Poet Joy Harjo responds to boycott demands over Israeli performance by adding a West Bank visit

on 25 Comments
joy harjo
Joy Harjo. (Photo: Racialicious.com)

After initially defending her decision to appear in a Tel Aviv University performance on Monday, Native American poet Joy Harjo now states she was too quick to speak against the academic and cultural boycott of Israel and has scheduled a visit to the West Bank. “I realize that I was defensive very quickly and probably should have waited to make any statement. I really didn’t know about the boycott,” Harjo wrote on Facebook early today.

Last week Harjo was called on not to perform in appeals from friends and academic peers and an official request from the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and the Boycott from Within. But Harjo decided to go ahead with the Tel Aviv University event, and to accept a writer-in-residence position at the university. In her first response to the appeals on Facebook on the day of that performance, December 10, Harjo said, “I was invited to perform and speak here at Tel Aviv University several months ago. I was a guest here nearly twenty years ago and remembered this place with a great fondness. I recalled the open discussions and the cultural mix of students. I accepted the invitation.”

Explaining that she learned about the boycott too late to change her plans, she said:

“The morning after I left on my journey I received an email from a friend and colleague. He asked me to reconsider my trip. This was the first I learned of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. I was puzzled at this request at such a late hour because this colleague had known of my plans to go to Tel Aviv for while.”

In Harjo’s statement on why she decided to go ahead with her performance, she wrote that Israel is a homeland to both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people, comparing the displacement of each to the genocide against indigenous Americans:

These lands are in the heart area of this Earth. The Jewish people consider these lands their homelands. They have survived countless persecutions and suffered as they made their way home. The Palestinian people are captive in their own homes. There are checkpoints to enter and leave. They do not own title to a country. They are not free. This situation is much like that of my people. We were force-marched from our homelands. Then our lands of resettlement were stolen again.

In her second statement early this morning Harjo conceded that playing in Tel Aviv did carry political implications and said that she will visit the West Bank today. She accepted the criticisms of her peers, and again expressed that she was not taking a political position by accepting the invitation:

It is almost three in the morning here. I will not put the page down. Tomorrow I go to the West Bank. I have learned more by being here than signing a paper from a safe room.

Yet, I understand given the history why stepping into Israel in this time is controversial and could be perceived as crossing a line in support of killing. I am not a killer. Nor do I condone killing. I believe in human rights.

My art demands that I stand as a truth teller. The spirit of art is the toughest teacher and I believe it has led me here to stand in this place. It is not an easy place to be misunderstood and attacked by those with whom you feel an alliance. I believe there is a reason for it though I don’t quite understand all of it yet. I don’t know that much but have to be true to what I have learned.

I do know that I will attempt to use this energy to the best of my ability for some kind of healing and understanding. I believe that in the end compassion and seeing each other as beloved relatives, even our enemies, is more powerful than guns.

Harjo received mixed responses from fans on Facebook, some praising her for her plans to go to the occupied Palestinian territories, and others again requesting her to abide by the BDS call.

Screen shot 2012 12 12 at 6 56 09 PM
Screen shot from Joy Harjo’s Facebook page.

Simply visiting the West Bank while keeping her ties to Tel Aviv University through the residency (which is likely to last two weeks to one month, judging by the English and American Studies department website) is unlikely to be a sufficient gesture to undo her alignment with Israel’s policies against Palestinian rights, in the eyes of boycott advocates. In addition to being built on the land of two ethnically-cleansed Palestinian villages, Tel Aviv University is home to the West Point of Israel, the largest Security Studies program in the country, which is also responsible for weapons engineering and the development of a “security doctrine” used to target Lebanese Palestinian civilians in 2006 and 2008-09 [PDF]. The department is chaired by Isaac Ben-Israel, a former air force general who as a member of the government also served as the chairman to the Knesset’s Lobby for the Defense Industries.

Harjo pointed in her first response to activists that she has a history of boycotting institutions with ties to the military. “I refused an invitation to the White House because I disagreed with George W. Bush and his politics. I stepped down from a tenured university position with security and benefits to register my disapproval of unethical practices involving a colleague and students and the persecution of other faculty members who objected,” she said.  

