Mandela vs. the Mayflower: Why Americans Should Care About Palestine

Raegan Davis
8 min readMay 16, 2021
Indigenous Americans Protest for Palestine

My family on both sides can trace their lineage back to the pilgrims in 1620, who fled religious persecution in England to settle what would become the United States. My mother’s grandmother was even born with the last name Standish (as in Myles Standish, the captain of the Mayflower and my most famous ancestor). Just like my country, I exist because of colonizers and, if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you do as well.

Anyone who grew up in the United States has at least some vague notion of the genocide committed to establish our nation. While some see it as justified, most acknowledge that it was a historical tragedy. The indigenous people of Turtle Island (the present day continent of North America) were driven from their homes, massacred in large numbers, and relegated to ever-shrinking reservations. Nearly every treaty they signed with the colonizers was violated. To this day, because of colonial actions, indigenous communities face disproportionate rates of poverty, addiction, environmental degradation, and femicide. One out of every two indigenous women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. This is the ongoing legacy of colonization.

I continue to stand in awe of and solidarity with the indigenous people of Turtle Island as they fight for #Landback and justice for MMIWG2S (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit Relatives), as well as against further destruction of their native land. However, as I do so, I cannot help but lament that many indigenous struggles in the United States are about remedying past harm and its continued impacts. I was born too late to stop my ancestors from colonizing this land and I see the effects of their actions every day in the violence that still rings through indigenous communities at the hands of police officers and corporations.

As Americans, we have seen the story of Palestine played out in our own history textbooks and in many of our own family trees. We know what it means when a plan for partition is created then violated over and over by a newly-formed nation, intent on seeing its borders stretch from sea to shining sea. We know that, in the moments of colonization, violence on both sides seems equivalent. We also know that, in the decades to come, we will understand that this was a false equivalency.

As Americans, we can look to the colonization of Palestine and see our own history repeating itself in real time (funded with our tax dollars). We might have been unable to stop it then, but we are more than capable of fighting it now. Israel, a nuclear-armed regional superpower backed by the US, the strongest economy and military in the world, is facing up against a stateless region with no military whatsoever.

Part of the reason the death toll is so disproportionately Palestinian is because our government provides $3.8 billion a year for this endeavor. Thanks to us, Israel has the Iron Dome, a high-tech defense system that protects it from what few homemade rockets Hamas sends from Gaza that actually work.

Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip, the third most densely populated area in the world, whose population is 50% children, has no such defense system. It has been described as “the world’s largest open air prison” by scholars of the region and the West Bank, the other half of Palestine, is hardly doing better.

Cordoned off by different sets of passports which restrict movement, unable to use certain roads or access most of their own water supply, forced to rely on the Israeli government for everything from building permits to medical aid as Israel continues its decades-long illegal occupation: this is life in the West Bank at present. Israel, in an attempt to expand its borders, creates settlements all across the West Bank. Many times, indigenous villages are bulldozed over to construct new settlements, though sometimes (as we have seen recently in the historic Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem) settlers will simply park themselves into the homes of existing families and demand they leave, backed by the full weight of Israeli state violence.

This process, called settler colonialism, functions through the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty. It fostered the creation of the Israeli state in 1948 just as it fostered the settlement of Plymouth Rock in 1620. In the United States, it brought about the Trail of Tears, killing 3,000 and displacing 60,000. In Israel, it spurred al-Nakba, killing 15,000 and displacing 750,000.

This is not how it needed to be. The Israeli population began as a group of settlers in the 1890s, when the territory was under Ottoman rule, who coexisted with the Palestinians who were already there. Many shared ancestry, even. However, the British colonial government, in an effort to win World War I, elected itself as distributor of the Ottoman Empire’s land, should it fall during the war as the British hoped. In 1916, they promised the land to the Arabs. In 1917, they then publicly promised the area as a Jewish homeland in the Balfour Declaration, largely because of Arthur Balfour and others’ commitment to Christian Zionism, a fundamentalist religious belief set which maintains that the rapture will be brought on when the Jews return to Zion. It then follows that most if not all of them will be sent to hell. Christian Zionism remains a force in American politics to this day and most American Zionists are Christian Zionists (including both Vice President Mike Pence and President Biden).

