Genocide occurs when a state or quasi-state deliberately acts, with specific intent, to destroy, in whole or in part, an ethnic, national or religious group. It occurs when a state or quasi-state conducts a systematic campaign to deliberately exterminate an entire nation or religious or ethnic group. It constitutes crimes that are “so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.” [4]

Patient reader, endure what follows below, and then contrast Murray Sinclair’s supposed “genocide” with:

Some ten thousand Minsk Jews were killed in the last few days of July 1942. On the last day of the month, Juanita Vishniatskaia wrote a letter to her father to bid him farewell. “I am saying goodbye to you before I die. I am so afraid of this death because they throw small children into the mass graves alive. Farewell forever. I kiss you; I kiss you.

Or with:

In the winter of 1942-1943, the Germans began to separate the Jews not into two but into three groups: the men, the older women and the young women. They sent the young women into the gas last, because they liked to look at their naked bodies in the cold. By then the corpses were burned rather than buried…Women, with more fatty tissue, burned better than men; so the laborers learned to put them at the bottom of the pile. The bellies of pregnant women would tend to burst, such that the fetus could be seen inside… In the cold nights of spring 1943, the Germans would stand by the flame, and drink, and warm themselves.

It was very difficult for the victims to leave any sort of trace. Chil Rajchman had come to Treblinka with his sister. As soon as he saw the facility, he put their suitcases down. His sister did not understand why. “It’s no use” were his last words to her. He was chosen to be a laborer. Sorting through clothing, he “came upon the dress that my sister was wearing. I paused. I took the dress, I held it in my hands, I contemplated it.” Then it had to go and he had to go on. Tamara and Itta Willemberg left their bundles of clothes next to each other. Their brother Samuel, a Jewish laborer, chanced to find the clothes clinging together, “as if in a sister’s embrace.” Because the women had their hair cut, they had a last few moments in which they could speak to their fellow Jews, who might, just possibly, survive them and remember their words. Ruth Dorfmann was able to accept from her barber that her death would be quick, and to cry with him. Hanna Levinson told her barber to escape and tell the world what was happening at Treblinka.

Or compare Murray Sinclair’s supposed “genocide” with:

The Germans had erected a roadblock near the gates of the Jewish cemetery, where documents were verified, and non-Jews told to return home. From this point forward the Jews were escorted by Germans with automatic weapons and dogs. At the checkpoint, if not earlier, many of the Jews must have wondered what their true fate would be. Dina Pronicheva, a woman of thirty, walked ahead of her family to a point where she could hear gunshots. Immediately all was clear to her; but she chose not to tell her parents so as not to worry them. Instead, she walked along with her mother and father until she reached the tables where the Germans demanded valuables and clothes. A German had already taken her mother’s wedding ring when Pronicheva realized that her mother, no less than she, understood what was happening. Yet only when her mother whispered sharply to her- “you don’t look like a Jew”- did she try to escape. Such plain communication is rare in such situations, when the human mind labors to deny what is actually happening, and the human spirit strives towards imitation, subordination, and thus extinction. Pronicheva, who had a Russian husband and thus a Russian surname, told a German at a nearby table that she was not Jewish. He told her to wait at one side until the work of the day was complete.

Thus Dina Pronicheva saw what became of her parents, her sister, and the Jews of Kiev.  Having surrendered their valuables and documents, people were forced to strip naked. Then they were driven by threats or by shots fired overhead, in groups of about ten, to the edge of a ravine known as Babi Yar. Many of them were beaten: Pronicheva remembered that people “were already bloody as they went to be shot.” They had to lie down on the corpses already underneath them and wait for the shots to come from above and behind. Then would come the next group. Jews came and died for thirty-six hours. People were perhaps alike in dying and in death, but each of them was different until that final moment, each had different preoccupations and presentiments until all was clear and then all was black. Some people died thinking about others than themselves, such as the mother of the beautiful fifteen-year-old girl Sara, who begged to be killed at the same time as her daughter. Here there was, even at the end, a thought and a care: that if she saw her daughter shot, she would not see her raped. One naked mother spent what she must have known were the last few seconds of life breastfeeding her baby. When the baby was thrown alive into the ravine, she jumped in after it, and in that way, found her death. Only there in the ditch were these people reduced to nothing, or to their number, which was 33, 761. Since the bodies were later exhumed and burned on pyres, and the bones that did not burn crushed and mixed with sand, the count is what remains.

