Jewish girl raises Israeli flag at the Israeli village of Avnei Hefetz, Samaria
Jewish girl raises Israeli flag at the Israeli village of Avnei Hefetz, SamariaGili Yaari/Flash 90

It would seem to be a fairly basic principle for a pro-Israel organization to accept: that the Jewish people is an indigenous nation to the Land of Israel.

Not so for J Street and several other self-defined "liberal Zionist" organizations.

At the World Zionist Congress last week, a proposal entitled “Recognition of the Jewish People as Indigenous to the Land of Israel” was proposed by LAVI, a relatively small but active group of newcomers to the World Zionist Organization's legislative body that ran in the elections to the congress last year as part of the Alliance for New Zionist Vision (ANZV).

While it seemed to be stating the obvious, the authors of the bill emphasized that expressing the principle of Jewish indigenous status in such clear terms was necessary to "answer... the core anti-Israel accusation that Jews are foreign colonialists in the country and instead affirms that the Jewish people have indigenous rights to live in their ancestral home."

But instead of receiving the unanimous support one might expect, the proposal faced dogged and determined opposition from J Street and other liberal factions - much to the incredulity of its supporters.

Making the opposition all the more bizarre was the fact that the bill clearly expressed that it "does not negate the indigenous status of any other people."

The bill declared that "the Jewish people is a Semitic people, indigenous to the Land of Israel and seeking international recognition of its indigenous status," and gained strong support from right-wing and religious-Zionist factions - although LAVI say they seek to transcend the "linear" political divide and do not define themselves as either left- or right-wing. 

The proposal argued that "Israel’s contrived Western identity" was not only handing ammunition to its enemies to falsely label Zionism as a "colonialist" project, but that it was also placing an artificial barrier preventing peace between Israel and its other "Semitic" neighbors.

"Despite LAVI’s insistence that Israel relating to itself as indigenous to the Middle East would improve conditions for peace and 'Semitic Unity,' the resolution was aggressively opposed by a number of factions defining themselves as 'liberal Zionists,' including Hatikva (J Street, New Israel Fund, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, Habonim Dror, Hashomer Hatzair, Partners for Progressive Israel, etc.), ARZA (the Reform movement) and MERCAZ (the Conservative movement)," ANZV said in a statement.

"In addition to rallying their delegates to vote against the initiative, some of these factions unsuccessfully attempted to force a revote on the plenum after the resolution narrowly passed by a slim 51% majority."

The proposal past with a narrow 51% majority
The proposal past with a narrow 51% majorityANZV

LAVI delegate Jonathan Kadoch expressed his incredulity at the opposition, and questioned how anyone could even support a Jewish state existing in the Middle East while denying Jewish indigeneity to the region.

“If we can’t even say we belong here, that we have deep roots here, how can we expect our neighbors to even begin to make peace with us?” asked Kadoch.

“We can’t expect others to acknowledge who we are if we’re not clear on about it ourselves. Of course we have work to do in order to make peace with our neighbors. And we need to recognize and validate their narrative. But how can we even begin to work together towards peace if we don’t even recognize and validate our own narrative?

"We are an indigenous people in this land. We have a rich culture and history that began here and continued for thousands of years. This is not a left or right issue. It’s not a religious or secular issue. This is an identity issue!”

According to Shoshana Bekerman, an adviser who helped draft the resolution, Israel is practically the only UN member nation that has not yet endorsed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people despite six years of efforts and advocacy by top legal experts and advisers.

In explaining the resolution, Bekerman quoted former Minister of Justice of Canada Irwin Cotler, a world renown expert on indigenous people:

"Israel, rooted in the Jewish people as an Abrahamic people, is a prototypical First Nation or aboriginal people, just as the Jewish religion is a prototypical aboriginal religion, the first of the Abrahamic religions. In a word, the Jewish people is the only people that still inhabits the same land, embraces the same religion, studies the same Torah, hearkens to the same prophets, speaks the same aboriginal language - Hebrew - and bears the same aboriginal name, Israel, as it did 3,500 years ago."

Despite the passage of the bill, official endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People would require the Israeli government - and consequently the international community - to recognize the indigenous rights of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel based the UN working definition of "indigenous peoples." That includes: Having Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands; Culture in general, or in specific manifestations (such as religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, means of livelihood, lifestyle, etc.); Language (whether used as the only language, as mother-tongue, as the habitual means of communication at home or in the family, or as the main, preferred, habitual, general or normal language); Residence on certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world since pre-invasion and pre-colonial times.