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

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

Julia Cohen

This paper examines how seventeenth century Jewish-Indian theory helped contribute to the formulation of a modern American national consciousness, and translated into later forms of racial representation. Jewish-Indian theory, the belief that the Amerindians were of Israelite descent, has been mainly discussed by a selective audience in relation to the "Lost Tribe" theory. However, I wish to focus on how this theory may have prefigured later American traditions of perceiving and representing the other. What I will present today is an extraction from a larger study that analyzes specific texts of Jewish-Indian theory in relation to nativist fiction. The primary texts examined in the original project are Thomas Thorowgood's Jewish-Indian theory text titled Jewes in America (published in 1650), and Willa Cather's The Professor's House (1925). However, due to the time constraint and because much of this material may be new for some of you, I will only present a general overview of Jewish-Indian theory and the tenets relevant to later periods of American history and literature. I will then discuss how nativist America continued the Puritans sentiments asserted in the Jewish-Indian theory.


The belief that the Amerindians were of Israelite descent had been in existence since the fifteenth century, however only in the seventeenth century when British colonials sought to establish a greater territorial and cultural stronghold in the New World, did this claim develop into a religious and political movement. The presence of the natives had flummoxed western minds since their initial encounter, and equating the indigenous peoples with Jews would render them less threatening and strange while serving both the political and religious ambitions of the English Puritans.

Upon seeing the Indian natives, European explorers and missionaries claimed that the Amerindians were of Jewish origin, having descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel who wandered into America many centuries before and had since lived in isolation from other Jews. Encapsulated within this thinking is more than a pressing need to understand the other, but also an acute assertion of the self, for the Europeans cannot imagine the Amerindians outside of a self-reflective framework. They immediately connect the question of Amerindian origins with a riddle that persists throughout Christian theology - the mystery of the Ten Tribes of Israel. In order to relate to the Native Americans in any way, a parallel must be drawn that would at once subsume these "discovered" peoples under the discourse of western culture, while at the same time, help the European "discoverer" ascertain something about his own identity. These works of Jewish-Indian theory attempt to explore the question of Amerindian identity through a projection and imposition of other cultures and identities that would ultimately serve to bolster a Puritan identity in the New World.

The rhetoric of many Jewish-Indian theory texts, such as Thomas Thorwogood's Jewes in America, are highly ambiguous, oscillating between descriptions of the Amerindians as definitively Jewish, and therefore somewhat "civilized," and depictions of them as utterly savage, even demonic. One aspect of this account remains constant - whether the Native Americans are sacred because of their ties to ancient Israel, or profane, as at the same time they seem to have originated from the devil - there is a definite imposition of Jewish identity onto the Native American. It is important to note that the Jews were also associated with the devil as progenitor; therefore the Indians are related to their Jewish counterparts by virtue of being both sacred and profane. It is crucial at this point to clarify the distinction the Puritans made between biblical Jews and historical Jews. The Israelites were considered noble on account of their pre-Christian status. Jews, on the other hands, were tainted with not having accepted Christ, with money lending, Talmud, etc. In other words, Hebrews preceded Shylock, and it is really the Puritans who are the "true" Jews. It was with such ideas in mind, that the Puritans could associate themselves with the biblical Jews, and thus this perceived affinity is really quite anti-Semitic. In addition to uniting the Jew and the Native American into a single cohesive identity, this imposition also functions as a bridge between the chasm of Puritan culture and that of the Indians, for in order for the English to achieve their religious and political goals in the New World, some identifications between the two groups must be asserted. The Jew would be the figure that would provide an adequate as well as strategic cultural bridge.

The theme of Jewish identity held particular significance in Puritan discourse on both religious and political grounds and construction of a Jewish identity for the native peoples served English Protestant interests in the New World. In the writings of the Puritan divines from Queen Elizabeth I's reign until Cromwell, there was a growing conviction that the entire Jewish nation would be converted to Christianity, and henceforth there would be a gathering of the Gentiles which would result in the second coming of Christ. Millenarians in England believed that in order to hasten Christ's redemption all Jews must be converted before the world's end, and that God would eventually reveal all of the dispersed Jewish populations to the Protestants. It was therefore convenient for Protestant missionaries to perceive the natives as Jews, as it would lend credence to their missionary aims while providing them with a definite religious goal in the New World.

