Distinguishing Solidarity and Changing the Interlocutor Towards Rethinking Indigeneity in Palestine and Rethinking Palestine Indigenously

“Fighting (writing) back and resisting imperial knowledge production is entirely predicated on the necessity of altering who is it exactly to whom we are talking”.

Hamid Dabashi, Post-Orientalism [1]

In the beginning of the 1980s, Gayatri Spivak raised the question: “Can the Subaltern Speak?.”[2] Perhaps the question should be addressed again before getting to the question about solidarity between Indigenous Peoples. Who is in solidarity with whom? And in what language? If the subaltern/colonized does not represent himself in the colonial/“post-colonial” context, then how will he be able to break out of the colonial culture with his own voice, based on his existence, awareness, and knowledge? From this standpoint, this article first addresses the question of solidarity between Indigenous peoples by distinguishing this solidarity from other types of solidarity or sympathy. The article then tends to define the interlocutor, and finally proceeds to discuss the discourse of indigeneity in the Palestinian context in its both levels; the internal and the external.

Can the Indigenous Speak?

The term “Indigenous Peoples” dates to the mid-17th century, when Thomas Browne used the term to distinguish between Black slaves that were brought from Africa to serve in the Americas and First Nations.[3] It is worth noting that this use of the term is in fact colonialist and essentialist, which in turn does not express Indigenous peoples. It was however revived and conceptualized in the context of international solidarity and national liberation movements against colonialism and dependency in the 1970s to link experiences and struggles of the colonized. Despite that Indigenous peoples are variously different, they still share similar histories, mutual struggles, and the pursuit of self-determination, which bind these peoples together.

While the colonialist discourse holds an essentialist view towards colonized Indigenous peoples, the discourse of solidarity in the “post-colonial era” has sometimes uttered similar views. Indigenous peoples are often stereotyped in a way that solidarity with them becomes tended to keep their status quo rather than moving forward with them. This view further molds Indigenous peoples as victims. In fact, solidarity with Indigenous peoples neither means excluding them from the rhetorical arena of protest, nor riding on their backs to chant with their voices—it rather means transmitting their voices and images as they want and with their own words. Solidarity thus acts as a mirror or a speaker. Here, a question arises: How can solidarity with Indigenous people provide a space for expression and action so that they—so that we—can speak?

The answer to this question requires distinguishing solidarity between Indigenous peoples from other types of “solidarity” to activate and mutualize it. It is true that solidarity means supporting an individual or a group through advocating their cause and mobilizing towards it with the intention of transmitting their voices and actions to the public, yet it may blend with other types in practice. For example, solidarity with Indigenous peoples is sometimes expressed in a way that is very much similar to sympathizing with “animals.” In this “solidarity” discourse, it sometimes seems that it calls for protecting them from extinction and preserving their existence in their indigenous habitat as if they were an endangered animal species. This, in turn, nullifies the Indigenous’ agency and even existence in terms of anticolonial liberation, as this aims to saving lives rather than enablement. Furthermore, what distinguishes between sympathy and solidarity is that we sympathize with animals without imaging ourselves in their position.. The “solidarity” discourse thus views Indigenous peoples as the problem, and therefore something to be fixed. This discourse does not transmit the Indigenous voice or uphold their sovereignty. Rather, it transmits the voice of the person who shows solidarity. Here, this person is not ready to hold the microphone. He does not even accept his existence in a shared space.

This type of solidarity intersects with another type that tends to resolve the feeling of guilt that strikes the conscience of the White/colonialist. The same applies on Indigenous activists who move from one domain to another and wear a White mask. Thus, they shift their discourse from Indigeneity to «orientalism» by mimicking the colonialists, thinking that they are becoming more civilized [4] and more capable than their Indigenous counterparts in expressing their interests.[5] From this position “solidarity” is an attempt to “moderate” language that calls for coexistence and reconciliation, which in turn serves the colonial discourse by consecrating the lie that the colonizer has the answer.

Abbad Yahya approaches the issue from a psychological perspective, as he believes that “the dilemma of solidarity today is that its purpose and impact are connected to the person showing solidarity himself, and not to the those who he is in solidarity, nor to the cause meant by solidarity. Here, solidarity is primarily a psychological need that addresses conscientious and psychological concerns which sweep the person showing solidarity when he is exposed to a torrent of images, news, and situations, and finds himself under pressure from the media and the public. He thinks that he is expected to do something.”[6]

The third level of distinction lies in differentiating between social cohesion and solidarity. Solidarity between Indigenous peoples builds a network of relationships that are based on mutual histories and struggles, with the aim of liberating and achieving sovereignty. Therefore, solidarity among Indigenous peoples should not really be based on religion, ethnicity, or nationalism, but rather on a mutual goal. On the other hand, social cohesion is mainly based on the sense of belonging and loyalty. Therefore, it is not specific to say that a Palestinian is in solidarity with another Palestinian who lives elsewhere, because their cause is identical, and when he supports this other Palestinian, then he is, indeed, defending his right.