At the end of the day, the Germans decided to kill Dina Pronicheva. Whether or not she was Jewish was moot; she had seen too much. In the darkness she was led to the edge of the ravine along with a few other people. She was not forced to undress. She survived in the only way possible in that situation: just as the shots began, she threw herself into the gorge and feigned death. She bore the weight of the German walking over her body, remaining motionless as the boots tread across her breast and hand, “like a dead person.” She was able to keep open a small air hole as the dirt fell around her. She heard a small child calling for its mother and thought of her own children. She began to talk to herself” “Dina, get up, run away, run to your children.” Perhaps words made the difference, as they had earlier when her mother, now dead somewhere below, had whispered to her. She dug her way out and crept away quietly. [5]

Please all, this writer begs you, Mr. Farber, Rabbi Orenstein, and the rest of you comfortable and well-fed power elites, who should all know better, and who should be more careful and responsible with your words and with your privileged positions, powers and media access, like retired Madame Justice McLachlin, late of our Supreme Court, who in an after-dinner speech, like Murray Sinclair, recklessly described the intent and effect of residential schools as “cultural genocide”,[6] and like Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry head Marion Buller, who ignorantly and scandalously called the random and unassociated murders  of about 1200 individual aboriginal women by about 1200 individualmainly aboriginal men a “Canadian  genocide”, do notin any way, equate or conflate the Canadian aboriginal experience  with any of this state or quasi-state-organized and carried out, seemingly inhuman, intentional, murderous, disgusting, repellant and unfathomable evil- “this Hell…in comparison with which Dante’s Hell seems no more than an innocent game on the part of Satan.”[7]

We should shudder to use the word “genocide” lightly. In the Canadian aboriginal context, before we let the word “genocide” leave our lips we should ask ourselves: Is what I’m thinking of using this word to describe anything like what happened to Juanita Vishniatskaia or Tamara and Itta Willemberg? The answer would be assuredly “no” and thus, out of profound respect for and remembrance of these precious humans, and the millions like them, the word should not be uttered.

For our power elites- Jewish, aboriginal and non-aboriginal- to use this word as lightly as they do is a failure on their part to use language competently and responsibly- a failure to be competent and responsible in this profound matter. It’s a failure to keep a sense of proportion and to make proper distinctions between mere historical and societal ills and profound evils.

“Those who are unwilling or unable to rank evil may thereby become servants of evil. Those who make no distinction between such disparate phenomena as apartheid, colonialism…political correctness, the gas chambers, sexism, the one percent’s wealth, and air pollution serve evil with their very refusal to grade it.”[8]

We fail to act responsibly and to the highest of our abilities when we permit the key word denoting and symbolizing Juanita’s and Dina’s sufferings- genocide- to be casually, wrongly and insensitively conflated with much lesser events of personal and collective historical disturbance- as opposed to profound, cataclysmic events of personal and collective human annihilation.

It’s  insulting and demeaning to the memories of true genocide victims to even suggest that any aspect of the Canadian aboriginal experience was genocidal in nature- to thoughtlessly and in most facile fashion- borrow- trade off on- cheaply appropriate-  falsely compare- the word and the fact of genocide– to make some highly debatable point in some ongoing, worldly, political, power and money situation- where the original events in issue were by and large not murderous in nature, and where  the present participants in the discussions on the subject are well-stroked by the powers that be, well fed, relatively well-heeled,  and otherwise safely and comfortably alive.

I challenge any of these people to truly imagine standing beside the naked, breastfeeding mother at the edge of the pit of Babi Yar, at the split-second moment before she and her nursing baby were machine gunned to death, and still say that the use of the word ‘genocide” is defensible in any Canadian context!

Please, can we not agree that poor, dear, machine-gunned-dead Juanita Vishniatskaia, Tamara and Itta Willemberg, Ruth Dorfman and the parents and sister of Dina Pronicheva, and all the millions of others like them who suffered deliberate, calculated, monstrous, murderous, physical extinction, should be afforded exclusive use of the word “genocide”?

And can we not show them, their horrific “world of the impossible” experiences and their sacred memories, some genuine respect- can we not better fulfill our moral obligation to carry their sufferings and carry their memories- to be remembrancers–by not, in any way, comparing the experience of Canadian aboriginal peoples with theirs?

