The history of mankind is the history of migration…The first farmers of the Stone Age arrived from the east to displace the hunter-gatherers, the copper users did the same for the stone users, the bronzesmiths for the copper users, until eventually we reached the Iron Age and the first millennium A.D.- Peter Heather, Empires and Barbarians1
There is no justice in history. Most past cultures have sooner or later fallen prey to the armies of some ruthless empire, which have consigned them to oblivion. Empires too, ultimately fall, but they tend to leave behind rich and enduring legacies. Almost all people in the twenty-first century are the offspring of one empire or another. Yuval Noah Harari- Sapiens (above)
Grossman felt at home in Armenia, where anti-Semitism was absent. Armenians were genetically diverse, like Jews. He met Armenians who had black hair or blond, blue eyes or brown, hooked noses or small straight ones…This diversity reflected thousands of years of Armenian history and the population’s contact with different nations- numerous raids, invasions, enslavement, and liberation. The same genetic diversity was found amongst Jews, whose faces “looked Asian, African, Spanish, German , Slav.” Like Jews, the Armenians had experienced genocide, enduring “incalculable loss and suffering” in Turkey in 1915. They proved their resilience: “In spite of everything, life would go on.” -Alexandra Popoff- Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century 2
Walter Benjamin, the great German-Jewish cultural critic…said that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” He meant that every complicated and beautiful thing humanity every made has, if you look at it long enough, a shadow, a history of oppression. -John Lanchester, How Civilization Started 3
“But the Quadi! There are plenty of mentions of them in Roman history. Then, all of a sudden-none! They vanished just about the time of the Vandals’ drive westward…” 4
“Where today are the Pequot? Where the Narraganaset, the Mohican, the Pokanoket and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the summer sun.” -Shawnee chief Tecumseh 5
New and more powerful tribes- the European tribes- entered Canada, and established a new political order, as must have repeatedly happened before the arrival of the Europeans. – Tom Flanagan, First Nations? Second Thoughts
Throughout history the first substantive contact between a culturally or militarily superior migrating people and a more primitive or weaker people who found themselves in their path, was more often than not characterized by the latter suffering murder, rape, pillage and enslavement, followed by, if they were lucky enough not to be otherwise slaughtered into extinction, absorption and assimilation.
This is a sad norm of human behavior and history, a norm of violence and dispossession. Biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson, winner of two Pulitzer prizes for his writings in these fields, in his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth,6 called this human trait – this human behavior – “the pitiless dark angel of human nature”. Professor Wilson elaborated:
It should not be thought that war, often accompanied by genocide, is a cultural artifact of a few societies. Nor has it been an aberration of history, a result of the growing pains of our species maturation. Wars and genocide have been universal and eternal, respecting no particular time or culture.
Examples of this are found in the Old Testament of the Bible, for centuries accepted as authoritative on matters spiritual and moral by Christians, Muslims and Jews the world over, which depicts invasion and violent conquest of other lands and peoples as routine God-approved practice.
Joshua 3:10 tells how God ordered the Hebrews to invade the “Promised Land” and “expel the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Hivite, the Girgashite, the Amorite and the Jebusite,” which they proceeded to do in a most cruel and deliberate fashion. No respect or regard whatsoever was either commanded by God or shown by the Hebrews for the aboriginal rights of these unfortunate, indigenous peoples who found themselves blocking the Hebrews path to their Manifest Destiny.
In this “heroic” saga of Hebrew conquest the non-“Israelites” were treated like the impersonal, anonymous, not-really-human “other” – like Goliath’s Philistines (the dispossessed aboriginals of their day) – a mere quickly disposable narrative subject-matter whose unfortunate fate was necessary for the achievement of our conquering heroes’, (the Israelites), higher and more glorious, divinely-mandated, historical destiny.
