Dear IAIA: Israel Plays No Positive Role for Native People

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The Red Nation banner at Native Liberation Conference 2018 commemorating the Nakba.

Dear IAIA,

We are writing to express our concern about events at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) that Jonah Winn-Lenetsky, Assistant Professor of Performing Arts, has co-sponsored with the organization Creativity for Peace (CfP). On the surface, CfP may seem like a benign organization with a noble purpose: “transforming anger and prejudice to mutual respect, facilitating an understanding of the other and inspiring action to promote equality, peace and justice for all.”

But we understand that these platitudes rarely come with any real action or justice. CfP presents Palestinian women and Israeli women as coming from two sides of a “conflict.” The framing of Israel’s violent occupation of historic Palestine as a “conflict” is a distortion of history that erases the actual truth: Israel’s very existence depends upon the elimination of Palestinians. This is called settler colonialism. And like its patron, the United States, Israel is a violent settler nation that should be condemned for its crimes against humanity.

White historians in the United States have long framed the history of settler colonialism in this nation as a “conflict” between two equal sides: cowboys and Indians; settlers and savages. Dakota scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn reminds us there are no two sides to a story of colonial dispossession and genocide. In a settler nation, there is a clear perpetrator: the state.

Native people have resisted systematic colonialism by the U.S. state for hundreds of years. Palestinians have resisted Israeli settler colonialism since 1948, and have European colonialism since 1917. Like Palestinians, we refuse to disappear. Refusal is the basis of all forms of anti-colonial resistance, and we, as the original peoples and nations of these lands, extend unwavering solidarity and support to our Palestinian relatives who struggle for liberation from the same violence that threatens to erase our histories and our futures.

CfP and their program contributes to the normalization of the illegal Israeli occupation and the erasure of both Palestinian history and the hopes of future Palestinian state. They exist to preserve the status quo. That status quo dictates that, after the CfP program is over, the Israeli women will return to their home country to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The Palestinian women will return to their occupied homelands to be subjected to inhumane treatment by the same women with whom CfP expects them to perform peace.

The IDF is responsible for enforcing the brutal occupation, dispossession, and arbitrary imprisonment with routine torture, military incursions and attacks, and extrajudicial executions, of Palestinians. The IDF builds the infrastructure of apartheid whereby Palestinians are segregated into Bantustans separated by Jewish-only roads and an intricate network of surveilled walls dividing their communities. The IDF spearheads the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has created what is called “the world’s largest open-air prison.” The world watched in 2014, and then again in 2018 and 2019, as the IDF laid siege to Gaza, executing nurses, children, and others.

Peacemaking is not a bilateral responsibility in a settler colonial state that perpetrates war crimes against the colonized. The notion of “mutual” peace implies that the colonized holds equal responsibility for justice. In a colonial context, colonialism is the original crime, and colonizers the aggressors. When did invasion become self-defense? The only form of justice that matches this crime is decolonization. The decolonization of Israel requires withdrawing the Zionist occupation from occupied Palestine, removing the blockade from Gaza, and honoring the Palestinian right of return. Any vision of peace and justice that does not account for the crimes of Israeli colonization simply perpetuates violence, regardless of the liberal niceties about “peace” and “respect” you place on it.

If CfP isn’t really about peace and justice, what is its purpose? Like many of the liberal nonprofits in Santa Fe, CfP is an organization that assuages the guilt of liberal white settler citizens. They get to attend CfP performances and wring their hands about the “problems” in the Middle East without acknowledging settler colonialism or doing anything substantive about it in Palestine or here in North America. We are sure that many of CfP’s patrons (and staff) own Native art; wear Native jewelry; practice New Age “Indigenous” forms of healing; and have an affinity for Santa Fe because of its “progressive” politics. They adorn their homes and their bodies with our patrimony as a sign of “respect,” yet they do nothing to assist us with land return, decolonization, or liberation from violent U.S. occupation. CfP has the audacity to hold its summer healing camp on stolen land here in New Mexico, but apparently it’s ok because they have “compassion” and “respect” for our culture. These are all settler pastimes on stolen land, and this behavior extends to their commitment to the liberation of Palestine.

CfP is not promoting any real change. The picture they are presenting is NOT the picture that should be presented to Native students. The students at IAIA should have factual instruction on the historical origins, international legal context, and current realities of Palestine’s dispossession and occupation by Israel. They should have access to the rich tradition of NAS experts who deconstruct settler colonialism and historicize our vibrant traditions of anti-colonial resistance.

Along with several NAS departments, IAIA was founded during the 1960s when Red Power revolutionaries rose up to demand the human rights of all Indigenous peoples. IAIA owes its existence to the tenacity and courage of these Native activists. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn is one of the founders of Native American Studies (NAS) in the U.S., which, as a discipline, has rightfully and morally condemned all forms of colonialism since its inception. Freedom fighters from all over the world–including Palestinians–rose up in 2016 to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from destroying Indigenous futures. In fact, Indigenous Water Protectors faced brutal police tactics adapted from Israeli military and policing tactics deployed against Palestinian civilians. This new generation of revolutionaries understands their responsibility for carrying Red Power forward.

CfP’s partnership with a Red Power institution like IAIA is a blatant form of redwashing. Redwashing is a public relations tactic regularly used by Israel to hide their inhumane treatment of Palestinians. Israel cultivates partnerships with U.S.-based Native nations and institutions like IAIA to legitimize the occupation. Its hope is to cast doubt on those who condemn it for eliminating Palestinians. How can anyone possibly think Israel is a colonizing force when it has Native friends in high places? “I have Native friends, so I can’t be racist,” the old adage goes.

As a representative of a touchstone Red Power institution and a faculty member at IAIA, Dr. Winn-Lenetsky holds a special responsibility for carrying this legacy forward. Yet his support for CfP contradicts this responsibility and violates the traditions of anti-colonial resistance that make his job possible. This is shameful and embarrassing.

Instead of hosting programs like CfP, we encourage the IAIA board and president to uphold Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). Inspired by the international boycott that helped topple apartheid in South Africa, BDS is a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality founded in 2005 that upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity. A key part of BDS is the academic boycott of Israeli universities, which participate in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and dispossession of Palestinian land. Dozens of U.S.-based Native scholars have pledged to honor the academic boycott of Israel by not collaborating with Israeli universities. We urge IAIA to join this boycott by pledging NOT to collaborate with universities, institutions, or organizations like CfP that promote and normalize the occupation. Don’t allow yourselves to be redwashed by Israel and its apologists to justify ethnic cleansing.

Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world. They offer their citizens complete healthcare coverage paid for by U.S. dollars, while Palestinians die on a daily basis because they are unable to access healthcare in the occupied territories, much less pay for it. Israel commits atrocities against Palestinians with impunity because the U.S. allows it to happen. We are citizens of Native nations that endure despite violent colonial occupation by the United States. We have not achieved decolonization and the national liberation of our homelands because the United States has sought to thwart our freedom dreams at every turn. It is thus no surprise that it bankrolls Israel’s efforts to do the same to Palestinians. U.S. occupation gains strength and legitimacy through Israeli occupation, and vice versa.

Israeli settler colonialism perpetuates U.S. settler colonialism, just as U.S. settler colonialism perpetuates Israeli settler colonialism. When you normalize the occupation of Palestine, you normalize the occupation of our lands here. How can any employee of IAIA, with a good conscience, participate in this while working at a tribal college?

Colonialism is a scourge of history that must be ended. Until Palestine is decolonized, until colonialism is smashed once and for all, resistance will continue to be our only moral response.

In solidarity with colonized peoples across the world,

The Red Nation-Santa Fe