What, exactly, does it mean to be an Indigenous Person? From the moment human beings became sedentary some 12,000 years ago, all humans lived as Indigenous Peoples. We cultivated deep relationships with the land upon which we were rooted, communally, tribally, agriculturally, spiritually, culturally, and more. For a multitude of reasons, including conquest, colonialism, imperialism, cultural homogenization, and the spread and imposition of universalizing religions, somewhere along the line, however, these relationships were severed. As such, no more than 5 percent of the human population today qualifies as “Indigenous.”
Everyone comes from somewhere(s), but not everyone qualifies as Indigenous. Indigeneity has a specific, internationally-agreed upon definition. This definition was coined by the Indigenous-led United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. This definition took decades to compile, beginning with the first meeting of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982, and was not finalized until 2009.
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.
Jews check off every single one of these points, as I address in my posts JEWS & INDIGENEITY (a conversation with Native Jews), WHEN JEWS BECAME JEWS, THE POWER ARGUMENT, and more.
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.
Jews, as most other (but not all) Indigenous Peoples, have been colonized and displaced. This has happened not only once, but many times over, most significantly during: (1) the Babylonian Exile (587/586 BCE); (2) the Jewish Revolts against the Roman Empire (70 CE and 135 CE); and (3) under the Arab Caliphates, most significantly, in 1012, when Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (996-1021) coerced Jews into either converting to Islam or exile from the Land of Israel/Palestine. Up until the Arab conquest in the seventh century, Jews remained the majority population in the Land of Israel. It wasn’t until the ninth century, under Arab rule, that the population of Palestine became predominantly Muslim. It’s worth noting that there is only one recorded mass conversion to Islam in Palestine, which took place along Samaritans, not Jews. In other words, the majority of Jews were almost certainly forcibly displaced.
Through Judaism (translation: “Jew-hood”), Jews miraculously preserved an astounding amount of our Indigenous culture, even while in exile. However, it’s inevitable that, with the passing of time, our understanding of our Indigeneity dimmed. The idea that Jews are a “religious group” is a fairly recent one and dates back to the aftermath of the French Revolution (1789-1799).
In the decades that followed, Jews living under the reign of Napoleon were finally officially granted freedom and security to live as Jews under one major condition: Jews could no longer exist as a distinct cultural and ethnic minority but instead were forced to assimilate into French society as French citizens.
Antisemitism is known as the “world’s oldest hatred” for a reason. It is a 3000-year-old bigotry and it long predates almost everything that we recognize about our world today: Western society, Christianity, Islam, the Arab world, European and Arab colonialism, and more. It is the building block of white supremacy because it predates virtually every other form of bigotry.
Our world would not exist as it is today without antisemitism.
For as long as antisemitism has existed, so have our oppressors worked to erase our ties to our ancestral land that lives at the core of our very identity as a people (after all, it is no coincidence that we call ourselves the “People of Israel”). The Babylonians stripped our language, which we call “lashon ha-kodesh,” or the “language of holiness,” from us, thus chipping away at our very identity, little by little (see my post JEWS & LINGUICIDE for more on this). The Greeks imposed their culture on us, placing their deities inside our Temple and sponsoring the first ever translation of the Tanakh, paving the way for two millennia of mistranslations and misunderstandings. When the Jews revolted against the Roman occupation of our ancestral land between 132 CE-135 CE, the Romans punished us by dissolving the province of Judea (as in “Jews”) and establishing another in its place: Syria-Palestina. They built a Temple to Jupiter atop the ruins of our own Temple. Beginning in 688, the Arabs constructed the Dome of the Rock and later the al-Aqsa Mosque atop the ruins of the destroyed sacred Jewish Temple.
There is something deeply bigoted about denying a marginalized minority its history, particularly by erasing it in favor of the history of the colonizer. As such, denying Jewish history — history that is among the most extensively recorded and corroborated in the world — is antisemitic. But this antisemitism is so deeply embedded into the very structure of our world that most — including many Jews — cannot even begin to see it. If we were to imagine society as an onion, antisemitism is at its very core, and most of us have not even begun to peel its layers.
