Op-Ed: American Hypocrisy: General Custer and Gush Etzion
Rabbi Yoel DombThe writer is an educator and translator living in Jerusalem. He has also...
To this day, American children are taught to revere General George Armstrong Custer, a fearless Civil War hero who made his name at the battles of Gettysburg and Cedar Creek. Custer lost his life but gained eternal fame at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 ("Custer's Last Stand") where his 7th cavalry made their last stand against numerically superior Indian forces until they died to a man.
Americans see Custer as a tragic military figure who sacrificed his life for his country. Even those, such as General Sheridan and then President Grant, who denigrated Custer's tactics and blamed him for sacrificing troops in an ill-judged assault on the Indians, did not dispute the legitimacy of the battle against them, nor the heroism displayed by Custer and his men.
Six counties in six different states are named for Custer as well as a military cemetery and a boot camp.
In truth, however, Custer personified the marauding colonialism of his era, which sought to drive the Indians into constricted reservations, thereby obtaining for the U.S. all the economic and natural resources in the area.
The Indian Appropriations act had allowed setting up these reservations, claiming that resettling the Indians would protect them from white encroachment on their land. Before that, the Indian Removal act had been signed by President Andrew Jackson, allowing for the uprooting of Indians from their native terrain.
Despite the Northwest Ordinance (1787) having stated that: "The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress", it took less than a hundred years to dispossess the Indians of their lands and property in the most unjust - but entirely lawful - manner, buttressed by congressional enactments which to the modern reader sound like ethnic cleansing of the most loathsome kind.
Fast forward another seventy years, two world wars and two continents further afield, a group of Jewish university students set out early in 1948 to aid their beleaguered comrades in the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem. The group of 35 men was ambushed by Arab villagers and brigands and after retreating to a nearby hilltop and fighting for ten hours, were massacred to the last man. They, too, were extolled as Jewish heroes, roads and villages were named in their honor and their courage is taught to Israeli children.
"The 35" only intended to defend settlers who were developing land legally bought in the 1920's with hard-earned Jewish money - land which was historically their forefathers' land.
Theoretically, one could draw historical parallels between Custer and "The 35" (in Hebrew, the Lamed-Heh), and claim that both sought to protect colonial expansion in areas which had been occupied by natives previously, and that both succumbed while valiantly attempting to retreat from overwhelming enemy forces.
Here, however, the analogy ends. Whereas Custer had attacked the Indians and attempted to rout them from the Great Plains and send them to their puny reservations, In contrast, "The 35" only intended to defend settlers who were developing land legally bought in the 1920's with hard-earned Jewish money - land which was historically their forefathers' land - and had no expansionist designs.
The Arabs could not countenance the existence of these Jewish settlements in the area and just a few months later launched a furious assault against the four isolated settlements. When they succeeded in conquering the first of the settlements, Kfar Etzion, they gathered the surviving men and women, some of whom had survived the Nazi death camps three years previously, and machine gunned them to death. Over 240 people perished on the land which they had cultivated to live on, the land of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The rest of the settlements were forcibly evacuated and razed to the ground.
The perpetrators of this abhorrent massacre were never brought to justice. They lived out their lives in the surrounding Arab villages and when the Israeli army eventually returned to the Etzion Bloc in 1967, it did not take revenge on these villages, nor expropriate their lands, but rather provided them with modern amenities such as sewage facilities and improved electric service.
The four settlements were reconstructed and one of them, Massuot Yitzhak, overlooks the area where "The 35" met their death, coincidentally the area which made news this week when the Israeli government finally decided to declare it state land, enabling new communities to be established on it. The American government's response, a lesson in outrageous insouciance, was to condemn Israel for creating an "obstacle to peace" by annexing territory.
Had they cared to examine which territory had been annexed they would have realized that this is a hallowed site, akin to the Little Bighorn National Monument. No Arab had maintained a claim to these areas, and if any would stake a claim, it would probably be the descendants of the murderers of the Etzion Bloc who live in the adjacent villages Jaba, Tzurif and Nahlin. Do they deserve to cultivate this land? Or as the Bible puts it: "Have you murdered and then inherited?"
Maybe America's government should first take a closer look at the actions of Custer and his cohorts and realize that the real colonial expansionists who impeded peace are they themselves. It took until 1980 for them to offer compensation to the Sioux who had been forcibly driven from their lands, compensation which was scornfully rejected by the evicted tribes who still wish to return to their stolen lands.
In 1992 the US even agreed to commemorate the Indians who died in the battle. It's time to allow the Jewish people to return to their land as well, land which was expropriated 1800 years ago and even when repurchased legally is termed "illegally occupied territory" by the hypocritical memorializers of Custer's legacy.