Distinguishing between these three levels of interaction is important because the language plays a central role in solidarity as a space for expression and the construction of narratives. In many cases, if person A expresses solidarity with person B, then person A is doing it his own way, perhaps denying the voice of person B and demonstrating him in the way he wants, while claiming that he is aware of Person B’s needs more than the latter does. This, in turn, denies the tenor of solidarity in practice. Did the white men save the women of color from Sati/suttee (House of Fire)[7] which they chose to rest in with their husbands? The answer is definitely No. Likewise, can support and solidarity be expressed with Indigenous peoples without hearing them talk? Solidarity thus is not an academic discourse — it is an actual conversation.

Solidarity between Indigenous peoples requires them to highlight their discourse and narrative, and act as a mirror to each other. Anyone’s struggle for humanity and liberation necessarily is a task to supporting struggles elsewhere in the world, whether in Palestine, Hong Kong, Canada or Australia.

After distinguishing solidarity, a question arises: To whom should the solidarity discourse be addressed? While the answer may seem obvious, it is not so in practice. A large part of the Indigenous peoples’ discourse is directed towards the so-called “international community,” and it seeks to attract new voices—often colonialists—with the pretext that their presence in our spaces makes our struggle more effective or legitimate. In theory, this appears to be working. However, this will not work when the intended interlocutor is the colonizer. What settler colonialism expects—indeed, hopes—of Indigenous peoples is for them to disappear. Settler colonialism expects to wake up on a sunny morning and not find anything that would disturb them from enjoying their beautiful colony, as portrayed by Ibtisam Azem in her novel The Book of Disappearance.[8]

Therefore, distinguishing solidarity, and then ensuring that the interlocuter is Indigenous is necessary for the horizon of solidarity and gives our movements greater significance, as Hamid Dabashi says: “Changing the interlocutor and facing a wide world of possibilities addresses the fundamental issues of our time to those who are the subject of imperial warmongering—and the very act of deciding who is in fact one is talking to is the principle site of generating and sustaining historical agency in and about the postcolonial critic.”[9]

Indigeneity in the Palestinian Discourse

Are the Palestinians even Indigenous? This question may arise when reading the title of this article. Israel has attempted for more than a century now to make the answer “No.” In addition to Israel’s attempts to obliterate the Palestinian population, and its effort to repeat the genocide of 1948 criminality on each Palestinian group in their various residences,[10] its project seeks to erase the Palestinians from history and dispossess them of their indigeneity by claiming their land to be the land of Israeli people.[11] In contrast to the Zionist narrative that seeks to show ancient Palestinians as an Indo-European people who are foreign to their land, the Palestinians are an Indigenous Semitic and Arab people, whose civilization extends over 12,000 years that began in Teleilat el Ghassul in the north of Jericho.[12]

As Indigenous people, should the Palestinians place their indigeneity in their struggle towards liberation? Ahmad Amara and Yara Hawari noted that many Palestinian researchers had included the concept of Indigeneity in their writings after the 1948 Nakba. However, utilizing the concept is still limited in politics.[13] Palestinians someway refuse to acknowledge comparing themselves to Indigenous peoples. Lila Abu-Lughod finds that for some people, there is a reason behind refusal. It stems from that practicing of the rituals of recognition and demanding rights is bizarre because those peoples’ political language has been built on the vocabulary of anti-colonial national liberation, which is absent from the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). From another side, Palestinians do not feel that their culture is threatened with extinction, unlike other Indigenous peoples who faced the colonial frontier in the early stages of industrial imperialism. Moreover, the majority of Palestinians currently live in diaspora after they were expelled, and thus became refugees and exiled.[14]

Nevertheless, the dialogue between Indigenous peoples and Palestinians dates back to at least half a century. The first substantive contact occurred during the climatic success of the American Indian Movement, when Indigenous activists and their Black Panther counterparts looked at the global liberation struggles for inspiration and solidarity.[15] In addition, there exists a link between Palestinians and solidarity movements, including the Black Internationalism. Both have been united by a common struggle against imperialism since the 1960s at both popular and organizational levels. This is evidenced in relationships that brought together the Palestinian national liberation movement (Fatah) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, along with the League of Black Revolutionary Workers and the Black Panther Party.[16]

In addition to Indigeneity, solidarity has ceased to be present in the Palestinian political discourse. With the PLO moving towards the project of a Palestinian National Authority following the signing of the Oslo Accords (1993), the official institutional Palestinian discourse shifted from the narrative of international solidarity with Palestine, towards the narrative of international relief for the Palestinians. After various nations were in solidarity with the Palestinians who were thought to be militants in their liberation project, the international community began to donate through its relief programs to the Palestinians who are now seen from a humanitarian perspective.