Yet in this instance Harjo performed at a university that has deep links to Israel’s occupation. And those who asked her to boycott the school were not asking her to cut ties with Israeli students and artists. Harjo seemed confused on this point. In her last statement, she said she was being asked to boycott “arts and cultures,” not an occupation profiting institution: “I really do have questions about boycotts of the arts and cultures because dialogues between artists and cultural thinkers take us beyond the laws and borders of countries,” she wrote. There are ways to travel and perform in Israel that do not conflict with the tenets of PACBI’s boycott call—Naomi Klein famously did it in 2009. Harjo was being asked not to accept affiliation with—and therefore provide legitimacy to—institutions that profit from Israel’s occupation, deny the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, and suppress the rights of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

At times, Harjo has lamented the sternness of her fans in objecting to the performance. But holding her accountable on the visit actually reflects her own work, which is a vigorous testament to the depths of dispossession. From Joy Harjo’s poem “Grace,” in Mad Love and War (1990):

I think of Wind and her wild ways the year we had nothing to lose and lost it anyway in the cursed country of the fox. We still talk about that winter, how the cold froze imaginary buffalo on the stuffed horizon of snowbanks. The haunting voices of the starved and mutilated broke fences, crashed our thermostat dreams, and we couldn’t stand it one more time. So once again we lost a winter in stubborn memory, walked through cheap apartment walls, skated through fields of ghosts into a town that never wanted us, in the epic search for grace.

I would like to say, with grace, we picked ourselves up and walked into the spring thaw. We didn’t; the next season was worse. You went home to Leech Lake to work with the tribe and I went south. And, Wind, I am still crazy. I know there is something larger than the memory of a dispossessed people. We have seen it.

Palestinians are in a season of perpetual winter. Gaza has become a sort of protracted “non-state” where 80% of the population subsists on humanitarian aid. And in the West Bank, despite the brouhaha around non-member observer status to the United Nations, there is no semblance of sovereignty. Just last night eight Israeli jeeps cruised into Ramallah’s “Area A,” a so-called district in the occupied territories under the security control of the Palestinian Authority, in order to raid the offices of three Palestinian NGOs. Such blatant disregard for Palestinian autonomy is normal here. As my landlord in Ramallah said, “they always do this,” barely glancing up from his computer screen upon hearing the Israeli military had been operating close by.

Yet Palestinians are fighting against dispossession; and one expanding method is the BDS call. Harjo’s case shows that it has become so mainstream to grassroots organizing that it functions almost as a litmus test of Palestinian solidarity—for better, or worse. Supporting the call is now seen as a tangible action aimed at re-imagining “Palestine,” beyond the memory of dispossession, toward a possible future of equal rights.

About Allison Deger

Allison Deger is the Assistant Editor of Mondoweiss.net. Follow her on twitter at @allissoncd.

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25 Responses

  1. MLE
    December 12, 2012, 10:05 pm

    She should go and see for herself. She could become more vocal about supporting the boycott afterwards. I think it would make an even more important point to say she had gone against the idea of a boycott and now she fully supports it.

    • MarionL
      December 13, 2012, 3:58 pm

      Take a look at her Facebook page now. She just got back from Ramallah, and issued a statement about her deep sense of connection with the Palestinians that she met.

      • chinese box
        December 13, 2012, 4:43 pm

        Now let’s see if she backs up that sense of connection with action or if she’s just after the cash…

        And if she truly has no grasp of these issues at her age, where has she been living, under a rock? I seem to remember Margaret Atwood playing dumb as well, claiming she was caught off guard.

  2. doug
    December 13, 2012, 12:40 am

    I wonder what her very close friend Lurline thinks about this. They are both big advocates of indigenous peoples, Hawaiian and Native American. Another, possibly interesting aspect, Lurline was, decades ago, connected to DC politics and did a stint as congressional staffer.

  3. Taxi
    December 13, 2012, 2:14 am

    ” These lands are in the heart area of this Earth”.

    Actually “these lands” sit over the belly of the earth, hence: the MIDDLE east. The troubles in the mideast are the earth’s ongoing chronic belly ache. The “heart” of the earth sits somewhere in the Black Sea.

    It is NEVER too late to cancel ANYTHING in the name of humanitarianism and justice. So what if she’s last-minute added a trip to the WB? Who cares about that pitiful gesture? With the advent of the internet one can ‘visit’ the West Bank a hundred times a day!

    She’s playing both sides of the fence for careerism? I don’t understand why else she would ignore her friend’s plea at the 11th hour and go ahead if not for $$$$$$.

    She also evidently knows nothing of the roots of ashkanazim and their occupation not just of Palestinian lands but of judaism itself.

    Stevie Wonder cancelled last minute when he was informed that his participation in the idf event last week was tantamount to supporting the Apartheid army. Why couldn’t have miss Joy done the same?

    No respect for this poet (whom I’ve never heard of before btw).

    • eljay
      December 13, 2012, 8:39 am

      >> No respect for this poet (whom I’ve never heard of before btw).

