Jason Harris
Creator & Host, Jew Oughta Know

Are Jews indigenous to Israel? Yes.

Photo source: Jason Harris personal photograph

In a tweet that went viral on July 7, Rabbi Andrue Kahn, Assistant Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, declared, “Let me say this as plainly as possible: Jews are not an indigenous people.” He’s wrong.

The full tweet reads: “Let me say this as plainly as possible: Jews are not an indigenous people. It is appropriative to make use of this word when referring to our relationship to the land of Israel, and it undermines the difficult work being done to fix the ongoing oppression of indigenous peoples.”

There is plenty of nuance in the variety of definitions of “indigenous” that one can employ. But in summarily dismissing Jewish indigenousness, Rabbi Kahn erased the history and experiences of roughly one-third of global Jewry: the Mizrahi – Jews of Middle Eastern origin – who never left the region in the first place. Today they make up more than half of the Jewish population of Israel. And, indeed, experienced their own oppression under Arab rule.

As I explained in my most recent Jew Oughta Know podcast episode, we can look at the big-picture of Israel and Zionism in two ways. The first is that Zionism and the creation of Israel were European Jewish projects that the Mizrahi Jews joined later, after the state was already established in the Middle East. That narrative situates the Ashkenazi Jews, the Jews of European descent, as the main players. But we could also tell the story in a different way: that Israel, a Middle Eastern country, is another chapter in the very long history of the Jews in this part of the world. These Jews never left the Middle East in the first place. This narrative puts the Mizrahi Jews front and center, with the Ashkenazi only joining later after a centuries-long absence.

Rabbi Kahn seems to be subscribing to the first narrative. It’s a version of Ashkenazi-centric history I often hear: Yes, Jews lived in what is today Israel two thousand years ago. But then they went to Europe, and suddenly came back in 1948 to start Israel, forcibly replacing the Palestinians who lived there. Israel is a settler-colonial project of white Europeans who have no business being there just because their Jewish ancestors lived there two millennium ago.

That narrative is fundamentally incorrect because it misses a key point: while some Jews did end up in Europe, many other Jews never left. They’ve been in the Middle East, and today’s Israel, the whole time! Let me explain.

Around the year 1200 BCE the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah recorded conquering a people he called “Israel.”. For the next 700 years the Israelites dwelled in what is today the State of Israel, the West Bank, and parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. This was the era of the First Temple in Jerusalem. In the 6th century BCE a portion of the population was exiled to Babylon, in present-day Iraq. Many of them returned to the Land of Israel 60 years later and rebuilt the Temple — now known as the Second Temple. It was sometime around then that the people known as “Israelites” became known as “Jews.”

Fast forward to the first century of the Common Era, when Rome sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Second Temple. What the mistaken narrative gets wrong is equating the Roman conquest with the disappearance of the Jews from Israel (back then called Judea). In fact, the Jews lost sovereignty in Israel when the Romans conquered it. But that doesn’t mean all the Jews left. In fact, Jews remained the majority in the Land of Israel for another 400 years, until they were supplanted by the Christians at some point probably in the 5th century. Although there were times when Jews were exiled from one city or another (Jerusalem, Tiberias, etc), they always returned. While the total Jewish population varied from a few thousand to several hundred thousand, there has never been a time in the last 2,000 years when Jews were completely gone from the historic land of Palestine.

Since around 1200 BCE up to today, Jews/Israelites have been a continuous presence in the Land of Israel, their ancestral homeland. Jews are indigenous to Israel.

Rabbi Kahn’s tweet not only disregards the Jews who stayed in the Land of Israel, but also the historic experiences of the Mizrahi — Jews from the Middle East and North Africa who never left that region and today mostly live in Israel. From Morocco to Iraq, Jews have been a continuous presence in that part of the world for 2,500 years; always as a minority, often persecuted under Christian and later Islamic rule.

Take Iraq. The Jewish community there began with the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE. For 2,500 years these Jews lived in what is modern-day Iraq, building vibrant communities of deep learning, scholarship, tradition, and culture. Their fortunes varied depending on the tolerance of the majority culture, but became increasingly perilous with the rise of pan-Arab nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anti-Jewish persecution came to a head in 1941 in what became known as the Farhud massacre — hundreds of Jews murdered in a spasm of violence that foreshadowed the events to come: the curtailment of civil rights, repression, and even execution of prominent Jews accused of spying for Israel. By 1952, some 75% of Iraq’s Jews had fled the country, most to the safety of Israel. Persecution continued against the remaining community, a tiny minority. Today there may be less than a dozen Jews left.

Any discussion of the repression of indigenous peoples in the Middle East would surely have to include the Iraqi Jews, who, after 2,500 years in Iraq, returned to their ancestral homeland in Israel in the latter half of the 20th century. It was a similar situation for Jews everywhere in the Middle East. Following the creation of Israel in 1948, perhaps a million Jews were pushed out of the Arab and Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Most went to Israel, where the Mizrahi today comprise at least 50% of the total Jewish population.

Rabbi Kahn wants the Jewish community to engage in the work of fighting against the oppression of indigenous peoples. That’s an admirable and important mission. But willfully erasing the history of a third of global Jewry—thereby denying them a right to their home in their ancestral (and recent past) land—doesn’t give us greater clarity into that cause. If we can’t respect our own history, how will we respect anyone else’s?

About the Author
Jason Harris is the creator and host of Jew Oughta Know, a popular podcast on Jewish and Israeli history. He has led hundreds of young adults on trips to Israel, and holds master's degrees in Jewish studies from Brandeis University. Prior to his work in the Jewish community he served as a senior staffer to a U.S. Member of Congress. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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