A Failure of Sense and Torah Study: On the “Indigenous” Argument

So my last article– discussing the historical parallels between Israel today and White South Africa pre-1994 – went mildly viral. It was something I was not prepared for: I had expected the typical (warm, exciting, and fairly big, but nevertheless decidedly niche) response a New Voices article garners: a few dozen Facebook “likes,” no more than two thousand readers, perhaps a comment. Instead I found myself with almost three thousand shares on Facebook, many more readers, and hundreds of comments across various internet forums: Facebook comments, a Twitter war between our editor and “the College Rabbi” (who is that, anyway?), emails, a 3:45am “high-five” text from my parents, and a few comments on the article page itself. Some were praiseworthy, others … rather not. Some of these comments were fascinating, many lacked nuance. Let us say that it took your loyal correspondent two days to come to grips with the reaction his work received.

There was one set of comments in particular that caught my attention: those that argued that Jews were the “indigenous” folk of the Holy Land. The argument is as follows: Jews were the “first inhabitants” of the land, before A Series of Unfortunate Events in about 70 CE dispersed us to the rest of the world – from Trondheim to Dunedin, Honolulu to Mauritius. Thus their return to the Holy Land is not just a matter of creating a new Jewish state on the Old-New-Land, but a matter of reclaiming a birthright and restoring some form of natural order. To argue otherwise – or argue with an ear for Palestinian claims – is to disrespect this way.

That’s bad politics, bad understandings of the word “indigenous,” and especially bad study of the Torah.

Let’s start off by defining what “indigenous” actually means. It is commonly understood to be native and original. However, in the case of groups of people, another definition is more commonly used: “living descendants of pre-invasion inhabitants of lands now dominated by others.” Thus a group native to a region (let us say, Armenians in Armenia) may not be “indigenous,” though native. In the contrast, some indigenous groups (for example, the Inuit after the Dorset culture in parts of Nunavut) may not be the first indigenous group, but nevertheless are indigenous de facto.

By this definition, the Jews of Israel today are not indigenous by this measure. Most Jews are descended from a genetic mixture of all the nations (which makes us awesomely diverse), and the vast majority of Jews in Israel arrived in the past one hundred years. Furthermore, a population was already present in the land by the creation of the modern state itself.

It is an insult to and misunderstanding of indigenous groups to claim the word for Zionism, and a complete misunderstanding of the creation of Israel itself. Hundreds of indigenous and aboriginal groups face very real and different struggles across the world– be they cultural erasure, loss of their homelands, displacement, or job and economic discrimination. Jews in Israel may face problems (remember the 2011 protests?), but they are not the problems of indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the fact of the matter is that indigenous folk’s experience is often more aligned with that of the Palestinians. Israel, despite claims to indigeneity and unusual use of “science”, is a settler society at the end of the day. No matter how much marketing Israel’s government can do to indigenous folk from New Mexico to New Zealand,the parallels between their experience and that of the Palestinians will not go away. To be honest, the reclaiming of indigenous experiences for a markedly non-indigenous society is an insult.

Zionism, after all, never sought to be “indigenous.” It sought to– and did – create something altogether new. (Exhibit A: the kibbutz.) Why else would Theodor Herzl have called it an “Old-New-Land”? The indigenous argument is…not quite Zionist. As it happens, the centering of Zionism on creating a Jewish state in the Holy Land itselfhappened through a series of complex societal processes between 1650 and 1870, when the precursor to Zionism as we know it – Hovevei Zion–was founded. After all, there were also Jewish state attempts in Uganda, Siberia, Patagonia, and Upstate New York. To claim “indigeneity” for Zionism is to forget Zionism’s history.

In addition, to deny the Palestinian narrative is an obstinate and useless measure. After all, wishing something away – especially something as large as another people – does not actually make it disappear. In this regard, claiming that Jews are “indigenous” rather than Palestinians specifically will not undo the very real fact that Palestinians exist. Furthermore, Palestinians have by and large won the PR war abroad: no strident hasbara claim is realistically going to work at this point, because no one actually will take a claim of “this has always been our land” seriously. Also, let’s just remind everyone quickly that Palestinians are probably descended from ancient Jews who, after the Roman invasion, converted away. You still have an Aramaic and Canaanite substrate in Palestinian Arabic. So if you do want to claim to be indigenous, you cannot really escape the Palestinian narrative.

The indigenous argument, as it happens, flies in the face of the Torah. I am no Biblical literalist, but the indigenous argument shows a complete lack of understanding of the Torah itself. Never mind that the Torah emerged over several hundred years, never mind that we were probably polytheists for a while during the First Temple era and before.

The Torah narrative itself is of settlement in a new land– to which the settler is not indigenous. “Go forth … to the land that I will show you,” God tells Abraham in Genesis. And in Exodus, his descendant Moses is told to take all of Abraham’s children – numerous as the stars in the sky – to “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Torah does not tell the story of an indigenous nation: it tells the story of a Mesopotamian people, trapped in Egyptian slavery for five hundred years, before their mighty (and boy, is He mighty) God – the One and only – brings them out and into another land that their forebears had encountered for a short while several centuries before. And in this land, there are already Canaanites who put up a bit of a fight later in the Tanakh.

If you try to use the Torah to claim we’re indigenous, I have news for you: you need to read the Torah again. (V’ayen sham.)If you don’t want to struggle with that, too bad. Torah is not easy to swallow sometimes.

So where does that leave the “indigenous” argument? Well, it’s not exactly the best argument to use, as I’ve outlined above. Those who use it could find other arguments for their support of Israel – a support that demands complete praise and honor, rather than a thinking approach. Or perhaps reflection would encourage engagement with other narratives and the reality of the situation on the ground, rather than naïve fantasy and sweeping declarations of glory. I would certainly hope for the latter.


Jonathan P. Katz is a student at the University of Chicago.

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