Since the adoption of the council of Native and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) issued a declaration in support of the global academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions in 2013, a new crop of digital outliers have embarked on a small but seemingly full-time campaign to persuade Native and Indigenous peoples in North America to rather become supporters of the Israeli State, Zionism, and disavow any solidarity with the Palestinian people.
The main voice in the attacks on NAISA scholars uses a two-prong assault: one portion typically dwells on what the blogger claims to know about Israel/Palestine, and a second part of the question of solidarity among Palestinian and Native American scholars. Both parts of the argument are simple, but also completely wrong.
A central claim is that the Zionists (sometimes conflated as just ‘Jews’) are native and indigenous to Palestine, and that Palestinians are invaders. Consequently, Native Peoples should stand with Jews, Zionism and the Israeli state, not with the Palestinians.
First, the frequent conflation of Jews, Zionism, and Israel ignores the well documented record of Jews both in Israel/Palestine and from all around the world who are critical of Zionism and Israel and see it as a settler colonial state. Many of these Jews are part of the global solidarity movement with the Palestinian people.
Second, the argument that Jews are native and indigenous to Palestine was never a central, or even a partial, assertion among the leaders of the Zionist Movement (Herzl, Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, to the more hawkish Jabotinsky). All these Zionist leaders who have written about the prospects of the Zionist project in Palestine did not shy away from calling it a colonial one, and predicted that Native Palestinians would resist the colonization, something they saw as natural to any group that faces foreign domination.
It was only after 1967 that a fringe group, mainly coming from the United States, became colonialist settlers in the West Bank and started using the narrative of indigeneity. This extreme fringe group was further empowered by the rise of Christian Zionism and its increased influence over the Republican Party. The narrative is based on Biblical texts taken as a solid historical text. Using Biblical texts for colonial and settler colonial adventures has had a long history of western involvements in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
Then there is the specious argument that the comparison between Palestinians and Native Americans is false because the number of Palestinians did not decline after 1948 (when Israel was created by force) compared to the almost complete annihilation of Native American communities. Reducing the commonality of deaths at the hand of an incredibly superior military force or a culture steeped in fierce resistance in the face of overwhelming odds to statistical analysis of body counts over time is hardly a rational analysis. It ignores the context of history and sweeps aside absolute, undeniable facts such as the massive loss of territory and ghettoization of Indigenous Peoples on reservations and tightly controlled geographical zones.
The second part of the argument currently being tested and in search of a wider audience is that solidarity among Native Americans (especially scholars of NAISA, who are attacked on the validity of scholarship and even their belonging) with the Palestinian people is recent and wrongheaded. This line of thought ignores that the history of solidarity is much longer than the NAISA declaration in 2013, and that both Palestinian and Palestinian Americans have identified with the Native American experience not because it is a winning card, but because it is similar (not identical) to their experience. It ignores (purposefully or not) that the case of Native Americans is seen both by public and academic at large as a lost case, as case of the past, as a sad story. Very few see it as an ongoing history of genocide, elimination, and resistance. So, for someone like Steven Salaita, to connect the Palestinian and Native American experiences is not a tactical move to win support. It is an ethical one. One does not win by identifying with a case and with peoples seen as victims and whose history is portrayed as part of the past commemorated in different whitewashing tactics such as that of “Thanksgiving.”
Many Palestinians attest to watching Western films and while knowing that in each film the White cowboys will win, they identified with Natives, with those who will lose in each film. That identification is reflective of a sense of shared (not identical) experience. That sense of identification is natural and does not require or ask for the permission of anyone. Palestinian writers and poets have, for many decades, written prose and poems that reflected a comparative experience of subordination of Natives (both in Palestine, the U.S. and elsewhere) at the hands of modern western technology, arms, and ideas of superiority and entitlement. That was not a showed tactic to gain solidarity, but a real reflection of an experience of western modern invasions and dominations, which Zionism and Israel are part of, and which Zionist and Israeli leaders have expressed in speech and in writing; “bringing light onto darkness, civilization into void and barbarism, industriousness and order onto nomadic laziness and chaos.”.
Typically Zionist propaganda wishes to portray the Zionist settler colonial case of Palestine as that of Muslims versus Jews and Christians. This tactic was first initiated by Napoleon and the British colonial rule in Palestine, and has been a strategy promoted by Israel, Zionism and its supporters in the West ever since. This Orientalist propaganda ignores that Palestinian society includes Christians, like Steven Salaita and Edward Said, who were not converted to Christianity by missionaries from Europe or the U.S., but have been Christian long before Europeans heard of Christ. To portray the Palestine issue as that of Jews versus Muslims is not only a misinformed argument, but part of an agenda that helps only to uproot Christians in Palestine and elsewhere in the region, and to normalize a religious Jewish state in Palestine.
Finally for those among Native American communities, who wish to understand and decide about what is taking place in Palestine, I recommend that they travel to Israel/Palestine; see for themselves, talk to people, and then realize how misinformed the above arguments are. Let one see who is the native and who is the settler; the one who professes to make the desert bloom while cutting trees, building large pools in an arid area, who burns fields, builds large highways and skyscapers, versus those who live in restricted areas (reservations) with little resources, who try to plant, build, and protect fields and trees with their bodies against guns and bulldozers.
Solidarity has never been part of the vocabulary and dictionary of Israel and Zionists. They speak of power, support, aid, stand with, of more power to silence and punish solidarity. For Palestinians, solidarity is not a slogan, and it will remain part of a liberation movement’s vocabulary even when real liberation is achieved.
Magid Shihade is a faculty member at Birzeit University, Palestine, and currently a lecturer at the University of California at Davis. A sample of his work can be found here.