Ways to Claim a Country

Identifying the Past

This essay began in a cobbled street in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

As I gaze uncomprehendingly down into an open archaeology dig, roped off and with informative plaques, I become aware of a strident voice proclaiming the meaning of the damaged columns and beams of an earlier structure to an audience of what appear to be American college students. Jews loom large in the guide’s interpretation. He passionately proclaims the meaning of this place as personal and his, and he wants to make it theirs. I see that they are also Jewish, as some of the boys are wearing kippas. I am led to wonder whether tourist guides in Australia link their personal sense of national belonging to accounts of the country’s history. 

That thought remains. I know there are brochures in which the Bluff Rock massacre of Aboriginal people is made into a tourist attraction, but it is not a site of triumphal or righteous assertion. On the contrary, Australians are more likely to be found apologetically, even shamefully, acknowledging Aboriginal history and the injustices therein.

And yet, in a purely formal sense, the Zionist claim that Israel is a Jewish state has much in common with Australia’s assumption, or perhaps acceptance, that it is predominantly the Anglo citizens and traditions that define Australia’s character. In both cases ‘a people’ with a specific cultural persona has established and legitimised its presence in a particular space or country. In each case the newcomers assumed dominion over the people who had resided there before. It took over a century for the English in Australia to establish effective control, often with violence, over the whole land and its Indigenous population, and now virtually no one challenges ‘Western’ or ‘European’ hegemony. It thus appears that the question that Israel is constantly and aggressively engaged in answering—who belongs here—has been settled in Australia by time. Is it simply the passage of the years that legitimises cultural belonging?

The constant and comprehensive, violent and discursive, disputation about Israel’s legitimacy, in particular as a Jewish state, has many manifestations, and the effort to claim the past seems a relatively benign one, and common to many nations. But the intensity and emotion of Israel’s assertions betray their provisional nature. Sporadic, ineffective physical resistance by long-term residents to the Judaising of this land, and the persistent and vigorous attempts to silence, remove and disempower the Arab presence, ensures continuing conflict in many parts of Israel/Palestine. In Australia, by way of contrast, colonisation began and succeeded long ago, so that the cultural self of white Australia is quite comfortable, facing no apparent violent conflict or serious challenge to its presence. I say apparent because I believe the efforts of Indigenous writers and artists to disrupt the complacency of the white presence does create a certain psychic anxiety; more of this below.

Despite emotional and even violent moments of resistance, Israelis’ authority over Israeli territory—that within the 1967 green line—faces no more immediate threat than white Australia’s authority over this continent. Yet Israel’s constant assertion of an exclusive Jewish sovereignty over the land hints at an unadmitted fragility in the nation’s moral claims. The frequent, confident complaint that Israel’s very existence is still rejected by its Arab residents and neighbours becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, independent of its facticity. However, there may be a long-term threat to the Jewish nature of Israel stemming from the fact that Israel’s population is static and deeply divided along ethno-racial and religious lines, while the Arab population is more unified and growing. Aggressive assertions that Eretz Israel is a Jewish land with a Jewish history and should be a Jewish state, and the Judaisation process that is apparent on even a brief visit to Israel, may indicate a lack of confidence about Israel’s own legitimacy.

The comparison with Australia is not intended to lead to history lessons—there are immense differences between the two situations—but to explore the explanations, justifications and subjective orientations that accompany the sovereignty claims of a particular people when they make their home in a place already occupied by other people with whom the newcomers do not want to identify. There are many examples of course, but I want to pursue these two a little further. Those in Australia who righteously berate and condemn Israelis for trying to make the land they claim into exclusively Jewish land are beneficiaries of an equivalent cultural hegemony. Thus it seems appropriate to ask why the desire of many Jews to have a state of their own, stamped with a religio-cultural identity, seems so unforgivably colonial. Time has allowed Australia to become post-colonial and able to write new history, recognise Native Title, and apologise for past violence without endangering its sovereignty and cultural dominance. The people the Jews are still displacing are alive, present and objecting, whereas by and large Aboriginal people only object to the conditions under which they currently live—which the nation officially regrets.

