The false narrative put about by far-left organisations such as the Washington DC chapter of the Sunrise group that Jews are colonial interlopers runs counter to the reality for Mizrahi Jews who will resist any return to life as a minority under Arab rule. Elliot Kaufman writes in the Wall Street Journal: (with thanks: Liily)
Justifying such a politics has always required dishonesty. In its statement, Sunrise DC asserts: “Given our commitment to racial justice, self-governance and indigenous sovereignty, we oppose Zionism.” The third plank is particularly galling, as Zionism entails the return of an indigenous people, the Jews, to sovereignty in their homeland, where they’ve had a continuous presence since biblical times.
Asked Thursday about the exclusion of Jews and about Jewish indigeneity, the national Sunrise group didn’t elaborate. It issued its own statement distancing itself from that of its affiliate: “Sunrise DC made a decision to issue this statement, and we weren’t given the chance to look at it before it became public.” On Friday, after critics noted that other pro-Zionist groups had escaped the local chapter’s notice, the national organization issued another statement: “Sunrise DC’s statement and actions are not in line with our values. Singling out Jewish organizations for removal from a coalition, despite others holding similar views, is antisemitic and unacceptable.”
Sunrise DC didn’t reply to questions. Its original statement denies the Jewish connection to the land by calling Israel “a colonial project.” Like so much anti-Zionism, this stuff is the dregs of Soviet “anti-imperialist” and Arab nationalist rhetoric. For 2,000 years, Jews have prayed three times a day for the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. It is crude propaganda to shunt Zionism, with its anticolonial struggle against the British, into the same category as, say, French colonization of Algeria. If Jews are interlopers in Israel, where is their home? If Israel is a colony, what is the metropole?
Next, Sunrise DC complains: “Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank cannot vote in Israel, despite the fact that these territories are occupied and effectively governed by the state.” That is untrue. Israel intervenes to protect itself, but Hamas governs Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority governs Palestinian parts of the West Bank. Neither Palestinian faction has held an election in years, but Sunrise DC doesn’t mention that. That’s another anti-Zionist tendency: Don’t get worked up about Palestinian deprivation if Israel can’t be blamed.
Sunrise DC panders to American sensibilities by condemning Israeli discrimination against “Black and brown Jewish-Israelis.” These Jews may now be useful as a cudgel against Israel, but their history illuminates the necessity of the Jewish state. In the 1980s and ’90s, Israel airlifted thousands of black Jews from Ethiopia, rescuing them from famine and violence. Mizrahim, the “brown” Jews of Sunrise DC’s taxonomy, constitute a majority of Israeli Jews. They were absorbed after violent expulsions from Arab lands. Anti-Zionists now demand their return to life as a vulnerable minority under Arab rule.
Responding to a Jewish Currents satire, Sarah Levin, executive director of JIMENA, explains why Jews are an indigenous, Middle Eastern people – historically, linguistically, spiritually, ecologically and politically. Jews should build relationships with other Middle Eastern communities as they strive for land rights, cultural survival and self-determination.
Sarah Levin was surprised to find herself in the Jewish Currents satire, which featured Jewish activists fighting the ‘Jews as settler colonialists’ slur
The Jewish Currents’ piece was deeply troubling for a multitude of reasons, most notably because it ignored Jewish and Middle Eastern history from the days of the Bible through World War Two. Instead, it asserted that Mizrahi Jews, and organizations like JIMENA, have “mythologized” a Jewish link to the land of Israel, despite having lived continuously in the region for over 2,500 years. The article was filled with contradictions, mischaracterizations, and cherry-picked definitions of indigeneity motivated solely by a desire to exclude Jews and Jewish history. My history. Our history.
Issues around indigeneity as a whole are certainly complex. Still, there are specific historical, cultural, geographic, and spiritual truths that need to be taken into consideration when exploring Jewish indigeneity to the land of Israel and issues of Middle Eastern indigeneity as a whole.
For thousands of years, the Middle East has been one of the most ethnically and racially diverse corners of the world and is home to a multitude of indigenous communities including Jews, Bedouin, Copts, Kurds, Shabaks, Tabaris, Samaritans, Assyrians, Yezidis, Chaldeans (the list goes on…). The indigeneity of any one of these communities does not negate the indigeneity of another. Unfortunately, imperialism and colonialism has had a devastating effect on the religious and ethnic diversity of the region. Luckily many Middle Eastern communities in diaspora, like the Jewish people, have clung tight to their heritages, practices, and ways of living that indelibly root them to land and place. For Jews, it is this rootedness—not vague and ephemeral “ties”, but concrete, ongoing, unbroken practice—that connects us directly to the land of Israel and the Middle East. To deny this is to render it nearly impossible to have an honest conversation on Jewish and Middle Eastern indigeneity.
