Jews are indigenous to Israel and a rabbi should know it, scholar says

“For a long time there was very little doubt on whether the Jews were indigenous here. The concept started to be questioned by the Arab anti-Zionist community,” Ilan Troen said.

The Western Wall (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
The Western Wall
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Last week, a junior rabbi at the leading Reform congregation Temple Emanu-El in New York sparked a storm on social media after stating that Jews are not indigenous to the land of Israel.
“Let me say this as plainly as possible: Jews are not an indigenous people,” Rabbi Andy Khan wrote on Twitter. “It is appropriative to make use of this word when referring to our relationship to the land of Israel, and it undermines the difficult work being done to fix the ongoing oppression of indigenous peoples.”

The post received more than 10,000 likes and 1,800 retweets and a considerable amount of reactions on and beyond social media. Among others, the senior rabbi of Emanu-El, Rabbi Joshua M. Davidson, disassociated from Khan’s statement both himself and the synagogue, which has been a flagship of the Reform movement in the US since its establishment in 1845.
“Beyond the Bible, numerous historians argue the Jewish people’s national identity was forged in the land of Israel,” he wrote in a letter to the New York-based The Forward. “Archaeology suggests an ancient Jewish presence there 3,000 years ago corresponding to the period of the Davidic monarchy. And Mizrahi communities today bear living witness to a Jewish link to the land – for some, a sustained presence there; for more, one interrupted by conquest and exile.”
“Tomorrow, Jews will start 3 weeks of commemoration of the breach of the walls of their Capital by an Empire, the destruction of the city, the subjugation of their country and the forced exile of its population, their ancestors. Tell me more about not being indigenous,” Consul-General of Israel in New York Dani Dayan tweeted on Wednesday at the eve of the fast of Shiva-Asar Betamuz.
INDEED, STATEMENTS denying Jewish roots to Israel are a phenomenon directly related to undermine the legitimacy of Israel as the Jewish homeland, as explained to The Jerusalem Post by Ilan Troen, emeritus professor of Modern History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and of Israel Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham/Boston, Massachusetts.
“The issue is both historical and political,” Troen said. “For a long time there was very little doubt on whether the Jews were indigenous here. The concept started to be questioned by the Arab anti-Zionist community.”
Troen pointed out that in the past few decades several efforts have been made to disconnect the Jews of the past from those of the present, including the attempt to identify Ashkenazi Jews as descendants of the Caucasian population of the Khazars but also the claims by the so-called Danish School that the Bible does not provide any historical content.
“A rabbi should know better,” he said.
In the meantime, since the 1960s, new attention has been devoted to the rights of indigenous peoples from the pre-Colombian world. However, as the professor pointed out, the difference between the European conquest of their lands and the Jewish return to Israel has been conspicuous.
“Europeans entered into territories where they never belonged to and implanted Europe there, as proven by names such as New England, Louisiana, Oxford and Cambridge, that a rabbi in New York is certainly familiar with,” Troen said. “When Jews returned here, they did not give any European names to the places and they spoke Hebrew. There is no other example of people rejuvenating a language they spoke thousands of years ago.” He also highlighted the importance of the Bible as a fundamental proof of the connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.
“What is fascinating is that Palestinian Arabs began calling themselves indigenous after 1967 and the fall of Nasser and Pan-Arabism,” he further said. “Palestinians needed to demonstrate that they were here before the Jews and they did so by inventing that they are descendants of the Jebusites, which would mean that they were here before Joshua conquered the Holy Land as described in the Bible. For Muslims to find a connection with a pagan past is highly unusual, an act of political imagination, clearly a decision for rhetorical purposes.”
In a later tweet, Khan also clarified that his statements were not to be intended to extend indigenousness in Israel to Palestinians.
“The same argument I’m making about Jews can be made about Palestinians too. I don’t think indigeneity plays a role in this conflict at all, and in fact I think including it in the discourse obscures the plight of Palestinians by including a category that clearly doesn’t fit,” he wrote.
However, speaking to the Post, Troen stated that when it comes to the imagination of the past, pragmatism and empathy are necessary to avoid conflict.
“Even though I believe that the Palestinian argument that they are descendants of the Jebusites makes no sense whatsoever, I think I understand why they say it,” he concluded. “This understanding helps create some empathy towards it which enables a conversation. I would hope that they can return this sympathy towards the reasons why Jews feel connected to this place. Without empathy, there is no conversation and only conflict.”