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Jewish indigeneity to Israel

A disparaging piece in “Jewish Currents” magazine is deeply troubling for many reasons, most notably because it ignores Jewish and Middle Eastern history from the days of the Bible through World War II.

A bar mitzvah boy reads his Torah portion at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Credit: Peter van der Sluijs via Wikimedia Commons.
A bar mitzvah boy reads his Torah portion at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Credit: Peter van der Sluijs via Wikimedia Commons.
Sarah Levin
Sarah Levin

Late one night as I was falling asleep, I was reading a narrative cartoon from Jewish Currents called “When Settler Becomes Native.”

I was jolted up out of bed when I saw a cartoon image of myself with a quote from a JTA article I wrote about my efforts to ensure Jewish history was included in California’s ethnic-studies program. I asserted that thanks to new material from JIMENA, “Students will not be taught the lie that Jews are somehow foreign interlopers in our ancestral homeland. Instead, students will learn that all Jews are indigenous to Israel.”

The Jewish Currents piece meant to disparage me. But I am very proud of JIMENA’s work on ethnic studies. The Jewish Currents piece, which seeks to deny Jewish indigeneity to the land of Israel, has only deepened my commitment to continue asserting Jewish indigeneity to the land of Israel and the larger Middle East in a variety of contexts.

The piece was deeply troubling for a multitude of reasons, most notably because it ignored Jewish and Middle Eastern history from the days of the Bible through World War II. Instead, it asserted that Mizrahi Jews, and organizations like JIMENA, have “mythologized” a Jewish link to the land of Israel, despite having lived continuously in the region for more than 2,500 years. The article was filled with contradictions, mischaracterizations and cherry-picked definitions of indigeneity, motivated solely by a desire to exclude Jews and Jewish history. My history. Our history.

Issues around indigeneity as a whole are certainly complex. Still, there are specific historical, cultural, geographical and spiritual truths that need to be taken into consideration when exploring Jewish indigeneity to the land of Israel and issues of Middle Eastern indigeneity as a whole.

For thousands of years, the Middle East has been one of the most ethnically and racially diverse corners of the world and is home to a multitude of indigenous communities, including Jews, Bedouin, Copts, Kurds, Shabaks, Tabaris, Samaritans, Assyrians, Yezidis, Chaldeans (the list goes on … ).  The indigeneity of any one of these communities does not negate the indigeneity of another.

Unfortunately, imperialism and colonialism have had a devastating effect on the religious and ethnic diversity of the region. Luckily, many Middle Eastern diaspora communities, like the Jewish people, have clung tightly to their heritages, practices and ways of living that indelibly root them to land and place.

For Jews, it is this rootedness—not vague and ephemeral “ties,” but concrete, ongoing, unbroken practice—that connects us directly to the land of Israel and the Middle East. To deny this is to render it nearly impossible to have an honest conversation on Jewish and Middle Eastern indigeneity.

The Jewish Currents piece, however, arbitrarily defines the term “indigenous” as only applying to those colonized after the 15th century. This is at odds with well-established descriptions and definitions used by the United Nations, Amnesty International and a host of nonprofit organizations working on indigenous-rights issues.

The U.S. does not delineate indigenous groups based on time in a region or when their land was colonized, but instead uses this description: “Indigenous peoples are the holders of unique languages, knowledge systems and beliefs and possess invaluable knowledge of practices for the sustainable management of natural resources. They have a special relation to and use of their traditional land. Their ancestral land has fundamental importance for their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples.”

As we all know, the common language of the Jewish people is Hebrew, passed down to Jewish children from generation to generation as part of their shared patrimony and link to Jewish peoplehood. It is no quirk or historical triviality that young Jews, as part of their rite of initiation into Jewish adulthood, learn Hebrew for their bar and bat mitzvahs.

Hebrew, a Semitic language from the land of Israel closely related to Arabic and Aramaic, dates back to the second millennium BCE and has remained the Jewish liturgical language for more than 2,500 years in the Diaspora, regardless of the foreign lands we’ve lived in. Our language is rooted not only in prayer but in the actual land of Israel, where our Jewish faith was built upon our ancestors’ ecological knowledge of the region.

In so many conversations around Jewish indigeneity, we fail to mention that at its root, Judaism is an earth-based practice that is grounded in strict laws created in Israel to govern agriculture, land management, environmental stewardship and food security. The three Jewish pilgrimage holidays of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot are not just relics of our collective memories; for thousands of years, they have embodied and sustained the core of Jewish practice and ritual and have kept us deeply connected to the land of Israel and to each other.

We would do well to acknowledge and learn how our Jewish ancestors observed these specific holidays as agricultural festivals that celebrated the harvests and natural elements of the land of ancient Israel.

As “wandering Jews,” we’ve rightfully defined ourselves as a people in the diaspora, dispersed from our original homeland and yearning for our ingathering back to our ancestral land. There is no better testament to this than the ancient Passover ritual of echoing the words, “next year in Jerusalem.”

This is not a construct of modern Zionism, but an embedded element of Jewish faith across race, ethnicity and location. It is our 2,500-year-old cry for freedom and self-determination.

Sadly, like many other uprooted indigenous communities, Jews have been forced to live as “others” in lands around the world. In the face of threats ranging from forcible assimilation to violent genocide, we have adapted our earth-based practices to the environments we live in.

We should be proud of these innovations and of the resilience we’ve displayed over generations of efforts to see our people destroyed. But does this mean we should not try to reclaim what’s been lost and forgo our tie to Israel because our exile began before the 15th century? Do they really think that divorcing ourselves from Jewish peoplehood will help solve the Arab-Israeli conflict?

What is most sad is that a Jewish publication seems intent on undermining Jewish self-determination (Zionism), while lifting up the rights of other indigenous groups in their quest for political self-determination. Because let’s be clear: The Jewish Currents piece was not, and scarcely claims to be, about affirming the rights of Palestinians. The piece was exclusively aimed at discrediting the claim that Jews are entitled to our right to self-determination.

Whereas I proudly wrote that “students will not be taught the lie that Jews are somehow foreign interlopers in our ancestral homeland,” the Jewish Currents yearns for a day when students are taught exactly this—that Jews in Israel are invaders, outsiders, foreigners, and, ultimately, expendable.

The piece claims that indigeneity is about “naming power relationships in present-day conflicts.”

If it is serious in this definition, then it must look at the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole. Neither the status nor the history of Jews in the Middle East is reducible solely to a story of powerful Israelis and dispossessed Palestinians.

Erasure and denigration (as “mythology” or as political opportunism) of the realities of Mizrahi history may make for catchy cartoon punchlines, but they betray a fundamental disrespect for the full diversity of the global Jewish community. Our history, our rootedness to the land and our indelible ties to Israel are neither mythology nor opportunism, and we will not stand silent when libeled as foreigners and invaders in the lands that nourished us.

For Jews, like most indigenous groups, the spiritual is political and also ecological, and we should not be afraid to lean into deep connections to the land of Israel. We can do so and uphold the dignity and rights of Palestinians and all other indigenous Middle Eastern peoples.

As so many of us continue to support and identify with the decolonization of Israeli Jews, we should build relationships with other indigenous Middle Eastern communities and support them as they strive for land rights, cultural survival and self-determination. The lessons learned from our successes and failures as a dispersed indigenous group that has been successful in our quest for self-determination can help the world find equitable solutions for oppressed indigenous peoples on every continent, while simultaneously strengthening our collective ability to care for and protect our fragile planet.

Sarah Levin is the executive director of JIMENA: Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, an advocacy and education institution dedicated to advancing the rights and the heritage of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and Iran.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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