In the daze of our Sunday School classes we unthinkingly regarded these poor, vanquished souls in the same way we regarded Indians in 1950’s American matinee westerns – as irksome, childlike, overexcited, sometimes scary people, foolishly refusing to get out of the way of our heroes, and, in the end, in front of our wide-eyed, astonished but essentially incurious gaze, dying haplessly. (As we watched a cinematic Indian and his horse do a nice Hollywood fall we asked ourselves: what chance, anyway, did that crazy savage riding in whooping and waving his spear like that expect to have against that clean-shaven cavalryman with the Remington repeater rifle kneeling behind the wagon wheel?)
Joshua 6:21 tells what the Hebrews did after capturing Jericho: “Men and women, young and old, even the oxen, sheep and donkey, massacring them all.” This was genocide pure and simple (not to mention a foolish waste of useful animals).
And again, after a close reading of Joshua, it doesn’t appear as though the Hebrews deemed the Jebusites to have any “rights,” or entered into treaties with them, or set up reserves for them or for any of the rest of those poor souls who were so summarily killed or permanently evicted from their ancestral lands. In fact while there’s no precedent or authority anywhere in the Bible for treaties or reserves, the Jewish and Christian Holy Book is full of justifications for “imperialist/colonialist” genocide, murder and dispossession.
But what goes around comes around, and so, given the Old Testament’s stricture of “an eye for an eye,” our not-so-merciful Old Testament Lord saw to it that the Hebrews got as good as they had given in the realm of land-grabbing, imperialist heartlessness.
By the 8th century BC they were no longer masters in their own house. First the Assyrians conquered them and took over most of their lands. Then the Babylonians conquered and expelled them. They eventually came back and then engaged in a long, intermittent, middling run at trying to regain some control over their ex-homelands from their new Persian and then Greek overlords. Eventually, in 135 AD, because of, in the eyes of their now Roman overlords, their continual, exasperating rebelliousness, the Jews were once again expelled from Israel, this time more or less permanently, thus causing the diaspora and the ensuing long centuries of being regarded as strangers and misfits in the lands of others.
As historian Will Durant wrote in Caesar and Christ: 7
No other people has ever known so long an exile, or so hard a fate. Shut out from their Holy City, the Jews were forced to surrender it first to paganism, then to Christianity, (then to Islam). Scattered into every province and beyond, condemned to poverty and humiliation, unbefriended even by philosophers and saints, they retired from public affairs into private study and worship, passionately preserving the words of their scholars, and preparing to write them down at last in the Talmuds of Babylonia and Palestine. Judaism hid in fear and obscurity while its offspring, Christianity (and Islam), went out to conquer the world.
Amazingly, after World War 2, propelled by, for the first time in about 3000 years (!), the absence of a controlling empire, and by the moral imperatives created by the Holocaust, the decimated European remains of the Jewish people gained a strong measure of international legal status in Palestine, migrated in huge numbers to that star and crescent-crossed land, and, quickly after that, by force of arms, created their own state.
Book reviewer Rayyan Al-Shawaf, in his review of Israeli writer Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,8 “…an honest appraisal of the injustice done to the Palestinians…”, described the fundamentally pro-Israel but soul-searching Mr. Shavit’s concession that:
In order for a Jewish state to become demographically and politically viable, nascent Israel had to expel a large portion of the country’s Palestinian population in 1948.
Highlighting the moral paradox of Israel, one of the subjects of Mr. Shavit’s book, Mr. Al-Shawaf recounted as follows:
Isaac Deutscher, the Polish-British historian and “non-Jewish Jew”…once compared persecuted European Jews’ acquisition of Palestine to a man jumping from the top floor of a burning house and landing on another man on the ground below, thereby saving himself but grievously injuring an innocent person.
As self-proclaimed Zionist Roger Cohen wrote:
As historian Simon Schama put it, “the Israel of 1948 came into being as the result of the centuries-long dehumanization of the Jews.”
The Jewish state was needed. History had demonstrated that.
Today it is the Palestinians in the West Bank who are dehumanized through Israeli domination, settlement expansion and violence. The West Bank is the tomb of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Palestinians in turn incite against Jews and resort to violence, including random stabbings.
