Everywhere we look, we see epic struggles between the people and the powerful—battles for freedom and justice on one side versus domination and exploitation on the other. We have a history of it in the west, beginning with the arrival of Columbus, the conquering of the Americas and the genocide of indigenous peoples.
But conquest and domination isn’t found only in the west, for we saw it with the Muslim invasions of the Maghreb, the Levant and Persia in the 7th century; and we know that scarcely a time exists without warlords and plenipotentiaries, going back to the ancient Greeks, Romans and Genghis Khan.
I’ve long wondered how an entire civilization can accommodate itself to the gradual destruction of another—how the brain chemistry works when your tribe, your group, has for decades or centuries busied itself colonizing and killing another people? To us today this seems barbaric, does it not? We must feel we have come so far from the likes of Alexander the Great, Aurelius, Genghis Khan or any number of other cruel conquerors, right up to the 19th and 20th-century colonizers which includes King Leopold II of Belgium, the British in India, the French in Algeria, the Japanese in China and on and on.
But of course, conquest does not have its own narrow era, nor is it limited to one subset of genetics or another.
As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reveals in her book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, our American policy of murdering First Nation peoples “was praised in popular culture, through writers like James Fenimore Cooper and Walt Whitman, and in the highest offices of government and the military. Shockingly, as the genocidal policy reached its zenith under President Andrew Jackson, its ruthlessness was best articulated by US Army general Thomas S. Jesup, who, in 1836, wrote of the Seminoles: ‘The country can be rid of them only by exterminating them.'”
Less than 100 years later, in 1923, the Zionist agitator Ze’ev Jabotinsky, writing in two essays that came to be known as “The Iron Wall,” made it clear that European Jewish settlers in historic Palestine should not expect a convivencia, an accommodation, with the indigenous Arab population—he argued that a virtual iron wall should exist between them. As Israeli historian Avi Shlaim comments in his book The Iron Wall, Israel and the Arab World, this meant that the founders of Israel considered it pointless to negotiate with the Arabs as the “Zionist program had to be executed unilaterally and by force.”
Little wonder then that a final peace accord continues to elude Israelis and Palestinians, since the expectation is that indigenous Palestinians still do not agree to their own demise, so despite an endless program of settlement construction, Palestinians continue to resist.
As do the thousands of Native Americans and their non-indigenous supporters at Standing Rock, in North Dakota. My wife and I are among those who support the resistance at Standing Rock against the corporate powers trying to push through the Dakota Access Pipeline, which could have devastating environmental consequences. We support the resistance there both because we care about the quality of the water and the air and all other natural resources, and because we back the people against the more powerful forces of governments and corporations who too often work hand in glove for profit.
As it happens, my wife’s father, a Mexican American painter name Samee Ochoa, took a DNA test last year that revealed that 92% of his genes indicate indigenous origins. Likewise, my Moroccan-born grandfather, Avram Elgrably, had an Amazigh mother, which means half his people were indigenous to the Maghreb before the arrival of the Arab tribes. Is it any wonder that we both identify with the water protectors at Standing Rock and with the Palestinians still resisting a more powerful force against them?
Of course we have human wisdom that reminds us of our common humanity. The Talmud, Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, states that, “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” And Surah 5:32 in the Qur’an makes a similar point.
Even so, my question remains unanswered: what happens to the brain chemistry, and indeed the soul, of the people that relentlessly conquers, exploits and murders another? How can we reconcile the cognitive dissonance that exists in this conundrum—how can we live with this knowledge of wrongdoing and injustice? And do we by our silence or our virtual collaboration—paying taxes that pay for the weapons that control or kill indigenous peoples—share in the responsibility for these historic outcomes?
Such is my food for thought on this “Thanksgiving” in the year 2016, in hopes of sparking a conversation.