Zionism and Native American Studies | Steven Salaita

by Steven Salaita

It was only a matter of time before Zionism and Native American Studies [NAS] came into conflict—or, to be more precise, before Zionists began targeting the field for acrimony and recrimination, as they have long done to various humanities and social science disciplines.  With an increasingly global focus (in concert with emphasis on local concerns), a commitment to material transformation, a disdain for US imperialism and militarism, a rejection of state power in nearly all its manifestations, and a plethora of young artists and scholar-activists interested in Palestine, it’s little surprise that Israeli colonization would become a topic in the field.  And because most people in the field don’t have nice things to say about Israel, some of the state’s apologists have forced themselves into Indigenous spaces with a singular purpose:  to intimidate its practitioners into obedience.  As usual, those undertaking the intimidation know nothing about the people they endeavor to subdue.  Over five centuries of history prove that Indigenous peoples are not given to submission.

The Zionist assaults on NAS rely on well-worn tactics and narratives, but they also entail some new strategies.  Pro-Israel operatives have never limited themselves to specific disciplines, targeting Palestinians wherever they were located within the university—concurrently deploying a secondary but no less confrontational focus on Black radical scholars—but these days the pro-Israel punishment industry is expanding its target zone through a combination of relaxed standards and increased anguish.  Recent events at Dartmouth College, discussed below, clarify the nature of that expansion.

In examining the relationship between Zionism and NAS, it’s critical to think past obvious explanations.  It’s easy to say that because Palestine exists in NAS the pro-Israel punishment industry now targets it, but we elide lots of important possibilities by repeating that formulation, which has the potential to instrumentalize NAS as an adjunct to overseas geographies and thus to minimize, if only unwittingly, the ongoing dispossession of Native nations in North America.  Zionist displeasure with NAS is best situated in the context of US and Canadian colonization, with which the Israeli variety is symbiotic.

Zionist interference in NAS hasn’t merely sought to regulate Palestine.  It is paradigmatic of the so-called “special relationship” between the US and Israel and therefore vigorously opposes North American decolonization.  This dual concern with Israel’s reputation and America’s moral standing, so easily conflated, illuminates crucial features of Palestine as a global presence while highlighting the difficult conditions attending to Native scholarship.  Most iterations of Zionism include devotion to US colonization.  It’s no longer enough to conceptualize Israel merely as an appendage of US foreign policy interests.  Too many concrete alliances, mutual training programs, concerted policing strategies, weapon exchanges, and synchronized acts of oppression exist for that metric to capture the intensity of the alliance, which is mutually constitutive (economically, militarily, culturally, and discursively).

If we explore the discourses of those who decry (or merely chide) Native scholars for opposing Israeli policies, or for supporting Palestinian freedom, five features emerge:


  1. Outrage or befuddlement that a people as noble as Natives could possibly reject Israelis, their natural allies.
  2. An impulse to police the scope and content of NAS.
  3. Profound misunderstanding (or ignorance) of the field’s methodologies, ethical and philosophical commitments, and intellectual traditions.
  4. A belief, often tacit, that the US should retain its claim as steward of Native populations.
  5. Deep anxiety about a perceived loss of authority in academe.


These discursive norms aren’t identical to the ones that exist vis-à-vis repression of Palestine Studies, though there’s overlap.  Identifying that overlap is useful, but here I want to assess the broadened focus of the pro-Israel punishment industry and then consider the implications of the encounter between Zionism and NAS.

The Duthu Dartmouth Deanship

In March, 2017, Bruce Duthu accepted a position as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College.  Duthu is a prominent figure in NAS and the occupant of an endowed chair in a prestigious department.  Few Natives become upper administrators, so the ascension of Duthu at an Ivy League university, whatever one thinks of the utility of managerial aspirations, was a noteworthy achievement.  The appointment got processed and Duthu received the usual congratulations when, two months later, somebody discovered that Duthu once signed a statement favoring the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, a popular position in the Southern Hemisphere.

But common sense in the South is often taboo in the North and so even though he inhabits a field that rejects US nationalism, Duthu was doomed by nationalistic sentiment.  No indication exists that Duthu harbors any special animus for Israel or affinity for Palestine; in fact, he walked back his endorsement of BDS (as initiated in limited form by the NAISA Council) without disavowing his empathy for Palestinians.  That his endorsement of the statement appears to have been a function of his position as a NAISA officer rather than an ideological commitment did little to assuage his detractors.

