If you visit the website of The Great Synagogue, one of the largest and oldest Jewish congregations in Sydney, Australia, you’ll find the following statement at the bottom of their home page:
Our Synagogue stands on the traditional lands of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation. We acknowledge and give thanks to the Elders and Traditional Custodians who have cared for this land for thousands of years. May we walk with care on this land which has provided a home for our Jewish community.
We offer respect to the descendants of the first peoples whose presence and cultures are vital to the nation we share.
Land Acknowledgements such as these are fairly common in Australia, where it’s customary for government institutions and organizations to honor the significance of specific lands to Aboriginal peoples. Though I’d known about this custom in Australia, I was still surprised to read the Great Synagogue’s statement. I’d never heard of a synagogue making a public land acknowledgement before.
I wondered if there were other Jewish institutions that did likewise. So I surfed a bit more through the internet and discovered that indeed, Temple Har Zion of Thornhill, Ontario also had a land acknowledgment on its site, and that they read it regularly during Shabbat services. Their statement concludes this way:
As Jews and as a community, may we always strive to fulfill our Jewish value of Tzedek Tirdof– the pursuit of justice in our society.
I think it’s significant that the practice of Land Acknowledgement has not become a cultural norm in the United States, where the existence of native peoples is not a particularly important or relevant issue. Otherwise enlightened Americans will assume the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples in this country is somehow complete, blind to the reality that there are five million native Americans and 570 federally recognized tribes that still exist in the US. Well meaning liberals will routinely refer to the United States as “a nation of immigrants,” despite the fact that there were indigenous peoples who lived in this land long before colonists and immigrants arrived – and whose descendants are still very much alive today.
After reading about these two congregations, it occurred to me that this level of sensitivity is absent in the American Jewish community as well. And since that time, I’ve been thinking about the unique responsibility of religious communities in colonized countries to this issue. After all, how can we purport to stay true to the sacred imperative of justice if we remain silent? What does it say about the sanctity of our prayers if we routinely gather to pray on stolen land – and fail to even acknowledge this fact?
At the very least it feels absolutely appropriate to this Day of Atonement. Shouldn’t we consider it deeply problematic to confess sins on colonized ground without naming the very sin of colonization itself? Without a thought to the original sin of our country: the genocide and dispossesion of Native Americans?
This Yom Kippur, I’d like to explore what our colonial legacy demands of us. I’d like to offer some thoughts about our connection as Jews to the history of colonialism and what it might suggest for the Jewish community of today. I’d like to ask: If we do choose to reckon with the history and ongoing oppression of native peoples in this country, what would such a reckoning look like? How might it impact our communal life and our sacred tradition? Are there ways that we, at Tzedek Chicago, could model what it means to be a decolonizing Jewish congregation?
Before I address this issue, however, I want to make it clear that I’m not an expert on the issue of colonialism or the history of indigenous nations. In many ways, my own learning and understanding of this subject is a work in progress. The thoughts I offer you today are ultimately a reflection of my own questions and struggle with this very fraught and painful issue. I’m raising these questions with you this Yom Kippur in the spirit of the season, in the hope that we might find a way to struggle with them together.
I also want to say up front that I offer these thoughts as non-indigenous person for whom decolonization is essentially a form of solidarity. This means I understand that the objects of this oppression are the only ones who can dictate the terms of their struggle. So even as I offer these thoughts on decolonization here today, I’m well aware that this term means something very different for the colonized: it is quite literally a struggle for their survival on every level. Whatever we might think about this issue, we must ultimately take our cue from the ones most directly impacted by this oppression.
So let me start with this statement: as a descendent of European immigrants to this country, I must face the fact that I am a colonizer. I am in fact, a settler. If I am to face the truth of colonization seriously, I can’t see how I can honestly come to any other conclusion.
Of course, as a Jew, I know full well that my people has its own long history of oppression and dispossession. But I’m also well aware that I enjoy significant privilege in this country – and that this privilege was created in no small measure on the backs of the indigenous people of this land. Now I realize that playing “who was oppressed more” is a fruitless and dangerous game to play and I’m not going to engage in it here. But I do think it’s important to examine the unique historical contexts of oppressed peoples – to understand how these oppressions often interact and sometimes even collide with one another.
It’s important to note that historically, anti-Jewish oppression has not taken the form of colonization per se, but of forced migration. In this regard, I’d argue that the Jewish people have never truly been indigenous to any one particular area or region of the world. While there are many different definitions of indigeneity, I particularly appreciate one that was articulated to me recently by the Jewish poet and writer Aurora Levins Morales. To be part of an indigenous people, Aurora explained, means “to live in one particular place or ecosystem for a prolonged period of time, to plant cultural roots there, and to develop a sense of communal accountability to this ecosystem.”
It is painfully true that the Jewish people have been dispossessed from many different lands and nations over the centuries. We’ve been flung far and wide, as Aurora puts it, like “wind blown seeds,” putting down roots – often significantly deep roots – in a myriad of places throughout the diaspora. It’s extremely important to add, however, that this painful process of rooting and uprooting is not the whole of what it means to be Jewish. Yes, the trauma of dispossession is an indelible part of our historical experience, but so is our resilience, our ability to adapt, to create new homes and new cultures in wild variety of different ecosystems throughout the world. As I put in a sermon three years ago: “Jewish tradition as we know it could never have existed without the Diaspora…the myriad of lands in which we have lived have provided the fertile soil for Jewish spiritual creativity.”
As American Jews, our presence on this land is particularly complicated. Most Jews came to North America as immigrants, whether they were forced from their homes or whether they seeking greater opportunity. But is also true that some Jews arrived here during the colonial era. In the 17th and 18th centuries for instance, American colonists included Spanish and Portuguese Jews, many of whom were descendants from Jews who were persecuted during the Inquisition. During the third wave of Jewish immigration to the US, most came here fleeing violence and pogroms in Eastern Europe, and later, of course, in the wake of the Shoah. To add to these complexities, today’s American Jewish community also includes Jews of color, many of whom, as a result of conversion and intermarriage, are descended from indigenous peoples who have their own history of colonization and enslavement themselves.
And to make things even more complicated than that, the American Jewish community, like so many other sub-communities in this country, has made its home on land that was colonized and stolen from others.
Of course, if we are going to reckon with what it means to be Jewish in the 21th century, we have to confront the painful legacy of Zionism: a European movement that colonized historic Palestine, dispossessed hundreds of thousands of indigenous inhabitants, creating what is now the largest refugee population in the world.
While some in the Jewish community refer to Zionism as “the national liberation movement of the Jewish people,” I believe this term is profoundly problematic. Generally speaking, national liberation movements are independence struggles waged by indigenous peoples against imperial, colonizing powers. For its part, Political Zionism was a movement in which European Jews traveled to Palestine to build colonies, with the intention of eventually creating an ethnically Jewish nation state – against the will of the non-Jewish Arabs who were already living there.
There is a term for this phenomenon: “settler colonialism.” Unlike traditional colonialism, in which a world power colonizes a particular land in order to exploit its resources and strengthen its own geopolitical dominance, settler colonialism refers to movements that colonize a land in order to create a new society made up of one particular group of people. In the case of traditional colonialism, native populations are subjugated by the dominant power as a form of essential labor. In the case of settler colonialism, native inhabitants are considered to be demographic threats to the dominant group – whose very existence on the land is viewed as a problem.
As someone who was raised to embrace the Zionist narrative as a central part of my Jewish identity, I used to react defensively to the suggestion that Israel’s birth was a product of colonialism – that Zionism was not in fact a national liberation movement but rather a colonial enterprise in its own right. That our so-called “liberation” had actually come to pass through the dispossession of indigenous people. Those of us who have made this shift know all too well the painful sense of betrayal that comes with it – that there is something essentially toxic at the root of everything we’ve been taught to hold sacred about our history.
But in the end, is this really any different from the national narrative we Americans teach ourselves about the birth of this country? After all, what is our American liberation myth, if not a glorification of colonists rebelling against the mother state to establish a new nation on the backs of people of the indigenous people of this land?
When I speak publicly about Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people, I will be sometimes be challenged by someone in the audience who will say to me something to the effect of: “You criticize Israel so much, but is it really any different from what the US has done to its native population?” Even though I think these questioners generally pose this as a kind of “gotcha” question, I do think there’s a very important challenge at its core.
The answer, of course, is: “You are absolutely right. There is really no difference at all.” If we are going to call out Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, we must also be prepared to call out our nation’s treatment of its indigenous people as well. Those of us who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people cannot view Zionist colonialism in a vacuum. In the end both are part of the same systems of colonial domination and oppression – and in the end, we must be prepared to call them both out with equal vigor.
So how do we create a new sacred narrative as American Jews – one that rejects the glorification of our colonial legacy? What could a decolonized Jewish community possibly look like? Again, while I’m only beginning to struggle with these questions, I’d like to offer a few thoughts:
• The first step, it seems to me, is to do the inner work to decolonize our minds. We must challenge the assumptions ingrained within us by our colonial culture. Jews of European ancestry much reckon with the fact that we are settlers, no matter how our ancestors may have arrived at these shores.
• Our communities must center the experience of Jews of color, many of whom have their own history of colonization and enslavement. As part of this centering work, we must stand down the narrative that the American Jewish experience is only about immigration and opportunity.
• American Jewish communities must learn about the history of the lands upon which we make their homes and the indigenous peoples who are historically connected to the lands. We must take care not to appropriate their cultures and sacred traditions. We must learn about them as living, breathing peoples and cultures and not as idealized objects or stereotypes. We must prioritize the creation of accountable relationships to the native peoples and groups who are our neighbors.
• It’s high time that American Jewish community followed the example of our Australian and Canadian counterparts and being to make land acknowledgments a regular part of our communal life. At the same time however, we cannot assume such statements somehow will solve the problem or absolve us of our guilt. As our Yom Kippur liturgy reminds us, confessional prayers themselves are not enough. Teshuvah – genuine repentance – can only be made real if words are followed by transformative action.
• Since indigeneity is marked by a deep sense of accountability to the land upon which native peoples live, communities that seek to decolonize themselves must cultivate genuine ecological accountability to local and global ecosystems. In short, we cannot decolonize ourselves if we fail to respect and honor the land upon which we build our homes and communities. (For more on this subject, please refer to my Rosh Hashanah sermon.)
As you might expect, I hope that Tzedek Chicago can explore together what it means to be a decolonizing Jewish community. And while I’m on the subject, I want to put in a plug for our upcoming Sukkot program next week. As Sukkot coincides this year with Indigenous People’s Day, Tzedek Chicago is partnering with Chi-Nations Youth Council for a Sukkot meal and celebration at the Chi-Nations garden and wigwam. For this program, we’re also partnering with Aurora Levins Morales as part of our participation in her Rimonim liturgy project – a newly created network of Jewish congregations and communities committed to the development of new liturgies that reflect decolonized, diasporic, justice-based values.
And on that note, I’d like to conclude my remarks to you today with a prayer that Aurora wrote specially for Tzedek Chicago. It’s a land acknowledgment that uses the Ve’ahavta liturgy to express our commitment and responsibility to the lands of this particular region – and to honor the native peoples who consider it sacred. We’ll be using it this Sukkot, but I’d like to read it for the very first time now, on this Day of Atonement.
May these words help us acknowledge, as a community, the sacred ground upon which we stand. May they inspire us to work toward a future of restoration and justice for all who dwell on earth:
There is no earth but this earth and we are its children. The earth is our home, and there is only one. The ground beneath our feet was millions of years in the making. Each leaf, each blade, each wing, each petal, each hair on the flank of a red fox, each scale on the sturgeon, each mallard feather, each pine needle and fragment of sassafras bark took millions of years to become, and we ourselves are millions of years in the making.
The earth offers itself and all its gifts freely, offers rain and sunlight, and the shimmer of moon on its lakes, offers corn and squash, apples and honey, salmon and lamb, and clear, cold water and all it asks in return is that we love it, respect its ways, cherish it.
We shall love the earth and all that lives with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our intelligence, with all our might.
The names of those who were here before us are syllables of the earth’s name, so know them and speak them, and speak the first names for the places where you dwell, the water you drink, the winds that bring you breath. Say the name of this place, which is Shikaakwa, and say the names of its people: Myaamiaki, Illiniwek who are also the Inoca, the Asakiwaki and Meskwaki, people of the yellow earth and the red earth, the Hochagra, and the Bodewadmi who keep the hearth fires, for the land held many stories before we came and the places that were made for us were made by shattering their worlds.
Take to heart these words with which I charge you this day. Cherish this land beneath your feet. Cherish the roots and the waterways, the rocks and trees, the ancestor bones in the ground and the people who dance on the living earth and make new paths with their feet, with their breath, with their dreaming. Love and serve this world, this creation, as you love the creator who gifted it to us. Defend it from those whose hunger for riches cannot be filled, who devour and destroy, bringing death to everything we love.
Fight for the earth and protect it with all your heart and soul and strength, and hold nothing back, so that the rains fall in their season, the early rain and the late, and we may gather in the new grain and the wine and the oil, the squash and beans and corn, the apples and grapes and nuts, so that the grass grows high in the fields and feeds the deer and the cattle, so that the water flows clean in river and lake, filled with abundant fish, and birds nest among the reeds, and all that lives shall eat its fill.
Do not be lured into the worship of consumption, comfort, convenience. Do not suck on the drinking straws of extraction, or bow down to the hoarders of what is good. For if we do, the breath of life that is in all things will empty the skies of clouds, and there will be no rain, and the earth will not yield its blessings, but will be laid waste.
So summon all the courage which is in you and in your people, stretching back to the dawn of time and remember this promise by night and by day, with every breath, whatever you are doing. Let nothing stand in your way. Put your hands into the soil of this moment and plant good seed that we and all our children may live long in the land and be a blessing.