What Do a Shawarma and a Taco Have in Common?

By David Ramírez

Artist: Damian Velasco. Created for  Absolut Vodka, by Advertising agency: Terán TBWA.  Source: damianvelasco.net

Artist: Damian Velasco. Created for Absolut Vodka, by Advertising agency: Terán TBWA. Source: damianvelasco.net

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict elicits ardent and diverse passions on both sides of the political divide.

The recent declarations by President Obama on Israel and the 1967 borders have once again stoked passionate debate.

One of the many affirmations of the pro-Zionist position launched in this battle of words has been to point out the perceived hypocrisy of the U.S. President regarding Palestine, and that of the U.S.’s own shady past with its own border with Mexico. The goal of such a comparison is to render the U.S., and particularly President Obama, incapable of having any moral authority to criticize the state of Israel.

Although this comparison has been made in the past, it has not garnered much attention. Since Obama’s recent speech, however, I have seen this claim of comparing both borders, that of the U.S. and that of Israel, spreading throughout the Web and social media like wildfire. Having some personal familiarity with the Mexican border, and the historical and cultural issues between the U.S. and Mexico, I would like to point out what it is not in regard to Israel and Palestine.

My discussion here is an attempt to respond specifically to an article that appeared on the Pardon the Pundit website called “Mexico Demands Pre-1848 Border with U.S.”[1]  The article is a satire aimed at pointing out the “hypocrisy” of U.S. foreign policy. The website claims to “make comedic fun of the hypocrisy, absurdity, corruption and self-righteousness that naturally results from our nation’s political discourse.” We shall put that to the test.

Let’s begin with the historical comparisons between Mexico and Palestine, primarily in the last 500 years. The landmass of today’s Mexico is the result of Spanish-ruled New Spain, which at its height stretched from what it is today Panama in the South to Oregon in the Northwest, and Texas in the Northeast.

New Spain’s (and later Mexico’s) borders were the result of a series of expansions brought about through conquests, brokering agreements with native populations and a series of so-called “expansions” – which were basically transferring Hispanically-acculturated urban Amerindians to areas where native populations still lived as small tribal organizations.

New Spain had its own semi-autonomous government led by mostly American-born Spaniards, its own military and a complex system of local and international commerce reaching both Europe and Asia. Not only was New Spain Spain’s richest kingdom, but also Spain’s primary source of income.

Palestine, on the other hand, was a backwater Ottoman province with no major role in the empire’s affairs, no voice, and no real borders of their own. Its population had been comprised of Greek and Arab Christians, Muslim Arabs, and Jews – among other ethnic groups – continuously inhabiting the land since times immemorial. As the Ottoman Empire was picked apart by internal struggles and Western powers, Palestine came under the administration of a British mandate.

The creation of the U.S.-Mexican border and that of the state of Israel and the West Bank offer no comparison from their very inception.

The U.S.-Mexican border was created out of a complex conflict developing for half of the 19th c., between two sovereign and independent nations, both with their own armies and respective governments, with no substantial foreign intervention on either side helping them.

The Israeli-Palestinian border and land appropriations was created by the agency of the international community, enabled by the English-French mandate in the region, and given continuous moral, economic and military support by a foreign nation, the United States, to one side alone – Israel.

Palestine as a sovereign nation did not exist, as it was a series of provinces being administered by local Caliphs who had to obey the whims of Ottoman rulers in Istanbul. Yet, this does not subtract the fact that there were native populations inhabiting the land for hundreds of years.

The border conflict between the U.S. and Mexico began when by an act of the Mexican Congress, the Mexican government allowed the settlement of Anglo-Americans in Texas on condition of obeying the Mexican Constitution and converting to Catholicism. The aim was to develop the north of Mexico, which was sparsely populated and underdeveloped. Within a decade, there was a secession movement among the Anglo-Mexican community, in part supported by Texan-Mexican landowners.

In the British Mandate of Palestine, the native inhabitants of Muslims, Christians and Jews had no real say about what was being drawn by European Jewish Zionists and the Western powers.

As the U.S.-Mexican conflict developed, the United States invaded all of Mexico and forced it to sell them the part that was of interest to Anglo land speculators and slaveholders. These were not precisely religious Pilgrims on a holy mission to establish a “city on a hill,” but they had the foremost interest of greed. On the other hand, European Zionists wanted to create a sovereign homeland for Jews, under the pretenses of Zion – the “City on a Hill” – but no Jewish religion involved.

Despite negative U.S. public opinion and that of many public officials regarding the U.S. invasion and conquest of Mexico, the government went ahead with the invasion. Yet the U.S. retreated to what it is basically the present border and both sides made mutual agreements that have been kept to this day.