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.
And yet, many argue that Judaism is the “foundation” or “building block” for Christianity and Islam. But to Jews, Judaism is not the foundation for anyone else; Judaism is complete and needs no other religion to complete it.
The idea that Judaism should be a building block for someone else only makes sense if Judaism is framed through the lens of Christianity and Islam. In fact, this is the lens through which dhimmitude (second-class citizenship) was justified in Muslim-ruled countries for nearly 1,500 years. Jews were “People of the Book,” but they were not Muslim, and as such, they were subject to oppressive laws.
Judaism should only be framed through Judaism, not through the eyes of our historic oppressors. Had our ancestors contributed to consensually gifted the Tanakh to Christians and Muslims, then the foundation metaphor would make sense. But we didn’t. Instead, the Tanakh was mistranslated, misappropriated, and used as justification to murder us for millennia.
I suspect that much of the world’s resistance to understanding Jews as Indigenous Peoples is that, if that is the case, then both the Christian and Muslim world will have to come to terms with the fact that their entire foundation was violently appropriated from an Indigenous tribe.
While Jews had self-identified as “Indigenous” in the United Nations since the 1940s, the characterization of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict as a “colonizer vs Indigenous” narrative is relatively recent, dating back to the 1990s.
In the 1970s, anti-colonial movements spread throughout Africa, where the last nations still plagued by European colonialism fought for independence. The Soviet Union, interested in spreading its sphere of influence, as well as looking to secure the support of Africa in the United Nations, disseminated propaganda equating the plight of Palestinians to the plight of Indigenous Africans seeking sovereignty. For example, the Soviet Union ensured that Palestine was included in UN Resolution 3246, which was a resolution condemning Portuguese colonialism in Africa (needless to say, Palestine was/is neither a Portuguese colony or in Africa).
The Soviet Union was an empire that destroyed a plethora of Indigenous peoples. In fact, the Russian treatment of Indigenous Siberians is often compared to the American treatment of Natives. That the Soviet Union presented itself as a moral warrior for Indigenous self-determination of any kind is laughable.
And yet: the propaganda stuck.
Both early Palestinian nationalists in the interwar period between the two World Wars and the Palestine Liberation Organization in its 1968 Charter proclaimed that Palestine was an “Arab” nation. This is important to mention because Palestine was Arabized through imperial conquest, so the settler colonial-Indigenous framework depicting Jews as settlers is ahistorical on a number of levels. For more, I recommend my post JEWS & INDIGENEITY: A CONVERSATION WITH NATIVE JEWS, THE ARAB COLONIZATION OF THE LEVANT, and my INDIGENEITY 1, 2, 3 & 4 highlights. I also recommend the slide on decolonization in my post THE INTERSECTION OF LATINIDAD & JEWISHNESS: MY EXPERIENCE.
Antisemitism transmits through conspiracy theories and recycled tropes. Perhaps the most prevalent among these tropes is that Jews are all-powerful, responsible for just about any calamity on earth. When framed through the lens of colonizer vs. native, it only makes sense that a deeply antisemitic world would ascribe the role of the colonizer to the supposedly all-powerful, scheming Jews, even when history, archeology, genetics, linguistics, and more tell us the exact opposite.
Being that Jews have long been the perfect scapegoat, antisemitism has a long pattern of ascribing whichever characteristics are least desirable in any particular society to Jews. For example, in Nazi Germany, Jews were conflated with communists. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Jews were charged with the crimes of capitalism and American imperialism.
Likewise, for millennia in Europe, it was well-understood that the Jewish People were an “Oriental” ethnic group native to Palestine. In the Middle Ages, Europeans believed all Asiatic peoples — including Jews — descended from Shem (where the term “Semite” comes from), one of the sons of Noah. By the 19th century, Europeans believed that Jews were members of a distinct “Semitic” race (the word “Semitic,” of course, comes from the Afroasiatic branch of languages known as Semitic languages, which include Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic).