      I don’t know her either, but since her art demands that she “stand as a truth teller” (couldn’t it have asked her politely?), I’m curious to see whether she learns anything from her visit to the West Bank.

      Tomorrow I go to the West Bank. I have learned more by being here than signing a paper from a safe room.
      . . .
      Yet, I understand given the history why stepping into Israel in this time is ontroversial and could be perceived as crossing a line in support of killing. I am not a killer. Nor do I condone killing. I believe in human rights.

      … It is not an easy place to be misunderstood and attacked by those with whom you feel an alliance. I believe there is a reason for it though I don’t quite understand all of it yet. I don’t know that much but have to be true to what I have learned.

  4. pabelmont
    December 13, 2012, 5:15 am

    Let us hope there may be learning here, and a response from her about what she’s learned. If she should happen to return to the USA and inform (and enlist) Native Americans about this situation, they might join the struggle.

    Since she has been invited by a university, perhaps she can educate some university people — faculty, students — about the history of Native Americans in a way which will somehow open their eyes to what their society is doing.

    Let us pray.

  5. chinese box
    December 13, 2012, 8:30 am

    I had to read some of her poetry for a college class…when I opened the link I thought it would be good news, until I saw her wishy washy statements.

    Sounds like another aging academic/entertainer/rock star Israel is wooing with cash in an attempt to burnish it’s image. Nothing to see here. Based on the circles she probably travels in and her work on indigenous rights, it’s hard to believe her views are really so muddled and uninformed this late in the game.

  6. mymarkx
    December 13, 2012, 8:56 am

    How can she visit the West Bank? Will Israel allow it? They will have to provide a driver, as she would never be allowed to board a Tel Aviv bus. They will have to provide an escort, or she wouldn’t be allowed back across the checkpoints. Israel will say where she can go and who she can talk with. Why doesn’t she try to visit Gaza? Or given the season, maybe she could try to bring some frankincense, myrrh, and sage to Bethlehem without getting shot by the IDF. I don’t think she’ll really be visiting the West Bank, any more than going to a casino is visiting an Indian reservation in the U.S.–Foxwoods isn’t Pine Ridge.

    • chinese box
      December 13, 2012, 12:15 pm


      Phil and other journalists/activists visit the WB all the time. I’m sure she’d have no issue going there.

    • MarionL
      December 13, 2012, 3:59 pm

      She did in fact visit the West Bank as she said she would after speaking at Tel Aviv University.

  7. homingpigeon
    December 13, 2012, 9:33 am

    We must be careful not to act like hyenas chasing the weakest buffalo in the herd. There are bigger issues.

    • eGuard
      December 13, 2012, 11:37 am

      hyenas chasing the weakest buffalo
      She was asked to reconsider her travel and performance. She choose to answer the way she did. We are very well allowed to point that out.
      There are bigger issues. Always. You want to talk about Syria?

  8. Annie Robbins
    December 13, 2012, 11:07 am

    “I realize that I was defensive very quickly and probably should have waited to make any statement. I really didn’t know about the boycott,” Harjo wrote on Facebook early today.

    could someone please blockquote her entire (new) statement for me (first link in the article)? i can’t access it. i read her 3 am hotel missive and got completely sidetracked reading a bunch of comments and following the links but i’d like to read what she had to say today. this was one of the comments:


    Ricardo Abreu Bracho
    My response to Joy Harjo letter defending her indefensible performance at Tel Aviv University. The “last minute” stuff is re: her seemingly being unaware of the boycott until she was contacted night before and day of her flight out.

    Joy, It wasn’t as last minute as you claim. I, among others, noticed your earlier intent when you posted “Should I go to Tel Aviv?” while the occupying Zionist forces rained down bombs on the Gazans in November. Tel Aviv University posted in cancelling the event that you did not go “for security reasons” while your postings indicated that you stayed for a family medical emergency. I thought that was that. I should have intervened then. That was my political error. I then noticed, as others did, your posting indicating you had an early flight out to Tel Aviv the evening prior to your departure. Once I began to recover from his shock, and yes I found it utterly shocking that you would go to Israel and Tel Aviv University, I contacted others closer to the BDS movement and to you. Our emails and phone calls reached you before you left the US. You could have not boarded the plane. You could have, once you arrived, cancelled the gig and put yourself in contact with Israeli and Palestinian activists and gone to the West Bank and Gaza. You could have simply returned. You could have engaged, directly, with the critique coming from Palestinians, the initial letter emailed to you and then posted on here or the many eloquent comments. You did none of this. You now hide behind platitudes and metaphors. At the very least, you are a better writer than this. But even your best verse, will provide no shade for your grossly unethical actions. I am less in shock now. In rage and sadness, Ricardo A. Bracho

    i thought her (paraphrasing) ‘palestinians have always been in my heart’ sounded very unconvincing and gratuitous.

