The Native American analogy doesn’t work
Earlier today Phil Weiss did a post mentioning Native Americans and the argument that American historical sins immunize the Israelis from the Palestinian right of return.
Citing the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans as a way to justify not recognizing the Palestinian right of return, as I’ve often heard people do, is usually disingenuous. The situation is comparable up to a point and then breaks down. Native Americans were ethnically cleansed as Palestinians were and are being ethnically cleansed. As a percentage of the US population today, Native Americans constitute less than one percent. We should support doing everything possible to recognize and support their rights, including returning traditional land as has happened to greater or lesser degrees in other settler-colonial countries including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The main reason people can flippantly say “well if you support the Palestinian right of return then you should support Native Americans returning to their land” in order to justify Israel not recognizing the Palestinian right is that there are simply so few Native Americans that the question does not really arise. Native Americans in the United States are struggling for survival, justice and recognition, but generally not by seeking the return of land that is now, say, a neighborhood of Chicago. Their struggle came poignantly to light recently in the affair of the US refusal to recognize tribal passports of the Iroquois Lacrosse team that was supposed to travel to the UK (link here).
But imagine if the situation were more analogous to Palestine today in terms of numbers. Imagine if Native Americans constituted 30, 40, or 50 or even 20 percent of the population of the United States and that they lived in sealed reservations in conditions similar to those in the Gaza Strip or refugee camps in the West Bank or Lebanon?
If there were 30, 70 or 100 million people who identified as Native Americans and existed in such conditions, no one would be able to so flippantly dismiss either their right to return to their original lands or any challenge they would make to the legitimacy of the United States. The United States would have a legitimacy crisis and bloodbath on its hands.
The only reason the United States can so easily ignore the rights of Native Americans is that they suffered near-genocide. Palestinians today are 50 percent of the population in their historic homeland and cannot simply be ignored as they could be if they were one percent. This is why Benny Morris said in 2004 that yes, ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians was necessary and justified to create Israel, but if Ben-Gurion had made a mistake it was that he did not “finish the job.” The United States, Canada, Australia did “finish the job” and those are the settler-colonial states that survive. French Algeria, Portuguese Mozambique, Rhodesia, Apartheid South Africa, Protestant-ruled Northern Ireland and Israel are the settler-colonial states where the native population remained either a majority or a substantial minority that could challenge the legitimacy of the state. How many of them are left?
Finally, it is disingenuous to make this an issue solely about property rights. Property rights are a difficult issue that would affect a fraction of Palestinians and Israelis. Most Palestinians, however, could return to land in Israel that is currently empty. Israelis reject the right of return primarily on ethnoreligious grounds: they just don’t want too many Palestinians polluting the “Jewish democracy.”