The chatter around Duthu’s resignation exposes the mentality of the pro-Israel punishment industry.  Dartmouth economist Alan Gustman offered a dose of comic paranoia unbefitting a person presumably devoted to the rigor of social science:  “The chant of the BDS movement, from the river to the sea, is anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and profoundly anti-Jewish….  Again, this movement has become a cover for many anti-Semites who like nothing better than to once again be free to exercise their prejudices.”  He helpfully noted that he has “no reason to believe that Duthu is anti-Semitic.”  Speculation about Gustman’s attitude toward Native Americans and Arabs is thus far unavailable.

Venerable saboteur Cary Nelson played moderate Zionist to Gustman’s extremist, appearing to back Duthu’s appointment.  “[Duthu] is hardly a hardcore boycott advocate,” Nelson observed.  “Some people can sign a BDS petition without imposing that agenda on the rest of their professional life, while others cannot.”

Let’s compare this observation with Gustman’s claim that “[it’s] not appropriate to appoint an advocate of BDS, thereby providing the BDS movement with a foothold at the highest levels of our administration.”

Here we have two Zionist fanatics, one in favor of Duthu’s appointment, the other against.  A close reading of their quotes, however, indicates that both say essentially the same thing:  a litmus test on Palestine enforceable by dilettantes with no qualifications beyond an irrational devotion to Israel must exist before Native scholars can be allowed career promotions.  Apropos of the field’s general relationship with US academe, familiarity isn’t necessary to have an expert opinion about NAS.

The pro-Israel punishment industry relies on the settler’s prerogative to freely grant authority as required to maintain colonial hierarchies.  Zionist academics anoint themselves arbiters of NAS, something we saw repeatedly in the past few years, thanks largely to Nelson’s efforts, vis-à-vis the Zionist destruction of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (though the problem has existed alongside the field since its inception).  Not content merely to obliterate academic freedom, Nelson set out to discredit the entire field by conceptualizing it as given to demagoguery, incompetence, dereliction, and irrationality.

This self-granted authority vis-à-vis NAS is possible only because of a long history of entitlement on campus in general.  Many Zionist scholars consider themselves uniquely fit to judge which viewpoints are acceptable and thereby interject themselves as indispensable arbiters of the reward economy.  The culture of US academe gives them latitude to act on those judgments.  For instance, Dartmouth Jewish Studies director Susannah Heschel, in an apparent display of support for Duthu, noted that “he is not promoting or facilitating the boycotting [of Israeli institutions]…on the contrary, he is doing the opposite of boycotting,” adding that BDS is “very dangerous, wrong and nasty.”  These are the words of somebody accustomed to being consulted.

Like Nelson, Heschel implies that certain views on Israel constitute grounds for punishment.  In her mind Duthu doesn’t descend into anti-Zionism, an affliction about which the wrong kind of people need to be “educated.”  He is salvageable as an ethnic subject.  This sort of magnanimity reinforces conditions that harm Indigenous scholars.  In the articles reporting Duthu’s resignation, we see this theme repeated with slight rhetorical variations.  Duthu is one of the good Natives who, while given to lapses of judgment, isn’t very hard on Israel.  He is therefore qualified to be a dean.  None of those articles quotes a Native or Palestinian, or even an anti-Zionist Jew, only people opposed to BDS.  Such exclusions are a journalistic custom that validates pro-Israel normativity and reinforces the impression that Palestine is exclusively the concern of those who identify as Jewish.  In this case, Indian Country also suffers discursive erasures.  It is unwise to imagine Israel as inconsequential to Natives.

Israel’s participation in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples is inscribed in the narrative dynamics of the Duthu controversy.  Gustman, for example, worries about extant Palestinian influence, and hints at the dangers of unchecked Native influence, in ways that are rightly considered anti-Semitic when the subject is one of Jewish influence.  Only because Natives and Palestinians inhabit a wretched position in academe are they so casually subject to racist suppositions.  Academic racism both precedes and validates the supervisory role Zionists confer to themselves in relation to colonized demographics.

