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Palestine Without Smears: Why Israel and Natives Aren't Natural Allies

Ryan Bellerose’s unfortunate recent op-ed essay in Indian Country Today Media Network, “Don’t Mix Indigenous Fight with Palestinian Rights," would be laughable and easy to dismiss given how heavy on bluster and light on accuracy it is. The essay, however, employs ugly characterizations and simplistic historical analysis in discussing deadly important and serious issues regarding American Indians, Israel and Palestine. Seeing what connects the Native world to the Middle East is challenging to many ICTMN readers, but a clear dividing line is emerging between American Indian defenders of Israel and the growing number of us who support the Palestinian boycott divestment, and sanctions movement.

The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, for instance, made news in December for being one of three academic groups based in North America to endorse the Palestinian campaign for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. In his essay, Bellerose derisively attacks some of the incredibly fine people who have been involved in the boycott campaign. They deserve better, especially in this forum.

Bellerose uses his unfair attacks and a flawed version of Middle East history as a smokescreen behind which he focuses on personalities and red herrings in defending Israel and scratching his head over how any right-thinking Native person could stand up for Palestinians, all the while ignoring the indisputable facts at hand. Among those are the ongoing brutality and death that Israel’s occupation has brought to Palestine. Israel not only regularly and illegally confiscates Palestinian lands, it literally blows up Palestinian homes, house by house.

While this brutality goes on unabated, Israel continues to build settlements on Palestinian lands, and those lands are typically the most resource-rich in Palestine. Those settlements are opposed by nearly every country in the United Nations. What makes all this possible is the protection of the United States, with its veto power in the UN Security Council. What pays for the occupation and the settlements is the more than three billion taxpayer dollars the US sends to the state of Israel every year. That’s more money than the US sends to any other foreign country (not to mention more than it spends on the BIA). The issues of illegal land confiscation and violence-driven occupation resonate with me as an Osage, but I am also concerned as a taxpayer about what the US is doing with my taxes and in my name.

In his essay, Bellerose takes issue with a panel earlier this month at an academic conference in Beirut, Lebanon reported beforehand by ICTMN in late December. The panel was critical of the increasing number of elected tribal leaders like Navajo President Ben Shelly who have made publicly prominent visits to Israel, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials. Bellerose complains that the panel and conference didn’t include “actual Indians who have the knowledge and background to discuss these issues.” He also writes, “We wouldn’t be welcome in the conference because we are able to speak for ourselves.” Bellerose premises his essay on the assertion that “Its important for us to examine who these people are who are claiming to speak on behalf of Native Americans, because they hide their bigotry underneath our banner.”

The accusation of bigotry is important, and I’ll discuss it more, but first let me clear up Bellerose’s wrong-headed basic assertions. Several “actual Indians,” in fact, participated in the planning and execution of the conference at the American University in Beirut, including me. As Bellerose admits among his contributions to the comments thread of the online version of his essay, I wrote one of the panel’s papers, and even though I was not able to attend because of weather-related travel issues, the paper was read for me in my absence. My contribution focused on the way both the United States and Israel have used biblical accounts of the conquest of Canaan to justify the military conquest of the lands they occupy.

My interest in these complex issues began nearly three decades ago, when I spent two summers as a volunteer archeologist for the Israeli government’s Department of Antiquities and Museums and traveled extensively in Israel and Palestine. Later in the 1980s, I continued to learn about the ancient and modern history of the region as a graduate student at Yale University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While in New York, I became a student of Columbia University professor Edward Said, a Palestinian American scholar and one of the most influential thinkers of the past half-century. I have never claimed to be a Middle East specialist as a scholar, but my knowledge has seemed to me sufficient.

