Jews and Aboriginals: An Unbreakable Bond
Alexandra Markus is a freelance writer from Montreal who works as a producer for AskAbigail Productions. While attending McGill University, she was a student reporter intern at the Israel on Campus Coalition. She is passionate about debunking anti-Israel falsehoods wherever she may find them. She also remains active in other progressive causes.
This article is a collaboration, between a Metis man and a Jewish woman. At some points we make it clear who is speaking and at others we purposefully left it less clear, because we either wrote it together in total collaboration or we want you to focus on the message rather than who wrote it.
My name is Alexandra and I am a Jew from Montréal, Québec. When I was a kid, I had no idea that all parents didn’t tell their kids to always keep a low profile, never draw any attention to themselves, and not stand up publicly for causes they believe in that might attract any controversy whatsoever. My parents had high expectations for me. When I’d bring home a test with a 95 on it, or even 99, my mom would make sure I worked on the concept I got wrong, study even harder, and never got too complacent until I brought home the Governor General Medal at graduation. I was pushed to succeed, but told to do so quietly. Before I got to know kids from other backgrounds, I didn’t understand how my classmates weren’t doing as well as me because I thought all parents were like mine.
In college, as some of my friends started getting involved in social justice causes, I was advised to stay away. They would ask me “Why would you want other people to hate you if you could avoid it? What if your future boss didn’t support gay marriage, or Israel’s right to exist?” Much to their chagrin, I’m not the kind of person who could witness injustice happening right under my nose and not do anything about it, so I kept up my advocacy.
Compared to most advocates, I’m actually pretty tame and moderate in my views, but my parents were still concerned that their friends would think I’m a radical if I kept it up. My mother pleaded: “Let someone else’s kid get shot for standing up for what she believes in!”
I didn’t understand what was going on. My parents were secular liberals just like I was. Their political views aligned with mine almost exactly. We all agreed that religious fundamentalists and radical leftists are coo coo for coco puffs, that universal human rights are important, that the State of Israel is the most important thing that Jews have and that we should support politicians who support Israel. It wasn’t as if I was standing up for something that went against their values. Their problems weren’t with my opinions, but the very fact that I was expressing them publicly for all to see.
My reaction to coming from a marginalised and oppressed people is to raise awareness about the marginalization and oppression of my people all over the world so that people can maybe wake up. When my people are being oppressed all over the world to the extent that it has become politically correct to be an antisemite, silence is not an option. I suppose this makes me a “bad” Jew because good Jews are obedient, quiet, and don’t rock the boat. A self-proclaimed history buff, I read a lot about the holocaust, the pogroms, and a whole slew of atrocities committed against my people, and realized that the quiet, “good” Jews walked hand in hand with the chutzpah “bad” Jews to the gas chambers, and that I refuse to go down without an effort, without knowing that I did all I can for my people. I wondered why there weren’t more Jews like me. It was only when I started talking to some other Jews who are involved in Israel advocacy as well as my friend, Métis activist Ryan Bellerose, that I realized what was probably going on….
My name is Ryan and I am a Métis from Paddle Prairie, Alberta. When I was a kid I was given mixed messages. I was told that I had to excel, that no matter what endeavours I undertook, I had to be the best. One time after a Baseball game, I went 7 for 9 with 5 home runs, but all Merv (my father) would talk about on the drive home was the fact that I struck out twice. That drive to excel was ingrained, and it’s transferred to many facets of my life. I had no idea that this was not something taught to all children. I just assumed everyone dealt with it differently. Standing on the sidelines was never an option for me. The strangest dichotomy though is the fact that while Merv pushed me to excel, my grandmother was always worried about me “standing out”. She would always tell me to “be careful.” It wasn’t until I was much older than I came to understand that her concern came from a very sad place, a place of experience of what happened to indigenous people who “stood out.” Merv would tell me to be so visible that I could not be targeted, and my grandmother would tell me to be less visible so that I wouldn’t be.
