Isn’t it curious how closely the role of Manifest Destiny in U.S. history resembles that of Zionism in Israel’s?
When I was in high school in the 1960s, I was taught the theories of the eminent historian Frederick Jackson Turner who explained the importance of the western frontier in the developing American economy and character.
In 1893 Turner presented what he called the safety valve theory: When tensions over jobs and space became intense in the East, white people could move West and let off steam by settling all that empty, free land.
This movement West, he said, fostered our great American values: democracy, ingenuity, egalitarianism, personal reinvention and entrepreneurship. In fact, it defined our character.
Turner said, “American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Sarah Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.”
And he said, “So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power.”
Turner’s thesis was different from but complemented the idea of Manifest Destiny developed about 50 years earlier to encourage western expansion as a moral duty of white men, (i.e. God ordained that for land to attain its full virtue it must be inhabited by white people).
All other races were unfit inhabitants. Put the two ideas together and you have both a drive to keep expanding and its moral justification.
There was, of course, one snag in Turner’s theory about all this free land. Genocide of Native Americans was necessary to claim it. Our distinctive American “democratic” character and our burgeoning economy were to be forged in blood. But the blood was spilled from “savages” — so, no big deal.
U.S. historians — except for the likes of Howard Zinn — often ignore our inconvenient, homegrown genocide while touting American exceptionalism and the impregnable, self-redeeming, all-justifying morality of democracy.
I mention this because as we witness today the genocide of Palestinians by Israelis, we should remember the foundational Israeli mantra as they established their state: “A land without a people for a people without a land.”
Sounds good. Sounds clean. Sounds just. Sounds familiar.
Replace Manifest Destiny with Zionism, and a very familiar pattern develops.
The only problem is that unless one considers the Palestinians something other than people, as we did natives, the land was heavily settled.
There may have been as many as 20 million indigenous people who needed to be swept away to make North America free, so white people and the economy could expand into a place free for the taking.
In this light, we see the exuberant growth of young America as violent imperialism, colonialism and flagrant hypocrisy. We see it as theft by a power which needed to define its victims as “savages,” just as the Israelis need the Palestinians to beterrorists.
Once designated as savages or terrorists, all of them — men, women, children — can be morally eliminated and whatever is theirs appropriated.
The U.S. government made more than 500 treaties with native people and broke them all — whenever it was decided that the natives on reservations had been forced onto contained resources the white economy coveted.
The situation is almost identical in Israel/Palestine, where the Israelis keep expanding into the Occupied Territories (reservations) of the Palestinians to secure arable land, water, olive groves and development space for illegal settlements — and claiming it is done for security and self-defense.
It was claimed by white Americans in 1846 that God ordained Manifest Destiny.
Manifest Destiny was the righteous rallying cry of the Mexican War, the prize of which was California and most of the southwest.
Today Americans are embarrassed by such a claim. Why is the God that promotes Zionism any less suspect?
Whether Manifest Destiny or Zionism, both are shameful misuses of God to put an ethical face on greed and genocide.
Jewish history is an appalling story of discrimination, pogroms and Holocaust. Jewish people deserve — as all peoples who have suffered similarly — a safe place.
But that history does not entitle them to commit atrocities, nor us to look the other way while they commit them.
Robert Shetterly of Brooksville is the painter of Americans Who Tell the Truth, a series of portraits of courageous Americans.