Jewishness belongs to Jews
UNIVERSALIZATION OF JEWISHNESS
Jews constitute a tiny minority, currently forming a little under 0.2 percent of the world population. We, for all intents and purposes, should be statistically insignificant. Bigotry against us is so widespread, foundational, and ancient that antisemitism is commonly referred to as “the world’s oldest hatred.” Though we have much in common with other marginalized minorities — we were enslaved, we have endured genocide after genocide, we have survived thousands of years of systemic oppression and persecution, and we were displaced from our ancestral home — our story is also really unique. Many of the words that are used to describe the experiences of minorities — such as Diaspora and tribe — were first used in reference to us. Our identity and our history should be ours alone.
And yet: by some twist of fate, Jesus Christ was a Jew. The Tanakh — commonly known as the Hebrew Bible — was written to serve three purposes: (1) to tell the story of the Creation of the world, according to our ancestors, the ancient Israelites (i.e. Israelite mythological history), (2) to tell the story of the origins of the Israelite nation, and (3) to serve as a tribal charter, which outlines the genealogy, laws, beliefs, responsibilities, duties, and privileges of the Nation of Israel.
It was never meant to be universalized.
But it was. Christianity and Islam, two universalizing religions, which spread through proselytization and conquest, both “build off” the Tanakh. That, of course, is problematic phrasing to begin with, because for us, the originators of the Tanakh, the Tanakh is not the foundation of another religion — the Tanakh is the entire building.
In universalizing the Tanakh, our very unique experience and history was universalized. This is problematic on its own right, but it’s even worse that in universalizing our experience and history, our identity, which we have fought so hard to preserve for thousands of years in the face of the worst kind of oppression, has been universalized too. So many now claim our identity and our history when it’s not theirs to claim, and it’s about time we talk about it.
THE ISRAELITES WERE REAL PEOPLE & WE ARE THEIR DESCENDANTS
The ancient Israelites were real people. They were not some sort of religious fabrication. Their existence is extensively corroborated. Obviously not everything in the Tanakh is corroborated by archeology — at some point, probably around the eighth century BCE, Israelite mythological history and “real”* history converge. I usually compare this to Greek mythology: for example, the Trojan War was a defining story for the Ancient Greeks, but historians have yet to decide how much of it was true, how much was exaggerated, and how much was fabricated.
The ancient Israelites did not become extinct or collectively assimilate into other identities. In other words, no, the ancient Israelites did not become today’s Palestinians. Instead, in 930 BCE, the ancient Kingdom of Israel split into two: the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south. The citizens of the Kingdom of Israel became Samaritans, named after their capital in Samaria. The citizens of the Kingdom of Judah became Jews. The word Jew — or Yehudi in Hebrew — comes from Judah, or Yehuda in Hebrew. In other words, “Jew” means “someone from Judah.” Jews are not named after a religion; rather, Judaism was named after Jews, deriving from the word Iουδαϊσμός, which is how the Greeks described all of the cultural characteristics that “made Jews Jewish.”
I once heard someone say, “Just because the State of Israel appropriated the name of an ancient kingdom doesn’t mean that Israel has an ancient history.” It was infuriating. How can we appropriate our own history? Our own peoplehood? We have a history dating back over 3000 years in the Land of Israel. We have called ourselves the People and the Nation of Israel for 3000 years. Our history and identity is ours and no one else’s to claim.
*I am not claiming that the earlier histories in the Tanakh are “made up.” Rather, I simply mean that some of the earlier stories have not yet been corroborated by archeology.
CHRISTIAN REPLACEMENT THEOLOGY
Judaism is a tribal, ethnic, closed Indigenous religion. It’s not uncommon for Indigenous tribes to believe that they have a special covenant with their deity or deities, nor is it uncommon for Indigenous Peoples to believe that their ancestral land is a gift from the heavens/deities/God is quite universal, though of course Indigenous Peoples are not homogenous, and as such, different tribes across the world have different beliefs and different ways through with which they exercise their stewardship over their lands. The Jewish People believe that we have a special covenant with God and that we have been entrusted with the Land of Israel.
Christian Replacement Theology — also known as Christian Supersessionism or Christian Fulfillment Theology — is the idea that the Christian Church has replaced Jews as God’s covenanted people. Christian Supersessionism also asserts that the Christian Church has “succeeded” ancient Israel as God’s “true Israel.” Most historians claim that this idea originated with the apostle Paul, who believed that in rejecting Jesus, Jews had “disqualified” themselves from God’s salvation.
Justification for this view is found in Hebrews 8:3: “In speaking of 'a new covenant' [Jer. 31.31–32] he has made the first one obsolete.”
