STRAW MAN ARGUMENTS
I’ve done work pertaining to Jewish history — and by extension, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict — on and off for over 10 years. Though, in my experience, historical education regarding Israel-Palestine has always been politicized, oftentimes in frustrating and reductionist ways, the rise of social media and social media activism has created a borderline impossible landscape for nuanced, factually-based education.
Oftentimes, when presented with extensively recorded and corroborated historical facts, “anti-Zionists” will respond with straw man arguments that make a productive conversation all but impossible.
A straw man argument is an informal fallacy in which, while creating the impression of refuting an argument, the real subject of the argument is not addressed or refuted, but instead, is replaced with a different argument. For example: Person A states, “I prefer dogs over cats.” Person B responds: “Why do you hate cats?”
Person B, while creating the impression that they’ve responded to Person A’s argument, is actually arguing something else entirely.
From my perspective as a Jewish educator, let’s address some common straw man arguments pertaining to Israel-Palestine discourse.
INDIGENEITY ≠ SKIN COLOR
This is a straw man argument that I see floating around a lot on social media.
A Jewish Person states: “Jews are Indigenous to the Land of Israel.” An antisemite responds (yes, denying Jewish identity and history is antisemitic): “But you’re white.”
Irrespective of the fact that whiteness is a shifting social construct, Indigeneity and white skin are not mutually exclusive. First, Indigenous Peoples exist all over the globe — from the (generally white-skinned) Sámi in the Nordic countries to the (generally dark-skinned) Anangu in Australia — which easily explains the variance in phenotype. Second, because of the inherent violence of colonialism — including sexual violence — phenotypes vary even among the same Indigenous group. Third, there is a tremendous variance in skin color among all Levantine Peoples (including Jews). And, fourth and most importantly, the most widely accepted international definition of Indigeneity says absolutely nothing about skin color.
The Indigenous-led United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues defines Indigenous Peoples as the following: (1) self-identification as Indigenous Peoples; (2) historical continuity with pre-colonial and pre-settler societies; (3) strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources; (4) distinct social, economic, or political systems; (5) distinct language, culture, and beliefs; (6) non-dominant groups of society; (7) resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities. Like it or not, Jews fit all of this criteria, as proved by 3000 years’ worth of archeology, genetic science, cultural tradition, and historical record.
If I say that Jews are an Indigenous People, I am not arguing that my skin is not white. It is. I’m arguing that Jews are an Indigenous People.
GENETIC STUDIES ≠ RACE SCIENCE
This is another common straw man argument. In the quest to strip Jews from our history and our connection to the Land of Israel, we are frequently told that just because we follow the religion of Judaism (more on this later), that doesn’t mean that we are Indigenous to the Land of Israel. So when we present antisemites with irrefutable facts, including genetic studies that prove Jews are the direct descendants of the ancient Israelites (and, by extension, the ancient Canaanites), we are accused of “race science” and perpetuating “blood quantum” (never mind that blood quantum laws are specific to the Native Peoples of the Americas, but anyway). It usually goes like this:
Antisemite: “How can a European Jew be Indigenous to Palestine?” The Jewish Person responds: “Genetic science overwhelmingly proves that Jews — including ‘European’ Jews — are a Middle Eastern ethnic group.” The antisemite responds: “You’re engaging in race science/eugenics.”
Except that we’re not. We’re answering their question. Scientific racism (or race science) is the pseudoscientific belief that there is scientific evidence to justify racism or to prove that one race is superior to another. Nowhere in this conversation did the Jewish Person state that Jews are a superior race. Eugenics is a racist, antisemitic movement that purports to “improve the human race” by only breeding humans with certain hereditary characteristics. Nowhere in this conversation did the Jewish Person say that Jews should only breed with Jews to improve the quality of the human race.
Genetics does not define Jewishness, but it’s an important tool at our disposal, for various reasons, including: (1) it helps us trace our history, as so much of it has been lost as a result of 3000 years of persecution, and (2) genetic studies help us understand Jewish ancestral oral and written wisdom in a fact-based manner, as Jewish wisdom always taught that we are from the Land of Israel, and now, science agrees that this is true.
INDIGENEITY ≠ EXPIRATION DATE
This is a worrisome one, not just for Jews, but frankly, for all Indigenous Peoples worldwide who wish to retain sovereignty of their ancestral lands.
The Jewish Person will say: “Jews are Indigenous to the Land of Israel/Jews come from the Land of Israel.” The antisemite will respond: “You were gone for too long, so it’s no longer your land to claim.”
First, no Jewish Person in their right mind could deny that the majority of us — not all of us, though — were violently expelled from our homeland, 1,400-2000 years ago (until the Arab conquests, Jews remained the majority in the Land of Israel). That’s not what we’re arguing.
Second, the idea that Indigeneity has an expiration date creates an extremely scary precedent for all Indigenous Peoples, because this gives the colonizer/oppressor the power to define our identity. If the oppressor keeps us under their thumb for just long enough, then they can refute our claim to the land.
Again, Indigeneity has a widely accepted international definition, one which was created by Indigenous Peoples from across the globe and took decades of research to compile. The definition does not include an expiration date. What would this arbitrary expiration date be, anyway? If we follow this line of thinking, does this mean that in another 900 years, Native tribes will forfeit their Indigeneity to the Americas? Of course not.
EQUALITY ≠ FRIENDSHIP
This is another common straw man argument. A Jewish Person will state: “Prior to 1948, Jews in Palestine were oppressed, persecuted, and disenfranchised.” The other person will respond: “My grandmother said that before 1948, she got along great with her Jewish neighbors in Palestine.”
