This land is our land

Searching for some ultimate bedrock of our identity is not a useful or progressive basis on which to fight for justice and human rights, argues Julia Bard

This land is our land

The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has just been won by Professor Svante Pääbo for his groundbreaking work on paleogenetics. He has sequenced the genome of Neanderthals as well as working out the genetic makeup of a previously unknown human species, called Denisovans. This amazing work will explain some important things about human prehistory. On the other hand, getting your DNA analysed by a “heritage and ancestry” industry that’s raking in millions is less amazing. Apart from problems with the science, it’s predicated on some highly problematic ways of defining our identity. enthusiastically claims: “Your DNA reveals your unique heritage – the ethnic groups and geographic regions you originate from”. This really doesn’t pan out. It may connect you with particular individuals, and enable you to trace specific family members through the generations (including people who might be shocked to discover that they’re related to you). This kind of information is hard to find if you’re from a community whose history has been fractured by enslavement, persecution, war or poverty. More meticulous existing records “going back to William the Conqueror” are generally the preserve of those who have continued the tradition of conquest and want to ensure that the proceeds are kept in the family.

But you really shouldn’t get excited about discovering that you are 14% Latvian or 5% Sephardi or 25% Celtic.

To start with, there’s the flawed science: when you do one of these tests, your DNA is not compared with the entire population of the world; it is compared with that of a pool of other people doing the same thing. This is weighted towards affluent countries, so there is much less data on Africans, for example, which skews the results. But whatever floats your longboat – if it interests you to discover that some of your ancestors were Vikings (whatever that means), there’s no harm done.

But there are serious problems with delving backwards in time for the essence of “who you are”. “Ethnic group” is an imprecise and highly contested term. Ethnicity has much more to do with interaction between mobile, fluctuating human groups that have shifting, overlapping historical and current experiences, than with genetics. If we try to attach it to our DNA we’re getting close to theories of race that are not only nonsensical but are extremely dangerous.

Ditto “heritage”. If you’re interested in discoveries about built-in immunity, then it’s fascinating to know that Neanderthal genes might confer some inherited protection to certain diseases as measured across populations. But that doesn’t seem to be what people are looking for. They want to find out where they came from – as if they can find a thread that will lead them back to the earliest origins of “their” people. They want to discover that somewhere, at some time, they were indigenous – that there was a Garden of Eden which is the bedrock of their identity.

And so we come to the use and misuse of the term “indigenous”. In science this is a (not very precise) term to mean something or someone native to an area, whether we know its distant origins or not. It is also a (not very precise) political term, described at some length by the United Nations. As well as a longstanding connection to a particular place, this description adds that Indigenous Peoples are defined by suffering rights violations, disadvantage, minority status, vulnerability, colonisation, destruction of their land, cultures and languages, and that they share a common experience with other such peoples across the world.

The UN definition of Indigenous Peoples is truly, like the proverbial camel, “a horse built by a committee”. They are “inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment” and “have retained social, cultural, economic characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live”. What a tangle of vague ideas that seem designed to cover all bases. “Dominant societies”? It goes without saying that those “dominant societies” are incomers in relation to the Indigenous Peoples, who, by definition, were already there. But the stratification and fracture lines are drawn in the wrong place.

The defining feature of the oppression of First Nation / Indigenous / First Peoples everywhere is that they’ve been conquered, colonised, exploited and murdered. They are, above all, the victims and targets of racism. They do share common experiences and common struggles with others in similar situations across the world. But they also share experiences with peoples who have been forced to migrate into their territory – not conquerors or colonists but refugees from conquest, colonisation, climate catastrophe, exploitation and murder in far off places. Some have been prised off the land that sustained them; others, like Gypsy, Roma, Traveller people – and Jews – have been persecuted for not being attached to a piece of land.

It’s disturbing to hear Jews and Palestinians arguing for their rights to the same territory not on the basis of the desperate necessity for justice now, but because they claim to be indigenous. The settlers’ justification for their violence, theft and demolition of Palestinian property and lives is encapsulated in their insistence that they have a right to “Judea” and “Samaria” going back to biblical times. People arriving from New York are saying “this is our land”, and claiming to be on a par with groups like First Nation Americans in having suffered an existential loss at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE. Even if this was factually correct, which it is not (Jews come from a nomadic tradition and have an almost continuous diasporic history interspersed with short, settled periods on that particular bit of land), this would not justify their actions.

Our opposition to the occupation, to the apartheid laws, to the racial discrimination, to the relentless violence designed to drive the Palestinians down and out must be based on our conviction that humans can and must coexist if we’re not to face oblivion. The case against settler colonialism won’t be made by arguing about who got there first. Neither the Palestinians nor any other conquered, colonised or oppressed peoples will move a single step in that direction by competing on the highly dubious grounds that one or other group is most “indigenous”.

Indeed, anyone who can work out who is indigenous to that particular piece of land on the eastern Mediterranean will truly deserve a Nobel Prize.

Posted: 21 January 2023  |  Published in: Jewish Socialist No 77