What, to the Jew, is Columbus (and Indigenous People’s) Day?
March 14, 1891. 11 Italian Americans are hanged, shot, and clubbed to death outside the Parish Prison in New Orleans. After being found not guilty of the October 1890 killing of the city’s police chief, David Hennessy, the men are lynched by an execution squad comprising city elite, including a future mayor and governor. None of the murderers are ever indicted.
At the time, Italian Americans, particularly those from Sicily, were viewed not as white, but as racial Others. The New Orleans lynching inflamed racial tensions across the country. There were even fears that Italy would declare war. To ease these conflicts, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation declaring the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas as a general holiday for the people of the United States. Columbus was already a celebrated figure in Italian American communities, and Harrison’s proclamation signaled acceptance of Italian Americans as part of, even foundational to, the American project. Forty-two years later, FDR officially declared Columbus Day an annual federal holiday. And so it remains, despite hundreds of municipalities and more than a dozen states (including our own) having decided to instead commemorate Indigenous People’s Day. Both days were commemorated this past Monday; President Joe Biden issued formal proclamations about each.
OK. Fine. But why bring this up in shul? With apologies to Frederick Douglass; what, to the Jew, is Columbus Day? Or, alternatively: what, to the Jew, is Indigenous People’s Day? I’m going to address those questions by drawing deeply on Abraham’s story as we just heard it told in today’s parasha, Lech-Lecha.
But first, we need to understand what it means for a people to be considered indigenous. In 1986, United Nations Special Rapporteur, José Martínez Cobo provided one of the most common working definitions, stating,
Indigenous communities, peoples[,] and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them.
This is a painful definition. Colonialism, it stipulates, gives the term “indigenous” its meaning. To be indigenous means to be in relation and reaction to colonialism and its consequences.
Ok; now let’s turn to the parasha. A referesher: Abram, along with his wife Serai, his father Terach, and his nephew Lot, have left Ur of the Chaldeans bound for the land of Canaan. But they’ve stopped in the land of Charan, where Terach has died. That’s where the narrative picked up today: with Abram and family living in Charan.
And then God says, “לֶךְ־לְךָ֛, go on, go forth, from your land, מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ and from your native land, וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ and from your father’s house, וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ to the land I will show you, אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ.”
But why is God telling Abraham to leave his native land and his father’s house now? Isn’t Abraham from Ur? Hasn’t he already left?
There’s a lot of rabbinic commentary on this. Ramban, for instance, explains that Abraham was actually born in Charan. When Abraham was still a child, Terach moved his family to Ur, where Lot’s father, Haran, Abraham’s younger brother, was born. That’s why at the end of Noach, the narrative specifies: וַיָּ֣מׇת הָרָ֔ן, and Haran died, בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מוֹלַדְתּ֖וֹ בְּא֥וּר כַּשְׂדִּֽים, in his native land, Ur of the Chaldeans. Haran’s native land, but not Abraham’s, or Terach’s.
More important, though, is that everything in the Torah and the commentary on it points to the same fact: Abraham was a settler in Canaan.
Why is this important? Well, consider how straightforward it would’ve been for the text and its interpreters to claim Abraham was indigenous to Canaan: to provide ancestral links justifying his eventual possession of that land. There are, for instance, commentaries that place Noach’s son Shem in Canaan, as the first inhabitant after the Flood. It’s easy to imagine a version of the story in which Abraham, as Shem’s rightful heir, takes the land back from the Canaanites.
But we don’t see recourse to that genealogy anywhere. Instead, we have a narrative that explicitly positions Abraham as an outsider: the one from beyond, הָעִבְרִ֑י, the Hebrew, as he is dubbed in today’s parasha — the first time the term “Hebrew” appears in the Torah.
What’s more, in this week’s parasha and those of the next two weeks, Vayera and Chayei Sarah, we repeatedly find Abraham negotiating his place among the natives of the land in which he’s settled. He strives to avoid conflict with the Sodomites and the Philistines and the Hittites and more. At every juncture, he insists on fair and formal gift exchanges and property purchases, and refers to himself, formally, as גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁ֥ב, a stranger and settler.
The only time Abraham takes up arms is to rescue Lot, during this parasha’s war among the five and four kings. And let’s face it: the War of the Five and Four Kings comes out of nowhere. It interrupts the narrative. And it sounds more like an episode of Game of Thrones than an event from the Torah. What is it even doing here?
The classic midrashim — and we’re talking the consensus rabbinic commentaries on the Torah text, here — pose it as foreshadowing. For all of Abraham’s peaceful coexistence with the native Canaanites, ultimately they must and will be defeated. Their indigeneity is no guard against their dispossession, any more than Abraham’s merit flows from indigeneity. Rather, as our parasha today relates, Abraham’s claim is via his covenant with an all-powerful God, according to which his descendants will occupy all the land between the Euphrates and the river of Egypt.
So, while Abraham lives as a settler among the natives, managing land disputes and forging treaties with them, he has, in his pocket, God’s guarantee that they will eventually be deemed undeserving of holding onto their land, due to their עֲוֺ֥ן, their iniquity. The war of the five kings and four kings, according to the rabbinic commentary, instantiates this iniquity.
Ramban, though, asks another question: why was Abraham deserving? Why did God choose Abram to send to Canaan, renaming him Abraham, כִּ֛י אַב־הֲמ֥וֹן גּוֹיִ֖ם, because he will be the father of a multitude of nations? As Ramban observes, there’s been no indication to this point in the Torah that Abram was special in any way. There’s nothing notable about his lineage. He hasn’t done anything remarkable, except to follow his father to Ur and then Charan.
To answer this question, Ramban appeals to midrashim about Abram’s travails among the Chaldeans. These stories tell us that Abram already believed in El Elyon before God sent him to Canaan and suffered for those beliefs in Ur. That’s why God chose him. The proof of this is that, after all, the Torah tells us God chose him!
This certainly reads as circular, post hoc justification: faced with what otherwise seems an arbitrary act of God, the rabbis created a cool backstory, complete with a miraculous escape from a fiery death. (Again: very Game of Thrones. אַב־הֲמ֥וֹן גּוֹיִ֖ם; Mother of Dragons…)
Last week, Rabbi Stone taught us that a central lesson of Bereshit — both the parasha and the book as a whole — is that we do not create ourselves, either biologically or theologically. This seems inarguable, but: don’t we, like the rabbis, keep inventing stories that explain where we come from, and why we belong where we are? Don’t we imagine our communities — our peoples, our nations — into existence, and celebrate their origins and their heroes as our own?
Which is unsurprising, really. Aren’t we all the heroes of own stories, as the line goes? And if Hollywood’s taught us anything, it’s that we want our heroes to have great origin stories. We’re willing to ignore plot holes and continuity gaps and even fill them ourselves, in order to hold onto those stories.
Which brings us back to Columbus Day. If you’re an avid media consumer, you’ve likely seen commentaries arguing for its continued commemoration; celebrating the contributions of European colonists, while either ignoring or indicting indigenous histories and cultures. These commentaries tell one story about the origins of our country about where the American people come from, and about who belongs here — and who does not: those who have become the deserving heroes, and those who remain the undeserving Others.
That story affirms the American colonial project — a project that, among other features, has historically rejected the stories of indigenous people, and those people themselves, as undeserving of inclusion, justifying their dispossession and their destruction. At the same time, it’s a project that has consistently negotiated conflicts by successfully incorporating groups once viewed as Others.
We have to acknowledge that we are one of those groups: that we have, however tenuously, been incorporated into the colonial project. This is why our Social Justice Committee has launched efforts to understand what such acknowledgment might mean for our congregation and for the indigenous people among whom we’ve settled. Just this past week, for instance, we participated in the Teach the Truth Wisconsin initiative via a video featuring the Bear Mound in Vilas Park, and our relation to its geography and history. These efforts will be ongoing and coordinated with indigenous people themselves. We have much more to do here.
Having said that — and I admit to some nerves in broaching this — we also have to acknowledge the elephant standing squarely on the third rail in the room. That is, of course, that while acknowledging that Jews are not indigenous to the United States, many of us do claim that we are nonetheless indigenous — to Israel.
This is a political claim, one made in the name of survival, in the face of fears both territorial and existential. It’s a claim made in response to Palestinians’ own claim to indigeneity, and our fear of what that means for the future of Israel as a Jewish state. And it’s a claim made in response to what happens to us when we are strangers in strange lands, wandering Jews, rootless cosmopolitans, and our fear for what that means for the future of the Jewish people, full stop.
It’s a claim that there must not only be places in which Jews belong, but also a place that belongs to the Jews, in perpetuity.
If Columbus Day pushes us to revisit what it means for Jews to embrace and be embraced by the American colonial project, then, Indigenous People’s Day forces us to reflect on what it means for Jews to embrace indigeneity as an indemnity, a prize awarded to us in the aftermath of the 20th-century equivalent of the war of five kings and four.
Considering these two days, together, in light of today’s parasha, yields big questions. What stories do we want to continue telling to and about ourselves? About our origins, and also about our destinations? And about how the former informs the latter?
Will our destination stories be stories of Jews as both colonized and colonizer? Or might we imagine stories beyond that — stories of a postcolonial, even decolonial, Jewishness?
It’s not so difficult to condemn colonial projects and celebrate indigenous people in principle. But in practice? How do we empower, perhaps even emulate, indigenous people, without idealizing them, and their histories, and their cultures, as essentially superior to our own? And how do we resist the temptation to cast ourselves as indigenous to other places, and to use that as justification for our own superiority to others?
The Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani raises these exact questions in his recent book, which is aptly titled Neither Native nor Settler. Mamdani’s main argument, as you might guess from that title, is that if we want to successfully move past colonialism, we need to transcend its two master categories. Not native; not settler. Instead, Mamdani argues, we all could and should embrace the label of “survivor”.
For most Jews, however, “survivor” already has a specific meaning, one that is both vital in and of itself and, at the same time, its own spur to fear-based political claims. As another alternative, then: perhaps it’s time for us to rehabilitate the ideas and practices of settling, and to distinguish them from the concept of both the colonial and the indigenous. To accept that we have never been and never will be indigenous to this country or any other. To adopt the origin story of Lech-Lecha as a destination, as well. As Abraham’s descendants, we have repeatedly found ourselves strangers and settlers: in our origin stories, in the lands of Canaan and Egypt; and in our present destinations, in all the lands we find ourselves — including Israel.
Let’s be clear: the premise of accepting, even embracing, the perpetual role of settler is a challenging one. There’s no better time to engage these ideas seriously than during our current year of shmita, of release. Through the directives of shmita, God expands Abraham’s self-description to encompass all of us, stating, גֵרִ֧ים וְתוֹשָׁבִ֛ים אַתֶּ֖ם עִמָּדִֽי, “Strangers and settlers you are, with Me.”
What might it mean to seriously grapple with this idea that we have been and are compelled to settle: to be settlers? To tell the story of present-day Jews, our story, as גֵרִ֧ים וְתוֹשָׁבִ֛ים, strangers and settlers, modern-day Abrahams, living alongside others, all of us struggling to find new names to put to our legacies?
There are no easy answers; for now, I’ll just leave us with these questions. I hope we continue the conversation over schnapps and egg salad. Thanks, and good shabbes!