I am not your typical pro-Israel advocate, perhaps because my background comes from the aborginalhttp://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/05/11/ottawa-considering-hate-charges-against-those-who-boycott-israel/ rights struggles and perhaps because of my personality, but I am loud, brash, in your face and unapologetic. I realized a long time ago that people who are gonna hate you, are gonna hate you whether you are “nice and quiet” or if you are “brash and and loud.” My father (Merv) would get annoyed with me because he figured I needed to be much more politically correct, which is funny because now our roles are reversed. He is the politically incorrect one and I tend to choose my words more carefully. My reaction to coming from a marginalised and oppressed people is to be much more visible, to make it impossible to ignore me. My coping mechanism is to tilt at the windmills, and to never be silent. I suppose this makes me a “bad Indian,” because “good Indians” are obedient and quiet. But I recognise these idiosyncrasies for what they are: coping mechanisms for PTSD. I understand that what my people underwent for generations manifests itself in what we see as a collective memory, even when we don’t really understand what that means.
North American aboriginals believe that we are a product of our experiences and our ancestors experiences. The idea of genetic memory is not a foreign concept to us. The experiences of our people, like Alexandra’s people – the many attempts to conduct genocides, the displacements – all have had an effect on us, even people like me and Alex who outwardly would seem to be pretty well adjusted. We all have echoes of these things in our personalities and how we interact with the world.
We think the differences in coping mechanisms between Jews and Métis can be characterized by acute vs. chronic…
First, we do not want to offend anyone who has undergone horrific events,. We are trying to explain something horrific and difficult to understand, with an example of something much less horrific and less difficult to understand: Ryan has a condition called Gout. What it means is that his kidneys do not function properly and uric acid builds up in his joints. It’s a chronic condition, meaning it’s persistent and long lasting. However it also has acute phases which means it also manifests as sudden, severe and extremely painful. After we chatted about this one night, we came to believe that the difference between the North American Aboriginal and Jewish experiences with oppression, marginalisation and genocide can be looked at in much the same way: acute vs. chronic PTSD.
The Jews have almost become inured to oppression and marginalization, given that their entire history seems to be “they attacked us, tried to kill us, tried to convert us.” Yet somehow they have always managed to avoid the fate so determinedly chosen for them by others. The persistent and long lasting hatred of Jewish people is difficult to understand because its not logical, but it is no less damaging or horrific for that lack of logic. In this way, it’s more of a chronic sort of condition, persistent and long lasting. This has meant that Jews have come up with coping mechanisms designed to help them cope with a chronic hatred over thousands of years. The acute phases become easier to deal with (again speaking on a macro scale) because they are already prepared somewhat. Its not as if their experiences aren’t as hard-hitting, it’s just that Jews are more prepared because of their background. They have had millennia to perfect the coping mechanisms they have in place.
North American Aboriginals have a much shorter (in the long view of things) experience with oppression, marginalization and genocide. In a historical view, their experience would be much more akin to an acute condition; in 1492, they were suddenly colonized, and a genocide, through violent and non violent means, was conducted. Their population was violently reduced through war and disease and frankly the effect was pretty severe. Their coping mechanisms are not as effective as the ones that Jewish people came up with, in our opinion, because they had no history of this. The shock was almost beyond belief….
While studying cosmology in philosophy class in college, I read a lot of Plato’s works, including Dialogues, where the philosopher describes a collective awareness that is passed down from generation to generation, which he called the nous. A scientist by training, I used to doubt the possibility of collective PTSD, and the concept of nous seemed like nothing more than Greek mythology. However, science has shown that Plato was probably onto something. Genomic memory exists in the form of epigenetics – small modifications made to DNA that impact gene expression. These modifications have been proven present in Holocaust survivors and their children, as well as the descendants of sufferers of other pogroms, genocides, and wars. Although genetically very distinct, Jews and North American Aborginals have one thing in common: Every single one of us has experienced numerous concerted attempts by colonial powers to wipe us out.