The oppression of Palestinians should trouble every Jewish conscience. 9
Hebrew University (Jerusalem) Professor Emeritus David Shulman:
…We might speak of the clash of two seemingly incompatible views (of Israel). On the one hand there is the old heroic myth, still embedded in the story the Israeli mainstream likes to tell itself: a weak and persecuted nation (if that is what we are) rose from the ashes to achieve its freedom, by sheer force of will, against inconceivably harsh odds. On the other hand, there is the awareness of our share in the endless violence and wickedness, including the subjugation of another people, and what needs to be done in order to achieve even a semblance of normalcy and decency in the real world.
The first view, which reflects a real-enough piece of the historical picture, blithely ignores the always latent pathology of modern nationalism, now present in florid form in Israel (as in many other modern nation states)…The second view moves towards a necessarily symbiotic relation between Israelis, Jews and Palestinians.
…And indeed there is much to be proud of. I, too, am sometimes proud of my country…However, it just happens that this same miraculous state, for all its selfless idealists, is maintaining (… with its remorseless annexationist policies and by the profound reluctance of its extreme right-wing governments to make even the slightest move towards peace) one of the last true colonialist regimes in the world; that its public spaces are poisoned by an atavistic racism, its leaders driven by a mean-hearted, self-righteous tribalism… 10
The Palestinians, whose ancestors had exclusively occupied the land since the Arab conquest of the Middle East in the 7th century, from their perspective, quite reasonably regard Palestine as being their ancestral land since “time immemorial.” And, from within the confines and from the viewpoint of their refugee camps, (arguably the Israeli equivalent of Canada’s Indian reserves), and, from within the context of the narrow, rigid, devoid-of-nuance, black and white thinking that drives all discourse about Israel, (and about the situation of Canada’s Indians), the Palestinians, again from their perspective, quite reasonably regard the Jews as the “imperialist-colonialist” dispossessors, and themselves as the wrongfully dispossessed and marginalized “aboriginals” of the area.
One chapter of Mr. Sharit’s book, Lydda, describes in wrenching detail the sudden, at-gunpoint expulsion of several thousand Palestinians from their village (still-warm meals were found by the new Israeli occupiers). This bears many similarities to the American 1838 expulsion of the Cherokees from their Georgia- North Carolina homelands and their forced “Trail of Tears” march to present-day Kansas.
(Another ironic parallel between the situation of Israel and that of Canada’s Indians, is that, just as there is a distressing tendency on the part of “Israel right or wrong” persons to characterize as “anti-Semitic” anyone who criticizes Israel’s present treatment of their Arab-Palestinian population, so is there a tendency on the part of the Indian Industry to call anyone who challenges or criticizes any aspect of the status quo in this area of Canadian life a racist. Not helpful.)
And so, with both sides honestly believing that they have morality, history and God on their side- ” a tragedy of justice against justice”11we have the seemingly insolvable conflict there that still bedevils us today.
The history of the Middle East, one of the most iconic areas of western civilization, is a microcosm of the perpetual conflict that has existed since the dawn of humanity between peoples all over the world over land and resources. It perfectly illustrates the ceaseless, often tragic, operation of the historical norm of migration with ensuing violence and dispossession, usually followed by, if they were lucky, the mere absorption and assimilation, and not the extinction, of the conquered.
(Writer George Steiner, reflecting on the unprecedented waves of mass migration in major parts of the world caused by war, famine, poverty and resource depletion, showing that this timeless historical norm is increasing in its application today, says that “God has decided to make Jews of everybody”:
By that I mean very simply that He’s going to teach everybody else what it’s like to have to wander, what it’s like not to have safety and protection….The movements of despair- it does look to me as if a lot of human beings are going to learn what it is like to be Jewish, to be refugees, hunted people, people who have to learn languages to survive, people who have to relearn jobs, ways of life.)12
In the six years it took Julius Caesar to conquer the numerous indigenous tribes of Gaul his legions killed an estimated one million men, women and children. In one battle alone, against the Helvetii (an aboriginal tribe from present day Switzerland), Caesar bragged of slaughtering 285,000 people, more than the entire Indian population of Canada at the time. After besieging and finally capturing one town, Avaricum, (Bourges), Caesar’s troops slaughtered nearly all its 40,000 inhabitants – just to send a message out.
