MENDELSOHN: Indigenous Land Acknowledgments – A Jewish Version

By AURORA MENDELSOHN

For the past several years, Canadians have begun events with an acknowledgment that the land upon which the occasion is taking place was once the “traditional territory” of an Indigenous nation. This is done as part of an effort to raise awareness of our county’s past – of how it harmed Indigenous people and how, as a country, we must create reconciliation – an attempt to name and repair the harm.

These acknowledgments have been made by Canadian Jews as well, at shul during services and other occcasions. During Shabbat services a few months ago, I was struck by how we, as Jews, have a unique perspective on this issue. As Jews, we know what it means to lose one’s land, to be persecuted, and to be a minority religion and culture. We also understand that the wounds of oppression and displacement do not end with the person who suffered the initial trauma. We know the damage of the Holocaust didn’t end with liberation, or with the State of Israel. There are second and third generation reverberations and trauma on individual and collective levels.

Similarly, the pain of Indigenous people didn’t end with an apology from the prime minister or the closing of residential schools. It lasted for many generations and continues. While most of our ancestors were nowhere near North America at the time of the initial attacks on Indigenous people, we are still obligated to work for justice as Canadians who benefit from the land and its resources.

The combination of my Jewish obligation to work for justice and hearing land acknowledgements week after week in shul made me feel a need for a ritualized, Jewish version of the land acknowledgment, which I wrote and I am sharing here. 

Illustration by Irv Osterer

Like traditional Jewish declarations, this Jewish version of an Indigenous land acknowledgment begins with a kavanah – an intention, and includes Torah study. The traditional formulation, “here, I am ready and prepared,” is used for intentions that precede action, and so is appropriate here, since a land acknowledgment is intended to spur us to concrete action.

The phrase “for the sake of unification” comes from Kabbalistic formulation of intention originated by Rabbi Isaac Luria in the 16th century and reminds us to hope for a country where we are unified and free of divisions and discrimination:

הִנְנִי מוּכָן וּמְזוּמָּן \ מוּכָנָה ומְזַמֶּנֶת לְקַיֵּם מִצְוַת הַכָּרָת רִבּוֹנוּת הָאָרֶץ לֶשֶׁם יִחוּד.
כָּכַּתוּב:
וּנְטַעְתִּים, עַל-אַדְמָתָם; וְלֹא יִנָּתְשׁוּ עוֹד, מֵעַל אַדְמָתָם אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָהֶם אָמַר, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיך
(עָמוֹס ט:טו).
וְהָאָרֶץ, לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת כִּי-לִי, הָאָרֶץ: כִּי-גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם, עִמָּדִ (וַיִּקְרָא כה:כג).

Here we are, ready and prepared to acknowledge the sovereignty of the land as we are commanded for the sake of unification.

As it is written: God said I will plant them on their land and they will no longer be removed from their land which I gave them. (Amos 9:15).

The land shall not be sold permanently because the land is Mine, since you are all immigrants and resident-settlers according to Me (Leviticus 25:23).

The phrasing that recognizes the Jewish perspective was first used by educator Sarah Shamirah Chandler at the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto in 2018. The text includes wording, since updated, from the City of Toronto’s Land Acknowledgment and the nations mentioned are specific to Toronto.

Land Acknowledgment – הַכָּרָת רִבּוֹנוּת הָאָרֶץ

This land is the traditional territory and sacred land of many nations including: the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. It is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit and the Williams Treaties signed with multiple Mississaugas and Chippewa bands. This territory was the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes.

Though we as Jews have also suffered from land and cultural displacement, we acknowledge the ways in which we, as non-indigenous people in this land, have benefited from colonialism, former and ongoing, which has hurt and oppressed First Nations peoples. We ask for their forgiveness. We are ready and prepared to take action to promote a just reconciliation.

Placing this acknowledgment in the context of Jewish ritual and tradition makes explicit the connection between our obligations for justice as Canadians and our particular worldview and experiences as Jews.


Aurora Mendelsohn

Aurora Mendelsohn is a university administrator. She blogs about Judaism, feminism and parenting at Rainbow Tallit Baby.