Despite generally atypical and isolated instances of racially motivated group manslaughter,[9] we cannot reasonably and rationally say that there was anything genocidal about the historically tragic (as so much of history is) and the historically relatively commonplace experience of cultural shock and cultural-world-ending loss experienced by Canada’s aboriginal peoples as the result of contact with Europeans, whose superior technological culture was impossible to resist.

Nor can we reasonably and rationally say that, however flawed they were in operation, there was anything “genocidal” about residential schools- which were an effect of cultural loss, not a cause of it- and which were a very late manifestation of this collision of worlds, when pre-contact aboriginal culture had already, before their inception, been substantially lost.

Residential schools couldn’t have “killed” aboriginal culture. Three hundred years of contact with European culture caused that culture to tragically but inevitably diminish to the point of near-disappearance- before residential schools were ever thought of.

Richard Gwynn, in Nation Maker, his biography of the great Canadian, Sir John A MacDonald, [10] wrote of the “cultural catastrophe” that befell Prairie Indians with the extinction of the buffalo herds. He quoted Crow Chief Plenty Coups describing the cultural “nothing” that ensued- the state of cultural “living death”.

Encouraging aboriginal Canadians to turn to farming- starting up residential schools- these generally were attempts, however flawed or misguided in theory or execution, to save human beings, not to murder them- to save human spirits, not to crush them- to provide a human body, soul and spirit-sustaining something in place of Chief Plenty Coups’ tragic, heart-rending, cultural “nothing”.

These efforts, with all their flaws, were the opposite of “genocidal” in intent.

The unjustifiably near-beatified Murray Sinclair and his deeply flawed Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report repeatedly and misleadingly describes all residential school attendees as “Survivors”. Well, the point about genocide, is that there are no survivors.

And so, the writer begs the reader again, and begs misguided elites like Bernie Farber, Rabbi Orenstein and Mr. Assouline, out of respect and reverence for those poor, dear individuals named above, and for their memory, and for the individual persons and memories of the millions of real, deliberately murdered, physically extinguished, victims of real, horrific, physical genocide-to suit your purposes and convey your simplistic  message of alleged, deliberate, “colonial” cultural “theft”, and of, yes, undeniable (but I’m sorry, commonplace- it comes with the territory of being human)  aboriginal cultural trauma and loss, please stop cheaply, wrongly and insultingly, (to true genocide victims), misappropriating the word “genocide”!

There are no material affinities between the historically tragic experiences of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, past and present, and the sufferings of the Jews.

Notwithstanding that, the Jews of the world do have some solid advice to offer Canada’s aboriginal peoples.

They can tell them to get rid of the reserve system. They resemble the old Jewish ghettos too much.

Just as they would protest the existence of a “Jewry Act,” they should protest the existence of the Indian Act and urge aboriginals to demand the repeal of it.

Jewish leaders can tell aboriginal elites to drop their obsession with blood quantum and racial status cards. These repellent things are reminiscent of the Nuremberg laws, yellow stars sewed onto clothing and cattle cars filled with terrified and sobbing, doomed human beings.

Jewish leaders can tell aboriginals to buck up, join the modern world and stop whining and obsessing about the past. They can point to how Israel settled its profound business with Germany, and now have a relatively normal, non-perpetual-grievance based, non-extractive relationship with it, (unlike the relationship Canada’s aboriginals now have with Canada), having received apologies and reparations, and with mutual promises of eternal commemoration. They can tell them to follow their example by giving the finger to the questionable, debilitating concept of “intergenerational trauma”, pointing to their own eternal resiliency in the face of mistreatments and horrors vastly worse than ever befell aboriginals, of which, after the Holocaust, the establishment and preservation of the state of Israel is the prime example. This instructive extract in this regard from author Michael Lewis:[11]

“Many of the young men entering the new Israel Defense Forces already had endured unspeakable horrors- everywhere you turned you found people with numbers tattooed on their arms.  Mothers stumbled unexpectedly on their own sons, who they thought had been murdered by the Germans, on the streets of Israeli cities. No one was encouraged to speak about what he’d experienced in war. “People who had post-traumatic stress disorder were considered weaklings,” as one Israeli psychologist put it. Part of the job of being an Israeli Jew was to at least pretend to forget the unforgettable.” (Italics added)

They can point to the words of one of their own, William Wuttunee, one of the founders of what became the Assembly of First Nations, who urged his people in his book, Ruffled Feathers,[12] to break from their “separate but equal”, ghetto-like, dependency-ridden past and present, and join and contribute to modern Canadian life as legal equals:

“The new breed of native cannot look at the past as a form of defeat, but only as a necessary period of transition. These people must look at today’s events and the past from a viewpoint which will keep them going ever-forward into the mainstream of society. Indians had great leaders in the past, and there is no reason why they cannot have great leaders in the future. If they continue only to cry about broken promises and broken treaties, they can never obtain much for their people.”