No one is denying that this person’s grandmother had good interpersonal relationships with her neighbors, at least in her view (when you are in a position of systemic power, it’s easy to view relationships with those who are oppressed through rose-colored glasses). For all we know, they were best friends. That doesn’t take away from the fact that during the Arab, Ottoman, and British periods (and earlier as well, but the Arabs weren’t there yet), antisemitic oppression was quite literally codified into law.
During the Arab and Ottoman periods, Jews were dhimmis, or second-class citizens, subject to heavy taxation and a plethora of unequal and humiliating laws, including but not limited to: Jews had to show deference to Muslims; for example, if a Muslim wished to sit where a Jew was sitting, the Jewish person had to give up their seat. Jews had to wear identifying yellow belts or turbans and had to cut off their sidelocks. Jews could not govern, lead, or employ Muslims. Jewish witnesses were not admissible in court. Jews were subject to a “jizya” tax. When harmed by a Muslim, Jews had to purchase Muslim witnesses, which left Jews with virtually no legal recourse.
While the Ottoman Empire only officially abolished the dhimmi system in 1869, it continued to enforce antisemitic property and immigration laws. During the British period, a plethora of antisemitic Jewish immigration laws were enacted, and the British authorities were openly disdainful of Jews. And that’s not to speak of the hundreds upon hundreds of antisemitic massacres that Jews endured. The fact that your grandmother was good friends with a Jew does not negate this.
INDIGENEITY ≠ NATIONALITY
This one goes a little something like this:
A Jewish Person states: “Jews are Indigenous to the Land of Israel.” An antisemite will respond with, “You’re from Brooklyn” or “Your grandparents were from Poland.”
The latter two statements are, of course, irrelevant to the subject matter at hand. Nationality, particularly as a modern construct, is not the same thing as ethnicity, Indigeneity, race, or even nationhood. Living in Brooklyn, being born in Brooklyn, or holding American citizenship is not reflective of your ancestry, nor does it make you Indigenous to what is now Brooklyn. In fact, such a statement is anti-Native erasure of the tribes that actually are Indigenous to the New York region.
Similarly, having grandparents who lived in Poland does not make one Indigenous to Poland. As I’ve explained multiple times, Indigeneity has a precise definition, and Indigeneity and nationality, citizenship, and/or place of residence are not mutually exclusive. If, for example, a person from the Bribri tribe in what is now Costa Rica moves to Spain, they are neither revoking their Indigeneity to Costa Rica nor suddenly becoming Indigenous to Spain. That’s not how Indigeneity works.
Thousands of Indigenous tribes across the globe have been displaced from their ancestral homelands due to colonialism, imperialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and more. None of this revokes their Indigeneity, nor should it revoke the Indigeneity of Jews.
ETHNOGENESIS ≠ OUT OF AFRICA THEORY
This straw man argument is both antisemitic and racist. A Jewish Person will state: “Jews are Indigenous to Israel because we originate from the Land of Israel.” The antisemite will argue: “Technically we are all Indigenous to Africa because we all originate from Africa.”
Here’s the thing: no one is disputing human evolution or the widely accepted Out of Africa Theory (also known as Recent African Origin Model) in paleoanthropology, which dictates that human beings originated in Africa and dispersed elsewhere over time.
Instead, when we say that we originate from the Land of Israel, what we mean is that our ethnogenesis as a people, tribe, and nation took place in the Land of Israel. The term “ethnogenesis” refers to “the formation and development of an ethnic group,” either through self-identification or outsider identification.
Though humans have existed for some 260,000-300,000 years, for the vast majority of human history, humans were nomadic. In fact, we only became sedentary some 14,000 years ago. Agricultural societies only formed 12,000 years ago, and the first civilizations only arose some 6000 years ago. Jewish peoplehood and civilization dates back over 3000 years. We are direct descendants of the ancient Canaanites (~4000 years ago) and are the only people (along with Samaritans) to have preserved their language. In fact, so much of their ancient culture, such as their gods, is reflected in Hebrew. We became a people in the Land of Israel, evolving from semi-nomadic Hebrew tribes, and our ethnogenesis predates colonial and imperial conquest.
SOVEREIGNITY ≠ THEOCRACY/ETHNOSTATE
This one goes one of two ways. A Jewish Person states: “Jews have the right to a sovereign state.” The antisemite accuses Jews of supporting either (1) a theocracy or (2) an ethnostate.
Let’s address the first straw man argument. First, the hypocrisy is outstanding: there are 50 countries that are either officially Muslim and/or practice Sharia Law (i.e. the latter being theocracies by definition) and 13 countries that are officially Christian. Second, the Jewish People are a people, ethnic group, tribe, and nation (not to be confused with modern nation-states), and so grouping Jews with universalizing religions such as Christianity and Islam is simply inaccurate. Third, support for Jewish sovereignty is not equivalent to support for a Jewish theocracy. It simply means that we believe Jews have a right to a sovereign state, as opposed to living under the thumb of an empire. A theocracy is a state in which religious leaders rule in the name of G-d or gods. By definition, Israel is not a theocracy. In fact, believe it or not, Israel doesn’t even have an official state religion.
The second argument is also an irrelevant straw man argument. Jews have a right to a sovereign homeland just like ethnic Armenians, ethnic Ukrainians, and ethnic Greeks (for example) have a right to a sovereign homeland. That doesn’t mean that we believe *only* Jews should live in Israel, or that Jews should have more rights than non-Jews. Israel is home to a number of ethnic groups: Jews, Arabs, Druze, Samaritans, Arameans, and many more, all of whom are equal under the law within sovereign Israeli territory (that is not to say that discrimination doesn’t exist, or that the situation in the Occupied Territories is not unequal, but that’s a whole other issue that involves another foreign government, the Palestinian Authority).
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