Joy Harjo ‘Didn’t Know’

Joy Harjo. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

By Richard Lightbown

I didn’t know about Joy Harjo until she had crossed the picket line.

I didn’t know that a “human rights supporter” (her words) would dare to write “I didn’t know about the boycott [of Israel]”.

I didn’t think anyone associated with the struggle for universal human rights would be able to ignore a military assault on an urban area where 1.6 million people are trapped and unable to flee to safety when advanced technology weapons are targeted at them.

I didn’t think there were people so hypocritical that they could continue with a concert for the nation which has just killed more than 30 children in Gaza in “self-defence” and then write “I have always stood in support of human rights, and the Palestinian cause has always been close to my heart.”

“I didn’t know”. History has heard that excuse before. From the Germans who didn’t know what the Nazis were doing. Or the English that didn’t know that four million Irish were dying of starvation even as food was still being exported from the Emerald Isle. But it sounds particularly lame in the 21st century world of instant communication when the last Israeli full scale assault on Gaza was only a couple of weeks ago.

I didn’t know or I didn’t want to know?

How much longer can you not know? As you step on stage and hand your victory to the criminal oppressor and give succor to the people who said that Israel should flatten Gaza on top of its inhabitants, will you still not know?

Will you still lie to yourself like you did earlier today when you wrote “I admire and respect the scholars and artists who have backed the boycott. I stand with their principles [sic (or should it be sick?)].

But you can’t have it all ways you know. You can’t have your soul and the thirty pieces of silver. You can’t be all things to all people and be “in support of justice and compassion”. No you can’t; because supporting justice and compassion means opposing oppression and injustice. And you have just shown that you won’t oppose it. You’ve took the pieces of silver. You’ve just sold your soul and flaunted your lack of integrity to the whole world.

I didn’t know a Native American poet, musician and writer could ever show solidarity with an apartheid state, a terrorist state, a neo-colonial state and then claim to be doing so in support of justice and compassion. So what does that make me?

– Richard Lightbown contributed this article to

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  1. Very nice piece. It was one thing for her to say she didn’t know (and it’s even possible she didn’t, but how on earth could she miss the news out of Gaza) but then to fall back into defensive crap about the “censorious” atmosphere surrounding her performance was just exhibitionism as a substitute for learning. Sad.

    • So what do YOU know about Joy Harjo that WE don’t – to justify her despicable, indefensible actions (and ultimate self betrayal) into something different? Furthermore, what else does anyone NEED to know in order to recognise unconscionable behaviour when they see it?

  2. Very well-said. Monday night’s performance was only the first – she is in Israel for one year as a writer-in-residence at Tel Aviv University – even if she did Monday’s show, we can at least try to impress on her the importance of leaving Israel RIGHT NOW, thus not perpetuating her bad judgement, and showing she has some integrity – it might even make a stronger point in Israel.

  3. I didn’t know that Richard Lightbown thought that there was only one way – his way – to oppose Israel’s unjust occupation of the West Bank and Gaza until I read this article.

    I didn’t know that Richard Lightbown would make such vicious accusations against Joy Harjo, a First Nations feminist who has stood for justice and peace for her entire life, because, when it comes to working for peace and justice in Palestine and Israel, it’s Richard Lightbown’s way or the highway!

    I didn’t know that Richard Lightbown didn’t know that Joy Harjo is meeting with both Palestinians and Israelis.

    I didn’t know that Richard Lighbown didn’t know that there is a difference between students, faculty, citizens, a college Department of English, on the one hand, and on the other, a military, a state . . .

    I didn’t know that Richard Lightbown thought it would be helpful in this awful, tragic, volatile situation to use loaded, insensitive language like “took the pieces of silver” until I read this article.

    And now I, a Jew who is against Israel’s unjust occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, knows more about Richard Lightbown than I’d care to know..

  4. I think the important thought here is “she didn’t know.” I find that hard to believe. However, having said that, she should not be pilloried because she performed. Her intentions and her ideas of sponsoring better relations between the parties may not be Mr. Lightbowns, but they can be just as legitimate. She should only be questioned on whether or not she knew of the boycott and if she had come out and admitted that to begin with, her performance would have been at least accepted. Let’s put any blame where it belongs. On silence.

