I have some difficulty with the concept of indigeneity. Please allow me to explain.
I was born and raised in Montreal, as were both my parents. But if I claimed to be indigenous to Canada, the Mohawks of Kahnawake would likely – and rightly – object.
All four of my grandparents were born in a region once called Poland, though parts of it are today in Ukraine. But if I claimed to be indigenous to Poland, many native Poles would scoff, especially those who are currently whitewashing Polish complicity in the Holocaust. If my father and I had told the Ukrainians we found living in my grandfather’s former house that their home still belonged to us, we might have been chased away.
And if I went to Israel, where that same grandfather is buried, and asserted my indigenous right to the land, many Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, would contest that claim and see me as an interloper. Would they be right?
Former justice minister Irwin Cotler has argued for Jewish indigeneity in the Middle East, calling Jews the “original aboriginal people,” who speak a language and practice a religion derived from the Bible. In this narrative, Zionism represents an astonishing, almost unbelievable, return home. But indigeneity in Israel is not so simple.
As a historian, I embrace the over 3,000-year historical connection that the Jews have to the Land of Israel. I know that the cultural and religious ancestors of the Jewish people walked and worshipped on that land, speaking Hebrew and Aramaic, centuries before Jesus and Muhammad were born, and before Arabic became the dominant language in the region.
That connection is meaningful to me, but does not supersede the claims made by Palestinians to the land they call Palestine, a land their ancestors have inhabited for nearly two millennia. The Jewish return to Israel after 2,000 years raises the question: did too much time pass for it to count as a return? If we believe in indigeneity, everyone should be indigenous to somewhere. But to where am I indigenous? To everywhere and nowhere. I am indigenous to the Diaspora.
This idea isn’t as strange as it sounds. Over a century ago, Russian-Jewish historian Simon Dubnow (1860-1941) argued that the greatest strength of the Jewish people was their national spirit, which allowed them to function as a collective, even when they were far removed from their ancestral homeland.
Judaism was shaped in the Diaspora, under Christian and Muslim rule. The emphasis on laws and rituals, on textual learning, on familial and communal integrity, all facilitated existence as a minority people, living under foreign governments, helping Jews survive enormous oppression and pressure to assimilate.
Through Zionism, Jews have done much more than survive. In Israel, Jews resurrected the Hebrew language, created a secular Hebraic culture of scholarship, art and science, and a dynamic economy based on technological innovation, all while reinvigorating the Jewish religion. These accomplishments fill me with pride. The Jewish state’s brutal response to Palestinian protests in Gaza, however, fills me with sadness, leaving me more alienated from the ancient land of my ancestors.
I still love Israel, but it is not my home. I live in Richmond, Va., near the spot where Pocahontas encountered English settler John Smith. I feel at home here, but feeling at home and being indigenous are not the same thing. I can feel at home anywhere I find family and community. That has been the Jewish story for 2,000 years. It is not about a mystical connection to a particular land. It is about looking backward to history and tradition, and using that past to look forward – in Israel or the Diaspora.
In our Richmond living room, we have a star map on the wall, with a quote from Jewish cosmologist Carl Sagan: “We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.” And so some Jews wander home, while others are at home wandering.