the Wandering Jew trope
WHERE WE COME FROM
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 all verified by 3000 years’ worth of archeology and historical record, as well as modern genetic science. An ethnoreligious group is an ethnic group unified by a common religion. In the case of the Jewish People, the religion is Judaism. Much like other Indigenous tribes worldwide, Jewish peoplehood, tribal identity, and religion/spirituality (Judaism) are inextricable from each other.
The term “Jew” itself comes from a physical geographical location, not from a belief system. In Hebrew, “Jew” is “Yehudi(t),” meaning “a person from [the Kingdom of] Yehuda” (“Judah” in English). The Kingdom of Judah (930 BCE-587 BCE) was named after the Tribe of Judah, one of the tribes that previously belonged to the confederation of tribes that formed the united monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel (1047 BCE-930 BCE).
In other words, Judaism and Jewishness are rooted in a physical homeland. This basic historic and cultural fact predates the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by three millennia and shouldn’t be politicized, but unfortunately, it has been.
Jews have been expelled from the Land of Israel at various points throughout history.
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. The account of the Assyrian Captivity is verified by both Jewish and Assyrian sources. According to Assyrian sources, 27,290 Israelites were taken captive.
In 587/586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah and displaced its residents, taken about 25% of Judeans as captives. This account is verified by Jewish and Babylonian sources, as well as archeological excavations. Due to the political upheaval, deportations, and famine, archaeologist Avraham Faust calculates that only about 10% of the population survived in the Land of Israel. In 539 BCE, the Babylonians allowed Jews to return, though many stayed in Babylon.
During the Jewish-Roman Wars (66-73, 115-117, and 132-136), the Romans massacred or took captive some 600,000-million Jews.
During the Byzantine, Arab, and Crusader periods, antisemitic legislation, persecution, and massacres resulted in multiple other displacements. For example, in 1012, Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah decreed that all Jews who refused to convert to Islam were to leave Palestine.
In 1948, Jordan expelled some 40,000 Jews from East Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria (later renamed the West Bank).
Beyond displacement from our ancestral homeland, Jews have survived ethnic cleansing across the globe. For example: between 1290 and 1550, Jews were expelled from England, France, and almost the entirety of Southern and Eastern Europe, often more than once (expulsion followed by readmission followed by another expulsion). For example, Jews were expelled from France at least five times during this period.
Most notably, in 1492 and 1497, respectively, Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. It’s estimated that between 40,000-100,000 Jews fled Spain during this period, with another ~200,000-260,000 either killed or forced to convert to Catholicism under duress. The last time Jews were expelled anywhere in Europe was 1968-1972, during the Polish Political Crisis, when some 20,000 Jews were stripped of their Polish citizenship.
Jewish expulsions were not limited to Europe. In the seventh century, Mohammed expelled two Jewish tribes from the Arabian Peninsula. In 1679, Jews were expelled from Yemen in what is known as the Mawza Exile. In 1683, Jews were expelled from Haiti and all French colonies. In 1862, Jews were expelled from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky.
Between the early 1940s-1970s, nearly a million Jews were expelled from all Arab and Muslim-majority countries.
Though we were forcibly displaced, Jewish culture and identity remained rooted to the Land of Israel for millennia. Even the word “diaspora,” meaning “(1) the dispersion of Jews from the Land of Israel; (2) people settled far from their ancestral homeland,” has Jewish origins.
Like all other Indigenous cultures worldwide, Jewishness is inextricable from the land of our ancestors. The Hebrew calendar, for example, follows the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. Jewish holidays either commemorate events in our collective history or celebrate the Land of Israel. We pray facing Jerusalem. Israel is mentioned 2,507 times in our sacred text, the Tanakh (“Hebrew Bible”). Many of the 613 Mitzvot (“commandments”) can only be completed in the Land of Israel.
Take the ~3000-year-old practice of Shmita (“the Sabbath of the Land”), for instance: on the seventh year of a seven-year agricultural cycle, Jews are mandated to allow the Land of Israel to “rest.” Shmita is only applicable to the Land of Israel; in other words, Jewish farmers in the Diaspora do not partake in this practice.
