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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 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.


  1. Nuance Nuance 9 December 2015

    What is this article saying? I’m curious. It has not taken into consideration the disproportionate state of land distribution in any of the aforementioned “scenarios” from North America to Australia. In the South African context, there is no mention of the Native Land Act of 1913 which made any discussion on previous land ownership rights, at the time, moot. This article does not look at the role of genocide in colonial systems of oppression but instead makes small mention of a small Native American population that is on the brink of extinction. No mention of Autshumao. There is no mention of the role land plays in economic advancement and/or oppression. Instead, there is an equation between a serious interrogation of land patterns with a denial of the idea that land belongs to all who work and live on it. What are you saying? The land is gone, these things happen so “get over it”? Please enlighten us. The only thing naive, ahistorical, lacking common sense, nevermind devoid of nuance, is this article.

  2. Daniel Miller Daniel Miller 9 December 2015

    I enjoyed this article, David. It expressed thoughts I’ve had for a while. As long as we keep playing into the victim-thief narrative that disempowers all, we can’t make progress and build a better future for everyone, as collaborators and friends.

  3. Khoisan Revivalism Khoisan Revivalism 9 December 2015

    Saks, Khoisan territory is Kuruman, Kimberley, Riet River area, the towns of Burgersdorp, Sterkstroom and Tarkastad in the Eastern Karoo, and the Albany area with Grahamstown and the Great Fish River. The controversial areas that others want is East Griqualand, Kat River Settlement and land across Riet River to Bloemfontein. Those 3 controversial land claims I do not support because it’s complex and will lead to a Sudan situation.

  4. David Robert Lewis David Robert Lewis 9 December 2015

    South Africa’s constitution requires that we “recognise the injustices of the past”. Your piece veers dangerously in the direction of a denialist position, one that deprives the victims. A better argument than “you stole our land” is “you deprived us of our rights”. In the case of Israel, millions of Arab Jews were deprived of political and economic rights, and ended up being expelled from their homes, while being dispossessed of their property. The same may be said of South Africa, where the apartheid state emulated many policies consistent with the Nazis, but refused to take things to a bloody conclusion. The minute the faithful under Amin al Hussieini signed on to the Final Solution is when the remnants of the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The same may be said of the Yom Kippur War, which ended the Post-War status quo. While Muslims also fought on the side of the allies, it is trite, that the Arab States took a hardline position in regard to Zionism, and thus hold some responsibility for what is occurring in Syria today.

  5. Guy Mullins Guy Mullins 9 December 2015

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I am under the impression that Jewish and Muslim history only diverged with the coming of Muhammed. Before that, the kings, Solomon (Sulayman), David (Dawood) etc were common to both pre-Muslim and Jew.If this is indeed the case, surely both Muslim and Jew have claim to being people of Israel?

  6. david saks david saks 9 December 2015

    Guy Mullins – No, Biblical figures like David, Solomon, Aaron (Haroun) and Moses (Moosa) were incorporated into Arab-Muslim tradition only after the founding of Islam in around 622 C.E. The common patriarch Abraham, of course, was common to both people’s long before them, but the Arab peoples descend not from Isaac but from Abraham’s oldest son, Ishmael.
    Nuance – The ruthless manner in which more powerful (and numerous) European colonists dispossessed the indigenous peoples of the countries discussed is not in dispute. My focus was essentially on the right of people in the past to settle in areas of the world which were still insufficiently populated without being regarded by posterity as having ‘stolen’ the land, with tangential observations on the often shaky foundations on which many assertions linking certain territories to specific people rest.

  7. 1Zoo1 1Zoo1 9 December 2015

    Dude, there are Khoi paintings on the battlefield where Shaka defeated Zwide, goes a lot further.

    But still, why can’t we all just get along?

  8. RSA.MommaCyndi RSA.MommaCyndi 9 December 2015

    Nice article, but it does gloss over a whole bunch of shenanigans. Whilst it can be argued that winning territory in wars, or dodgy trade deals, lends a certain middle age type of legitimacy, a lot of other things went on. South Africa didn’t have the gigantic genocide (such as America and Australia saw) but we did have a government who forcefully removed people.

    Israel and Palestine didn’t have a problem originally. What happened? It seems to me that both sides worked very hard to make eachother enemies. Having had the honour of visiting all three places (Gaza, West Bank and Israel), it is quite surprising how similar the people are. The living conditions, however, are shockingly different.

  9. Too Black Too Black 10 December 2015

    Mr Saks, i have to disagree, the fact that most land acquisitions by settlers had to either include bombs and/or policies that infringed on the very rights of the natives is what makes your argument null, the land issue is not just about returning the land but also about restoring our dignity and humanity, white people of all people understand the importance of land. That is why they forcefully dispossessed it, and like you will create any reason no matter how insensible to prove that they have as much right to our land as we do. We will not be threatened intellectually, economically or whatsoever and be silenced from speaking the truth about colonization and the native act. The land question is more applicable now than ever as we try to find equality withing races. So no, it is not enough!!! Settlers stole our land and we are not even apologetic.

  10. kaala kaala 10 December 2015

    If you whites are so benevolent why is the Beothuk population of Newfoundland, Canada now extinct. The other aboriginal populations in Canada are barely hanging on and will soon go the same way.. Give us a break..

  11. Khoisan Revivalism Khoisan Revivalism 10 December 2015

    Never, ask why isn’t Ireland part of the UK. Self-determination of a people whether narrow(Khoisan) or broad(Capemen) is inevitable.

  12. Derek Muller Derek Muller 10 December 2015

    Thanks, one may perhaps add that occupying and working rural land is brutal business. The city is the place where everyone wants to be and there the argument who occupied first is totally irrelevant.

  13. Dario Siefe Dario Siefe 11 December 2015

    So sorry but can you now prove it was your land in the first place. I hardly think so. The article written is informative and not subscriptive. Furthermore the ‘we” in your comment is a touch egotistical as I seriously doubt you have been appointed the spokesperson for everyone and does not even use a real name.

  14. Alan Dean Foster Alan Dean Foster 11 December 2015

    When it comes to land and the history of land ownership, no population of human beings has ever been “benevolent”. Aquisitive and avaricious, yes. Benevolent does not apply…not to whites, blacks, or any shade of the melanistic rainbow.

  15. Alan Dean Foster Alan Dean Foster 11 December 2015

    The only “people” I recognize is the human species. The rest is just lingering tribalism, be it heralded under flag or totem. It had all better wither away, or we’re simply doomed.

  16. MrK001 MrK001 11 December 2015

    To the writer:

    Stop trying to find ideological justifications for the fact that the Europeans stole land without paying compensation. They shouldn’t receive any now – if anything, the people whose land was stolen should be compensated. Also, it is mathematically impossible to keep 90% and growing of the population on 13% of the country’s territory. There is no such thing as overpopulation in Africa, however there is massive land hoarding. The land has to be redistributed for the people to work it and to end poverty.

    The ‘terra nullius’ or ’empty land’ (empty of anyone the powers at the time thought whose rights they should respect), is no more palatable when made in Israel, than when it is made in Canada, Australia, Zimbabwe or South Africa.

    This is what happens to Palestinian land in Israel, and why Gaza has become the world’s 5th most densely populated territory. Also, remember that many of the Palestinians before they became Muslims, were Jews and Christians. Jewish dna and Palestinian dna are not that different.

  17. MrK001 MrK001 11 December 2015

    “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.”

    Source? Proof? How convenient that Black Africans only arrived in South Africa AFTER the Europeans got there, isn’t it? Or was it that they were murdered like the Australian Aborigines, and that is why ‘there was no one there’?

    Time to re-appraise your apartheid era education in national history.

  18. MrK001 MrK001 11 December 2015

    Why, weren’t Black people given property rights under Apartheid and before that?

  19. MrK001 MrK001 11 December 2015

    Everyone will just get along when the land is returned.

  20. Phinithi Ntelekoa Phinithi Ntelekoa 11 December 2015

    As usual, nothing new.

  21. MrK001 MrK001 11 December 2015

    “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.”

    This is an interesting legal principle. The Townships and ‘Former Homelands’ are overcrowded, therefore the people of South Africa have every right to mark out their own stakes on the largely unused and abandoned farms they come across.

    They should be making new homes for themselves, and pay no one any compensation.

    Glad to see that you have joined the land revolution, David Saks. I’m sure Comrade Mugabe will give you a call to congratulate you. Viva Chimurenga, Viva!

  22. Peter Leyland Peter Leyland 23 December 2015

    Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace…

    You may say I’m a dreamer
    But I’m not the only one
    I hope someday you’ll join us
    And the world will be as one
    J Lennon

  23. Marty Marty 2 January 2016

    The state is the largest landowner in SA and has systematically failed to make this viable for prospective or dispossessed persons either due to it’s own inability, underperforming or plain corruption. Those of any merit within the ruling party have already confirmed this.

  24. TerminalA TerminalA 4 January 2016

    ‘tribal chiefs’ own vast swathes of fertile land that black people are allowed to rent/lease but are not allowed to buy or own….why haven’t they complained about this situation in order to get a piece of fertile land to call their own?

  25. TerminalA TerminalA 4 January 2016

    as you said….
    ”Or was it that they were murdered like the Australian Aborigines, and that is why ‘there was no one there’?”
    Source? Proof?

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