NEW YORK — Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner was elated when he heard the Army Corps of Engineers announced December 4 it would look for an alternate route for the North Dakota Access Pipeline, which was to cross through the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
“We had a very clear call from the Reform Movement after the pipeline was deemed unsafe to run through Bismarck, North Dakota — a predominantly white community — and instead go through the reservation. All of a sudden it was safe? It was a classic case of environmental injustice,” said Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
If completed, the $3.7 billion project would transport nearly 500,000 barrels of oil a day across four states. The project developer said the pipeline will make the United States less dependent on foreign oil. However, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe sued the US Army Corps of Engineers last July, after final permits for the pipeline were granted saying that the project would cross sovereign territory, destroy sacred sites and endanger the tribe’s drinking water.
Soon after the tribe sued, thousands of protesters from across the US and from around the world traveled to North Dakota. Among the protesters were several rabbis, Jewish activists and 2,000 US veterans.
At times the demonstrations turned violent; police tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed protesters. On one occasion, police sprayed them with a water cannon as temperatures dipped below freezing. In another clash between police and protesters, Jewish activist Sophia Wilansky was injured in a blast that, even after the forecast 20 operations in her future, may still cost her an arm.
Before the December 4 decision to halt construction came (a decision that could still be reversed) Pesner had sent letters to North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch about the harsh treatment of protesters at the site.
Pesner’s organization, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, was founded in 1961, at the height of the Civil Rights movement and to be sure, the letters reflected its commitment to social justice. But while Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement has a long and storied history, its involvement in fighting for Native American rights has been more inconsistent.
“We have not done the deep engagement with Native peoples that we have with other groups, but we now see so many challenges to civil rights that we know how we spend our time and energy is going to be tested,” Pesner said.
Jewish-Native American encounters
Jewish ties to Native Americans date back to the earliest days of the nation — interactions that weren’t always positive, said Dr. David Koffman, assistant professor at Toronto’s York University and author of an upcoming book about the history of encounters between Jews and Native Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.
First generation immigrant Jews living on the frontier tended to act like other settlers in terms of their ideas and how they related to indigenous peoples in the US and Canada. It wasn’t until Jews became more established in the mid-1900s that things changed, he said.
“There is evidence of American Jews helping Native Americans in their fight for rights, fair treatment and equality dating back to the 1890s. Instances were, however, scattered,” Koffman said.
‘There is evidence of American Jews helping Native Americans in their fight for rights dating back to the 1890s’
“More enfranchised and established Jews of the middle of the 20th century argued on behalf of Native Americans because they truly believed they were mistreated, and because liberal Jews tended to advocate for disadvantaged outsiders in America, and were anti-racist activists because it was also good for Jews,” said Koffman.
By the New Deal era, groups of American Jewish civil servants, lawyers, philanthropists, educators and social scientists — anthropologists in particular — argued quite passionately and forcefully for Native American rights, cultural pluralism, limited sovereignty, and religious pluralism. There were a handful of influential Jews who helped shape the “Indian New Deal” under John Collier during the Roosevelt administration.
In 1973, over 500 Native American activists were jailed after Oglala Lakota members of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee, a town in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. The majority of the lawyers who assisted those who were arrested were Jewish.
Today the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana enjoys close ties with Israel. The nation even celebrates Israel’s Independence Day as a national Coushatta holiday. Like many other Native Americans, the Coushatta nation has said it feels a close bond with the Jewish people since both have endured centuries of persecution, relocation and prejudice.
These are but a few instances where Jews and Jewish organizations have come together with Native Americans. But it took the pipeline to reignite some of that advocacy work, said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
‘As a people, we understand the power of water’
For months Native Americans and their supporters have protested the pipeline, saying it would destroy sacred sites and contaminate the water supply. Both reasons had an impact on members of the Jewish community.
“We felt the issue resonated with many of our Jewish traditions. As a people, we understand the power of water — we just had a Torah portion when Isaac has to re-dig the wells which were blocked up by the Philistines,” Jacobs said.
“We as an organization also have a history of working on police violence and police brutality,” she continued. “So as Jews we were disturbed about the violence at the protest sites, about the firing water cannons on protesters in freezing temperatures and firing of rubber bullets. And we were deeply disturbed by the potential destruction of sacred sites and sacred cemeteries. As Jews, we are painfully aware of what that means.”
Similarly, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which opposed the pipeline, has repeatedly called for climate justice. The organization has long supported the rights of Native American Indians, and particularly expressed sensitivity for their burial sites.
Whether the story of Standing Rock heralds a new chapter in Jewish-Native American cooperation remains to be seen. Many other tribes across the country are trying to fend off development projects deemed harmful to the environment or which threaten to destroy sacred land.
Demographics are part of the reason Jewish involvement in Native American rights hasn’t been constant, Pesner said. Historically RAC gets most involved where large concentrations of Jews live among and near other minority populations.
“There just aren’t robust Jewish communities near many of the reservations. That’s not to say we won’t engage,” Pesner said. “The election has compelled Jews to become much more engaged in civil rights. We know we are going to be tested more, all of it is taking on a deeper sense of urgency.”
York University’s Koffman agreed that going forward it’s not a question of if, but how, Jewish groups will get involved.
“I don’t think this is a one-time thing. The Reform Action Committee [Center]– and many other Jewish organizations large and small, religious and secular, including schools, synagogues, Zionist groups, etc. have been working on a variety of Native American issues in solidarity for about 15 years in Canada and the US,” Koffman said. “[They’ve been involved in] statements, programs, dialogue groups around ideas of sacred land and language, around history of persecution and suffering, resistance and cultural renaissance.”