Of Water, Zionism, and Indigenous Rights

By Ryan Bellerose on June 26, 2013

An organization called Justice for Palestinians (JfP) is attempting to organize, in conjunction with the Council of Canadians, a public conference titled Indigenous Perspectives on Water: Canada and Palestine. The objective is clearly to portray Palestinian and native rights issues as one and the same.  Indeed, it has come to my attention that JFP is seeking a native speaker to participate in the conference and, ideally, one from Idle No More (INM), a native rights movement in which I have been active.  

I take strong issue with Palestinians’ appropriation of the native cause. Undoubtedly, the Palestinians’ situation is not ideal. But that, alone, is not sufficient to draw equivalence between the Palestinians’ plight and that of First Nations.  And there are many reasons, from a Native perspective, to reject the conflation of Palestinian and Indigenous rights issues. 

To begin, though Palestinian propagandists love to characterize Zionism (that is, Jewish nationalism) and its success in re-establishing Israel in 1948 as colonial enterprises, it is the Jews who are the aboriginal people in the Holy Land, not the Arabs. This truth is seldom spoken but, alone among other nations, Jews’ language, identity, history, culture, mythology, folklore and values were born and forged in the Holy Land. In stark contrast, Arabs arrived to the Holy Land only in the 7th century, when Arabian armies invaded andcolonized the entire Middle East and North Africa – suppressing countless indigenous populations along the way.  

There is no statute of limitations on being indigenous and remnants of empires past don’t get to claim indigenous status merely through nebulous ties after colonizing. There must be clear, maternal ties to the land, established through historical and archaeological facts, not rhetoric. To claim that the Jews, a once-displaced indigenous people returned to sovereignty on part of their historic homeland are colonizers is something that I therefore find highly offensive – especially when it is the descendents of colonizers making that claim. In fact, any attempt to delegitimize Israel or Zionism as colonial delegitimizes ALL indigenous peoples everywhere because such attempts trivialize the core criteria that make us who we are: indigenous. 

And while it may generate rights, longstanding presence on a certain piece of land is not in any way synonymous with being indigenous. Europeans have been on American soil for centuries and have developed a different identity here. But that alone does not render them indigenous, in the politically-charged sense of the word. Like Arabic culture in the Holy Land, white North American culture was born elsewhere, and imported via invasions and occupation. Tellingly perhaps, the Palestinians are deafeningly silent with respect to the rights of indigenous peoples still dominated by Arabs from Morocco to Iraq. I question a support for indigenous rights that is so self-servingly selective. 

Second, there can be no comparison between the Palestinians’ experience and that of Native Canadians. It is well known that North American indigenous peoples suffered genocide of unfathomable proportions. Our people were obliterated through war, massacres, disease and starvation. Survivors were treated as vermin and our culture, language and religions were all attacked in a declared attempt to remove us from the pages of history. (This, ironically, was also the declared aim of the Palestinian Arab militias and Arab armies who attacked a nascent Israel in 1947 and 48.) Survivors’ children were abducted and forced into assimilation. The numbers speak for themselves: 65 million people reduced to less than 3; a world was erased. THAT is genocide. And it is sacred history. The Palestinians, in shouting contrast, grew from a population of approximately 1 million in 1948 (when Israel was established) to well over 6 million in 2013, an extremely healthy growth rate, to say the least. Moreover, the average Palestinian still living under Israeli rule lives under conditions that our people could only have dreamed of and that, in many cases, are far better than those on many reservations today.  

In fact, one could make the argument that no aggrieved people has ever been treated as well as the Palestinians have. (The Palestinian authority has received approximately $30 billion in international aid since 1993). This, despite the fact that Palestinian nationalism’s preferred method of political expression has, sadly, been terrorism. In view of this, any comparison to First Nations is enraging.  

My reasons for rejecting the conflation of Palestinians and Indigenous Americans do not end with historical fact. I also am offended that my people’s cause appears to serve merely as a prop for Palestinian propaganda. I have yet to hear a single Palestinian spokesman genuinely defend a native rights issue on its own merits. Moreover, in my experience, the conversation with Palestinian groups seems very one-sided, with Palestinian groups TELLING us what we should believe about our supposed commonalities yet being extremely reluctant to consider our differing points of view. For example, I have seen Palestinian materials juxtaposing Native-American symbols – for example, the feather, a symbol of peace – to AK-47 assault rifles, a common symbol of Pan-Arabist and Islamist militantism in the Middle East. And yet, unlike most Palestinian nationalist groups across the board, Native rights movements seek to be peaceful and inclusive. These crucial differences are systematically ignored by Palestinian groups who seem only too eager to wrap themselves in the indigenous mantle while limiting their solidarity to the cosmetic. Zionist and Jewish activists, on the other hand, seem genuinely motivated to help and have, for example, shared with numerous native groups their innovative agricultural techniques and linguistic programs. Moreover, they never exaggerate the very real tragedies they have suffered in order to gain sympathy with Native Americans. And they listen. The importance of this cannot be overstated. 

The stakes are high. The Canadian Government is currently fighting to remove protections from our waters. The impact of these measures could be considerable as many Indian communities still rely heavily on natural water sources. By ignoring treaties and its duty to consult with Native communities, the Canadian government could essentially circumvent all protections established in the Indian Act. Accordingly, Natives cannot let themselves be used merely as ornamentation to Palestinian propaganda. We do not want or need such "solidarity". 

For too long we natives have let an uncompromising and reactionary Palestinian narrative substitute for facts. I can only trust and hope that once the facts become known, native people will re-assess highly questionable sympathies. Our own self-interest demands no less. 

Ryan Bellerose is a Metis from Alberta. He founded Canadians for Accountability, a Native rights advocacy group, and is an Idle No More movement organizer. He is also a founding member in the Calgary United with Israel (CUWI) organization and is a self-proclaimed Zionist. 


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