Justice Without Universal Applicability Is an Empty Slogan

If the US can recognize the historic Jewish claim to Middle East land, then it should recognize this historic precedent with Indian nations.

— Vine DeLoria Jr.1

Social justice advocates and activists consider social injustices to be anathema. That a segment of humanity should suffer injustices is morally reprehensible, and few would deny that the longer the injustices continue, the more reprehensible the injustice becomes. Social justice is a matter of immediacy; people are suffering, and one moment longer is another moment too long.

A while back I posed a question to a Canadian2 advocacy journalist for Palestinian rights, citing a moral precept as espoused by anarchist professor Noam Chomsky–namely that people should focus criticism firstly on the crimes of their own states.3

For the record, I realize that Chomsky’s remark could be misconstrued as restrictive in that he calls for concentration on the crimes of one’s own state before venturing into the wider arena of crimes committed by other states. However, if such an argument were used to shut down criticism, for example, of Israel’s occupation and the oppression of Palestinians, then this would be a morally untenable argument. Social justice knows no borders. Humanity transcends borders; humans are humans wherever they might be. Primary concern for the violence and terrorism committed by one’s own state must not be interpreted as precluding or excluding concern for violence wreaked by others outside one’s borders. After all, progressives the world over think globally when confronted with issues of racism, oppression, colonialism, and imperialism.

I discussed this with fellow writer B.J. Sabri who responded,

To argue this point, even if Chomsky’s statement is acceptable on its announced merit, it ignores one essential fact of analysis: can we treat two issues with different magnitude and historical significance with the same yardstick and differing grades of political focus?

For instance, which is more important: the entity with the greater magnitude in terms of immediacy or that with lesser immediacy although its historical resonance is such that relegating it to second tier is a moral travesty? No doubt, to answer such a dilemma, people would refer to their political, humanistic, and intellectual agenda to devise a scale of priority. Above all, committed progressives acknowledge the impossibility to formulate universal parameters fitting all disparate situations requiring intervention.

I intend to examine the validity of Chomsky’s precept as well as the antithetical validity of opposing views.

From the moral perspective of focusing on the social injustices of one’s own state, I asked the pro-Palestinian author why he did not, therefore, write more frequently about colonialist crimes against Canada’s Original Peoples, given that non-Indigenous Canadians (similarly to Ashkenazi Jews) live on a land gained through war crimes and dispossession?

The response:

I dissent very strongly from Noam Chomsky. He is of the opinion that the U.S. is the dominant partner in the U.S. relationship, and for this reason he directs so much of his criticism towards the U.S. However, I find no support for this position. In fact, the ease with which Israel humiliates U.S. presidents and causes deliberate harm to U.S. interests should be enough to show Chomsky has it backwards. He does not appreciate that the U.S. has no government; Congress and the White House has been so thoroughly colonized by Israel that any discussion of U.S. national policy is a polite joke. I see little merit in the quote you cite. Given the overwhelming zionist influence on U.S. (and Canadian) policy, protesting the actions of one’s national government makes as much sense as treating the symptoms of a disease rather than the cause.

Since I find no substance in what Chomsky says, I see little reason to write about colonialist crimes against Canada’s original peoples. In fact, I go out of my way not to conflate this issue with the zionist destruction of Palestine.

The respondent side-stepped the substance of the question and set up strawmen. The question I posed was independent of what Chomsky said on any matter; it was independent of whether Israel dictates or the US government dictates; all that really mattered was the substance of the moral precept: whether people should focus first and foremost on the actions of their own states. I agree that Israel holds inordinate sway over the US government, but this was another topic — only tangentially related to the premise. Moreover, even if Israel is the dominant party in the US-Israel relationship, it still does not exculpate the US from criticism as a steadfast ally of Zionism, Zionist racism, and Zionist crimes against non-Jews. The respondent focused on a parochial example wherein he disagreed with Chomsky; therefore, it was implied that because Chomsky was purportedly wrong on this matter, he could not be correct on the matter at hand. It was not a coherent reply.

Sabri challenged me: “… there is a problem of what I call memory of own-self as group. You put the writer on the defensive. This is because he does not see himself or the larger group he belongs to in historical terms of culpability.”

The pro-Palestinian advocate, who has written much on Zionism, obviously has a passionate attachment to his argument. He reveals Zionist crimes but without tying it to the wider issues of historical colonialism, perhaps because he sees such an issue as isolated. Sabri observed: “Indeed, there is no relation between classical colonialism and Zionist colonialism, which, while it is anti-historical, it claims history as ally; and if relation does exist, it exits solely in one dimension: forced land appropriation at the expanse of other peoples or groups. It should be remembered that Ashkenazi Zionist colonialism did not spring out of European mercantilism and capitalism but came about as a product of specious ideology that used political intercession, invented history, and the plotting of British colonialism (the Balfour Declaration) as rationalization for the colonialist conquest of Palestine.”

Why did the pro-Palestinian writer not respond to Chomsky’s premise: that the “concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state,… namely, I can do something about it”? The writer does sharply criticize his own state, Canada, and its role in colluding with Zionism. However, is Canada innocent of terrorism and violence against any group — in particular, against Indigenous peoples by invaders — within the borders of Canada? Canada is undeniably a colonial/settler state just as Israel is. What does silence on genocide and great crimes against Indigenous peoples on one’s “home turf” indicate in the face of voluminous criticism meted out against crimes by an out-group against Indigenous people elsewhere?

Perhaps the choice of quoting Chomsky was unfortunate on my part, for despite his many important forays against US imperialism and corporate media complicity, parts of his stance vis-à-vis Israel are controversial for many progressives, including myself (for example, Chomsky’s recalcitrance at supporting a boycott on Israel and his downplaying the influence of Zionists on the US government).

Because the pro-Palestinian writer4 dissented with Chomsky’s thesis on who is the tail and who is the dog in the US-Israel relationship, he, presumably, found “little merit” in a different argument. To iterate, he never dealt with the substance of the argument; he turned to something else that he disagreed with; therefore, he supposedly felt this justified further disagreement. If this were the guiding logic of the writer, then deeming it unconstructive or even unsound is a reasoned option.

I had submitted “that non-Indigenous Canadians (similarly to Ashkenazi Jews) live on a land gained through war crimes and dispossession.”

The pro-Palestinian writer replied, “First, I reject the parallel between Ashkenazi Jews and European Canadians. Though there are superficial similarities, the magnitude, duration and sadistic ferocity of Jewish war crimes against Palestine are orders of magnitude beyond what Europeans did to the natives.”

A declaration of some principles for social justice seems pertinent here:

1) All social injustices—despite size, reach, or consequence—are equally reprehensible in that they are all a wrong committed against a segment of humanity.

2) The magnitude of a social injustice suffered by one group must not preclude or diminish the suffering of another group, or be used as an alibi to depict unique suffering thus transforming it into a ruse for political or material gains.

If we consider these two principles as a reasonable platform to discuss the matter, then the pro-Palestinian writer’s argument appears flawed if we examine it under the lens of basic morality.

The reluctance to acknowledge the colonialism of one’s own group and similarities shared with the colonialism of Zionist Jews is somewhat understandable. However, the past is already laid down, and unless the Jewish war crimes began against Palestinians in 1492 (before Columbus’s transformative landing in Guanahani), I fail to see how anyone can claim a longer duration of victimization and suffering than that experienced by the Original Peoples of Turtle Island.

Furthermore, not only is the pro-Palestinian writer’s statement flawed on basic principles of morality, but it also lacks credibility based on historical facts. The genocide against the Original Peoples of the western hemisphere is held to be by far the most horrific genocide ever perpetrated by one set of humans against another. History professor David Stannard wrote that it is a 95 percent genocide5 amounting to 100 million people.6

Confining the issue of genocide to a Canadian context, writers Robert Davis and Mark Zannis turned to Rafael Lemkin — coiner of the term “genocide” — who noted “genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.”7 Davis and Zannis detailed the genocidal dispossession of Original Peoples to exploit resources in their territories.8

If genocide is considered only to mean the mass extermination of a people, then there was the 100 percent extermination of the Beothuk on the island named Terra Nova by the newcomers9 (what the Beothuk called the island was of little interest).10

The historian Samuel Morison wrote, “… after their first experiences with Europeans, the Beothuk retired to the interior. They were hunted like wild beasts and treated with utmost cruelty both by the French and English settlers and eventually were exterminated.”11

An 1836 parliamentary inquiry and subsequent report issued by the Select Committee noted

… that the native population in Newfoundland had once been numerous and resorted to every part of the coast until the arrival of the English:

We occupied the stations where they used to hunt and fish thus reducing them to want, while we took no trouble to indemnify them so that doubtless many of them perished by famine; we also treated them with hostility and cruelty and many were slain by our own people as well as by the Micmac Indians who were allowed to harass them.

