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Jews as an Indigenous People

Marc Daalder
August 28, 2017


by Marc Daalder

AMONG ALL the indigenous peoples of the world, the Jewish people have a unique tale. Suffering displacement from their ancestral land twice (the Babylonian captivity in 597 BCE and the diaspora from 135 CE), Jews nonetheless succeeded in retaining their cultural connections to the Land of Israel and returning to it, achieving sovereignty once more in 1948.

The question of Jewish indigeneity has regularly been raised throughout the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestinian advocates repeatedly assert that only Palestinians are indigenous to the land, while Israeli advocates argue the same for Jews. (Somehow, both groups seem to forget the Bedouin, who have perhaps the strongest indigenous claim.)

As argued by Matthew Gindin in a recent article in the Forward, however, both Palestinians and Israelis (and Bedouin) are indigenous to the land. That Abraham originally came to Israel from Mesopotamia and that the Palestinians first came to the land from the Arabian Peninsula matters not. “All people throughout the world,” writes Gindin, “ultimately come from somewhere else. What makes a people indigenous to a place is their having become a people in that land, and having all the earmarks of a unique culture associated with that place.”

Throughout nearly 2,000 years of diaspora, Jews across the world retained their cultural connections to the Land of Israel. “Next year in Jerusalem!” rang across seder tables in dozens of different languages and locales, from Spain to the Pale of Settlement, to Iran, to Argentina. For that matter, numerous genetic studies have found similarities between the whitest of Ashkenazi Jews and the people of the Levant. Jews are undeniably indigenous to Israel.

What should this mean? If Jewish indigeneity is supposed to be anything more than a cheap shot in the public opinion war over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jews in Israel and the diaspora should step up to the plate and shoulder the burden of indigenous solidarity. We are one of the few indigenous groups that has achieved not just sovereignty but also genuine statehood. Yet the indigenous people of the world do not look to us because we’ve failed to reach out to them.

IN SETTLER-colonial territories, indigenous people struggle to gain equal rights, let alone reparations for historical grievances. In Australia, for example, aboriginal people suffer from disproportionate suicide rates and other public health crises. The average life expectancy for non-indigenous Australians is a full decade longer than for indigenous people. In the education and employment sectors, half as many aboriginal Australians had a high school degree, and 24 times as many youths were incarcerated. Almost one in five indigenous Australians lives below the poverty line.

(The Australian Aborigine League nevertheless led a protest against antisemitism after the Nazis’ nationwide Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938, marching on the German consulate in Melbourne!)

Poverty and oppression are not phenomena reserved for indigenous people in Australia. In the United States, Native Americans graduate from high school at half the national average rate and faced an 11 percent unemployment rate in 2013, when the white unemployment rate was under seven percent. One in four Native Americans lives in poverty. In Canada, more than 1,000 First Nations women have disappeared in recent years, often as victims of crime. In Aotearoa New Zealand, Māori people are six times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Māori.

Jews face next to none of these problems in their homeland, Israel. We are far more privileged even than other indigenous people who have attained national sovereignty. Israel ranks 55th in GDP per capita, whereas Pasifika states like Fiji, Samoa, and Kiribati rank 142nd, 166th, and 209th, respectively. According to the World Health Organization, Israel ranks 8th in average life expectancy, whereas the aforementioned Pacific Island states rank 113th, 86th, and 131st.

Clearly, there are many important and varied challenges facing indigenous people the world over. Jews have been fortunate in what we have achieved, in part because we have not been subjected to quite the same colonialist and imperialist attitudes that mark Western interactions with indigenous people. Nonetheless, if we are to seriously embrace our identities as an indigenous people, we must commit ourselves to helping those without our privilege.

This is not to say that indigenous people have been waiting around for us to step up to the plate. For decades, if not centuries, they’ve been fighting for their rights and launching new initiatives. Educating ourselves about these struggles and offering our support to those in our own backyard is perhaps the most immediate way to help.

IN AUSTRALIA, aboriginal leaders have called for their own representative body in the Australian government. Contacting the campaign that will spring from this is an important step for Australian Jews. In the United States, Jews should contact local Native American organizations -- because the cultural diversity of indigenous Americans is so great, there aren’t many national groups to work with. Issues like budget cuts under Trump are galvanizing Native Americans right now. There are also local movements with national presences, like Standing Rock, that Jews can (and have) worked with.

Similarly, in Canada, First Nations people identify primarily at the tribal level (Mohawk, Oneida, etc.), and this is the best way to contact and engage in concrete activism. Jews in Mexico, meanwhile, should celebrate the reengagement of indigenous Zapatista people with electoral politics, and seriously study the policies of their female candidate, Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez.

If you live in a part of the diaspora without a local indigenous population, there are numerous campaigns of national and international significance that you can support. All of those mentioned above, from Australia to Mexico, are solid examples. There is also the Indonesian occupation of and genocide in West Papua -- an issue of great importance in the Pacific region. In Europe, the legacy of overseas colonialism still permeates local cultures -- working with displaced peoples and with aid organizations in former colonies is a good way for European Jews to engage in indigenous solidarity.

Indigenous people throughout the world are struggling against colonialism, settlement, and discrimination. Although they do not need our help to triumph in their fight, it is our duty as fellow indigenous people to reach out to them in solidarity and help them to succeed where we, too, once endeavored for liberation and sovereignty.

Marc Daalder is a student at Amherst and a journalist who has written on Jewish issues for the Jewish Daily Forward, where he’s a Scribe contributor, New Voices magazine, and In These Times, among others.