07/01/2013 05:16 EDT | Updated 08/31/2013 05:12 EDT

Why Canadian Jews Must Show Solidarity With Natives


I was very moved by indigenous rights activist Ryan Bellerose's op-ed in the Toronto Sun denouncing some pro-Palestinian activists' exploitation of First Nations' struggles. As Bellerose astutely put it: "to claim the Jews are colonizers in the Holy Land delegitimizes all indigenous peoples because such attempts trivialize the unbreakable, maternal ties to the land that make us, like the Jews, indigenous." But the solidarity should not end there. Sympathy, however heartfelt, is insufficient.

The situation Canadian Natives face is not befitting of Canadians' genuine compassion and sense of fairness. But Canadian Jews have, like American Jews during the civil rights struggle, a special duty born of shared experience to actively support First Nations' efforts "to be a free people in their own land" (from the Israeli anthem). That duty need not translate to the promotion of any specific politics; Natives must decide for themselves how they wish to fit within the Canadian framework. But it is a duty to help them fight for greater justice, especially when what natives face today so closely resembles our own, past struggles. Their fight is every Canadian's fight but it is ours in particular.

The disparity that First nations suffer is unacceptable. Aboriginal peoples in Canada face sub-par education, employment, economic well-being, health and housing. Aboriginal Canadians earn less than other Canadians, and are at much greater risk of suffering violent crimes or sexual abuse. They are also more likely to be imprisoned.

While Native Canadians are protected by law and their segregation is not entirely imposed, the situation in reserves is far too akin to yesterday's shtetls, ghettos and mellahs to leave us indifferent. Natives have been relegated to the forgotten margins of daily life and Canadian geography, cast aside to witness the world progress without their full participation. That experience is seared in every Jewish memory.

But it is all the worse when considering that Natives are suffering this injustice at home. They did not immigrate to Canada to flee difficulties or seek a better life. Rather, on a land with which they have intimate, millennial ties, Natives find themselves displaced, colonized, and living as second class citizens with much less rights in practice than newcomers.

This is exactly the indignity that the Jewish people suffered in the Holy Land under Roman, Arabian and Turkish occupiers. And like Jews, Native peoples can be credited for not letting their suffering translate to canonized violence or the cultivation of resentment. Like Jews through the ages, it is Natives' meekness that characterizes their struggle; their silence has Hebrew accents.

Jewish experience can serve as a guide (and already has, e.g., to the Navajo). Jews have preserved an ancient culture through displacement and persecution and turned it into a thriving democracy. We have revived an ancient language and made barren soil feed people. But we have much to learn as well. For one, Natives' sacred ties to the land remain the most intimate and respectful of all, and a necessary source of instruction for us.

Jews have always sought to benefit others as part of their DNA. Israel has fought hunger in Africa and helped the vulnerable from Haiti to Turkey to Sri Lanka. It is time for us in North America to play a greater role in First Nations struggles. In helping Natives achieve equality in Canada, we too should be idle no more.

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