Red Indians – Jewish?

There was a time when American Indians shared a vital share in Jewish destiny. So, at least, it was argued.


Christopher Columbus’s accidental discovery of the Americas in 5252/1492 created a huge puzzle. The islands and plains of its vast continents were teeming with multitudes of new races no one had ever heard of. To religious Europe, the first question was how to fit this in with Biblical history. Where had the Indians come from and to which of the seventy nations did they belong?

Initially, a number of savants brushed off the problem by claiming that Indians were not human at all, but an animal sub-species to whom the prohibition of murder was moot. This would have been convenient for the Conquistadores, had shocked religious authorities not stepped in to certify that Indians enjoyed full membership in the human tribe. (Later in the 1700s, a similar, no less ridiculous theory arose. This was the Mortonism concept, claiming that the Indians, although human, were subhuman due to congenitally inferior intelligence).

Alternative theories claimed that Indians had arrived after the Flood or the Tower of Bavel, that they were descendants of the Vikings, or that they were the children of Satan as was evidenced by their barbaric behavior. The last theory flatly ignored the existence of friendly Indian tribes.

Then came the idea that perhaps the Indians were Jews, and, if this were true, that strenuous efforts must be made to convert them. After all, they were much easier nuts to crack than were their obstinate counterparts back in Europe. The first book to explain this thesis was Thomas Thorowgood’s 5410/1650 work, “Jewes in America, or the Probability that the Indians are Jewes.” Like most contemporary books on the subject, his arguments were long in conjecture and short in factual proof.

Among the probabilities that Indians are Jews, he listed “common and prophane customs in both alike.” These included the following peculiarities.

“The Indians weare garments fashioned as the Jewes, a single coate,
a square little cloake. They delight exceedingly in dancing, men and women, yea and women apart by themselves. In America they eat no swines flesh ‘tis hatefull to them, as it was among the Jewes. They wash strangers feet, and are very hispitall to them, and this was the known commendation of old Israell. They reckon by lunary rules, giving the same name to their months they do to the Moon, Tona.”

Also, he wrote, “Circumcision is frequent among the Indians.”

At that time, the famous Rav Menashe ben Yisroel of Amsterdam had met a Portuguese Marrano explorer, Antonio de Montezinos, who not only claimed meeting a Jewish tribe in the Andes Mountains in the Pichinka Province of Ecuador, but even, at Rav Menashe’s insistence, made a deposition to this effect before a notary. Although Rav Menashe did not extrapolate from the existence of this tribe that all American Indians were Jewish, the news excited him enough to pen his most famous work, Esperanca de Israel (The Hope of Israel).

“In this Treatise,” its title page states, “is shewed the place where the ten Tribes at this present are, proved, partly by the strange relation of one Antonio de Montezinos, a Jew, of what befell him as he traveled over the Mountaines Cordillaere, with divers [sic] other particulars about the restoration of the Jewes, and the time when [they will be restored].”

This book was disseminated in Spanish, Latin, Hebrew, English, and Dutch, and created a tremendous sensation, even though Rav Menashe himself admits at the outset that he was not convinced at all, writing:

“It is hard to say what is certain among the so many, and so uncertain opinions concerning the origin of the Indians of the new World. If you ask, what is my opinion upon the relation of Montezinos, I must say, it is scarce possible to know it by any art, since there is no demonstration, which can manifest the truth of it. Much less can you gather it from Divine, or humane Writings; for the Scriptures doe not tell what people first inhabited those Countries; neither was there mention of them by any, till Christop. Columbus, Americus, Vespacius, Ferdinandus, Cortez, the Marquesse Del Valle, and Franciscus Pizarrus went thither.

“And though hitherto I have been of this mind, that I would speak only of solid, and infallible things… and the obscurity of the matter, making me doubt, whether it would be worth a while for me to attempt it; yet at last I was content to be persuaded to it.” (English modernized).


Debate on the Indian question raged for decades, some scholars and writers rejecting the Jewish Indian connection, while others continued the search for linguistic and behavioral hints of their Jewish origin. In his “History of the American Indians” (5535/1775), the English trader, James Adair, described his forty years of observations over hundreds of pages. Following are some of the “proofs” that led him to conclude that Indians are “lineally descended from the Israelites.”