This racism produces material consequences for its perpetrators and victims.  Many observers assume that targets of recrimination are worthy of recrimination merely because they were targeted, as against the timeless authority of the perpetrator.  Relations of power can define notions of probity.  Take Cary Nelson, for example.  He damaged his reputation as a stalwart of academic freedom by leading the assault on his colleagues in American Indian Studies at UIUC, including partnership with far-right demagogues and complicity with the Israeli security state.  These actions weren’t a basis for punishment, however.

Now Nelson is again everywhere, organizing against human rights in the MLA, interjecting himself in Native American Studies, providing quotes on topical matters for industry publications.  That institutions and individuals in academe continue to entertain him as an expert on anything other than dishonesty, snitching, and duplicity illustrates how uninviting academe is for those positioned against state power.

Nelson isn’t exceptional.  Ringleaders of campus repression rarely lose their rarified positions; in fact, they are often rewarded.  This inveterate feature of US academe both reflects and reproduces the institutional norms of settler colonization, which treat the violence of modernity as a civilizational imperative.  Authoritarianism is the currency of American redemption, made available for study but studiously ignored during presidential elections, faculty searches, geostrategic fads, and every other moment when the populace is expected to lionize personalities.  Linear history, feted as insuperable progress, is actually a series of regressions to colonial authority.  Academe has been so easily corporatized because its originaries prevent it from developing in ways that value (or tolerate) unorthodoxy.

Consider that Alan Gustman will suffer no repercussions for his crusade against Duthu.  (If anything, he has burnished his own administrative credentials.)  Heschel will continue to be lauded as a voice of compassion and reason.  The off-campus groups that interfered will be further emboldened.  Duthu, on the other hand, has to face down a permanent demotion.  Victims of the pro-Israel punishment industry earn lifetime sentences.

While Gustman and Heschel intervene in ways that should cause any discerning observer to object, Nelson, despite his hopeless attempt to sound open-minded, offers the most objectionable intervention.  Allow me to speak more plainly:  it’s not Cary Nelson’s business what happens at Dartmouth.  It’s not Cary Nelson’s business what happens in Native American Studies.  It’s not Cary Nelson’s business who does and doesn’t support BDS.  It’s not Cary Nelson’s business to sort the good people of color from the bad people of color.  And yet in the structures within which he functions it actually is his business.  He exemplifies a specific class of white senior scholar who exercise the responsibility of managing political standards on campus.  Administration forever summons men of that class to the task.  It is their duty, their pleasure, their passion, their birthright, their burden. That’s why men like Nelson never offer a “no comment.”

We can return to one of his comments to recognize the settler’s indomitable subject position:  “Some people can sign a BDS petition without imposing that agenda on the rest of their professional life, while others cannot.”  Neither the Chronicle of Higher Education nor Inside Higher Ed, where this passage appears, has ever considered the question in the inverse.  Can people be devoted to Israel without imposing that agenda on the rest of their professional lives?  Given the unabated growth of the pro-Israel punishment industry and Nelson’s own obsession with safeguarding Israel’s reputation, it’s a question worth raising if we’re going to be in the business of implicating professionalism based on political opinions.  (It’s worth noting that there’s no known instance in the history of US academe where a professor has been fired for supporting Israel or for unethical practices vis-à-vis Indigenous communities.)  That only the dark thoughts of subalternity are marked for surgical restriction indicates that enlightenment often does little more than project onto the subaltern its most incriminating anxieties.

Despite Duthu’s ambiguous response to the controversy, it’s important for observers to condemn the behavior of his adversaries (and ostensible supporters).  We can remain mindful of Duthu’s personal circumstances while simultaneously assessing the broader implications of the imbroglio for NAS and the various scholarly and activist communities with which it is in conversation.  Zionists didn’t merely interfere with Duthu’s career.  Their actions are deleterious to the field Duthu represents.  Are its practitioners now obliged to appease Zionists before seeking promotion?  Must they check with the local supporters of settler colonization before they undertake transnational organizing?  Is their self-governance contingent on the magnanimity of their oppressor?  After all, they have just been warned that their criticism of colonization must remain confined to points of view that please the settler.