Under our treatment they continued rapidly to diminish … In the colony of Newfoundland it may therefore be stated that we have exterminated the natives. [Select Committee on Aborigines [1836] 1968,1:475-9.]12

Mik’maq historian Daniel Paul rejected the allegation that Mik’maq were involved in the demise of the Beothuk.13 Paul noted the canard “Indians killed each other” is often trotted out to seemingly excuse or minimize the White Man’s penchant for killing.14

Historical evidence can be piled upon historical evidence, but I submit that what has been presented here is sufficient to refute the entirety of the assertion (i.e., words without substantiation) of only “superficial similarities” between Ashkenazi Jews and European Canadians. Both Israel and Canada are colonially derived entities based on the violent dispossession of an indigenous people. Not only was it factually inaccurate — but it was morally flawed — to imply that one dispossession is less worthy because “the magnitude, duration and sadistic ferocity of Jewish war crimes against Palestine are orders of magnitude beyond what Europeans did to the natives.” Few critics of Israel and few Israelis apply the term “genocide” to Israeli crimes against Palestinians; similarly, few Canadians acknowledge that they reside on territory wrought through genocide against the Original Peoples. Both are genocides, and it is silly to debate which genocide, massacre, or slaughter was worse because all are horrible.

“History Made Every Day.” — slogan of history.com

The pro-Palestinian writer continued: “Second, the European colonial period is history, and cannot be changed; the Jewish colonial period is current, and can be changed.”

Social justice principle:

3) The passage of time does not absolve the perpetrators of monumental social injustices.

Every passing moment becomes history. History is history whether current or past. Granted, history can be classified according to the length of time from the present, but each era so classified remains a historical era. Any contrary argument is uncompelling. Past actions cannot be undone — whether they are recent past or long past. Furthermore, the passage-of-time argument is dangerous because it plays into Zionist ambitions since Zionists are attempting to create facts-on-the-ground, and by holding onto the ground long enough, they intend to persuade people based on the sentiment that what happened in the past belongs in the past; that is, the occupation happened a long time ago, it’s time to concentrate on today. The United Nations-mandated state of Israel has been around since 1948. That’s 64 years. That’s history. Canada is merely a longer-standing, national fact-on-the-ground than Israel.

History is fluid. There is no statute of limitations on War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. What has been done will always have been done, but the results can sometimes also be undone. Throughout history, empires have come and gone. Past wrongs can be atoned for, and the wounds of crimes committed against one’s ancestors by another people can be healed.

Social justice principles:

4) When one group of outsiders invades the territory of another group and dispossesses the local group that which has been dispossessed continues to rightfully belongs to the dispossessed group.

5) Later generations are not culpable for the sins of their ancestors. However, they should not materially benefit from the sins of their ancestors, especially to the detriment of a people dispossessed by one’s ancestors. Put in straight-forward terms, what has been stolen should be returned to the rightful owners.

While many people might disagree with principle 5 as worded, they do accept the basic premise behind the principle. For example, while a university student, I was once tasked with constructing a questionnaire. I wrote four questions:

i) If outsiders threw your parents and your siblings out of the family home, would your parents still lay claim to it?

ii) If your parents were dead, would you still lay claim to the home of your parents?

iii) Upon your death, should your children lay claim to their grandparents’s home?

iv) If outsiders dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their land and homes, should they, or their progeny, not return the land and homes wrongfully taken?

All my classmates responded affirmatively to all questions (except one person wrote “It depends” for question 4). However, I am aware of few Canadians agitating for the return of the land (unsurrendered for the most part) to the rightful inhabitants.15

There is a well-known legal maxim: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Original Peoples have long futilely sought redress for their enormous grievances.16 One determined lawyer, Bruce Clark, has sacrificed his personal finances and legal standing to bring the legal case for Indigenous jurisdiction to the land they have lived “since time immemorial” but has always been thwarted by the state apparatuses, including governments in Canada, police, army, and the courts.17

European colonialism is not just past history; it is current history. The effects of colonialism are still felt today; settlers continue to try and impose control over First Nations, their land, and the resources on their land.18

Hypocrisy and Social Justice

The respondent pressed his case further: “Third, zionists use Canada’s colonial past to deflect criticism of Israel, such as: ‘Why criticize Israel when you did the same thing to your natives? You’re nothing but a hypocrite!’

Hypocrisy on social justice issues works against social justice.

