No One’s Rights Should Depend on Where Their Ancestors Lived

Arguments over whether Israelis or Palestinians count as “really indigenous” are beside the point. No one’s human rights should depend on their ethnicity or religion or where their ancestors come from.

People who insist that either Palestinians or Israelis are "indigenous" to the land are embracing the logic of reactionaries. (Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Claudia Tenney is a congresswoman from upstate New York. Much of her district (NY-24) was, for centuries before “New York state” came into existence, the territory of the Iroquois Confederacy. A right-wing Republican, Tenney presumably doesn’t think much of land acknowledgments or hand-wringing about the idea that NY-24 sits on “stolen land.”

And yet Tenney is in the news this week for introducing something called the RECOGNIZING Judea and Samaria Act. She wants to require that US government documents stop referring to the Israeli-occupied West Bank as the “West Bank” and start calling it “Judea and Samaria.” She claims that “the term ‘West Bank’” is “used to delegitimize Israel’s historical claim to this land.”

The idea seems to be that, because ancient Jewish kingdoms were located there thousands of years ago, and Israeli Jews are descendants of the people who lived in those kingdoms, Palestinian rights are irrelevant. It’s a bit like an extremely high-stakes diplomatic land acknowledgment.

Tenney is far from the only one on the Right thinking this way, as Israel rains death and destruction on the civilian population of Gaza and pogroms by Israeli settlers terrorize Palestinians in the West Bank. At a recent appearance at the Cambridge Union in the UK, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro argued that Israel is “the ultimate case of decolonization in human history after return of a native population to its homeland and battle to throw off the shackles of the British Empire.”

There’s surely an element of trolling in Shapiro’s use of this language. Since when does he care about “decolonization” anywhere else? But he’s deadly serious about his support for the status quo in Israel/Palestine. He recently claimed, for example, that a Palestinian state would be an unacceptable “terrorist entity on Israel’s borders.” And I seriously doubt that Shapiro wants the five million or so Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to be granted Israeli citizenship, which would make Israel no longer a specifically “Jewish state” but a multiethnic democracy with roughly equal numbers of Jewish and Palestinian citizens.

So presumably he wants those millions of people to continue to be denied basic rights — to continue to be tried in military courts instead of real courts when they’re accused of crimes, for example, and to continue to be unable to vote their rulers out of office. And the justification for that would have to be the one cited by Congresswoman Tenney: Israel’s “historical claim” to the land.

There’s also a misguided — and, I hope, relatively small — segment of Palestine solidarity activists who take the mirror image of this position. They’re rightly horrified by the denial of democratic rights to the Palestinians, and especially by the mass starvation and indiscriminate bombing in Gaza, where the Israeli military has displaced at least 85 percent of the population from their homes since October. This anger leads them to indulge in ugly rhetoric about how the entire population of seven million or so Israeli Jews, the great majority of whom were born in the country, are “settlers” and “colonizers.” I’ve seen social media posts, for example, where pictures of stereotypically “white”-looking Israeli Jews with European-sounding surnames are used to mock the idea that Israelis are “indigenous to the Middle East.”

The implication happens to be wrong. On at least some estimates, Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors once lived in Northern or Eastern Europe, make up less than a third of Israel’s Jewish population. They’re greatly outnumbered by Israeli Jews whose ancestors lived in various Middle Eastern countries during the same time period and who often had to flee from those countries in the twentieth century. But this kind of rhetoric isn’t just wrong because it’s based on a shaky understanding of the facts. It’s deeply wrong in principle.

The great German socialist thinker August Bebel famously said that antisemitism is “the socialism of fools,” since antisemites tend to scapegoat cabals of “Jewish bankers” for the problems of an entire economic system. To tweak Bebel’s observation a bit, this kind of rhetoric about all Israelis being “settlers” whose presence in their country is illegitimate represents the anti-Zionism of fools. Zionism should be rejected because ethnostates are wrong in principle. No nation-state should be a state “of” a specific ethnic or religious subset of its residents, and the most just solution would be a single secular democratic state with equal rights for everyone.

People who insist that Palestinians are “indigenous” and Israelis are not, and who think this is what makes the struggle for Palestinian rights legitimate, are embracing the logic of reactionaries like Tenney and Shapiro while reversing the implication. The problem with the Right’s claim that Israel is justified in denying basic rights to millions of people because of historical Jewish claims to “Judea and Samaria” is not that the right-wingers are misidentifying who counts as “truly” indigenous. The wildly reactionary premise is that this is even a relevant question.

The Iroquois Confederacy probably came together somewhere between five hundred and nine hundred years ago, depending on which estimates you believe. The tribes that made it up were already there before that, and presumably before they were there, other groups lived in the same area. Humans have lived there for about ten thousand years. It was wrong to displace the Iroquois, and if their ancestors displaced some earlier group, that was wrong too. Whatever injustices fill the history books, though, everyone except for outright racists and fascists takes it for granted that everyone who lives there now should have equal rights now, regardless of any ethnic group’s “historical claims.” The exact same principle should apply to Israel/Palestine.

Even someone as rabidly right-wing as Tenney would presumably grant that everyone in her district should have democratic rights, regardless of whether their ancestors lived in the Iroquois Confederacy or their great-great-grandparents came to New York from Ireland in the 1800s or they’re first-generation immigrants who took their citizenship test last week. And anyone who can acknowledge that should also recognize that no one in Israel/Palestine should be denied rights based on their ancestors having lived in the wrong place — whether “wrong” ancestry means not being descended from ancient Judeans and Samarians or not having great-great-grandparents who lived in Palestine before the formation of the state of Israel.

The problem with Zionism is that it’s obscene for anyone’s status or rights in the area where they live to depend on their ethnicity or religion or where their ancestors lived. Zionism should be rejected not because we think Palestinians have a better claim than Israeli Jews to a blood-and-soil connection to the land, but on the basis of the universalist principles that have always formed the rock-solid normative basis of the socialist movement and, before that, were proclaimed by the French Revolutionaries in 1789.

Those principles say that everyone is entitled to the same package of rights, just for being a human being. Socialists think that package includes the right to have your material needs met and the right to have a say in the economic decisions that touch your life. But even liberals believe in a set of universal rights that are clearly inconsistent with displacing anyone from their homes or denying anyone a democratic say in the political institutions that govern them because they come from the “wrong” ethnic background.

Many actually existing liberals are woefully inconsistent in their application of these principles, especially when it comes to Israel/Palestine. But the principles themselves are correct, and sticking to them is the only way out of interminable and deadly land feuds.