INDIGENEITY & RELIGION
The Indigenous-led United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues defines Indigenous Peoples using a guideline with a number of differentiating characteristics. These include the following:
(1) self-identification as Indigenous Peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member; (2) historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies; (3) strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources; (4) distinct social, economic, or political systems; (5) form non-dominant groups of society; (6) resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities; and finally, (7) distinct language, culture, and beliefs.
In other words, a distinct belief system (i.e. religion) is an inextricable part of Indigeneity. Indigenous tribes worldwide — including Jews — generally make no distinction between their religious, ethnic, and/or tribal identity. Instead, all of these factors work together to form the totality of their unique identities.
When missionaries and/or colonizers coerce Indigenous Peoples into abandoning their Indigenous beliefs in favor of the missionaries’ religion — whether this is done through physical force or love-bombing — they are stripping Indigenous Peoples of an intrinsic part of their culture, history, and identity.
JEWS & JUDAISM
Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the Land of Israel, descended from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. This is verifiably true per 3000 years’ worth of archeology, a plethora of genetic studies, and thousands of years of historical record. An ethnoreligious group is an ethnic group unified by a common religion. Much like other Indigenous tribes worldwide, Jewish peoplehood, tribal identity, and religion/spirituality (Judaism) are inextricable from each other.
Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish People. It is comprised of the ancient beliefs, mythologies, and laws of the Jewish tribe.
The term “Jews” and “Judaism” do not come from a faith but rather, from a place: specifically, the Kingdom of Judah (930 BCE-587 BCE). In Hebrew, Jew is “Yehudi(t),” meaning someone from “Yehuda” (Judah). The term Judaism — “Yahadut” in Hebrew — could be translated as “Jew-hood,” as in “the state of being Jewish.”
The concept of Judaism as a “religion” — rather than the state of being a member of the Jewish tribe — is rather new, dating back to the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789-1799). In fact, the “religion” as a we know it today is a rather new construct dated to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a construct that Judaism predates by millennia.
To strip Jews from their Judaism — regardless of the manner in which this is done — is to remove the very essence of who we are as a people.
Judaism — and by extension, the Tanakh — was never meant to be understood out of its cultural and tribal context. Taken out of context, it becomes something else entirely.
A clear example: the concept among Indigenous Peoples that their ancestral land is a gift from the heavens/deities/G-d 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. For example, among Algonquian Peoples (modern-day Canada and northeastern United States), there is a legend that, when the world was created, a godly entity known as the Great Spirit (“Aasha Monetoo”) gave the land to the Shawnee tribe (an Algonquian-speaking tribe).
Similarly, the Hebrew G-d states in the Torah: “to your descendants I have given this land [the Land of Israel]...” Rabbinic Judaism surmises that G-d had set the Land of Israel aside for the Jewish People during the time of Creation. Taken out of its tribal context, however, this sounds a lot like colonialism. But Judaism was never intended to be taken outside of its tribal context, especially not *without our consent.*
From the earliest days of Christianity, missionaries — in this particular case, Christian missionaries — have tried to convert Jews to Christianity. Perhaps even more frustrating, however, is the fact that Christian missionaries have also appropriated Jewish texts, culture, history, and our very identity and have imposed it on other Indigenous Peoples across the globe. For example, according to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, Native Americans are descended from the ancient Israelites. This is not only easily debunked by a mountain of archeological, linguistic, scientific, and historical evidence, but it is both antisemitic and anti-Indigenous. There are 574 federally recognized Native tribes in the United States, all of them with their rich cultures, histories, and identities. These tribes are neither homogenous nor secretly Jewish. It’s inappropriate for missionaries to steal our culture and use it to strip someone else from theirs.
COLONIALISM & RELIGION
Colonialism is the practice of a country or empire imposing control and power over other peoples or territories through the establishment of colonies. Colonizers impose their religion (e.g. Christianity or Islam), language (e.g. Spanish, English, and Portuguese in the Americas, Arabic in Southwest Asia and North Africa), economic systems, and more on the colonized population. While the term “colonization” itself is generally attributed to the European colonization starting in the fifteenth century, the *practice* of colonization itself dates all the way back to antiquity.
Just as there are factors common among Indigenous groups, there exist common characteristics that can indicate whether colonization and/or imperialism have taken place. Among these factors are languages that span large regions outside of their places of origin and religions that span large geographic regions outside of their places of origin. For example, Spanish is the official language in 20 countries; Arabic is the official language in 22 countries. Christianity and Islam are practiced by 2.38 billion and 1.8 billion people, respectively, spanning large geographic regions, ethnicity, and tribal affiliation. By contrast, Hebrew is the official language in one country, and you can only find Jews in nearly every corner of the globe because foreign empires displaced an Indigenous population. This displacement(s) is something that Jews have in common with other Indigenous Peoples. On the other hand, you can find Christianity and Islam across the globe because the *faith* spread (via colonialism and imperialism), rather than the *people.*
Colonialism is often justified in the name of religion. For example, Spain colonized much of the Americas in the name of Catholicism.
Soft colonialism, also known as cultural imperialism or cultural colonialism, imposes cultural hegemony onto the colonized population; in other words, colonizers chip away at the distinct cultural identity of Indigenous Peoples in favor of the colonizer culture and identity until a difference no longer exists between the colonizer and the colonized. Cultural colonialism can happen via a number of means, including physical violence (e.g. residential schools in Canada and the United States) and missionary work.
Since antiquity, foreign empires have imposed their religions on the Jewish People as a tool to chip away at a distinct Jewish identity. For example, in the second century BCE, the Greek Seleucid Empire sought to Hellenize the Jewish population of Judea, with the aim of removing all distinct elements of Judaism. Following the Bar Kokhba Revolt between 132 CE-135 CE, the Roman Empire built an altar to the Roman god Jupiter over the ruins of the destroyed sacred Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
Since the advent of Christianity, Christians have sought to convert Jews, often by force. For instance, during the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced to choose between conversion to Catholicism, forced displacement, or death. As such, some 200,000-600,000 Jews converted to Christianity under duress, eventually leaving behind all semblance of a distinct Jewish cultural, ethnic, religious, and tribal identity. During the Crusades, Crusaders passing through Central Europe ravaged Jewish communities, sparing only those who converted to Christianity.
During the Arab Conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, Jews were also forcibly converted to Islam. Following Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, the Arab Islamic empires conquered lands exponentially quickly. As a result of this rapid colonization, the Muslim authorities were faced with the “problem” of how to handle the conquered Indigenous Peoples that resisted conversion to Islam.
This “problem” was solved with a treaty known as the Pact of Umar, which allowed select religious and cultural minorities (known as “People of the Book”) to practice their beliefs so long as they paid the “jizya” tax and abided by a set of restrictive, second-class citizenship laws. Though the Pact of Umar “protected” Jewish religious freedom in theory, the reality was much different. For example, the Hakim Edict, constructed by “the mad Caliph” Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (996-1021), coerced Jews into either converting to Islam or exile from Israel-Palestine in 1012 in an act of ethnic cleansing. In order to free themselves from second-class status, minorities under the rule of the Arab Empire had to convert to Islam or fight alongside Muslims in battle. As such, many were also coerced to convert to live a better quality of life.
Some forced conversions to Islam are much more recent. For instance, in 1839, in a pogrom (anti-Jewish massacre) known as the Allahdad, some 2,400 Jews in Mashhad, Iran were forced to convert to Islam with knives held to their throats.
Proselytization is the policy of attempting to convert others to one’s religious or political beliefs. Though proselytization is considered a pillar of many religions and denominations — for example, “spreading the word” is at the core of Evangelical Christianity — many consider proselytization just another form of forced conversion, as proselytizers often employ bribery, coercion, and other violent methods, so much so that proselytization has become illegal in some countries.
Israel, for example, can now ban entry to missionaries who come with the intention to proselytize. Additionally, since 1977, what is known as the “Missionary Law” forbids people from proselytizing others to change their religions “by means of material benefit.” The law also forbids persuading or encouraging minors to change their religions; it’s also illegal to conduct religion change ceremonies for minors without the consent of both parents.
Some Christian groups, particularly 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.
By contrast, Jews don’t proselytize and have not done so for millennia.
In 930 BCE, the Kingdom of Israel split into the Kingdom of Israel to the north and the Kingdom of Judah to the south. In the 720s BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire conquered the northern Kingdom of Israel and exiled most of its residents, save for those who fled south, toward the Kingdom of Judah. Many Levites, for example, survived the invasion by resettling in the Kingdom of Judah. Samaritans, the closest ethnoreligious cousins to Jews, are descended from the survivors of the Assyrian conquest belonging to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. The account of the Neo-Assyrian conquest and exile is supported by both Assyrian and Israelite sources.
For millennia, many religions — Christianity in particular — 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, believe that these tribes long assimilated into the dominant populations and lost their original tribal identities.
Since the 17th century, Christian missionaries have ascribed “lost tribe” origins to a number of Indigenous Peoples across the globe. Mormons, for example, believe that Native Americans and Polynesians are descended from the ancient Israelites. This is offensive to both Jews *and* other tribes for two reasons: (1) Jewish identity is not for Christians to hand out at their whim; and (2) these other tribes have their distinct histories, cultures, and identities and have no need to borrow from someone else’s. Additionally, these “lost tribe” claims are easily debunked by a mountain of evidence: linguistic, historical, archeological, and scientific.
In recent years, many so-called “lost tribes” have sought to “reclaim” their Judaism. The problem is that they were never Jewish in the first place because this supposed “Israelite” identity was something that Christian missionaries made up. Even if these people did have some distant Israelite ancestry, that wouldn’t make them Jews. The “lost tribes” fled from the Kingdom of Israel, not the Kingdom of Judah, which is where the term “Jew” comes from. Additionally, every tribe has different parameters for membership, and according to the Jewish tribe, a small amount of distant Jewish ancestry does not make you Jewish, unless one formally converts to Judaism.
Zionism — as defined by the overwhelming majority of the world’s Jews — is the Jewish movement for self-determination in the ancestral Jewish land, the Land of Israel (Israel-Palestine today). It can also be described as Jewish nationalism. It’s worth noting that self-determination is a basic tenet of international law. The fact that Jews come from the Land of Israel should not be debatable; it is easily proven through 3000+ years’ worth of archeology, DNA science, historical record, and Jewish culture.
Beyond the concept of Jewish self-determination in Israel, you’d be hard pressed to find anything else at all that Zionists agree with. Zionism is a wide movement, ranging from religious Zionism to labor Zionism to green Zionism and many, many others.
Christian Zionism is the belief that the return of Jews to the Land of Israel and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was the fullfilment of a Biblical prophecy. Many Christian Zionists also believe that the gathering of all Jews in Israel is a prerequisite for the Second Coming of Jesus. Jews will then be faced with the choice of converting to Christianity or death.
Christian Zionism has nothing to do with Jewish sovereignty and self-determination in our ancestral land; if anything, it’s quite the opposite, as many Christian Zionists believe Jews must abandon our entire identity and become Christians.
Christian Zionism sees Jews and the State of Israel as a means to an end. It’s an exploitative movement with no regard for Jewish autonomy, sovereignty, identity, safety, or beliefs. As such, Christian Zionism can be considered another form of soft colonialism.
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