Within a few generations of this time (ca 52 BC) all the names, identities and cultures of the many vigorous Gallic tribes Rome had conquered – the Aedui, the Nervii, the Parisii, the Pictones, the Aquitani, the Vocontii and numerous others, shockingly, were all gone – gone from the world – gone from recorded history. Those that weren’t killed off were absorbed and assimilated into Latin culture, (the latter not so bad a fate, as today’s proud citizens of France would no doubt declare.)
Horrific facts and figures like these – typical of real, catastrophic, holocaust-like, peoples-ending tragedies too-regularly suffered by humans throughout history – highlight the disgracefully exaggerated, chicken-livered response on the part of the American and Canadian political establishments to that relatively minor, pin-prick historical event- “9/11”, and to the ensuing so-called “terrorist threats” to Canada. Our elites, instead of keeping us calm and immovably defiant during these times, have abjured Franklin Roosevelt’s defiant declaration that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”, and have jettisoned many of the relatively safe and settled patterns and customs of our national life in favour of a new, fear-dominated, authoritarian security state – officially turning us all into a bunch of nervous Nellies – an example, as further discussed below, of our elites having completely lost their moral nerve and their confidence in our traditional “Western” way of life.
But it is true, to paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, that fear is very much to be feared, not least because it is a potent stimulant. Nothing is so effective at foregrounding self-interest. Yet fear is the motive behind most self-inflicted harm. Western society at its best expresses the serene sort of courage that allows us to grant one another real safety, real autonomy, the means to think and act as judgment and conscience dictate. It assumes that this great mutual courage will bear its best fruit if we respect, educate, inform and respect one another. This is the ethos that is at risk as the civil institutions in which it is realized increasingly come under attack by real and imagined urgencies of the moment. We were centuries in building these courtesies. Without them “Western civilization” would be an empty phrase.
Latin culture itself was in turn transformed into the progenitors of the Romance cultures of modern Western Europe as the result of the barbarian invasions and conquest of the Western Roman empire in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.
The same destruction, death and cultural transformation happened when the Arabs conquered the world from Spain to Pakistan. The blackboard of history, filled with diverse and flourishing ancient cultures going back 3000 years before then, was pitilessly wiped clean in an historical instant, and the peoples affected, just to stay alive, were forced to make a fresh cultural start. As historian Tom Holland wrote in In the Shadow of the Sword,14 a fantastic book that persuasively argues that the roots of Islam are as man-made and concocted after-the –fact as are the roots of Judaism and Christianity, the Arab conquests raised “…a new order upon the ruins of the old”, and that:
Like the blades of a giant plough, then, the Arab armies sliced apart families, scattered communities far and wide, churned up and mingled peoples who might never have met. Not since the first coming of Rome to the Near East eight hundred years earlier, when the conquest of the region by the legions had reputedly seen ten thousand slaves sold daily in a single entrepot, had there been transportation of human livestock on anything like such a scale.
As the wheel of history grinds on and the nation state system which Europe imposed on the Middle East a century ago disintegrates, we see happening the terribly violent and damaging effects of re-emerging ethnic and tribal-based governance systems replacing the stronger, generally safer and more orderly, centralized state, as in Lybia, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. For example, in Libya, “indigenous” Berbers, ancient and now re-nascent Bedouin Arab tribes, Saharan Tuaregs and Tubus all jostle and fight with each other and with more modern Islamic fanatics, for power and control. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the people -decent, moderate people- no longer protected by the state and the rule of law, cringe behind locked doors while civil society in general, dies.15
As Yuval Noah Harari, Steven Pinker and Timothy Snyder would argue, (see Pre-contact Indian Culture and The Shock of the New, above), such is the fate of civil society, so precious and fragile, when the authority of a centralized state, governed by some semblance of the rule of law, is irredeemably damaged.
