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Greeks and Jews: Two Diaspora Peoples

The histories of these two groups reveals the sinister implications of an ideology that holds that some people are more “natural” to a place than others.

· 7 min read
Greeks and Jews: Two Diaspora Peoples
Foreground: a pre-1940 colorized image of members of the Romaniote Greek Jewish community of Volos: Rabbi Moshe Pesach (front left) with his sons (back). Background: The port of Volos by Constantine Volanakis (c.1875).

Since 7 October, much of the conversation surrounding the Gaza War—particularly online and among Gen Z—has focused on determining who is “indigenous” to the region. One implication here is that indigeneity provides a superior claim to any given piece of land. But it is not the only implication. To many, to be “indigenous” means to hold a morally superior position in general. Much of the current discourse around “decolonization” seems to be implicitly based on this idea. 

While some of this is a reaction to the oppression of certain groups who are now described as indigenous, it is an over-correction that not only leads to inaccurate history and sociology, but is particularly harmful to diasporic, migrant peoples like the Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Romani. Their histories challenge the idea that a group’s cultural identity is always bound to a specific geographical location and that interactions between cultures must always be understood in terms of an oppressor–oppressed narrative. The existence of these diaspora groups upends the popular conception of indigeneity and reveals the sinister implications of an ideology that holds that some people are more “natural” to a place than others.

The first known use of the term indigenous comes from Sir Thomas Browne, a 17th-century Englishman, who described enslaved Africans in the West Indies as “not indigenous or proper natives of America.” The concept became important to political activists in the 1970s as a way of describing native people around the world who had lived under colonialism. In 1982, the United Nations convened the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP), and in 2007 it passed the non-binding Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which defines indigenous people as follows:

Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them.

The concept is slippery, however. To begin with, the histories of many groups commonly accepted as indigenous do not fit the romantic notion of people who have been on the land since time immemorial (an idea commonly invoked by indigenous rights activists). While many groups considered indigenous have lived within the same territory for thousands of years, others have not. Likewise, many ethnic groups that are not considered indigenous have lived in their ancestral regions for millennia. For example, the Māori did not arrive in New Zealand until around 1200 CE, which is roughly the time of the Fourth Crusade. By contrast, the Parsis, usually considered a Persian diaspora group, arrived in India before 800 CE. The Diné (Navajo) people arrived in the American Southwest around 1400 CE, around the same time as the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans. Meanwhile, the Han Chinese can trace their ancestry to populations who arrived in the Guanzhong and Yellow River basins around 4,500 BCE.

No human population has been anywhere forever. The story of our species is largely one of migration, conquest, and trade. We are the product of millions of ancestors whose lives were shaped by this dynamic history. Certainly, some populations have been more geographically stable and the modern-day residents of some parts of the world have longer cultural and genetic ties to the land they inhabit than others. But there are many cultural and linguistic groups who have survived through the centuries without such ties.

The Greeks and the Jews are the two most obvious and visible examples of this. The Greeks are an unusual example, since it was generally as conquerors, rather than the conquered, that their diaspora began. Greeks began to leave their eastern Aegean homelands in the middle of the 6th century BCE. Centuries later, they expanded their range with the armies of Alexander the Great into what is now the modern state of Greece and the western portion of present-day Turkey. From that point forward, there were always large Greek communities outside the Eastern Mediterranean, continually infused with new blood by successive crises. At the dawn of modernity, Greeks fled to Western Europe as the Ottomans conquered the Eastern Roman Empire. They brought with them the Greek learning that had largely been lost in the West, thus helping to fuel first the Renaissance and then the Reformation. The creation of the modern Greek state did not slow the growth of the Greek diaspora. Instead, the chronically poor and often tumultuous conditions there caused even more Greeks to leave for more stable places. Today thriving Greek communities exist everywhere from London to Melbourne, and at many points in between. Their members belong both to the countries and societies in which they live and to the omogenia, the global tribe of Greeks.

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Even in the darkest period of economic and political collapse, the chain of urban societies that stretched across the Old World was never broken.

Both Greeks and Jews  have distinct identities reaching back to the Bronze Age but did not possess anything resembling a nation-state or ethnic “homeland” until well into the modern period. The Armenians also have a diaspora that goes back at least 1,700 years, while the Romani who were dispersed from their ancestral lands in the Middle Ages, have nonetheless maintained a distinct identity for centuries.

One of the hallmarks of the history of diaspora people is their often-outsized influence. It would be difficult to think of two cultural traditions that have contributed more to our global culture than those of the Greeks and the Jews. No doubt some of this is the result of cultural syncretism: these are people who have lived among others for vast swaths of their history, which has enabled them to learn from them and share what they know. The successes of these diaspora groups teach us the power of cosmopolitanism, the benefits of a life and culture that is always on the move and therefore always in a state of adaptation.

The other hallmark of diaspora histories is persecution. As visible minorities who resist complete assimilation, diaspora people have always been easy targets. They are society’s resident outsiders. It is no surprise that it was the Jews and Romani who died in the greatest numbers during the Holocaust and who continue to be subject to violence and discrimination today. There is evidence to suggest that Hitler took inspiration from the Armenian Genocide, during which the nascent modern Turkish state persecuted Armenians, as well as Pontic Greeks, Christians, and non-Turkish Muslim minorities. The treatment of Greeks in Turkey, Northern Cyprus, and Egypt also follows this pattern.

In some regions, the presence of a Greek, Jewish, or Armenian community predates the arrival of the majority population. But because these peoples have a history marked by diaspora, they are not regarded as indigenous. In fact, they are often accused of practising “colonialism” in places they have called home for longer than many people identified as “indigenous” have lived in their homelands. For example, Greeks arrived in Egypt in significant numbers with the armies of Alexander the Great around 332 BCE, while Arabs did not arrive in Egypt until the Middle Ages. But that did not stop Arab nationalists of the 1950s from marking them out as “foreigners,” a stigmatisation that eventually led to the expulsion of that ancient community. Egyptian Jews and Armenians were similarly targeted and expelled.

This is a pattern many diaspora groups have repeatedly experienced. No matter how long they have lived in a place, they will always be regarded as foreigners. This tendency has been worsened by the trend of thinking in terms of “indigeneity” and “decolonization.”

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Western countries are seen as colonizing nations and imperialists, while foreign autocracies and sectarian extremists like Hamas are perceived as freedom fighters and even forces for good.

We can see this play out among those commentators who claim that the “indigenous” Palestinians have been displaced by the “settler-colonist” Jews. This is a mistaken and pernicious way of viewing the conflict. Most Israelis have grandparents and great-grandparents who were born elsewhere, yet they still have a right to live in that narrow strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But it is the fate of diaspora peoples to be seen as from everywhere and nowhere—and in this case, as not even from their ancient homelands.

The spread of human groups across the globe has often involved invasion and the forced displacement, enslavement, and genocide of the original inhabitants of the regions the new arrivals have conquered. We should be clear-eyed about the wrongs of history and learn from the injustices and atrocities of the past. But we should also be aware that cultural identity is not always the result of living in one place for a very long time. There are ancient and rich cultures that are not tied to a single geographical location.

Besides, who we consider indigenous to a particular region is never entirely clear. The history of the human race is one of travel and of the displacement of one group by another, as well as the assimilation of one group into another, both genetically and culturally. Cultures and traditions often arise through synthesis and accretion. The history of every place is multifaceted and complex. Human beings belong everywhere on the planet; we are an adaptable, resilient, ingenious species. And those of us alive today all have a right to live at peace in our homes and a duty to live at peace with one another. Our worth as inhabitants of a place should not depend on how long our ancestors have been there. 

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