Whose Land Is This? Lessons from Ukraine, Taiwan, Israel – and the US

Almost Every Place on Earth Has Had Previous “Owners”

What Conveys Whose Land This Is? It’s Tricky Applying Modern Standards to Historical Facts

I have a difficult time thinking of any sizeable piece of ground (or waterway) on this planet that does not come with multiple, conflicting claims of whose territory this is or should be. This disagreement has long been a leading cause of human conflict from our very beginnings as an identifiable species.

In the modern era (“modern era” being what we call the present time. Amusing to think about how others will call this ancient times before too long), much of this conversation revolves around what was unfairly done to others in the past. The recognition is true and overdue, but intellectual honesty recognizes that addressing these situations fairly and usefully is not an easy thing.

In the area where I live, most of the region was once dominated by Native Americans, mostly Cherokee tribes. Many public events now begin with a sometimes long monologue on how this land was once someone else’s and it was taken from them. An appropriate thing to recognize, although I don’t see any ground swell out there to return those lands to earlier occupiers.

And, as far as we can tell, they also came here as a people from elsewhere. They got here before others for sure, but like those who followed them, they came here from somewhere else, for many reasons.

Two Other Examples

By now, everyone is familiar with the Russian claims to Ukraine. Ukraine was not always part of Russia, although it was a part of Russia and the USSR for quite a while. But they parted ways by mutual agreement several decades ago. What gives Russia the right to cancel the deal, especially since Ukraine has, in these recent decades, become much more of a Western oriented country, one with an extraordinary sense of national identity, thanks in large measure to the Russian invasion.

Taiwan presents a similar conundrum. It certainly has been a part of China in the distant past, but not uniformly so. Certainly, it has been a separate society in all the ways that count for almost 100 years. The Chinese claim to it is, it seems to me, specious at best. It was my hope for several years that a peaceful solution, either to reunite or to stay separate, would develop over time. I am less confident of that today. The current Chinese leader seems obsessed over the Taiwan issue and may risk a great deal at some point to try forcing reunification.

At one time, a large percentage of the Taiwan population looked favorably on China and the prospect of reunification. Those days are largely gone, owing directly to Chinese aggressiveness. Not a lot of time, but I have spent time in both China and Taiwan. It would be a challenge to describe two more different societies. I have little doubt that if China were to force the issue, it would be done along the lines of Hong Kong; the differences in the two societies would not be tolerated. That would be a shame. Let us hope cooler heads prevail.

A Real Gordian Knot

Up until this point, we have talked about one country wishing to take over another’s territory, land outside the current boundaries of one of the countries in conflict (Ukraine, Taiwan). We also talked briefly about one occupation that led to the disenfranchisement of a people (USA). Those were simple compared to the next one: the Arab-Israeli conflict. Again, I have spent a small amount of time in the region and have had long conversations with people on both sides and people looking for solutions.

Here we have two peoples, the Israelis and the Palestinians that are in the same place at the same time, both citing long historical claims to the land. This is perhaps the perfect case study of how difficult such disputes can be. It seems to me that arguing whose ancestors arrived first is a specious argument. Both peoples have long histories here. Both sides have powerful moral claims.

Israel was created out of the ashes of the Holocaust, for which much of the world shares if not responsibility than a moral obligation to ensure a safe nation-state exists. But the Palestinians also have important claims, it seems to me. Reading through the documents that led to the founding of Israel, mostly British documents, it is as though these people did not exist. And surely their “brother Arabs” have only worsened their conditions over these many decades.

I see little in the way of hope or real leadership anywhere in the area that would lead to justice and security for all who live here. There was a moment, a flicker of real hope when Sadat and Rabin were regional leaders. Everything seemed at least possible – until their own extremists killed both of them. I fear that the coming generations of both people will know little security or freedom from fear.

There Are Powerful Moral and Practical Imperatives

All of these “whose land is it” conundrums carry genuine moral issues and serious security challenges. Ignoring them has major consequences. Nice if we could get some leaders who recognize all that, who concluded the other parties are not going to disappear, and so courses were set to make things as right as they can be, based on honest and sustained engagement with each other.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?” Rodney King asked that question in the face of riots, some of which cited his beating by police as the rationale to strike back. It appears not yet, Rodney. Not yet. But maybe we will get it right at some point. Just because this is hard and complex does not mean we get to take a pass.

It seems ironic that Being Woke has become a term of degradation for the Right. Heck, I am thinking about getting a bumper sticker that says, “Damn Right I Am Woke!” Until we do wake up and deal with these issues, peace and security will illude our little planet.

          Bill Clontz

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