Author will discuss history of American Jews and Native Americans

David Koffman

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

In 2002, David Koffman was a graduate student at New York University and planning to pursue a doctorate on two famous Jewish American anthropologists when the leader of an indigenous people in Canada made hateful comments about Jews that prompted Koffman to rethink his work. 

David Ahenakew, a leader of the Canadian First Nations, told a Canadian newspaper: 

“The Jews damn near owned all of Germany prior to the war. “That’s why Hitler came in. He was going to make damn sure that the Jews didn’t take over Germany, or even Europe. That’s why he fried six million of those guys, you know. Jews would have owned the goddamned world. And look what they’re doing now, they’re killing people in Arab countries.”

Koffman had been examining anthropologists Franz Boas and Edward Sapir, who studied American Indian tribes and concluded that race didn’t explain the differences between people. 

If that was the case, Koffman wondered, why was there racism? Why was there anti-Semitism? Why had Ahenakew tried to justify the Holocaust?

Those questions drove Koffman to spend years researching relations between Jews and American Indians. In 2019, he published “The Jews’ Indian: Colonialism, Pluralism, and Belonging in America.”

Koffman writes that Jews’ treatment of indigenous people, both their role in the colonial expansion that displaced and killed Native Americans and their later work to secure rights for those people, “demands that Jewish immigrant history be recast in the context into which all American ethnic immigration properly fits but within which it is rarely cast – namely, settler colonial expansion. This reframing contests the celebratory narrative” of Jews establishing themselves in America.

The historian will deliver a lecture titled “American Jews & Native Americans: Myths, Encounters and Perceptions,” sponsored by Kol Rinah over Zoom on Sunday, March 7, at 11:30 a.m. To register, visit bit.ly/3jTD83G.

Koffman spends the first half of the book exploring Jews’ relations with Native Americans in the 19th century during the American Indian Wars and the removal of indigenous people from their land in the western United States.

“Jews played a role in establishing towns and trade routes and American institutions in the West,” Koffman told the Light during a Zoom interview. “They served in those early decades in the Chamber of Commerce or as postmasters or mayors of towns.”

Underneath that productivity is the reality that “everyone was basically racist,” he said. The Allotment Act of 1887, also called the Dawes Act, resulted in the loss of more than 86 million acres of Native American land and made 100,000 people landless, Koffman writes.

“They assumed that the land was underproductive, that the people who lived on those lands had only a notional claim to them, and it was a part of a general … colonial attitude about claiming the land through right, through power and through a sense of destiny to make new lives for themselves and build new societies,” Koffman said. 

But in 1934, the federal government passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which began restoring land to tribes, and Jews “fought for economic improvement, tolerance and pluralism for disenfranchised minorities in general. Their work for, with and on behalf of African Americans is well known. Almost unknown is that Jewish advocates also rallied with, and on behalf of, Native Americans,” Koffman writes.

How does the author square Jews’ treatment of Native Americans in the 19th century with their treatment of them in the 20th? Koffman writes: 

“The Jews discussed in this book shared no essential and unchanging singular Jewish identity. This book, instead, assumes that Jewishness is a dynamic, situational and contextual notion.”

In short, Jews, like other groups, acted in their own self-interest, first by trying to establish themselves in the West and later to promote societal tolerance of cultural differences, including their own.

Koffman hopes the book inspires people to consider Jews’ historic relations with Native Americans. 

“Most Jews haven’t ever thought about having their own ancestral or historical connection to Native Americans,” he said. “When Jews think about native-newcomer relations, whites and colonials and Indians, they just don’t see Jews in that story, so at its very crudest, just locating Jews in that part of American history is important.” 

Koffman also sees an “opening” for a reckoning between Native Americans and American Jews in the present day.

“I think if lots of different groups of settler populations did the work of seeing that they have a history that is connected in some way to Native American history, then they may be in better shape to do some of that reconciliatory work through the terms that are organic to their own identities,” Koffman said.

At Kol Rinah, Rabbi Noah Arnow has for the past two years before and after Thanksgiving discussed connections between Jews and Native Americans.

Arnow wanted to host Koffman, he said, because “this is a topic that no one else is talking about. The list of books about Jews and Native Americans is very short.”

Arnow sees Koffman’s work as valuable to the ongoing conversation at Kol Rinah and elsewhere in which Jews are considering their own whiteness or lack of whiteness, he said. 

“I think a lot of the trends that David writes about are really current and relevant for a Jewish audience,” Arnow said.


‘American Jews & Native Americans: Myths, Encounters and Perceptions’ 

WHEN:  11:30 a.m. Sunday, March 7

WHERE:  Via Zoom 

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO:To register, visit http://bit.ly/3jTD83G

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