The other reason Australians can complacently criticise Israel’s Jewish exclusivity is that it flouts modern egalitarian principles that had not taken hold when Australia was claimed by Captain Cook and subsequently colonised. Modern nation-states insist that all citizens have equal rights, irrespective of race, religion or national origin, let alone gender or sexual preference. Rafts of anti-discrimination law and international charters are based on such principles; indeed Australians are scandalised at the suggestion that the selection of immigrants is based on race. Israel’s practice of accepting only and all Jews as entitled to full citizenship is popularly viewed as unacceptably discriminatory. The inferior form of citizenship available to Arabs and other non-Jews is well-documented, though deniable due to the complexity of the legislative and administrative practices. The vigorous denial itself constitutes an admission that such discrimination is wrong. There are peculiar consequences of the entitlement of all Jews, from anywhere in the world, to a place in Israel. For instance, someone whose family has been Australian for generations is entitled to become a citizen of Israel if she or he has female Jewish forebears, whereas a non-Jew whose ancestors have lived in Israel for as long as they remember is not entitled to full and equal citizenship. Perhaps there is a faint echo in the entitlement of family members to enter Australia on the basis of family reunion provisions in the immigration laws—albeit very faint as this is a purely genealogical question, and applies independent of race and religion.

National Belonging

Human beings everywhere probably prefer conditions where the strangeness of the world is muted, where common language and others’ ways of relating present no challenge to an everyday sense of legitimacy. Nationalism can be seen as the attempt to remove the discomfort or insecurity that otherness poses. Yet elements of otherness are also, and always, inside a nation. Some ‘difference’ escapes control and remains a potential threat that nations must be vigilant in defining, containing, domesticating. Indeed it may be that some form of otherness helps, and may even be created as the enemy within, to identify the national self. We must be able to distinguish ‘our’ ways from the ways of some alien ‘others’.

The extent to which Anglo-Australians have established their homeliness here is illustrated in the limited hospitality afforded to non-English speaking immigrants who make up a substantial proportion of the population, and by the fact that Indigenous people find themselves made ‘other’ in their own land. A more interesting contrast with Israel is in the element of discomfort that was inserted into Australians’ consciousness when the injustices of the colonial past were brought to public attention and received extensive recognition in the 1980s. Historians and others now insist that the British heritage of this country includes not only the triumphs but also the destruction and oppression that accompanied white supremacy over the Indigenous population. A sense of shame in relation to the descendents of dispossessed Aboriginal people is now evident; but however deeply felt by some, these responses are, I believe, mainly intellectual ones. That is, while there have been extensive, sometimes extravagant, gestures towards righting the wrongs of the past, there is little evidence that Anglo-Australians’ sense of belonging in their own cultural space has been disturbed. There is certainly no equivalence to the ongoing painful sense of shame that some Israelis and many Jews feel about the continuing attempts to dispossess the Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem and the West Bank. One Israeli friend spoke of ‘our wretched country’. The area left for a potential Palestinian state has been shrinking ever since the occupation began. Before examining some of the current ways Jewishness is being implanted in memories and maps and in the very earth, let us compare the explicit reasoning that the British and the Jews used to assert their rights in these two cases.

Rational Nationalism

The ostensible justification of British settlement in Australia was the popular evolutionary theory of human social development. It was then simply common sense that more advanced peoples were entitled to displace those who were socially and technically, if not biologically, backward. God blesses those who produce from the land, as against those who merely harvest its bounty. Similar arguments surfaced to justify the Jewish claim to the land once known as Palestine, land where some Jews had lived for centuries as one ethno/religious group among other Semitic peoples. But from the earliest Zionist movement to create a Jewish homeland, three other themes keep emerging—biblical authority, historical connection and need. Old Testament words may be disputed by biblical scholars and are ancient superstition to many non-religious Jews, but these proclamations nonetheless carry a cultural weight of some magnitude. The strident enunciation that ‘God gave this land to the Jews’, supplemented by later historical claims, has continually inspired the settlers to take possession of more land, and even secular Jews may find it hard to disown those who claim to be living out the founding myths of the Jewish people. Perhaps an admiration for Australia’s pioneers is not radically different, though we now sharply differentiate the murderous brutes involved in massacres from those who treated the Aborigines they were displacing humanely.

