Palestinian Trail of Tears: Joy Harjo’s Missed Opportunity for Indigenous Solidarity
Ever since my childhood, I have always felt a deep connection with Native Americans. At the Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker institution established in Palestine over a century ago, we learned about our shared history as indigenous peoples who have faced ethnic cleansing by European colonists and the importance of nonviolent resistance for freedom and dignity.
Many Palestinians and those in solidarity with our struggle had hoped that Joy Harjo would be principled in heeding the calls of another subjugated people. We have been profoundly dismayed by her recent decision to accept funding from Tel Aviv University, an Israeli state institution, and to not only perform there on Monday but also to serve as a Writer-in-Residence. Soon after hearing this disappointing news, Native American peers of Harjo, including Robert Warrior, called on her to boycott the event. The Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) sent an open letter to Harjo imploring her to honor the boycott. A USACBI petition generated over 2,000 signatures within 36 hours. Harjo disregarded these requests and announced that she would proceed with the performance. Her statement expressed sympathy for Palestinian and Jewish suffering without acknowledging that many American settlers—like their Israeli counterparts—had also faced persecution in Europe, and that Jewish and Israeli voices have been invaluable to the BDS movement. Harjo crossed the picket line. She helped provide legitimacy to an institution that sits above the ethnically cleansed Palestinian village of Shaykh Muwannis while supporting the Israeli military occupation which is illegal under international law.
In Israel/Palestine, the displacement of Native Palestinian Christians and Muslims continues in an Israeli campaign to maintain a “Jewish state” privileging one ethno-religious group and institutionalizing segregation and discrimination with impunity. Israel just announced approval for 3,000 new Jewish-only settlement units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Each day, Israel steals more Palestinian land, bulldozes more homes, uproots more trees, and detains more children. The Palestinian cry for peace and justice continues after over six decades of dispossession. We look to people of conscience around the globe to hear this cry. Considering that Israel is the world’s largest recipient of U.S. aid, American tax dollars prolong the oppression of Palestinians.
Although this Trail of Tears continues, we have the power to stop it. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) call was issued in 2005 by over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations. This has become a global movement that draws inspiration from the South African struggle. Israel was one of apartheid South Africa’s greatest allies. Israel adopted many of South Africa’s policies which have been fundamental to the apartheid system imposed on indigenous Palestinians. Apartheid came to an end in South Africa as a result of external pressure through a global boycott, and the movement today boycotting Israeli organizations that are complicit in segregation and ethnic cleansing has been growing dramatically. The power of this approach comes from its effectiveness, nonviolent nature, targeting of institutions rather than individuals, and our demands for basic rights and Israeli compliance with international law.
Many activists have devoted countless hours in reaching out to Harjo on her Facebook page. So many of us have written respectfully as fans. I posted a comment explaining that Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip could not attend her performance because of the nature of the Israeli apartheid system, forced removal, and severe limits on mobility, including the right to travel from one Palestinian village to the next. It has been painful to see Harjo respond to various messages except those coming from Palestinian voices. She later posted: “I invite anyone here to sit at my kitchen table to speak with me.” Palestinians replied. I, too, sent a private email in addition to a Facebook message reiterating that we have limited mobility:
I understand what means to be indigenous to a land and to feel the spirit of our ancestors calling on us to return in the face of ethnic cleansing and colonization…My relatives and friends, who are now refugees in the West Bank… would all love to hear you speak, to meet you, to break bread with you on your kitchen table in Tel Aviv. Our village and ancestral lands are actually there beside you in Tel Aviv, yet we are refugees, and Palestinians are denied our right to return to homes and lands. My family and loved ones, who would be eager to accept your invitation cannot even travel freely within our own country, finding ourselves like animals behind cages, within Israeli prison cells, with a Wall three times the height of the Berlin Wall, hundreds of checkpoints between Palestinian towns, and Israeli settlements with Jewish-only roads devastating the earth.
I still have not received a response from Harjo.
We also drew her attention to those who have joined the boycott movement such as Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Naomi Klein, Judith Butler, Roger Waters, Jewish Voice for Peace, among many others. We shared our recent victory with Stevie Wonder. We posted about our work with Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions and an LGBT delegation from the U.S. to Palestine who endorsed BDS. The Indigenous and Women of Color delegation also called for BDS. We cited the Russell Tribunal on Palestine which included Dennis Banks from the American Indian Movement. We also posted that South Africans are helping to lead the global boycott struggle including Mbuyiseni Ndlozi. We shared the African National Congress’ official support for BDS and the statement by Baleka Mbete after her visit to Palestine that the Israeli regime “is far worse than Apartheid South Africa.”
No amount of pleading could move Harjo. She was persistent on accepting funds from—and granting legitimacy to—an institution complicit in Israeli colonization of Palestinian lands. Sarah Schulman, an esteemed writer and activist, who is lesbian, Jewish, and a supporter of the BDS movement also reached out to Harjo in an effort to convince her that the trip could instead engage Israelis and Palestinians in Tel Aviv and in the West Bank at venues that abide by the boycott guidelines. Schulman, too, had previously been invited to speak at Tel Aviv University and declined in order to honor the BDS call and used that as an opportunity for a solidarity visit that she chronicled in her recent book. Harjo refused Schulman’s request.
Academics and artists are not exempt from ethical responsibility. Just like with Sun City in apartheid South Africa, we saw the importance of musicians refusing to perform in solidarity with blacks and whites who expected action, not just words, in support of equal rights. Today, Palestinians and people of conscience around the world, including Israelis who are members of Boycott from Within are leading the struggle against ethnic cleansing and colonization despite the Israeli government’s criminalization of BDS activism. Though I am filled with sadness by Harjo’s actions, I am also filled with gladness that our movement will ultimately prevail because the arc of history bends toward justice. As Kahlil Gibran reminds us, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
Sa’ed Atshan is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University and is also a Lecturer in Peace and Justice Studies at Tufts University. He is from Palestine where he continues to serve as an activist with alQaws, an organization promoting LGBTQ rights for Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.