Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Preferential Rights for 'First Peoples'


"...the Jews are the indigenous people of Israel. It is not I who says it but your own Bible. Read the New Testament and try and find mention of a single Arab resident of ancient Israel. The Jews were the land’s inhabitants and they were displaced by a European colonial occupier called Rome. They were forcibly removed from their land and displaced for 2,000 years, while a small remnant always remained. The Jews prayed thrice daily to return to their land. And when finally granted the political opportunity, they came and drained the swamps, irrigated the sands and made the land so much more inhabitable for Arab brethren that had migrated there in the interim." Shmuley Boteach, Opinion, Jerusalem Post 11/10/2014

Here in North America we find ourselves faced with the same outrage expressed by our own 'First Nations' when anyone else so much as hints that using historical precedence as a basis for establishing a special 'right' is illogical. The argument goes something like: "we were here before the rest of you and so it's our right to be again as we once were".


While the aboriginal rights movement used to focus on fishing, hunting and special territorial oversight, its latest campaign in Ontario revolves around the 'right to remove' an Indian child from conventional medical treatment regimens. This focuses on chemotherapy currently approved as the best hope for sufferers from childhood cancer and claims the aboriginal right to use traditional therapy transcends the human right to the best medicine available. On that basis I could demand to be bled every time I got sick because my ancestors did that for hundreds of years. However as a member of the incoming 'settler' community I am without hope of prevailing on anyone to comply.

The larger question of just who truly is indigenous or aboriginal may eventually have greater clarity as widening characterization of our DNA delineates the historic ebb and flow of population movement, growth and decline. What may never diminish however is the use of  'native' as a rationalization for preferential treatment. Are Teutons the preferred inhabitants of Germany, are Jews the rightful residents of the Land of Israel, and are we Gaels to be considered the indigenous people of Scotland since the Picts are no more? Worldwide the list is long of ethnic or cultural claimants to be recognized as THE natives somewhere or other. In most of these places there actually were people there before about whom we too often know little, but, even where there probably weren't any previous inhabitants, should the claim to be native be enough to earn special exemptions from the larger society's legal underpinnings and accepted social mores?

We are overdue for a real debate around the logic of unique rights for those claiming to be 'First Peoples'. As a frequent cause of civil unrest, even war, one group demanding special entitlements over others is well up the list. Just why are we to be reviled as anti-Semitic when we write that Palestinians have as much right to live and thrive in the Middle East as Jews do? Do the Muslim Rohinga of Burma/Myanmar deserve to be without civil rights since the Burmese were there before them? What makes Ulster Protestants whose ancestors arrived 400 years ago less 'Irish' than those of Gaelic descent who have been there for much longer? 

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