I was not the only American Indian scholar who participated in the panel and the conference. Joanne Barker (Delaware), Melanie Yazzie (Navajo), Nick Estes (Lakota), and Kent Lebsock (Lakota) made presentations in other sessions. Jacki Rand (Choctaw) had to cancel in the months leading up to the conference, but participated in formulating our panel. Let me add that the conference was not only about Native issues, but rather focused on a broad range of topics that connect North America to the Middle East. Yazzie, who has recently traveled to Palestine, graciously read my paper. Bellerose may disagree with all of us, but he’s flat out wrong in saying no qualified American Indians took part.

Bellerose is even more wrong in his characterizations of the other panelists, most egregiously J. K?haulani Kauanui. He misquotes her as saying she is “part Indigenous Hawaiian,” a phrase she would not use to describe herself. Kauanui, who has written about Native Hawaiian issues and Palestinian issues for ICTMN, describes herself as Kanaka Maoli, which is what Native Hawaiians call themselves, as many ICT readers already know. Bellerose, however, seems to want to nudge us into thinking of Kauanui as less than sufficiently Indigenous.

He’s picked the wrong target. Kauanui can trace with remarkable detail the generations of her Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian lineages, and she speaks with tremendous first-hand experience and knowledge of Hawaiian traditions, protocol, history, and contemporary politics. As a scholar, she has an impeccable record of excellence and leadership. Her political work often intersects with the issues she writes about in her scholarship. She is fierce political partisan, and I’ll add that she is just as fiercely loyal as a friend. Her book Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty and Indigeneity is a great starting point for those (including Bellerose) with limited knowledge of Kanaka issues.

Kauanui also hosts a weekly radio show, Indigenous Politics from Native New England and Beyond. Though currently on hiatus, the hour-long show has been on the air and available as a podcast for over five years. It has featured guests from Indigenous communities around the world, including the US, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and many others. “I am getting tired of reading this woman’s claims,” Bellerose writes. If he wants to keep up with Kauanui and her razor sharp skills as a thinker, activist, and organizer, he’s going to need to rest up. She’s already running circles around him.

Indeed. In other recent writings, Bellerose has criticized the endorsement by the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association of the Palestinian call to academic and cultural boycott of Israel. As with the Beirut conference, Bellerose claims that NAISA is an organization of non-Native, non-Indigenous people. However, Kauanui and I were among the organizers of the drive to gain NAISA’s boycott endorsement, and the two of us were among the six founders of the association. All six founders and many hundreds of the association’s members are Indigenous, with American Indian, First Nations, and Metis people making up the bulk of that number.

In his rant against the Beirut panel, Bellerose says that he would “also like to know who this ‘Ashtan’ person is and what enables him to speak to this so-called ‘solidarity’ with Idle No More.” Bellerose is referring not to someone named Ashtan, but to Sa’ed Atshan, a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University and a graduate of Harvard. Atshan, who grew up in the West Bank, has written for ICTMN before on Palestinian issues and has focused some of his work on connections that Palestinian activists have made with the Idle No More movement in Canada. (Bellerose identifies himself as one of the organizers of Idle No More, though he has been quoted as saying “pretty much anyone can step up and say, ‘Hey, I’m a spokesperson for’” Idle No More).

Atshan is a serious and brave scholar who is fighting not just for justice in Palestine, but also for LGBTQ people everywhere. His work on solidarity between Palestinians and people involved in Idle No More is based on abundant evidence from interactions that occurred when INM was at its high point. Whether Bellerose agrees or not, those examples were often profound, and regular readers of ICTMN might recall several stories here that reported on those actions of Palestinian solidarity. A poster project became perhaps the most intriguing. To see what Atshan based his presentation on, search the Internet for Idle No More Palestine. (If you search for Idle No More Israel, by the way, you’ll find that same set of Palestinian-related links and several pro-Israel blog posts, virtually all of them by Ryan Bellerose).

Even as Bellerose misidentifies and unfairly dismisses Atshan, he leaves out the other Palestinian from the panel, Steven Salaita, even though he is perhaps the best equipped to speak to all sides of the issues involved. Salaita, a Palestinian American who teaches at Virginia Tech, earned a PhD in English from the University of Oklahoma, where he took advantage of that university’s many American Indian-related resources and faculty while writing a dissertation (later published as a book) that is the first full-length comparative study of contemporary Palestine and Native America. Along with that book, Salaita has written five others.

