Jews & Indigeneity: a conversation with Native Jews

first, a couple definitions.

Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a nation, and a tribe originating in the Land of Israel (modern-day Israel/Palestine). We have a history dating 5000 years and are one of the oldest tribes in the world. In fact, the word “tribe” was first used to refer to us.

While most Jews were forcibly displaced from their homeland by invading empires at various points throughout history, Jewish culture, spirituality, and identity remained tethered to the Land of Israel through prayer, language, customs, and more. This is evident in things such as our holidays, which celebrate the earth of the Land of Israel; the Hebrew calendar, which follows the agricultural cycle of Israel/Palestine; our prayers, which call to Israel; the preservation of the Hebrew language in various Diasporic dialects such as Yiddish and Ladino; and more.

While DNA does not define Indigeneity, it’s also important to know that Jewish DNA to this day is closest to that of other Levantine populations, such as the Druze, Samaritans, and Palestinians, indicating that Jews today are the direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. 3000 years’ worth of archeological findings also conclusively demonstrate Jewish ancestral ties to the Land of Israel.

***

 

The word “Indigenous,” however, does not have a singular definition.

The nonprofit organization Indigenous Bridges uses the following definition to describe Indigenous groups: “a nation with an ethno-genesis with a specific land-space; which has a unique culture, language, spiritual framework, dress and set of traditions which predate colonial contact, and which they intend to pass down to future generations.”

The co-founder of the organization noted that many of the definitions of “Indigenous” have been changed using an antisemitic framework in order specifically to exclude Jews.

“Indigenous” does not inherently mean one is Indigenous to the Americas (i.e. First Nations, Native Americans). Indigenous peoples span the entire globe: from the Sámi people in the Nordic countries to the Palawa in Australia. Because of this — and because of the inherently violent nature of colonialism — Indigenous peoples come in all skin tones and phenotypes. In other words, skin tone is not an indicator of Indigeneity — or lack thereof.

It’s entirely possible for an Indigenous person to present as “white” and therefore have (conditional) white privilege.

***

 

Others argue that Indigenous is a “political” term used to organise against the oppressor (i.e. the coloniser) or a term that the coloniser imposes on the Indigenous people. In other words: once an Indigenous group is no longer colonised (i.e. once they retain sovereignty over their land), the word “Indigenous” ceases to apply to said group.

I addressed this position with each of the Native Jews I spoke with, all of whom found it alarming. They unanimously agreed that one can never stop being Indigenous. Indigenous peoples around the globe seek autonomy; achieving said goal would not change their stewardship over the land, their culture, or their peoplehood. Some argued that such a position is actually anti-Indigenous, as it reduces Indigenous identity and makes it contingent on remaining oppressed.

Of course, no group is a monolith. I’m sure there are Native Jews who disagree.

The co-founder of Indigenous Bridges noted that Jews are far from the only group to have retained autonomy and sovereignty in their ancestral land. Other (widely considered “Indigenous”) groups include the Armenians (Armenia, independent from 1991), the Tswana people (Botswana, 1966), Fijians (Fiji, 1970), and Samoans (Samoa, 1962), among many others.

***

 

The Indigenous Bridges definition of Indigeneity addresses the following:

(1) A NATION WITH AN ETHNO-GENESIS WITH A SPECIFIC LAND-SPACE.

Archeology and DNA science conclusively tie the origins of the Jewish People to modern-day Israel/Palestine. As discussed in the second slide, reverence for the Land of Israel (not to be confused with reverence for the STATE of Israel) is inextricable from Jewish identity. The Torah, which is the “origin story” of the Jewish People (think Greek mythology) commands all Jews to live in the Land of Israel. Beyond that commandment, many of the 613 “mitzvot” (“commandments”) in the Torah can only be fulfilled while in the Land of Israel. To this day, Jews in the Diaspora pray facing Jerusalem.

(2) A UNIQUE CULTURE, LANGUAGE, SPIRITUAL FRAMEWORK, DRESS, AND SET OF TRADITIONS WHICH PREDATE COLONIAL CONTACT.

A significant portion of Jewish culture (i.e. many major holidays), language (Hebrew), and spiritual framework (Judaism, the ethnic religion of the Jewish People) predate the conquests of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, European Crusaders, Ottomans, and British.

While obviously Jewish dress changed over time — a Jew that ended up in Russia wouldn’t dress the same as a Jew that ended up in India — sacred Jewish dress predates outsider contact, with two obvious examples being the Talit and Tefillin, which originated over 2500-3000+ years ago.

Jewish traditions, such as keeping Shabbat and putting up a mezuzah at the door, also long predate colonial contact.

(3) WHICH THEY INTEND TO PASS DOWN TO FUTURE GENERATIONS.

There is no arguing that Judaism — and as such, Jewishness — is passed down to future generations. Today most — but not all — Jewish communities practice matrilineal descent. Whether a child will grow up to believe in Judaism is irrelevant; no matter what, they will be born Jewish.

