Ryan Bellerose, who is not Jewish, has become a dogged advocate for those who believe that Jews, not Arabs, are the rightful indigenous inheritors of the land of Israel.
Ryan Bellerose is from Northern Alberta, Calgary, and is a member of the indigenous community of Métis, one of three recognized Aboriginal groups in Canada. His father, Mervin Bellerose, co-authored important land-rights legislation on the Métis’ behalf, and the son has become a prominent native rights activist himself.
In recent years, however, he’s become known for dedicating himself to a different struggle: Zionism.
The 41-year-old Bellerose, who is not Jewish, has nonetheless become a dogged advocate for those who believe that Jews, not Arabs, are the rightful indigenous inheritors of the land of Israel. In a recent article on Israellycool.com
, an Israeli English-language blog, the co-founder of Calgary United With Israel enumerated all the things the Métis have in common with Jews in order to explain his pro-Zionist activism, which included a public speaking engagement at Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia on June 20.
He wrote, “I mean come on, you want to talk about iconoclasts, these people [Jews] have been going their own way for three thousand years, refusing to assimilate, never doing what they are told, fighting for what they believe is right even against odds that are beyond ridiculous. As long as they are doing that, I feel like my people are not alone. That someone else understands us. … how I could I not feel a kinship with a people who are often so much like me and mine?”
Bellerose’s unadorned expression of that kinship isn’t always well received. Last year, a Hillel appearance by Bellerose in Montreal was cancelled after tweets about Gaza were deemed offensive by organizers.
But the 50 or so people who came to Mikveh Israel to hear Bellerose speak weren’t deterred by his unconventional presentation. In fact, it was one of the reasons that the Greater Philadelphia Zionist Organization of America brought him here in the first place.
“Ryan has a perspective that most Jews don’t often hear,” said Greater Philadelphia ZOA Executive Director Steve Feldman. “He is un-PC and unabashedly pro-Israel and pro-Jewish.”
Bellerose did not disappoint.
Wearing khakis, sneakers and a bright blue button-down, the brawny former football player pledged to moderate his language during his talk, out of respect for the location, and then proceeded to use profanity throughout, which seemed to delight the audience. He’d say things like, “You guys [Jews] have people bull—- you all the time.”
His talk was informal and careened across topics. He talked about his own evolution as an Indian, growing up on a Méti reserve without electricity or running water. He wasn’t allowed to speak Cree in public, or stay in the sun too long because then he’d get tan and look too Indian. When it was too cold to go to school, he’d read the encyclopedia.
“By learning about other people and other places, it helped me understand who I was and my place in the world,” he said. “What I didn’t realize at the time was it was going to help me find my own place in my people’s story. I’m a firm believer that every single person that’s here right now has a place in the Jewish people’s story and it’s up to you find that place.”
He spoke against assimilation, against becoming a part of the overarching narrative of dominance. He said he used to see his own indigenous history through a flawed white-person’s lens, something he feels Jews are guilty of as well. He had to train himself to see things from a decolonized perspective.
“Identity is the key,” he said.
He demonstrated the way that indigenous culture is like a hand, with individual fingers representing tradition, culture, language, family and spirituality. If one or two of the fingers are cut off, your hand still works, but the harder it is to function.
“One thing that I see in American Jewish communities is that a lot of your kids don’t speak Hebrew,” he said. “That’s mind-boggling to me.”
Bellerose spoke a great deal about challenging non-Zionists on social media, particularly on Facebook. It was the internet that heightened his profile after an article he wrote called “Dear Palestinians” went viral.
“I basically told them, ‘Look, you guys are tragedy tourists. You don’t have your own tragedy, so you’ve stolen someone else’s. You’ve claimed to be something you’re not, and I’m not having it. You offend me.’”
He said he was surprised that a Jewish outlet in Canada published the article because “no offense, but you guys tend to be pretty chill in your media.”
He said he demands sources from people on social media who allege things like a child dying at the hands of Israelis.
“I used to think this was the age of information,” he said. “Every person in this room has access to more information than anyone else in the history of the world because we all have smartphones.
“Smartphones have access to the internet. The problem is that we also have access to more bull—- than anyone in history.”
Bellerose suggested audience members use context, critical thinking and consistency to fight through the noise.
“You’re an indigenous people, bottom line. Your traditions, your culture, your spirituality — literally everything that makes you Jewish comes from Israel, not from anywhere else,” he said.
The crowd loved the talk.
Yvonne Kay, a Philadelphia entrepreneur, said Bellerose’s remarks were aligned with her own thinking and experience.
“Social media has so much reach,” she said, lamenting unresearched claims. “How do you go forward and do something effective?”
Even after the Q&A ended, audience members lingered.
Steve Feldman said Bellerose’s brash approach was novel.
“We don’t need to equivocate,” he said. “When we do, we’re harming our own brand, our own peoplehood. We need to move forward with a strong pro-Israel message.”