My column last week, "Ariel Sharon's Folly," noted the likelihood that more than 8,000 Israelis living in Gaza will soon be removed by their own government, with force, if necessary. I called this step historically unprecedented and then challenged the reader to name "another democracy that has forcibly removed thousands its own citizens from their lawful homes."
Not surprisingly, readers took up the challenge, both by posting comments (such as here, here, here, and here) and sending me e-mails. Their responses fall into three main categories:
Eminent domain, a government prerogative properly used "to build roads, public works and the like" but often abused these days to encourage commercial projects. As a writer puts it, "American state and local governments, through a commonplace abuse of eminent domain, displace thousands of American citizens each year. Not exactly the same as Sharon's proposal, sure, but just as insidious for its creeping power over property rights." Three correspondents specifically refer to cases where their own families were evicted: the Tennessee Valley Authority which in 1933-35 forcibly evicted thousands of citizens to build the Norris Dam; Boston, in the 1960s, when hundreds of homes were seized to make way for a highway; and a Los Angeles project to build a shopping center. The case of the Navajos in the Joint Use Area with the Hopis in Arizona is also mentioned, as is the use of eminent domain in Australia.
Japanese internment in the United States during World War II: "The United States removed many American citizens of Japanese descent from their lawful homes and placed them in camps during World War II."
Cases of "ethnic cleansing," where a population perceived as foreign is thrown out of its homes and even out of the country. Examples include the American Indians, the victims of Nazism and apartheid South Africa, Germans after World War II, Muslims in India in 1947, and Russians in the Baltic States in 1991.
I don't see any of these categories comparable to the case at hand. As one commentator says about eminent domain, it "applies to ALL citizens regardless of skin color, nationality or creed that live and own property in the area which is to be used for public development. … nothing of the sort is scheduled to happen [in Gaza]. Instead ONLY JEWISH residents are to be forcefully removed." Another reader concludes: "There is no conceptual equivalence whatever between what 'eminent domain' means in terms of its core concepts of 'development' and 'benefit,' and what Sharon is planning." Precisely.
As for the Japanese internment, this involved the temporary relocation of citizens, not a permanent move nor the razing of their houses. Again, there is no comparison with what Sharon is doing.
Ethnic cleansing is hardly comparable to the Gaza situation, if only because the government and the evicted citizens are alike ethnically, and Israeli citizens are being returned to the heartland, not expelled.
Two other suggestions bear notice. General Charles de Gaulle, "elected under the slogan of Algerie française, immediately after his election began the withdrawal of French troops, thereby laying the basis for Algerian independence." This would count as a very close precedent had de Gaulle required French citizens in Algeria to leave, but he did not do that. In fact, the French government did not expect the exodus of nearly a million pieds noirs and Jews in just a few months in 1962:
The motto among the European and Jewish community was "Suitcase or coffin" ("La valise ou le cercueil"). The French government had not planned that such a massive number would leave, at the most it estimated that maybe 200,000 or 300,000 may chose to go to metropolitan France temporarily. Consequently, nothing was planned for their return, and many had to sleep in streets or abandoned farms on their arrival in metropolitan France.
De Gaulle let the French citizens in Algeria decide their own future, whether to stay or leave; this is a policy, incidentally, that I have recommended to the Israeli leadership for Israelis in Gaza.
The best analogy proposed was the razing of Africville, Nova Scotia. The authorities in 1965 bulldozed this, Canada's oldest and largest black settlement, to the ground, but it was done in the name of slum clearance, not relocation.
Reviewing these replies to my challenge confirms me in my view that what the Israeli authorities are about to do to their citizens in Gaza has no historical precedent.
Sep. 22, 2010 update: Robert Aumann makes a complementary point: "The expulsion from Gaza is unprecedented. Jews have been expelled throughout history, but we own the dubious distinction of being the first people to have expelled ourselves."