Jewish leaders can teach and reassure our aboriginal peoples that, like the Jewish people did for almost three thousand years in every place on earth their harsh fates landed them, they can assimilate into the societal mainstream, participate fully in the duties, obligations and benefits of citizenship, and still fully retain their core aboriginal identity. They can tell them that it is the assimilative nature of Jewish culture that enabled it to survive and thrive over those three thousand years. In this regard they can point to and tell them to live by the words of the great Jewish moralist, Amoz Oz:[13]

“What does Jewish culture comprise? It comprises everything we have amassed over the generations. Elements born inside it, as well as those absorbed from the outside, which become part of the family.

William Wuttunee agrees with Amoz Oz, and, in Ruffled Feathers, he speaks directly to his people and urges them, as does this writer, that the road to success and “reconciliation” is to follow the inspiring, civically assimilative example of Jewish Canadians:

“Indians can learn from the Jewish people, who number about the same as the Indians in Canada. Their contribution towards the economy of this country is considerable, as they are in business throughout the entire length and breadth of the business community. Although they integrate into Canadian society, they still retain their own religion and a special affinity in their hearts for Israel. They have not given up the Jewish faith or their way of life. They have succeeded in business and their children are well educated. Many have become professional people. They have enriched their culture with these new interests and developments. This same process must be the aim of the Indian people. They must participate in the non-Indian society, bringing with them their culture and taking the time to contribute to Canada as a whole.”

SOVEREIGNTY

Jewish elites’ assertion that Jews are the “aboriginal people” of the land that now comprises the state of Israel, and that as such they are now innocently in possession of it, is totally wrong.

Journalist Barbara Kay, in her National Post article The Indigenous Tribes of Israel,[14]  provides this good definition of “indigenous” as it relates to the occupation of land:

“Indigenous communities, peoples and nations demonstrate a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that evolved on their territories. Though non-dominant and a numeric minority, they consider themselves distinct from the societies that now prevail on their lands. They are determined to inhabit and transmit their territories to future generations, while maintaining their ethnic identity, cultural patterns, social institutions, and sometimes even legal systems.”

This definition clearly presumes continuous physical occupation of the land to the point in time at issue. It also presumes a form of, as indicated above, “innocent” possession and occupation of the land at issue, i.e., an “organic” possession and occupation not the result of recent imperial or “colonial” aggression against and takeover of the land of others. By these standards neither the people of later-biblical Israel nor those of post-1948 Israel can be considered the aboriginal people of the lands that now comprise the modern state of Israel.

A mere (but highly admirable) centuries-old, long-distance, subjective, intellectual, spiritual, emotional and imaginative connection to and longing for the land at issue cannot by itself supply the historically continuous, physical possession required by the definition.

Throughout history the first substantive contact between a culturally or militarily superior, migrating people and a more primitive or weaker people who found themselves in their path, was more often than not characterized by the latter suffering murder, rape, pillage and enslavement, followed by, if they were lucky enough not to be otherwise slaughtered into extinction, absorption and assimilation.

This is a sad norm of human behavior and history, a norm of migration, conflict, violence and dispossession. Biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his writings in these fields, in his book, The Social Conquest of Earth,[15] called this human trait “the pitiless dark angel of human nature”. Professor Wilson elaborated:

It should not be thought that war, often accompanied by genocide, is a cultural artifact of a few societies. Nor has it been an aberration of history, a result of the growing pains of our species maturation. Wars and genocide have been universal and eternal, respecting no particular time or culture.

This is exactly what happened in ancient Israel, as all recommended and approved by God.

Joshua 3:10 tells how God ordered the Hebrews to invade the “Promised Land” and “expel the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Hivite, the Girgashite, the Amorite and the Jebusite,” which they proceeded to do in a most cruel and deliberate fashion. No respect or regard whatsoever was either commanded by God or shown by the Hebrews for the aboriginal rights of these unfortunate peoples who found themselves blocking the Hebrews’ imperialist, colonialist path to their divinely ordained Manifest Destiny.

