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Palestinian Trail of Tears: Joy Harjo’s Missed Opportunity for Indigenous Solidarity

Sa’ed Adel Atshan
12/11/12

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.

 

 

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jaydokie's picture
First of all, I am not expressing my personal opinion about your people's plight. I do somewhat resent your inference to your plight being like my Cherokee Nation's "Trail of Tears." I am sensitive just as your people are when it comes to remembering the wrongs we have experienced. We differ as a people in that you can see across the border what you believe to be yours. We Cherokees were removed not once, but several times and eventually to settle in Oklahoma some 1,200 miles away and several states away from our homeland border. We can't look across the fence to what was once ours, but we now have a land that is ours and that we will fight for. Along the way, we were starved, frozen, diseased, and separated from families and friends, perhaps somewhat like your people. Most folks really don't understand the Trail of Tears and what happened other than we were forced to relocate to a then foreign land sometimes called "No Man's" or "Outlaw Territory." It is a memory that will never be forgotten by my people. But we survived and we have prospered and now are a great Native Nation in spite of what was intended. As for Joy Harjo, even though I don't know her personally, we Native Americans are a people of many nations, but have commonality in many ways. There was a time that we were divided but now are joined together for a common purpose. Please understand that when you disparage one Native American, you continue the Government goal of the past, divide and conquer. I would just advise that a more subtle approach could be more appreciated.
jaydokie
Nancy Pontius's picture
Hello I just want to add in my two cents worth. A hate fest targeting one individual is not a good way to win people over to a successful boycott and her page was full of hateful comments, just one example out of many: a person calling one of her supporters an "Israeli virus" a person who was American and happened to be Jewish and even as she stated she was American, this person went on about her being a "human virus" because she had "Jewish blood." The page was filled with such hateful comments as this directed at anyone being supportive. I am for Palestinian rights but demonizing a peace poet who sees alternative ways to peace besides cultural boycott is not a way to win people over to the cause. She was being intimidated, with threats to destroy her reputation, continually harassed 24/7. This has gotten totally out of hand.
Nancy Pontius
Anonymous's picture
This is SO sad, many will understandably now see Harjo as a collaborator with the imperialists and a traitor to all indigenous people, as someone who is more interested in the cash than the morality of her actions. The only thing now which could maybe save her reputation would be a sincere apology to the Palestinian people, a denouncement of Israeli Occupation & Apartheid and a donation of her fee towards ongoing medical costs for the children of Gaza who were burnt and traumatised with American supplied White Phosphorus and who have suffered other horrendous injuries during the TWO American funded massacres of Gaza civilians. One could reasonably argue that every collaboration with ISraeli Apartheid undermines the sacrifices and valor of all those who DO find the courage and selflessness to make a stand against the brutal Illegal Occupation & Ethnic Cleansing.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Beautifully written letter. Thank you. I, too am filled with 'hole in my heart " sadness. Nuedi.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
It is most sad to see an American Indian whose ancestors experienced its own "holocaust" in the establishment of America, should give legitmacy to Israel's Apartheid
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I think that it just shows that money can buy anyone and anything!
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
As an anthropologist from MoroccoPresident of Tazzla Institute for Cultural Diversity, and an international Human Rights activist for our indigenous Berber movement of North Africa, Iwould like to indicate that "Palestinians" of today are ethnically Arabs , and as such part of the invading forces which have ruled oppressively over true indigenous peoples such as our people - over 30 million Amazigh people of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, the Sahara Desert, Mali and Niger. We Imazighen ("Free Human Beings") do not consider "Palestinians" as autochthonous populations and as Arabs, they definitely belong to a "white" group of oppressors.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
What about the firing of rockets by Hamas recently on Israel? Hamas started it not Israel. I don't care for someone like a closet Palestinian terrorist masquerading as an "INTELLECT" calling down and whining about a free thinking open minded Indian women who is more tolerant and who possess more courage than this guy or the other Indian Intellect's who begrudge her for stance and openess to the State of Israel. What kind of paper are you to allow this man to slander an honorable Indian women who is seeking peace on her intiative. WisGriz
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
You have forgotten the true meaning of art and one soul word heard by another heart does heal and break barriers, shame on you whose intent is harm instead of unity. Leave the artist Joy Harjo alone she speaks the truth for all people and you have done what oppressors do and are in fact the very enemy you deplore, go burn books elsewhere so different points of view will be silenced,
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
You have forgotten the true meaning of art and one soul word heard by another heart does heal and break barriers, shame on you whose intent is harm instead of unity. Leave the artist Joy Harjo alone she speaks the truth for all people and you have done what oppressors do and are in fact the very enemy you deplore, go burn books elsewhere so different points of view will be silenced,
Anonymous

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