A Jewish reader in Canada recently exchanged emails with me about his suggestion that the State of Israel cite the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a justification for its right to exist as a Jewish nation. Since I lack sufficient knowledge on the topic, I asked Carl in Jerusalem, who blogs at Israel Matzav, to comment on the issue.
The first email from our reader in Canada:
In my opinion, Israel has never had the best possible narrative to justify its existence in the world.
When people think about Israel, they think of Jews who supposedly went into exile, and returned in modern times under the aegis of the Zionist organization. Somehow people get the impression that after two thousand years in exile, the Jews became transformed into a European people, who then took the land from the new indigenous people, the Palestinians.
In fact, the Jews have a record of continuity in the Land of Israel for more than two millennia. And the history of the Jews for the last two thousand years in the Land of Israel can be described as one of continuous exile, where individuals had to leave the land because they could just not attain a minimum quality of life. However, at the same time other Jews were often returning to their homeland.
It is somewhat ironic that Muslims often say Palestine is a Muslim country because the number of Muslims outnumbered the number of Jews. However, it is not often noted, that this was because Muslim rulers were producing the conditions that made it impossible for Jews to continue living in their homeland.
Israeli officials seem to find legality for Israel in the Balfour Declaration, League of Nations decisions, and the UN partition resolution of November 29, 1947. In my opinion, they don’t seem to recognize that the world to a certain extent finds these decisions not completely valid, and regards the Palestinians as indigenous peoples who should have more rights than the supposed colonial Jewish invaders.
I think this situation might be rectified if Israeli officials would de-emphasize the traditional Zionist stories, and begin to find justification for Israel as a Jewish state in the fact that even after the original Jewish state was destroyed in 70 CE, the Jews never abandoned or surrendered their homeland, and so it has remained a Jewish possession ever since.
The UN General Assembly on September 13, 2007 passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This gives indigenous peoples of a land 46 rights. If one assumes a history of continuity of the Jewish people as I have described it, then according to the UN’s own rules it is the Jews, as the indigenous people of the Land of Israel, are entitled to all 46 of those rights.
I think if all this was recognized in the world, it could be very helpful for the State of Israel.
The problem that the Israeli government (as well as seemingly anyone else in Israel) is not in the least bit interested in the history of Jews over the last two thousand years in the Land of Israel. Nor does anybody there seem at all aware of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples , and how this might be beneficial for Israel. At least that is my opinion.
I wonder if you might think of looking into this matter, and if you find what I say reasonable, would you consider trying to use your abilities to try to change the Zionist narrative, from one of exile and return, which is out of favour in the world, to that of a people who suffered two thousand years of occupation in its own land.
It should be noted that however good may be your cause, if you don’t plead it properly, then to a certain extent you can’t totally blame the rest of the world.
Carl in Jerusalem responded:
He mostly has it right.
There are four comments I would make.
First: The number of Jews who actually stayed here until the 1880’s was quite small. But there was no one else here either. That’s why Mark Twain described the country as deserted when he came here in the 1860’s.
Second: I don’t believe there was ever a Muslim majority here. Certainly not in Jerusalem. You may want to read a book called From Time Immemorial. It documents how there came to be Muslim Arabs in Israel. For the most part, they followed the Jews seeking better economic opportunities. The book got some scathing reviews, but when you look who is behind them, they are mostly far Left Israeli academics and Benny Morris pre-epiphany. Warning — it’s one of the most boring books on the face of God’s earth. Lots of British government statistics from the mandatory period.
Third: There are a lot of people here who argue that we should use the Bible as the basis for our claims — especially to Judea and Samaria. It’s a very appealing argument but it doesn’t really fly with people who don’t believe in the Bible. I use the argument from time to time myself anyway, but the security argument resonates much more with Western ears.
Fourth: Regardless of what the UN document on indigenous people says, they will never let Israelis or Jews take advantage of it, so I think we’re wasting our time trying to use it.
