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

Robert Warrior

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. Kēhaulani 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.




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mblue's picture
Thank you, Professor Warrior. Your response piece on Native Americans and Palestinians was well written and extremely informative. This is helpful as I seek to learn more about the geo-political debate on Indigenous issues and common and mutual interests Native peoples face.
montanamiddle's picture
The problem with this debate is everything is emotionally driven: see ad hominem attacks as the first weapon of choice, "all the while ignoring the indisputable facts at hand"--including this article. There is no timeline, first of all, and that would be most pivotal in this debate and the simplest way of seeing who should historically have claim to the land. After the destruction of the first Solomon’s Temple by the Babylonians 586 BCE, the Jews did not a have a place for their animal sacrifices and services. Thus, rabbis became more important to Jews as they carried on teachings and traditions orally. The second Jewish Temple – erected 70 years after Solomon’s Temple was destroyed – was razed by the Roman Empire at the conclusion of the Great Revolt in 70 CE in which all Jews were exiled from Jerusalem in a second Diaspora. All that remained of the temple was the Western Wall. So that was a period that lasted for 586 years(!) that the Jews controlled what is now 'Israel,' well over a millennium! Why isn't any article touching on that simple fact? Or we just stuck at, "brutal occupation" appeals to pity. Jews were brutally occupied as well--and long before the Palestinians were. But if you ask any Palestinian supporter, they'll even go as far as deny history and claim it's some type of myth like Adam and Eve. Well, it isn't, inconveniently for their 'claims.' When Jews visited the wall after Jerusalem was taken by the British from the Turks in 1917, they would cry in anguish, and hence it became known as the “Wailing Wall” to observers. Nearly two millennia after the Jerusalem under Jewish control was destroyed by the Romans, the state of Israel was created in 1948. But prior, after the 70 CE Great Revolt and fearing a permanent loss of their systematic oral law religion as the Jews were scattered, the Rabbi Judah wrote it down around 200 CE. Other rabbis edited and expanded upon it in a series of books known as the Talmud. So like it or not, Jewish people were there for a long time and have a great cultural and religious tie to the land, whereas Muslims razed a wall and erected a Mosque 640 years after the Temple was destroyed by the 'colonialist' (if you want to put it in 'indigenous terms') Roman Empire. I could go on about how much of the Israel land was unwanted and sold to Jews (or the now negative connotative 'Zionists') outright during the 1920's-30's by Arabs themselves, but that would take a piece all in it's own.
Lgáa's picture
I have followed the arguments, and although he isn't a scholar, Ryan Bellerose's writing is clear and logical. And, unlike Robert Warrior and Kehaulani Kauanui, he doesn't have the blood quantum blues. Kauanui doesn't look like she has enough Hawaiian blood for federal recognition as indigenous. How come it's all the whitest looking people who keep crying about being oppressed? It reminds me of "Imitation of Life," where the white looking daughter wants to hide her black mother, but in reverse. If you have to wear beads and feathers you have a problem, but it's your problem, not ours. My wish as a child was to be white so I wouldn't get beaten in school, so the teacher wouldn't look at me with hatred, so I could just be. I have no pity for people who look white and have all the benefits and advantages of that and cry about being oppressed: they don't know what real oppression is, so they attach themselves to Arabs in some sort of sick solidarity and cloying for belonging that they can't have. I paid for my identity all the years I had to attend white schools, and you can't have it.
rainbow's picture
Although proud of their Arab heritage and ancestry, the Palestinians consider themselves to be descended not only from Arab conquerors of the seventh century but also from indigenous peoples who had lived in the country since time immemorial, including the ancient Hebrews and the Canaanites before them. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_people
curtj's picture
History is constantly being rewritten to reflect the dominant societies races policies. Thanks to the traditional colonial governments of Britain and America, the European jews were plopped down in the middle of Palestinian lands, shortly after World War 2, when the ship bearing the European jews were denied refuge in every country, including America and Britain, so they decided the least resistance was to drop them off in Palestinian lands, which was one country of many, that Britain had exploited in the Mid East for centuries. Look to the policies of colonialism which has America and the Europeans militarily and financially supporting "Israel" no matter what, as they foist their policies of theft and murder on the Palestinians, the same policies America forced on the Indigenous on this continent. Look to every country and check which ones our CIA has destabilized in order for foreign owned conglomerates to go in and steal their natural resources and lands, during which the military industrial complex is raking in the profits off the sale of their wares of destruction. Remember the CIA is also doing fine with its extracurricular activities, like running guns and opium on its uncheckable flights, Air America in Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam Iraq, Iran Contra Affair when the CIA supplied Osama Bin Laden with supplies, weaponry and missles, or even supplying Saddam Hussein with weapons, support and the chemicals he used on his own people and the Iranians. Look at the CIA mounting the 1953 coup in Iran to replace the democratically elected Prime Minister with the depot dictator "Shah of Iran. Or the attempted coup of President Chavez in 2002, when the neo cons led by George H Bush tried to steal the nationalized Venezuelan oilfields from Venezuela. Colonialism = theft and murder = terrorist attacks I won't hold my breath for you to print this as I notice you all refuse to print anything that reflects badly on your corporate sponsors