Civilizing Aggression

Dialogue between Natives and Palestinians goes back at least half a century.  The first substantive interchange occurred during the heyday of the American Indian Movement [AIM], when Native activists, like their Black Panther peers, looked to global liberation struggles for inspiration and solidarity, proffering both to anti-colonial movements in return.  The radical politics of the time put numerous armed groups across the globe into communication.

In turn, many efforts to chronicle Native activism engage on some level with Palestine, Algeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Cuba, Northern Ireland, and other contemporaneous struggles.  NAS has numerous antecedents, but in important ways it is derivative of that moment, helped along by campus organizing that demanded representation of underserved ethnic, racial, and national groups.  Its presence in US academe, then, ranges from tenuous to unwelcome.  It sometimes acts as a repository of managerial grandstanding about diversity and at others as a productive link between colleges and Native nations.  We cannot ascribe a specific function to NAS that universally captures its place on campus, but we can observe that it regularly encounters, or creates, a tension between cultures of resistance and sites of state power.

Some Zionist agitators see in that tension an opportunity to shame NAS away from the spaces of academe hostile to settler colonization—spaces long derided as radical or unrigorous.  Their vision of NAS is quaintly anthropological.  It exists to decode culture, to vitalize American diversity, to celebrate resilience, to unearth civilizational origins, to transmit ancient wisdom to a modern world always in need of redemption.  All that decolonization stuff?  It degrades the field’s integrity.  Any suggestion of complicating rather than perfecting modernity inhibits the purpose of higher education.

This vision of higher education as guardian of responsible inquiry—absent, of course, the omnipresent dynamics of colonial power—underlies the pro-Israel punishment industry’s justifications for disciplining wayward individuals.  That the industry would come into conflict with NAS, especially as Palestine is invigorated through movements for North American decolonization, seems inevitable, but linking Zionism to NAS only through Palestine misses important elements of the story.

NAS’s commitment to decolonization is incongruous with the type of academy regulated by Zionist agitators, from progressives like Heschel to extremists like William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection.  We have seen that liberal Zionists are happy to join reactionary forces when the protection of Israel is at stake.  We have scant evidence of those liberals entering into alliance with movements and individuals perceived as radical.  These are strategic decisions, yes, but they also speak to people’s structural positions in relation to their professional aspirations.  The Zionist cannot accept being implicated in Israeli colonization.  He is even less prepared to be identified with the settlement of the United States.  By flagging Natives for recrimination, the Zionist doesn’t merely save Israel from scrutiny; he protects a system of neoliberal commerce to which Israel is indispensable.

Israel’s indispensability to American militarism is regularly evident.  During the movement in Standing Rock to preserve ancestral land from the environmental devastation of oil pipelines, US authorities availed themselves of security firm G4S, a longtime stalwart in Palestine before the BDS movement pushed it out.  The US government likewise approached the Standing Rock protests as a counterterrorism operation, a move that coheres with its treatment of radical activism around Palestinian, Puerto Rican, Hawaiian, and Black liberation.  Israel is an American talisman in matters of terror.  And Israeli authorities work with US police departments across the country.

Counterterrorism isn’t merely a legal tactic, but a frame of reference, a defensive posture, and an ideology, a result of the hardboiled belief that Native sovereignty (much less liberation) imperils the United States.  Terrorism is the requisite antithesis to the imaginary of a stable, exalted nation-state.  If it is an act of terror for Natives to assert basic rights, then Indigeneity becomes foreign, an unsettling departure from its traditional role as a pastoral validation of the body politic.  Native assertions of self-determination represent an unpacified history, the source of deep settler anxiety, where landscapes conquered into docility threaten to become animate and rebel against their corporate steward.

It is easy to frame anti-Zionism as a rejection of the US polity, something that happens regularly, albeit with variegated iterations, in Native scholarship.  Anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism needn’t be articulated together to generate settler anxiety and the rancor that often follows.  The pro-Israel punishment industry is concerned with a particular order of the world, one in which their glamorized nation-state maintains a rarified presence.  More than anything it is interested in protecting that world from the unglamorous crudeness of condemnation.  Even without mentioning Palestine, certain features of NAS are a nightmare for Zionism.

