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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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tmsyr11's picture
Literally shooting missiles/rockets from "CIVILIAN" centers in the Gaza strip into "CIVILIAN" centers in Israel doesn't sound even like promoting 'rights' and 'peace' to PEOPLES in the region. How about everytime a Islamic Terrorist events occurs in the world - Palestinians - are pictured and recorded CELEBRATING and CHEERING in the streets! Very confusing and offensive in how Palestinians define "PEACE" to the rest of the World.
tmsyr11
swrussel's picture
As a Cherokee, I'm not too happy having the Trail of Tears compared to the problems in the Middle East. At the end of the League of Nations mandate, Palestine was partitioned and the Palestinians had a state with the borders they now claim to want. Their patrons in the Arab states fought several wars to contest those borders and lost each one. Now, Israel wants one thing to return to the prior borders as if the wars never happened: recognition as a Jewish state. American Indians understand theocratic states, or they used to. The American left used to support the Israelis on socialist grounds; now they support the Palestinians on anti-colonial grounds. Neither made much sense. A two state solution is hard, but a one state solution is the end of the Jewish state. Anybody who calls this clear cut is not thinking very seriously.
swrussel
Anonymous's picture
Frankly, I think colonized and oppressed peoples should stick together. I agree with the author. Entering Palestine is much like crossing the border onto a reservation. What's been done to Palestinians is appalling.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
I am sick of people trying make comparisons between "Palestinians" and Natives. If anything, "Palestinians" are like wannabe "tribes" in the south that seek recognition and are in reality not even NDN. There is no "palestinian" language or culture. Since Roman times when the Philistines inhabited the region around the Jordan (hence the name “Palestine”) there has never been a political entity – neither a province nor a state – called “Palestine” and no one claimed there was until well after the United Nations created Israel in 1948. The land on which Israel was created by the U.N. was also used by the colonial powers to create Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. It was land that had belonged to Turkey for 400 years. The Turks are not “Palestinians” and are not even arabs. There never was an Arab country called “Palestine” or inhabited by “Palestinians.” Before the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, which was sixteen years after the birth of Israel, no Arab political entity was called by that name.
Anonymous
smoke's picture
I am sick of people trying make comparisons between "Palestinians" and Natives. If anything, "Palestinians" are like wannabe "tribes" in the south that seek recognition and are in reality not even NDN. There is no "palestinian" language or culture. Since Roman times when the Philistines inhabited the region around the Jordan (hence the name “Palestine”) there has never been a political entity – neither a province nor a state – called “Palestine” and no one claimed there was until well after the United Nations created Israel in 1948. The land on which Israel was created by the U.N. was also used by the colonial powers to create Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan. It was land that had belonged to Turkey for 400 years. The Turks are not “Palestinians” and are not even arabs. There never was an Arab country called “Palestine” or inhabited by “Palestinians.” Before the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964, which was sixteen years after the birth of Israel, no Arab political entity was called by that name.
smoke
Anonymous's picture
Your words could not be more poignant, informative, committed, and even respectful about Joy Harjo's failure to acknowledge the ways in which her performance in Tel Aviv and residency in Israel work against the struggle of Palestinians to be treated in humane, politically respectful, and equal terms. "Kitchen table" talks with people who fight against ethnic cleansing, behind many checkpoints, guards, etc.? In addition to deep disappointment and sadness around Joy's decisions, I believe she can still make the situation right by speaking out publically and distancing herself from Israel's genocidal policies.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Look at the size of Israel. Look at the size of the Arab states. Each and every one of the Arab states has been ethnically cleansed of Jews, in the process stealing more land than the area of Israel 5 times over. On the other hand, Israel still has a sizable Arab population. Next time consider that.
Anonymous
Anonymous's picture
Another lie and political manipulation. "palestinians" are not indigenous : one of the example was that Arafat was born in Egypt ... They don't mind about Native american struggle, they just use them for their own political aims . The saddest is that they believe in their own myth, a myth built by French and English that wanted to divided Hebrew and Arab :
Anonymous
Ryanbellerose's picture
Its very telling that the only comments in support on this garbage are anonymous. why must you people make invalid comparisons to the situation of Native americans? the treatment of Palestinians was benign in nature when compared to how we were treated. I dont think you understand, your attempts to conflate your situation with ours is insulting for several reasons. 1- you are not indigenous to the land you are attempting to claim, and your claims are based on long standing presence , not indigenous status, that alone is ridiculous. 2- you attack the actual indigenous peoples claims of indigenous status even though the arguments you make in fact attack native american indigenous status. 3-we have been the victims of a genocide that has been ongoing, while your population has exploded, so the fact that you continue to try to steal our history the way you stole the history of the jews is not only obvious, but insulting. 4- the fact that you belong to a group promoting gay rights in Israel, says it all, Israel actually has rights for gays, maybe you should go to Gaza and the PA and advocate for gays there? or would that be too risky? 5- Joy has more integrity in her pinky finger than you do in your entire waste of space body, she has undergone true oppression, on a level that palestinians havent even come close to experiencing, so take your smarmy insults somewhere else.
Ryanbellerose

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