Native Americans turning on Israel?

As far as American Indians are concerned, that nation certainly knows the risks of yielding land for peace.

Navajo reservation 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Navajo reservation 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 2008, the Sovereign Nation of the Coushatta Indiana Tribe of Louisiana was the first Native American tribe to establish a formal relationship with Israel, hosting an affirmation of friendship event with Israeli consular officials and issuing a proclamation that May 14 would be “Stakayoop Yanihta Yisrael” or “the day to honor Israel.”
The following year the tribe took a delegation to Israel which resulted in their first Israel-related venture, becoming the exclusive distributor of Aya Natural, an Israeli start-up skincare company based in the Druse community of Beit Jann in the Galilee. David Sickey, the head of the tribe, has made a number of visits here since as well to promote additional cooperative business activity.
In late 2009 Virginia Native American leader Chief Annie Richardson met with Minister of Infrastructure Uzi Landau and told him the American Indians support the State of Israel and its right to the land of Israel. In presenting Landau with a traditional Indian headdress at that time she said, “We believe that God has given you this land and we want you to fight for it.”
More recently, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and his wife Martha visited Israel to learn about issues from agriculture to tourism. On his arrival here on December 8 he said, “We set out on this mission to look at how Israel has advanced in growth in some of the same areas we face in the Navajo Nation.” The trip, funded by Navajo faith-based organizations with non-governmental ties, was designed to draw inspiration from Israeli methods in agri-tech, tourism, capital infrastructure and offering government services to rural areas, according to Shelly’s adviser, Deswood Tome.
But the criticism of Shelly’s visit and one by Indian literary diva Joy Harjo (who was scheduled to speak at Tel Aviv University) was anything but supporting of Israel. In truth there has been an upsurge of anti-Israel sentiment by a very small but very vocal contingent in “Indian country” within the past two weeks, most notably in opposition to both visits.
The response has included very negative, vitriolic letters to The Navajo Times against President Shelly’s visit and a similarly negative and vitriolic op-ed piece in Indian Country Today opposing Joy Harjo’s visit, sponsored by supporters of the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement.
Janene Yazzie, CEO of Sixth World Solutions in Lupton, Arizona, writes in the Navajo Times: “It should not shock or surprise us that our Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly has taken an unexpected trip to visit Israel, a government that has committed itself to carrying out genocidal practices against its population of indigenous Palestinian peoples. To hear that our president believes the apartheid government of Israel has more to offer than the Diné people in his homeland fighting against his policies is hurtful and unbelievably ignorant. I stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine and those indigenous nations and non-indigenous peoples fighting against continued corporate, religious, and political exploitation.”
Or how about this piece by Dina Gilio- Whitaker in the largest circulation weekly, Indian Country Today: “This week Muscogee Creek scholar and literary diva Joy Harjo ignited a firestorm of controversy when she announced on Facebook that she was leaving for a trip to Israel where she was scheduled to perform on Monday, December 10 At Tel Aviv University.
The controversy came when friends and fans challenged her decision to go in light of the US Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) and the Palestine Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), as part of a larger boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
“Critics contend that her actions are equivalent to crossing a picket line and are tantamount to tacit support of the Israeli apartheid state. It is hard to know what Harjo is thinking and where her loyalties lie in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It is also hard to know how President Shelley would justify his alliance with Israel in light of its ongoing genocide and theft of Palestinian lands.
“The problem with someone as high profile as Joy Harjo collaborating with an institution like Tel Aviv University (which is built on top of an ethnically cleansed Palestinian village) is that it sends a message that she as a Native American represents all Native Americans in support of apartheid Israel’s domination of Palestinians. I, for one, don’t want to be associated with that.”
Dr. Harjo received so much vile commentary on her Facebook page that she considered shutting it down. However, she did take the opposition into account, writing both an eloquent response to her critics and taking an overnight visit to Ramallah. As a result, she now opposes the security fence.
Oftentimes when the subject turns to “the whole world is against us” people tell me that the core problem of maintaining such a perspective is that it often becomes an excuse for eschewing self-evaluation and introspection.
Yet when it comes to self-evaluation and introspection, there is probably no nation on earth that engages in these two activities more than Israel as these traits are ingrained in us with our mother’s milk. After all, most of us grew up being constantly evaluated by our parents, encouraged to achieve more, to do better, to be a mensch and to remember who we are and where we came from.
Internalizing those traits has made us question everything we do, both individually and communally, and is probably one of the major reasons this society is as dynamic as it is, in spite of the continuous threats to our survival. So while there is, of course, always a risk that thinking that the whole world is against us will cause us to act a bit irrationally, given the facts as we know them, who could blame us?
As far as American Indians are concerned, that nation certainly knows the risks of yielding land for peace. It has itself been discriminated against and confined to “reservations” to the eternal shame of both the United States and Canada, and, as such, they should be the last ones to accuse Israel of being an apartheid state. But then again, why let facts get in the way of emotions? To insure against that one also has to think.
The writer, a 29-year resident of Israel, is president of Atid-EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm and a former national president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel.