what is Indigeneity and how does it apply to Jews? & why does it matter?

self-identification as Indigenous peoples

"As the Indigenous population of Palestine, we demand the restitution of our rights…and the opening of the gates to all Jews in need of a home, whether from East or West…To impose upon Palestine a permanent Jewish minority is to add insult to injury.”

-- Eliahu Eliahar, “Palestinian Jew,” United Nations, 1947.

Jewish peoplehood long predates the word “Indigenous.” In fact, usage of the term “Indigenous” outside of the context of the Indigenous populations of the Americas was very rare until the 1970s. Jewish representatives to the United Nations used the term to describe ourselves as early as 1947. For reference, the United Nations was established in 1945.

For 3000 years, however, Jews have self-identified as the People of Israel and/or the Nation of Israel, the implication being, of course, that we are the people of the land.

If you struggle to understand all Jews as Indigenous to the Land of Israel, think of it this way: there has been a continuous Jewish presence in the land for the past 3000 years. You would likely agree that those Jews whose ancestors continuously lived in the Land of Israel (i.e. “Palestinian Jews,” as anti-Zionists claim) are Indigenous, correct? Well, those Indigenous Jews very much regarded the Jews of the Diaspora as members of the same tribal nation, who had unfortunately been displaced as a result of colonization, and they anxiously awaited their return. As Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Palestine Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel stated: “We all desire that the in gathering of the exiles should take place from all areas where they have been scattered…”

The concept of Indigenous autonomy is such that tribal nations get to define their own membership. If you agree that “Palestinian Jews” are an Indigenous population, and they themselves considered all exiled Jews to form a part of the same tribal nation, who are you to say otherwise?


historical continuity with pre-colonial & pre-settler societies

"Jews are the only people who ever created a nation state there. At all other times in the past 3,000 years it was merely an administrative district in an empire whose centre was elsewhere: the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Alexandrian, Roman and Byzantine empires, the Crusaders of the Holy Roman Empire, the various Muslim empires such as the Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Mamluks and Ottomans, and finally the British. Jews are the only people who have maintained a continuous presence in the land. They are its indigenous, original inhabitants."

-- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020), United Kingdom Chief Rabbi.

The ethnogenesis of the Jewish People, our tribal identity and nationhood, and our cultural and spiritual practices predate the imperial conquests and colonial administrations of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the various Arab empires, the Ottomans, and the British.

Our identity and peoplehood were born out of the land, 3000 years ago.


strong link to territories & surrounding natural resources

“Who can challenge the rights of the Jews in Palestine? Good Lord, historically it is really your country.”

-- Yusuf al-Khalidi, the Arab mayor of Jerusalem, 1899.

Judaism and Jewish culture cannot be practiced in their entirety outside of the Land of Israel. Let’s back up a little bit.

The concept among Indigenous Peoples 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.

Similarly, the Hebrew God states in the Torah: “to your descendants I have given this land [the Land of Israel]...” Rabbinic Judaism surmises that God had set the Land of Israel aside for the Jewish People during the time of Creation.

The two main pillars of Jewish identity are the following: (1) reverence for the Land of Israel, and (2) monotheism. But around 20 percent of Jews are atheist or agnostic. On the other hand, the term “Jew” quite literally translates to “someone from the Kingdom of Judah,” one of the two Israelite kingdoms.

The centrality of the Land of Israel in Jewish culture is everywhere: most of our holidays celebrate the harvest of the land in one form or another, the Hebrew calendar follows the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel, our spiritual and cultural symbolism is very intrinsically tied to the harvest of the land, agricultural practices such as Shmita apply to Israel and to Israel alone, many of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel, we pray facing Jerusalem, and many more. The Land of Israel is not only central to Judaism and Jewish peoplehood; it’s its very lifeline.


distinct social, economic, or political systems

“Jews have an aristocracy. An aristocracy, however, without castles, but with titles, privileges, duties and restrictions…For Jews, these aristocrats are the Kohanim, the priests who once served in the Temple of Jerusalem.”