    i had never heard of the woman until a few days ago but now she’ll be famous for crossing the picket line. this is a serious global issue and if we’re going to make a difference we can’t be handing out passes to alleged human rights activists for deciding they know better than palestinians how to support palestinians. she blew it, and she’s now a writer in resident which she could cut short.

    let this be a lesson to people, we won’t be forgetting. no one tried to forced her not to go (as she claimed). this was her decision, and a bad one. she’s revealed her character.

    • Taxi
      December 13, 2012, 11:30 am

      The effed plot thickens.

      Naaaah it’s very simple really: it’s about zee dollarz man zee dollars – all zeez dollarz for a whole zippee year!

    • MarionL
      December 13, 2012, 4:03 pm

      So what I would ask Ricardo A. Bracho is: If this is how harshly he judges Joy Harjo, how does he judge the Palestinians who met with her in Ramallah and Bethlehem, and who shared food, stories and poetry with her after which she made a heartfelt statement about her sense of connection with the Palestinians she met (and AGAINST the injustices they are suffering) on her Facebook page. It is there now.

  9. Annie Robbins
    December 13, 2012, 11:21 am

    Palestinians are in a season of perpetual winter.

    sharp rejoinder.

  10. HarryLaw
    December 13, 2012, 11:30 am

    Joy Harjo, says “they do not own title to a country” Yes they do, under the right of the Palestinian people to self determination as settled by the United Nations, and officially now as a state like any other in the UN, although illegally occupied at present.

  11. Kathleen
    December 13, 2012, 12:01 pm

    Quite honestly I have always been amazed about why Native Americans and African Americans have ignored the I/P issue. But then it is far more common than we want to think that oppressed people’s who have had a genocide committed against them and been enslaved are unable to extend their own oppressive history to those who are having these crimes committed against them in the present. This is always sad but more often than not the case. African Americans are just getting involved with the crimes being committed against the Palestinians and this is a good thing

    Great that Joy is admitting her ignorance.

    Amazing that as European nations are seriously criticizing Israel for their expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank and E Jerusalem and their latest attacks in Gaza the US is resupplying Israel with the very weapons that they used in attacking Gaza. How absurd that the US criticizes Iran for supplying Syria with weapons. The whole world is watching

  12. Ellen
    December 13, 2012, 12:14 pm

    Am not familiar with this Poet, but from her statement here she sounds clueless or disingenuous, or both.

  13. MRW
    December 13, 2012, 1:02 pm

    Call her what she is: a political phony.

    • MarionL
      December 13, 2012, 4:05 pm

      Call her what she is: a wonderful First Nations feminist poet and musician, and like all of us, a flawed human being, but a human being that does what she can to advance justice and peace wherever she goes.

      Maybe next time she visits Israel and Palestine she will meet in venues compliant with the boycott, (and going to the West Bank is compliant with the boycott) but wherever she goes, she goes to advance justice and peace.

      • Woody Tanaka
        December 13, 2012, 5:13 pm

        “Call her what she is: a wonderful First Nations feminist poet and musician”

        She’s a member of Muscogee Nation from Tulsa. Doubtful that she uses “First Nations.” That’s more a Canada thing, not a US thing.

  14. Chu
    December 13, 2012, 2:22 pm

    Sounds like someone has bills to pay, but intends to do the
    ancient ‘smoke-screen’ dance while the crowd is throwing
    This reminds me of any house member of Congress
    that jigs for campaign cash every 2 years.

  15. RudyM
    December 16, 2012, 1:46 pm

    I have been familiar with Harjo’s name for a while now. She may not be a household word, but some of her writing is commonly assigned to high school students (or was in Philadelphia anyway). She has a lot of admirers.

    From what little I’ve read of Harjo’s writing, I get the sense that this situation reflects the drawbacks of applying her free-wheeling spirituality to concrete political issues. (Maybe this has more to do with my own biases than with her work.)

    Honestly, I’ve been a little reluctant to comment on all of this because she is Native American. As a white man who has only relatively recently moved to New Mexico, where the wounds of conquest and genocide are much more visible (if only in the form of survivors, some doing quite well, some down and out) than they were in Philadelphia, I do feel uncertain about criticizing Harjo. But I certainly wish she had respected the boycott. Hopefully she will get caught up quickly on the realities of the conflict.

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