Rabbinic Judaism finds this position deeply offensive. In short: the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”) was not only appropriated from us, but now many Christian groups hold that they have “replaced” us. In a similar vein, Islam teaches that it is the final, most authentic iteration of Abrahamic monotheism, thus superseding both Judaism and Christianity.
MORMONS, BLACK HEBREW ISRAELITES, ETC
There is much in Mormonism that is quite blatantly appropriated from Jewish tradition. Mormons believe that they are direct descendants of the ancient Israelites, something that is neither backed by science nor something that Jews agree with. Mormon priesthood is modelled after the Israelite priestly class (i.e. Kohanim). The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City contains a “Holy of Holies,” a concept taken from the Holy of Holies in the sacred Jewish Temple during the time of King Solomon.
LDS churches have appropriated traditionally Jewish symbolism such as the Star of David. According to historian Armand Mauss, “Mormons simultaneously hold beliefs that show a religious affinity and a religious hostility toward Jews…most Mormons also believe that God is perpetually punishing Jews for their part in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and they will not be forgiven until they are converted.”
Black Hebrew Israelites — not to be confused with Black Jews, who are 100 percent Jewish! — are a loose set of groups that claim that African Americans are the true descendants of the ancient Israelites. Some groups also claim that Native Americans and Latin Americans are of ancient Israelite descent. Though not all Black Hebrew Israelites engage in physical violence against Jews, some have, as was the case in December 2019, when a man following Black Hebrew Israelite ideology attacked several Orthodox Jews with a machete in Monsey, New York.
Black Hebrew Israelites that do not convert formally to Judaism are not Jewish, nor are their claims of ancient Israelite descent supported by genetic science, archeology, or historical record. Like other groups, they have appropriated Jewish identity and history and erased actual Jewish People, including Black Jews.
PROSELYTIZATION & LOST TRIBES
Between 740-722 BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and expelled its inhabitants, both displacing them internally (i.e. from the northern Kingdom of Israel to the southern Kingdom of Judah), as well as taking captives with them outside of the Land of Israel. Many Levites, for example, survived the invasion by resettling in the Kingdom of Judah. The account of the Assyrian Captivity is verified by both Jewish and Assyrian sources. According to Assyrian sources, 27,290 Israelites were taken captive.
Samaritans, the closest ethnoreligious cousins to Jews, are descended from the survivors of the Assyrian conquest belonging to the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi (i.e. Samaritan Kohanim). The name “Samaritans” comes from “Samaria” (“Shomron” in Hebrew), the capital of the southern Kingdom of Israel. Following the Assyrian conquest, King Sargon II of Assyria turned the kingdom into the Assyrian province of Samerina.
For millennia, many religions have speculated over the whereabouts of the “lost tribes,” meaning the tribes that were exiled from the Kingdom of Israel after the Neo-Assyrian invasion. Most historians, however, overwhelmingly agree that these tribes long assimilated into and intermarried with the dominant populations and lost their original tribal identities. Please remember: having an Israelite ancestor from 2700 years ago does not make you Jewish.
Over the past several centuries, Christian missionaries have sought to convert colonized populations to Christianity. Naturally, many have resisted, because Christianity is simply too foreign to their original Indigenous religions. To entice them, these missionaries have convinced them that they actually belong to one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. This is not only appropriative, but also deeply abusive behavior, as these missionaries are targeting already vulnerable populations. In claiming that X Indigenous nation is actually a “Lost Tribe,” these missionaries are erasing thousands of Indigenous religions and traditions, homogenizing entire diverse cultures across the globe, and encouraging vulnerable populations to appropriate a culture and identity that is not theirs to claim.
Disclaimer: of course not all Palestinians believe this or participate in this erasure. I am not calling out all Palestinians as a whole in this slide; I am simply calling out a dangerous narrative that has become increasingly popular over the past several years. To reiterate: I do not believe most Palestinians do this, nor am I holding all Palestinians responsible for this in any way.
Recently many pro-Palestinian groups and accounts have started claiming ancient Israelite and Jewish history as their own. This includes everything from claiming King David was Palestinian to the claim that Masada, the site of the ancient Roman siege on the Jews during the First Jewish-Roman War, is located in “Palestine.” I’ve even seen people claim that Simon Bar Kokhba was Palestinian; this is both absurd and frankly offensive, because the Romans renamed Judea “Palestine” as a punishment to the Jews for the Bar Kokhba Revolt. I’ve seen people who do not speak Hebrew claim ancient Judean coins with inscriptions such as “Shekel of Israel,” “Freedom of Zion,” and “For the Redemption of Zion” as “ancient Palestinian coins.