-- Lorne Elkin Rozovsky.

Not only do Jews have distinct social, economic, and political systems, but these systems are thousands of years old, predating both the foreign conquests of the Land of Israel and our exile.

Most notably, Jews have a priestly caste, known as Kohanim. Kohanim are not to be confused with rabbis; while rabbi translates to something not unlike “teacher,” Kohen status is inherited, passed down from generation to generation. Kohanim served in the days of the Temple; yet, ever since its destruction, Kohanim, as well as Levites, continue to carry with them special duties, restrictions, and responsibilities. For example, Kohanim are called first to the Torah during a service.

Jewish courts, known as a beit din, also are thousands of years old, predating our colonization and exile. In ancient times, a beit din was the main legal structure preceding over the Land of Israel. Today a beit din rules over a number of matters, including monetary issues, divorces, conversions, determination of one’s Jewish status, Kosher certifications, and much more.

Jewish laws over land and harvest have existed continuously for some 3000 years. An example would be that of the practice of Shmita: the Torah mandates that Israelites follow a seven-year agricultural cycle. Just like God commands that we rest on the seventh day of the week, Jews believe that we have been entrusted with a special responsibility to our Indigenous land. As such, the earth, too, deserves to rest. During the seventh year of the agricultural cycle, the land is left un-farmed to allow for it to rest and recover. Beyond the agricultural elements of Shmita, all interpersonal loans are also forgiven. The agricultural elements of Shmita apply only to the Land of Israel; this is because we only have stewardship over our ancestral land.


distinct language, culture, & beliefs

“We are tempted, of course, to translate [Ioudaïsmós] as ‘Judaism,’ but this translation is too narrow, because in this first occurrence of the term, Ioudaïsmós has not yet been reduced to the designation of a religion. It means rather ‘the aggregate of all those characteristics that makes Jews Jewish.’”

-- Rabbi Shaye J. D. Cohen.

Hebrew is the ancestral language of the Jewish People and the Samaritan People, our closest ethnoreligious cousins. It’s also the only Canaanite language still spoken to this day.

The word “Judaism” does not necessarily translate to a religious practice, but rather, to all of the characteristics that encompass Jewish culture as a whole. Of course, Jewish culture — such as holidays, language, the calendar, social systems, dress and spiritual regalia, and much more — is very inextricably linked with Jewish spirituality, which is something that very many Indigenous nations also have in common.

Finally we also do have a distinct spiritual framework or religion, known as Judaism. Judaism is the ethnic religion of the Jewish People. An ethnic religion is a practiced by a specific ethnic group, whereas a universalizing religion is a religion that transcends tribal, ethnic, and national identity, such as Christianity and Islam. Judaism is a closed practice, open only to those who form a part of the Jewish tribe.


non-dominant groups of society

This one is tricky because what does or does not constitute a society is rather arbitrary. Borders, too, are arbitrary and constantly changing, and modern nation states are just that: a modern phenomena. Indigenous tribal nations are much, much older, and Jews are no exception.

Nevertheless, Jews are indisputably a minority in the world as a whole, constituting only 0.2 percent of the world population. In the Middle East, we form no more than 0.1 percent of the population. In the Levant, the region in which Israel is located, we form less than 16 percent of the population. Even within Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the Palestinian population is now larger.

Many tribes who are indisputably Indigenous also form the majority of the population in their respective countries. For example: 89.5 percent of Greenland is Inuit. Nor are Jews the only Indigenous group to retain sovereignty over their ancestral land. Others include Fijians (1970), Papuans (1949), and many more.

