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The Tribal Case for Israel

Supporting Israel means supporting indigenous rights. Despite the obviousness and the power of this statement, much of the rhetoric used by the pro-Israel community revolve around Israel’s technological innovation, treatment of women and the LGBTQIA+ community, democratic character, and morality.

While accurate, this paradigm is irrelevant to the average college student that supports BDS (the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement) or is inclined to support BDS. For the average college student who supports BDS (or is inclined to), the view of Israel as a “Western” outpost in the Arab Middle East trumps all other considerations. Right or wrong, on today’s college campuses and in the places where the BDS argument has the most traction, people care far more about indigenous rights and justice for the indigenous than they do about almost anything else.

When Zionists declared independence and the return of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, the founding fathers understood that they were making a proclamation of the justice of the Jewish people’s return to sovereignty in their indigenous homeland. That is why Israel’s Declaration of Establishment proclaims:

“Eretz-Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here, their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books. After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.”

This is the original language of Zionism. This is about the Jewish people’s indigenous rights in the land of Israel. This is also about justice; the justice of Zionism. Thus, every chance we get, we need to remind people that Zionism is the first successful indigenous movement of a dispossessed and colonized people regaining sovereignty in their indigenous homeland.

The facts are on our side. Even though it is an oft-repeated mantra of anti-Israel activists that Israel is a “colonial outpost” or a “colonial settler state,” there is indisputable evidence that the Jewish people are indigenous to the Land of Israel. Arabs, in contrast, originated in the Hejaz region of the Arabian Peninsula before they colonized much of the Middle East and Africa at the expense of many different indigenous populations (such as Copts, Yazidis, Assyrians, Amazighs and Jews).

Under the common-sense definition of Indigenous set forth in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the only living people who are uniquely indigenous to the land of Israel are Jews.

The evidence of Jewish indigeneity in the land of Israel is as obvious as the presence of ancient mikvot (ritual baths) and ancient Jewish coins that have been discovered all over Israel, and the Arch of Titus in Rome, which depicts the siege of Jewish Jerusalem.

A relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome Italy, photographed circa 1955. The carving depicts spoils, including the Menorah and the trumpets of Jericho, being carried away from the Temple after the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The arch was built to commemorate the Roman emperor Titus Caesar Augustus, who had been the military commander responsible for the siege. Image by Getty Images

Given all of this archeological evidence and history, why do so many people think that Arabs — who came to the land of Israel over 2000 years after the Jewish people –- are indigenous?

One of the main reasons is that many people, particularly those on the average U.S. or European college campus, are stuck on the European/Colonial paradigm of race. As a result, there is a resistance in many circles to viewing Ashkenazi Jews, who in many instances may look European, as being indigenous to the land of Israel.

Both genetic studies and history demonstrate that the overwhelming majority of the Jews who arrived in “Ashkenaz” (colloquial Hebrew for central Europe in Rabbinic literature) generally settled there as a result of forced migration and deportation at the hands of various European powers, beginning with Rome. But certainly no modern advocate for indigenous rights would contend that being displaced by a colonial entity should cause one to lose their indigenous status.

There is no statute of limitation for indigenous rights. Just as no amount of time can erase the Cherokee people’s claim to their homeland, no amount of time can erase the Jewish connection to the land of Israel. But if we Jews expect other people to acknowledge our indigeneity and to respect our indigenous rights in the land of Israel, then we have to respect them first ourselves. We must de-colonize how we speak about ourselves and our ancestral lands. That means we refer to “Judea and Samaria” and not the “ West Bank .” The “ West Bank ” was the name given by Jordan (ironically a country created out of whole cloth by the stroke of a pen in 1921 by then British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill) to Judea and Samaria after Jordan illegally occupied Judea and Samaria in 1950. It also means that we should never refer to any Jew as “white.” Jews may be Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, Sephardi, Bne Menashe or Beta Yisrael, but we are never “white.”

The entire notion of Ashkenazi Jews as “white people” is relatively new (from a historical perspective) and is also completely detached from history.

Like many indigenous peoples throughout the world, Ashkenazi Jews were the victims of European oppression and violence for centuries, precisely because they were perceived as not being a part of the “white” world, beginning with the Roman colonialism of Judea and continuing through World War II, when 6 million primarily Ashkenazi Jews were murdered.