The Jewish Currents piece, however, arbitrarily defines the term “indigenous” as only applying to those colonized after the 15th century. This is at odds with well-established descriptions and definitions used by the United Nations, Amnesty International, and a host of non-profit organizations working on indigenous rights issues. The United Nations does not delineate indigenous groups based on time in a region or when their land was colonized, but instead :
“Indigenous peoples are the holders of unique languages, knowledge systems and beliefs and possess invaluable knowledge of practices for the sustainable management of natural resources. They have a special relation to and use of their traditional land. Their ancestral land has a fundamental importance for their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples.”
As we all know, the common language of the Jewish people is Hebrew, passed down to Jewish children from generation to generation as part of their shared patrimony as a link to Jewish peoplehood. It is no quirk or historical triviality that young Jews, as part of their rite of initiation into Jewish adulthood, learn Hebrew for their B’nai Mitzvahs. Hebrew, a Semitic language from the land of Israel, is closely related to Arabic and Aramaic, dates back to the second millennium BCE, and has remained the Jewish liturgical language for over 2,500 years in diaspora, regardless of the foreign lands we’ve lived in. Our language is rooted not only in prayer, but in the actual land of Israel where our Jewish faith was built upon our ancestors ecological knowledge of the region.
In so many conversations around Jewish indigeneity, we fail to mention that at its root, Judaism is an earth-based practice that is grounded in strict laws created in Israel to govern agriculture, land-management, environmental stewardship, and food security. The three Jewish pilgrimage holidays of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot are not just relics of our collective memories; for thousands of years, they have embodied and sustained the core of Jewish practice and ritual and have kept us deeply connected to the land of Israel and to each other. We would do well to acknowledge and learn how our Jewish ancestors observed these specific holidays as agricultural festivals that celebrated the harvests and natural elements of the land of ancient Israel.
As “wandering Jews” we’ve rightfully defined ourselves as a people in diaspora, dispersed from our original homeland and yearning for our ingathering back to our ancestral land. There is no better testament to this then the ancient Passover ritual of echoing the words, “next-year in Jerusalem.” This is not a construct of modern Zionism, but an embedded element of Jewish faith across race, ethnicity, and location. It is our 2,500-year-old cry for freedom and self-determination.
Sadly, like many other uprooted indigenous communities, Jews have been forced to live as “others” in lands around the world. In the face of threats ranging from forcible assimilation to violent genocide, we have adapted our earth-based practices to the environments we live in. We should be proud of these innovations and of the resilience we’ve displayed over generations of efforts to see our people destroyed. But does this mean we should not try to reclaim what’s been lost and forgo our tie to Israel because our exile began before the 15th century? Do they really think that divorcing ourselves from Jewish peoplehood will help solve the Arab-Israeli conflict?
What is most sad is that a Jewish publication seems intent on undermining Jewish self-determination (Zionism) while lifting up the rights of other indigenous groups in their quest for political self-determination. Because let’s be clear: the Jewish Currents piece was not, and scarcely claims to be, about affirming the rights of Palestinians. The piece was exclusively aimed at discrediting the claim that Jews are entitled to our right to self-determination. Whereas I proudly wrote that “Students will not be taught the lie that Jews are somehow foreign interlopers in our ancestral homeland,” the Jewish Currents yearns for a day when students are taught exactly this—that Jews in Israel are invaders, are outsiders, are foreigners, and ultimately, are expendable.
As Jewish Currents points out, indigeneity is about “naming power relationships in present-day conflicts.” If it is serious in this definition then it must look at the Arab-Israel conflict as a whole. Neither the status nor the history of Jews in the Middle East is reducible solely to a story of powerful Israelis and dispossessed Palestinians. Erasure or denigration (as “mythology” or as political opportunism) of the realities of Mizrahi history may make for catchy cartoon punchlines, but it betrays a fundamental disrespect for the full diversity of the global Jewish community. Our history, our rootedness to the land, and our indelible ties to Israel are neither mythology nor opportunism, and we will not stand silent when libeled as foreigners and invaders in the lands that nourished us.
For Jews, like most indigenous groups, the spiritual is political and also ecological, and we should not be afraid to lean into deep connections to the land of Israel. We can do so and uphold the dignity and rights of Palestinians and all other indigenous Middle Eastern peoples. As so many of us continue to support and identify with the decolonization of Israeli Jews, we should build relationships with other indigenous Middle Eastern communities and support them as they strive for land-rights, cultural survival, and self-determination. The lessons learned from our successes and failures as a dispersed indigenous group that has been successful in our quest for self-determination, can help the world find equitable solutions for oppressed indigenous peoples on every continent while simultaneously strengthening our collective ability to care for and protect our fragile planet.
The food wars rage on. Hanin Majadli has accused chef Naama Shefi and Ashkenazi Zionists in general of “cultural and culinary appropriation” (“Israel’s guide to foodwashing Palestinian culture,” July 23). Writing in Haaretz, Mor Altshuler takes issue with the narrative that Jews appropriated ‘Palestinian’ food culture. In fact, she says, it is the reverse (with thanks: Lily):
Her (Hanin’s) claim about North African cuisine is apparently about couscous, a dish Ashkenazi Zionists have come to love. Couscous is made of cooked semolina – a kind of flour known as solet in Hebrew – that is mixed with oil.