A cautionary tale for Canada. We won’t experience what Libya or these other countries are suffering, but the legal and political trends, insofar as Indian bands are concerned, are pointing in that general, devolutionary direction, with increasing diminution of Crown sovereignty and authority, and increasing damage to the overall Canadian general welfare. (In this latter regard see The Imperative of Sole Crown Authority, below.)
This litany of woe resulting from the historical constant of migration and dispossession cannot be limited to ancient times and tribal cultures. Since the rise of nation states in the modern era we see entire countries being regularly conquered, brutalized and otherwise dominated and/or humiliated by their larger and more powerful neighbours.
Consider European countries like Belgium, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Ukraine and Romania; Asian countries like Mongolia, Tibet and Korea; a Middle Eastern country like Lebanon. These are “frontier nations”- nations which, because of various unfortunate accidents of politics and geography, are physically caught in the middle of wars and lesser stresses between their much larger and more powerful neighbours. These nations are reduced to the status of buffers and invasion routes; nations described in Robert Kaplan’s In Europe’s Shadow (above) thusly:
Incessantly attacked, they can only think of defending themselves. Their history…is a permanent war, for centuries on end, for their own survival. In each battle they risk everything: their right to life, to religion, to their language and culture.
Nothing is ever secure and more bloodshed always lies in wait.
The entirety of Western Europe is presently facing the trauma of a massive, almost fifth century, end of Roman Empire-like influx of African and Middle East migrators. Robert Kaplan, from In Europe’s Shadow:
Truly, nationalism will have to evolve, as Middle Eastern refugees flow into Europe, adding further complexity to its demography. Europe, throughout its history, has had its destiny affected by migrations from the east- the various Gothic tribes, Slavs, Magyars, and others. So this latest wave is not as unprecedented as the media suggests. Furthermore, we must keep in mind that Europe’s southern border was never really the Mediterranean but the Sahara Desert, and the Balkans have often been the zone of passage. A classical geography has now reasserted itself in Europe, uniting it with Africa and Eurasia.
The migration, violence, dispossession and/or assimilation norm – a norm exemplifying the too-often “sheer blood-soaked awfulness of the world”- 16has shown itself to be a fundamental element of human behaviour. It seems to reflect “what we do” as a species – one of our defining, less endearing traits. Not a norm to be proud of – a norm to struggle against – but in any event a norm evidencing a seemingly hard-wired reality of human nature.
Writer Zadie Smith, (echoing author John Lanchester in the headnote above):17
Only the willfully blind can ignore that the history of human existence is simultaneously the history of pain: of brutality, murder, mass extinction, every form of venality and cyclical horror. No land is free of it; no people are without their bloodstain; no tribe is entirely innocent…In this world there is only incremental progress.
Importantly in this present discussion, the existence of this norm- this awful reality of humanity’s oppressive “blood-soaked” history- a “history written in letters of blood”18 demands to be acknowledged as an accepted assumption underlying any fair enquiry into the nature of colonial Britain’s treatment of Canadian Indians and how that should be regarded today.
In other words, given that tragically realistic assumption- “Humanity, (or rather InHumanity!), has been doing it- has been and migrating and “colonizing”- has been acting “colonial”- since the beginning of time! – including, on a large scale, the ancestors of Canada’s First Nations tribes, (see Pre-Contact Indian Culture and the Shock of the New, above)- and given our duty to view and judge historical events in relative terms, and through a wide and deep historical lens, rather than through a narrow, decontextualized focus, and only with reference to merely abstract standards of perfection- there should be a lot less guilt felt by non-Indians today and a lot more pride and admiration felt and shown for how Great Britain and then Canada acted towards Canada’s Indians.
As Tom Flanagan, in First Nations? Second Thoughts wrote about humanity’s migratory impulse as it relates to Canada:
Why not consider the coming of the Europeans as a fourth migration, a new set of tribes pushing others in front of them? Should we hesitate to do so because the European colonists had lighter-coloured skin, hair and eyes than the older inhabitants? At bottom, the assertion of an inherent right of self-government is a kind of racism. It contends that the only legitimate inhabitants of the Americas have been the Indians and the Inuit. According to this view, they had the right to drive each other from different territories as much as they liked, even to the point of destroying whole peoples and taking over their land, but Europeans had no similar right to push their way in.
- Peter Heather. Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. Pan Books, 2010.
- Yale University Press, 2019. The biography of the brilliant, courageous and morally titanic author of Life and Fate(above).
- The New Yorker, Sept. 18, 2017
- From Words of Mercury, John Murray (Publishers), London, 2003,an anthology of the writings of the brilliant, English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, -the quote from his book A Time of Gifts.
- Indian Wars, above.
- London: Liveright Publishing, 2012.
- Simon and Shuster, New York, 1944
- Rayyan Al-Shawaf, My Promised Land: An Israeli Journalist Looks Back at his Country’s Shortfalls and Victories, The Globe and Mail, 30 November 2013.
- Roger Cohen, An Anti-Semitism of the Left, New York Times, March 7, 2016
- David Shulman- A Hero in His Own Words, a book review ofNo Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel, by Shimon Peres- The New York Review of Books, December 7, 2017
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehub Barak (1999-2001)seems to go David Shulman one better, suggesting in the following passages from his autobiography My Country My Life- Fighting For Israel, Searching For Peace (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2018) that Israel is reverting to the aggressively expansionist, imperialist, messianic and conquering nation of Old Testament Joshua, risking the loss of not only its moral reputation and moral core, but of its long term security:
Yet we (Israelis) are deeply divided and-in recent years under the most right wing government in our history, led by my old Sayeret Matkal charge Binyamin “Bibi” Netenyahu- have become unmoored from the principles on which we established our state, fought for it, and built it up against enormous odds and challenges. We are becoming unmoored , above all, from the founding purposes of Zionism…The main threat (to Israel) comes from inside: from the most right-wing, deliberately divisive, narrow-minded and messianic government we have seen in our seventy year history. It has sought to redefine Zionism as being about one thing only: ensuring eternal control over the whole of biblical Judaea and Samaria, or as the outside world knows it, the West Bank, even if doing so leaves us significantly less secure. In the past few years it has also proven ready to erode, vilify, demonize or delegitimize any check or criticism that might impede that goal: a free press, open debate, universities, the rule of law, even the ethical code of the military…The central policy aim that has been driving the government is to kill off any remaining possibility of a Palestinian state and ensure that only one state-Israel- will exist on the biblical land of Palestine. Even just a few years ago, when I ended my time as defense Minister, there was a fairly broad, if tacit, consensus among Israelis, from center left to center right, about the main element of any eventual political resolution of our conflict with the Palestinians. There would be two states.
But under a one-state vision, it will become harder and harder to rebut comparisons made with the old South Africa. A Jewish minority ruling over an ever-increasing, largely voteless, Arab majority will also be a recipe for deep division among Israelis and violence with the Palestinians. Even, possibly, a kind of permanent civil war: a Middle Eastern Belfast or Bosnia…
How sadly ironic to realize that, after all the Jewish people have been through, they are now showing their tendency to migrate and dispossess others! Showing that the only sure lesson from history is that people don’t learn from it and/or change because of it.
- Amos Oz-Dear Zealots- Letters From a Divided Land, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2018
- From Original Minds, Conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel, above
- Austerity as Ideology, in When I Was a Child I Read Books, Harper Collins, Toronto, 2012
- Little Brown, 2012.
- See Libya Against Itself, by Nicolas Pelham, New York Review of Books, February 19,2015.
- -from Robert Hughes’ essay Driving into Goya, contained in The Spectacle of Skill- Selected Writings of Robert Hughes, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2015.
- From On Optimism and Despair, a talk given in Berlin on November 10, 2016, on receiving the 2016 Welt Literature Prize- The New York Review of Books, December 22, 2016
- From Tony Judt’s The Burden of Responsibility- Blum, Camus, Aron and the Twentieth Century, The University of Chicago Press, 1998- from whence “Panglossian”, to accurately describe Justin Trudeau on the Indigenous “file”, (below), came.