The need of Jews for a homeland is the most widely acknowledged, historically important and internationally accepted justification, and perhaps it has a faint echo in the British need for somewhere to put their criminals in the 1770s, and later the needs of an expanding population. Perhaps ‘desire’ or ‘opportunity’ are more appropriate terms. The Jewish need was of a different order, based originally on their chronically oppressed conditions in many parts of Europe. This need was articulated by the early 19th-century Zionists who systematically bought land and established communities in the then Palestine long before they were offered a recognised place there. When, after World War II, the extent and hideousness of Nazi anti-Semitic genocide became known, European nations accepted some responsibility for the extreme suffering of Jews, and they accepted the need for a Jewish homeland. The British, and later the United Nations, solved the problem by offering them a substantial part of what had become the Mandated Territory of Palestine. There is no doubt that the insult and injury to the Palestinians was recognised by those responsible, but the land was eventually handed over to the Jews for their own state despite vigorous protests from the incumbents and other Arab countries.

The early settlers of Australia did not need to consciously promote a specifically British state. Establishing ‘facts on the ground’ was taken to be a virtuous, progressive and brave endeavour, and only occasionally was there a need to preach the virtues of our cultural heritage. Aborigines who disputed ‘the white man’s’ right to be here were overwhelmed by the numbers, the guns and the technological power, against which their moral claims only allowed for a rear guard action that continues in a different form today.

Cultural Claims

Putting biblical justifications aside, for who in the modern secular world takes them to have serious political force, how are the cultural claims of each of the dominant groups—Anglo-Australians in the one case and Jewish Israelis on the other—actualised? Australia is saturated with cultural mores that came from Britain in the late 18th and the 19th centuries. The English language, the built environment, the legal system, and so on and on, stem from the colonisers who gradually and unevenly re-formed the whole continent that was named Australia in 1824. The Jewish settlers of the country that became Israel likewise reshaped the land, and sought to conceal evidence of its Palestinian past. After the Nakba of 1948, when over 700,000 Palestinians were driven or fled from their homes and were not allowed to return, their villages and other traces of their existence were systematically destroyed. However, what is startlingly apparent when visiting Israel is that this reshaping is not complete but is being advanced at every turn against imagined and real denials and contestation. Even in areas that are unambiguously and internationally known and accepted as Israel, there is a sense of unfinished identity, and Judaisation is being actively pursued, not least in the attempt to change the character of East Jerusalem. It is evident in museums, in the naming and renaming of villages and settlements in Hebrew, in tourist brochures, in historical accounts of all kinds of events in the past. For instance. in a small local museum in Petach Tikva, the history of an early Jewish settlement is told in graphic and heroic detail with little mention of other, earlier peoples in the district. The erasure of evidence of earlier Palestinian villages, named memoricide by Ilan Pappe, is being protested vigorously by some Jewish groups within Israel. Ted Swedenburg details the way various sites and episodes from the past are memorialised to privilege some events and erase others.

Archaeology and Owning the Past

The moment in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem that started this train of thought was one of a series of observations of the vociferous assertion of the primacy significance of Jews in the region’s history. These narratives position others who built and rebuilt cities and villages and occupied them for generations as temporary interlopers, sometimes helpful but often destructive of Jews. The work of archaeologists makes crucial contributions to this process. Nadia Abu El Haj has shown that there is no simple archaeology in Israel. Rather, Israeli archaeology is inextricably tied to establishing the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.

It is the public face of archaeology in Israel and in Australia that most clearly illustrates the difference between the two forms of national belonging. There is no more secrecy about the efforts being put into Judaising Israel’s past than there was about Australia’s earlier white triumphalist history. The contrast is evident when archaeologists who uncover evidence of an ancient human past in Australia dutifully, even gleefully, name it Aboriginal. There is virtue and redemption attached to acknowledging Aboriginal claims to ancient habitation, ancient spiritual connections, ancient knowledge of the country. Intellectuals readily confess that settler Australians have shallow connections with the land and cling to the edges of the continent as if afraid of its interior power. The lack is even claimed as a feature of Australian identity. Unlike Israel, where Jewish settlers (in the widest sense) are aiming to legitimise the continuity of their ownership over three millennia, we Australian settler descendents are so confident in our ownership that we readily admit the limits of our historical connections. Indeed, our ability to recognise the deep spiritual connections of Aboriginal people with the land confirms our benign intentions and our legitimacy here. Acknowledging the depth and power of Indigenous spiritual connections with the land enhances our virtue while posing no threat to our mundane political and legal ownership.

