On Power, Palestine and Standing Rock

24 November, 2016

Jordan Elgrably

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. 

Sheriff's forces shoot water canons at Standing Rock protesters.

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.

Jordan Elgrably is a Franco-American writer of Moroccan heritage whose work has appeared widely in the U.S. and Europe. He is the former cofounder and director of the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz (2001-2020) in Los Angeles. He founded The Markaz Review in 2020, which he edits from Montpellier. Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordanElgrably.