Dani Ishai Behan

Ashkenazi Jews Are Indigenous To Israel, Not Europe

For Jews, awareness of our indigeneity to Israel is of paramount importance. It is a vital reminder of who we are, where we come from, and what our ancestors died to defend. It is the antidote to centuries of exile and colonization, and the legal basis our national rights are contingent upon. For these reasons, it has become a cornerstone of Jewish resistance, and rightly so.

But our self-identity as an indigenous Middle Eastern people hasn’t always been welcomed. To the contrary, it has been and continues to be ferociously resisted. Despite centuries of being told to ‘go back to Palestine’, today we are told, with alarming frequency, that we are “only a religion” and that we are “foreigners” and “colonizers” in our own indigenous homeland. Too many people fail to recognize this for the insidious psychological assault on our being that it is. Especially important to maintaining our indigenous identity is showing the antisemitic denial of that identity up for what it is.

I am focusing on Ashkenazim for three main reasons…

1. Ashkenazim are targeted the most for erasure. Although the indigenous status of Jews in Israel has been gaining wider acceptance over the past few years, Ashkenazi claims in particular are still bitterly, aggressively resisted by many. Most of this resistance tends to come from gentile antisemites (more on that below), but not all of it does. It can also be found among Jews themselves, especially those from the Baby Boomer generation and from certain segments of the non-Ashkenazi population. Even today, most Zionists will not directly rebut the allegation that Ashkenazim are “white European settlers”. Instead, you’ll usually get glib responses like “60 percent of Israel is Mizrahi” which, although true, fail to tackle the underlying claim that Ashkenazim are “white European” foreigners in Israel. For them, acknowledging the indigeneity of Ashkenazim to Israel is of secondary importance, or of no importance at all. Although this is often done with good intentions, it is still highly damaging and needs to stop.

2. Nearly all of Israel’s “founders” were Ashkenazi. The Zionist credo is, in essence, at least 2,000 years old, but the Zionism that led to Israel’s re-establishment was invented in Eastern Europe, by Ashkenazim. Most of the early olim were Ashkenazi, as were the majority of Israel’s soldiers and leaders circa 1948. That is what anti-Zionists tend to focus on when they challenge Israel’s legitimacy. In their minds, Ashkenazim are really just “European whites” who, for religious reasons, claimed a “mythical” attachment to Israel, proclaiming a right of “settlement” in a land that is “no longer theirs”, assuming it ever was in the first place. Immediately switching the conversation over to Mizrahim instead of attacking this lie directly effectively cedes the argument to anti-Zionists, reinforcing the idea that Ashkenazim are “not really from the Middle East” and thus have no moral claim to it.

3. Left-wing antisemitism tends to fall harder on Ashkenazim. That is to be expected. Most Western Jews are Ashkenazi and, as a result, Westerners often associate Jewishness with Ashkenazim in particular. Non-Ashkenazim tend to view this as a privilege, and in many ways it is. But it is ALSO an enormous disadvantage. When SJP and other antisemites scream about “white Jewish colonialism” or claim that modern Jews are “Khazars” who “hold all of the wealth”, they’re not usually thinking about Mizrahim.

=== On Indigenous Status ===

In anthropological terms, indigeneity pertains to ethnogenesis, i.e. “where a people became a people”. This can be seen most prominently in the indigenous rights working definition penned by UN rapporteur Jose R. Martinez Cobo. His work isn’t without flaws, as you will soon see (and as indigenous activists have correctly pointed out in the past), but Ashkenazi Jews – and Jews more broadly – meet all of the most important, relevant criteria.

Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present nondominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.

This historical continuity may consist of the continuation, for an extended period reaching into the present of one or more of the following factors:

a) Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them;

b) Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands;

c) Culture in general, or in specific manifestations (such as religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, means of livelihood, lifestyle, etc.);

d) Language (whether used as the only language, as mother-tongue, as the habitual means of communication at home or in the family, or as the main, preferred, habitual, general or normal language);

e) Residence on certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world;

f) Other relevant factors.

Much has been written about how Jews qua Jews qualify as indigenous under this criteria. But how do Ashkenazi Jews in particular meet it?

A. The Jewish homeland has been occupied many times over by various colonial powers, most notably by Europeans and Arabs. Of these two groups, only Arabs (i.e. today’s Palestinians) remain in the land in sizable numbers. Arab opposition to Zionism was, from the get go, an attempt at reinforcing (and later reinstating) the colonial status quo in historic Israel. Even in exile, the Ashkenazim continued to regard themselves as part of “Am Yisra’el” (the people of Israel), identifying Israel as their homeland and themselves as ‘diaspora’ Jews. LiShanah Haba’ah Yerushalayim (“next year in Jerusalem”) is recited at least twice a year by Ashkenazim, whereas prayers for the restoration of Jerusalem are recited at least three times a day.

B. Ashkenazim are a diaspora Jewish population, having arrived to Europe by the Middle Ages. Some are Second Temple Judeans who were brought to Europe in chains after the Bar Kokhba revolt. Others made their way into Europe after being driven out by the Arab and Crusader conquests. The rest are Mizrahi-Jewish merchants, drawn to Europe by commerce and economic opportunities.

More to the point, the original inhabitants of what is now Israel were Canaanites, from whom the Jews emerged sometime in the 2nd millennium BC. At least 30 years of DNA evidence affirms the Middle Eastern – specifically Levantine (read: Canaanite) – origin of Ashkenazi Jews, who on average can trace more than half of their genome to the Levant. At bare minimum, the Levantine component in individual Ashkenazim is about 50 percent, with the rest of it being southern European – specifically Greek and Italian. Ashkenazi Jews were certainly distinct enough from Europeans that they were frequent targets of racism, often being told to “go back to Asia”. To this day, European/white nationalists still don’t consider them white.

C. Ashkenazi culture is Jewish culture as transplanted to Europe, and is thus Middle Eastern. Everything from their national/ethnic identity, cultural customs, language, spirituality, and laws all the way down to their holidays, art, literature, and even calendar are intimately connected to their homeland in the Levant. Here are some examples…

* Ashkenazim identify as Jews and as part of the nation of Israel. In other words, they identify as an indigenous ethnic group of the Levant. Many people believe these diasporic Jewish subdivisions to be distinct ethnicities in themselves, indigenous to whatever region they settled in. As popular as this view may be, it is quite false.

Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, etc are mere geographic terms denoting where a certain group of Jews settled at some time between their dispersion from Israel and the present. They are not ethnic or national identifiers. They are diaspora subgroupings and are ultimately the same people, indigenous to the same place.

* The Hebrew language remained in use as a ceremonial language. It was also used in Ashkenazi literature, poetry, and music. Yiddish, the every day spoken language of Ashkenazim, is a Creole-esque fusion of Hebrew/Aramaic and German, written in Hebrew characters.

* Ashkenazim practice Judaism, the national religion of the Jews. Judaism originates in Israel, and centers on our collective ethnic and spiritual ties to that land. Although Judaism contains no small amount of mythology (e.g. the Passover story is most likely just an exaggerated account of the Egyptian occupation of Canaan; according to modern scholarship, Israelites/Jews are just a monotheistic subset of Canaanites – that is, the Jews never invaded and conquered Israel, because they had always been there), it also contains an extensive overview of our history in Israel, dating all the way back to our origins. All of the most important events in our history, including the names of our kings, are listed in the Tanakh/Talmud. Contents of many of these historic texts have been confirmed in archaeological digs in the locations mentioned therein. For this reason, even atheist Jews such as myself recognize the importance of these texts. Lifestyle and customs are likewise documented in detail. As with other Jewish diaspora groups, Ashkenazim identified with the Israelites of the Torah because they literally arethat people. Judaism is not karaoke, it is not cosplay, and it sure as hell isn’t fetishism. They are – literally – the traditions practiced by our ancestors in our indigenous homeland, and which we took with us to our new host lands in exile. Jews in Poland, Germany, Russia, etc would recite “next year in Jerusalem” every Passover and Yom Kippur, not “next year in Moscow” or “next year in Berlin”.

* Jewish clothing items – particularly the kippah, tzitzit, tallit (both tallit gadol and tallit katan), tefillim, etc – were all worn by Ashkenazim, and were all derived from the Levant. Some clothing items were adapted to the local climate (e.g. turbans being replaced with black hats, robes with black coats, etc), but it mostly remained unchanged.

* The holidays Ashkenazim celebrate all derive from Israel, with the harvest holidays even corresponding with growing seasons there. Etrogs and lulavim would often be imported from the Middle East on Sukkot.

* Ashkenazim use the Jewish calendar, which (again) originates in Israel.

* Ashkenazi cuisine is mostly Middle Eastern cuisine adapted to a European climate. Foods like matzah, halva, kharoset, khallah, etc were eaten by Ashkenazim, although some foods were altered or replaced due to the lack of necessary ingredients. For example, Ashkenazim used bee honey instead of date honey, because dates do not grow in Central/Eastern Europe. Gefilte fish (stuffed fish) stems from the Torah requirement for a whole fish, which were largely unavailable to Ashkenazim.

* Ashkenazi dances, such as the hora, are Levantine.

* Ashkenazi music often incorporates European instruments, but retains a Middle Eastern musicology. Moreover, these songs almost always center on Israel and emphasize their ancestral and spiritual ties to the land. Many of these songs pertain to the experience of exile from Israel, and the feelings of pain, mourning, and yearning wrought by it.

* Distinctively Middle Eastern items, such as the hamsa and the mezuzah, were used by Ashkenazim (although they were initially frowned upon by secular Ashkenazim, who perceived these items as “religious”).

Yes, Ashkenazim had these too

* In stark contrast to Western art, Ashkenazi art has more in common with other Asian art forms in that it places far greater emphasis on bright, vivid colors, elaborate patterns, and spiritual themes than realism and detail. It also makes use of decidedly non-European colors, such as turquoise.

I think it’s safe to say that no one will mistake this for European art

* The architecture of Ashkenazi buildings, even including Reform synagogues, tend to resemble Middle Eastern structures far more closely than they resemble European churches.

D. Hebrew is a Canaanite language – the last one in existence. And as mentioned previously, Ashkenazim continued to use Hebrew even in exile.

E. This item, and the aforementioned the “nondominant” clause, are controversial in indigenous communities and for good reason. The implication here is that if an indigenous people are ever expelled from their homeland or regain sovereignty from occupying powers, they cease to be indigenous. That being said, there has always been a Jewish presence (including an Ashkenazi presence) in Israel, so this is more or less a non-issue.

And that is why Ashkenazim are indigenous to Israel. Now let’s look at the reasons why Ashkenazim are NOT indigenous to Europe (and, by extension, why they cannot be called “white Jews” or “white Europeans”).

A. Jews who resided in European lands did not consider themselves an “occupied” people, at any point. They considered themselves an exiled people, and any talk of occupation that did occur was invariably in reference to Israel, not their local host lands. Although many people (usually antisemites) have argued for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Europe, Africa, or elsewhere, Ashkenazim themselves have expressed no such desire, except as a temporary stopgap measure to aid Jews at risk of immediate harm from antisemitism.

B. Ashkenazim do have a certain amount of European ancestry (as do most Levantine groups), but it amounts to less than half of the individual genome. Furthermore, it derives from southern Europe – particularly Greece and Italy – not from Central or Eastern Europe. Jews who resided in Greece and Italy were considered Sephardi, not Ashkenazi. What little East European ancestry does exist in Ashkenazim is primarily the result of rape.

C. Climate adaptations of food and clothing notwithstanding, Ashkenazi culture is almost entirely non-European. Refer back to item “C” in the above list.

D. Yiddish is a diasporic pidgin-language (i.e. a Creolized language) developed by Ashkenazim. It is a Germanic tongue with Hebrew/Aramaic loanwords and written in Hebrew script. It was designed to make communication with the locals in Europe easier. Hebrew, which likewise remained in use (albeit not as an every day spoken tongue), is not European.

E. Most Ashkenazim no longer reside in Europe. In fact, the largest Jewish population in Europe today is in France, which is considered a “Sephardic” country. Moreover, those who left Europe did not leave because of exile. They left willingly (and in many cases, eagerly) and have shown absolutely no desire to go back.

As has been mentioned previously, there are concerns (both from indigenous peoples and activists) surrounding point E and the “non-dominant sector” clause. What is meant by “residence in certain parts of the country”? One could easily interpret E as disqualifying Ashkenazim, since they were historically exiled from their homeland, but the same argument would have to be applied to every exiled indigenous people (and there are many). Naturally, this criteria runs into problems. If an indigenous people are exiled, carried off into slavery, or otherwise kept away from their lands for a given period of time, do they cease to be indigenous? If non-indigenous peoples colonize those territories and assimilate indigenous peoples, do they gain indigenous status? The answer to both questions is, obviously, no.

Exile need not change the cultural heritage, history, and connection to the indigenous roots of a people. And it did not change the connection of Ashkenazi Jews to Israel. It was for this reason that the Dalai Lama sought a meeting with Jewish leaders in 1989. He wanted to know how he could help his exiled followers maintain their connection to their own indigenous homeland: Tibet.

=== Why Is This Being Denied? ===

Although Jewish indigeneity to Israel has been gaining more and more acceptance in recent years, Ashkenazi indigeneity in particular continues to be ignored or denied by many. It isn’t just coming from anti-Zionists, either. There are many neutral and even pro-Israel parties who are just as guilty, if not more so. To give some examples…

* 23andme, a popular DNA testing website, classifies Ashkenazim as “European”. This is in spite of the fact that they themselves acknowledge Ashkenazi origins/DNA as Middle Eastern. Their classification of Ashkenazim as “European” has misled a large number of Ashkenazi customers into believing they are “genetically European”. 23andme had previously been asked to fix this classification, but they refused – allegedly citing “political reasons”. Alas, this problem isn’t limited to 23andme. Most commercial DNA companies are just as guilty, although one can easily submit their results to GEDmatch for a more honest look at their genome.

* JIMENA, a well-known advocacy group for Sephardi/Mizrahi Jewish refugees, is an acronym for “Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa”. This, by definition, implies that non-Sephardim/Mizrahim are NOT indigenous to the Middle East. EDIT: Please do not interpret this as a dig against JIMENA. They do very important work. But their name does, undeniably, carry certain connotations about non-Mizrahi/Sephardi Jews.

* The oft-repeated, but nevertheless false, dichotomy of “white” Jews/”Jews of color”. On the surface, these terms may not seem so bad, until you look at how they are applied and who they are being applied to. “White” Jew, in common parlance, tends to mean “Ashkenazi”, whereas “Jew of color” means “any Jew who ISN’T Ashkenazi”. Under this definition, Sephardi and Mizrahim qualify as people of color, as these groups are both indisputably Middle Eastern. From here, it can be assumed that all Middle Eastern groups qualify, but Ashkenazim are excluded from this definition. So if all other Middle Eastern groups are included, but Ashkenazim are not, what does this imply about Ashkenazim? That they’re not “really” Middle Eastern. For this reason, the term “Jews of color” has become quite popular among antisemites.

It makes perfect sense to call European converts to Judaism (e.g. Ivanka Trump) “white” Jews. But when applied to Ashkenazi Jews, this term becomes an oppressive form of erasure.

To wit, the idea that Israel is a “white European settler colonial project” and thus illegitimate has been the nucleus of anti-Zionism from the beginning, but even anti-Zionists will usually accept Mizrahim as indigenous to the Middle East, if not to Israel in particular. As such, they are less likely to challenge the right of Mizrahim to be there. This is why accusations of “European colonialism” are often met with easy, glib responses like “but most Israeli Jews are Mizrahi”, as opposed to honest attempts at grappling with the inherent falsity of the claim itself.

Why do so many people do this?

1. It’s Easier: For the great majority of Zionists, the focus is on preserving Israel’s right to exist. Concepts like Jewish indigeneity, dignity, and even history are of secondary importance. Deflecting “European colonialism” allegations by pointing to Mizrahim may be a superficial response that ultimately accomplishes nothing, but it is also easy and not as likely to encounter resistance as a deeper response including our indigeneity would.

2. Discrimination Against Non-Ashkenazim: In modern Israel’s early years, non-Ashkenazi Jews experienced heavy marginalization under the (overwhelmingly secular) Ashkenazi ruling class. Ashkenazim, having spent many centuries under European colonial rule, had internalized no small amount of Eurocentric ideas: about colonized people in general, other Jews and, perhaps most importantly, about themselves. They were taught to view their own Middle Easternness with disdain, and to aspire towards “whiteness”. Inevitably, this internalized oppression caused many Ashkenazim to look down upon the Mizrahim, who manifested more of a “pure” Middle Eastern lifestyle. Although colonized attitudes are by no means exclusive to Ashkenazim – most other victims of Euro colonialism have a certain segment of their population that perceives itself as more “white” than the rest – the harm wrought by these attitudes is very real. For this reason, there are some non-Ashkenazim who will not acknowledge Ashkenazim as Middle Eastern.

