The Wild West (Bank)

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My ancestor John Bartmess, a Pennsylvanian,
came to the Illinois Territory
after the War of 1812, finding land near
Vincennes. The Bartmess family had
been Huguenot, and had fled to Pennsylvania
from a Europe where Protestant
beliefs were often a death sentence. Two
years after John settled in Illinois, his brother-in-law
James Baird, who had settled nearby, was killed by an
Indian while plowing a field. I have no letter or diary
describing why James was killed or describing life in Illinois
when it was still heavily populated by Indians. Like
most Midwesterners, I grew up not knowing why Indians
are now largely absent.
The mechanisms for “Indian removal”, as it was sometimes
called by those who promoted it, were simple. Indians
were encouraged to move to a reservation of which
they were promised exclusive use. White settlers then
flooded in, establishing farms in the
reservation. The government took no
action to stop this illegal settlement.
When conflicts between the Indians
and settlers occurred, as was inevitable,
the government took the side of the settlers.
The treaty that established the
reservation was voided, and the Army
saw to it that the Indians could not
refuse to accept a new reservation further
to the West. This process continued
until the Indians were pushed onto
land not suitable for farming.
When we think of genocide, most of
us think of the Nazi death camps, of
overt mass murder. Although such
atrocities did occur on the American
frontier on a smaller scale, it was usually
the case that the Indians were simply
deprived of their land. Few but
other Indians were there to watch them starve to death.
When a people is deprived of its land, it is not usually
called genocide, because the intent is not to harm the people
but only to profit by taking their means of sustenance.
By this standard, cannibalism is not murder, because the
intent is only to have a meal, with the victim’s death merely
an unfortunate side-effect. One should be clear about
this- depriving a people of its means of sustenance is genocide.
Yet this is usually not the intention of individual settlers,
who often do not see the larger pattern.
Anna Baltzer was invited to town this summer by
AWARE Presents. She spoke on her experiences in the
West Bank. In travels around the Middle East, she had
found that she was hearing “a different narrative about the
state of Israel from the one I had heard growing up as a
Jewish American.” At issue seemed to be not Israel’s right
to exist, but rather Israel’s right to expand. The West
Bank, occupied by Israel in the 1967 War, appeared to be
undergoing a process of annexation into Israel. In order to
take a closer look at the situation, she volunteered to
work in the West Bank with the International Women’s
Peace Service. She brought back a story of Palestinian
removal eerily similar to Indian removal.
The West Bank is an oddly-shaped area bordered on the
East by the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, which form a natural
border with Jordan. Israel has settlements
distributed throughout the West
Bank. These, with the connecting roads,
are largely off-limits to the Palestinians.
In addition to the settlements, there
are the “outposts”, which are set up by
those who believe that the lands of
historical Israel, which includes the
West Bank, are still the property of
Israel. The outposts, heavily-armed
trailer camps set up on Palestinian
land, appear overnight. When the
inevitable conflicts occur with the
Palestinians whose land has been
seized, the Israeli Army protects the
outpost. The perimeter is expanded
for security reasons, the outpost
grows, and it eventually becomes or
joins a recognized settlement.
This gradual process of land annexation
turns Palestinian towns into ghettos cut off from their
fields. The roads connecting the Palestinian towns are
often blocked by checkpoints or simply by the destruction
of the roads. Without fields or easy travel to adjacent
towns, these towns are no longer economically viable.
They must either exist on charity or be abandoned.
The taking of land without due process is illegal in
every country that has any pretense of civilization. How
can this happen in an Israel whose citizenry largely supports
the rule of law? How could the Midwest be cleared
of Indians when American citizens largely supported the
rule of law? The annexation of the West by white America
differs in some ways from the annexation of the West
Bank now underway, but the mechanisms of annexation
are all too similar.
When I asked Anna why Israeli citizens, most of whom
didn’t support the illegal land grabs in the West Bank,
didn’t stop them, she said that the reason seemed to be
apathy- the average Israeli was too preoccupied with his
own life and family to speak out against the land grabs.
Presumably the same was true of white Americans during
the period of Indian removal.
Early American settlers escaped likely death in the
slums and backwaters of Europe, only to inflict likely
death on the American Indian. Israel happened partly in
response to the Holocaust, yet a people who knew the
reality of the ghetto are now inflicting the ghetto on Palestinians.
There seems to be no lesson learned, with evil
simply begetting evil.
Reading history, it is evident that justice is not the natural
order of things, but exists only because people
demand that it exist. The Palestinians will not be treated
justly unless it is demanded. There is no ultimate source
of justice but the demands of each person. Because the
individual is the source of justice, the ultimate responsibility
for injustice is with each of us. Apathy is not only
unacceptable, it is immoral.
But, you might ask, who am I to object to the annexation
of the West Bank, given my ancestor’s similar treatment
of the American Indian and given the fact that I am
not Israeli? To the first objection, I offer that one often
learns, or certainly should learn, from mistakes. To the
second objection, I offer that America is to some extent the
guarantor of Israel’s existence. Israel is the largest recipient
of American military aid. America is often the lone vote for
Israel’s interests in the United Nations Security Council.
We would be remiss, therefore, to assume that American
opinion would not be considered with respect in Israel.
For more information on Indian removal, see Howard
Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Anna Baltzer
has written about her experiences in her book Witness to
Palestine. Her web site is at

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