  5. Richard Lightbown:

    Thank you for expressing so pointedly and poignanly what is on the minds of many Palestinians, the indigenous people of Palestine, as well as all other people of conscience who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for self determination.

    I was heart broken that Joy Harjo appears to have been persuaded – soothed and comforted – by the vapid proposition that “music builds bridges and can bring smiles to people’s faces, thus hopefully spreading a message of peace.” Even if we assume that this is a valid way of looking at the situation, how is it possible for Joy and her supporters to be so blind to the reality that such a hope for peace will surely be drowned “by Israel’s well-oiled publicity that will use her to rebrand itself as a normal state that promotes music and culture and present your appearance as an endorsement of its policies”?

    The lameness of the note Joy Harjo posted announcing her decision to stay in Tel Aviv seemed to me worse than the decision itself. As your article and comments by others on Harjo’s FB page have pointed out, the reasons she gives are bewildering. Is it the inconvenience of having to rethink her plans at the last minute? Is it peevishness at her being made to feel coerced? Is it the fiction she weaves that Israeli society is all inclusive instead of the apartheid, segregationist regime it really is, or is it the baffling and condescending misinterpretation of the call for boycott as polarization and “bargaining” with “religions or ideologies” instead of a courageous attempt by a downtrodden and oppressed indigenous people to gain self determination through non-violent resistance that has been proven effective elsewhere?

    I teach American literature at Al Quds University (AQU) – the only Palestinian university that has a presence in Jerusalem and that is unrecognized by Israel, making it difficult for Palestinian students who live in annexed east Jerusalem or Israeli Palestinian students who may choose to attend AQU to find jobs. In my course, I go to great lengths to expose my students to Native American literature and history, and to help them make connections, to see that the Palestinian situation is “a high-speed and high-tech version of the colonisation of our Indigenous homelands,” as Waziyata Win, a Dakota who visited Palestine expressed it.

    My students have failed to understand how Joy Harjo, and what she supposedly stands for, could sit in her hotel room in Tel Aviv and write that she is “aware of the nearly unbearable political strife here”. They know, only too well, that “the strife” is not “here” in Tel Aviv; it is “there” in the West Bank and in Gaza. In Tel Aviv, it is completely obscured, and Joy is taking part in normalizing and further obscuring that strife.

  6. Bravo Richard many of us support you in your letter to Joy, who clearly made an unjust choice, de facto supporting an apartheid regime. It is incredible to see how the entire world is uniting against Zionist oppression, just like they did against South African apartheid. There are many of us who believe in peaceful co-existence, but that can only happen through when we put an end to Zionism, and we do that by boycotting Israel. We are from this land, like all religions. No one is “chosen”. Zionism is a colonial occupation that discriminates against people based on religion or “ethnicity”. The land was taken by brutal force, creating a huge number of Palestinians in diaspora, in refugee camp, millions in fact. No one can dispute history, not even Zionists, because of the large number of books written (by westerners, often Jews themselves!) about the injustice on which Israel was built. I shared an article with a group Zionists recently, and they laughed at it. I feel sorry for them, wrapped up in their illusions. Here is that same article:

  7. Considering that there was a concerted effort by those who support boycott, sanctions and divestment, to ‘inform’ her of the reality on the ground and the history of it in Palestine, prior to her even visiting Israel, the ‘I didn’t know’ excuse doesn’t hold much water.

  8. This is nothing but an uninformed smear piece that uses extremely fallacious and hyperbolic rhetoric (such as comparing an implied antagonist’s acts to those of Nazis) to make its points. I urge everyone who reads it to consider the gross liberties that are being taken by this writer because such an unethical path toward argumentation begs the question in an article that purports to be about ethics. In my eyes, Lightbown sheds doubt on his own integrity by being at once so self-righteous and intellectually lazy.