Hypocrisy is toxic to social justice movements. If a social justice advocate attempts to marginalize or diminish the social injustice suffered by another group, solidarity is imperiled, and social justice movements are weakened as a result.

In no instance is social justice more imperiled than when the social injustice is committed by one’s own group in one’s own backyard (especially when one’s own backyard is as a result of dispossessing others) — such as attempts at rationalizing dispossession, relegating it to historical obscurity, disinformation, denial, or even worse when the wronged group is criticized for their actions subsequent to dispossession.

Responsibility for the Foibles of “Leaders”

The pro-Palestinian writer’s final argument: “Fourth, Canada’s native leadership is only too happy to suck up to the Israel Lobby and identify the persecution that they suffered with Jewish persecution. This puts Canada’s natives in the position of giving propaganda cover for zionist atrocities.”

This argument neglects the history of colonialism, genocide, and assimilation in Canada. This is painting with too wide a brush. Certainly to the extent that anyone has helped to elect or supported a “leader,” they have helped to enable decision-making by that “leader.” If the argument proffered by the pro-Palestinian writer is valid, then he, along with other Canadians, is equally “in the position of giving propaganda cover for zionist atrocities” since the Canadian government is absolutely complicit in the crimes of Zionism.19 However, Original Peoples, by and large, are no more responsible for the foibles of their First Nations “leaders” than Palestinians are for the Zionist-collaborators posing as “leaders” in the Palestinian Authority.

Social justice principle:

6) Attributing guilt solely based on association is wrong.

First Nations have been induced to engage in the selection of “leaders” according to the norms of so-called European democracy. Dacajeweiah (Splitting the Sky) wrote: “The Assembly of First nations is a neo-colonial elected system and their Chiefs are dependent on Federal funds, therefore they are considered collaborators of a foreign power.”20

In other words, the pro-Palestinian writer was criticizing a faction of First Nations, a faction derided as collaborators.

If colonization had not occurred, then more First Nations might follow traditional forms of organization focused on the good of the community rather than the vainglory of individual “leadership.” For example: “The notion of chiefs and elections is foreign to Innu society, where it is the height of rudeness for one person to impose his or her will on others.”21 In the Kanienkehaka language “chief” means “nice” or “good.” Tom Porter (Sakokwenionkwas: The One Who Wins), a chief spiritual leader of the Kanienkehaka Community of Kanatsiohareke, wrote that the chief is without power or high status. The traditional system works thus: for every man chief there’s a woman chief; the female chief chooses the male chief for life. The chief is chosen without his knowledge; there is no campaigning. There are nine chiefs of the Kanienkehaka Nation and all decisions are reached by consensus. A chief must always be kind and humble.22

Conclusion

The Ashkenazi-Israeli occupation of Palestine is evil. The lingering legacy of European-Canadian colonialism is evil. Both should be denounced for the evil they are. Canadians should oppose social injustices outside Canada, but they should also oppose social injustices in Canada.23 For Canadians who are committed to social justice, to remain silent on the Canadian state’s injustices against its Original Peoples undermines and renders the nature of the devotion to the principles at the heart of social justice activism questionable. To turn a blind eye to the injustices in one’s bailiwick, to downplay or proffer effete excuses for injustices demands challenge. At its core, such dangerous patriotism (the refusal to acknowledge or recognize that one’s country has done or can do wrong) is a betrayal of a key social justice principle: namely, that an injury to one is an injury to all (courtesy of the Wobblies).

Social justice principles are not pick and choose. Adherence to core moral principles is crucial to progressives because waffling on principles opens social justice movements to criticism and division. It is vital that progressives identify, agree on, abide by, and hold on to all their principles. If not, the vital element of solidarity is imperiled along with the attainment of justice.

