The decision by Native American poet Joy Harjo to reject Palestinian calls to cancel her performance last Monday at Tel Aviv University has continued to generate strong reactions from Native American and Palestinian voices.
Meanwhile, it has become clear how invested extreme anti-Palestinian Israeli propaganda groups were in Harjo’s visit to score a victory against the Palestinian campaign for human rights.
Making complicity “fade away”
Writing on her blog Tequila Sovereign, Joanne Barker, Associate Professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University, was critical of Harjo’s decision.
After summarizing what she called the “sound bites” of the controversy, Barker, a member of the Lenape tribe, zeroed in on Harjo’s justifications for refusing the boycott call:
Harjo has posted on Facebook and Twitter about her frustration with people’s judgmental criticisms of her decision—that they do not understand her political commitments and consciousness and instead seek her censure as an artist.
I do not understand these comments. I do not hear Palestinians asking for Native academics and artists to come to Israel to perform for an audience in which they would be an unwelcomed minority on lands from which they have been violently dispossessed. I hear something else.
Barker notes that “a deep ignorance about Palestine” and “an active looking away from Palestine characterizes U.S. and world news coverage, academic discussions, and the arts. And this is true of Native academics and artists as well.”
She empathizes with the “stressful” personal situation Harjo found herself in and calls for “compassion.” But Barker is unsparing in her political judgment of Harjo’s act, and has no time for claims that any individual’s art is so special that that person has an obligation to share it despite a clear call for boycott rooted in a struggle for human rights.
Thus, she writes, “I also want the facade of being misunderstood, censured, and bullied – of ultimately having so much to offer that one is obligated to go – to fade away.”
Noting that Native American governments have been complicit with, or coopted by Israel, Barker says:
I want Native governments to divest themselves from Israel as well (most immediately the Chickasaw and Navajo governments, who support Israeli products and send delegates to the Israeli government).
Notably, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly was in Israel for an official visit at the same time as Harjo.
Palestinian Trail of Tears
In an oped for Indian Country Today Palestinian activist and scholar Sa’ed Adel Atshan compared Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleasing of Palestinians to the Trail of Tears, the forced expulsion by the United States Government of 15,000 Cherokee people from their homeland east of the Mississippi in 1838 and 1839 toward what is now Oklahoma, leading to the deaths of 4,000 amid immense suffering.
Atshan was particularly scornful of Harjo’s calls for “dialogue” while ignoring specifically Palestinian voices:
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.
Atshan’s entire article is well-worth reading.
“Don’t let them win”: Racists and ethnic cleansers for Joy Harjo
If Joy Harjo thought that her presence in Tel Aviv would generate reflection among Israelis, there’s been no sign of that. Quite the contrary.
An Israeli government-sponsored student hasbara (state propaganda) group called “What Is RAEL,” claimed victory in a tweet at what it called a “#BDSFail” and also claimed on its Facebook page, without offering any evidence, that Harjo had been subjected to “ugly threats from BDS activists - calling her to boycott Tel-Aviv University and its students.”
Before Harjo’s performance, extreme racist anti-Palestinian group Im Tirzu on Sunday posted an action alert on its Facebook page in Hebrew warning about the boycott calls Harjo was hearing. Im Tirtzu urged as many people as possible to show up. “Don’t let them win,” the action alert said.
The alert was shared from Im Tirtzu’s page by the official student union at Tel Aviv University. The Tel Aviv University student union is affiliated with the National Union of Israeli Students which assists the government with its anti-Palestinian propaganda.
Among Im Tirtzu’s more recent campus activities was organizing a rally at Haifa University supporting the Israeli army’s Israeli attack on Gaza, at which some students chanted “Death to the Arabs.”
Those are some of the allies and defenders Joy Harjo found in Israel.