In order for both of this goal to be attained a special relationship would have to be formed between the Amerindians and the English Puritans. These texts therefore appropriate Jewish identity as an intermediate term between English Protestantism and Native American culture. This is most clearly manifested by a racial and cultural hierarchy established within the text, which is used to describe the differences and similarities of the three cultures: Native American, Jewish, and English Puritan. This racial typology corresponds to a belief in racial superiority: the American Indians possessed 'customs' that were a mere shadow of those of the Hebrews while the Puritan missionaries possessed a 'civilization,' a term which placed them at the pinnacle of a racial "hierarchy". Even though these texts apotheosize the English in their descriptions, parallels must still be drawn between the British and the natives for the polemic to effectively achieve its goals. These parallels, however, must be made carefully, as too strong an identification with the "other" will sabotage its aims.

It is crucial to note that while Thorowgood does not state that the 'customs' of the Jews and Native Americans are identical, rather he says that they are "agreeable." This is an important distinction Thorowgood makes, because if the natives were identical to the Jews, this would call into question English civilization, which materialized from early Jewish culture. Thorowgood's nuanced distinctions between the two groups are therefore a necessary and tactful rhetorical device that ensures crucial differentiations while at the same time drawing cultural parallels. A new Protestant identity is being constructed from the encounter with and manipulation of the natives' identity.

Thorowgood identifies the English nation with the Native Americans through the concatenate figure of the Jew, while at the same time distancing the British from the natives. A repeated juxtaposition of conflicting terminology persists throughout the text that reveals the cultural and theological struggle of the English in attempting to position the natives and the Jews within their preexisting eschatological framework. The descriptions of native Americans and Jews alternate between words of laudation and condemnation, uniting English Protestants with these peoples, while at the same time dissociating from them.

Thorowgood's text is explicit about the Jewish foundation of Christianity. In fact, the entire Puritan platform is predicated on such an acknowledgment. The identity speculation that is evident within Thorowgood's text was contemporaneous and coactive with another line of racial theory - the belief that the English were of Israelite origin. This identification pivoted on the notion that the English share cultural similarities with the Israelites and a shared history of oppression, a claim which helped reinforce the ideas of the Jews as proto-Christians and England, and subsequently America, as the New Israel with the English as God's new chosen people.

It should be noted that when these texts were published there were no Jews officially residing in England since 1290 (they would only be officially readmitted in 1662). It is therefore extremely peculiar that the English could be so ostensibly resolute in their convictions about the behaviors of the Jewish people. However, a strong belief in who is the "other" is a necessary component in the act of self-making, as identity is often understood in the context of an ideology of dominance that requires the elimination of all that is considered foreign or not true to the self

This pattern of identity appropriation and manipulation would continue to resurface throughout the history of America while the country continued to encounter the radical other. As "American identity" was fledgling and in a constant state of cultural flux, the encounter with the 'other' was a formidable experience that called into question the notion of a national identity and consciousness. Anne McClintock describes nationalism as a process that becomes constitutive of people's identities through social contests that are often violent, and through such conquests, social difference is both invented and performed (89). Indeed, what we witness in texts like Thorowgood's is the process of identities being made and unmade through projected behavior and the espousal of prejudiced racial theories. Thorowgood claims that "the Jewes did Indianize, or the Indians doe Judaize," yet it is only the English who are appropriating identities, in order to establish their own identity.