Thus, all kinds of meetings are regularly opened with a formal acknowledgment of the traditional owners of the land on which the meeting is being held, or a ‘welcome to country’. Human remains dating from before European settlement are routinely named Aboriginal remains and contemporary Aboriginal people are accepted as the descendents with rights over their disposal. Dissenters exist among museologists and archaeologists who argue that remains from the deep past should be considered as simply human, and held in the custody of museums for the sake of science and human knowledge. But such an argument has not carried much weight in the face of our national desire to recognise Aborigines as the spiritual and symbolic, if former, owners of the continent.

Emplaced Nationality

All nations try to build a definitive character, fashioned out of particular historical events that become the national story, often a complex, morally fraught one that changes emphasis over time to fit changing moral and philosophical demands. Nations imagine themselves as one, as unified, as sharing some essential national identity, despite being internally complex and disparate. The process of forming ‘a people’ with a distinctive identity is primarily an imaginative process, but one that can flourish when that people and its leaders command a place or space. This is equally well illustrated in the formation of Australian and Israeli national identity.

The majority of Australians have had little immediate connection with either the early or later stages of the process of Indigenous dispossession, although there were always authors and intellectuals who explained and rationalised the necessity, inevitability—or the tragic injustice—of asserting their exclusive ownership of the country. While Australian innocence has been challenged and modified in recent years from immigrant and Indigenous quarters, and the nation’s culture is far more open and diverse, this is still a predominantly ‘white nation’.

The active Judaisation apparent in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City involves the resident Israelis today. The Jewish quarter has been refurbished. Houses with shining doorknobs and stylish window boxes enhance the attractively clean and well-preserved cobblestone streets. Stalls and old-style shops are overshadowed by expensive boutiques and wonderful displays of old treasures. As in other quarters, places of worship abound. A troupe of school children goes by one day, some boys wearing ringlets and little kippas, charming and innocent of what we are hearing about on the news: the aggressive dispossession of the Arabs of East Jerusalem. It is this news, along with the vast and ugly wall, the IDF soldiers and the armed settlers, that gives a chilling edge to assertions that Jewishness lies deep in the city’s soil.

We Australians plead guilty but feel innocent of the dispossession our forebears perpetrated. When a Jew asks us about oppressed Aborigines today, we are nonplussed; we are building houses for them, not tearing them down! We are expressing admiration and care for ‘our Aborigines’. But the question leads me to wonder, were our white place in our Australia threatened by millions of Aborigines refusing us legitimacy in the land, would ugly emotions arise and overwhelm our desire to recognise their equality and their cultural rights? The answer must be yes, as evident in the secreted seam of fear and hostility that emerged when the High Court of Australia pronounced that Native Title still exists and must be recognised in Australia.

What we cannot abide is the unflinching claims the Jews are making now against the resident Arabs whose houses are regularly demolished. The stories of particular acts of violence—house demolitions, settlers’ attacks on West Bank villages, the walls and electrified fences that constitute the Security Barrier—outrage us. If our grandparents did such gross things in this country they were wrong. Don’t the Jews understand such blatant dispossession by force is now unacceptable, that the legitimacy once attached to colonial dispossession has eroded?

I have not intended a moral, or even a political treatise, although there are both moral and political implications here. My aim has been to set out some parallels and contrasts in Australian and Israeli colonising processes so that we in Australia know from what position we are speaking when we try to understand and solve the problems of the claims of Jews and Arabs to the places we now call Israel and Palestine.


Abu El Haj, N., Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2001.

Anderson, B., Imagined Communities, Verso, New York, 1983.

Ben-Porat, G. et al., Israel since 1980, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008.

Collins, J. et al., (eds) Kebabs, Kids, Cops and Crime, Pluto Press, London, 2000.

Cowlishaw, G., Rednecks, Eggheads and Blackfellas, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1999.

Everett, K., ‘Welcome to Country (Not)’, Oceania, vol. 79, no. 1, 2009.

Hage, G., White Nation, Pluto Press, London, 1998.

Lattas, A., ‘Aborigines and Contemporary Australian Nationalism’, in G. Cowlishaw and B. Morris (eds), Race Matters: Indigenous Australians and ‘Our’ Society, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1997.

Sand, S., The Invention of the Jewish People, Verso, New York, 2009.

Schlunke, K., Bluff Rock, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 2005.

Schulman, D., Dark Hope, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007

Swedenburg, T., Memories of Revolt: The 1936–1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past, University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville, 2003.

Gillian Cowlishaw

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