Of course, many people are familiar with the Nazi propaganda designed to emphasize the “non-whiteness” of Jews. But the Germans in the 1930’s were certainly not original with their depiction of Jews as being non-“white.”

In one 1275 AD depiction, of Jesus being brought before the Jewish High Priest , the only one who (somehow) looks “European” is Jesus, while all of the other Jews are depicted with exaggerated and swarthy Semitic features.

Even Michelangelo’s depictions of Jews replicated and reinforced what all of Europe had made clear to Jews for centuries: that Jews were the “other;” that Jews were not European. Even the Nazi concept of “pure Aryan blood,” was recycled pseudo-science dating all the way back to at least 1449 when the Spanish and the Portuguese legalized and institutionalized the idea of Limpieza de sangre (Spanish for “cleanliness of blood”), whereby in order to qualify for certain jobs, to serve in the army, or to even be allowed to immigrate to the Americas, one had to prove they came from “pure” Christian blood, even if their parents or grandparents had converted to Christianity.

That is why when the Nazis depicted Jews in the grotesque way that they did, much of Europe was receptive; as it was well understood and ingrained in the fiber and history of Europe that the exiled tribe of Semites among them (Jews), who were brought to Europe in chains, and subject to institutional discrimination and oppression everywhere they went, were never European, never “white.”

For thousands of years, including nearly 2,000 years during which the majority of Jewish people lived without the protection or comfort of having a sovereign Jewish homeland, Jews maintained their indigenous culture, passing on their traditions, language, and sacred texts. And for over 1,900 years after the Jewish people were forcibly exiled out of the land of Israel and into other nations, including in Europe, Jews were subjected to brutal and oppressive institutional racism based on their ethnicity, tribal affiliation, culture and faith.

Yet one of the principle objections that most people in America, including many American Jews, have to the notion that Jews are not “white,” is that most American Jews are Ashkenazi, and therefore, many “look white.”

But Jewish “whiteness” or the notion of “white Jews” is a relatively recent phenomenon. At the time of the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 Jews were not considered “White” as a matter of law (see, Shaare Tefila Congregation v. Cobb, (1987) 481 U.S. 615). For about 50 years following the Civil War, almost 40 million immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe immigrated to the United States. Fearing the change to America that was ostensibly being caused by this immigration, the U.S. Congress enacted the Johnson Immigration Act in 1924, setting very restrictive quotas for immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe, including those of the “Hebrew race,” which is what was stamped on the immigration papers of many Jews who arrived in the U.S. before 1924.

By 1952, when the McCarran-Walters Act overturned the discriminatory quotas of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, the American view of racial classifications and where (primarily Ashkenazi) Jews fit had changed considerably and many different groups in America -– including Jews -– were consolidated into a monolithic category of “Caucasian” whiteness.

In highly racialized America, there has always been a benefit to being a person who could “pass.” But that benefit, while certainly real, does not make the person who can pass “white.” There can be no denying that the Jewish people are a separate people as genetically connected to the Land of Israel as the African Diaspora is to Africa. While many Jewish groups look different, often sharing characteristics of their surrounding populations, Jewish genetics link the Jewish communities of North America and Europe to most Sephardic Jews, Mizrahi Jews, and India’s Cochin Jews, as well as to the land of Israel.

Moreover, the very idea of a “white race” was itself a fiction created by the same people who oppressed and persecuted Jews for centuries; and that alone is a good reason for Jews not to embrace it.

So as Zionists, seeking to support Israel, to fight the anti-Semitic BDS as well as the demonization and delegitimization of Israel on most college campuses, we should disclaim the relatively recent notion that Ashkenazi Jews (or any Jews for that matter) are “white,” let alone “colonizers” in the Jews’ indigenous homeland. We should revel in the justice of Zionism and proudly echo the words of Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann, on February 14, 1949 during the opening of the first session of Israel’s parliament (Knesset) after Israel won its War of Independence:

“Today we stand on the threshold of a new era. We leave the dawn light of provisional authority and enter the full sunshine of ordinary democratic rule … Let us not be over-arrogant if we say that this is a great day in the history of the world. In this hour a message of hope and good cheer goes forth from this place in the Sacred City to all oppressed people and to all who are struggling for freedom and equality.”

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