A Native American team is ignoring appeals from Palestinians and Indigenous activists to cancel its participation in the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships in Israel.
Israel plans to use the visiting players as “ambassadors” for its global propaganda effort to assert its political claims to Jerusalem.
But Palestinians are still hoping that the Iroquois Nationals will change their minds just days before the team’s first match is scheduled to be played at Netanya stadium.
“Our basic position on this is that we are going to play the game of lacrosse,” Ansley Jemison, executive director of the Iroquois Nationals, told The Electronic Intifada by telephone on Monday. “This is a gift that is a medicine game in our culture. We are trying to bring a medicine game, a healing game.”
“We are bringing a message of peace,” Jemison added. “There are issues on both sides of this. We are trying to remain neutral in this discussion.”
“Ambassadors for Israel”
But Jemison’s contention that sports and politics should be kept apart in this case is entirely at odds with how the Iroquois Nationals team has itself taken an active role in the struggle for Indigenous recognition and sovereignty.
The Iroquois Nationals team represents the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee, a group of Indigenous nations whose territory extends across parts of what is now the northeastern United States and eastern Canada.
Earlier this month, PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, urged the Iroquois Nationals to deny Israel “the opportunity to use the national sport of the Iroquois to cover up its escalating, violent ethnic cleansing of Palestinians throughout our ancestral lands.”
“As Indigenous peoples, we have both seen our traditional lands colonized, our people ethnically cleansed and massacred by colonial settlers,” PACBI said in a letter published just as Israel moved to begin the final and complete destruction of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar.
The letter highlighted Israel’s systematic violence against Palestinian athletes and its destruction of Palestinian sports facilities.
PACBI has pointed out that the lacrosse tournament is being played at venues built on ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages, including Bayyarat Hannun, whose lands are in the shadow of Netanya stadium.
The tournament is being sponsored by the Israeli government as part of its efforts to use international cultural and sporting activities to whitewash its crimes against Palestinians, most recently its massacres of unarmed civilians in Gaza, which human rights groups say must be investigated as war crimes.
David Lasday, the head of Israel’s lacrosse federation, has acknowledged the propaganda value of hosting the tournament, calling the 10-day competition an opportunity for “amazing exposure both domestically and internationally for Israel and lacrosse.”
Lasday wrote in The Times of Israel that Israel will be giving the players “the gift of Jerusalem,” sending each team on a day trip that will include the Old City, part of occupied East Jerusalem, which Israel claims to have annexed in defiance of international law. Palestinians in Jerusalem face systematic Israeli violence to force them out of their native city.
Lasday added that “each visit will be filmed and broadcast during the games” and that “the championship will create an unprecedented amount of influencers to serve as ambassadors for Israel.”
Last week, some members of the team met with Dani Dayan, Israel’s ambassador at the United Nations in New York. Dayan is a former leader of Israel’s settlements built on land stolen from Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in violation of numerous UN resolutions.
Sports and sovereignty
A key issue for the Iroquois Nationals team is whether countries recognize players’ Haudenosaunee passports.
Israel does plan to accept the Haudenosaunee passports, and the team would not be going there if Israel had refused to do so, Jemison confirmed to The Electronic Intifada.
“We are traveling on our passports this time,” Jemison stated.
The team director became testy and accused this reporter of being “very slanted” when asked why the team is willing to set aside politics when it comes to the life and death struggles of Palestinians appealing for solidarity, but sees lacrosse as highly political when it comes to the Haudenosaunee struggle for recognition of their sovereignty.
At one point Jemison abruptly ended the call, but then called back to continue the conversation.
Stanley Cohen, an attorney who has worked with Haudenosaunee tribes and individuals for decades, is scathing about the team’s decision.
“This is a clear break with Indigenous brother and sisterhood as a small group of executives of the team break bread with the same colonial forces that have oppressed Indians for hundreds of years,” Cohen told The Electronic Intifada.
A vocal supporter of Palestinian rights, Cohen has been tweeting his criticisms of the Iroquois Nationals planned trip to Israel.
Cohen also cast doubt on the value of Israel’s recognition of the Haudenosaunee passports.
“I don’t believe for a moment that Israel agreed to accept the Haudenosaunee passport until they heard that there was some developing resistance to the trip,” Cohen said.
“I guarantee you a month from now if any member of the confederacy shows up at Ben Gurion airport and says they want to come in for a vacation or to study, they’d be thrown out in a heartbeat – especially given that many are dark skinned,” Cohen added. “This is pure tokenism at its worst.”
Cohen said he was involved in the 2010 negotiations with the US State Department that allowed the team to leave and re-enter the US on Haudenosaunee passports, however the arrangement broke down when the UK refused to accept the documents.
Cohen has suggested that a “payday” was involved in enticing the team to Israel.
But team director Ansley Jemison told The Electronic Intifada that the team had mounted a public fundraising campaign to pay for the trip.
Asked if there had been any contributions from Israel or pro-Israel organizations, Jemison replied, “not to my knowledge.”
Cohen told The Electronic Intifada that he and several Indigenous activists made intense efforts to communicate with traditional leadership in the confederacy. However offers of meetings with Palestinian activists and other opportunities to discuss the matters at stake were met with no response.
An Indigenous organizer involved in those efforts was contacted by The Electronic Intifada but did not respond in time for publication.
Land theft, genocide, oppression
The matter is nonetheless drawing coverage and comment in Indigenous media.
In an article for the influential publication Indian Country Today, Cody Jock, an activist from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of Akwesasne, urged the team to consider a boycott.
“I hope those young men on the Iroquois Nationals understand our history and are able to see that what is happening to the Palestinians, is exactly what has happened to us. Land theft, genocide, oppression are all things that we as Onkwehonwe have experienced,” Jock wrote.
On the Iroquois Nationals Facebook page, many fans are also urging the team not to go to Israel.
“We know how hard our players have worked to get to this level. You all deserve to play but no game is worth ignoring (and effectively legitimizing) the crimes (genocide, apartheid, occupation and colonialism) Israel is committing,” Bomberry Middy wrote.
“As a Haudenosaunee Womb Carrier I stand with our Indigenous Sister [and] Brother Palestinians against the Iroquois Nationals participation” in Israel, Paula Hemlock stated. “The Iroquois Nationals represent all Haudenosaunee and so does the Haudenosaunee Grand Council who passed a resolution stating the Iroquois Nationals should not participate.”
Even at this late hour, Palestinian campaigners are not giving up.
“Our heartfelt appeal to our brothers, the Iroquois Nationals, calls on them to respect our nonviolent picket line and withdraw from the World Lacrosse Championships in Israel,” PACBI wrote to The Electronic Intifada on Monday.
“We are hopeful that the Iroquois Nationals will announce their withdrawal ahead of the first scheduled match on Thursday, in the spirit of our shared struggle for self-determination and against colonialism,” PACBI added.