The Mexicans remaining on the U.S. side were granted U.S. citizenship and rights; although it would take a while to exert those rights fully, a legal framework was already established from its inception of the relationship. These were not political refugees.

When the state of Israel was created, however, there was a forced mass expulsion of Arabs by Israeli military forces into what it is now the West Bank and surrounding Arab states, rendering them effectively and immediately stateless, without citizenship, and without rights under any nation – thus creating the refugee crisis.

After the initial conflict, the U.S. did not attempt any further invasions for the sake of “security” or any other reason. There was no Gaza, there was no Sinai, there was no Golan Heights.

Many Americans – including one U.S. General who fought in the U.S.-Mexico war and who eventually became a U.S. President – who had participated in the invasion of Mexico and the coercive land sales expressed his deep regrets for such actions afterwards. On the other hand, the die-hard Zionists express no repentance whatsoever for whatever they have done to the Arabs.

For much of its history, the U.S.-Mexican border was completely open. There were no fences. There was no militarization. Extended families of Mexicans and former-Mexicans on both sides of the border, whose bonds extended for generations, went back and forth as if no border ever existed.

In the state of Israel, however, there was a clear demarcation between the expelled population of Arabs and the new immigrants coming mainly from Russia and Europe, and later the Middle East and North Africa. There is no historic symmetry between both situations, as historian Yehouda Shenhav – professor at Tel Aviv University – expertly explains:

“Any reasonable person, Zionist or non-Zionist, must acknowledge that the analogy drawn between Palestinians and Arab Jews is unfounded. Palestinian refugees did not want to leave Palestine. Many Palestinian communities were destroyed in 1948, and some 700,000 Palestinians were expelled, or fled, from the borders of historic Palestine. Those who left did not do so of their own volition. In contrast, Arab Jews arrived to Israel under the initiative of the State of Israel and Jewish organizations. Some arrived of their own free will; others arrived against their will. Some lived comfortably and securely in Arab lands; others suffered from fear and oppression.”

West Bank Arabs who can only find work in Israel proper (as their own economy remains in shambles in part thanks to Israeli control), and who still have family on the Israeli side, have to be put through a shameful process of border crossing, suspicion and mistreatment, one that we as Jews would decry if it were happen to us anywhere in the world.

Mexicans – despite the tumultuous history of their country – live in a sovereign nation with a fully a functional government and institutions, who travel in and out of their own country at will, have control over their water rights, air space, maritime and land borders, and absolute freedom in their import and export operations. Palestinian Arabs, however, have no real control over these vital aspects of their lives.

In over 150 years since the creation of what is now the U.S. Southwest there has not been one single colony of Anglo settlers into Mexico, building fences and special roads at the expense of the U.S. taxpayer. Can we say the same about the state of Israel, which not only uses the Israeli taxed income for all their security infrastructure, but also that of the U.S taxpayer??!!

The contemporary situation of undocumented Mexican workers in the U.S. (the “illegals”) has a different development that has nothing to do with the initial U.S.-Mexican conflict of the 19th century. Mexicans living in the U.S. without work visas are not “refugees” by any stretch of the imagination. These are people who voluntarily left Mexico for better economic opportunities, and they can go back to Mexico whenever they want – the U.S. will not prevent them from passing into their country. We cannot say the same regarding the stateless Palestinian Arabs, which the land partition into what is now the state Israel is the very cause of their condition, and the very tortuous system of check points for border crossing they have to endure.

Further unlikely comparisons can be made that Mexicans never became terrorists against the U.S., nor have they harbored any real desire to “re-conquer” the land they lost. Mexican national rhetoric never developed a hateful tone towards their aggressors, and in its stead they recognized their own failures in the whole affair. But we’re speaking here of a nation which kept its territorial integrity – albeit reduced – as well as the ability to decide their own destiny.

Such claims comparing Mexico with Palestine, and making a satire out of it all, is thus not only historically inaccurate but also completely delusional.

None of this is meant to say that Jews are not entitled to a homeland, but that homeland should be one where past injustices can be remedied through an honest dialogue and good will, not through mutual fear and distrust.

The historical relationship between the United States and Mexico is a good example that relations can be mended, and that peace can be maintained between two nations, despite the historical sore spots. Perhaps Israel and the Palestinian authority can learn a lesson from this experience.

Originally published in Sephardic Heritage Update 488. July 31 2011.


[1] “Mexico Demands Pre-1848 Border with U.S.” pardonthepundit.com, pardonthepundit, n.d. Web. 5 June 2011

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