To ask that question is of course to answer it.
We know by looking back historically on periods of oppression by one people on another that there has not been one example of morally justified oppression.
But in the moment, the argument is routinely made, and accepted. In The players may change, but the game remains the same: The use of racism to justify the massacre of innocent civilians in Gaza, Jenin Younes draws the parallels between Israel and all other oppressive regimes. Younes:
In the digital age where a wealth of information is available at the tap of a keyboard documenting background facts that are disputed by no serious historian—the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people from their land, and the continued occupation and oppression of the Palestinians–it is difficult to understand how otherwise reasonable, fair-minded people can continue to support and justify Israel’s aggression against this helpless group of human beings. While the reasons underlying this anomaly are many and complex, ultimately Israel uses the same tool that has been used for centuries to justify various forms of oppression of an ethnic group, from enslavement of blacks and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans in the United States to apartheid in South Africa: the dehumanization of the oppressed by portraying them as inherently inferior in some aspect, and the insistence that, regardless of its acts, the oppressor is morally superior and therefore justified. [emphasis mine].
Can there be any argument that is not what is happening in Israel today?
Here’s Netanyahu, distinguishing Israelis from Palestinians:
We sanctify life, they sanctify death, they sanctify cruelty, and we mercy and compassion.
How can sweeping statements like that, whether in the positive or the negative, possibly be true of an entire people?
In the end, these comments, like Netanyahu’s quote above, reflect an age-old attempt to differentiate the “other” and thereby justify inhumane treatment, including in this case dispossession, occupation, oppression, and collective punishment. While to so many it is simply “obvious” that Palestinians and particularly Palestinian Muslims are simply violent and deserving of such treatment, it would behoove those promoting this view to remember that it was always “obvious” to those justifying oppression that the other was inferior. Those justifying slavery in the United States truly believed that those of African descent were morally and intellectually inferior. The Holocaust was justified by the “knowledge” that Jews posed an existential threat to the Aryan race. The ethnic cleansing of Native Americans was justified due to their ostensible inherently violent nature, and moral and intellectual inferiority. Unfortunately, history provides us too many examples and clearly, too many fail to learn.
I’ll add my spin to this. The massacre of Native Americans took place largely in the late 19th century. I went through childhood in the ’60s, some three-quarters of a century later. Even then, the dehumanization of Native Americans was alive and well. We would play “Cowboys and Indians” on a regular basis. The Cowboys always were the good guys, the side we all wanted to be on. Indians were something lesser, beasts that had to be tamed. Hence the expression “wild Indian,” still in use today in some American circles.
Fast forward to 2012. Mitt Romney, a personal friend of Netanyahu, visited Israel. On his trip, he spoke of the superiority of the Israeli culture to the Palestinian culture. The intended takeaway: Israelis are superior, and therefore morally justified in what they do. Romney, by the way, showed the same willingness to dehumanize a class of people in his now infamous 47% remarks.
When I read the comments on my Facebook page by the Israel supporters I know, the dehumanization of Palestinians, the argument that they are something lesser, is always there. As it has been throughout history.
So, no, Israel is not the first morally justified oppressor. It’s just the one making that argument today.