On Monday, President Donald Trump dispossessed two National Monuments in Utah of more than two million acres of land, representing the largest evisceration of protected territory in American history.
On Wednesday, to the deep displeasure of Palestinian political representatives, Arab governments and diplomats across the world, the President publicly recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel.
Wednesday’s move engendered joy and jubilation among religious American Jews and Christians; Monday’s action attracted fervent support from religious Christians, but by all apparent public record, elicited no organized response from Jewish Americans.
The silence from the Jewish community on this matter is not just ‘deafening,’ as the platitude goes; it is also tremendously hypocritical. Zionist Jews struggle for indigeneity in, and celebrate ties to, the land of Israel (and especially Jerusalem), usually without strong support from many allies. We rightfully criticize others who do not recognize or validate our history in our homeland. Why, then, have we not pushed to support other indigenous groups, in exceptionally similar circumstances, who need our help?
Many Jews in both the United States and in countries across the world identify not as ethnically White, but as ethnically Jewish. That is, they understand Judaism not just as a religion to which they are devoted but as a peoplehood in which they share membership; they view themselves as originating in the Middle East, as a link in a chain of Jewish tradition spanning back thousands of years, starting with the receipt of the Torah at Mount Sinai or with the establishment of social organization in the land of Israel. This perspective abounds within communities of “white-passing” Ashkenazi Jews, Iberian Sephardi Jews, Near Eastern Mizrahi Jews and Indian Jews alike.
It is a worldview adopted largely by religious Jews, but it is not fantastical or baseless; on the contrary, it has a strong foundation in robust genetic evidence. It helps to explain why so many Zionist Jews view as a momentous occasion President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In their eyes, President Trump’s announcement validates not only the legality of the modern State of Israel, but also the legitimacy of the Jewish claim to and ethnogenesis in the land. In essence, Trump not only recognized Jerusalem, but by extension, also recognized Jewish indigeneity to and history in Jerusalem. To many, recognition implies the right for the Jewish people to statehood in not only our ancestral homeland but in our ancestral and religious capital, too.
Unfortunately, passion in the Jewish community about the President’s decisions this week ended with issues of our own indigeneity. Despite professed interest in and care for issues of indigeneity in general – and despite framing support for Israel in this light – Jewish Americans were largely silent regarding the President’s expropriation of public land important to various Native American tribes.
The two National Monuments for which the President removed federal protections are Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments. President Clinton designated the former – totaling 1.9 million acres – with federal protection in 1996. President Obama designated the latter – totaling 1.4 million acres – with protection in 2016. President Trump’s designation – standing on dubious legal grounds – removes 2 million acres from the two Monuments.
Both National Monuments harbor “abundant rock art, [legacies of] dwellings, ceremonial sites, resources… and [other] cultural sites” within their vast expanse, according to an article published in CNN. These sites are of tremendous cultural, religious and historical value to Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute, Pueblo of Zuni and Ute Indian tribes, all of which have long-standing histories in the region. Members of this “intertribal coalition [still] collect plants and water from the Bears Ears region for cultural and medicinal ceremonies,” according to Ethel Branch, attorney general for the Navajo Nation.
The President’s removal of public protection for the lands leaves the territory liable for purchase by the highest bidder. The foregoing Native American tribes fear that private drilling and mining companies will buy the land, plunder it and not only destroy its cultural heritage sites, but also deny native peoples access thereto. These lands hold the religious sites on which these peoples’ ancestors dwelled, the sites to which they feel spiritual connection, the sites on which they still perform ritual and the sites from which they derive their core identity.
How does the Native American connection to lands in Utah differ from the Jewish connection to Jerusalem and its holy sites? Effectively, it doesn’t. Like Native American counterparts, Zionist Jews feel connected to Jerusalem because our ancestors dwelled there, because the city hosts sites of religious and spiritual importance and because the city helps inform our identity.
Who, of all peoples, ought to support native peoples fighting for their indigineity? Perhaps the people who never receive, yet constantly pine for, indigenous validation of our own. Perhaps we should.
If you are not compelled by a belief in the value of public lands for the sustainable use of the people, if you do not subscribe to the rigorous analysis proving the economic value of these lands and if you do not have concern for the environmental degradation likely to ensue from privatization — I still ask you: if you want others to stand up for Jerusalem, will you stand up for these peoples and these lands?