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Newcomb: American Zionism

In his May 15 speech before the Israeli Knesset, President George W. Bush invoked the Old Testament story of the chosen people and the Promised Land. Bush said that the establishment of Israel in 1948 ''was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham, Moses and David - a homeland for the chosen people in Eretz Yisrael.''

Bush also spoke explicitly of an alliance and a friendship between Israel and the United States rooted in the Bible. The source of the link between the two countries, he said, ''is grounded in the shared spirit of our people, the bonds of the Book, the ties of the soul.'' Then, weaving a bit of American history into the mix, Bush told his audience: ''When William Bradford stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, he quoted the words of [the Hebrew prophet] Jeremiah 51:10: 'Come let us declare in Zion the word of God.'''

According to Bush, ''The founders of my country saw a new promised land and bestowed upon their towns names like Bethlehem and New Canaan. And in time, many Americans became passionate advocates for a Jewish state.'' American Indian lands, in other words, were viewed by the founders of the United States as a new Land of Canaan, a promised inheritance and everlasting possession.

Although there may be those orthodox Jews who would not concur with Bush's characterization of the Old Testament, his speech illustrates the kind of thinking that has played such a prominent role in the historic mistreatment of American Indians by the United States, and in the callous and often brutal mistreatment of Palestinian people by the state of Israel. The mental model of a chosen people and a promised land provides a convenient rationalization whereby one people feels entitled and justified, by divine right, to take over, possess, and profit from the lands of other peoples.

The Old Testament tells us that Abraham was originally named Abram. In Genesis 15:18, we find the description of a ceremony on the ''same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto they seed [offspring] have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: The Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, And the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaim, And the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.'' (KJV)

The grammatical placement of a colon after the word ''Euphrates'' indicates that not merely land was being given to Abraham and his descendants; the indigenous peoples already living in the land were also being given to Abraham and the ''chosen people.'' The colonial adventure story of the Old Testament tells us that ''the Lord'' brought Abram to ''this land to inherit it.'' After renaming him Abraham, ''a father of many nations,'' the deity told Abraham: ''And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.''

By using Bradford's quote of Jeremiah, Bush was making a metaphorical connection between the United States and Israel, but also between Zion and the lands of the indigenous nations of North America. Bradford used the Old Testament quote of Jeremiah to project the concept of Zion onto the lands of the indigenous nations in North America. Clearly, this is an American version of Zionism.

In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision in the case Johnson v. M'Intosh, a decision that was fully in keeping with the chosen people-promised land tradition. The unanimous ruling was written by Chief Justice John Marshall regarding a supposed land dispute. The court used the doctrine of Christian Discovery and Dominion as the basis for its decision. Marshall said that a ''discovery'' by ''Christian people'' of lands inhabited by ''heathens'' resulted in the Christians having an ''ultimate title'' and ''ultimate dominion'' to those lands. The Johnson ruling still serves today as the cornerstone of U.S. federal Indian law and policy and in 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court cited the doctrine of discovery in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

The Johnson ruling is premised on the idea that when Christians, as the new chosen people, locate or discover lands that have not yet been taken over and possessed by other Christians, the ''discoverers,'' as if by magic, obtain the divine right and authorization to assert an ultimate dominion over and subdue those lands, and the indigenous peoples living there.

Bush's use of the chosen people-promised land model before Israel's Knesset reflects a mentality of privilege and entitlement by supposed divine right. This mental framework has greatly contributed to the intractable aspects of U.S. policy towards American Indian nations and Israel's policy toward the Palestinian people.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is indigenous law research coordinator in the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego County, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of ''Pagans in the Promise Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery'' (Fulcrum Publishing, 2008).