On indigeneity

Language is important. It can help us clarify our thinking, by crystallizing ideas and making grounded analysis possible, or it can befuddle, disorient, and completely disengage with reality – not only our own but also that of our human family. I will try to be as clear as possible in this post.

I agree with Mary Adams that it’s good Brighton is being exposed for what it is. I have heard stories about how hard it is for Black kids at the town’s high school and how they’re frequently harassed by police, so I never understood the charms of Brighton’s so-called success with diversity.

It’s unfortunate that this unravelling of the Brighton myth is happening at the expense of Robin Wilt, the only Black woman on their town board. She is being persecuted by a large (and extremely loud) portion of Brighton’s Jewish community for posting a picture with Linda Sarsour and saying the words, “Free Palestine.”
That Linda and Robin are both women of color is no accident. Zionism is a European, ethnonational, Jewish-supremacist ideology. How is it supposed to treat people of color or women for that matter?

Amidst all the brouhaha and surreal accusations, the word “indigeneity” has been thrown around by Robin’s attackers. It’s also incorporated into some of the softer liberal Zionist discourse coming from people who support Robin. So let’s be linguistically precise.

Israel is a settler colony. It is justified by the same kind of self-righteous, racist propaganda as America’s Manifest Destiny, “a phrase coined in 1845 and the idea that the United States is destined—by God, its advocates believed—to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent.” At the last Brighton town meeting, one of Robin’s detractors used the words “Gospel-given right” to claim indigeneity to Middle Eastern land. It fits.

Palestinian Jews are indigenous, of course, but the white people ranting against Robin and harassing Palestinian Muslim families in the audience are not. Neither were the founders of Israel. They were white European settlers with generational links to European lands, not Palestine.

What is indigeneity? See this document from the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, but here are some ways to understand “indigenous”:

• Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.
• Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
• Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
• Distinct social, economic or political systems
• Distinct language, culture and beliefs
• Form non-dominant groups of society
• Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

The settlers who moved to Israel cannot claim any of these continuities. Neither can they be called a non-dominant group by any stretch of the imagination. Their military, economic, and political power and privilege are obvious. They (Jews with European ancestry in particular) occupy the highest echelons of an apartheid system where the Palestinians are so savagely oppressed even their food and water are controlled.

From the same UN document: “Indigenous peoples often have much in common with other neglected segments of societies, i.e. lack of political representation and participation, economic marginalization and poverty, lack of access to social services and discrimination. Despite their cultural differences, the diverse indigenous peoples share common problems also related to the protection of their rights. They strive for recognition of their identities, their ways of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources.” — almost a word for word description of the Palestinian struggle.

To co-opt the word “indigenous” and apply it to colonizers is a stunning bastardization and corruption of language.

If 2,000-year-old connections to land define indigeneity, then we are all indigenous to Africa. But I doubt it means that we can (or should) walk into an African country, move into someone else’s house, and resort to ethnic cleansing and genocide in order to be able to return home.

Let’s be careful and intentional with our words. Otherwise “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery,” and “Ignorance is strength.”

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