Wednesday, October 13, 2021

What are the Stakes of "Indigenous"?

95% of discourse applying the "indigenous" frame to Israel/Palestine, whether "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine" in orientaiton, is political rather than analytical.

This is something I've believed for a long time, and it was further entrenched seeing this narrative cartoon by J.B. Brager in Jewish Currents titled "When Settler Becomes Native" (Brager borrows their title, consciously or not, from prior works by Mahmood Mamdani and Raef Zreik). 

The cartoon purports to trace and attack claims by Jews that they are "indigenous" to Israel. If one reads it carefully, though, one notices that it actually never succeeds in this objective on an analytical level. 

The case for Jewish indigenous status in Israel is relatively straightfoward: Israel is where Jews are from, not just in a vague historical sense but in a concrete sense that has continually demarcated their status as a "people", they were over the course of history forced out and forced into a subordinated structure of domination by foreign powers, and now they've come back. 

Against this, Brager doesn't actually do much to show that Jewish claims of indigenous status are not valid. They somewhat limply acknowledge that the Jewish claim actually fits decently well with the common benchmarks of indigenousness proposed by UN Special Rapporteur  Jose Martinez Cobo, but contends that their adoption to this case is exploitative -- if anything, Cobo's framework must fail because it seems to allow for the Jewish claim. 

Waving at Patrick Wolfe's well-known aphorism that settler-colonialism is a "structure, not an event" doesn't alter this. The claim that Zionism is a decolonial movement is precisely the claim that it disrupted a prior structure of dispossession and disenfranchisement that Jews had been laboring under  properly characterized as "colonial" (that it is difficult to point to a specific moment in 1549 when Jews "lost" territory that was previously theirs makes the "structure, not event" paradigm more, not less, attractive as a means of encompassing the Jewish case. It is not a specific historical moment but an ongoing structural condition where external powers arrogated to themselves the exclusive power to declare what Jews were and what their relationship to politics, land, culture, and so on could be). Ironically, the strongest claim for why Jews aren't "indigenous" to Israel is that "indigenous", as a category only applies in cases where the dispossession is ongoing -- if one succeeds in reversing it, one isn't indigenous anymore (hence why it makes more sense to refer to Algerians as "indigenous" during the French colonial period that it does today, post-independence). But this would be a pyrrhic victory for Brager, since it would defeat Jewish claims of indigenousness only by accepting that Zionism was successfully decolonial.

For these reasons, Brager's argument is not primarily focused on actually falsifying the notion that Jews are indigenous. For the most part, Brager instead works backwards from the conclusion; their argument is primarily that recognition of Jews as "indigenous" would have bad political consequences -- described variously (and the oscillation between the two is so rapid that they effectively blur together -- an effect that is certainly intentional) as either endorsing Israeli territorial maximalism and the view that Palestinians are foreign colonial invaders, or endorsing that Israel has any claim to exist at all. Since JC readers think both of these positions are bad things to endorse, it must conclude that the Jewish claims of being indigenous are bad as well.

Of course, working backwards from the conclusion, in addition to being bad analytical practice, comes with "political" dangers of its own -- as when Brager comes within a hairsbreadth of asserting that the entire idea of Jewish "peoplehood" must be rejected because any understanding of Jews as more than "just" a religion might bolster the claim that this "people" could legitimately claim indigenousness. Ironically, given the time Brager spends accusing their adversaries of engaging in biological essentialism, here they suggest that the only possible foundation for Jews being a "people" is a biological one (the other day I interacted with someone who used the fact of converts to mock the idea that Jews, as a whole, could be "indigenous" to Israel -- now who's running the biological essentialism play?).

Likewise, addressing the case of Mizrahi Jews (and groups such as JIMENA, which have long made the association of continued indigenousness), Brager doesn't refute the indigenous status, they just denounce them endorsing the "mythologization" of leveraging their own status as (potentially?) indigenous with those of all Jews. But -- leaving aside the actual demographics of Israel -- why can't they view the relevant frame of analysis as "the Jewish people", viewed as a collective? Why must they be forced to endorse compulsory separation such that their history is not our history? Put simply: why aren't Mizrahi Jews, to the extent they are indigenous, entitled to state that all Jews are part of their community and are thereby indigenous as well (Ironically, the implied answer is -- once again -- biological essentialism). 

I don't have time to fully go into it here, but there is a sort of enforced normative quiescence being demanded of Mizrahi Jews where they maybe can be accepted as indigenous so long as they accede to non-Jewish Middle Easterners' declarations over who counts as a community member and what constitutes valid political and social action. They can be indigenous so long as they do not in any way challenge other actors' decisions over why they're indigenous or how they count as indigenous. If they deign to operate independently and make their own choices over who is part of "their" community -- for example, viewing all Jews as being part of their collective and thereby sharing in whatever patrimony they can claim as indigenous to the region -- then they need to be slapped down. We see a version of this in Yuval Evri and Hagar Kotef's provocatively titled "When Does a Native Become a Settler?", which regardless of its other faults, does not dismiss out of hand the prospect of Jewish nativeness. However, it does persistently locate "native" Jewish choices that linked up with the Ashkenazi Jewish Zionist project (such as adopting Hebrew as the daily language) as decisions to "settlerize", rather than decisions expressing indigenous agency and intentional choices regarding how they conceptualized who was part of their community. Put differently, if we accept Mizrahi Jews as valid indigenous "cases", that has to include their authority to declare that, under their conception of who they are, all Jews are part of their community in the relevant respects -- they are not bound to endorse others who wish, for their own purposes, to make and enforce sharp lines where "these Jews" are of qualitatively a different people than "those Jews".

