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Indigenous Scholars Oppose Navajo President 'Becoming Partners' With Israel

A group of prominent scholars has written to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly expressing disappointment at his support for Israel.

A group of prominent scholars has written to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly expressing disappointment at his support for Israel and urging him to pursue international relationships that mirror indigenous values and justice.

Robert Warrior, an Osage Nation citizen and Director of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is professor of American Indian Studies, English, and History, signed an April 3 letter to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly on behalf of a group of American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and other indigenous scholars, taking Shelly to task for his recent trip to Israel.

“As indigenous educators, we find your support for the state of Israel to be in complete contradiction to our values and sense of justice. Israel has illegally occupied Palestine for decades,” the group wrote. “Your public and political engagement with [Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials sends a message that you endorse the continued occupation of the West Bank, including construction of new Jewish settlements there, as well as the ongoing settler colonial situation for Palestinians residing within the 1948 boundaries asserted by the Israeli state, and exclusion of Palestinian refugees from reclaiming their homes and homeland after being violently expelled during the nakba (catastrophe) when Israel was founded.”

Shelley met with Netanyahu and other officials at the Knesset [parliament] including the Deputy Minister of Development. “I want to work with your people. I know that Israel is self-sufficient, what we need is your expertise, what can we share,” Shelly said in a Navajo Nation press release December 12, 2012. “What I read of you—you were no different than we are. How did you survive while moving forward in technology, greenhouses — I am interested in that and becoming partners.”

On February 1, 2013, Shelly met with Israeli diplomats and members of the Arizona Israel Business Council in Arizona to follow up on his December visit to Israel and in March Israeli farmers visited Navajo Nation to speak to Navajo farmers at a two-day conference.

The scholars refuted Shelly’s statement that the Israelis “were no different than we are,” asserting instead that the Indigenous Peoples’ experience parallels what has happened to the occupied Palestinians. The Diné people, like the other Indigenous Peoples represented by the scholars have suffered through the process of settlement, colonization, or militarization of their homelands, the group wrote. “Thanks to the wisdom of our ancestors, we have persisted. But our prospects as peoples will never be as full or complete as they might have been had those who colonized us been just and honest in their dealings with us. A similar process has unfolded for Palestinian people over the past half-century. Indeed, Israel demolition of the homes of Palestinian families is not all that different than the Long Walk your people endured in 1864. Your collusion with the Israeli government is a betrayal of that shared history and of the wisdom that has helped all Indigenous Peoples survive for centuries,” the scholars wrote.

Warrior said on April 6 that the scholars’ group has not had a response from the Navajo president yet. Shelly did not respond to e-mails from Indian Country Today Media Network by posting time, seeking comment on the scholars’ letter.

All of the scholars who signed the letter to Shelly have endorsed the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which is part of an international movement led by Palestinian civil society to draw attention to the brutality of the ongoing occupation of Palestinian homelands, Warrior said.

Several of the scholars in the group have spent time in historic Palestine. Warrior told ICTMN in an e-mail that he spent the summers of 1984 and 1985 as a volunteer archeologist on digs for the Israeli Department of Antiquities and Museums where he got to know a lot of young Arab Israelis and Palestinians and experienced life on the ground under the occupation. “They were eager to talk to me as an American Indian person. It was eye opening, to say the least. What I saw was painful—young people trying to bring positive change to their communities being thwarted at every turn by bureaucracy and callousness,” Warrior said.

Warrior has followed Palestinian issues ever since he was a student of Edward Said, the iconic and controversial University Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and the author of more than 20 books. Said was a leading literary critic, public intellectual, and passionate advocate for the Palestinian cause. He was born in Al Quds (Jerusalem) in 1935 and died in New York in 2003. “Said was a formative influence on the way I think about scholarship and political engagement,” Warrior said. During that time – the late 1980s – Warrior wrote a widely read and highly influential essay called "Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians," partially reproduced on the internet, about liberation theology and its focus on biblical stories in which Indigenous Peoples are displaced in favor of “chosen peoples.” “Many of us see clearly the connections between what is happening to Palestinians and what has happened to our peoples. Groups do not need to fit exactly into a definition of what we regard as a tribal nation to deserve our solidarity,” Warrior said.

J. Kehaulani Kauanui (Kanaka Maoli), associate professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University and the producer and host of the public affairs radio program, "Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond," is currently engaged in comparative research on Palestine and Hawai’i – both vivid and violent cases of settler colonialism and occupation, she told ICTMN. "The contested State of Israel perpetuates the violent domination and removal of the Palestinian people from their homeland, much like the U.S. settler colonial state's treatment of Native nations. Why any tribal leader would want to partner-up with Netanyahu is beyond curious; it is morally repugnant," Kauanui said. "Tribal presidents and chairpersons, like all other official government leaders, should not be surprised to be called out for colluding with an apartheid state."

Kauanui said, that "the Israeli government's courting of Shelley is a form of 'Redwashing' – the promotion of Indigenous Peoples of the Americas as a deliberate strategy to conceal the continuing violations of the Palestinian people." She was part of a five-scholar delegation to Israel/Palestine in January 2012 organized by the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. She has served as an advisory board member of USACBI since it was established in January 2009 in the midst of Operation Cast Lead.

In addition to Warrior and Kauanui, the scholars include J. Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua (Kanaka Maoli); Noenoe K. Silva (Kanaka Maoli); Lisa Kahaleole Hall (kanaka Maoli); Vicente M. Diaz (Pohnpeian); Jacki T. Rand (Choctaw); Kimberly TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate); LeAnne Howe (Choctaw); and Joanne Barker (Lenni-Lenape Delaware Tribe of Indians).

The group ended their letter with an appeal to Shelly to “rethink your partnership with this corrupt and contested state and seek out international relationships that better reflect on all of us as Indigenous Peoples.”