By Other Means

On Pilgrims and Zionists

Why I’m thankful America didn’t turn out like Israel.


It’s Thanksgiving, which means it’s time to think about Israel.

That’s not as nonsensical as it may sound. The Pilgrims who established our American Thanksgiving ritual thought about Israel a great deal: both they and the larger group of Puritan settlers who followed them a decade later saw themselves as New Israelites, forced into the wilderness by religious persecution.

Given that history, Thanksgiving is a good time to contemplate the parallels between the United States and Israel. After a week of front-page news about Israel and the violence that has increasingly come to define it, this is also a good time to count our blessings — for despite many parallels, the United States is, thankfully, not Israel. Not yet.

"Empty Land"

Tradition tells us that the first Thanksgiving feast took place in the autumn of 1621, as the Pilgrims celebrated their first harvest. On December 12, 1621, Robert Cushman preached the earliest surviving sermon to the Pilgrims. God, said Cushman, had opened "a way…for such as have wings to fly into this Wilderness," so that "as by the dispersion of the Jewish church through persecution…a light may rise up in the dark." A New Israel had sprung up in New England.

If the early American setters saw parallels between themselves and the ancient Israelites, we modern Americans can also find parallels between the American Pilgrims and the Jewish Zionists who settled in Palestine between the late 19th and mid-20th century.

After all, America and Israel share similar origin tales: the Pilgrims who set sail from Plymouth, England in 1620 did so against a backdrop of European religious wars, massacres, and persecution; while the Jews who founded the modern state of Israel fled centuries of European anti-Semitism and the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust.

Each of the two groups imagined themselves to be settling a mostly empty wilderness: "We found the place where we live empty, the people being all dead and gone away," reported Cushman in 1621. Three hundred years later and almost 5,000 miles away, Jewish Zionists sought "a land without a people, for a people without a land." Palestine "remains at this moment an almost uninhabited, forsaken and ruined Turkish territory," enthused Israel Zangwill, an early Zionist, in 1902. He later realized his mistake ("Alas… The country holds 600,000 Arabs"), but by then the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine had picked up unstoppable momentum.

Both the Pilgrims and the Zionist settlers — separated as they were by centuries and miles — underestimated the staying power of the local inhabitants. In the "New Israel" of New England, Cushman observed that the natives who initially appeared were "very much wasted of late, by reason of a great mortality that fell amongst them three years since." (Though Cushman probably didn’t know it, the "great mortality" stemmed from smallpox, typhoid, and other diseases unwittingly brought by European fishermen.) With regard to the "poor heathens," wrote Cushman, "Our care hath been to maintain peace amongst them."

The Native Americans turned out to have opinions of their own about the European "errand into the wilderness," however, and over the next decades, European encroachment onto Native American land increasingly led to conflict. New England saw the Pequot War of 1637, for instance, followed by King Phillip’s War of 1675-6, which killed hundreds of settlers and thousands of Native Americans.

The Zionists who settled in Palestine found themselves similarly mired in conflict. As the region’s Jewish population increased from just over 10 percent in the early 1920s to about 33 percent after World War II, tensions with the Arab majority went up as well. By the late 1930s, attacks on Jewish settlements by Arab militants were matched by retaliatory attacks on Arabs by Jewish paramilitary groups.

Diverging paths

Here, however, Israel’s path began to diverge from that of early America. The Native Americans were already badly weakened by epidemic disease and internecine conflict by the time European settlers arrived in force. Although bloody skirmishes between Europeans and Native Americans continued until well into the 20th century, by the mid-1700s the native population had ceased to pose an existential threat to the European colonists, and the emerging nation could turn its attention to other matters. To the colonists, all this was a sign of God’s providence. To the Native Americans, it was just a tragedy.

In Palestine, things were different: the Arab inhabitants declined to die out of their own accord, leaving the Jewish settlers surrounded by displaced, aggrieved locals. Escalating attacks and counter-attacks embroiled the Israelis in a cycle of violence and retaliation. In 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish state, war immediately broke out with Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq. Israel prevailed — but in the nearly seven decades since then, Israel has remained in a state of intermittent war.

Israel’s cycle of war and escalation broke out yet again last week, as Israel retaliated against Hamas rocket attacks by pounding Gaza from the air. In this conflict — as in all of Israel’s past conflicts — Israel’s military superiority (much of it thanks to U.S. weapons sales and aid) has made it a lopsided fight: as of Tuesday, five Israelis and 130 Palestinians had been killed. In the last Gaza conflict — Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009 — 13 Israelis and 1,400 Palestinians died during the three weeks of fighting. During the 2006 Israeli-Lebanon War, Lebanese casualties exceeded Israeli casualties by a factor of ten.

