As an indigenous activist—I am a Métis from the Paddle Prairie Metis settlement in Alberta, Canada—there is one question I am most often asked by the public, one that can instantly divide a community due to its intense and arduous subject matter.
Yet, regardless of the scenario, each time I hear the words, “Are Jews the indigenous people of Israel?” I’m inclined to answer not only with my heart but with the brutal, honest truth, backed by indisputable, thousands-year-old historical and archaeological fact: yes.
While evidence in favor of this view is overwhelming, activists who oppose Israel’s right to exist and deny the Jewish people’s connection to the land—perhaps before learning where indigenous status stems from and what it means—still have an issue with this claim, supporting a narrative built on falsehoods that today is basically acknowledged as fact.
It is my belief that strengthening Jewish identity is the optimum way to fight against the perpetuation of false narratives and lies. This can be achieved only through an indigenous decolonization of Jewish identity, which would urge Jews to see themselves through a Jewish lens and manifest the indigenous aspects of Jewish identity in a meaningful way.
Now, to understand indigeneity, one must also understand indigenous people, how we see ourselves, and how we see the world. At its simplest, indigenous status stems from the genesis of a culture, language, and traditions in conjunction with its connections to an ancestral land, most commonly derived from ties to pre-colonial peoples. Once a people have such a cultural, linguistic, and spiritual genesis as well as a coalescence as a people, they are generally acknowledged as an indigenous people.
An anthropologist named José Martínez Cobo, who served as the UN’s special rapporteur on discrimination against indigenous populations, developed a simple checklist in order to make indigenous status easier to understand. Even though that checklist has since been adjusted—I would argue, to fit the UN’s anti-Israel agenda—it remains the standard for most anthropologists in the field today:
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.
As a guideline, the Martínez Cobo study is fairly clear and gives us a way to avoid falling prey to false claims. However, there is one section—which, as far as I can tell, wasn’t in Cobo’s earliest definition—that has been referred to as problematic by many indigenous activists. This section refers to “nondominant sectors of society,” which is directly related to the issue of Jews as an indigenous people. It implies that by being “nondominant,” you have yet to realize self-determination. Ergo, if a group has achieved self-determination (i.e., the Jewish people or the Fijians), they will no longer meet the checklist as indigenous.
Seeing how the goal of all indigenous peoples is to achieve self-determination on their ancestral lands, it’s basically the most egregious example of a Catch-22.
You might be wondering why this seemingly throwaway line about “prevailing societies and non-dominant sectors” was included when it’s so clearly counterintuitive to our goals as indigenous peoples. It is my belief that it was inserted to deny indigenous status to one specific people, in fact, the only people who have actually achieved full self-determination on their ancestral lands: the Jewish people.
Why else would the United Nations include a caveat that basically denies indigenous peoples’ identity if we actually win in our struggle?
Archaeology, genealogy, and history all support the Jewish claim to indigeneity. A debate on this issue only even exists because we’ve been fed a false narrative that Palestinian Arabs also hold a claim to the land of Israel. Not to say that two peoples can’t be indigenous to one land. The Palestinians do indeed have the legitimate “rights of longstanding presence” in Israel, but this does not trump the indigenous status of Jewish people, 90 percent of whom can directly trace their genetics to the Levant. The cultural genesis, spirituality, language, and ancestral ties of Palestinian Arabs, however, trace back to the Hejaz (a region in present-day Saudi Arabia). In the Quran, the Hejaz is where Muhammad was born and where he established a community of followers.
To say that Palestinian Arabs were the first inhabitants of the land of Israel is problematic for actual indigenous people like the Jewish people, the Amazigh, the Copts, the Assyrians, the Samaritans, and others who were forcefully conquered, subsumed, and converted. It would literally be akin to white Europeans in North America making that same claim. Conquering peoples can still become indigenous through cultural genesis and coalescence. They cannot, however, become indigenous simply through conquering indigenous people.
Indigenous status is specific to certain areas, just as in North America, where certain tribes are indigenous to specific regions. The same rules should be applied in the Middle East. Just as the Cree would not claim Mohawk territories, Arabs should not try to claim Jewish, Amazigh, Kurdish, or Assyrian territories. Each of those peoples have clearly defined territories that date to pre-colonial times.