Throughout millennia of forced displacement, both the Jews in the Land of Israel and the Jews in the Diaspora considered the Jews in the Land of Israel the “torch bearers” of the Nation of Israel. For example: 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.
WANDERING JEW TROPE
The “wandering Jew” trope has its origins in thirteenth century Europe. According to legend, Jews are cursed to wander the earth until the Second Coming of Jesus, stateless, as punishment for “taunting Jesus on the cross.”
The legend varies from place to place and time period to time period, but many historians believe that “Biblical justification” for the legend is found in Matthew 16:28:
“Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
The legend depicts the Wandering Jew as an evil, mythical, immortal creature. Between the 1500s and 1800s, so-called “sightings” of the Wandering Jew were common in Europe and later the Americas. In 1911, historian and folklorist Joseph Jacobs wrote, “It is difficult to tell in any one of these cases how far the story is an entire fiction and how far some ingenious impostor took advantage of the existence of the myth.” Oftentimes, Wandering Jew “sightings” were used as pretext for Christians to go into Jewish quarters to massacre Jews.
In the beginning, the “Wandering Jew” was simply a legend; however, over the centuries, the Wandering Jew morphed into an antisemitic trope and a metaphor for the plight of the Jews, displaced from their homeland and cursed to wander the earth, stateless, until the Second Coming of Jesus.
As mentioned in the previous slide, the Wandering Jew (also known as the “Eternal Jew”) morphed from a legend to an antisemitic trope and metaphor for the plight of the Jews, particularly in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the rise of the “Jewish Question” (the question being: “what should be the fate of Europe’s Jews?”).
In 1852, an antisemitic caricature of the Wandering Jew was first published in a French publication. The caricature depicted the Wandering Jew with “a red cross on his forehead, spindly legs and arms, huge nose and blowing hair, and staff in hand.” In the late 1930s, the Nazis took the image as inspiration for an antisemitic art exhibition called “The Wandering Jew Eternal.” In the 1940s, the Nazis took it a step further with their propaganda film “The Eternal Jew.”
It’s worth noting that Europeans were very much aware of the Jews’ geographic origins; they simply believed that Jews were doomed to statelessness for their “crime” of rejecting Jesus. For millennia, Europeans considered Jews “Oriental,” not European. In the eighteenth century, for example, Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant described Jews in Europe as the “Palestinians living among us.” In the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish businesses in Europe were vandalised with graffiti telling Jews to “go back to Palestine.” It was only until Jews gained statehood in 1948, and particularly after the “anti-Zionist” propaganda campaigns of the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, that antisemites began divorcing Jews from the Land of Israel, now depicting Jews as foreign, European colonizers in the land of our ancestors.
Like all antisemitic tropes and conspiracies rearing their ugly heads today, the Wandering Jew trope is hardly a thing of the past. When Israeli Jews are told to “go back to where we came from” — beyond the racist, anti-Indigenous, and xenophobic phrase — you are dooming us to statelessness, particularly because most Israeli Jews descend from people who were forcibly displaced from Europe and the Muslim and Arab-majority worlds. Where are we supposed to go? Arab and Muslim-majority countries violently stripped us of our citizenship and have no plans of taking any Jews back. The situation in Europe is largely the same; though Spain and Portugal have offered Sephardic Jews citizenship as reparations, the process is nearly impossible to navigate and expensive, with bureaucratic barriers at every turn. The rest of Europe continues to bury its deeply antisemitic past. For example, in Poland, you can be sentenced to three years in prison simply for accusing Poland of complicity during the Holocaust. While Germany has formally signed a reparations agreement with Israel, the vast majority of Holocaust survivors have never received a single cent. The list goes on and on.
Self-determination — the right to sovereignty — is a basic tenet of international law. Believing that Jews and only Jews should not be entitled to this basic right is antisemitic.
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