But why are we so different in what are key ways? Why do Jews have the lowest levels of alcoholism in Canada while Indigenous North Americanss have the highest? Why do Jews have some of the highest high school graduation rates in Canada while Indigenous North Americans have some of the lowest? In general, why do Jews seem to have more effective coping mechanisms than Indigenous North Americans – Is this the main reason why Jews are considered “privileged” and Indigenous are not? It’s definitely not innate, as Indigenous North Americans are pretty smart and resourceful people with a rich tradition and tight-knit,mostly peaceful culture just like the Jews…
What Jews Can Learn from North American Aboriginals
This might sound facetious but because of the acute manner of colonization, North American Aboriginals have stayed close to their roots as indigenous peoples, and as a people, they tend not to think in a colonized manner in the same way that peoples who were colonized for a long time do.
North American Aboriginals have no doubt about their indigenous status and in general have great pride in it. Conversely, because Jews have lived in Diaspora for so long, they often think in a very colonized manner; this manifests in Jews who denigrate, sometimes inadvertently, Jewish culture and Jewish human rights in order to better assimilate. It is a serious issue. Jews should have no doubt about their indigenous status in Israel, and should be proud of it, not guilty about upsetting their colonizers.
Jews need to relearn to think like the indigenous people they are. Jews need to relearn the importance of their indigenous status and the rights it grants. They MUST regain the pride in being indigenous as its integral for the their struggle to gain legitimacy. The idea that any indigenous people can have their indigenous status taken away through displacement, is a damaging one, However even more damaging is the idea that indigenous status is granted THROUGH conquering. Jews must learn to take their rightful place as an indigenous people. They must not be apologetic about this as it is their birthright as an indigenous people. They need to relearn that their priority is not to fit in, but to be who they are while maintaining their indigenous traditions and culture.
What North American Aboriginals Can Learn from Jews
Unlike Indigenous North Americans, Jews have had almost 4000 years of practice at being oppressed, enslaved, massacred, colonized, and ethnically cleansed. As a result, they’ve had ample time to come up with coping mechanisms to mentally prepare for and better withstand their persecution, which, if history is any indication, is inevitable. Many defining characteristics of Jewish culture have been inherited as a result of their experience.
- Ambition. Some North American Aboriginals, but not enough, have learned to harness that fire within them and channel it towards more constructive means: Always strive to be the best you can be, to try your best at everything you do, and to channel your passion and aggression into ambition. However this is not something that is a prevalent as it needs to be. Cultures with PTSD feel a rage within us, a desire to show our colonizers or oppressors that they didn’t get the better of us. Many oppressed and disenfranchised individuals resort to violence and criminality, but Jews know that the best way to upset your enemy is by doing well by just means – beat them at their own game. They feel that in order to change the system for the better, they need to work extremely hard, move up the ladder, and implement change from within. That’s why there is such a disproportionate amount of Jews in positions of power in academia, in corporations, and in government. Native North Americans need to find that drive on a cultural level.
- Remembrance. Jews have a strong tradition of preserving their oral and written histories, as do Métis and many other North American Aboriginals peoples. Every holiday, they engage in the cathartic practice of remembering their past and celebrating their triumphs in an organized and structured way, to give them a feeling of control over their destiny, a way to preserve their traditions and sense of identity, and have the last laugh over their enemies, many of whose empires Jews outlived as a people. Where we differ is that while both cultures have an oral tradition, the Jews write books and people build museums to ensure that their history is not forgotten. North American Aboriginals should make it a point to revive and preserve the traditions and oral histories of their ancestors, write them down, and pass them on to their children so that the sense of pride for having survived our oppressors never goes away. This cultural resurgence is incredibly important.
The commonalities here are obvious. Both Jews and Aboriginals are warrior peoples who venerate life. Both have strong traditions of fighting to protect our lands and people but neither were imperialist or concerned with massive empires. Both are intelligent, empathetic and concerned with leaving the world better than they found it. The key differences stem from the chronic nature of Jew hatred vs the acute nature of the effects of the sudden European colonization of American Aboriginals. Where the Jewish people have adapted and built several coping mechanisms that helped them overcome systematic oppression and even attempted genocides, the Native communities in North America have not reached that point yet. There are many things for our peoples to learn from each other, and by looking at our similarities we can find common ground with which to begin that discourse. Our peoples have a natural affinity that we can build upon, and the world can only be better for having those bridges built.