But Israel’s immense military superiority has produced only illusory gains. What good is winning when winning only sows the seeds of the next conflict, one following another in rapid succession?

As Janine Zacharia, former Jerusalem bureau chief of the Washington Post, wrote last week, "Israel’s response to these ongoing rocket attacks is justified. But being justified isn’t the same thing as being smart. The truth is Israel has been engaged in a low-grade war with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip for five years now, with no plan besides a misguided military strategy for how to end it…. To be sure, Israel will once again achieve many of its short-term tactical goals…[but] in the end, Israel will be no safer, although it will surely be more alone in the world and living in a neighborhood that is less tolerant of its aggressive countermeasures."

Once, Israel represented a dream or freedom, safety, and peace for Europe’s persecuted Jews. But decades of on-and-off war, suicide bombers, and rockets attacks have left Israel isolated, imperiled, and in danger of losing its soul. Each new round of asymmetric attacks from Palestinians or neighboring states triggers an outsized Israeli military response, which buys a few years of relative quiet, until the violence escalates again. And meanwhile, Israel has become a permanent garrison state, defined almost solely by its embattled status and losing, each year, a few more of its democratic traditions.

"Everyone is sad"                                                                                

This isn’t an "attack upon Israel." Suicide bombs and makeshift rockets are weapons of the weak, but they have left a trail of mangled, broken bodies all the same, and the Holocaust still casts a long shadow. By now, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are fighting the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Arabs displaced or killed by the Jewish settlers who created the state of Israel. Everyone’s a victim, and everyone has become a perpetrator.

Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick recently wrote the best essay I’ve seen yet on living in Israel during the current conflict: "[T]he harrowing accounts of burnt-out basements and baby shoes on each side of this conflict don’t constitute a conversation…. Scoring your own side’s suffering is a powerful way to avoid fixing the real problems, and trust me when I tell you that everyone — absolutely everyone — is suffering and sad, and yet being sad is not fixing the problems either…. Bombing the other side into oblivion is no more a solution than counting your dead children in public…. Please don’t judge. Work toward solutions. Because everyone on every side of this is desperate. This isn’t a way to live and we all know it."

In the Arab-Israeli conflict, there is a stronger side and a weaker side, but there is certainly no "right" side.

There but for the Grace of God

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for all the mundane but vital blessings: happy children, a loving husband and family, work that I love, the health to enjoy it. I’m also thankful that we Americans still live in relative peace and prosperity. And this year, I’m particularly thankful I don’t live in Israel, that America is not Israel, and that America’s path long ago diverged from Israel’s.

That it did so is hardly to our credit, since the American Republic was built upon the virtual destruction of the Native Americans. Our peace and prosperity owe much to happy accidents of geography — how lucky to have oceans on two sides! — and more to the suffering of others (slavery, too, casts a long shadow).

But we should not assume that America is exempt from Israel’s fate. Stunned by the 9/11 attacks, in 2001 the United States began a blind lurch towards the Israeli path, ultimately embroiling ourselves in two bloody wars of occupation. With our temporary embrace of torture, we came perilously close to losing our own national soul.

Although we have now repudiated torture, we continue to find the Israeli path tempting. Indefinite detention has become an accepted reality for America, along with an aggressive, expanding surveillance state. Before 9/11, the United States condemned Israeli "targeted killings" of alleged terrorists. Now, targeted killings have become the American weapon of choice.

Like the Israelis, we’re increasingly playing counterterrorism whack-a-mole — and as with the Israelis, each drone strike may pull us that much further into an endless cycle of attack, retaliation, counter-attack, and counter-retaliation, with nothing gained at the end of the day but dead bodies on all sides.

Israel is what the Pilgrims imagined themselves to be building, and if we are not both lucky and wise, Israel is what we may yet become — but not in the way our forebears imagined.

The Eyes of All People Are Upon Us

Shortly after the First Thanksgiving, Robert Cushman urged his fellow Pilgrims to "win [the natives] to peace both with yourselves, and one another, by your peaceable examples." The lesson didn’t really take.

Few Americans have heard of Cushman, but most are familiar with John Winthrop’s Arabella Sermon, delivered nine years later. Like Cushman, Winthrop exhorted his fellow American settlers to set a good example:

[We must] follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God…. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities…. [So] Wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us…. For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us.

Less often quoted is the more ominous passage that follows:

For if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken… wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world….Wee shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into curses upon us, till wee be consumed out of the good land whither wee are a goeing.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department.

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