    As has been noted in several of these comments, he is not attacking an institution but an individual, and one whom I know personally to be of the highest character, of the highest adherence to the values and principles that drive her. In other words, what I take from this, Mr. Lighbown, is that you still don’t know. Please stop acting like you do.

    • This comment appears to be trying very hard to be over-intellectual. As a result, the writer became too busy, and the comment merely contains ‘hyperbolic rhetoric’. What an irony. Still, it will no doubt be rationalised.

  9. I think she knew, I think she wanted to do it anyway, I think she didn’t expect the strong light shone on her action (although this was certainly naive on her part given Israel’s war on Gaza), thus the “I didn’t know.” The level of publicity generated by her decision made her mad, made her pull out retrograde notions art and poetry and the poet as transcendent that I don’t even think she believes. The unnecessary low blow on her part was charging those who asked her not to go as creating a “censorious atmosphere.” That was her throwing in the towel in a way that has ended up with her inadvertent alliance with bigots and right wing pro-Israeli organizations and spokespeople calling on others to defend her. I’m pretty sure she didn’t expect that!

    Whether she or anyone else likes it or not, there are sides that had to be chosen at the moment and admittedly is a kind of watershed moment that she got caught in and maybe couldn’t see as forcefully as she might be able to see now. In that moment, Gaza had just been bombed in a repeat of 2008-2009. Only this time, why Israel attacked and the fact that it wasn’t defending itself from rockets but opened the fighting by killing its subcontractor, was far easier to find out, because journalists were on the ground in the Strip and because young people on twitter could report live what was happening.

    It’s also “Gaza” in the sense that it revealed that the Arab world is not the same as in 2008-2009, that public opinion is not going to allow leaders to stand back and support their masters in D.C.

    All of these were the signs that Joy Harjo could not read and thus understand. But I’d be willing to bet she can see them now.

    The demands that Mr. Lightbown “please stop acting as you do” are anachronistic. It’s time for all of us to catch up to reality, which is dragging all of us to have to take positions that ten years ago we didn’t have to but today have become unavoidable.

  10. Once again, all the uptight, self righteous idiocy is again expressed. For the ignorant, be aware that the “Palestinians” are no more Indigenous to that piece of the Levant than are the “Israelis”. And if you so choose to contest that piece of reality, so be it. DNA Testing, Oral Tradition, Written Tradition and Land Records are against you. Speaking as a Mizrahi Jew, whose family home in Jerusalem was taken by the Jordanians in 1949, and some of whose Family returned to the area from Alexandria immediately after the failed Bar Kochba Revolt, and Roman removals, there have always been Jews on the Land. Only the acutely ignorant, or the propagandists who couldn’t tell a fact if it hit them in the eye would say differently. Everyone there is the same semitic base population, with the admixtures of everyone else who traded, invaded, or were moved there in typical empiric wholesale population movements. So unless you wish to declare “solidarity” with all the “Indigenous” populations in that area, such as all the Mizrahi Israelis, then get a clue-you don’t know the Region’s history, you certainly haven’t any idea of who the players truly are, and quite frankly-if you and yours wish to critique Ms. Harjo’s behaviors, then you will need to critique any and all of Academia, which in the interests of Academic Independence should always have different people and different opinions in all sorts of arenas.

  11. H.M. Cohen: you have gone a long way off topic. There are far more fundamental topics here, such as where people stand on violations of international humanitarian law or contraventions of the laws of war. If a person proclaims herself to be a human rights supporter it is incumbent on her to be consistent in opposing violations of human rights. I make no apologies for pointing out what I consider to be gross hypocrisy.

  12. she knew

    she walked over the picket line. it was her choice. it may be true that she will have more fame for crossing that line than anything else she ever did in her life, an ugly fame indeed but fame none the less. i had never heard of her before, but i know of her now. she is insignificant. may others learn from this. others of weak character like ms harjo.

  13. HM Cohen. “Everyone there is the same semitic base population ”

    So why does “everyone there” not all enjoy the same rights and priveleges as those who WEREN’T there, pre.Nakba 1948? Unless you consider 1.6 million human beings caged like animals in a zoo, perfectly acceptable.

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