But couscous was known thousands of years ago as the “grain offering” that was sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem: “And when anyone brings a grain offering to the Lord, his offering shall be of fine flour [solet]; and he shall pour oil upon it, and put frankincense thereon” (Leviticus 2:1). Incidentally, frankincense was added to the recipe’s spices.
As for Palestinian freekeh (toasted green wheat), wheat and roast barley, they were all mentioned among the courtship customs of the Biblical Boaz, who gave roasted grain to Ruth the Moabite in the fields of Bethlehem. It was from their relationship that the House of David arose.
Nor is there any need to go back as far as the Bible. In southeastern Turkey, kubbeh, the glory of the Palestinian kitchen, is called “Jewish kofta” – that is, Jewish meatballs.
Jews invented kubbeh because it was their custom to eat meat on Shabbat, but it is religiously prohibited for them to slaughter animals or cook on that day. Before the refrigerator was invented, the solution was to wrap ground meat in dough and fry or bake it on Friday, so it wouldn’t spoil over Shabbat.
Similarly, eggplant and hummus, also ostensibly from the Palestinian kitchen, are mentioned in the records of the Spanish Inquisition as characteristic Jewish foods that could be used to identify people who formally converted to Christianity but secretly remained Jews.
One of the most persistent slurs against Israel among progressives is that it is a ‘settler colonial state’. The truth is that the only empire has been Arab and Muslim, and Israel is an example of ‘decolonisation’ . James Sinkinson pens this punchy piece in JNS News:
Ironically, Jews are the only people in history since the brutal Arab conquest, occupation and colonization of the region who have risen up to reclaim their land. This has been considered an affront to Islam, and it is no coincidence that Hebrew, the indigenous language of the Jewish people, and Zionism, the national movement to return the people to their land, were violently repressed and banned in Arab countries.
There’s no doubt who is the colonizer and who the colonized. There is only one empire in this conflict, and it is not Jewish, a people who have never conquered any territory on the planet not their own, as opposed to the Arab world, which currently encompasses 5,070,419 square miles of land mass.
Rather than condemning Israel, progressives in the West who recoil at “settler colonial projects” should embrace the Jewish state as an example of decolonization—indigenous return and restored sovereignty. If they were honest, they would stand by the side of tiny Israel—with a population of nine million, surrounded by hundreds of millions who seek its destruction and its return to the huge Arab empire.
Just ask the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa who lived under Arab repression, discrimination and constant fear of violence for almost 13 centuries—who have finally returned home and make up the majority of the Jewish citizens of the State of Israel. Their recent history and experience of Arab imperialism, conquest and oppression reflects a sad, violent tale of Arab Muslim privilege. These Jews truly understand colonialism and what it is like to live under its yoke.
Thanks to the classic novel Exodus, Americans have tended to see Israel as a projection of themselves. Now, for some on the progressive left, the conflict between Jews and Muslims 6,000 miles away has become jumbled up with American ideas about race. Must-read by Matti Friedman in The Atlantic:
When Uris was writing in the 1950s, most Israeli Jews were natives of the Islamic world who’d either been drawn to the new state or forced from their home by their former neighbors.
Many of the rest were survivors of the Holocaust trying to hack out a living without losing what was left of their mind. They lived alongside a sizable Muslim Arab minority, a remnant of those displaced by the war, feared as a fifth column and kept under military rule.
Kibbutznik pioneers like Ari Ben Canaan were never more than a tiny share of the population—and as committed socialists, would never have gone anywhere near the foxtrot. Few people here were blond. A more representative hero for Exodus would have been the Arabic-speaking seamstress from the Jewish ghetto in Marrakech.
But Exodus wasn’t about representation, or about a strange country in the Middle East. It was an attempt to get American readers to look at Israel and see themselves. Ari Ben Canaan was a hero from the America of Ernest Hemingway and John Wayne. He was a blue-eyed, chiseled, gorgeous Paul Newman.
Although a close relationship between America and Israel has been taken for granted over the past half century, it solidified only once Americans decided that Israelis were like them. In novels and countless press reports about pioneers and fighters in the ’50s, “Israel and Jews came to be perceived as masculine, ready to fight the Cold War alongside America,” the scholar Michelle Mart wrote in her study of the topic, Eye on Israel. “By contrast, Arabs were increasingly stigmatized as non-Western, undemocratic, racially darker, unmasculine outsiders.”
“In the images of Israelis, then,” she wrote, “Americans constructed their own self-image at mid-century.”
That construction has been on my mind this month as disturbing events unfolding here have been picked up and interpreted abroad. Many Americans are now using their image of home to construct their image of Israel. Indeed, for some on the progressive left, the conflict between Jews and Muslims 6,000 miles east of Washington, D.C., has become jumbled up with American ideas about race.
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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries
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