From Turtle Island to Israel: A Shared Reality

Jonathan and I chose this year to observe two events often overlooked in all the focus caused by what is called the holiday season in the U.S. These two events are Native American Heritage Day on November 27 (part of the month-long Native American Heritage Month), and the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on November 29. 

At first glance, they may not appear connected, but for me they reflect a remarkable intersection, a confluence of political and spiritual observances, memories, hopes, and yearnings. They both involve the reality of peoples affected by the drive of one group of people to claim and occupy land which is ancestral home to others. 

Native American Heritage Day changes actual date each year because it is always observed on the day after Thanksgiving in the United States. Most people know this day as Black Friday. Clearly, the rush to shop overshadows the observance of indigenous history. Indeed, I think that in both the United States and Israel the realities of these two peoples is largely erased by the dominating power.  

The international Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People is always on November 29, designated by the United Nations (although sometimes events at the UN are on adjacent days). The date was chosen by the UN in 1977 in recognition of the adoption of a resolution on November 29, 1947 calling for the creation of two states, one Jewish and one Arab, with an international status for Jerusalem. This was intended to end the British Mandate in Palestine which had been in force since World War I. 

This plan did not come to fruition. The Jewish leadership reluctantly accepted the plan and its boundaries for each of the new nations but the Arab states objected saying it denied the agency of the people currently living there for self-determination. As we know, the result has been the creation of the State of Israel and the division of the Palestinians among three territories: those who remain in Israel, those living in the West Bank which I called the Occupied Territories because the real power of governance lies with Israel, and those living in Gaza, as well as Palestinians confined to refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. 

Thus, what we have in these two events is an effort to draw attention to the suffering of two peoples at the hands of occupying powers. 

The erasure of Palestinians is rooted in what Zionists and others felt was, is, the acute need to establish the world’s first truly safe haven for Jews. This drive began in the 19th Century—in response to pogroms and ongoing repression in Europe—and gained support and energy with the rise of Hitler and the genocide of six million Jews in Europe. Clearly, the creation of this new nation is a response to the devastation, a desperate attempt to create a national sanctuary designed and built by the survivors themselves.

The erasure of Native Americans begins with the arrival of Europeans, many of them subject to political and economic subjugation, seeking a better life in “the New World” (not so new for those living here for millennia). It picks up steam as these arrivals want more and more land on which to create a new society, one that gives them a sense of freedom from often negative experiences in Europe and one in which Christianity, not “heathen beliefs,” dominates. 

To put it simply, both groups are struggling to overcome what has been, and is being, done to them by settler colonial societies. 

Settler colonialism is a distinct type of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty. According to Laura Hurwitz and Shawn Borque’s Settler Colonialism Primer, “This means that settler colonialism is not just a vicious thing of the past, such as the gold rush, but exists as long as settlers are living on appropriated land and thus exists today.”

Settler colonialism was practiced in, and the effects remain, in several countries including Canada, South Africa and Australia, as well as the United States and Israel. Thus, these two groups, Native Americans and Palestinians, both indigenous to territory now controlled by more powerful forces are linked by the fate that has befallen them and their struggle to regain their lands and their rights to live freely. 

As I learn more about the histories of these two peoples and about settler colonialism I see that once again a U.S. value has been exported to another part of the world. I am also coming to believe that the shared history of settler colonialism in both nations provides an important layer in their bonding. Yes, the U.S. wants to support the aspirations of the Jewish people for safety, but I also believe our government and many leaders recognize, if only unconsciously, our shared bond with Israel as an occupying power.

Israel is doing what we have done, and continue to do, to our own indigenous population: put them on reservations; make it difficult, if not impossible, for most of them to lead safe, economically and professionally successful lives; mistreat their children; erase their history from “our” history books; and punish those who speak up agains oppression. 

That is why Jonathan and I participated in two webinars focused on the struggles of the Palestinians and Native Americans. Indeed, one of those presentations was entitled “Unite to Decriminalize Indigenous Struggles from Turtle Island to Palestine,” co-sponsored by Friends of Sabeel North America ( http://www.fosna.org ) and Christian Peacemaker Teams (http://cpt.org ) [Note: Turtle Island is a name for North America  used by some US Indigenous and First Nations people and by some Indigenous rights activists. The name is based on a common North American Indigenous creation story.]

I will be writing more about each of these struggles. In the meantime, you can read some of my thoughts about Thanksgiving and Native Americans through this post from 2015, https://thenakedtheologian.org/2015/11/25/gratitude-or-grief-its-both/ . 

I hope you will join the conversation by leaving a comment.