Members of the Tribe: Jewish-Amerindian Theory and the Making of a Modern American Consciousness

Julia Cohen

Abstract


This paper examines how seventeenth century Jewish-Indian theory may have contributed to later forms of racial representation in America. The belief that the Amerindians were of Israelite origin had been in circulation since the late fifteenth century. However, only in the seventeenth century did this claim develop into a full-fledged social and political phenomenon. While most of the critical discussions of Jewish-Indian racial theories have related to the "Lost Tribe" theory, I would rather focus on the role these earlier texts played in scripting later cultural forms of identity and how they impacted later American traditions of perceiving the other. I argue that these texts prefigure a larger, more complex symbolic tradition in American cultural forms. These texts initiate a system of otherness, using rhetorical techniques of simultaneous appropriation and disassociation with the other that are manifested in later traditions such as blackface and minstrelsy in the United States. This paper, however, will focus on the period of nativist America (mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century), and how this era uncannily echoes the Puritan sentiments asserted in the Jewish-Indian theory. Although appropriation of the Indian prevailed throughout American letters, these two periods feature a similar racial configuration of Anglo-American, Indian and Jew. However, an intriguing reversal occurs: as the English Puritans distanced themselves from the Indians through the figure of the Jew, in contrast, the nativists separated themselves from the immigrants, as represented by the Jew, through the figure of the Indian.

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