This week Muscogee Creek scholar and literary diva Joy Harjo ignited a firestorm of controversy when she announced on Facebook that she was leaving for a trip to Israel where she was scheduled to perform on Monday, December 10 At Tel Aviv University. The controversy came when friends and fans challenged her decision to go in light of the US Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) and the Palestine Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), as part of a larger boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. At the same time, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelley is visiting Israel in a diplomatic mission to study Israel’s agricultural and infrastructure strategies, as well as to learn more about Judaism and its history, according to an Associated Press story.
Apparently the BDS movement was completely off the radar of both Harjo and Shelley. It turns out that in Harjo’s case, her scheduled performance was the kickoff for a month-long writer in residence program she is undertaking. Critics contend that her actions are equivalent to crossing a picket line and are tantamount to tacit support of the Israeli apartheid state. She claims that she had no knowledge beforehand of the boycott (really? Given her sophisticated knowledge of world affairs, life as an academic, and sensitivity to oppression?). She acknowledged the history of oppression of Jews, claiming that “the Jewish people consider these lands their homelands” and stated that “the Palestinian cause has always been close to my heart.”
It is hard to know what Harjo is thinking and where her loyalties lie in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It is also hard to know how President Shelley would justify his alliance with Israel in light of its ongoing genocide and theft of Palestinian lands. But one thing is clear, not all American Indians are making the connection between the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli apartheid settler colonial state and their own experience with settler colonialism. The problem with someone as high profile as Joy Harjo collaborating with an institution like Tel Aviv University (which is built on top of an ethnically cleansed Palestinian village) is that it sends a message that she as a Native American represents all Native Americans in support of apartheid Israel’s domination of Palestinians. I, for one, don’t want to be associated with that.