American Samoa dragged into the Israel-Palestine debate

An ongoing disagreement between the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto over the legal status of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories has ensnared American Samoa.

The beef started when Goldberg criticized an Israeli government report that classified the West Bank as sovereign Israeli territory, rather than occupied territory. Goldberg argued that if the West Bank is in fact Israeli territory, then Israel should treat people living there–Jewish or Muslim–as Israeli citizens, and extend to them full voting rights.

Taranto took issue with this, demanding that Goldberg be packed off to American Samoa, an American territory where the native population lacks US citizenship and federal voting rights.

Natives of American Samoa whose parents are not U.S. citizens have the status of “U.S. national.” This gives them rights equivalent to those of a resident alien: They may freely travel, work and live in the U.S., and they may apply for citizenship–but until they become citizens, they are not entitled to vote in mainland elections. Goldberg and others who repeat this trope need to explain why Israel can’t have unincorporated territories if the U.S. can.

At first glance, Taranto makes a good point: what standing do Americans have to criticize other countries for keeping territories in colonial bondage when America does the same thing?

Scratch the surface a little bit and Taranto’s analogy falls apart. He ignores the fact that the people of American Samoa aren’t clamoring for independence, as the Palestinians have been doing (sometimes violently) for decades. And, although the UN classifies American Samoa as a non-self-governing territory–their way of saying that American Samoa remains a colonial dependency of the United States–the territory’s elected representatives have for years favored annulling this classification, on the grounds that they don’t see themselves as an American colony.

The larger point that Taranto ignores is that American Samoans do have the ability to change their political status, either by voting for independence in a referendum or by petitioning Congress to grant the territory an Organic Act and US citizenship, as happened with Guam in 1950. The process for doing this is relatively straight forward, something that cannot be said for Palestinians clamoring for independence. Of course, American Samoans could not do any of this without Congress, but Washington probably would not oppose either choice if supported by the territory’s population. (Statehood, another matter entirely, would prove more difficult for Congress to accept.)

But, as Eni F.H. Faleomavaega, the territory’s Congressional delegate points out, American Samoans themselves have never overwhelmingly voiced any desire to revise their political status, at least not since the 1920’s Mau movement on Tutuila. In fact, tribal chiefs opposed Congress bestowing US citizenship on American Samoans after WWII, as it would have probably meant an end to the islands’ ancient tribal system, or faa’ Samoa (The Samoan Way).

I don’t know the exact reason for American Samoans’ acceptance of their political disenfranchisement today, but I suspect that some of it is due to unwillingness to upset the status-quo, indifference to benefits of US citizenship, general political malaise, or any combination of these. What’s clear, though, is that none of this can be said about the Palestinians, meaning that American Samoa is not the West Bank of the South Pacific.

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