From these initial moments of Anglo-European speculation about the identity and origin of the Amerindian, and indirectly, of the Jew, we can begin to trace an historical tradition of American self-making and national consciousness that is rooted in Anglo-European perspective. This process of self-making was only able to perpetrate and complete itself at the expense of others, that is, anyone who was marginally different from the white European standard. Looking back to these earlier examples of race manipulation that were carried out through texts such as Thorowgood's, we can better understand the practice of identifying with the other while at the same time distancing oneself from the other as a means of self-definition. We can also see a burgeoning ethnocentric habit of thinking that would continue to shape and define the standard of American identity and eventuate in nativist ideology.


This way of relating to the other, through imposition and self-assertion, would continue to shape race relations and perceptions of minorities in America until modernity. The rhetorical strategies of identity manipulation and assertion that can be discerned in works of Puritan ideology, particularly in Jewish-Indian theory, can be recognized in later examples of American cultural forms.

During times of cultural and identity crisis in America, such as when America experienced an influx of mass European immigration around the turn of the twentieth century, intense scrutiny of the other and a forceful assertion of hegemonic identity is seen again. The racist sentiments, policies and perceptions of 1920s nativism resonate with an intriguingly similar disposition to that of Puritan ideology, and in fact, America's anti-foreign tradition emerged from this mindset, and many of the anti-assimilationist ideas expressed in nativist literature draw on foundations in Puritan texts of encounter. One of thesepractices is the appropriation of andidentificationwith Native American identity. However, unlike Jewish-Indian theory wherethe English Puritans distanced themselves from the Indians through the figure of the Jew, the nativists separated themselves from the immigrants, as represented by the Jew, through the figure of the Indian. When nativist ideology intensified in America the Indian was reappropriated as a symbol for the nativist ethic, and the Jew (now representative of the immigrant other) was diametrically opposed to the native.This appropriation differentiates the nativist-pioneer American from the swiftly naturalized immigrant, and symbolizes a transference of anxiety from the racial to the ethnic, as the Indian race is no longer considered as a national threat to the construction of white America; the new threat now lies with the ever-increasing immigrant population. Yet, in both representations, identities are made and unmade by a dominant subject who imposes identity as a means for better understanding and asserting himself.

Just as the colonialists' exploits were carried out during a time when America lacked a definitive national culture, so too it was during a time of cultural ambiguity brought on by a mass influx of European immigration, that nativist works put forth a similar system of racial and ethnic manipulation. This period marks another point of encounter between the nativist-pioneer and the radical immigrant other, and is similarly concerned with constructions of popular identity and definitions of social and political objectives. In addition to serving as an aid to self-definition, appropriation of another's identity allowed for the cultural regulation of the 'other' in American society, enabling the dominant subject to dictate the terms of Americanism and to validate acceptable social-cultural formations.

The political climate in 1920s America fostered a cultural sensibility based on xenophobia, and there was intense opposition to any minority on the ground of their foreign (i.e., 'un-American') connections. Nativist hostilities responded directly to the shifting demographic conditions and the changing character of the American individual. One of nativism's objectives was to probe the question of American identity, and through such a perusal, establish a lucid understanding of America's heritage and clearly demarcate the standards of citizenship based on familial principles. Suspicious of the political citizenship of immigrants (i.e. a result of what you profess as an ideological commitment), nativists espoused an antiassimilationist idea of citizenship that was based on one's inherent makeup. The racist nationalism of the 1920s sought to refocus the idea of American citizenship from a status that could be achieved to a matter of one's immanent identity. Americanness now becomes something distinct from the citizenship that immigrants achieve, and it distinguishes between the alien and the "real" American (Michaels 671).

