The Jewish Meaning of Columbus Day

A Jewish American reflects on Columbus Day, the legacy of settler-colonialism, and what it means for people of Jewish heritage

By Jordan Engel

In recent years, Columbus Day has become a day for many non-native Americans (let’s call them settlers) to reflect on their colonial legacy. As settlers in the Americas, we must bare some of the burden of decolonizing these lands, because the guilty parties in the genocide of American Indians over the past five centuries are not just the direct descendants of Indian-killers like Cortez, Custer, and Columbus. Decolonization is the responsibility of everyone alive today who lives on stolen lands, and as Jewish-Americans, we are not exempt.

Our people have a long and complicated history with this continent. We often fail to acknowledge, for example, that most of the Jews in the world, about 54 percent, live in North and South America – an area where 500 years ago, there were no Jews (ignoring, of course, wild theories that American Indians are one of the ten lost tribes of Israel).

On this federal holiday, we should note that many of Columbus’ crew members were Jewish, including the expedition’s comptroller, surgeon, physician. Columbus’ interpreter was a Murciano Jew named Luis de Torres who spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. It’s really not surprising that so many Jews would want to sail across an uncharted ocean from Spain in 1492. In April of that year, the Spanish Crown declared that all Jews in Spain must either convert to Catholicism or leave the country. These men who sailed with Columbus were escaping persecution, but it is no excuse for the things that they did once they reached the opposite shore of the Atlantic Ocean – enslaving and torturing natives wherever they sailed, and destroying their villages. De Torres, the interpreter, took six natives on the island of Cuba and made them his slaves, and remained on the island until his death. He may have been one of the first Jews to colonize the Western Hemisphere, but many more followed. A 17th century Dutch Jew named David Cohen Nassy is credited with starting many European colonies in present day Suriname and French Guiana. Francis Salvador is credited as being the first Jewish casualty of the American Revolution, when he was killed in 1776 by Cherokee warriors while defending European settlements on unceded native land.

In addition to those many Jewish colonists, some historians now believe that Columbus himself was Jewish. Claiming that he was a Marrano, a Jew disguised as a Catholic to avoid persecution, these historians say that Columbus may have been searching for a land to settle the Jews who had been forced out of Spain.

Whether or not this theory is accurate, the Jews were certainly unwelcome in Europe. America, then, became the original “Land without people for a people without land,” centuries before those words would be used by Zionists to describe Israel. Columbus wasn’t the only one with the mind to resettle persecuted Jews in the New World. Theodor Hertzl, founder of the Zionist movement, initially imagined founding the Jewish State not in Israel, but in Argentina. He believed that the Argentine government would sell them land, and that the indigenous population of Patagonia would easily relocate. The ongoing theme here is that Jews harbored the dominant European attitude that American Indians were inconsequential to their plans. This land, however, was not a “Land without people.” From Patagonia to Alaska, there were tens of millions of people in the Americas before Columbus “discovered” it. In the US today, Jews outnumber American Indians, whose population and land-base declined rapidly during colonization. It was one of the largest genocidal campaigns the world has ever witnessed. Sadly, the colonial policies of forcing American Indians to migrate long distances and concentrate into prisoner of war camps called “reservations” may have even inspired tactics later used during the Holocaust. Hitler would allegedly praise the efficiency of the American genocide to his inner circle, even claiming that his inspiration for concentration camps came from American history.

But how am I, a modern Jewish-American, possibly to blame for all of these historic atrocities? My great-grandfather, a Hungarian Jew, made his way to Ellis Island in 1898. By then, the American Indian wars were over, and New York City was already a thoroughly conquered place. I doubt he even ever met an American Indian person. In fact, I bet most Jews today have never met an American Indian, despite the fact that most of us live on their land. My question, actually, was just answered. Colonists were not just people with funny triangular hats as a Google image search would suggest. My great-grandfather was a settler; I’m a settler; And as long as we remain ignorant to our own colonial legacy as Jewish people, the decolonization of this land, of ourselves, and of our culture, remains impossible.

2 responses to “The Jewish Meaning of Columbus Day

  1. Reblogged this on Míle Gaiscíoch and commented:
    And who can forget all the dispossessed Gaesl who found themselves on the front lines, fighting for the colonists and this continent was invaded. We too bear a grave responsibility to see this monster undone.

  2. Steven Tucker

    Mr. Engel – As a Jew, you are no doubt aware that there is no “Jewish” homeland, race, or such. We are a family, a tribe, the children of Israel and the descendants of Abraham. We are a people based on an idea written in a book, who came to be a religion/nation through a process that was at once our liberation and our subjugation of the land of others. We are a people who exist because we existed and wrote down the history of that existence.

    We cannot live in a book. I am not willing to contemplate self-genocide, and if anyone asks me to do so, they are as evil as any other seeker of power. So where shall I go? What shall I do?? Is guilt constructive? Is the writing of words constructive? Is that not what our tribe has done – shape the world through the manifestation of written words in a book??

    So let it be written, so let it be done – But I see nothing to do in all this talk of decolonization. There is only the demand that it must happen, without any description of what “it” is or how it shall be done or what it will manifest. Perhaps the need for a clear description of the manifestation process is a luxury of my Jewish privilege. But I am, nonetheless, unwilling to hate myself over the acts of others, nor follow the orders of people who cannot seem to explain to me why I should do a thing, what it should be, how it shall be done, or where it shall lead.

    Can you tell me, in any way that relates to an antecedent in physical actuality (and not simply abstract conceptual reality), what “decolonization” entails, how it shall be done, or what I should do to make it happen?

    If not, then what is the point of all these words?

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