In this “heroic” saga of Hebrew conquest the non- “Israelites” were treated like the impersonal, anonymous, not-really-human “Other” – like Goliath’s Philistines- (one of the many dispossessed aboriginal tribes of their day- and of every other “day” in history)[16] – a mere quickly disposable narrative subject-matter whose unfortunate fate was necessary for the achievement of the Israelites higher and more glorious, divinely-mandated, historical destiny.

Joshua 6:21 tells what the Hebrews did after capturing Jericho: “Men and women, young and old, even the oxen, sheep and donkey, massacring them all.” This was genocide pure and simple (not to mention a foolish waste of useful animals).

And, after a close reading of Joshua, it doesn’t appear as though the Hebrews deemed the Jebusites to have any “rights,” or entered into treaties with them, or set up reserves for them or for any of the rest of those poor souls who were so summarily killed or permanently evicted- exiled– from their ancestral, aboriginal lands.

In fact, while there’s no precedent or authority anywhere in the Bible for treaties or reserves, the Old Testament- the Jewish, Islamic and Christian Holy Book- is full of justifications for “imperialist/colonialist” genocide, murder, conquest and dispossession.

But what goes around comes around, and so, given the Old Testament’s stricture of “an eye for an eye,” our not-so-merciful Lord saw to it that the Hebrews got as good as they had given in the realm of land-grabbing, imperialist heartlessness.

By the 8th century B.C., they were no longer masters in their own house- and they never were again, until 1948 A.D., a period of about 2600 years! This is not the kind of “continuous possession” that can form the basis of a valid claim to be the aboriginal occupiers of land. Through the effluxion of so much time, in which so many intervening historical events occurred, the Jews lost that status forever.

First the Assyrians conquered them and took over most of their lands. Then the Babylonians conquered and expelled them. They eventually came back and then engaged in a long, intermittent, middling run at trying to regain some control over their ex-homelands from their new Persian and then Greek overlords.

Eventually, in 135 A.D., because of, in the eyes of their now Roman overlords, their continual, exasperating rebelliousness, the Jews were once again expelled from Israel, this time more or less permanently, thus causing the diaspora and the ensuing long centuries of being regarded as strangers and misfits in the lands of others.

During the long centuries between then and the establishment of the state of Israel the Jewish people, generally forbidden to own land and thus barred from agriculture, survived and often thrived, despite their general status as the perpetual “Other”, in village, town and city-oriented trades, arts, crafts, commerce and finance. In Western Europe, by the mid-nineteenth century, they were more than equal contributors to the highest commercial, industrial, professional, scientific, philosophic, and artistic lives of their respective nations.

But the curse of anti-Semitism would never leave them, and with increasing industrialization and urbanization, and with the rise of ethnic nationalism, the curse became more and more a clear and present danger. As the nineteenth century ended prescient Jews “realized that as much as they care for Europe, Europe does not care for them.” [17] Their only protection and salvation lay in having their own state where they were the majority.

The Zionist movement, focusing on Ottoman-controlled and Arab-occupied Palestine as the restored national home for Jews, was born.

But what of the Arab occupants of Palestine? What was Zionism’s plan for them? In 1900, when the Zionist migration began in earnest, there were about 450,000 Arabs living there, all of whom very reasonably regarded the Middle East, of which Palestine formed an integral part, as their ancestral home. Jews then numbered about 20,000, making up about 4 per cent of the population, and many of these Jews were recent immigrants. [18]

Right from the beginning the Zionist plan was to, one way or another, “transfer” the Arabs out of the land, hopefully voluntarily, but if that couldn’t be achieved, then by some combination of carrots…and sticks. In 1895 Theodore Herzl, Zionism’s “prophet and organizational founder”, wrote in his diary: [19]

“We must expropriate gently…We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for them in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country…Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly.”

Jewish novelist Israel Zangwill was blunter, declaring in a famous speech in New York that Palestine was not empty, as the romanticists in the Zionist movement told themselves. This thinking, to David Ben Gurion, who became the state of Israel’s first Prime Minister, was “naïve Zionism”. [20] Rather, Zangwill said, it was populated more densely than America, and that no populated country was ever won without the use of force. “He proclaimed in public what no Zionist dared whisper to himself: [21]

“There is no particular reason for the Arabs to cling to these few kilometers. To fold their tents and steal silently away is their proverbial habit: let them exemplify it now…We must gently persuade them to trek.”