All of that said, it is the case that "indigenous" and "settler-colonial", in their political valence, tend to be associated with maximalist claims. On the pro-Israel side, they are often mustered to defend not just Israel's existence but the occupation and the wholesale rejection of any valid Palestinian claims, presented as foreign interlopers; all the land simply is Jewish land by right, settlement is simply taking the land back, and any non-Jewish presence is at most tolerated at the sufferance of the rightful owners. On the pro-Palestine side, these terms are again frequently deployed not just to object to the occupation but to contest the validity of there being an Israel at all; Israel is naught but a foreign invasion, the Jewish population anywhere in Israel is a settler population, the morally correct remedy to the crime of Israel existing is for it to be dissolved, and we should cheer if Jews (to quote a figure quoted in Brager's cartoon) go "back to where the fuck they came from."

Whatever their uses as analytical paradigms -- and I agree they can be quite useful (for example, I found the Zreik article, linked above, very thought-provoking) -- as terms of political mobilization "indigenous" and "settler-colonial" are the terms of first resort for those seeking to drape extremist solutions in a moral garb. That's true, again, on both sides of the ledger (it is not an accident that the Jewish claims over Sheikh Jarrah are framed as "land back" claims -- the Jewish claimants are successors to Jews who were dispossessed and expelled from their land by Arab armies in 1948!). As far as Israel and Palestine are concerned "indigenous" is where political commentators go to when they don't want to compromise a single inch but still want to appeal to some sort of putatively non-partisan moral principle. It is seductive in that it doesn't just promise everything, but promises everything with the gloss of moral justification to take a free rein.

No wonder, then, that Brager views it as unacceptable that Jews could claim "indigenous" for ourselves. Of course, their problem isn't the maximalism, it's who gets to be maximalist; they don't want to give up the maximalist utility of the indigenous frame, they just want to keep it for their preferred side. To some extent, the impetus behind this whole cartoon is oh no -- if it isn't the consequences of my actions paradigm! 

But if anything, the potential validity of Jewish claims of indigenousness should trigger a reassessment over the stakes of that label, and it probably would be worth reflecting on why this framework is so easily associated with and utilized by those proposing "solutions" to the conflict that are more-or-less open in their disdain for any sort of rights or claims by their disfavored side. If Jews are indigenous to Israel, then ... what? Does that mean Palestinians cannot also be indigenous to it? Does that justify violent expropriation of Palestinian-owned land, or the depravation of Palestinian civil rights and liberties? It would indeed be bad if Jews being indigenousness to Israel meant that therefore permanent occupation and dispossession of Palestinians is thereby justified! Brager's implicit response to this is to say "yes, it would be justified if Jews were indigenous, which is why Jews can't be indigenous" (I have sometimes wondered if Revanchist Zionism is what happens if Fanon wins the decolonization battle in a rout). My preferred response is to say "no, it wouldn't be justified, which means that can't be a consequence of Jews being indigenous." 

Brager is not fully wrong that the discursive impact of the "indigenous" debate, as it is used in contemporary political discourse, often serves to distract from if not justify obvious ongoing and continuing injustices. But ideally, it is precisely the strong potential legitimacy of Jewish claims of indigenousness that should prompt us to resist the deployment of "indigenous" to justify maximalist irredentism whose manifest immorality would otherwise smack us in the face. It is a bad thing -- this shouldn't have to be said, but apparently it does -- that we have people flirting with overt ethnic cleansing or mass expulsions and presenting them as moral imperatives (still worse when it is being done by people who have the power to carry out their flirtations, but certainly not good when it remains -- for the time being -- "merely" a fantasy)! And once we do that, we can start to think about what useful work "indigenous" (or "decolonial") can do in terms of both explaining the present and imagining the future, that is not simply a tool for maximalist fantasizing (this article in Tikkun is, I think, a worthwhile example of the project).


LWE said...
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LWE said...

It's also worth noting what people were behind the initial widespread adopting of the "Indigenous" framework. I take it they were the Native Americans, the archetypal and the most blatant victims of settler-colonialism? If so, it can be worth comparing and contrasting the application of this word to Native Americans, Jewsraelis and Palestinians and the political consequences of it.

LWE said...

It also would be interesting to discuss other indigenity claims - existing or potential - that are controversial or seem to be dubious to an observer. Maybe Armenian claim of indigenity against Turkic (Turkish and Azerbaijani) neighbors? Googling “Indigenous Armenians” reveals people making it. What factors support it? What are potential reasons for someone to be uncomfortable with it?

Laurie said...

Jewraelis? Also the concepts of indigenous people actually wasnt Created in relation to Native Americans only. The nice attempt at trying to distract from what’s been discussed in this article.

Laurie said...

This article is actually in response to a ridiculous cartoon that was in Jewish currents. If you want to discuss that others, write it yourself

LWE said...

It also takes the cartoon as a spring board to discuss the whole indigenity issue, noting that claims of it act like moral claims, despite the seeming objectivity of definition. I’m simply continuing the discussion already started by people on Twitter.

LWE said...

I'm actually not sure whether the concept of indigenous peoples first gained traction only in relation to cases similar to Native American/Aboriginal Australian, etc., hence I asked. As Judah Bernstein pointed out, the use of the concept is quite new. The early Zionist movement, while advancing Jewish historical claims to the land, didn't use this framing, and I also wonder when it got applied to Palestinians first, too. I take it it's a reflection of the fall of Pan-Arabism, which was an alternate framework for Palestinian claims (the 1964 Palestinian national charter starts with it).