The primary argument promoting the false narrative that Jews are not indigenous to the land of Israel is that they are actually the descendants of European colonizers. This can be easily rebuked. Recent studies support the notion that some 80 percent of Jewish males, and 50 percent of Jewish females, can trace their ancestry to the Middle East. Early population genetics studies also confirm that “most Jewish Diaspora groups originated in the Middle East.”
Another study shows that even the first European Ashkenazi Jews were at least half Middle Eastern.
The next argument against Jews being an indigenous people derives from the fact that Abraham was from Ur. And, while he is considered the father of the Jewish people, they did not become a people in Ur but in the Levant—specifically, in modern-day Judea and Samaria.
According to Jewish tradition and spirituality, the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, but they had their cultural Genesis in the land of Israel. Of the 613 mitzvot, the vast majority can only be completed in the land of Israel. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish people are all buried in the land of Israel. The holiest sites in Judaism are located—you guessed it—in the land of Israel. Abraham was indeed from Ur, but the people who stemmed from him are, without a doubt, from Israel.
This is closely related to the issue of Jerusalem, which both Palestinian Muslims and Israeli Jews claim as their own. One need only look to the Tanakh, where Jerusalem is mentioned an astounding 699 times, and then to the Quran, where Jerusalem is not mentioned even once, to resolve this dispute.
Then there is the Canaanite argument, a relatively newer piece of Palestinian propaganda that argues—because the Torah claims that the Canaanites were driven out by the Israelites—that Jews are therefore not indigenous to Israel. Archaeologists suggest, however, that the Canaanites were in fact not destroyed at all, but subsumed by the ascendant Hebrew people.
It appears that once Palestinian Arabs realized their claim to being descendants of the Philistines was false—as the Philistines, derived from the Hebrew word peleshet, have no connection ethnically, linguistically, or historically to the people of Arabia—they decided that they were descended from Canaanites instead.
In a 2012 speech, a spokesperson for Mahmoud Abbas said, “The nation of Palestine upon the land of Canaan had a 7,000-year history B.C.E. This is the truth, which must be understood, and we have to note it, in order to say: ‘Netanyahu, you are incidental in history. We are the people of history. We are the owners of history.’ ”
This comment from the Abbas camp is complete rubbish, just one on a laundry list of Palestinian misnomers. First, the Canaanites have been extinct for 3,000 years and little is known today about their direct descendants. Second, pre-Islamic Arabs—of whom Palestinians are direct descendants—first appeared only in the 9th century BCE, not in 7000 BCE. Third, in 1946, before the establishment of Modern Israel, Palestinian-Arab leaders themselves only claimed a connection to the land of Israel dating back no further than seventh century CE—when Muhammad’s followers conquered North Africa and the surrounding region. You may also want to ask: What spiritual, cultural, or traditional constructs of the Canaanite people have Palestinian Arabs maintained? The answer is none.
But this should not be surprising. Even the most novice researcher looking into falsehoods perpetrated by Palestinian leaders would quickly find other blatant lies aimed at delegitimizing the history of the Jewish people, like the time Yasser Arafat told Bill Clinton there was never a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, or the time Ekrima Sabri, former Jerusalem mufti and chairman of the Supreme Islamic Council in Jerusalem, said, “After 25 years of digging, archaeologists are unanimous that not a single stone has been found related to Jerusalem’s alleged Jewish history.”
These are the proponents of the false narrative attempting to rebuke the indigenous status of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.
I got involved in this struggle because I was seeing nonindigenous people make arguments that are detrimental to actual indigenous people, arguments that attempt to rewrite our history. The idea that “Palestinian Arab” conquerors could become indigenous through conquering the Jewish people, even though the term “Palestinian” was only used in reference to Jews before 1948, is anathema. While Arabs claim to be related to the descendants of Israel through blood, it’s just another way to say that they acted like all conquerors, raping and pillaging and then settling and subsuming the locals. Native North Americans especially understand that simply conquering indigenous people does not grant one indigenous status.
Building a monument over our sacred places does not make them yours (Mount Rushmore, anyone?) Not any more than UNESCO declaring the Temple Mount to be a Muslim sacred site because they built a mosque over the church that was built over the ruins of the Jewish Temple. It’s a basic tradition in the Western ethos to respect those who came before you; it’s even built into most of our laws to respect prior claim, and that’s what indigenous rights are really all about. Respecting the rights of those who came before you.
Read more from Tablet magazine about the legal definitions of Jewish indigenous rights here.
Ryan Bellerose is the Advocacy Coordinator for Western Canada of B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights.