Jewish Indigeneity is not Hasbara

A Pro-Palestine Protester with "We Can't Breathe Since 1948" in the background | Photo: Alfo Medeiros

The anti-Israel protests in US campuses have criticized an alleged Jewish colonization over Israel-Palestine. The core argument is that Jews are a religion, and therefore not a nation. If they’re not a nation, they’re different ethnic groups from different homelands who colonized Palestine. Meaning, the Jews are a non-indigenous population colonizing the land of indigenous Palestinians. Therefore, Jewish Zionists are enacting settler colonialism on Palestine, through the Israeli state apparatus. Others claim that Jews are a nation, but the tools by which Zionism has dominated Palestine are the tools of a settler colonial mechanism.

In return, Jewish activists, who’ve long discussed the indigeneity of Jews to Israel, have taken a center stage in pro-Israel activism. The main talking points of these activists were adopted by official government spokespersons, and un-official prominent influencers. Activists based their claim on the fact that Jews, collectively, are a historically colonized nation. Be it the original colonization by the Hellenistic kingdoms, and later the Roman destruction; or more modern experiences such as the Pale of Settlement, the dhimmitude in the Middle East, or British Mandate policies. Indeed, a call for the re-experiencing of Jewish connection to Israel-Palestine was notable in pre-state Zionism. The most prominent advocate was Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg, primarily known as Ahad Ha‘Am. His form of Zionism, Cultural (or Spiritual) Zionism, was outcompeted by more prominent Zionist forces: Political Zionism and Practical Zionism. Ahad Ha‘Am called for a decolonization of Jewish experience, before the foundation of a state. This process of decolonization was not implemented in full, and sometimes not at all. But this is a story for another time.

In any case, Jewish indigeneity can be clearly articulated. The most common “working definition” of indigeneity was determined in the 1989 convention of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Article 1, §1(b) of the convention states: “peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institution”. This definition could be absolutely applied to Jewish people. This does not negate Palestinian indigeneity, or any other peoples’ developed indigeneity in the territory. It also does not negate addressing Israeli policies as using tools of settler colonialism. As a matter of fact, Ahad Ha‘Am himself criticized these methods when he wrote his influential “Truth from Eretz Yisra’el” and “This is not the way” articles.

This is, of course, a contentious topic – both outside of Jewish spheres, and inside.

Yet, if one believes in Jewish indigeneity to Israel, it should not just be a talking point. It should not be used as a counter-measure to Antisemitic and anti-Zionist rhetoric. It also must not be a tool for absolving Israeli governmental oppression of non-Jews, and specifically Palestinians. The long history of the Jewish people makes us unique, as Palestinians, and indeed other peoples (such as Samaritans and Druze), have developed deep indigenous connections to our shared homeland. Therefore, Jewish indigeneity must become a political platform that is detached from grifting and existing simply as a rhetorical tool. This political movement should focus on three main spheres of influence: the local, the regional, and the global.

In the local sphere, it should oppose settler colonialist policies by Israeli establishment against Palestinians, as well as colonial policies practiced on the land – against other Jews, Druze, Samaritans, etc. It should try to create reconciliation spaces for Israelis and Palestinians, which could serve as breeding grounds for new ideas regarding our shared future. This is already being done with movements like Shorashim-Judur and The Home JLM. It should, like other politicized indigenous movements, be focused on social ecology and environmentalism. It should be against domination of individuals, starting with de-patriarchal policies and embracing female liberation. It should talk about community leadership, and liberalization of political power. It should talk about personal and community safety and security; security robbed from the populace on October 7th. It should talk about local governance and community solidarity and culture.

Above all, it should embrace structures and institutions developed from historical Jewish society, adapted to modernity. This does not mean creating European institutions and giving them historically Jewish names (like, the Knesset). But rather, observing Jewish historical governance in Israel, analyzing its characteristics, adapting its conclusion, and call for its implementation. For example, we can look at the historical Sanhedria system. A town had a Sanhedrin or Bet Din, members of which would be elected to a little Sanhedrin in regional capitals, which in turn members were elected the Great Sanhedrin, in Jerusalem. A diffused assembly system could be adopted, when governance is built from the bottom-up. There, smaller communities could have local democratic assemblies, who elect representatives to regional assemblies, and then a national one. This is opposed to a top-down paternalistic system, which is so common in Western and European governance and political theories.

In the regional sphere, Jewish indigeneity must talk about other Middle Eastern indigenous communities: The Arameans, the Assyrians, the Kurds, the Armenians, the Yazidis, the Copts, etc. There are, of course, many other such peoples. This must not be, however, an exercise in geopolitical division politics. Solidarity with these movements should not be to advance a political solution or favorable terms for Israeli interests. It must be from a place of true indigenous solidarity and cooperation. This could be represented by calling for the official recognition of the oppression of these peoples. For example, recognizing the Armenian genocide, the Assyrian-Aramean genocide, the Kurdish and Yazidi genocides, and calling out injustices against Copts by Egyptian institutions. The recognition of the Armenian genocide by Israeli Foreign Minister is the opposite of this: it came as a counter-measure to Erdogan’s rhetoric against Israel, rather than a true act of long overdue solidarity with Armenians.

In the global sphere, it should call for transnational solidarity with indigenous movements. It should call for cooperation on issues that affect other indigenous populations. These include domination politics, destruction of heritage sites, communal organization, social ecology, and voluntary congregational democracy.

Jewish indigeneity should not be used as lip service, or as a counter argument to anti-Zionism or Antisemitism. It should also not be a tool to legitimize state-violence and violations of the rights of non-Jews. It shouldn’t be a whitewashing, or native-washing, propaganda tool to absolve the Israeli government from criticism. It should be a sincere political formulation, popular and intellectual movement, that translates rhetoric into political policy. This political policy, as we’ve discussed, should not be reactionary or appropriating, but rather unique and intensely connected to Jewish history and experience, as Ahad Ha‘Am proposed.

About the Author
Law student and social commentator with research background in international law, jurisprudence, and political theory. Maj. (res.) in the IDF. Born in Homesh, lives in Haifa.
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