Shortly before his death, Yasser Arafat stated—perhaps while ignorant of how damaging is his discourse—that “we are not Red Indians,” as “Israel has failed to wipe us out,” while “We have made the Palestinian case the biggest problem in the world.”[17] This was interpreted by Joseph Massad as an emphasis of the link between Palestinians and First Nations on Turtle Island, not on the basis of defeat, but rather because the Palestinian struggle is similar to the ongoing struggles of Indigenous peoples in the Americas, even if their strategies and landscapes differ.[18] This had also prompted Robert Lovelace (the former president of Ardoch Algonquin First Nations) to describe Gaza as a “the world’s largest Indian reservation.”[19]

Palestinians must realize, as Steven Salaita wrote, that “natives are not a defeated precursor to impending Palestinian dispossession, but contemporaneous agents who directly inform the conditions of Palestine, just as Palestinians directly inform the conditions of Indian Country.” He continues, “the alliances increasingly formed among Native and Palestinian scholars, activists, and civic groups make clear the impossibility of Native defeat. To even acknowledge the existence of Natives is to accept that they were not defeated.”[20]

In the Palestinian context, there is a challenge that is absent for other Indigenous populations in various parts of the world. Mahmoud Darwish said: “We are less fortunate to have Israel as our enemy because it has countless supporters in the world. We are also fortunate to have Israel as our enemy because the Jews are the center of attention to the world. Therefore, you only gave us notability now that you defeated us.”[21] Indeed, the Israeli propaganda works tirelessly to create bridges of communication between the Jews and native populations, by claiming that the Jews who are now occupying Palestine are native too![22] In addition, there exists an academic debate between Zionist studies and Indigenous studies, as the former seeks to create “historical narratives” and rhetorical tactics that not only defend “Israel,” but also stand against decolonization in North America, while claim that it has the right to support the Indigenous cause. Settler colonialism, in essence, revolves around a never-ending impulse to make the colonizer more Indigenous than the native.

Palestinians in the Discourse of Indigeneity

Finally, the other side of the question of solidarity between Palestinians and the Indigenous struggles, we also find perplexity in the discourse. As Salaita points: “A refrain I sometimes hear from those in American Indian or Indigenous studies is that Palestine is a worthy issue, but extraneous to their concerns.”[23] In this context, Indigenous people must not allow “Israel” to penetrate the discourse of indigeneity.[24] Indigenous struggles must realize that “the colonial structure in Palestine does not pertain to Palestine alone and is isolated from the world; rather, it is a colonial fraction that belongs to a bigger colonial structure” as Esmail Nashif has stated.[25] Accordingly, solidarity with the Palestinians in their struggle would be a step towards the liberation of other indigenous peoples, as Nelson Mandela notes: “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

Solidarity with Palestine means committing to work for Palestinian liberation without having to give speeches or organize demonstrations. It could be an academic or educational contribution, as it represents one section of the field of Palestinian studies.[26] Palestinians and Indigenous people take an wretched position in academia, which makes them vulnerable to essentialist assumptions and racist analyses. Academic racism precedes and establishes the supervisory role that the Zionists give to themselves with regards to the demography of the colony.[27] Solidarity does not mean speaking forus but using your privilege to break down spaces and resist Zionist ideology.

In conclusion, while Columbus’ White ancestors belatedly realize that Indigenous people are not wild animals but human beings, it is important that we do not remain waiting acknowledgment from the “international community” and that we have the right to breathe beyond this Western paradigm. They should instead shift from symbolic solidarity to that solidarity that takes comprehensive joint action (inside and outside the existing institutions) as a base. This first requires distinguishing solidarity and changing the interlocutor. The Indigenous peoples, including Palestinians, must not only work to call others to be in solidarity, but also to involve everyone in their struggle. As Franz Fanon stated: “Everybody will have to be compromised in the fight for the common good. No one has clean hands; there are no innocents and no onlookers […] Every onlooker is either a coward or a traitor.”[28]

[1] Hamid Dabashi, Post-Orientalism: Knowledge and Power in Time of Terror (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2009), pp. 277 - 278.

[2] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in: Patrick Williams & Laura Chrisman (eds.), Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader (London: Macat International Limited, 2016), pp. 66 - 111.

