The UN has declared 2014 to be the “Year of solidarity with the Palestinian people”, a move that reflects the rising level of international support for equal rights and justice in Palestine. But while this is certainly a welcome development, we must also recognise that the liberal framework underpinning the UN and international law, which the Palestinian Authority and international activists are both increasingly calling upon, prioritises individual rights and national sovereignty within a bounded geographical territory, whereas the Palestinian cause is actually a struggle for the self-determination of all Palestinians, no matter where they happen to live.
This is why it is so important that communities that have been subject to similar forms of collective oppression throughout history, and which continue to suffer today, are also increasingly mobilising in support of the liberation of Palestine, from South Africa to India to North America. The struggle for collective rights unites all Indigenous peoples, and while the struggle against oppression and for liberation is something universal, when the oppression is collectively based, liberation must also be collectively realised. Thus those seeking universal liberation are uniting in the fight against colonialism and imperialism, the frameworks of collective oppression.
While the American Studies Association dominated the headlines last month after it decided to endorse the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, following the precedent set by the Asian American Studies Association in April 2013, shortly afterwards the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) also announced its support for the boycott campaign.
According to Indian Country Today newsmagazine, the leading independent news source providing a national platform for Native voices and issues, the NAISA declaration of support states that: “As the elected council of an international community of Indigenous and allied non-Indigenous scholars, students, and public intellectuals who have studied and resisted the colonisation and domination of Indigenous lands via settler state structures throughout the world, we strongly protest the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and the legal structures of the Israeli state that systematically discriminate against Palestinians and other Indigenous peoples.”
There are many reasons why supporters of Indigenous rights would stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. Of course Palestinians are indigenous to the land of Palestine, but we should not forget that this is a movement seeking to empower all those who continue to be collectively oppressed by the colonial and imperial projects, ultimately securing rights for all humans.
The struggle against colonialism and for Indigenous rights in the Americas has been going on for centuries. As Native American author and political activist Ward Churchill testified to the New York session for the Russell Tribunal on Palestine in October 2012: “By the beginning of the twentieth century the population of American Indians in North America had been reduced by roughly 95 per cent from the onset of the European invasion some 300 years earlier.” The European settlers achieved this mass genocide – the near eradication of all Indigenous peoples of North America – through the systematic killing, displacement and quarantining of Native Americans, as well as the destruction of their livelihoods and ecosystems, leading to disease and environmental degradation.
Churchill stressed that this history of oppression continues, with rampant poverty, unemployment and preventable diseases afflicting many American Indian communities today. This is because the colonial project never really ended: “The status of American Indian peoples as sovereign nations has been recognized 400 times over through the ratification of treaties by the US. Nonetheless, the US has unilaterally asserted jurisdiction over all remaining Indian territories within its claimed boundaries.” Furthermore, by repeatedly enforcing policies that undermine the collective aspects of Native American cultures, the US has become more effective at confronting their resistance.
Churchill ended his testimony by saying that much of the American Indian story “will resonate with considerable familiarity among Palestinians. While the particulars are in many respects different, the effects suffered are entirely similar.”
Indeed, there is growing level of solidarity between the Indigenous peoples of North America and Palestine. In addition to the NAISA endorsement of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, in December 2012 more than 100 Palestinian activists and 50 solidarity organisations signed onto a statement of support for Indigenous rights and Canada’s Idle No More movement in particular, which stands firmly against colonisation, racism, injustice and oppression.
In a recent issue of Jacobin magazine with a special focus on Palestine, the editors argue that: “Building a European state outside of Europe meant the destruction, expulsion, or assimilation of Indigenous people, what the historian Patrick Wolfe has called the ‘logic of elimination’.” Although they are making a particular point about Palestine here, their argument works just as well for North America. However, the editors also warn us that it is unwise to take this comparison too far. At heart this is not only a question of American and Zionist settler colonialism, but also a global North-South struggle, which means it is similarly a fight against the oppressive forces of global capitalism.
Because as the editors also point out: “Israeli Jews – especially those from North Africa and the Middle East – can also be an oppressed class in historical Palestine. We ignore them at our peril, for any change that doesn’t also pass through the prism of the minds of the Jewish working class would be a revolution from above: an imposed decolonisation.”
Focusing on the struggle for justice in the periphery highlights the class dynamics and the racial motivations of the settler colonial and imperial projects, universalised by global capitalism, and helps us to confront Israel’s “Redwashing” campaign – using Indigenous spokespersons to cover up Israel’s on-going occupation of Palestinian land and the violations of Palestinian rights.
Palestinian scholar and activist Sa’ed Atshan suggests that “Redwashing” is yet another part of the government’s “Brand Israel campaign, which not only obfuscates the reality of Israeli colonisation but also works to sever Palestinian links with other Indigenous peoples while also aiming to secure Indigenous support for Zionist settler-colonialism in Palestine.”
That the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls its public relations effort “Brand Israel” is apt, because this terminology illustrates how the campaign parallels the logic of capitalism. Corporations spend vast amounts of resources to shape their public images to generate more capital, all the while exploiting their workforce and the environment. Likewise, Israel spends vast resources to create the illusion that Israel is a democracy to further entrench the Zionist project in Palestine, all the while exploiting a peace process that prolongs the occupation and denying Palestinians their rights.
Furthermore, Israel’s efforts to co-opt Indigenous peoples in order to legitimise its occupation of Palestine are often embraced by colonial elites with particular interests. Atshan explains that: “We find colonial elites among Native Americans, for example, pushing for Native participation in the US military to support its imperialist endeavours, while colonial elites among Palestinians, including in the Palestinian Authority, serve as subcontractors for Israeli colonisation.”
Although many colonial elites may still live in the geographical periphery, they have symbolically placed themselves in the centre by building fences around their privileges, whereas those who are struggling for a new global politics seek to enlarge the circle of humanity, not contain it. As Atshan told MEMO, “We need to understand the transnational networks in which settler-colonial states are embedded. Too often we look at internal dynamics of settler-colonial states without examining how these states are connected by common and shared and interlinked processes. The global military industrial complex and prison industrial complex come to mind.”
By focusing on the global processes at play, this also reminds us that the global struggle is continuous, despite any given political setback. Atshan points out that: “The analogies between the Native American reservations and the fate of Palestinians often assume a static reality of the Native American experience. It takes as a given that the US settler-colonial project has prevailed and that Native American spirits have been crushed. It erases a rich history of Native American resistance and resilience that continues until today.” The documentary film Kahsatstenhsera: Indigenous Resistance to Tar Sands Pipelines, produced by Indigenous organiser Amanda Lickers, is a fine illustration of this on-going resistance against global capitalism and for Indigenous rights.
Connecting all of these struggles has never been more urgent. As the Palestinian supporters of Idle No More urge, “Now is the time – from Canada/Turtle Island to Palestine, we must all be ‘Idle No More’, and take a stand: against colonialism, against occupation, and for self-determination, sovereignty, rights and justice for Indigenous peoples.” Indeed, for all peoples.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.