Through these acts of racism and colonialism, the United Kingdom created the British Mandate of Palestine, set to expire in 1948, shortly after WWI. As the date drew closer, the UN drafted a plan to partition Historic Palestine in 1947, which gave the minority population of Jewish settlers (30%) approximately 60% of the land. The Palestinians objected but were ignored. When the British Mandate of Palestine expired in 1948, the State of Israel was immediately founded and al-Nakba began in earnest. You know what happened from there.

Knowing this history, and knowing what you know of how indigenous people were treated in the founding of our country, I want you to look at the following maps:

Palestinian loss of land

At this point, any Palestinian state would look the way modern indigenous nations look here in the US: small, non-contiguous enclaves. Reservations. Bantustans. There is a reason why even the centrist outlet Human Rights Watch and the foremost Israeli watchdog on Palestinian human rights, B’tselem, have both affirmed what the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia found in its report on the subject in 2017: this is apartheid.

We here in the US have our own experiences with apartheid. The American apartheid regime known as Jim Crow or segregation is seen as one of our great national crimes. Americans around the country also banded together to fight against South African apartheid from the 1960’s through the 1990’s when it finally fell. The anti-apartheid cause is so popular in hindsight that our current president, Joe Biden, felt the need to pretend he was a part of the anti-apartheid and civil rights movements, just to improve his reputation. That is how powerfully clear our respect is for those who opposed this crime when looking back at their actions. So why, when apartheid is before our eyes again in present day, do we stay silent?

The US foreign policy establishment believes that, to use Biden’s words, “if there were no Israel, we’d have to invent one.” It is to the military industrial complex’s benefit that we have a client state like Israel in the region, which is why the US is wrought with argumentative framings that this is a “conflict” and why it is considered “taboo” and “controversial” and “complex.” The United States government benefits from these narratives, pushes these narratives, and watches as they seep into our perspectives, allowing the Departments of Defense and State to continue their policies unprotested.

Luckily, however, the public is starting to see that this isn’t a conflict: it’s the worst parts of our own history displayed before our eyes and this time we have the chance to stop it. We can choose to support the Mayflower, as our military would like us to, or we can choose to support freedom fighters and activists like Nelson Mandela, a man the United States considered a terrorist until 2008 and now lauds as a hero.

Just like the last time Americans were spurred to activism against apartheid, there is a movement of grassroots indigenous people on the ground with very specific requests of their international allies. Usually, we are stuck posting on Instagram and signing petitions when we see tragedy in Burma or India or other foreign countries, with little of impact to do. However, when it comes to the cause of Palestine, civil society groups from teachers unions to local chapters of the YWCA in the West Bank have given us specific instructions for how to help them from abroad, modeled after the campaign against South African apartheid.

Our Palestinian siblings in the struggle request the following of us here in the US:

Boycott Certain Israeli Goods. Boycotts involve withdrawing support from Israel’s apartheid regime, complicit Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions, and from all Israeli and international companies engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights.

Divest from Certain Israeli Companies. Divestment campaigns urge banks, local councils, churches, pension funds and universities to withdraw investments from the State of Israel and all Israeli and international companies that sustain Israeli apartheid.

Urge Public Officials to Sanction Israel in Specific Ways. Sanctions campaigns pressure governments to fulfil their legal obligations to end Israeli apartheid, and not aid or assist its maintenance, by banning business with illegal Israeli settlements, ending military trade and free-trade agreements, as well as suspending Israel’s membership in international forums such as UN bodies and FIFA.

These calls together are often abbreviated to “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” or “BDS” and all of my language on them is pulled directly from the BDS website.

The civil society’s call also stipulates a set of three demands:

“These non-violent punitive measures should be maintained until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall (the border between the West Bank and Israel, constructed to cut into Palestinian territory in the early 2000s)

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

Everything you need to be an effective ally for Palestine and fight against the human rights violations you see has been provided for you by Palestinians on the ground. If you believe the Civil Rights Movement was just, if you believe the Anti-Apartheid Movement was just, if you believe indigenous movements against settler colonialism and its effects are just, then you know which side of history you should be on regarding Palestine. You know what you need to do. Choose Mandela, not the Mayflower.



Raegan Davis

DC-based community organizer. IU Political Science Grad @TheRaeganDavis (Opinions are mine, not my employer’s)