It’s time the world — and Jews themselves — identify the People of the Book as indigenous people. At least, that’s the opinion of indigenous rights activist Ryan Bellerose of Alberta, Canada. He recently returned from his second trip to the Holy Land where he filmed a video supporting the concept for the Israeli advocacy group StandWithUs.
“Indigenous status means that your people had a coalescence and a genesis on the land,” says Bellerose, co-founder of Calgary United with Israel, which advocates “for the wellness and security of Jews and their national homeland.”
In a video that has attracted thousands of views since its release last month, Bellerose elaborates, “Everything that makes Jews Jewish — their spirituality, their traditions, their culture, their language, everything — it stems from Israel.”
Bellerose is a Métis from Northern Alberta — Native People recognized by the Canadian government as Aboriginal. His father, Mervin Bellerose, co-authored the Métis Settlements Act of 1989, which the Alberta legislature passed in 1990, cementing Native land rights. In addition to Calgary United with Israel, Ryan also founded Canadians For Accountability, a Native rights advocacy group, and is an organizer in the “Idle No More” movement, which supports indigenous sovereignty and land and water stewardship.
A self-proclaimed Zionist who has published a long list of articles supporting Israel, Bellerose shared more about his passions in this interview with The Times of Israel.
How does the concept of “place” inform your support of Israel?
I have visited all the major sacred sites, and many historical sites that reinforce the indigenous nature of the Jewish people to their ancestral land. This has helped me in being a pro-Israel advocate.
I write about the commonalities of indigenous struggles, so going to Israel and seeing a place where indigenous people have managed to gain self determination is massive for me. I believe very strongly that in order for me to expect people to listen to me about my peoples’ struggles, I must listen to them and stand with them in theirs.
What weaknesses do you recognize among Israel advocates?
I noticed a very serious issue with mainstream pro-Israel advocacy, mainly that Jewish advocates are often apologetic. They are far less firm in their positions and identity, which can come across as disingenuous to non-Jews, especially Indians. I saw a serious problem because I saw that the other side not only doesn’t really care about facts, but they are much better at storytelling — something that baffled me because the Jewish peoples’ story is such an amazing story. I saw that in my humble opinion, the biggest problem was an ambivalence towards what I believe is the center of the conflict. And that’s the right of Jewish people to have control and access over their ancestral lands.
‘I saw that the other side not only doesn’t really care about facts, but they are much better at storytelling’
If you do not act like they matter on a national level, then people will try to take them from you. This is why Hebron, the Temple Mount and other Jewish sacred sites are fought over… The Arabs honestly believe that if they push the Jews hard enough, you will give them up. This would be solved if they knew you will never give them up.
Most mainstream pro-Israel groups in North America teach to avoid talking about the “settlements” but the truth is that the other side sees them as central to the conflict and avoiding talking about them, makes you look like you don’t even believe that you are right to be there. You should never begin a fight conceding the high ground. You have the high ground morally ethically and factually.
How has visiting Israel influenced you?
My first trip impacted me in a massive way. I left the Catholic church and began the process of relearning my indigenous spirituality. My family thinks it’s funny that I went to the cradle of Christianity in order to figure out I was never cut out to be a Christian. As someone who advocates cultural resurgence, I had to be pushed into completing my own by a trip across the world.
How have your positions changed as a result?
My positions have not changed but they have solidified… If anything I am much stronger in my own identity and thus much more firm in my beliefs about right and wrong.
Where did you go on your recent trip to Israel? Whom did you meet during your travels?
I traveled throughout Judea and Samaria; I was lucky enough to have met Elie Piepersch who connected me with people like David Haivri, David Wilder, and Yishai Fleischer, all friends of mine and all people who do Israel great credit as ambassadors…
I met with regular Israelis throughout both trips. I am active on social media and have a pile of friends, both Arab and Israeli. I traveled more in the PA on my first trip. This last one I was recognized by someone and threatened, so I didn’t spend as much time in non-Israeli controlled areas. I spend as much time as possible with Israeli people. I try to spend a Shabbat in as many different communities as possible. My favorite so far was in Hebron and Kiryat Arba.
What were some of the highlights of touring Israel?
Trying to pick a highlight is like asking a parent which kid they love the most… I will say that I really enjoyed Shiloh, which was transcendent for me. I really enjoyed Hebron, and spending a day in Tiberias and the Dead Sea was perhaps the most relaxed I have ever been. Who could forget Masada? But I would have to say my favorite place was the shuk in Jerusalem; I spent as much time there as possible. I miss Chinese pecans.
What prompted you to get involved with StandWithUs?
StandWithUs reached out to me a couple years ago after an article I wrote detailing Jewish indigenous status was brought to the attention of the CEO Roz Rothstein. I met her at her home and she told me she wanted me to go to Israel. I had been a supporter of StandWithUs before that, as I think they do good work in educating people about Israel. They are non-partisan and work with youth and that’s key to me.
As a pro-Israel activist, what issues concern you?
I feel compelled to fight the idea that Israel is a colonialist state, that the Jews are colonizers from Europe and the entire invalid and false Arab narrative that has been spread since the 1960s. This ridiculous inversion of history has been accepted because nobody really stands up and fights it. And I believe coming from an Indian from Canada, who has lived through actual apartheid (two laws, one state for two peoples), I have a unique perspective. I have lived through colonization, and Israel is not even remotely colonialist.
I also do not like people who tell lies to Indians or who use our naivete and ignorance of the world to weaponize us. You are Jews from Judea. Your entire history is in the earth you walk on. Some of you were displaced and you fought for 2,000 years to return to the land of your forefathers. You do not need to be apologetic for doing something that is the goal of every indigenous people. You need to be celebratory. You need to be proud. I try to help inspire that.
On its own behalf, where does Israel come up short? How can it be more effective?
Israel needs to be more assertive about its ancestral lands, that it cannot be ambiguous and that the people as well as the government need to understand that it’s not about your “religion or spirituality.” It’s about your very identity. Your connection to your ancestral lands is not only spiritual but physical. Israel itself needs to take a larger role in stopping lies and false assertions because they really do cause issues. I believe that you need to become better at telling your story, which really is an amazing story. I think that once Jewish people start seeing themselves through a Jewish and not European lens, once they understand themselves as indigenous people, they will be stronger in their identity and will become what they are meant to be, which is a light unto the nations.
What does Israel represent for indigenous people everywhere?
You are a great example to my people and to all indigenous people of what indigenous peoples are capable of. You were a damaged fractured people who had the entire world against you, yet you not only regained your ancestral lands, you rebuilt them and you built a thriving powerful nation without losing touch with your ancestral roots. Tell me that’s not a powerful story and example.
I plan on returning. I am currently raising funds to bring a group of Native and a group of Jewish activists together because I think it will build bridges.