Sadly, for human nature is universal, and every culture has their “Other”, the highly civilized, Europeanized Jews, despite being the universal, victimized “Other” wherever they had lived for the previous 1700 years or so, when casting their eyes over Palestine, could not help “not seeing” the Arab population. In the midst of their passion for their own state they could not help treating the Arab people as a more primitive, racially and culturally inferior, disposable Other.

The comparisons with the American view and treatment of its Indian populations are all too apt. “In later years David Ben Gurion would compare the conquest of the American West with the conquest of Palestine.”

And so it came to pass.

After World War 2, propelled by, for the first time in about 2800 years (!), the absence of a controlling empire in the Middle East, and by the moral imperatives created by the Holocaust- wretched Europe owed the Jews a state! –  the decimated European remains of the Jewish people gained an ever-stronger measure of international legal status and support in Palestine. They migrated in ever greater numbers to that star and crescent-crossed land, and, quickly after that, with this legal and moral backing, by force of arms, established their own state.

By the time those state-creating events were over between three hundred and four hundred thousand Arabs, perhaps more, had fled or been uprooted.[22]

(David Ben Gurion) was entirely at peace with the fact that the Arabs had been displaced-between 500,000 and 600,000 of them at his estimate, according to others about 750,000. This was the price of Jewish independence in the Land of Israel, “a captured land,” as he put it. “War is war,” he added.[23] (Italics added.)

Book reviewer Rayyan Al-Shawaf, in his review of Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,[24] “…an honest appraisal of the injustice done to the Palestinians…”,described the fundamentally pro-Israel but soul-searching Mr. Shavit’s concession that:

“In order for a Jewish state to become demographically and politically viable, nascent Israel had to expel a large portion of the country’s Palestinian population in 1948.”

One chapter of Sharit’s book, Lydda, describes in wrenching detail the sudden, at-gunpoint expulsion of several thousand Palestinians from their village (still-warm meals were found by the new Israeli occupiers). This bears apt comparison to the American 1838 expulsion of the Cherokees from their Georgia- North Carolina homelands and their forced “Trail of Tears” march to present-day Kansas.

Highlighting the moral paradox of Israel, one of the subjects of Shavit’s book, Mr. Al-Shawaf recounted as follows:

“Isaac Deutscher, the Polish-British historian and “non-Jewish Jew” …once compared persecuted European Jews’ acquisition of Palestine to a man jumping from the top floor of a burning house and landing on another man on the ground below, thereby saving himself but grievously injuring an innocent person.”

Journalist Roger Cohen:[25]

“The Jewish state was needed. History had demonstrated that.

Today it is the Palestinians in the West Bank who are dehumanized through Israeli domination, settlement expansion and violence. The West Bank is the tomb of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Palestinians in turn incite against Jews and resort to violence, including random stabbings.

The oppression of Palestinians should trouble every Jewish conscience.”

Hebrew University (Jerusalem) Professor Emeritus David Shulman:

“…We might speak of the clash of two seemingly incompatible views (of Israel). On the one hand there is the old heroic myth, still embedded in the story the Israeli mainstream likes to tell itself: a weak and persecuted nation (if that is what we are) rose from the ashes to achieve its freedom, by sheer force of will, against inconceivably harsh odds. On the other hand, there is the awareness of our share in the endless violence and wickedness, including the subjugation of another people, and what needs to be done in order to achieve even a semblance of normalcy and decency in the real world.

The first view, which reflects a real-enough piece of the historical picture, blithely ignores the always latent pathology of modern nationalism, now present in florid form in Israel (as in many other modern nation states) …The second view moves towards a necessarily symbiotic relation between Israelis, Jews and Palestinians.

…And indeed, there is much to be proud of. I, too, am sometimes proud of my country…However, it just happens that this same miraculous state, for all its selfless idealists, is maintaining (… with its remorseless annexationist policies and by the profound reluctance of its extreme right-wing governments to make even the slightest move towards peace) one of the last true colonialist regimes in the world; that its public spaces are poisoned by an atavistic racism, its leaders driven by a mean-hearted, self-righteous tribalism…”[26]

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehub Barak (1999-2001) seems to go David Shulman one better, suggesting in his autobiography[27]  that Israel, by choosing to expand its borders instead of striving for peace within narrow borders, is reverting to the aggressively expansionist, imperialist, messianic and conquering nation of Old Testament Joshua, risking the loss of not only its moral reputation and moral core, but of its long-term security.

