Unlikely Zionist Ryan Bellerose believes “Jews have a great story to tell, but they tell it poorly.”
Speaking June 8 at Marlboro Jewish Center, Bellerose, a Canadian and member of the Metis Indian nation, said he’s on a “passionate mission to help Jews understand their spiritual, cultural, and historical right to the Land of Israel as an ‘original people’ with a native claim.”
This mission, he said, dovetails with his efforts on behalf of his own people to regain their ancestral lands near the Red River in Manitoba.
Bellerose, 41, said he sees many parallels between Native Americans and the people of Israel. “Mainly, we are both peoples who so-called white people would prefer were invisible. We are both fighting the idea that we are victims, not survivors, and we are both peoples who have been displaced and dispossessed. Yet, we both came through and now are fighting to regain what is ours.”
Noting that he is not Jewish and that he grew up on a reservation in a house without electricity or running water, Bellerose acknowledged that he is an unusual spokesperson for Israel. He credits two major influences for drawing him into the struggle.
The first was when, as a young boy, he read accounts of the 1967 Six-Day War. “I was excited about what the Israeli forces accomplished,” he said.
The second came when he was studying at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “I was a football player, six feet, four inches and 300 pounds,” he recalled. “One day, when I was hurrying to class, the corridor was blocked by a cardboard wall. The students who built the wall — which was meant to represent walls separating Palestinians and Jews in Israel — refused to let me pass, so I tore it down with my own hands.
“I was with a good friend, a young woman, who had never told me she was Jewish,” Bellerose said. “When she saw what I did, she opened up and said that every day she encountered severe harassment, with people calling her ‘baby-killer’ and other epithets. It disturbed her so much that she had considered taking her own life.”
As he told the story, the speaker could not hold back his tears.
According to Bellerose, “Being indigenous isn’t just about where you are physically from; it’s about the genesis of culture and ancestral ties to the land as well. That’s why Jews and Metis are absolutely indigenous peoples to our respective regions.” He refutes Palestinian claims to the land, suggesting that they came to Judea much later than the Jews.
In Bellerose’s view, many Jews, particularly in the Diaspora, but even some in Israel, fail to adequately convey the legitimacy of their claims and the glory of their culture. “They are too apologetic and self-deprecating. They need to understand that they have a great story to tell, and they should tell it forcefully and proudly.”
Bellerose said Jews should stand up for themselves and take to heart the words of the sage Hillel — “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
Empowerment is his most important message, he said. “I want Jews to understand that they have the same rights as all indigenous people, and that they are not alone.”
Bellerose also spoke about Jewish identity. When all else is taken from you, as it has been many times in Jewish history, he insisted, you still have your identity. But he also recognized that Jewish identity is not monolithic. Rather, it is a tent big enough to accommodate the atheist and the believer; the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform; Ashkenazi and Sephardi; and many other subsets. At the core, he said, is the neshama, the Jewish soul.
A prolific blogger and frequent speaker, Bellerose also worked as a telecommunications analyst. Currently, he is working on a book about the indigenous rights of the Jewish people, and how these affect indigenous rights everywhere.
Asked how much of his effort is directed at the situation of his own people as opposed to that of the Israelis, Bellerose said 100 percent of his work is about the Metis. That’s because, in his mind, there are no clear divisions between what is happening in the Middle East and what is happening in Canada.
Bellerose also offered some advice on how to confront the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. “You can’t ignore it,” he said. Most important, he suggested, is to show positive images of Israel, not pictures of protestors on Facebook pages.
He praised New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for action he took on June 5, ordering state agencies under his control to stop working with companies and organizations aligned with the Palestinian-backed boycott movement against Israel.
In March, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau similarly condemned BDS supporters. “Declarations like this are good,” said Bellerose, “but we have to wait and see if the governments put any teeth into enforcement.”