These are wonderful people and excellent scholars. Bellerose baselessly and in several cases namelessly attacks them in his flimsy and simplistic effort to argue that Israelis and Indigenous peoples are obvious and natural allies. He lays out a version of Middle East history that makes Jewish people the only group indigenous to Palestine and seeks to delegitimize Palestinian claims to their own homelands. In doing so, Bellerose picks and chooses among what he claims are facts that are “easily verified.” He fails to mention, among many other examples, the list of peoples in the Bible, including the Canaanites, Philistines, Jebusites, and Hittites, that Yahweh, the god of the Israelites, commanded the “chosen people” to exterminate in their quest to lay claim to the land Yahweh promised to them.

Archeological and other evidence suggests that something other than what we read about in the Christian Old Testament/Hebrew Bible actually led to the establishment of ancient Israel. Rather than those various groups of Indigenous people of the area becoming exterminated, the record seems to indicate that incorporation, not extermination, brought them together. Nothing about this history is as simple or straightforward as Bellerose says.

Because his rather simplistic version of the contemporary and historical Middle East does not agree with those on the Beirut panel and that of the vast majority of those who have critically studied the region’s complex archeological and documented past and present, Bellerose calls Kauanui and the rest of us “partially educated.” He employs stereotypical imagery of Palestinians, presumably including Atshan and Salaita, as natural born terrorists thirsty for Jewish blood. In the comments section of the online version of his essay, Bellerose calls me “stupid” and “a useful idiot.”

We’ve all been called worse and survived, so I won’t belabor Bellerose’s lack of decency and manners (and at least he admits I am useful!). I will, though, point out the way much of what Bellerose and others in the pro-Israel camp deploy—stereotypes of opponents as violent, ignorant, and intellectually inferior—is eerily familiar to me and lots of other Indigenous scholars and artists who have endorsed the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, including Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo), LeAnne Howe (Choctaw), Lee Maracle (Sto:lo), Vicente Diaz (Pohnpeian), Aileen Moreton-Robinson (Geonpul), Barker, Yazzie, and Rand.

That eery familiarity, however powerful, is not the primary basis of my 28 years of public solidarity with Palestinians. The issue of Palestine, Israel, and indigeneity has many layers and is anything but resolved. But it doesn’t have to be resolved for me to make up my mind in favor of standing in solidarity with Palestinian people. Similarly, I did not demand that marriage equality be somehow provably traditional among Navajo, Cherokee, or Osage people when I have publicly opposed legislation by these tribal nations against gay marriage. Likewise, I did not require clear guidance that Cherokee tradition demands racial justice to stand in solidarity with disenfranchised Cherokee freedmen. So, neither do I need Palestinians to qualify themselves as Indigenous before I understand their struggle to be connected to mine.

The reaction to ICTMN op-ed pieces on the Middle East over the past couple of years have revealed a disheartening lack of knowledge and compassion among American Indian and First Nations people about these issues. That seems especially true when you slog through the comments threads. Along with the usual Zionist suspects who patrol the Internet seeking to discredit any criticism of Israel and its occupation, comments from uncritical fans of Israel and from Bellerose on his own article expose those commenting as all too eager to sling mud.

The Indigenous world needs forums like this one to be places we can turn to for serious discussion and debate about the costs and benefits of participating in these complex issues. We won’t get to that sort of discussion so long as essays like Bellerose’s fill space that could and should be given over to people with something more substantial and less personal to say.

Robert Warrior is a member of the Osage Nation and Professor of American Indian Studies, English, and History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is the author or coauthor of five books, including Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (with Paul Chaat Smith). He is the founding president of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and first wrote for ICTMN in 1989, when it was the Lakota Times.