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November 17, 2023

Memo to Hamas: Settler Societies Aren’t Evil

The academic-fostered oppressor/oppressed analysis gets everything about this conflict wrong.

In the nauseating demonstrations celebrating Hamas’ slaughter of Israelis, one hears repeated, again and again, the refrain that Israelis are “settlers” and “colonists” — and therefore, in the catechism inculcated in universities in recent decades, oppressors not deserving of mercy or sympathy when tortured and murdered by those who deemed themselves the oppressed.

A long generation ago, the categories of oppressor and oppressed were economically determined. Vulgar Marxists labeled the capitalists as oppressors and labeled workers — the virtuous proletariat — as the oppressed.

More recently, leftist academics see the world through the prism of race, and history as a struggle between oppressive white colonialists and settlers versus the indigenous and nonwhite multitudes, who are portrayed as the oppressed. Any violence self-appointed representatives of the oppressed wreak on those identified as oppressor colonialists or settlers is justified.

Of course, people — and peoples — don’t always fit neatly into these categories. Jews have been living in the lands “from the river to the sea,” between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, since Biblical times, in varying numbers. Their claim to the supposedly morally superior status of the indigenous has as much strength as many others.

Nor can the establishment of the state of Israel be seen as the work primarily of Western imperialists. The post-World War II British ranged from lukewarm to hostile to the creation of a Jewish state and, except for President Harry Truman’s speedy recognition of Israel’s independence, so was the United States until 1967, as Walter Russell Mead explains in “The Arc of a Covenant” (2022).

The immediate target of the “anti-settler” demonstrators is Israel, but the primary target of the academic project separating the world simplemindedly into oppressive colonialists and settlers versus oppressed indigenous peoples is naturally the United States. There are similar lines of attack in our Anglosphere cousins Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The massive movement of English speakers from the British Isles and across these nations has been only one of history’s major settler migrations, as New Zealand historian James Belich points out in “Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939” (2011).

There were massive migrations of ethnic Russians into Siberia, Han Chinese into Xinjiang, of Andalucian and Estramaduran Spanish into Mexico and Peru well before the massive migrations of English-speaking settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Naturally, there was (and is) tension and conflict with indigenous peoples already there.

But who is really indigenous? As Harvard geneticist David Reich documents in “Who We Are and How We Got Here” (2018), genetic evidence indicates that prehistoric invaders killed off male populations and intermarried with females over large reaches of Eurasia.

The “land acknowledgment” statements required at American universities pay tribute to Native American groups believed to have most recently occupied campus lands. But did those people have a sense of vested ownership? And who occupied the lands before they did? How far back do you have to go to find someone truly indigenous?

It is easy enough to go back in history and to denounce any departure from what passes for enlightenment today. It doesn’t take much wit or courage today to come out against slavery. But to put yourself in the position of a leader who wants to destroy slavery in a country that doesn’t — the position of Washington and Lincoln — is more unsettling.

Just how would you go about it? Is there any way you could have done better than they did? To ponder such issues is to learn that it’s simple-minded — and sometimes evil — just to back the oppressed and the indigenous against the settlers and oppressors. Were the Spanish wrong to end human sacrifice in Mexico? Were the British wrong to end the burning of widows on their husband’s funeral pyres in India?

The record of English-speaking colonization includes many episodes that strike people today as wrong and evil. But it also includes, as Belich writes, “growth-prone institutions [that] emerged in seventeenth-century Britain through a fortunate mixture of heritage, insular environment, and contingency.”

And: “Traditional liberties — notably customary law and representative assemblies,” he goes on, “were transferred to Britain’s settlement colonies [and] happened to be growth-friendly in the context of globalizing capitalism.”

Here in the United States, and in the West, more generally, many millions of people are the beneficiaries of Anglosphere settler cultures. Over many years they have produced, though not with some injustices and missteps along the way, widespread affluence, a broad range of tolerance and civil liberties, amazing technological advances, and fair treatment of people of diverse backgrounds.

Israel, rooted in the Judeo-Christian heritage much like the English-speaking settler-initiated cultures, is responding to vicious attacks determinedly while subjecting itself to limitations more exacting than international law. The academic-fostered oppressor/oppressed analysis gets everything about this conflict wrong.


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