History | Jews & Indians: A Brief History

Julius Meyer

Jews and indigenous North Americans have had a curious, and occasionally intimate, history since Europeans “discovered” the new world, and imagined their inhabitants as descendants of the so-called Lost Tribes of ancient Israel.  That these white people – including some Jews among them – were wrong is, only partly important.  A debate was born in 1650, when Menasseh Ben Israel, the Portuguese-Dutch rabbi largely responsible for the Jews’ re-admittance to England after their exile in 1290, published a book that suggested the end-times were near, given the discovery of the scattered remnants of Israel in the New World.  Incredibly, this myth and its debaters persisted, among secular and religious thinkers of all stripes and politics, until the early twentieth century.

Both American Jews and Native Americans were deeply and emotionally divided about the implication of such an idea. For Jews, on the one hand being connected to American Indians made their settlement on these shores a divinely ordained homecoming. It implied they belonged to America in a most natural way. It meant the end of Exile.  On the other hand, being linked to Indians suggested that Jews too might be in need of Christian “civilizing,” and we know Jews weren’t much interested in hearing that lecture again.

For the native peoples who had incorporated Christian elements into their religious world views, being connected to the biblical drama – especially to its climax with the in-gathering of exiles and the subsequent apocalypse – offered a critical role at the center stage in Western cosmic history.  On the other hand, suggesting that Indians were really stray Jews was rather offensive to plenty of Native thinkers.  What could be a worse effacement of Native history, religion, identity or mission than to suggest the Indian’s own history was wrong, and rather, it belonged, instead, to the West?

A long history of Jews creating imagined Indians unfolded from there, with plays, songs, novels, poems, and films written by Jews about Indians, from the likes of George & Ira Gershwin (Girl Crazy), Kahn & Ziegfeld (Whoopee!), Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles), Leonard Cohen (Beautiful Losers), Mordecai Richler (The Incomparable Atuk, and Solomon Gursky Was Here), and plenty of other lesser known authors in Yiddish, Hebrew and English.  The most recent literary tango of Jews and Indians was in the hands of Michael Chabon (The Yiddish Policeman’s Union), and there’s a rumor out there that the Coen Brothers will be making it into a film.

But encounters between actual Jews and actual native peoples began with Jews as frontier traders.  Jews met Indians as traders of pelts and furs in New France and early colonial American life, and as peddlers, merchandizers, suppliers of previsions and dry goods to military bases, on the western frontier from the 1860s through the 1910s all over the continent, from Yosemite to Yukon, Manitoba to Montana.  Jews had all sorts of encounters with Native peoples in the West: they forged economic bonds, sometimes peaceably, sometimes exploitatively.  They learned Indian languages. They made friends.  They scalped and were scalped.  That history is one of money, sex, and violence.  It is about power, land, and belonging.

For the most part, frontier Jews embraced colonial settlement, its politics of Indian confinement, and its racism.  They figured Indians as impediments to their immigrant aspirations. As a once marginalized, colonized minority, Jews in the West tended to revel in this reversal of fortunes, celebrating their powers as pacifiers of the noble savage, and productive toilers of the land.  These reckonings of history, they assumed, were the results of an inevitably forward-moving civilizing process.

Jews also played a significant role in the making of the Indian curio business around the turn of the last century. In Santa Fe (the Southwest), Omaha (the Plains), and Victoria B.C. (the Pacific Northwest), Jews bought objects that indexed “Indian,” like totem poles, wampum belts, moccasins, Indian baskets or rugs.  They marketed and sold these heritage objects to white buyers, to museums, to boys in Chicago and New York backyards for playing Indian, and to the glass cabinets in the corners of middle class living rooms where they silently attested to the worldliness of their owners.

As Jews faced immigration restriction and xenophobic nativist sentiment in the teens and twenties, they put Indians to other uses.  They argued that America needed to rise to its pluralistic and liberal promise by shedding its anti-Jewish, anti-Black and anti-Catholic feeling.  It had to broaden its terms for naturalization. These Jews said that America was, by definition, “a nation of immigrants.” The only outsiders to this principle of national belonging were, ironically, the only “true” Americans: Indians.  Paradoxically, the authenticity of the American Indians under-wrote their exclusion from the nation.

But as Jews slowly embraced their enfranchisement in America beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, their “Indians” became a vehicle for promoting cultural pluralism and the protection of minority rights in American liberal institutions – including Indians.  Rising to high-ranking federal power in the New Deal era, Jews felt empowered enough to critique the State, and comfortable enough to claim responsibility for the state of its social relations.  Mid-century Jewish philanthropists, lawyers, anthropologists, bureaucrats, and educators mobilized around Indian economic improvement, political inclusion, and citizenship rights, playing a critical role in the formation of the Indian rights movement.  They argued that the loss of Indian culture corroded America’s most valuable asset, its diversity, and that the disenfranchisement of Indians compromised the egalitarianism of American democracy itself.

After the war, Jewish-Indian relations were characterized by a new multiplicity.  We can highlight three here.  The first was a tense conversation that took shape about genocide.  To what extent did Americans turn the Nazi genocide of European Jewry into the universal story of human sins and victims, but fail to come to terms with the genocide that Americans perpetrated, by commission or omission, against Native Americans over the course of centuries?

A second place of post-war meeting centered on spirituality, and the ways that American whites, Jews among them, took an interest in shamanism and native spirituality.  Perhaps displeasure with western faiths and modern rationality helped inspire this turn to the “wise Indian,” the noble savage. Perhaps too: environmentalism, with its dubious linking of Indians with nature. In any event, Jewish spiritual seekers, New Age rabbis, and even Reform and Conservative youth groups and Jewish Day School groups arranged meetings with various native groups to discuss parallels and connections between their religious traditions.

Finally, over the past two decades, a growing chorus of voices – of protestors and pundits –triangulated Israelis, Palestinians and American Indians, over the idea of aboriginality, of who is “native” to the Holy Land, of sacred landscape and language.  This discussion has had its uses and abuses, no doubt. It is a virtual Rorschach test of political inclination and, truly a minefield of problematic implications and neglected subtexts.

In all, encounters between Jews and Native Americans have been highly diverse, and deeply ambivalent.  Jews have tended to see themselves apart from other white Europeans, as off-white, sharing in the glories of American life (say, baseball, Hollywood, and the separation of Church & State), but exempt from its stains (most importantly, systemic racism and the broad context of life in North America, colonialism).  Like other whites, Jews have interacted with both the imaginary Indians of their own making, and with actual Native peoples; some of these encounters evoke pride, others should inspire just as much soul searching as the history of the continent we all share demands.

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David S. Koffman is a SSHRC Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto.  He spent a really long time writing The Jews’ Indian: Native Americans in the Jewish Imagination and Experience, 1854-1954.   It helped him earn a PhD from NYU. This article is part of a special edition of the magazine called Indigenous Shtetl.