“Everyone talks about Jews. No one knows who the fuck we are.” Someone said this to me the other day and it really resonated, because it’s true.
Negative Jewish representation has been everywhere for the past 2000 years, ever since, for geopolitical reasons, Jews were scapegoated for Jesus’ death. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment — not a Jewish one — and according to experts on the time period, had Jews really ordered the death of Jesus, he would’ve been stoned to death, not crucified. That said, this is a topic for another post.
This negative and inaccurate representation is not a thing of the past. Today we see it everywhere: in the utterly inaccurate ways that people talk about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, the appropriation of ancient sacred Jewish traditions (e.g. Evangelical Passover Seders), the sheer amount of Holocaust comparisons across the political spectrum, and more.
If you think about it, this negative over-representation is absurdly disproportionate. Jews form 0.2% of the world population (by contrast, 31% of the world is Christian and 26% of the world is Muslim). We come from a small region of the world roughly the size of New Jersey. Israel, the world’s only Jewish majority state, constitutes about 0.1% of the world population. To illustrate the point: 30% of the world thinks Jews form 1-10% of the world population. 18% of the world thinks Jews form over 10% of the world population. Most people in the world have never met a Jewish person. To reiterate: we form 0.2%, yet we occupy a massive place in the non-Jewish imagination.
You hear so much about us. But do you hear it FROM us? The answer is likely no.
WE ARE A NATION
A nation — not to be confused with a modern “nation state” (e.g. the United States, Canada) — is a community of people with a shared language, history, ethnicity, culture, and/or territory. We have a collective identity as a singular people (i.e. the Jewish People, the People or Children of Israel) that goes back 3000 years.
Case in point: the term “Jew” is a modern English sixteenth century translation of the Old English word “Iudeisc,” which in itself was a translation of the Latin word “Iudeas,” meaning a citizen of the Kingdom of Judah (930 BCE-587/6 BCE) or a citizen of Judea (586/7 BCE-136 CE). In most languages — including Hebrew, our ancestral language — the term “Jew” is quite literally still the same word as “Judean.”
Our identity as a nation very much surpasses our identity as a religious group. In fact, the understanding of Jews as a “religious group” is a rather recent development in history, dating back to the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. For more on this, I recommend my post NAPOLEON’S AGREEMENT WITH THE JEWS.
Whether a Jew believes in Judaism or not is fully irrelevant, because they are still a member of our nation (and our tribe, as I will elaborate in the next slide).
WE ARE A TRIBE
The Jewish People are the direct descendants of a confederation of Hebrew tribes that lived in the region of modern-day Israel/Palestine during the Bronze Age. For 3000 years, we have called ourselves a tribe. In fact, the term “tribe” in English comes from the Old French “tribu,” which was first used to describe “one of the twelve divisions of the ancient Hebrews.”
None of this is a matter of religious belief or imagination; our tribal identity and ancestry is among the most well-documented in the world. Genetic studies on Jews clearly indicate ancient Canaanite heritage (the Hebrew tribes emerged from Canaanite tribes). Much of our culture still reflects ancient Canaanite culture; for example, Hebrew is the only Canaanite language that still exists to this day, and many Hebrew words still allude to the ancient Canaanite gods (for instance, the generic Hebrew word for god — as opposed to THE god — is “el.” El was one of the two most important gods in the Canaanite pantheon).
Because of imperial conquest and colonization, most of us don’t know which of the Hebrew tribes our ancestors came from, though if you are Jewish, you most likely descend from the tribe of Benjamin, Judah, or Levi. Ethiopian Jews claim descent from the tribe of Dan. Samaritans, who are Israelites but not Jews, descend from the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, or Levi.
For more on this, I recommend my posts THE JEWISH PEOPLE ARE A TRIBE and WHO ARE THE SAMARITANS?
WE ARE AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
Everyone is indigenous to somewhere (or somewheres). Not all peoples are Indigenous Peoples.
The 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.
I’ve made numerous posts on this subject (JEWS & INDIGENEITY: A CONVERSATION WITH NATIVE JEWS, WHEN JEWS BECAME JEWS, THE JEWISH PEOPLE ARE A TRIBE, and my INDIGENEITY 1, 2, and 3 highlights), so I will not elaborate on each of these points.
However, I will reiterate the following: Indigeneity is primarily about land-based, cultural continuity that predates colonialism and imperialism. Our culture; our belief system; our language; our social systems (e.g. Kohanim, or the inherited Jewish priestly class, not to be confused with rabbis); our understanding of ourselves as a people, as a tribe, and as a nation: all of these characteristics long predate the foreign conquests of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, and British.
The fact that we’ve been able to preserve the culture and identity of our ancestors in the face of so much conquest, oppression, ethnic cleansing, slavery, massacres, genocide, spiritual repression, and more is nothing short of remarkable and an example of Indigenous resistance.