In the 18th century, Jews in Europe were commonly referred to as “the Palestinians living among us.” Time and time again, Jews were told to “go back to Palestine.” And yet, now, in a post-colonial world, antisemites on the political left see Jews as colonizers in our ancestral land. Once again, antisemitism tends to ascribe whichever qualities are least desirable to Jews. Among those who consider colonialism a grave sin, Jews are colonizers. Among those who see Indigenous Peoples as inferior — such as white supremacists — Jews continue to be a “non-white” people from the Land of Israel (as evidenced by the “white replacement” and “white genocide” white supremacist antisemitic conspiracies).
Internalized antisemitism shows up in a multitude of ways. It’s only natural that, after over 2000 years of systemic persecution, genocide, ethnic cleansing, displacement, and every other unimaginable form of violence, we as Jews have deeply internalized antisemitic attitudes and beliefs.
Among these attitudes, I think, is the belief that we, for some reason, do not deserve the same considerations as other marginalized groups. From my observations, many of us would never feel as comfortable downplaying the identity and history of others as we feel downplaying our own (obviously, no community is a monolith, and there are plenty of bigoted Jews out there).
There is a long, long history of Jews trying to appease their oppressors — from the Hellenized Jews during the Greek occupation to the Yevsetskiya in the Soviet Union and the Association of German National Jews in Nazi Germany — and this continues to this day. Even for those of us who are not interested in appeasing the non-Jewish world, we sometimes feel that we must water down our history or our very identity. In recent months, for example, I’ve received a plethora of messages from Ashkenazi Jews who are afraid to nurture their ancestral connection to the Land of Israel. This, of course, stems from an internalization of antisemitic lies and conspiracies, such as the Khazar Theory. If there was ever any doubt that Ashkenazi Jews come from the Land of Israel, a mountain of genetic studies should have long put those doubts to rest.
History clearly shows us that attempting to appease others never ends well. During Stalin’s Great Purge in the 1930s, virtually all members of the Yevsetskiya were arrested and executed. In 1935, the Nazis dissolved the pro-Hitler Association of German National Jews and its leader was deported to Dachau concentration camp.
No matter how tempting it might be to downplay our identity for the sake of others, I think we deserve to connect with every part of our peoplehood, even the parts that make the rest of the world uncomfortable. They’re never going to accept us anyway, so the very least we can do is accept ourselves.
What is decolonization? If, as my friend @mahrinah explains, colonization is “when an outside invading group imposes their cultural/religious/linguistic/social norms from the land they come from onto a group in a place,” then decolonization can be described as the following: “the act of stripping off the layers of influence of outside forces within one’s culture, as that culture has been subjected to colonization.”
We’ve miraculously retained our sovereignty for the first time in 2500 years. We’ve miraculously revived our ancestral language, a feat that has inspired other Indigenous Peoples, such as the Sámi, who’ve studied the revival of Hebrew in their quest to revive their own ancestral tongue. Half of us live in a country that follows the Hebrew calendar, celebrates ancient Israelite harvest festivals, and has its street signs in the language of our ancestors. Every day, we make new archeological discoveries in Israel that tell us more and more about where we come from as a people. But we still have a long way to go.
Though about 89-97% of Jews say that Israel is important to their Judaism, we still have a very limited understanding of our own Indigeneity. Most of us have grown up with a vague notion that Jews are “from” the Land of Israel, though we’ve understood very little of what that means through the frame of Indigeneity. It makes sense, since not only were we violently uprooted many times over, but the assimilationist policies of Napoleon and post-French Revolution Europe fundamentally shifted how Jews understood their peoplehood and their identity.
I’m always learning, always making deeper connections, and always growing in my understanding. It’s been a long process that has taken a lot of hard work, research, and self-reflection. I am by no means an expert on Indigeneity, and I still have a long way to go. I view this relationship with the land of my ancestors and my people as something that I have to continuously cultivate. Though difficult, this process has been incredibly healing for me, and I hope that it will be for you too.
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