At the time, it seemed peculiar to me. It was the late 1970s. My visitor was a Palestinian Arab, a pharmacist who owned a business near Nazareth, in an area of Palestine that had become part of Israel in 1948. He was exploring the possibility of immigrating to the United States. Though he had citizenship in Israel, he did not believe he had equality, and he did not believe his children had a future there. I expected that he would want to know about U.S. pharmacies. Instead, he wanted to know about Indians. “Where are the reservations?” he asked me several times.
Not knowing any Indians and never having seen a reservation, I was of no help to him. It would be years before I would understand where he was coming from, psychologically as well as geographically. This man had seen himself and his people as the modern-day equivalent of Native Americans. The Palestinians were being pushed off their lands by settlers, many of them new immigrants from Europe, just as the natives of the Americas had been. He had seen a future of Palestinians being confined to increasingly smaller areas while foreign newcomers claimed control of the most productive land and water resources.
Slowly, I learned. There was more to the historical narrative of Israel/Palestine than I had gleaned from the 1960 movie “Exodus” and its haunting soundtrack mantra still in my head today: “This land is mine. God gave this land to me.” I learned to question the idea of God the Real Estate Agent. And I wondered: Did my great-great-grandparents, immigrants from famine-stricken Ireland, think God gave them the land they homesteaded in a Minnesota county named after recently displaced Dakota? Could it be that God had been assisted by corrupt land speculators and bad treaties?
In Minnesota last year, we commemorated the 150th anniversary of the violent aftermath of bad treaties driven by ambitious land speculators. We are still grappling with the loss of lives on both sides of the violence. We are still living with the guilt from the white victors’ vengeance on the surviving Dakota people, a vengeance that forced most of them onto reservations outside of Minnesota. It is that harsh retribution that opened up rich farmland to immigrants from Europe, and to the men who would make fortunes building railroads that pushed further west through territories inhabited by other Indian nations until they reached the Pacific Ocean. That is our history.
These memories came rushing back when I heard President Obama tell the people of Israel how their country is like America. Indeed, it is like us when it comes to technology, prosperity and many aspects of democracy. Yet Israel is like us in other ways, too. Founded by immigrants, the country has known both tolerance and resistance from the native Palestinian population. It has known violent conflict with them. And, along with idealistic immigrants who founded socialist collectives called kibbutzim, Israel has had, from its beginning, a land-hungry element, some of them driven by belief in that “Exodus” soundtrack’s words, “God gave this land to me.”
Israel also is similar to America in brutally suppressing the native population of territories it conquered in 1967 and proceeded to fill with settlers.
While many peace-loving Israelis condemned the provocative settlement movement, many others embraced it. The Palestinians, who for 46 years have continued to resist the theft of their ancestral lands, are in the way of those who would fulfill God the Real Estate Agent’s promise. There are some Israelis who advocate outright expulsion. There are others satisfied simply to make life miserable for their Palestinian neighbors. And there are those who would create virtual reservations.
My Palestinian visitor understood American history better than I did. He also understood, viscerally, as we Americans do not, what it means when we say Israel is like us.
Mary Christine Bader is a writer in Wayzata.