Although Jewish-Indian theories of the seventeenth century may seem fundamentally distinct from later nativist ideology, both eras, and the representations produced during these times, employ the same idea of identifying with, while at the same time dissociating from, the 'other.' In addition to sharing similar rhetorical and literary techniques, however, the nativist era demonstrated a continuation of earlier English Protestant thinking. Protestant endeavors in the New World formed colonialist loyalties, which were to influence the rise of American nativism (Higham 6). America's anti-foreign traditions emerged from the Protestant mindset, which was blatantly suspicious of any foreign element, and vehemently anti-Catholic. This tradition of social and religious mistrust contributed to later ways of perceiving the other in America and helped shape modern American nationalism. Racial nativism, which would fully develop in the late nineteenth century, sought to define America's "essence," and formulated its ideas of Americanism in relation to the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Nativism held the belief that the United States belonged specifically and uniquely to the Anglo-Saxon "race." Subsequently, citizenship became a construction of identity (again, a function of what you are), as American nationhood had to stem from the single and limited source of Anglo-Saxonism. Any aberrance from this unified past would be relegated to a substandard notion of identity and regarded as not truly "American."

The fiction of nativist authors such as Willa Cather and F. Scott Fitzgerald reflects the growing social-cultural tensions in America and makes use of similar techniques as seen in the earlier Puritan texts of encounter. Both Jewish-Indian theory texts and nativist fiction use the figure of the 'other,' either Native American, Jew, African-American, or any other minority figure, to flaunt an "authentic" culture that ironically would lend credence to their own national identity. Similar to the tactics employed by the Puritan missionaries, who imposed Jewish and Native American identities respectively in an effort to secure their own national standing, the terms of American authenticity were dictated by the dominant nativist subject only. In stipulating these terms, nativist writers made use of Native American culture, appropriating Indian identity and using it as a foundational origin for their own uniquely American identity, which would differentiate them from their immigrant counterparts. By relating the heritage of the native Indian to their own cultural history, nativist Americans authenticated their presence in America while invalidating the American identity of the immigrant. Both acts of cultural imposition carried out by the Puritans and later by the nativists created cultural distinctions and hierarchies within their societies that would primarily serve to exalt their own national identity.

The figure of the Native American transforms throughout America's representational history, eventually serving as a benchmark by which to define Americanism. While before the turn of the century the Indian was regarded as a threat to the formation of an American national consciousness and identity, the figure of the native would paradoxically come to represent authentic American culture. Prior to the cultural crises in America during its periods of mass immigration, the Indian figure, like any person of obvious racial difference, was regarded with habitual distrust. Before the turn of the century, the Native American functioned as a refusal of American identity, and Indian culture was seen as something that had to be exterminated, or subsumed (as is the case in Thorowgood's text) in order to establish a new, Christian American culture.

However, after the turn of the century when Native American culture was virtually terminated, identification with the native began to change, and now functioned as an assertion of American identity (Michaels 664). Walter Benn Michaels attributes this valorization of the Indian to "a new interest in an essentially prenational America… an interest… that repudiates the political nationalism of the Progressives: Americanism would now be understood as something more than and different from the American citizenship that so many aliens had so easily achieved" (667). Once the Indians were no longer a reality of any magnitude, it would be henceforth safe to appropriate their culture and apply it to one's own identity. The real threat now was not the radically different Indian, but the European immigrant, often textually represented by the Jew, who could stealthily infiltrate both the domestic and national American family. It was at this point when the figure of the Indian reappears as a model for a nativist Americanism. Appropriating the symbol of the Indian would serve the interests of the nativist ethic by representing a racial entity and cultural heritage that differentiated itself from the multiracial America of the immigrants. The symbol of the vanishing Indian relates to the concept that the "real American" is a disappearing race as a result of the scads of immigrants who assimilate into mainstream American life, diluting the culture of a once-pure, easily definable American nation. Consequently, designating native Indian culture as a model of an organic, genuinely American culture was a way of differentiating the American heritage of the nativist from that of the immigrant. This reclaimed heritage would reassert the notion of American society as a shared and unified experience, echoing earlier concepts of American nationality as emerging singularly from Anglo-Saxon heritage. This unadulterated version of America was appropriated by nativist rhetoric, which saw true Americanism as untouched by the fragmentation and foreignness of the immigrant experience. It sought to return America to a prenational era that existed before immigration as a cultural whole.