[3] Kent Mathewson, “Drugs, Moral Geographies, and Indigenous Peoples: Some Initial Mappings and Central Issues,” in: Michael K. Steinberg, Joseph Hobbs & Kent Mathewson, Dangerous Harvest: Drug Plants and the Transformation of Indigenous Landscapes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 13.

[4] This was discussed in the context of what has come to be known as post-colonial studies by Franz Fanon, Glen Sean Coulthard, and Hamid Dabashi. See: Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Charles Lam Markmann (trans.), Homi K. Bhabha & Ziauddin Sardar (foreword) (Sidmouth: Pluto Press, 2008 [1952]); Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, Taiaiake Alfred (foreword) (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Hamid Dabashi, Brown Skin, White Masks, (Sidmouth: Pluto Press, 2011).

[5] We can recall here the role played by Samuel Jackson in the American movie Django Unchained (2012), as he embodied the role of a black butler who persecutes his fellow countrymen more than his white masters, only to feel civilized on the one hand and prove loyalty on the other.

[6] Abbad Yahya, “On Solidarity and the Panda [Arabic],” The New Arab, 5/7/2015, accessed on 13/3/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3rJBwgj

[7] Historical practice of some Hindu in which a widow sacrifices herself by sitting atop her deceased husband’s funeral pyre, so she burns with him. This practice became punishable by the criminal courts in 1829.

[8] Ibtisam Azem, The Book of Disappearance, Sinan Antoon (trans.) (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2019).

[9] Dabashi, Post-Orientalism, p. 277.

[10] Ismael Nashif, Images of the Palestinian Death [Ṣuwar Mawt al-Filasṭīnī] (Beirut and Doha: ACRPS, 2015).

[11] See: Chapter 4 of this book for Robert Warrior who sought to link between the geography of Palestine and stories from the bible.

[12] See: Alaa Abuamer, Ancient Palestinian-Canaans: Facts, Riddles, Myths [al-Filasṭ īni ūn al-Kanʿāniūn al-Qudamāʾ: al-Ḥaqāʾiq al-ʾAlghāz al-ʾAsāṭīr] (Haifa: Library of Everything, 2017).

[13] Ahmad Amara et Yara Hawari, “Se servir de l’indigénéité dans la lutte pour la libération de la Palestine [French],” Chronique de Palestine, 8/5/2020, accessed on 21/3/2021, at: https://bit.ly/314LKvN

[14] Lila Abu-Lughod, “Imagining Palestine’s Alter-Natives: Settler Colonialism and Museum Politics,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 47, no. 1 (2020), pp. 8 - 13.

[15] Steven Salaita, “Zionism and Native American Studies,” Abolition Journal, 6/6/2017, accessed on 12/3/2021, at: https://bit.ly/2OqJUCT

[16] Derek Ide, “The Panthers and Palestine: Black Internationalism and the Palestinian Revolution,” Samah Idriss (trans.), Al Adab, 14/6/2020, accessed on 7/3/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3qo8Bg7

[17] Graham Usher, “We are not Red Indians,” Al-Ahram Weekly Online, no. 715 (2004).

[18] Joseph Massad, “Against Self-Determination,” Humanity, vol. 9, no. 2 (2018), p. 162.

[19] “Bob Lovelace, Canadian Delegate to Freedom Flotilla III,” Beit Zatoun, 14/6/2015, accessed on 14/3/2021, at: https://bit.ly/3bMXQ2S

[20] Steven Salaita, “American Indian Studies and Palestine Solidarity: The Importance of Impetuous Definitions,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 6, no. 1 (2017), pp. 21 - 22.

[21] “Mahmoud Darwish in ‘Musīqāna [Our Music],’: ‘A People without Poetry is a Defeated People,” Bidāyāt, no. 5 (2013).

[22] See for example the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) efforts at connecting between Canada’s indigenous people and Israeli Jews: Mike Krebs & Dana M. Olwan, “‘From Jerusalem to the Grand River, Our Struggles are One’: Challenging Canadian and Israeli Settler Colonialism,” Settler Colonial Studies, vol. 2, no. 2 (2012), pp. 138 - 139.

[23] Salaita, “American Indian Studies and Palestine Solidarity,” p. 8.

[24] For a practical example, see Michaela Sahar’s article on the Sinai-Palestine Campaign in: Chapter 5

[25] Majd Abuamer (Interview), “Ismael Nashif: We have to stare in the Nakba, not escape it,” 28 Magazine, no. 15 (2020), p. 23.

[26] Salaita, “American Indian Studies and Palestine Solidarity,” p. 2.

[27] Salaita, “Zionism and Native American Studies.”

[28] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre (pref.) Constance Farrington (trans.) (New York: Grove Press, 1963), p. 199.

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