It’s worth noting that member states of groups such as the United Nations have a vested interest in suppressing Indigenous nations. Other non-governmental organizations omit this part of the definition entirely; for example, the World Health Organization defines Indigenous Peoples as the following: “communities that live within, or are attached to, geographically distinct traditional habitats or ancestral territories, and who identify themselves as being part of a distinct cultural group, descended from groups present in the area before modern states were created and current borders defined. They generally maintain cultural and social identities, and social, economic, cultural and political institutions, separate from the mainstream or dominant society or culture.”


resolve to maintain & reproduce ancestral environments & systems as distinctive People & communities 

"We all desire that the in gathering of the exiles should take place from all areas where they have been scattered; and that our holy language will be upon our lips and upon the lips of our children, in building the Land and its flowering through the hands and work of Israel; and we will all strive to see the flag of freedom and redemption waving in glory and strength upon the walls of Jerusalem.”

-- Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, “Palestinian Jew,” Sephardi chief rabbi of Palestine (1939-1953).

This one should be a no-brainer: Jewishness is passed down, irrespective of whether the person believes in Judaism or not. Though most Jews practice matrilineal descent, some Jewish movements, such as Reform Judaism, accept patrilineal descent, and some Jewish sub-ethnic groups have traditionally done so as well, such as Karaite Jews and Ethiopian Jews.

The desire to maintain or retain our sovereignty and our ancestral environment and systems evident over and over again in Jewish history: from the Return to Zion (539 BCE) from which the term Zionism is derived to the Maccabean Revolt (167-141 BCE) to the Jewish-Roman wars (66-135 CE), to the Sassanian conquest of Jerusalem (614-617), to the efforts of the false messiah Shabbtai Tzvi (1600s) to thousands of Aliyot over the millennia to the modern political Zionist movement, among many others.

Efforts to revive the Hebrew language as an everyday tongue date back to the second century with Simon Bar Kokhba, a dream that was finally realized in the twentieth century. For thousands of years Jews refused conversion to Islam and Christianity under all sorts of duress. We resisted assimilation over 2000 years of exile, because the future and continuation of the Jewish People and our way of life is important to us.



“Listen, the Palestinians are always coming here and saying to me, ‘You expelled the French and the Americans. How do we expel the Jews?’ I tell them that the French went back to France and the Americans to America. But the Jews have nowhere to go. You will not expel them.”

-- Vietnamese general and communist politician Võ Nguyên Giáp (1911-2013).

Many people seem to misconstrue the discussion on Jewish Indigeneity to mean that we are advocating for the removal of Palestinians from the Land of Israel. That’s a position held only by extremist bigots. While only 5 percent of the world is Indigenous, 100 percent of the world is entitled to human rights, as well as self-determination, which is considered a basic tenet of international law.

The recognition of Jewish Indigeneity is important for a few reasons: (1) the root of the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is the Arab rejectionism of autonomous Jews in any part of the land. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, numerous suggestions for a binational state were put forth, and the Arabs rejected all of them. In 1939, the British offered the Arabs virtually everything they asked for save for the expulsion of Jews; the Arabs rejected this as well. If we keep working off the premise that Jews are a foreign settler population, we are working off the premise that, like all colonizers, we will one day leave. This premise is what enables Palestinian leadership to forego any sensible solution because the primary goal is not a sovereign Palestinian state, but rather, no Jewish state. Recognizing Jewish Indigeneity means recognizing our historical and ancestral claim to the land. We are not going anywhere.

(2) as a people colonized many times over, much of our understanding of our identity has been clouded by the manner in which our colonizers and oppressors defined us. Even the understanding of Jews as a religious group was an imposition put forth by Napoleon in the eighteenth century. We have a right to see ourselves and our peoplehood as was defined by our ancestors, not our oppressors. I believe that this is truly crucial in healing thousands of years’ worth of intergenerational trauma.

(3) the idea that Indigenous Peoples can lose their Indigenous status after being forcefully displaced by colonizers sets an incredibly dangerous precedent for Indigenous Peoples across the world. The idea that a colonizer can suddenly become Indigenous after colonizing the Indigenous population for long enough also sets a very dangerous precedent.

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