Massoud Hayoun/Al Jazeera

Palestinians, Israelis occupy Navajo consciousness

The conflict in the Middle East is becoming a central issue in the politics of the Navajo Nation

In a perhaps unexpected twist of geopolitical fate, faraway Israel and the Palestinian territories are at the center of a mounting political debate on sovereignty and sustainability in the Navajo Nation.

An ongoing effort by Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly to bolster relations with distant Israel has drawn criticism from some Navajo human rights advocates ahead of Navajo presidential elections this November.

During a meeting late last week on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Shiprock, New Mexico, a city in the Navajo Nation, Shelly’s aide Deswood Tome revealed that talks are under way for an academic exchange of students and faculty between Israel’s Haifa and Ben-Gurion Universities and Navajo’s Dine College and Navajo Technical University.

It’s part of an economic and cultural exchange that the Navajo government has sought to undertake for years, Tome said, adding that he speaks with counterparts in Israel “every other week.”

In December 2012, Shelly made a diplomatic visit to Israel, where he met with members of government and civil society.

But those ties have become a lightning rod of criticism for many members of the Navajo Nation who have traditionally placed great importance on solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

Jennifer Denetdale, of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC), a government body, addressed Tome at the meeting. She explained that, as a Navajo woman who continues to face what she says are continuing instances of U.S. “colonialism,” she opposes the nation’s ruling administration siding with Israel, which she called a “imperialist” state.

Denetdale said in a Facebook post detailing her response that the Navajo Nation must “object to Israel’s gross human rights violations perpetrated against the Palestinian people.”

“It appears to me that the Shelly administration is completely oblivious to what the world is saying about Israel’s violations against the Palestinian people,” Denetdale told Al Jazeera, likening the U.S.’s seizure of Navajo traditional lands to Israel’s own settlements. Denetdale spoke to Al Jazeera of her personal beliefs and not on behalf of the NNHRC.

“If you study settler colonialism, you have to do a comparative analysis. You can’t help but see how historical experiences are similar,” she said.

But many Navajo tribal leaders think that a relationship with Israel is beneficial to overcoming many of the ills that bedevil their nation.

For instance, Tome said that Israeli agricultural irrigation experts came to the Navajo Nation in April 2013 and will return again in September, he said, as part of an effort to help Navajo become more agriculturally self-sufficient.

The Navajo Nation has been dubbed a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — a zone that produces little of its own food.

“Israel is an agriculture-exporting country,” Tome said, “The [Navajo] president is interested in how a country three times smaller than the Navajo Nation could export so much.”

Tome added that Israel receives just 1 inch of annual rainfall against the Navajo Nation’s 8 inches.

One Navajo Palestinian activist and doctoral candidate at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Melanie Yazzie, said Shelly’s administration is partaking in what some Native American academics call red-washing, or an alleged attempt by the Israeli government to make a bid for soft power by reaching out to international indigenous communities.

Melanie Yazzie visited the Palestinian territories for 10 days in May 2011 to study decolonization on a school trip.

“There’s a colonial relationship we share,” she said, of the relationship between Navajo Nation and Palestinians.

Melanie Yazzie isn’t the only one who feels that way. Just outside the Navajo Nation, in Gallup, New Mexico, a small community of what locals told Al Jazeera were Palestinian-Americans has erected a mosque and, perhaps ironically, controls many of the liquor licenses in the town where some have battled alcoholism. Still, there is a sense of solidarity felt by many Palestinian and Navajo people, said Alray Nelson, a Navajo man in his late 20s.

Janene Yazzie, not of direct relation to Melanie, is a sustainable development and sovereignty advocate who has often criticized the Shelly administration’s environmental deals.

“It does not surprise me that [the administration] would take part in condoning the red-washing of an apartheid state,” she said.

Still, while Melanie Yazzie opposes relations with Israel, she supports the Shelly administrations efforts to establish more international relations beyond U.S. borders.

“Although it’s horribly misguided and unethical and while I believe Shelly has developed a connection under the radar … he is engaging in a sovereign-to-sovereign relationship,” she said.

“Native people are supposed to be seen as internalized economies. We aren’t meant to be seen as politically or economically autonomous. Shelly is saying we can establish international treaties under our contract with the U.S.,” she added.

Although young Navajo intellectuals like Melanie and Janene Yazzie oppose relations with Israel, many others in the Navajo Nation may support bilateral relations with the country.

“There are private entities like religious groups who are associated with Israeli groups,” said Amber Crotty of the Dine Policy Institute, the premier Navajo think tank. Much of the Navajo Nation identifies with Christian evangelical denominations. Crotty explained that due to funding issues, DPI has no statistics on the nation’s religious affiliations, but that she knows some Navajo would support Israel based on evangelical Christian support for Tel Aviv.

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