David S. Koffman joins the podcast to talk about Jews and native peoples in North America. It’s the topic of his recent book, The Jews’ Indian: Colonialism, Pluralism, and Belonging in America, which serves as the jumping off point for our wide-ranging conversation. In this episode, we dive into how American Jews imagined Indians in the 19th and 20th centuries — similar to the broader process of how other white settlers created their own imagined version of native peoples — and what this means this means we try to make sense of American Jewish history, and modern Jewish history as a whole, within the wider context of nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics and cultures.
David S. Koffman is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at York University, where he holds the J. Richard Schiff chair for the study of Canadian Jewry. He is also the editor in chief of Canadian Jewish Studies.
In today’s episode, we think critically about the place of American Jews within the process of white settlement in the American context as well as beyond. As David explains in his book The Jews’ Indian, which was published in 2019, American Jews, and other white peoples, had complex and changing relations with the natives who they encountered. This is clearly an important issue in general terms, as we can look at the white imagination of the Indian in all sorts of cultural contexts — whether we talk about cowboy and Indian radio and TV programs, or wild west novels and stories like those of Karl May in German culture and beyond.
However, within the context of Jewish history, these issues raise very unsettling questions: How is it that American Jews saw themselves? In what ways did American Jews seek to differentiate themselves from Native Americans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as they similarly tried to distinguish themselves from African Americans, in an effort to cultivate themselves as “white”? How did this change in the second half of the twentieth century, as Jews became involved in the struggle for native rights? And what does this all mean in terms of Jews’ broader part in the process of settler colonialism in the United States and also around the world? David’s book offers a tremendously novel take on modern Jewish history, both in American and also beyond it: he suggests that we look at Jewish life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the lens of colonialism and settler colonialism in particular.