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Don’t erase our history: The Jewish people are indigenous to the land of Israel

The truth is that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the agonizing struggle between not one, but two indigenous peoples fighting over the same homeland.

As leaders of organizations that represent the vast majority of Jews who identify as Zionists, we strongly take issue with the recent Jeff Kolnick Community Voices commentary, “The settler colonialist frame helps clarify what’s at stake in the Mideast for Israelis, Palestinians, and peace.” We believe that applying the “settler colonialist frame” to the conflict erases the indigenous and unbroken Jewish connection to the land, makes resolving the conflict harder to achieve, fuels antisemitism, and is demonstrably unhelpful in understanding “what’s at stake in the Middle East for Israelis, Palestinians, and peace.”

The truth is that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the agonizing struggle between not one, but two indigenous peoples fighting over the same homeland.

After over 2 millennia of forced exile, persecution, and genocide, the (re)establishment of Jewish sovereignty in our ancestral homeland is a remarkable story of national liberation. Jewish claims to the land are far more than biblical accounts. Our religion, language, culture, holidays, rituals, liturgy, history, and even the words Jew and Jewish are all inseparable from historical Judea and our collective longing to return to the Land of Israel.

The land of Israel is where Jews became a people and the oldest monotheistic faith. It is where Jews achieved sovereignty before losing it and regaining it several times until much of the indigenous Jewish population was either killed or forced into exile following the Roman Empire’s brutal suppression of the heroic Jewish revolt in the second century of the Common Era. Though the Romans subsequently renamed the land Palaestina, the Jewish people never left our homeland physically or spiritually. Archaeological evidence of Jewish life can be found in more than 30,000 sites in Israel with antiquities dating back centuries. Even when we were massacred and persecuted by Christian Crusaders, Arab and Ottoman invaders, the British-led Jordanian Arab Legion, or more recently Hamas suicide bombers and rockets, our attachment never wavered.

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It is in this same land where Jews miraculously revitalized the Hebrew language, rebuilt the institutions necessary for independence, re-engaged in rituals that are uniquely observed in the land of Israel, redeveloped the land and the economy so that by several magnitudes the Jewish and non-Jewish populations grew, and offered refuge not just to the remnant which survived the Holocaust, but also millions of Jews fleeing persecution from the Muslim Middle East, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union. Today, Israel is a rich tapestry of diverse citizens, including over half of Jewish Israelis who identify as Jews of color and 20% of whom are Arab citizens.

As recently as last week, it was in Jerusalem where a diverse coalition of Jews and Muslims subordinated significant policy differences to form a governing coalition, including Orthodox and secular Jews, Jewish ultra-nationalists and doves, and for the first time conservative Palestinian Arab Muslims, an incredible display of the dynamism and resilience of Israel’s remarkable democracy — truly one of a kind in a region dominated by autocracies and monarchies.

We present these facts not to deny Palestinian indigenousness or in opposition to Palestinian statehood, but to forcefully refute the claim that Jewish people have colonialized a foreign land to exploit its resources and people.

It cannot be emphasized enough that we recognize that Palestinians are a people with a legitimate right to self-determination. Arguing that Palestinians are not a people unto themselves or from the same land is delusional, futile, and wrong. We are two peoples who both have a right to a homeland in a geographically small place. Recognizing the legitimacy of one people does not mean we have to disqualify the claims of the other. However, we take issue when Jewish claims are not given the same deference as those of our Palestinian neighbors.

In addition to erasing Jews from the land and history, the “settler colonialist” lens inevitably makes the conflict tougher to resolve. This is the framing of Hamas, a terrorist organization, as well as the Palestinian Authority, which go to implausible lengths to deny the Jewish connection to the land and mistakenly frame any “solution” as a zero-sum proposition. It is this rejectionist approach that prevented Palestinian leadership from accepting compromises that would have provided the Palestinian people with an independent state in 1937, 1947, 2000, and 2008. (Perhaps, the most compelling examination of the competing claims to the land of the Palestine Mandate was the authoritative Peel Commission Report of 1937. After 400 pages of analysis, the Commission reached a simple but profound and fundamental conclusion: “Half a loaf is better than no bread.” In other words: two states for two peoples—a solution offered 84 years ago and accepted by the Yishuv—the pre-state Jewish community of the mandate. Acceptance of the solution would have long ago advanced the national aspirations of Palestinian Arabs and spared much bloodshed in the Holy Land.)

For all the reasons aptly explained by our friend and colleague, Jeremy Burton, the application of the colonialism narrative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is especially unhelpful for Americans who seek to understanding the conflict by misapplying a Western “progressive” lens to a conflict that is complex and distinctly not American. For example, “[w]hen the left applies the concept of unity among People of Color in order to stand in solidarity with Palestinians and against Jews, it confuses the Jewish experience in America with the reality of Jewishness in the Middle East. If they have never traveled to the region or been in relationship with Israelis, they will only know Jews as we are in America.” By contrast, “[t]he reality is that the majority of Israel’s Jews are not ‘white’ as that term is understood in the West [and] [t]he majority of Israel’s Jews have always lived in the Middle East and North Africa, among the Arab, Turkish, Persians, Ethiopian and other populations of the region.”

The recent 80% surge in domestic antisemitism coincided not just with the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas terrorists, but also with an onslaught of overheated rhetoric in our news and social media. Jews have been brutally assaulted in the streets of Los Angeles and New York, while Jewish students, including in Minnesota, have been subjected to cruel taunts, false accusations, and bullying on social media, inside our public schools, and beyond. Mischaracterizing Israel as a colonialist, white supremacist enterprise is not only inaccurate, but dangerous.

As proponents of two states for two peoples we are saddened that peace and security for both Israelis and Palestinians becomes harder to envision with each passing year. As advocates and community leaders who devote ourselves to building relationships with other communities in Minnesota, we know it is counterproductive to refuse to understand other communities as they understand themselves. The least we can do as Americans is not make the conflict harder to resolve, or spark violence and hatred at home, by perpetuating the false narrative that championing Palestinian indigenousness must entail denying Jewish indigenousness to the land that both peoples call home.

Ethan Roberts, Rhona Shwaid and Jacob Millner
Ethan Roberts, Rhona Shwaid and Jacob Millner
Ethan Roberts is the director of government affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas (JCRC), Rhona Shwaid is the co-director of the Twin Cities Chapter of Zioness, and Jacob Millner is the director, Minneapolis-St. Paul American Jewish Committee (AJC). Both Shwaid and Millner serve on the JCRC Board of Directors.

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