curtj's picture
Why have a comment section if your noses are stuck up israels butt and refuse to print any comments that reflect on the jews?
Michael Madrid's picture
The middle east, in particular the frictions between Israel and the Palestinians is more complex than most of us admit. I do, however, recognize that an indigenous people are being discriminated against in their own country and the politics of the occupying country are keeping them poor. As I've said a hundred times before, the Israelis have forgotten what it's like to be Jewish. How else can they justify treating the Palestinians the way the Nazis treated the Jews before WWII? We should quit supporting Israel. They have more than enough armament to survive.
Michael Madrid
rainbow's picture
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently said: “You see for Israel there’s an increasing de-legitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things….” Kerry is telling Israel that if they do not reach an agreement with the Palestinians, there will be boycotts and other ramifications for the Jewish state! Netanyahu, at the opening of his weekly cabinet meeting said that Palestinians feel that Israel will eventually have to cave in to more of their demands in order to avoid the sting of boycotts and lack of business for their international companies and contracts. These are now real threats, with European officials warning Israel they could face increasing economic isolation if they push forward with more settlement construction. An example of this is Danske Bank (Denmark’s largest bank) blacklisting Israel’s Bank Hapoalim due to their links to settlement construction.
globe's picture
The complexity of the Middle East's politics and the questions of Palestinian or Israeli/Jewish indigeneity are not easily addressed as the historic context is very different from what we American Indians have experienced. With that said, I'd like to comment that I consider the politics of the Palestine/Israel region to be driven by economic interests as the various parties to the conflict seem to be profiting from perpetuating the conflict. There are lots of innocent victims in this kind of profiteering but it doesn't seem to matter to either side, as both sides of the conflict seem to be well supported in their military efforts. It is a kind of industry that is built upon misery, the more misery, the more money is donated. The Israeli settlements and weaponry are paid for by someone, not sure if it is the US that is paying for all of this directly, but certainly the US helps to enable this conflict to continue with its rather dogmatic policy backing Israel in spite of what it does to the Palestinians. Certainly there are other interests backing Palestinian liberation efforts with similar dogmatic vigor. Its such a mess that I'd rather stay out of it if I could but I have to remark that the Palestinians have long supported the cause of indigenous peoples' self determination at the international/ UN level, long before the USA would even consider it. The US government only recently and very tepidly endorsed a minimalist reading of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I'm just making the point here that there is a record that exists at the UN that illustrates just exactly who has stood with Indigenous Peoples and who has not and that we may want to factor that bit of history into our thinking here.
Shadowstands's picture
Dr. Robert Warrior, With respect to your position in the American Indigenous Studies Program: I have some questions I need answered before I can assess what you are writing, (aside from this attack on Ryan Bellerose's opinion) If you would be so kind to answer these, it would make for a better comprehension of a number of your writings on the questions about the Israeli-Palestinian Issues, and the History of the Peoples of the Levant in general. 1) How long after militarily conquering a place, and settling there,is it before any given group is considered "Indigenous" to that Land? 2) If a People, once Indigenous to a given piece of geography, eventually return to it, are they no longer considered Indigenous? 3) How do you determine what is, and who is Indigenous? 4) Do you speak, read or write Arabic, Aramaic, or Hebrew? And have you received any formal or informal education and training concerning the last 15,000 years of Levantine History and Cultures? And if so, where? I have opposed many of your writings and stance regarding that situation over there, both because of my own education, training and the Levantine heritage my Father's Family comes from, but also due to the fact that I don't like to see NDN Folks dragged into other People's fights and prejudices, as if there weren't enough to deal with for NDN Folks here. I also have major prejudices against militantly proselytizing religions that would, given the opportunity, wipe out Traditional Ceremonies, and Spiritual Practices here. Nor, do I believe that most NDN Folks are ok with advocating for, and supporting the ethnic cleansing, genocide, and expropriation of Jewish Folks, nor the historic Islamic "Dhemmi" apartheid Sharia Laws placed on Christians and Jews in all Muslim ruled Empires. So, I come to a fifth question: Why would an NDN Scholar from Oklahoma be so supportive of any People whose avowed goals include these things? Just askin'...