Just as continuous returns to authority restrict political vision in the US, regressions to normativity in North American academe hamper intellectual creativity.  Such is the design of universities that reproduce neoliberal imperatives, a structure campus Zionists adamantly enforce.  I recall, for example, the time on a Facebook NAISA thread when Sergei Kan, an anthropologist of Tlingit cultures and an Israeli apologist of spectacular pettiness, invoked a viral essay I had written about the problems with the phrase “support our troops” as a way to discredit my participation in NAS on the grounds of inadequate patriotism.  Khan has likewise targeted Kahnawake scholar Audra Simpson, whose book Mohawk Interruptus proffers a sophisticated reading of Indigenous liberation, a prospect Kan appears to find highly troublesome.

The pro-Israel punishment industry makes heavy use of Metis goon Ryan Bellerose to purify NAS of its decolonial tendencies.  Bellerose prowls the internet to find Indigenes nefarious enough to criticize Israel and then lavishes the offenders with vitriol.  He has attacked J. Kehaulani Kuaunui and Robert Warrior, among others, calling them “idiots” and “asshats” and questioning their ethnic authenticity.  (A few years ago, Bellerose showed up to a talk I gave in Alberta and got himself removed, physically threatening Native women in the audience on his way out.)

Bellerose is an extreme example—Hillel Montreal once cancelled an event with him because of his belligerent behavior—but still he represents the sanctified rendition of a phenomenon that Indigenous scholars regularly endure:  aggressive men demanding compliance by deploying tactics of shame and intimidation.  However eagerly the genteel and urbane pro-Israel observers of NAS may want to distance themselves from people like Bellerose, we must point out that liberal Zionists evince more tolerance for reactionary hacks than for the targets of their opprobrium.

Native American Studies Without Zionism

As somebody with a history of conflict with the pro-Israel punishment industry and an investment in the fields of American Indian and Indigenous Studies, I can offer a few pragmatic observations that I hope readers might find useful.

We should treat the pro-Israel punishment industry as a nuisance and not an interlocutor.  We can conceptualize it as a nuisance without minimizing the harmful outcomes it is capable of producing.  It is crucial to develop strategies for surviving recrimination, or for eliminating it altogether.  It is likewise crucial to expose and analyze the industry’s detrimental presence in academe.  Treating that industry as a nuisance is a way of taking it seriously without accommodating its unsolicited interventions.  We cannot allow it to have a voice within Native American Studies despite the difficulty of ignoring the noise it makes from the outside.

I suggest treating Zionist displeasure with our work as a site of productive inquiry:  what does this reactionary interest in NAS tell us about the field?  In inoculating ourselves against recrimination, how are we developing intellectual spaces that bypass or evade the traditional strictures of academe?  In what ways can those spaces be meaningful to the communities we represent?

The pro-Israel punishment industry isn’t an aberration; it makes manifest an implicit feature of American higher education:  that Indigenous peoples are unwelcome whenever they supersede the safe romance of mascotry.  Aspiring to liberation is inherently hostile.  Decolonization is anathema to norms of responsibility.  The field’s leading scholars attempt to undermine private ownership and land-grant mythologies, narrative bellwethers of US higher education.  If the goal of Zionist meddling is to destroy affiliation with radical geographies, then it unwittingly facilitates one of the discipline’s basic needs—to disaffiliate from the institutions that house it.

Conflict with pro-Israel zealots is a professional detriment, but also a philosophical affirmation.  Few political formations make the corporate, colonial marrow of campus more obvious.  In this sense, Zionist recrimination is useful in that it forces onlookers to profess their real affinities.  Those who allow flaccid ideals of diversity to colonize the real work of anti-racism must either stay silent, a damning ethical choice, or align with the unenlightened conservatives they pretend to abhor.

For those in NAS and related fields, the appearance of Zionist martinets and their tacit enablers can be something of a clarifying ritual.  The kinds of responses those martinets generate (or don’t) help advocates of decolonization determine whether US academe even deserves to survive.  This formula is neither flippant nor facetious.  To the contrary, it is a statement of principle.  Native American Studies doesn’t exist to marshal Indigenous peoples into the service of redeeming the colonial university, but to ensure that they outlast it.



About the author: Steven Salaita’s most recent book is Inter/Nationalism:  Decolonizing Native America and Palestine.


The image above is from Photo Essay: Toronto Marches with Gaza by Jesse McLaren.

Leave a Reply