This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

First Nations*

In recent days, significant progress has been made toward acknowledging the injustices that were perpetrated by the Europeans on the native American population.

From the Jewish perspective, it is interesting to recall that there was a time when many people, Jews and Christians alike, were convinced that the first nations of the New World were descended from the lost tribes of Israel.

The heyday of this theory was in the mid-seventeenth century, a time that was singled out by many Jews and Christians as an apocalyptic era ripe for eschatological redemption. Not surprisingly, members of the Bible-based religious communities were concerned to situate the unprecedented new discoveries of the Age of Exploration within a framework that confirmed the accuracy and relevance of revealed scripture. In a manner that may be comparable to current speculations about the religious status of extraterrestrial life forms, pious Jews and Christians then sought to understand where the American natives fit into the rather limited list of nations that were enumerated in the early chapters of Genesis.

From the Christian perspective, there were a variety of interests that stimulated their theorizing about the Israelite origins of the American Indians. The mid-seventeenth century contained several dates that were singled out to be the End of History As We Know It (especially the temptingly numbered year 1,666) according to creative computations from several biblical proof texts. An important motif of much Christian eschatology was that their redeemer's second coming would be preceded by the conversion of the Jews--a scenario that could most easily be fulfilled if those elusive Jews could actually be conveniently located. Another widespread belief held that Jews would be strewn throughout the farthest reaches of the world. Now that the known world had become much larger than it had been for previous generations, it was natural that a Hebrew presence should be established in the freshly discovered continents across the ocean.

The most influential work (but hardly the only one) to argue the Jewish Indian theory was published in 1650 by a missionary named Thomas Thorowgood, and it bore the subtle title Jewes in America, Or: Probabilities that the Americans are Jews.

Preachers were fond of citing the Apocryphal book known as 2 Esdras, which told how the ten Israelite tribes had eluded their Assyrian conquerors by going forth into a further country where never mankind dwelt, that they might there keep their statutes, which they never kept in their own land.

And of course, we must not forget all those busy missionaries who were in desperate need of funding for their good work among the savages; missionaries such as the Rev. John Eliot, known as the Indian Apostle, who made lucrative use of the Jewish Indian story when soliciting contributions for his noble cause. They knew that their prospective sponsors would be more forthcoming in their generosity if they believed that their efforts were directed towards the salvation of those blind and stubborn Jews.

The Jewish argument for the case was most eloquently stated by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, the preeminent spokesman of the Marrano community in Amsterdam. Like many of his coreligionists, Menasseh was deeply impressed by the catastrophic dimensions of the Iberian expulsion, and by the kabbalistic messianic fervor that it generated. He devoted a special work, The Hope of Israel, to the argument that the ultimate redemption was imminent. His eschatological doctrine required that Jews be distributed to far-flung territories, from which they would be gathered back to their native land under the leadership of the Messiah the son of David..

One particular passage in Menasseh's treatise had a profound impact on subsequent developments. The volume opened with his report of his 1644 meeting with a Jewish traveler named Antonio Montezinos (aka Aaron Levy) who informed the rabbi of his encounter with a group of South American natives who were familiar with the Shema Yisra'el, and claimed descent from the tribe of Reuben. Menasseh insisted that his informant formalize the testimony in a notarized affidavit, which he promptly circulated among prominent English millennialists. The Hope of Israel, which the author dedicated to the British Parliament, achieved popularity among British Puritans, and Latin and English versions of the book became best-sellers.

In addition to Menasseh's understandable eagerness to bring an end to the exiles and sufferings of his people, he had a specific political purpose in promoting his theory among the English Christians. It became part of his compelling argument for the readmission of the Jews to England from which they had been legally expelled in 1290. After all, if the British empire was already in control of vast domains inhabited by the remnants of ancient Israel, then it did not make much sense to forbid their entry into England itself. True, the Christian support for this argument was motivated by a missionary theological agenda that was antithetical to the Jewish interests; but then as now, Jewish leaders were willing to ignore that fact when forging a pragmatic alliance with their gentile supporters.

Descriptions of the Jewish character of the American natives had previously been reported by Spanish travelers. It was not difficult for them to come up with a few similarities between the vocabularies of Hebrew and the native languages--and this dovetailed nicely with the fashionable notion that all human language had evolved out of the primordial Hebrew. Observers pointed out that the Indians possessed a tradition about a great flood that resembled the biblical account. While some authors concluded from these similarities that those people were of ancient Hebrew origin, others surmised that it was Satan who had implanted those traits (as well as their incomprehensible languages) in order to impede them from accepting the gospel truth. The classifications of Jewish characteristics and customs could at times be very flexible, even contradictory. For example, they included both uncleanliness and frequent bathing rituals, an inclination towards prayer and spirituality as well as crass materialism.

An allusion to the practice of scalping one's enemies was ingeniously read into the words of the Psalmist (68:21): But God shall wound the head of his enemies, and the hairy scalp of such a one as goeth on still in his trespasses. In a similar vein, Thomas Throwgood cited the scriptural admonition that the sinful Hebrews would be reduced to cannibalism, and noted that this dietary preference was in fact observed by the American savages.

Nevertheless, there were a few skeptics who dared to challenged the thesis and the evidence brought in its support. Sir Hamon L'Estrange published a tract called Americans no Jewes, or Improbabilities that the Americans are of that race, in which the author took apart Thorowgood's arguments one by one. Some writers proposed an alternative biblical theory, that the Indians derived from Canaanites who had fled Joshua's invasion.

With the elapse of the seventeenth-century deadlines that had been set for the messianic redemption, the Jewish Indian theory lost much of its initial urgency and attractiveness; and it was superseded by alternative doctrines like that of the British Israelite movement, which claimed that the British themselves were the true heirs to the ancient Hebrew pedigree. Until the emergence of our next trendy conspiracy theory, I suppose that the figure of the Jewish Indian (complete with heavy Yiddish accent) will stay relegated to the domain of Hollywood comedy.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

published by

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