3. It Keeps The Anti-Zionist Narrative Intact: The Zionist movement, as we know it today, was born in Central and Eastern Europe. It was predominantly Ashkenazi in the decades leading up to 1948, and the majority of Israel’s fighters in the War of Independence were likewise Ashkenazi. In this sense, it is relatively easy for anti-Zionists to acknowledge Mizrahim (most of whom hadn’t returned until the early 1950s or later, when the Muslim-dominated countries in which they had lived for centuries took their worldly goods and citizenship and expelled them) as Middle Eastern. On the contrary, they prefer to use them as a convenient wedge against Jewish unity, in the same way that the “white Jews” myth is used by antisemites in the US. Anti-Zionists only need Ashkenazim to be “white Europeans”, because they cannot delegitimize Israel as a “European settler colonial creation” if they’re not. Sephardim and Mizrahim, as far as they’re concerned, can go right back to being helpless minorities under Arab rule.

4. Prejudice: As has been mentioned in the opening salvo, Ashkenazim are emblematic of the “despised Jew” in the minds of most antisemites. In other words, to strike at Ashkenazim specifically is to strike at “the Jews” more broadly, for they (again, in the minds of antisemites) embody everything antisemites hate about Jews. They are “the ugly, whiny-voiced, rat-faced Finkelsteins, Rosenblatts, and Goldbergs who hoard all of the world’s wealth and use their inordinate power to make gentiles their slaves”. By labeling Ashkenazim “white”, antisemites (especially those of the pseudo-left) can erase their status as an oppressed group and deny them recourse to the same communal solidarity enjoyed by other minority groups, while simultaneously reaffirming the Protocols narrative of the “hyperpowerful” Jew. It is an insidious silencing technique and a conduit for antisemitism itself all at once. Whereas, on the contrary, to assert the indigenous Middle Eastern, non-white identity of Ashkenazim is to rob faux-left antisemites of their entire language and vocabulary vis a vis Jews.

Per antisemites…
On the left (Ashkenazim): “white people”.
On the right (Syrian Arabs): “people of color”.

=== Why Does This Matter? ===

Two principal reasons…

1. It Leaves Zionism Wide Open For Attack: To negate the indigeneity of Ashkenazi Jews to Israel is to label the vast majority of modern Israel’s founders as “white European settlers”. In other words, it is to (essentially) agree with the argument that Zionism is more or less a European colonial project. And for people who see Israel’s entire existence as an “injustice”, the Mizrahi-to-Ashkenazi ratio is neither here nor there since, in their minds, Israel is STILL an illegitimate state that should not exist.

2. Denying Their Middle Eastern Identity Is A Form Of Erasure: Very little has been said about how fundamentally oppressive it is to conflate Ashkenazi Jews with those who colonized and persecuted them. Imagine someone referring to Tibetans as “Chinese” or Lakota as “white” and you’ll get a grasp on how offensive this really is. Furthermore, imagine being exiled from your homeland, sold into slavery, and forced to wander for generations in between periodic persecutions, all in the hopes of eventually returning home. But once you finally DO return home, you are told “you are no longer from here – go back to Europe”, often by those whose colonial intrigues caused your exile in the first place. To call such hateful, callous, and profoundly hypocritical views “ignorant” would be far too generous.

Mind you, this is all in spite of the fact that, only 3 years prior to Israel’s re-establishment, 6 million Jews were rounded up, separated from their families, herded into death camps, tortured, experimented on, forced into hard labor, forced to watch as their infant children had their heads smashed, and gassed with Zyklon-B on the basis that they are Middle Eastern and thus “inferior” to white Europeans. But now that their Middle Eastern identity is actually of some benefit to Jews, it is taken away? Nope, sorry. You don’t get to do that. You don’t have that right.

It’s just not good enough to recognize only Mizrahim and Sephardim as indigenous. It’s not good enough to go “but Mizrahim” every time Israel’s legitimacy is challenged. Ashkenazi indigeneity to Israel must be defended as well. They must be recognized as indigenous to the Middle East, and the claim that they are “foreign white Europeans” must be vehemently rejected.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.