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

ActivismIsrael/Palestine
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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.

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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.

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