Our Canadian reader had this to add:
In fact, if we say that the exile is usually considered to have begun in 70 CE with the destruction of the Temple, there is certainly evidence that Jews were in the Land of Israel after that date. There was the revolt of Bar Kochva in 132-135 CE, against which the Romans brought legions from all parts of their Empire to suppress the revolt. And Israeli archeologists find coins and letters from the era of that revolt.
One of the religious books of the Jews is the Mishna, which is said to be compiled about 220 CE in the Land of Israel.
Another religious book is the Talmud, of which there are two different versions. The most studied is the Babylonian Talmud, compiled in what is now Iraq. However, there is also the Jerusalem Talmud, compiled about 400 CE, in the Land of Israel.
Tzfat is a town in the mountains of Galilee. In the 16th century that was a town of extraordinary Jewish learning. The religious guide for Orthodox Jews called the Shulchan Aruch was written by Yoseph Caro in Tzfat at that period.
There were many scholars of Kabbala in Tzfat at that time, the most prominent being Isaac Luria, called the Ari.
Many prayers were written in Tzfat at that that are currently still said in all Jewish communities. In fact, perhaps the best known prayer chanted Friday evening, called Lecha Dodi, was written by a resident of Tzfat during that period.
If one reads of the Crusader conquest of Palestine, one invariably reads how they treated the Jews of Jerusalem. On the internet one finds accounts that the defense of Haifa was primarily carried out by Jews, which sustained a siege of one month in the summer of 1099 CE.
On the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs there is in fact a brief history of this epoch of Jewish history entitled “History: Foreign Domination”, where the history of the Jews in the Land of Israel is given for the last two thousand years.
Indeed, in the speech that David Ben-Gurion made on May 14, 1948, known as Israel’s Declaration of Independence, this sentence appears: “Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to reestablish themselves in their ancient homeland.” This account does not sound like an exile. This document was signed by all the leaders of the Jewish community, religious and non-religious.
Jews do not throw away torn pages of their holy books when they get worn, they are buried instead. In Cairo these pages were not buried but were stored in attics of synagogues, in rooms called genizas. These documents were examined at the beginning of the 20th century, and one can find many letters there from Jews of the 11the CE detailing the affairs of a Yeshiva in Jerusalem.
What I am saying is that it is clear to me that the Jews have a continuity in the Land of Israel that is undeniable, and that I think would be beneficial for Israel if it were known in the world.
Although I was brought up in an Orthodox environment, I still have no idea why Zionists do not bring up this continuity. In fact, it is just never written about, so it is impossible to know why no mention is ever made of it.
As I intimated earlier, Israeli leaders seem to feel that the Balfour Declaration, League of Nations approvals, and the UN partition resolution are all the legitimacy they need. This does not appear true to me.
Certainly if one is having problems, one might think that something different might be useful. Doing the same thing might not seem so wise.
There seems to be a contentment with their history among Israelis, without thinking anything new can be added.
As I said before, I think these possibilities for better Israeli mascara should at least be examined.
I’ll let Carl have the final word:
He’s right about there being a continuous Jewish presence in Israel, but for much of that time it was tiny and the land was mostly deserted. He’s right about the Mishna, He’s right about the Jerusalem Talmud, but it was dwarfed in significance by the Babylonian Talmud (and is to this day). In fact, everything he writes is historically correct, but relates only to a small number of people.
I’m all in favor of asserting biblical claims to ‘Greater Israel’ and have many times myself (see here for example), but those arguments tend to resonate mostly with Orthodox Jews and Christian Zionists. In other words, you’re mostly preaching to the choir.
Regardless of the merits of the case, I agree with Carl that the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will never be applied to Jews — or to white Europeans, for that matter.
“Indigenous Peoples” are “brown” peoples, especially Muslims, American Indians, Australian Aboriginals, and black Africans. Anything using the term that is passed by the UN will only be allowed to apply to those peoples, and never to Jews or Caucasians.