In the introduction to America In 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus, a book of essays Alvin Josephy edited and published on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Caribbean, he wrote that:
“Commencing with Columbus’s arrival among them, Spanish, French, and English invaders, colonizers, pirates, and imperial explorers all but exterminated them [indigenous people], slaughtering Caribs wholesale with fire, steel, European tortures, and savage dogs, working thousands of them to death as slaves, and wiping out their settlements with the pox, measles, dIphtheria, and other white men’s diseases to which the Indians had no resistance…
[but] “In the long run, indeed, no adverse impact visited on the Indians by the 1492 voyage of ‘discovery’ was more profound in its consequences in every crook and cranny of the Americas than Columbus’s introduction of Western European ethnocentricity to the Indians’ worlds. Asserting the superiority of the white aggrandizers’ religious, political, and social universe over each of the many indigenous peoples from the arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, this ethnocentricity was an arrogant vice, backed by superior firepower and boundless gall, that never faltered or weakened.”
In the quest to make America European—and to a large extent Anglo-Protestant or Spanish Catholic European—there is no bolder statement of this Eurocentricity in our own country than the “Religious Crimes Code of 1883”:
“Congress bans all Native dancing and ceremonies, including the Sun Dance, Ghost Dance, potlatches, and the practices of medicine persons. The Code gives Indian agents authority to use force, imprisonment, and the withholding of rations to stop any cultural practices they deem immoral or subversive to federal government-mandated assimilation policies.”
One hundred and forty years after that act, we are scrambling to “repeal” it with attention to Tribal languages, religions, and cultures. It’s worth noting that the Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978. Until that time, as Alvin Josephy often mused, you could be a Christian or Muslim, Hindu or Jew in America and have religion, but Indians had only “mumbo jumbo,” in the eyes of society and the law.
It occurs to me now that this Eurocentrism, which is finally being relaxed in our own country, still permeates our views of the rest of the world, in Europe itself—and in Netanyahu’s view of Palestinians.
When there was genocide in Rwanda, the West was slow to respond, and now England plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to await processing. The number of “indigenous” deaths and displacements in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia are larger than the numbers in Israel and Gaza, but they are “other” non-Eurorpean people from far worlds, and don’t get the same press attention. Some in those countries criticized us for jumping to Ukraine’s aid when Russia attacked a European country. But the money, arms, and assistance with emigration has poured into Ukraine as it has not into Burkina Fasa, and millions of Africans, Middle Easterners, and Asians are today hungry, homeless, and dying..
As to Israel and Palestine, we should go back in history; current boundaries in the Middle East were largely set at the conference at Versailles at the conclusion of Word War I by the winning European powers. France and England divided the old Ottoman Empire into countries and mandates which they could control. Greece and Italy joined in an effort to dismantle Anatolia, but Mustafa Kemal, later called Ataturk, rebuffed the Europeans and created Turkey, a new independent nation state. South of Turkey in the old Ottoman lands, oil was an emerging concern, and so was Zionism. The Europeans and their oil companies coddled leaders to create Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the “British Mandate for Palestine and Transjordan.” The Mandate was awarded by the League of Nations in 1918, and held until a United Nations Partition in 1947 along religious lines. Civil war that involved Jews, Arabs and the
English ended when David Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel in 1948. Our President, Harry Turman, recognized the new nation on the same day that Ben Gurion proclaimed it.
There had always been Jews in the Holy Land and across the Middle East. Most were Sephardic and spoke Ladino, a mixture of Medieval Spanish and Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, French, Bulgarian, and Italian—the way Yiddish used a mixture of Hebrew and European languages in Central and Eastern Europe. There were other Jews further east in Persia (Iran) and Babylonia (Iraq), called Mizrahi, who spoke local languages. And there were and are Ethiopian Jews, who wear darker skin and speak their own language.
Ashkenazi Jews, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, who had been discriminated against for centuries by their largely Protestant and Catholic Christian neighbors, fed by a rising Zionist movement, had been finding their ways to Palestine to buy land and live among the regions Jews, Christians, and Muslims for decades, but the Reich’s “Final Solution” and te allies defeat of Hitler’s Germany, paved the way for modern Israel. Europe, and the US, which had not protected Jews from the Nazis, and, in the US’s case had turned away many refugees, became solid supporters of the new State. Joe Biden and many in the US, the Germans, who are especially sensitive about their anti-Semitic past, and other European countries are still, in my mind, feeling guilt pangs from what happened between 1930 and 1945, and feel compelled to support Israel to the greatest extent possible.
Although more than half of Israeli Jews are not Ashkenazi, are Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Ethiopian, and twenty percent of Israel’s population is Arab Christian and Muslim, the power in the country began with the Ashkenazi in 1948 and rests with them still—with the descendants of European Jewry who were so grievously wronged almost a century ago.
And, although we can all agree that the actions of Hamas are barbaric and their ideal of removing Jews from Palestine is untenable and itself barbaric, I believe that the killing of thousands of innocent Arabs, the destruction of homes, mosques, churches, and hospitals in Gaza and settler attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank are also barbaric. The only way that I can understand the Israelis continued pursuit of total elimination of Hamas with its terrible side effects, and can understand today’s US veto of a United Nations sponsored cease fire, is that in our Euro-centered minds, southern people, brown people, mostly Muslim people, are somehow “less than” those of us who are lighter, Christian and Jewish—somehow European. Over 120 countries called for a cease fire, and on the Security Council Great Britain at least abstained. All other countries but the US voted aye. We used our veto power.
The Palestinian poet, Refaat Alareer, was apparently killed this week in an Israeli airstrike. A few weeks ago, after the opening days of post-Hamas Israeli reprisals, Alareer said in an interview aired on television at his death, that Palestinians were kin to indigenous people everywhere, asserting their right to live and live freely.
There are still Israelis and Palestinians, American Jews and American Muslims, talking to each other, asking for peace. My hope is that they persevere, that the warmongers from all sides are drowned out, and that we all stop clinging to our Euro-pasts and accord full humanity to all people of all colors, religions, and ethnicities, and join those voices for peace in settling affairs and rebuilding Gaza as we joined together to rebuild Europe after World War II.
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Photo Al Jazeera