At the start, he makes the observation that “both the Chikkafah and Choktah Indians, call a deceitful person a snake. a name the Hebrews gave to a deceitful person, which probably proceeded from a traditional knowledge of Eve’s being beguiled by the tempter, in that shape, for the Indians never affix any bad idea to the present reptile fraternity, except that of poisonous teeth.”

Then he gets into the real stuff. As a first proof, he notes that, “As the Israelites were divided into tribes and had chiefs over them, so the Indians divide themselves. Each tribe forms a little community within the nation. As the nation has its particular symbol, so has each tribe the badge from which it is denominated.”

His second proof is an exhaustive effort to prove that the Red Indians he knew were less idolatrous than most pagans of old.

“I never heard that any of our North-American Indians had images of any kind,” he writes. “There is a carved human statue of wood, to which, however, they pay no religious homage: It belongs to the head war- town of the upper Mufkohge country, and seems to have been originally designed to perpetuate the memory of some distinguished hero. The severe afflictions they underwent in captivity, doubtless humbled their hearts, and reclaimed them from the service of the calves, and of Balaam, to the true divine worship, a glimpse of which they still retain.”

He writes at length how the Indians gave special significance to the animals of Yechezkel’s Maaseh Merkava: the lion, (since there are no lions in America, they substituted the panther), the eagle, and the buffalo in place of the ox.

As a third “proof,” the author is impressed by their religious pride and their contempt of white people whom they term “the accursed people,” while themselves they term “the beloved people” due to a belief that their ancestors were closer to their deity than anyone else. Fifth, they believe in angels. Sixth, over Adair’s forty years with the Indians, he found a number of similarities between their dialects and Hebrew. He goes to the extent of claiming that an Indian religious chant that begins with a staccato Yah and ends with Wah, is their version of Hashem’s Four Lettered Name.

Seventh proof: they divide the year, like the Jews, into spring, summer, autumn, and fall, and count the year by lunar months of 29 or 30 days, beginning new years on the new moon of autumn equinox. Eighth, they have prophets, and ninth, Adair finds similarities between Indian and Jewish festivals.

And so the list goes on, reaching a total of twenty-three proofs which, in spite of Adair’s best efforts, do not quite make the grade. Despite the paucity of solid facts, many people were roused to fever pitch by these sorts of books, and were convinced that these Ten Lost Tribes would soon lead the way back to Yerushalayim. Level headed politicians like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams realized that James Adair’s proofs were superficial and unconvincing.


A leading Jewish advocate of the Jewish-Indian idea was Mordecai Noah whose unusual career included an effort to establish a Jewish state on an island in the Grand River near Buffalo. Jews of every race including Red Indians were invited to this Jewish utopia that never got off the ground. Noah was especially excited by brand new evidence that seemed to lend unimpeachable credence to the Jewish Redskin idea.

During 5575/1815, a Captain Joseph Merrick whose farm was located on top of an old Indian burial mound near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, was plowing his field when his plow unearthed a pair of leather objects, which local resident Elkanah Watson determined to be tefillin.

He wrote, “In order to understand the appearance of this discovery, imagine five pieces of leather or raw hide, or some composition similar to India rubber, and capable of resisting the ravages of time and exposure, cut into squares of two inches, sewed together with entrails. Suppose, also a hole in the center, half an inch in diameter made to admit a tube two and a half inches long with eyelet holes at the corners to receive strings–and you will have an idea of this article.”

Watson describes how he “drew out from the tube three or four scrolls of parchment, which it contained when found, and inscribed with texts of Scripture, written in beautiful Hebrew in an elegant manner, and the ink of a beautiful jet black. The parchment, writing, ink, were all perfectly fresh.” Intensive investigations revealed no evidence of any Jewish soldiers or traders ever living in the area.

In addition, a supposedly Hebrew inscription was found outside New Milford, Connecticut, which the greatest American Hebraist, Ezra Stiles of Yale judged to be someone’s name, and a tomb in Ohio was discovered, supposedly bearing ancient Hebrew inscriptions dating from the Churban. Since then, all these artifacts have been lost.

In the end, science triumphed over speculation, and it is currently believed that the Indians arrived in America from East Asia via the Bering Straits. At any rate, no Red Indian, so far, is clamoring for Right of Return to Israel.

(Partial source: Richard H. Popkin, “The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Indian Theory, ” from, “Ben Menasseh and His World,” Jerusalem, 1985.)

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