Jewish Indigeneity

In the western imagination ‘indigenous peoples’ are generally Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, Polynesian peoples such as the Māori, and the pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas — all of whom were dispossessed of their lands by Europeans in the early modern period. Indeed, much of the terminology around indigeneity was coined to describe these peoples. But this doesn’t invalidate its use to better understand and protect other, equally applicable, peoples — including the Jewish people.

According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs:

Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history, their rights have always been violated.

Further to the above, both the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and Amnesty International offer a number of criteria for identifying indigenous peoples. I will list each of these below, and demonstrate their applicability to the Jewish people.

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The Sudra: A Connection to Pre-Islamic Jewish Culture

The sudra

For millennia, Jewish men, particularly Torah scholars, have covered their heads and/or necks with a woven cloth called a סודרא (sudra, sudara) or סודר (sudar). Jews in late antiquity routinely wore sudarin, and the garment is consequently mentioned frequently in the Mishnah — a written record of Jewish common law, and daily life in the Land of Israel, compiled in the first two centuries of the Common Era. The Jewish Encyclopedia, published in twelve volumes between 1901 and 1906, explains that ‘[t]he Israelites most probably had a head-dress similar to that worn by the Bedouins … a keffieh folded into a triangle, and placed on the head with the middle ends hanging over the neck to protect it.’

The encyclopedia also says that, in later times, Jews wrapped their headcloths around a small cap ‘to shield the other parts of the head-covering from perspiration.’ Even today, some Yemenite Jewish men still wear sudarin, usually wrapped around a central felt cap called a כומתא (komtah), to form a headdress similar to a turban.

A Yemenite Jewish man wearing a sudra, c. 1898-1914
A Yemenite Jew wearing a sudra wrapped around a komtah.
c. 1898-1914

Rabbi Marcus Jastrow’s scholarly Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, written in the late 19th century, defines sudra as a ‘scarf wound around the head and hanging down over the neck, turban’. Rabbi Ernest Klein’s 1987 Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language defines it as a ‘scarf’ or ‘shawl’. The word itself is Aramaic, but its etymology is disputed. Klein asserts that it is related to the Latin sudarium (handkerchief, napkin), while Jastrow regards the similarity as a coincidence. The Babylonian Talmud, in tractate Shabbat, offers an acronymic etymology, claiming that sudra is an acronym, derived from a biblical verse which states that ‘the counsel of the Lord is with those who fear Him’. While this may seem fanciful, it is certainly in keeping with the known origins of many Jewish words, both classical and modern, as well as the ancient minhag (Jewish custom) of covering one’s head to demonstrate reverence to God.

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A Response to 'Charlie Kaplan'

Charlie Kaplan believes that there is ‘scant evidence for the claim’ that ‘most of Britain’s 270,000-strong Jewish community have for some time felt that the Labour Party was not a safe place for them’. He is mistaken. In 2018 The Guardian published an open letter, written and co-signed by sixty-eight British rabbis, representing denominations spanning the entire spectrum of modern Judaism, in which they expressed their concerns, and the concerns of their communities, about antisemitism in the Labour Party. So diverse were the signatories that they even included the late Hasidic rabbi and former Labour Councillor, Avrohom Pinter. In 2019 Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, wrote an article in The Times, in which he stated that ‘the question I am now most frequently asked is: [w]hat will become of Jews and Judaism in Britain if the Labour Party forms the next government?’ In the same year a study by Survation, an independent research organisation, found that an estimated 86% of British Jews believe ‘that there are high levels of antisemitism among Labour Party members and elected representatives’. A further study, conducted by King’s College London and the Campaign Against Antisemitism, and published in 2020, reported that ‘British Jews feel that the Labour Party is more than twice as tolerant of antisemitism than any other political party’. Whether or not these feelings are justified may be up for debate, but it is resoundingly clear that the majority of British Jews do not feel welcome in the Labour Party, and have not for some time. Myself among them.

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