The Arabs, whose ancestors had exclusively occupied the land since the Arab conquest of the Middle East in the 7th century, as stated, from their perspective, quite reasonably regard Palestine as being their ancestral homeland since “time immemorial.” And, from within the confines and from the viewpoint of their refugee camps, (arguably the Israeli equivalent of Canada’s Indian reserves), and, from within the context of the narrow, rigid, devoid-of-nuance, black and white thinking that drives most discourse in Canada about Israel, (and about the situation of Canada’s aboriginal peoples), the dispossessed Arabs, again from their perspective, quite reasonably regard the Jews as the “imperialist-colonialist” dispossessors, and themselves as the wrongfully dispossessed  and marginalized aboriginals of the area.

(Writer George Steiner, reflecting on the unprecedented waves of mass migration in major parts of the world caused by war, famine, poverty and resource depletion, showing that the timeless historical norm of dispossession and migration is increasing in its application today, says that “God has decided to make Jews of everybody”:[28]

“By that I mean very simply that He’s going to teach everybody else what it’s like to have to wander, what it’s like not to have safety and protection….The movements of despair- it does look to me as if a lot of human beings are going to learn what it is like to be Jewish, to be refugees, hunted people, people who have to learn languages to survive, people who have to relearn jobs, ways of life.”)

Although always aware of the necessity of having to do so, David Ben Gurion did not want to be forced to conquer Palestine militarily. In 1914 he said:

“One doesn’t receive a country, one conquers it. We will conquer Palestine by developing it.”[29]

By contrast, Canada was more fortunate than the Zionists in this regard. Our ancestors who migrated to what is now Canada, with minor, trivial exceptions, never had to resort to military force to conquer this country. We peacefully “conquered” what is now Canada in the manner by which Ben Gurion would have preferred to have conquered Palestine- by developing it.

Canadians should be proud of our history in this regard, not apologetic.

Canadian Jews who naturally and properly support the legitimate existence of the sovereign state of Israel must acknowledge that their Promised Land- Israel- came into legal, statehood existence as the result of the military conquest and dispossession of the local aboriginal inhabitants- the locally resident Arabs. From that they, and all Canadians, must firstly, acknowledge that a less emotional and more neutral and nuanced approach to the historical reality of migration followed by conquest is often appropriate, and secondly, admit that sometimes migration and ensuing conquest- a tragic commonplace of history- results in justifiable ends, or, in any event, inevitable and irreversible ends.

From that the dictates of logic compel them and all of us then to acknowledge and accept that the peaceful, assimilative European migration to and conquest-by-development of Canada was inevitable and is equally- perhaps even more than equally- legitimate and justifiable, (and in any event, totally irreversible), and further that, just as Israeli state sovereignty cannot be diminished or impaired by considerations of Arab aboriginal sovereignty, so Canada’s state sovereignty should not and cannot be diminished or impaired by considerations or iterations of aboriginal sovereignty, such as the sovereignty-weakening and thus country-destabilizing UNDRIP. In both cases sole, total state sovereignty is necessary for the proper functioning, indeed, for the very survival of, the country- of any country.[30]

By the waters of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario Canadian Jewish leaders still sit down and weep, and wrongly encourage Canadian aboriginals to weep alongside them. But this is no longer justified for either group. “Next year in Jerusalem” finally arrived in 1948. The centuries of “wandering” and concomitant persecution are over. (Now leaving all Jewish people, Israeli and non-Israeli- a near existential question: What does it mean to be Jewish now that the defining and millennia-old yearning for the Promised Land has been satisfied? What next when the defining characteristics of your religious and social being no longer exist?) Ordinary Canadians are stretching out their hands to aboriginals and bidding them to join the country as equals. Jewish Canadians should join with ordinary Canadians in this regard. The cloak of Job no longer fits either Jewish or aboriginal Canadians. As the Jews have mainly done, aboriginal Canadians must throw this cloak off completely and dress to fit more realistic, modern, liberal and forward-looking purposes.