The most common appropriation of a Jewish historical figure is the appropriation of Jesus. Every year during Christmas we hear activists claim that “Jesus was Palestinian.” He wasn’t. The Romans renamed Judea “Palestine” about 100 years after the death of Jesus. Most frustrating at all, these people claim Jesus was Palestinian but do not claim the Jews that “supposedly killed him.” I’ve even seen people claim “Jesus was Palestinian” and “the Jews killed Jesus” in the same sentence! The libel that Jews killed Jesus led to the persecution of Jews for the past 2000 years. In other words, they claim all the credit but none of the antisemitism. This is cultural appropriation in a nutshell.
Many Palestinians have distant Jewish heritage, but that’s not how Jewishness works. If you are not Jewish, Jewish history is not yours to claim, especially given that our ancestors fought so hard to preserve our history and our peoplehood for thousands of years in the face of the worst persecution imaginable. The worst part is that they claim our history and also deny that we actual Jews have any history or historical claim to the Land of Israel. It’s offensive and absurd.
For the record: there are zero recorded Jewish mass conversions to Christianity or Islam in the Land of Israel. The Jewish population declined specifically because we were disenfranchised, persecuted, and expelled from the land, as was the case in 1012, when Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah expelled the Jewish population, fundamentally changing the demographics of the Land of Israel.
THE CANAANITE CLAIM
In order to “beat” the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel, some Palestinians now claim that they are an Indigenous population descended from the Canaanites. If you are familiar with the narrative in the Tanakh, the Israelites conquered the Land of Israel from the Canaanites. Thus, according to this Palestinian narrative, our Israelite ancestors supposedly “colonized” their Canaanite ancestors.
So let’s talk about this. First: secular historians, linguists, and archeologists overwhelmingly agree that the Hebrew tribes, the ancestors of the Israelites, were an “offshoot” of the Canaanite tribes, who severed their ties over their adoption of monotheism and rejection of the Canaanite pantheon. This animosity is reflected in the Tanakh. The Tanakh, in subtle ways, also references these Canaanite origins. For example: “Thus said the Lord God to Jerusalem: By origin and birth you are from the land of the Canaanites—your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.” [Ezekiel 16]
Second: the Canaanites no longer exist. They either became Israelites or assimilated into other non-Canaanite identities. But only Jews and Samaritans continue speaking a Canaanite language; Hebrew is the only Canaanite language that still exists. Only Jews and Samaritans continue practicing traditions derived from the Canaanites; for example, Passover evolved from an ancient Canaanite harvest festival. Only Jews and Samaritans reference the ancient Canaanite pantheon in their speech; for example, the words for sun, skies, death, and more in Hebrew derive from the names of the ancient Canaanite gods.
Palestinians are not Canaanites, because Canaanites no longer exist. They might have Canaanite genetic ancestry — but having distant DNA does not make you a part of a certain culture, especially given that that culture is now long extinct. Palestinians are culturally Arab, a culture that is completely unrelated to the ancient Canaanites. This Arab identity is emphasized in the Palestine National Charter: “Palestine is the homeland of the Arab Palestinian people; it is an indivisible part of the Arab homeland, and the Palestinian people are an integral part of the Arab nation.”
Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish People. It is comprised of the ancient beliefs, mythologies, and laws of the Jewish tribe. The first Christians were Jewish. Since the first century, New Christians have sought to convert Jews to Christianity via proselytization. These New Christians, however, long adopted non-Jewish culture and assimilated into different identities, and as such, lost their distinct Jewish identity.
Messianic “Jewish” groups such as “Jews” for Jesus, have made it their central mission to proselytize Jews to their religions. Today’s modern Messianic movement can be traced back to the 1960s. The majority of Messianic “Jews” have no Jewish ancestry whatsoever but seek to proselytize Jews all the same. Every single Jewish movement (e.g. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox) and sub-ethnic group (e.g. Ashkenazim, Sepharadim, Mizrahim) considers Messianic “Judaism” to be inherently incompatible with Judaism. An important thing to note: to be a member of a tribe, the tribe has to claim you back. Not a single group of Jews claims Messianic “Jews.”
Messianic “Jews” also have a history of targeting and grooming vulnerable Jews, such as new immigrants and Bnei Anusim (people with Jewish ancestry whose ancestors were forcibly converted to other religions, particularly Christianity and Islam) who seek to reconnect with their Jewish ancestry.
According to Halacha, Jews who abandon their Jewishness by choice become “meshumadim” (an example being Messianic “Jews” of Jewish ancestry). Though still considered Jewish by lineage, they cannot claim any privilege pertaining to Jewish status. To make it simple: if we don’t claim you, don’t get to claim us. Judaism is a closed practice.
For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon.