A Jewish Perspective on the Native American Experience

Sermon delivered November 27, 2009, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

The first time I met a Native American Indian, person to person, I was a freshman in college. Phyllis was my American Studies professor, and she was determined to enlighten and sensitize my classmates and me to her people’s plight. The course was on “The Culture of the Early Republic.” Naturally, the role of Indians was a part of the curriculum, particularly early in the semester. Phyllis taught that part of the subject with special zeal, beginning in September and ending before mid-October. In the American classroom, she told us, discussion of Indians is relegated to the period between Columbus Day and Thanksgiving; and Phyllis would not fall into that trap. We, her students, had never previously considered the matter, which remains true: my first grade son, Daniel, was dressed up as an Indian at the first grade Thanksgiving feast last week.

So here I am, on Shabbat following Thanksgiving, asking that we as a congregation consider the Native American experience from a Jewish perspective.

In some ways, Jewish and Indian histories are opposites. We are a people dispossessed of our land two millennia ago, who have returned in strength. Indians remain in America, on their own land, but they are few in numbers in the United States, their population decimated by war and disease inflicted upon them by intruders. We were, for so long, a people without a land. Indians hold their land sacred, but they risk losing their peoplehood.

Even in that distinction, we find the similarity: Both we and Native American Indians find sanctity in the Earth.

Though early missionaries misunderstood and thought them pagan idolaters, Native American religion is actually pantheistic, not polytheistic. Instead of worshiping many gods, Indians believe that there is one source of divinity, permeating all creation. Indians may speak of “Mother Earth;” however, if I understand correctly, they do not worship the Earth as one god and the sky as another. Instead, all things emanate from one single source of holiness.

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob awakens after a dream, exclaiming, “God is in this place, and I didn’t know it!” He calls that place, “Beth-El,” the House of God. Rabbinic lore is that the site of Jacob’s dream becomes the location of the great Temple in Jerusalem. As part of that dream, God promises the Land to Jacob’s descendants, repeating a pledge already made to Abraham and Isaac.

Even as we see similarity, we should be careful to distinguish between the way Indians regard Earth’s holiness and Jews’ reverence for the Land of Israel. We do not understand God to emanate from the Earth itself, but see God as a separate force, Creator of the Earth, standing apart from it. At the same time, we embrace the holiness of a particular parcel of Land that our people has held holy from time immemorial. Even for those who do not literally believe that God gave that land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to no other, and I count myself in that group, surely we affirm that millennia of Jewish history have linked our people, our God, and the Land of Israel in holiness.

Some Jews would focus rather exclusively on the sanctity of the Land of Israel. They hold the Bible to be a record of Title, as though recorded at the Bexar County Courthouse. Though the Bible offers a variety of descriptions of the Land’s borders, these folks prefer the more expansive, known as “The Greater Land of Israel.” No matter which biblical description one prefers, ancient Israel certainly did include the land on the West Bank of the Jordan River, which was not in Israeli hands from 1948 to 1967. Jews who place the Land above all have settled widely in this territory, usually with the support of the Israeli government but in violation of International Law. While successive Israeli governments, including even the current one, have talked of a Palestinian State on much of this land, West Bank settlers threaten to fight to the death rather than be moved off what they view as their land.

But is the Land really at the center of Judaism? So many ancient peoples understood their land to be given them by their gods. Even the mightiest among them, though, was ultimately conquered. The people assimilated and their gods ceased to be worshiped. Judaism continues to thrive, because our ancient Rabbis placed Torah at the center, not the land. Our God continues to be worshiped by billions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims today because the Children of Israel remained faithful to God, even when conquered and exiled.

None of that negates our sacred Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. In our own day, there are those who would deny that our people lived in Ancient Israel, that our Temple stood in Jerusalem. Questioning the legitimacy of any Jewish State in Palestine, they claim that our ancestors didn’t live there, that our Torah is a lie. When President Obama, speaking in Cairo, cited the Holocaust as justification for the State of Israel’s existence, he unintentionally gave comfort to those who would deny our ancient connection to Israel altogether.

So there are many who would claim that the Native American Indian experience is much more like that of the Palestinian people. On the surface, the comparison seems apt. Like the Indians, Palestinians are not sovereign in a land where they once lived as a majority presence. Neither Indians nor Palestinians held anything like western legal title to the land on which they resided before Europeans came to America or Jews came back to resettle Palestine. Indians didn’t operate that way, though they squared off between themselves over territory. Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman Empire during the period of early Zionist settlement, and was never under the rule of indigenous Arabs. At the same time, some Palestinian individuals did hold title to their land; the early Zionists acquired much of that legally; the 1948 War of Independence caused the expropriation of still more. Perhaps the greatest similarity between Palestinians and Indians is that both groups suffer from a host of social and economic problems and are at the mercy of others who control their fates.

Once again, though, we must be careful not to take the comparison too far. The Europeans who perpetrated genocide against the Indians and dispossessed them of all but a few parcels of their land were wealthy nations that had no history in the western hemisphere. By contrast, the Jewish people returned to our ancient land as an alternative to annihilation.

Moreover, it’s not too late for the Palestinians, though one must be quite an optimist these days. If, and it’s a big if, the Palestinians embrace a leadership that acknowledges our history on our land and our right to live in sovereignty beside them, in perpetuity, that leadership will be met by an Israeli populace eager to end the bloodshed and an American President determined to broker the deal. The settlers who hold the land sacred above life are not popular among most Israelis, who will all too gladly send their sons and daughters to remove settlers once again, to make room for Palestine to realize its own national life.

Indigenous populations may also have a bright future in the Americas, south of the United States. Spanish colonialism was different from the British style. Except for the most elite families, Spain sent only men to colonize in this hemisphere. The native population was dispossessed of sovereignty, but was not annihilated by the millions as in this country.

Here in the United States, native populations will always struggle until perhaps they are no more or are identified with stronger groups to the south. When a young person leaves an Indian Reservation or other community, assimilates into American society, establishes a successful home and career, and marries outside the group, elders don’t know whether to mourn for lost peoplehood or rejoice in the individual’s success. Alcoholism, domestic violence, and illnesses both mental and physical run so rampant in Indian communities that casino profits and the corruption that comes with them have been called “success.”

Increasingly, American Indians are forgotten. It’s happening right now, as we debate health care in America. The Indian Healthcare Improvement Act expired in 2000. New hope came when the House of Representatives included this legislation in the bill that came out of the lower house weeks ago. These provisions for Native Americans, though, are missing from the Senate bill currently about to enter debate.

We, the Jewish people, have been strangers in our own land and in others throughout our history. And we have been commanded to remember those who are “strangers” today. How ironic, that Indians, of all people, could be called “strangers” in a land they inhabited before the ancestors of any other Americans came to these shores. But they are strangers, like Jews in Medieval Europe or even Palestine, like our people in ancient Egypt.

When Middle East peace needs an advocate, we American Jews must raise our voices, for our history teaches us altogether too much about the bloodshed imperiling Jews and Arabs alike.

When the Palestinian people needs an advocate, we American Jews must raise our voices, for we have known the perils of being a people without sovereignty.

When Native American Indians need an advocate, we American Jews must raise our voices, for we too have been strangers in our own land.