WE ARE AN ETHNIC GROUP
An ethnic group or ethnicity is a social group that shares common ancestry, culture, traditions, history, language, and/or religion, as well as a plethora of other commonalities. Sometimes the term “ethnicity” is used interchangeably with “nation,” as described in the second slide. Ethnic groups have what is known as an “ethnogenesis,” meaning the point at which an ethnic group forms or develops. For example, the ethnogenesis of our ancestors, the Israelites, can be attributed to the point in time during which a confederation of Hebrew tribes united to establish the Kingdom of Israel some 3000 years ago.
Coincidentally, one of the most widely-used definitions of Indigeneity, compiled by Martinez Cobo, requires that the group be a “nation with an ethnogenesis with a specific land-space.” Jews fit this description, as we became a nation through the formation of a tribal confederation in the Land of Israel.
Ethnic groups can both merge (known as a pan-ethnicity) or split into groups (known as sub-ethnicity). Because of our forced displacement, which resulted in geographical distance from each other, various Jewish sub-ethnic groups formed. Some examples of Jewish sub-ethnic groups are Ashkenazim, Sepharadim, and Mizrahim.
For thousands of years, Jews have practiced endogamy — that is, marrying within the ethnic group. Because we have had such a closed genetic pool for so long, Jewish DNA is among the most studied in the world.
JUDAISM IS OUR ETHNIC RELIGION
Judaism is the ethnic religion and tribal belief system of the Jewish People.
A universalizing religion is a religion that transcends tribal affiliation, ethnicity, and geography. Universalizing religions spread through conquest, imperialism, colonialism, and proselytization. Two examples of universalizing religions are Christianity and Islam.
An ethnic religion is a religion specific to an ethnic group. Some examples of ethnic religions are Judaism, Samaritanism, and Hinduism. Unlike universalizing religions, Jews do not seek new members; as such, we haven’t proselytized for thousands of years. While people can convert to Judaism, the process of conversion into Judaism is not about professing loyalty to a belief system, but rather, a process of naturalization into the Jewish tribe (while it’s not 100% the same, you can think of it as an immigrant gaining new citizenship).
Like other Indigenous Peoples worldwide, Jewish ethnic, tribal, and religious identity are inextricable from each other. That said, Jewish law (known as “Halacha”) dictates that a person born a Jew can never stop being Jewish. So it doesn’t matter whether you believe in G-d or not: if you are Jewish, you are Jewish.
An important note: the Jewish People were displaced across the globe, which is why you will find Jews in the Americas or in Africa, for example. When universalizing religions spread, what spreads is the idea (that is, the faith), not the people.
WHY YOU HEAR ABOUT US
Jews, as you hopefully understand by now, are an ethnoreligious group, a nation, and a tribe originating in the region of the world now known as Israel-Palestine. It’s a charged region, with a violent history of imperialism, colonialism, antisemitism, conquest, name changes, and more. It’s a region that has fundamentally changed the course of world history. Had there been no Jesus, Jewish issues today (and by extension, Israeli issues) would be of zero consequence to the world at large. Jews form only 0.2% of the world population, a teeny tiny minority. We should be, for all intents and purposes, statistically irrelevant. But by some strange twist of fate, Christianity (and later Islam) sprouted from Judaism, and all of a sudden, all eyes turned on us.
Because Jesus was a Jew — and because the Romans scapegoated Jews for his death — for thousands of years, Jews have occupied a major place in the non-Jewish imagination (we, quite literally, have been living in your heads rent-free). Antisemitism is so ingrained into our society and institutions that it’s often nicknamed “the world’s oldest hatred.” Jews have been persecuted in and driven out of almost every region of the world. We’ve been blamed for just about every calamity to befall humanity, from the Black Plague to 9/11.
It’s an odd and uncomfortable position to be in, because we’re talked about all the time, but rarely talked to. As mentioned earlier, the overwhelming majority of the world has never met a Jew.
THE SADDEST THING
It sucks when non-Jewish people misrepresent who we are. But what is much more upsetting to me is when Jews — especially young Jews — accept non-Jewish narratives about themselves.
You deserve to know who you are. You deserve to know where you come from, and you deserve to know what your ancestors experienced, not just 100 years ago, but 3000 years ago. It’s all documented, both by Jewish and non-Jewish sources. It’s real and it’s a truth that matters regardless of whether you believe in G-d or not. You deserve to love the land of your ancestors (this has nothing to do with a government or geopolitics. Our connection with the land long predates anything going on today). One of the most healing things for me has been fully embracing my connection with the Land of Israel. I always felt it, but I could never quite name it, until I dug a little deeper and learned more and more about our history.
You deserve to know your history. You deserve to experience Jewish identity through Jewish eyes and not the opinions and misconceptions of the non-Jewish world.
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