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The Native American Studies Association Boycott of Israel

Earlier this month the American Studies Association made big news when it voted to support the boycott, divest and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, igniting a conflagration of controversy in the media and academic worlds. With the ink barely dry on the ASA resolution the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) followed up with a similar declaration of support for BDS. Both follow the precedent set by the Asian American Studies Association (AAAS) in April.

The NAISA Declaration of Support affirms that:

“NAISA is dedicated to free academic inquiry about, with, and by Indigenous communities. The NAISA Council protests the infringement of the academic freedom of Indigenous Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the Occupied Territories and Israel who are denied fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, and assembly, which we uphold.

As the elected council of an international community of Indigenous and allied non-Indigenous scholars, students, and public intellectuals who have studied and resisted the colonization and domination of Indigenous lands via settler state structures throughout the world, we strongly protest the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against Palestinians and other Indigenous peoples.”

The boycott by the academic associations is part of the building momentum of the BDS movement, which was established in 2005 by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). While the AAAS declaration of support went relatively unnoticed, the ASA’s hotly debated declaration has received often acrimonious commentary across a broad and diverse spectrum of news outlets including Slate Magazine, Fox News, the New York Times, and the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Although ASA and NAISA were careful to point out that their boycotts are directed not at Israeli individuals but at institutions, pro-Israeli groups have attacked the boycotts (quite predictably) as anti-Semitic and ultimately contradictory to academic freedom.

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Boycott is employed as a tool of political pressure against abusive governments or other entities when conventional tactics fail. It can be extremely effective as the South African apartheid government found out prior to its fall in 1990, the event that inspired the BDS movement against apartheid Israel. ASA and especially NAISA are relatively small academic associations, a fact that some have emphasized, presumably to dismiss or at least minimize the significance of the boycott. But the scope and intensity of the majority of opinion writers seem to suggest the opposite: the possibility (and fear?) that maybe, just maybe, the international boycott of Israel is having palpable, measurable effects.

One writer at Haaretz speculates about an “Israel-centered brawl throughout U.S. campuses,” which would draw greater attention to the boycott movement and “the kind of publicity Israel can do without.” Another commentator credits any success of the boycott to Israel’s Prime Minister: “Maybe 2014 will be the year that Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel makes itself so unlikable, so unsympathetic, so intentionally anti-democratic – champion only of settlers, tycoons, and the Orthodox and Born Again Christian hard right - that boycotts will simply come naturally.” Yet another Israeli columnist writes of an approaching “tipping point” where worldwide support for BDS could be achieved, as happened in South Africa.

ASA and NAISA are discreet entities with objectives and agendas of their own, but they do share ties. The field of American Studies is a mix of academic disciplines that frequently crosses paths with Native American Studies and many Native scholars have feet in both Native American and American Studies (myself included). What they have in common is their critical perspectives on American colonialism.

American Indians can often be heard comparing their experience of persecution to that of the Jewish people, but such a perspective exhibits a lack of knowledge of more recent history. Israel is usually portrayed as the homeland of the Jewish people who were exiled 2,000 years ago and to which they have been righteously returned. But the conditions of that return reveal a dark and agonizing story for the people who were already there. These are people who were also indigenous to the land-- a story of modern-day settler colonialism in which the experience of Palestinians being ejected from their lands and ethnically cleansed far more closely resembles the experience of American Indians, Native Hawaiians and other indigenous peoples in settler states such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

American Indian intellectuals and scholars recognizing this express their solidarity for the Palestinian people—not against Jewish people, but against an unjust system of repression and profound human rights violations. And when the BDS movement has finally reached critical mass and Israel is at its tipping point, the only question left will be why it took so long.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies.