Solidarity with Oppression? The Danger of a Sikh-Israel Alliance


A rally in Brooklyn, NY in support of the BDS movement on Monday.

Monday evening in Brooklyn, about 50 people gathered to protest Israeli apartheid and encourage the boycott of Israeli goods, a part of the growing boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Inspired by the effective use of boycott and divestment tactics in the struggle against South African apartheid decades ago, the BDS movement is growing with recent victories such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and many colleges and universities deciding to stop investing in companies complicit in the oppression of the Palestinian people.

The mood of Monday’s rally was heavy. What was intended to be a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the BDS movement instead was a mourning of the many Palestinian lives taken in recent days by Israeli soldiers/bombs and civilians/settlers alike. Like Muhammad Abu Kheidr, a 16-year-old who was burned alive last week in what is widely assumed to be a revenge lynching by Israeli settlers after the bodies of three missing Israeli teens were discovered (blamed on Hamas without any evidence). Or Muhammad’s cousin Tareq, a 15-year-old Palestinian American who was badly beaten and detained for being at the wrong place at the wrong time (with the wrong ethnicity) a few days later. Or the 31 people in Gaza killed and countless others injured and displaced by 378 Israeli airstrikes in the last two days of its increasingly devastating “Operation Protective Edge.” Or the 10+ killed and over 360 kidnapped in Israel’s “Operation Brother’s Keeper” a few weeks ago in the West Bank, a form of collective punishment on the entire population after the  disappearance of three Israeli boys.

There is a full on assault on the Palestinian people right now (and in various ways, there has been for decades), yet there was only one other Sikh present at the small rally in NYC last night. We stood there wondering why the rally wasn’t 500 or 5,000 strong instead of 50 and why there weren’t 20 or 200 Sikhs present instead of two. Given our commitment and obligation as Sikhs to stand up for the oppressed, why don’t we see a massive movement in our community in support of the dignity, sovereignty, and human rights of the Palestinians?

This is a question with no simple answers. Our community is not a monolith either. In 2009, over 100 Sikhs signed a “Sikh Solidarity with Palestine” statement in the midst of Israel’s siege of Gaza, which killed nearly 1,000 Palestinians. Today, 500 people are members of that Facebook group. But while strong signs of solidarity exist, there also seems to be a troubling dynamic in our community of seeing Zionism (Jewish nationalism) as something parallel to the Sikh nationalist project, resulting in the staunch defense of the Israeli government.

Recently, Amritpal Singh, the president of the World Sikh Organization, Canada’s largest Sikh advocacy organization, co-authored an essay in the Huffington Post with the head of the Centre of Israel and Jewish Affairs about fighting terrorism in Canada. The piece attempts to ally Sikhs with both the states of India and Israel in a way that I seriously doubt reflects the views of those the WSO ostensibly represents. They state, “While Israel and India may be miles apart geographically, linguistically and even culturally, they are intimately connected by the shared burden of coping with of the pervasive threat of terrorism.” The fear-mongering article continues, “It is a chilling testament to the power of jihadist ideology that those who benefit from Canada’s remarkable character — a society of openness, inclusiveness, and pluralism — are ready to murder others and to martyr themselves.”

The irony is too much to handle. At the time the article was published, the Israeli military was plundering the West Bank with a rhetoric of vengeance coming all the way from the highest levels of the state. Rather than mourn the loss of human life regardless of ethnicity or nationality, WSO chose to ally itself with a hawkish, Israeli advocacy organization that uncritically accepts and supports the twisted logic of occupation — a logic that will always present Palestinians as the aggressors, the suspects, the terrorists. This a far stretch from WSO’s own mission of promoting “the ideals of universal brotherhood, peace, justice, freedom of worship and speech, respect for cultural diversity and human dignity for all, without any distinction.” (Reality check: 31 Palestinians have been killed by bombs from one of the strongest militaries in the world in just two days, while zero Israelis have been killed by Hamas rockets).

The added layer of irony to the WSO’s essay is how collective state punishment in the name of counter-terrorism is nothing new for Sikhs. Just as all Palestinians are made to suffer  because of Israel’s supposed goal of rooting out terrorism (i.e. Hamas), all Sikhs in north India suffered in 1984 and the years after because of the Indian government’s same supposed goal.

Given this common struggle that Sikhs and Palestinians share, why then would WSO or other Sikh organizations or leaders go out of their way to support Israel’s blatantly oppressive policies and tactics? A few weeks ago, WSO posted a quote on their Facebook page in the midst of Operation Brother’s Keeper (#BringBackOurBoys) about an event that their Vice President, Prabmeet Singh Sakaria, attended:

Looking at Sakaria, I was reminded of the IDF soldiers I had recently met on my trip to Israel. The Sikh community is much like ours. Small; like us. Maligned; too often. Family oriented. And like us, believe in caring for the other as well as themselves. I see the Sikh community as great friends of the Jewish people.

The WSO, or any Sikh for that matter, should not be proud of being compared to an IDF soldier. Feeling affinity with the Jewish community is great but must not be conflated with affinity for the state of Israel. In the last two weeks, WSO has posted four articles in “solidarity” with the state of Israel with no critique whatsoever of its military aggression, brutal occupation, or apartheid policies. This seems contradictory both to WSO’s stated mission and our Gurus’ mission. The Sikhi I know and cherish is not about standing in solidarity with the oppressor. Indeed, the Khalsa was created to tear down oppression in all its forms.

While I do not know WSO’s motivations (I emailed them without a response), I would guess their stance has more to do with political opportunism than a deep set belief in the righteousness of the Israeli state. I could be wrong though. I know there are Sikhs who look at Israel as a source of inspiration, a successful model for Sikh nationalists who see no hopes for freedom or sovereignty in the state of India. I will leave the question of Sikh nationalism itself aside for now but must at least assert that following in Israel’s footsteps would likely be the worst thing that could happen to the Sikh quom today. One’s freedom cannot be based on the subjugation of another. Therein lies the heart of the contradiction of the state of Israel. To Israel, Palestinians are a demographic problem, not human beings. What philosophy could be farther from Sikhi? What could be more antithetical to the ideology and practice of sarbat da bhala? 




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28 Responses to “Solidarity with Oppression? The Danger of a Sikh-Israel Alliance”

  1. balbir kaur says:

    thanks for this article, brooklynwala. completely necessary to think sikh and palestinian politics as broader minor politics, especially within entrenched (and historically) racist and genocidal regimes of india and israel. as part of the sikh diaspora, its frustrating to think that the logic of 'diaspora' is used in the context of jewish occupation and it settler colonialism of palestine, and how parallels of the jewish and sikh diasporas have been made time and again in the context some sort of 'ethno-religious diaspora' category. rather than participate and condone such logics, we as sikhs need to extract ourselves from the logic of u.s. imperial violence that infuses the discourse around israeli violence against palestinians. we need to rally with our palestinian sisters and brothers. BDS is a great and necessary part of this.

  2. singhsoorma54 says:

    Sikhs should clean their own house first before trying to solve others problems. What do we have to offer to a group of people who have the backing of a billion plus individuals and half the worlds oil supply.

  3. realist says:

    As a community we shouldn't be taking sides in this conflict as both sides are to blame. Palestinians should stop launching rockets and kidnapping Israeli children and Israelis should stop their air strike and settlements.

  4. JJ22g says:

    The WSO is a pro-India group designed for one purpose; to prop up the children of the founders into political positions. The only real thing the WSO has ever accomplished in Canada is getting the Kirpan banned at the Quebec National Assembly in order to create an issue for their puppy Navdeep Bains to pick up because Sikhs were basically shunning him for not supporting the November Genocide petition. People should ask them do they support Punjabs independence or NO. They raised millions in the name of it back in the mid 80's but now have shifted from that.

  5. Akal Sahai says:

    JJ22g- your criticism of WSO is unsubstantiated and reeks of a hidden personal agenda. Take a look at WSO's accomplishments in Canada; accommodation of the Kirpan in court houses across the country, Kirpan accommodation policies across the world in all Canadian Missions, 3 appearances before the Supreme Court of Canada including a unanimous 8-0 decision affirming the rights of all sikhs to wear their kirpans and the list goes on….

    The author of this article has every right to challenge the position WSO has taken and has done so in a very professional and non-malicious piece. The troubling aspect is individuals like JJ22g who advance their personal agenda by taking any opportunity possible to defame an organization and volunteers that have tirelessly advocated for the rights of Sikhs to wear their Kakkars in Canada.

  6. Hartej says:

    The WSO is a fringe organization which serves as an old fraternity for a small group. The decision to align WSO with this group wreaks one of special interest and may as well conflict with it's constitution but who cares? Most of its members would not be able to point to Palestine or Israel on a map let alone hold an informed opinion on the subject. The self styled 'sikh' organization operates in a moral vaccum and only serves to profiliferate the interests of a few but who cares? Its not an authority on the issue nor does it need to hold any sort of democratic character.

  7. Singh says:

    The WSO may not have thought this one out properly, however it's not fair to call them "fringe" or anything else of the sort. They are the organization behind the Khalra Centre in India, and have been a constant thorn in the side of human rights violators there. To suggest they are pro-India, or haven't done anything of worth for Sikh's in Canada and abroad, is an outright lie. They are one of the few mainstream Sikh advocacy groups in the world, to downplay that is disingenuous.

  8. akal sahai says:

    Yet another unsubstantiated claim. Have a look at WSO's legal track record, be objective and explain how th work they have done has benefitted the interest of a few.

    – Accommodating Kirpans in Courthouses across the country
    – Accommodating Kirpans In Canadian Missions across the world
    – Appearing before the Supreme Court of Canada on 3 different cases regarding religious freedoms in Canada including a precedent setting Multani Case
    – Accommodating the Kirpan at Vancouver's 2010 winter Olympics
    – Developing Kirpan accommodation policies for multinational corporations
    – Advocating for SIkhs and other minorities in Quebec against QSF turban ban and the Quebec Charter
    – + 1000 other cases

    But please do elaborate on how WSO's legal accomplishments have only proliferated the interest of a few. Lets be objective and leave our personal and political biases aside. Criticism against WSO for serving a select few is unwarranted and unsubstantiated.

  9. Kattad Punjabi says:

    From the article:

    "The Sikhi I know and cherish is not about standing in solidarity with the oppressor. Indeed, the Khalsa was created to tear down oppression in all its forms."

    What if the oppression is in the form of religion? Is the Khalsa then supposed to tear down that religion??

  10. Amrita says:

    WSO is biased and looking at what they post on their facebook page you can see that blatantly. Solidarity with Jewish people is fine, but how can you excuse the atrocites going on in Gaza? As Sikhs who were subject to our genocide in 1984, is this the lesson that we learned? That it's okay to turn away from what's going on with the Palestinians ? I'm just shocked and disgusted that more people from our community are not raising their voice. It doesn't matter what region or religion or race a person is from to see a crime for a crime. What Israel is doing is a genocide and a war crime against these people. They have been oppressed for years, their land has been snatched from them, and if they fight back they are terrorists?! This is exactly what happened to our own community and yet we remain silent on the issue. No sikhs show up to rally or to show any form of understanding of the situation. I'm not anti-India before people start labelling me. I just see an atrocity for what it is, while others choose to close their eyes and pretend it's a fight against terrorism and fanatical Islam. Let me ask you one thing, killing these children's parents and leaving them as refugees in a land which was once their own.. what do you think they will grow up as?

  11. udhay Singh says:

    Wso work for hindushatan.

  12. […] aggression in Gaza in the last week. It is a sobering situation to say the least. I wrote a piece for The Langar Hall a few days ago about my concern with the possibility of a Sikh-Israel […]

  13. Deep Hundal says:

    The WSO alignment with Israel is shameful and disturbing, regardless of its record at home. In fact, I would even hazard to say that this new testimony on the part of the WSO in favor of Israel disregards whatever work they have done for Sikhs and others here.

    What was the reasoning behind this alignment?

    Fringe or not, it's obvious that the Sikh population does not support this oppression and that the WSO does not in any shape or form represent any large or great voice of the Sikhs.

    The WSO may as well have justified British Colonialism or Genocide against First Nations, by trying to paint both colonizing powers as helpless victim of Indian/First Nations terrorism.

    I am truly disgusted to my core but also rejoice knowing that the WSO has failed to gain traction in our community with this misguided alignment.

    Balpreet Singh has been questionably quite on this. As a Human Rights lawyer I suspect he must have some ounce of sympathy for Palestinians, but as the talking head of the WSO, maybe he's acquiesced to the political shuffling of the WSO's old guard.

  14. Simran says:

    As far as I can tell, the article talks about what Canada should do about terrorism. It doesn't talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict at all. How has WSO aligned with Israel? Writing an article with CIJA at this time was not the best for timing but this is clearly being blown out of proportion by people with an agenda or some reason to deeply hate the WSO.

  15. Inder says:

    Deep Hundal rest assured that you have done way more for the Panth by typing ferociously behind that keyboard and screen of yours than WSO or any other Sikh organization in Canada could have done, we definitely need more people like you in the panth!

    Last time I checked the Panth never appointed you to decide who can or cannot represent Sikh issues so get off your high horse and do something for the panth rather than try and discredit anything and everything an organization does because you don't 'agree,' I expect my 6 year old niece to behave like that, not a 35 year old keyboard warrior. Both mainstream political parties in Canada, the Conservatives and Liberals have taken a stand against terrorist organizations like Hammas, why you have an issue with WSO taking a stand condemning a recognized terrorist group is beyond me and for that reason helps me believe that you are actually the fringe minority that WSO does not serve or speak for.

  16. Shaheed says:

    1) the article has never mentioned the word Palestine.
    2) Hamas does not represent Palestinians, Palestinians have a government that agreed to a ceasefire today along with Israel, but Hamas obliterated.
    3) Hamas is a Terrorist Organization

    While i respect the opinion of the writer of the article, many of the comment below have filled in a lot of gaps with personal bias's. Facts are Facts. Im glad WSO does not support Hamas and shocked at the commentors above who do.

  17. Ndp says:

    Seems like those pushing this agenda the hardest are all on the ndp payroll……

  18. […] Editors note: This article was originally published on 9th July 2014, all of the information was correct at the time of the first publication. (/news/solidarity-with-oppression/) […]

  19. newheavenandnewearth says:

    This situation is a heart-rending tragedy. Any efforts to bring understanding and protect the vulnerable and to help move the situation to a place of greater peace should be done wherever they can be.

    If we can also discuss another situation that stems from how this site interacts with Sikhi and Sikh history, wanted to point something out.

    " Indeed, the Khalsa was created to tear down oppression in all its forms."

    You keep saying some version of this. Most articles are some version of, X is oppressed by Y in Z ways, Y is an oppressor, and the Khalsa was created to smash/tear down oppression in all its forms.

    Can you explain how you have come to this conclusion that the Khalsa was created to smash/tear down oppression in all its forms?

    It would be really useful to know. It seems to me you've taken a worldview from western radical thought, of which the influence of Christianity, no Sikhi, is formative, and simply placed it on top of the history and philosophical tradition of Sikhi.

    This isn't really an esoteric concern, you are basically erasing the Sikh way of knowledge and action, though I'm sure you see it as a noble attempt to raise awareness among your Sikh brothers and sisters.

    There are deep problems with your approach. Just one is, the slogan, the Khalsa was created so we can live in Truth fearlessly has as much face-validity as your well-worn statement. The difference is, no one on your site is endlessly repeating this statement. They (you) are repeating the same statement, over and over.

    Its important to think about this. Your statement implies a belligerent confrontation between the oppressed victim and the oppressive victimizer, and a desire to create a revolution by which the situation is smashed to pieces, and a totally new situation replaces it.

    This is much more in line with the kind of thinking in the Bible, arguably, than in Sikhi. For example, I hear so much resonance between your view and this passage from Mathhew 20:16; "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

    Please forgive if this meets with anger, its not the purpose. Apologies for any mistakes or misunderstandings.

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  24. Josh says:

    So much lies about Israel at one article. The Sikhs should stand with Israel and with all victims of terror.
    As an example, if you have a kid that fights with his one classmate you better as a teacher try to calm down both kids. But if you see a kid that fight with the rest of the class you can assume that the problem is with that very kid.
    See how terrorism is flourish where ever that specific kid is and you see who is the trouble maker…