Peter Best

Sudbury

January 20th, 2022


[1] Canadian Jewish Studies, vol. 25, 2017, at page 28 – Suffering & Sovereignty: Recent Canadian Jewish Interest in Indigenous People and Issues – DOAJ

[2] Yom Kippur Study Session: National Teshuvah: Indigenous Reconciliation and Canadian Jewry – Holy Blossom Temple

[3] See Jeffery Veidlinger, In the Midst of Civilized Europe- The Pogroms of 1818-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd. 2021. These pogroms, in retrospect, constituted a dress rehearsal for the Holocaust.

[4] American lawyer Robert Jackson in his opening address at Nuremberg, November 21, 1945, quoted in The Lion, the Fox and the Eagle, by Carol Off, Random House Canada, a study of the Rwanda and Bosnian genocides.

[5] All from Timothy Snyder’s brilliant and harrowing Bloodlands, Basic Books, 2010. The writer begs the reader’s indulgence and forgiveness for providing such a heartbreaking, lengthy surfeit of horrific details about the actual, daily workings of the Holocaust. This springs from the writer’s deep anger against those who banalize it for their cheap political gain. I feel that their noses need to be rubbed in these details in hopes that they will somehow and finally get real.

[6] See Sean Fine, McLachlin: A History of Cultural Genocide, The Globe and Mail, May 29, 2015

[7] Vasily Grossman, The Hell of Treblinka, from The Road-Stories, Journalism and Essays, New York Review of Books

[8] Amos Oz, Dear Zealots- Letters from a Divided Land, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, New York, 2018

[9] See James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains- Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, University of Regina Press, 2013

[10]  Nation Maker, Sir John A. MacDonald, His Life, Our Times, Volume 2, Random House Canada, 2011

[11] The Undoing Project, A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017

[12] Ruffled Feathers- Indians in Canadian Society, Bell Books Ltd., Calgary, 1971

[13] From Dear Zealots, above, at page 84

[14]  Barbara Kay: The indigenous tribes of Israel | National Post

[15] Liveright Publishing, London, 2012

[16] Even the ancestors of the Philistines, like the ancestors of all of us, came from “somewhere else”, calling into question whether anyone, past or present, can truly say that they are the “aboriginal” inhabitants of a particular patch of land, and suggesting that this entire “aboriginal/indigenous” claims business is a fool’s game. This, about the Philistines, from the preface of Eric H. Cline’s 1177 B.C.-The Year Civilization Collapsed, (Princeton University Press, 2021): “There is also a new DNA study of burials found in the Philistine city of Ashkelon that date to the 12th century BC. The results appear to indicate that the Philistines, who were part of the Sea Peoples, did indeed migrate from either the Aegean or the western Mediterranean.”

[17] Ari Shavit, My Promised Land- The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Spiegel and Grau, New York, 2013 (“Shavit”)

[18] See Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Cambridge University Press, 2004 (“Morris”) Shavit estimates 500,000.

[19] Morris, at page 41

[20] From Tom Segev, A State at any Cost- The Life of David Ben Gurion, Picador, 2020, page 75 (“Segev”) This distinguished Israeli historian writes: “Some Christian Zionists liked to think then that Palestine was a land without a people meant for a people without a land. The same proposition was voiced by some Jews, Zionists included; Ben Gurion called that position ‘naïve Zionism”. He believed that the land of Israel belonged to the Jews and that they deserved to receive it despite the fact that it was populated by Arabs. Moshe Sharett later wrote: “We are not coming to a desolate land to inherit it; rather we are coming to conquer the land from the nation that resides there.” (Italics added)

[21] Shavit, page 16

[22] Segev, page 421

[23] Segev, page 452

[24] My Promised Land: An Israeli Journalist Looks Back at His Country’s Shortfalls and Victories, The Globe and Mail, November 30, 2013

[25] An Anti-Semitism of the Left, New York Times, March 7, 2016

[26] David Shulman, A Hero in His Own Words, a book review of No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination and the Making of Modern Israel, by Shimon Peres, The New York Review of Books, December 7, 2017

[27] My Country My Life- Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2018

[28] From Original Minds, Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel, Harper Perennial Canada, 2003

[29] Segev, page 116

[30] As related in Segev, (page 219), David Ben Gurion was not prepared to sacrifice “even 1 percent” of his Zionist organization’s power and political position, for “peace”. (His italics) He would have correctly seen UNDRIP as a mortal danger to Israel.

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