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Israel Palestine: Who’s Indigenous?

I am a Métis from Paddle Prairie Metis settlement. My father, Mervin Bellerose, co-authored the Métis Settlements Act of 1989, which was passed by the Alberta legislature in 1990 and cemented our land rights. I founded Canadians For Accountability, a native rights advocacy group, and I am an organizer and participant in the Idle No More movement in Calgary. And I am a Zionist.

Indigenous status

To begin, let us acknowledge that there is no rule that a land can have only one indigenous people; it is not a zero sum game in which one group must be considered indigenous so that therefore another is not. However, there is a very clear guideline to being an indigenous people. It is somewhat complex but can be boiled down to the checklist below, as developed by anthropologist José R. Martínez-Cobo (former special rapporteur of the Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities for the United Nations).

This list was developed because indigenous rights are beginning to be respected across the planet. This recognition is incredibly important, so we as indigenous people cannot allow non-indigenous people to make false claims, which ultimately would harm our own rights. Israel is the world’s first modern indigenous state: the creation and declaration of the sovereign nation of Israel marks the first time in history that an indigenous people has managed to regain control of its ancestral lands and build a nation state. As such, this is incredibly important for indigenous people both to recognise and to support as a great example for our peoples to emulate.

The actual working definition of “indigenous people,” (not the Wikipedia version, nor Merriam Webster, both more suited to plants and animals) for purposes of this essay is that developed by aforementioned anthropologist José R. Martínez-Cobo. With this as my foundation, I will detail why Jews are indigenous to Israel, and why Palestinians are not.

Martinez-Cobo’s research suggests that indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.

This historical continuity may consist of the continuation, for an extended period reaching into the present of one or more of the following factors:

  • Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them
  • Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands
  • Culture in general, or in specific manifestations (such as religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, means of livelihood, lifestyle, etc.)
  • Language (whether used as the only language, as mother-tongue, as the habitual means of communication at home or in the family, or as the main, preferred, habitual, general or normal language)
  • Residence in certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world
  • Religion that places importance on spiritual ties to the ancestral lands
  • Blood quantum – that is, the amount of blood you carry of a specific people to identify as that people. The concept was developed by colonialists in order to eventually breed out native peoples.

Let us now look quickly at the Jews. How do they fit this definition?

  • Their lands were occupied, first by the Romans, then by the Arabs in the seventh century.
  • They share common ancestry with previous occupants as determined by several genetic studies.
  • Their culture can be traced directly to the Levant, where it developed into what is now known as “Jewish culture.” While different Jewish communities have slightly different traditions, they all share the same root culture, and it remains unchanged. They have resurrected their traditional language, and while many still speak Yiddish and Ladino, Hebrew has become the primary language again.
  • They have spiritual ties to the land, which plays a large role in their traditions as a people.

Despite all the arguments about “European” Jews, they in fact meet all the criteria set forth by Martínez-Cobo. Even though Israel is the first modern indigenous state, it still has lands that are occupied by foreigners in Judea and Samaria. Those are ancestral lands and, many feel that they should be returned to the indigenous peoples for self-determination.

Now, for the flip side.

Palestinians have what are called “ rights of longstanding presence;” and although these are legitimate rights, they do not trump indigenous rights. The very nature of “longstanding presence” means that although they lived somewhere a long time, they do not have the right to occupy indigenous peoples and control them.

The argument that Palestinians are indigenous is incorrect for several reasons.

  • Approximately 50% percent of Palestinian Arabs can track their ancestors back farther than their great-grandparents. Many are descended from Arabs brought to the Levant by the British to build infrastructure after World War I.
  • The vast majority of Palestinians are Arabic speaking Muslims; the Arabic language is indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula, as is the Muslim religion. The Muslim religion’s holiest places are not in the Levant, but in the city of Mecca, located in the Arabian Peninsula. They have no specifically Palestinian culture that is completely Palestinian dating before the 1960s; in fact, prior to that, the majority identified as “greater Syrians.”
  • Some Palestinians share common ancestry with indigenous peoples, but they neither follow indigenous traditions nor do they self-identify as those indigenous peoples. They share neither religion nor language with them. Blood quantum alone is insufficient to transmit indigenous status.
  • The Arabs of the Middle East subsumed several indigenous populations, but no group can become indigenous through subsuming indigenous peoples. Rather, they conquered the entire region and spread their own language, customs, and religion. This is historical fact.

Now you might ask, why is this important? It is important to indigenous people because we cannot allow the argument that conquerors can become indigenous. If we, as other indigenous people, allow that argument to be made, then we are delegitimising our own rights.

If conquerors can become indigenous, then the white Europeans who came to my indigenous lands in North America could now claim to be indigenous. The white Europeans who went to Australia and New Zealand could now claim to be indigenous. If we, even once, allow that argument to be made, indigenous rights are suddenly devalued and meaningless. This is somewhat peculiar, as those who are arguing for Palestinian “indigenous rights” are usually those who have little grasp of the history, and no understanding of the truth behind indigenous rights.

If you should encounter the argument that conquerors may themselves become indigenous to a region by virtue of conquering, direct those who assert the argument to this article, and help them understand not only is the argument wrong – it is dangerous to Indigenous people everywhere.

What’s another word for “Israeli’? – Indigenous. Poster by: Philippe Assouline

This is the first post by a new Israellycool contributor, Ryan Bellerose. He has been known to Israellycool for a while and we’re delighted to publish this important essay here.

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