Steve Hunegs

Steve Hunegs was named Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC) in November of 2006. Hunegs has a long association with the JCRC. He served on the Board of Directors from 1993 to 2002 and served as Board President from 1998 to 2000. Read more about Steve Hunegs.

Beware of Capricious Comparisons

Posted by: Steve Hunegs Updated: March 28, 2013 - 4:18 PM

I'm sorry to see fatuous comparisons between Native Americans and Palestinians given such prominent space in the Sunday (March 24) print edition of the Star Tribune.

It would be much better to discuss the President's trip to Israel and the Middle East and the intricate and intimate choreography resulting in, hopefully, the resumption of full diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey, thus strengthening America's position with respect to Syria and Iran.  It would better to discuss the possibility of resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians after the President's meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Abbas in Jerusalem and Ramallah.  It would be better to discuss Pope Francis – the "New World Pope" in the words of Time Magazine – and his dedication to alleviating poverty.

Alas, there is little choice but to respond to the mischaracterizations articulated.

Start with the proposition – as I once heard Elie Wiesel say – that it is difficult to compare the suffering of one people to another.

As Jews, also, who have been subjected to genocidal attempts of extermination, we are deeply sensitive to the pain and loss suffered by Native Americans, and other victims of genocide.  Indeed, a leading early exponent of Native American rights in the United States was Felix S. Cohen, a distinguished scholar and author of the Handbook of Federal Indian Law (1942).  Prof. Cohen was a champion of Native American self-government and recognized that a discrimination against one people endangered all peoples.

Jews, also, the world over and in Israel have adopted the mainstream consensus view of the critical nature of a two state solution of Israel and Palestine to safeguard the security of Israel and vindicating Palestinian aspirations.  President Obama repeatedly stressed this goal on his visits to Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Amman during his recent Middle East trip.

Jews have supported Palestinian and Native American rights of self-determination.

If comparisons are to be made, begin with Palestinian opportunities for statehood, as opposed to the fate of Native American aspirations in the United States.

As far back as 1937, the Peel Commission of the British Government recommended partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.  The Jewish state was more of a "statelet" comprising – essentially – greater Tel Aviv and portions of the Galilee.  The Arabs rejected it.

The United Nations created a Palestinian state in 1947 when the General Assembly voted to create a Jewish and Arab state in mandatory Palestine.  Arabs inside and outside of Palestine rejected the partition and immediately took to violence to destroy the compromise culminating in the invasion of Palestine by five Arab armies the day Israel declared its independence.

The two state solution came closest to realization in the summer of 2000 at the Camp David negotiations between President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.  A proposed Palestinian state encompassing nearly the entire West Bank and critical concessions for the "final status" issues of Jerusalem and refugees was before Arafat.  He rejected this possible end-of-conflict resolution and initiated the Second Intifada.

In connection with the rights of self-determination of Native Americans – no such opportunities have ever been presented.  History does not start with the Six Day War in 1967 or even with the release of Leon Uris’ Exodus in 1958. 

Indeed, comparisons between Native Americans and Palestinians should also include the most significant morality test of the twentieth century: who did what with respect to Nazism, fascism, and Japanese militarism.

Here lies another great difference between Native Americans and Palestinians.  Despite facing confiscation of heritage, history and tribal lands, Native Americans fought for the United States in the Second World War with great valor and distinction in every theater of combat according to the United States Army Center for Military History.  Forty-four thousand Native Americans served during the Second World War – 40 percent more enlisted than were drafted.  The 45th infantry division – “Thunderbolt” – produced three “Medal of Honor” winners from the European theater.  The fifty thousand person Navajo nation provided 420 "code talkers" critical in communication in some of the most intense Pacific combat on the islands of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Iwo Jima.  As was the case with African Americans and Japanese Americans, the systemic discrimination and marginalization at home did not deter taking up arms for their country abroad.

The response of the Arab world – particularly to Nazism – could not have been more different.  The response to the Third Reich from the Arab world inside and outside of Palestine ranged from sullen neutrality to outright collaboration with Germany as was the case of the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Arabs – Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini.  As the Mufti , among other things, he made radio broadcasts from Berlin during the war encouraging the Arab world to fight the allies and advocating for the extermination of the Jews.  The record of the Arab world in the Second World War was fully before the General Assembly of the United States when it voted to create a Jewish state – and a Palestinian state – on November 29, 1947.

Sadly, despite the heroic service of Native Americans in World War II, little changed with respect to their condition in the United States in the post war years. 

Underscoring these important distinctions is a salient similarity.  Native Americans have been present in North America for well over 10,000 years.  The Jewish connection to the Holy Land – from where the Jews gave the world the Bible – dates back over 3,700 years of continuous presence despite the destruction of the two Temples and exile with a perpetual hope first in prayer and then in Zionism for redemption in their own land.

Perhaps it was for this reason that Leo Nomis was a volunteer fighter pilot for Israel in its 1948 War of Independence. Nomis was of Irish and Sioux heritage with a heroic and colorful record of service in the Second World War. Before the United States entered the war he served with the Royal Air Force's Eagle Squadron (comprised of American volunteers) as well as RAF assignments on Malta and the Middle East.  Nomis transferred to the United States Army Air Force in 1943. 

Three years after the end of the Second World War, Nomis volunteered to fly for Israel's fledgling Air Force in its Squadron 101.  Nomis noted: "I was sympathetic to the cause and plight of the new Jewish state from day one...” “…It seemed clear that after what happened to the Jews in Europe during the war and by the fact that they were in Palestine, surrounded by hostile Arab nations who had vowed their annihilation, that here was not only a political and military crisis, but a moral issue that one could not, in good conscience ignore…” (Nomis and Cull; "The Desert Hawks: An American Volunteer Fighter Pilot's Story of Israel's War of Independence, 1948"; Grub Street [London], 1998).

(Nomis flew alongside St. Paul's Leon Frankel who was a World War II naval aviator hero who would fly 25 missions in the 1948 war – See "Your Voices" interviews of Frankel from April 26, 2012, and December 7, 2011, chronicling his service in the United States Navy and Israel's Squadron 101.)

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