  1. Vine Deloria, Jr., Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence (New York: Delacourt Press, 1974): 184-185. []
  2. That I use the national designation “Canadian” does not imply that the political geography from which the national designation derives is legitimate. Only if the dispossession of an Indigenous people by outsiders is morally legitimate can such a political geography be supported without moral qualms. Onondaga elder Oren Lyons wrote, “For the Indian nations there is no United States and Canada. We have never recognized the border.” In Oren Lyons, “Spirituality, Equality, and Natural Law,” Leroy Little Bear, Menno Boldt, and J. Anthony Long (Eds.) Pathways to Self-Determinism: Canadian Indians and the Canadian State (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985): 12. []
  3. See Noam Chomsky, On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures (South End Press, 1987.) []
  4. I refer to this person in question as a pro-Palestinian writer because the intent of this article is to analyze and critique the views — not the person. []
  5. David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (London: Oxford University Press, 1992): x []
  6. Stannard: 151. []
  7. Raphael Lemkin, cited by Robert Davis and Mark Zannis, The Genocide Machine in Canada: The Pacification of the North (Montreal: Black Rose, 1973): 12. []
  8. Robert Davis and Mark Zannis, The Genocide Machine in Canada: The Pacification of the North (Montreal: Black Rose, 1973). []
  9. Telefilm Canada, Vanished in the Mist: Lost Newfoundland, Part 1 (Toronto: Lynx Images Inc., 2002). []
  10. “… the English would have been able to become familiar with the Beothuk language but few people made use of this chance. For example, a Beothuk woman, who was captured by William Cull in 1803 remained in his household for close to a year; yet, Cull never recorded what she might have taught him and his family.” Aboriginal Peoples, “Beothuk Language,” Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage. []
  11. Samuel Elliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997): 216. []
  12. Cited in Ingeborg Marshall, A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996): 227-228. []
  13. Daniel N. Paul, We Were Not the Savages: A Mi’kmaq Perspective on the Collision between European and Native American Civilizations (Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Press, 2000). Paul wrote: “[T]he European [fishing intruders] launched a murderous assault on Newfoundland’s harmless and non-aggressive Beothuk (or Red People) in retaliation for the ‘crimes’ they were committing by removing items, such as nails, from the fishermen’s fish-drying stations along the coast. As early as 1506, many of the Beothuk were being sold as slaves in Europe. In time these barbarities led to the extinction of the Tribe.” 44. []
  14. Ibid, 17. []
  15. To be clear, I do not believe in ownership of land. And neither do many traditionalist First Nations. Neither were they interested in selling land. A Sheshaht elder told Gilbert Malcolm Sproat: “We do not wish to sell our land nor our water, let your friends stay in their own country.” In Christopher Bracken, The Potlatch Papers: A Colonial Case History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997): 15. Therefore, nothing should not be construed in the argument to imply European-descended Canadians being pushed back to Europe — or for that matter Jews being pushed back to Europe. Peaceful, respectful, and equitable co-existence is what is demanded. []
  16. Kim Petersen, “Canadian Settler Injustice against First Nations,” Media Monitors, 23 November 2004. []
  17. See Bruce Clark, Native Liberty, Crown Sovereignty: The Elusive Aboriginal Right of Self-Government in Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990); Bruce Clark, Justice in Paradise (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999); Splitting the Sky (John Boncore Hill) with She Keeps the Door (Sandra Bruderer), The Autobiography of Dacajeweiah: From Attica Lake to Gustafsen Lake: Unmasking the Secrets of the Psycho-sexual Energy and the Struggle for Original People’s Title (Published by John Pasquale Boncore: Chase, BC, 2001. [Review]. []
  18. See Harold Cardinal, The Unjust Society: The Tragedy of Canada’s Indians (Edmonton: M.G. Hurtig Publishers, 1969) and a plethora of articles documenting ongoing dispossession and colonialism at Original Peoples, The Dominion. []
  19. See Tony Seed and Gary Zatzman (Eds.) Dossier on Palestine (Shunpiking, 2002); Yves Engler, Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid (Fernwood Publishing & Red Publishing, 2010) and Engler’s latest, The ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s foreign policy (Fernwood Publishing & Red Publishing, 2012). []
  20. In Splitting the Sky (John Boncore Hill) with She Keeps the Door (Sandra Bruderer), From Attica Lake to Gustafsen Lake: Unmasking the Secrets of the Psycho-sexual Energy and the Struggle for Original People’s Title (Chase, BC: John Pasquale Boncore, 2001). []
  21. Marie Wadden, Nitassinan: The Innu Struggle to Reclaim Their Homeland (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2000): 85. []
  22. Tom Porter, “Traditions of the Constitution of the Six Nations,” in Pathways to Self-Determinism: Canadian Indians and the Canadian State, ed. Leroy Little Bear, Menno Boldt, and J. Anthony Long, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985): 16-20. First Nations are diverse and the selection of chiefs, sachem, etc. varied. []
  23. It is duly recognized that the entity called “Canada” is founded on territory stolen from First Nations. As Kanienkehaka elder Kahentinetha Horn stated: “No nation has a right to denationalize another nation.” []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.