Op-ed: For Israel/Palestine, take caution with the word “indigenous”

“When we speak our language, we’re resisting. Our languages were destroyed. The Wampanoag had to actually revive their language. That’s resistance.” This is how indigenous dissent manifests itself, according to Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of United American Indians of New England and a panelist at “Settler Colonialism in the Americas and Palestine: A Legacy of Indigenous Resistance,” which was hosted on Monday by Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). She couldn’t be more on point. A century ago, a large segment of my people returned to our homeland and revived our language as well. Despite Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman and Islamic incursions, Hebrew thrives in the 21st century Israel.

Notwithstanding the commonalities between our centuries of resistance – enduring genocide and resisting imperialist erasure among them, Munro and SJP unfortunately fail to acknowledge the Jewish connection to Israel. While there are parallels between and lessons to be learned from the settler trends in the West Bank and what is now the United States, SJP repugnantly embellishes the settler-colonial analogy by referring to the Palestinians as indigenous and contrasting their status with that of the Jews, who were portrayed by the panelists as the foreign interlopers in this dynamic, on the same plane as the Western Europeans who conquered the Americas. While working to expand the protection of Palestinian rights is commendable, proselytizing an ideology that portrays the inherent Jewish link to Israel as abstract and even fictitious not only hinders justice but also undermines my people’s self determination.

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues stresses how, given the diversity of the groups involved, an “official definition of ‘indigenous’ has not been adopted by any UN-system body,” though some key criteria have been identified, including:

“Self-identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.”

By definition Jews are from Judea and Palestinians are from Palestine — two names for one tiny slice of soil and rock. The radical renditions of both narratives neglect the grievances of the other, and the panelists and SJP fall into this polarizing trap.

“Distinct language, culture and beliefs.”

Hebrew is the land’s aboriginal vernacular. The earliest known Hebrew inscription (dating from 1000 BCE) was exhumed in the dusty ruins of a fortress in the hilly Judean hinterland, but there are thousands upon thousands of ancient Hebrew inscriptions that have been dug up over the years in hundreds of excavated settlements. The inhabitants of those communities also abstained from pork and worshipped a God named Yahweh (יהוה‎). Meanwhile the Arabic language, now spoken by hundreds of millions of people, traces its roots to pre-Islamic nomadic tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. It spread throughout the Middle East in expansionist conquests of the 7th century CE. Though Arabized, the Palestinians nonetheless retain a distinctive culture as well.

“Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies.”

The Jewish people and religion coalesced in prehistoric Canaan. Two Jewish states rose and fell there. And in contempt of expulsion by imperialist forces from what had become the Roman province of Judea, a continuous, though at times small, permanent Jewish community has remained ever since. Despite nearly 2,000 years of separation, the Land of Israel has prevailed as a cornerstone of Jewish life – Israel and Jerusalem are embedded in daily prayer, ritual, culture and literature. Jewish attachment to Israel is not just in the Bible, it’s in our blood. Try and defame us with whatever polemic, but extensive genetic evidence outlining our Levantine origins cannot be overlooked.

Archaeological consensus as well has a curious story to tell — one of a revolutionary social movement that began in the 13th century BCE. Rebelling against corrupt overlords, growing bands of Canaanites absconded the lowland urban centers which were in decline. They fled to the hill country, formed a separate society and established distinct religious and ethnic customs. This was the “Israelite revolution” — a process of profound agrarian social reform. The proto-Israelites emerged from the Canaanites, not abroad as claimed in the Bible. The remaining urban Canaanites — they’re ancestors of today’s Palestinians; the world’s most intractable geopolitical issue is indeed a feud between two brother nations.

The world has sufficiently demonstrated the necessity of a Jewish national refuge, and one need not discredit Israel’s legitimacy to support a sovereign Palestine alongside it. In a bitter twist of fate much like every other idiosyncrasy of the conflict, Tel Aviv is built on formerly Philistine territory while the West Bank is comprised of Judaism’s historical heartland. The Jews living in the West Bank are through an immoral occupation usurping what has been Arab land for generations, and continued settlement expansion could certainly ultimately destroy Israel’s only shot at remaining a democratic and Jewish state (a two-state solution). That said, the land those Jews are settling in was called Judea before it became Palestine – their presence, unlike that of the British, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch conquerors in America, is not without precedent.

According to Munro “we resist by surviving and being alive. Because most of our ancestors died…we resist by having a relationship with the land that we come from.” Od Avinu Chai! Am Yisrael Chai! (Our forefathers live on! The people of Israel live on!). I and thousands of Jews – students, parents and Holocaust survivors – chanted these words while marching from Auschwitz to Birkenau, at Treblinka, at Majdanek and in Jerusalem. In defiance of expulsions, inquisitions, forced conversions, pogroms and genocide, we’re still here. And despite all the odds, we’ve established and built up a state in our homeland that, imperfect as it is, is an effervescent and pulsating manifestation of indigenous resistance. Panelists and SJP, I adjure you to acknowledge both Palestinian and Jewish rights to self-determination and redemption in our native lands.

So long as SJP continues to evangelize a self-defeating, offensive and inherently flawed understanding of Israel/Palestine and its Jewish inhabitants, it will continue to alienate the demographic that could have been its strongest ally.

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