Tuesday, August 9th | 12 Av 5782

March 5, 2021 12:11 pm

Understanding Jewish Indigeneity to Israel

avatar by Noam Rotstain


A worshiper walks in front of the Dome of the Rock in the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 13, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad.

Whenever I hear someone question whether the Jews are indigenous to the Land of Israel, I am reminded of the vast amount of archaeological evidence found in the land itself.

I am also reminded of the genetic evidence connecting the Jewish people to the region, and that both Jewish culture and religion are intrinsically tied to the land. Throughout the ages of Diaspora Jewish history, Eretz Israel and Jerusalem have been at the center of so many of the Divine commandments and practices.

While archaeological, genetic, and historical evidence backs the indigeneity of Jews to Israel without a shadow of a doubt, certain activists profusely deny this, implicitly admitting they don’t know what it means to be indigenous.

Surprisingly, this unfounded stance is generally accepted as fact.

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I believe that the method to fight this dangerously false narrative is by strengthening Jewish identity and pride, thereby decolonizing it. If the Jewish people as a whole can rekindle the ways of our forefathers, and in so doing become closer to the Land of Israel, we can more accurately represent ourselves as genuine natives of our land.

In order to understand what it means to be indigenous as Jews, we must first understand how indigenous persons around the world define this identity.

Indigenous status stems from a pre-colonial cultural genesis, which manifests through the development of a language, religion, and traditions that are connected to the land. Once a people have a spiritual, lingual, and cultural genesis in that particular land, they are generally identified as an indigenous people.

Jose Martinez Cobo, an anthropologist who once served the UN in indigenous matters, developed a checklist to clarify the meaning of indigeneity, which includes meeting one or more of the following: occupation of ancestral lands, common ancestry with the original occupants of the land, culture, language, and residence in parts of the country.

This checklist leaves no room for legitimate claims against Jewish indigeneity to the Land of Israel.

Further, another way of determining indigeneity is based on where a group’s cultural genesis took place. As Metis Indigenous activist Ryan Bellerose explains, “At its simplest, Indigenous status stems from the genesis of a culture, language, and traditions in conjunction with its connections to an ancestral land.” There is innumerable evidence to confirm that the Jewish people’s cultural genesis took place in Israel.

Yet, many still try to claim that Jewish people originated in Europe rather than the Middle East. This can be easily refuted. A recent study found that over 90 percent of Jewish people from around the world can trace their genetics to the southern Levant region, which includes Israel.

Once we have accepted the fact that Jews are indigenous to Israel, we must also consider whether any other groups, such as the Palestinians, may also be indigenous to the region.

Using the same UN checklist, we can determine that Palestinians have the right to longstanding presence. Genetically, linguistically, culturally, and spiritually, they can trace themselves back to the Hejaz region in the Arabian peninsula, now known as Saudi Arabia. According to historians, Arabs began arriving in the Levant region in the 7th century CE, hundreds of years after the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans.

There are those, both within and outside of the Jewish community, who believe that the Jewish people are no longer indigenous to Israel due to their long period of exile in the Diaspora.

First of all, many Jews never left the land. Second, according to Mahrinah von Schlegel, an indigenous advocate and member of the Tewa people of the Northern Rio Grande Pueblos, living in the Diaspora does not cause one to lose their indigenous status.

Rather, the only way to lose indigenous status is when you cease to identify as a member of an indigenous group.

It is clear that the Jewish people have retained their deep connection to the Land of Israel, despite thousands of years in exile. And while at one time there were other indigenous groups in the region, they have all been lost due to assimilation into other cultures or identities.

Noam Rotstain is a Hasbara Fellowships Canada High School Intern.

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