This Indian-identified culture, however, is misleading as it is devoid of any real Indian presence. However, an actual Indian presence is not a prerequisite for the pioneers to claim Indian culture and identity for themselves. The fact that Indians are now virtually extinct further confirms the identification between the nativist pioneers and the Indians, as the pioneers are now considered the vanishing race. In addition to there being no real Indians in this reconfigured Indian identity, the terms of this nativist-Indian identity are stipulated solely from the perspective of the nativist, meaning that "Indianness" now becomes an example of cultural imperialism, a creation of the Anglo-European imagination. Just like the parallels drawn in Puritan works of Jewish-Indian theory, the nativist can identify with the Indian but must do so in a way that is not too close or too similar.

As America's continual expansion always involved an appropriation of both culture and territory, a hegemonic discourse was formed by the replacement of otherness. In order for the Puritans to make sense of themselves in the presence of the inexplicable natives, they expropriated aspects of native and Jewish cultures (or rather what they perceived these culture to be), to bolster their own identification. Speculating about both the identities of Native Americans and Jews, and creating a type of amalgamated identity of both cultures in the body of the Amerindian, was a way of diverting fears of otherness. The Jews, although still strange, provided a cultural and psychological bridge for the Europeans and allowed them to perceive of the natives in western terms.

This mimetic process that diverts fears and confusion, projecting these feelings onto a symbolic object, allows the dominant subject to attain a sense of clarity and concord. The manifestations of represented otherness in works of Jewish Indian theory are early examples of this process, which would later evolve into a full-fledged cultural form, and can be used to establish an uncanny connection to later manifestations of this process. Identification, appropriation, and personification were all methods of representing otherness and a way for one to fell fully integrated into American culture.

Similarly, nativism in 1920s America was concerned with formulating a definitive American identity in the face of a mass influx of immigration. Literature from this time drew boundaries between Americans who held this identity because of who they were inherently, and immigrant Americans, who achieved this status through external processes. Similar to the encounters between English Puritans and Native Americans, the nativist American felt the need to define both himself and the identity of the immigrant other through his own subjective prism of fear and manipulation. Moreover, both eras used its connections with the other to authenticate their own purpose and identity. However, while the seventeenth century imagination fused the Jew and the Amerindian to form an American self-identity, nativism saw the Jew and the Native American as diametrically opposed. An interesting shift occurs when the Native American no longer functions as a threat to the formulation of an Anglo Christian identity in America; the native now becomes the official mascot for an "authentic" white American race. With the Indian existing only in the form of archaeological remnants, this identity could be completely expropriated and used to authenticate an American identity that would use the fantasy of shared history to differentiate itself against the infringement of immigrant Americans.

Works Cited

Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1992.

Michaels, Walter Benn. "The Vanishing American." American Literary History. 2.2 (1990): 220-41.

—. "Race into Culture: A Critical Genealogy of Cultural Identity." Critical Inquiry. 18 (1992): 655-85.

—. Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.

Thorowgood, Thomas. Jewes in America, Or Probabilities That the Americans are of That Race. 1650. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing.

Works Consulted

Cather, Willa. The Professor's House. 1925. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Gubar, Susan. Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

Hershkovits, Melville J. The Myth of the Negro Past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

Hill, Christopher. "Till the Conversion of the Jews." Millenarianism and Messianism In English Literature and Thought: 1650-1800. Ed. Richard H. Popkin. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988.

Jowitt, Claire. "Radical Identities? Native Americans, Jews, and the English Commonwealth." The Seventeenth Century. 10.1 (1995): 101-19.

McClintock, Anne. "No Longer in a Future Heaven: Gender, Race, and Nationalism." Dangerous Liasons: Gender, Nation, and Postcolonial Perspectives. Eds. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti, and Ella Shohat. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1997.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Savages of America: A Study of the Indian and the Idea of Civilization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1965.

Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. Berkeley: U of California P, 1996.

Sturgis, Amy H. "Prophesies and Politics: Millenarians, Rabbis, and the Jewish Indian Theory." The Seventeenth Century. 14.1 (1999): 15


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