Beyond prayer, tradition, and custom, Jews remained firmly tethered to the Land of Israel for millennia. There is a continuous Jewish presence in Israel/Palestine dating back over 3000 years.

Before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jews in the Diaspora took it upon themselves to financially sustain the struggling Indigenous Jewish minority that remained in the Land of Israel. This practice was known as “Halukka” and was considered a way to fulfill the commandment to “live in Israel” from afar.

For centuries, Jews not only yearned to return to their homeland but actually embarked on long and treacherous journeys to achieve said goal. For example, after the Spanish Inquisition, many Sephardic Jews fled to Palestine. There were at least six pre-modern Zionism Ashkenazi attempts to resettle in Palestine dating back to the 1100s, though most ended in catastrophe due to antisemitism and harsh conditions (conditions which were the result of coloniser exploitation of the land).

Perhaps most importantly, Jews continued to fight for their sovereignty. Some examples include the Maccabean Revolt, the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and the brief period between 614-617 when Jews actually regained autonomy over Jerusalem.

***

 

Something that Jews have in common with Indigenous groups worldwide is the displacement from their homeland at the hands of imperial and/or colonising entities.

Another major thing in common: the push to revive the Jewish ancestral language, Hebrew. Like many other conquered Indigenous tribes, Hebrew declined as an everyday colloquial tongue after the conquest of the Babylonians, though remnants of it remained in Jewish Diasporic languages such as Yiddish and Ladino.

Indigenous tribes worldwide such as the Sámi have studied the revival of Hebrew in their quest to revitalise their own ancestral languages.

There is a relatively new argument circulating on social media that claims that Jews cannot be Indigenous to Israel because some Jews and/or the Israeli government have harmed land or the other people in it. This is misguided and infantilising; anyone is capable of doing bad things, Indigenous or not. Jews are far from the only Indigenous group engaged in an inter-ethnic conflict where one group holds systemic power over the other (an example: the conflict between Botswana and the San people).

 

***

 

I asked Native Jews what “Indigenous” means to them and where their Jewish identity fits in. Some answers were edited slightly for length. Their full responses will be available in my “Jewish Indigeneity” highlight.

No group of people is a monolith. I am simply sharing the perspectives that were shared with me.

MELISSA: “To me, being an Indigenous people means being native to a certain area and belonging to it. It’s where we are from and where we belong to… [Jews] are Indigenous to the Land of Israel; we belong to the land; it claims us. [Decolonisation] begins with using the term Indigenous to refer to ourselves...”

MIA: “[Indigeneity] is all about culture. When people talk about Indigenous people I hear a lot of blood quantum and DNA talk, showing how truly ignorant people are towards what it means to be one of us. Indigeneity is all about culture and traditions. It’s about the struggles and risks we have been through as a tribe to keep true to our ancestors… [Jews] are one of the oldest tribes to still exist today, while maintaining similar aspects of our lifestyle from back in the times of Judea. Things such as how to harvest the Land of Israel and our distinct religion…are very similar to how my tribe and many other tribes around the world work.”

LAURA: “I personally think that Jews would benefit from learning how much they have in common with other Indigenous groups in the world. I see the Jewish culture as having been colonised for thousands of years to the point where Jews have accepted and adopted so many false narratives created by Christian and Muslim influences. [Decolonisation begins with] discovering that so many things we think of as Jewish are actually common to many, many Indigenous tribes. Questioning everything with an open mind. Recognising the powerful influences of Islam and Christianity on the Mizrahi and Ashkenazi sub-cultures that lived under those oppressive regimes for centuries. Questioning what authentic Judaism would look like if those non-Jewish influences were stripped away.”

REBECCA: “Archeology will validate the Indigenous’s population presence in the region by linking the shared and preserved Indigenous practices, social, cultural, and economic rituals…[Healing from intergenerational trauma] has been a liberating experience because it allows me to connect to my Jewish identity, not through the eyes of the oppressors, but through the eyes of my ancestors.”

ANONYMOUS: “EVERYTHING [makes Jews Indigenous]. I could write pages upon pages on how we are Indigenous to Eretz Israel…Our prayers, our culture, our ceremonies so beautifully encompass Indigenous resilience and connection to our homeland. What I find so incredible about Judaism is how it truly is a toolkit and guide on how to stay connected to your homeland and people through expulsion into diaspora.”

SHEENA: [to be Indigenous is] to be the original peoples of a land…that have a sacred relationship with the land in a spiritual and everyday way…Most of our [Jewish] religious books and stories focus on the land…We are so closely tied to our ancestral land many people weep over the disconnection, like many other Native peoples I know.”

MAHRINAH: “[My definition of Indigeneity is] did a group of people retain their original identity or did they become something else? Do they pray in the same ways and language of their ancestors? Do they have a land-based way of prayer and steward relationship with the land they inhabit and does this relationship continue post-displacement?…Decolonisation is the act of stripping off the layers and influence of outside forces within one’s culture…[Jews] have already done so much of this from the initial rededication of the Temple…to revival of the Hebrew language and dry land cultivation of regionally traditional crops.”