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Enough, already, with the ‘you stole our land’ argument

Last week, archaeologists unearthed a seal impression bearing the inscription “Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz king of Judah” near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. Hezekiah — Chiskiya HaMelech — is revered in Judaism as having been one of the most righteous of the Jewish monarchs. His father was considerably less righteous. Both, though, were Jewish kings who reigned in the biblical land of Israel nearly 15 centuries before the emergence of Islam and the Arab-Islamic colonial occupation of the biblical land of Israel that swiftly followed.

The latest archaeological find makes one marvel yet again at the effrontery of those who accuse the Jews/Zionists of robbing the “indigenous” Palestinian people of their land. Politically-driven attempts to fabricate an imaginary Palestinian narrative while writing the Jewish people out of history altogether do, nevertheless, raise some interesting questions about a people’s right to a particular piece of land. In the US, for instance, the claim generally made by, and behalf of, the Native American population is that “their” land was “stolen” from them by white European settlers. The same is said for the Australian Aborigines, while in South Africa, the “stolen land” canard is a central theme in the rhetoric of the EFF and those of that ilk.

For my part, I don’t buy this, at least not completely. It is certainly true that gross injustices were inflicted on the native populations of the above countries, and that this resulted in their being forcibly dispossessed of territories they had occupied for centuries — millennia in the Australian Aborigines’ case. For all that, let’s look at the prevailing demographics at the time of European settlement, from the 1600s in the case of the US and late 1700s in that of Australia. Accurate figures are impossible to establish, but scholarly estimates for the population of the US in 1600 range from two to seven million, in other words, as being at most barely half the population of modern-day New York. The Aboriginal population of Australia was considerably less — the upper-estimate puts the figure at no more than 1.25 million whereas according to some it was as low as 315 000. Today, the US is home to some 300 million people and Australia to 20 million, and they could both easily incorporate four or five times as many (China, only slightly larger than both countries, has a population of nearly 1.4 billion).

Thus, when Europeans began arriving, North America (from Mexico upwards, at any rate) and Australia were barely settled at all. The question is, could those already living there reasonably claim to have exclusive rights to so vast, rich and as yet undeveloped part of the world simply because they were there first? The answer surely has to be “no”. Whites migrating from an overcrowded Europe had every right to make new homes for themselves in parts of the world, like North America and Australia that were as yet largely unsettled and undeveloped. In a perfect world, the native populations would have recognised that the days of their having the entire land to themselves were over and that they would have to adjust accordingly — no more relying on occasional buffalo hunts, for example, but getting down to disciplined crop growing and livestock raising like everybody else. For their part, whites would ideally have dealt tactfully and sensitively with the locals they encountered, helping them to make the transition as smoothly and painlessly as possible. Human beings being what they are, of course, what inevitably occurred was a series of violent confrontation, with the weaker side going under.

Even with regard to South Africa, the “you stole our land” charge is hardly straightforward. Fair enough, one might say such a thing about the northern and eastern parts of the country, but what about the whole western and southern Cape region? Here, the indigenous people at the time of the first European settlement were the Khoisan people. Apart from the fact that strictly speaking, they today no longer exist as a distinct grouping (racial, linguistic or otherwise), having long been subsumed within a larger mixed-race “coloured” population, they were very different from blacks of the type who constitute the majority of the South African population today. So far as the western and southern Cape go, the latter are relative newcomers, in most cases having only arrived during the last hundred years or so. This underlined for me the absurdity of this year’s Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Cape Town, where black students railed against white colonial usurpers despite being in a part of the country where whites had preceded them by centuries.

Even outside the western Cape region, one can no longer automatically view whites as newcomers — an alien transplant — and blacks as indigenous. A substantial minority of black South Africans — no one knows exactly how many, but by now numbering in the several millions — are first or second generation immigrants from other parts of Africa. A similar phenomenon is evident in the UK, where most of the black population today is locally born whereas a substantial number of whites only arrived, as economic migrants, from central and eastern Europe during the past couple of decades or so. There are many similar such cases around the world.

The conclusion would appear to be that the “your land-my land” approach is becoming increasingly obsolete in today’s more fluid and inter-connected world. It should simply be recognised that historically, there has always been a process of mass migration and settlement, and that there are few, if any, countries that have not at one time or another been conquered by an invading power. It is naïve, of course, to expect such a basic common sense approach to have the slightest impact in the Middle East context. It might, though, help to address somewhat certain festering racial divisions within our own society.


  • David Saks

    David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.