Opinion |

How 12 Words Rewrote Jewish History

You only have to look in the Bible to discover that the nation-state law’s claim that the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people is simplistic and dubious

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Bloomberg
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

“A group of tourists are visiting an ancient city in India with a local guide. In front of a large palace, he tells them, ‘This building is 3,004 years old.’ One of the tourists says, ‘That’s very impressive, but how do you know that it’s exactly 3,004 years?’ The guide replies, ‘It’s very simple. I heard another guide say that the palace was built 3,000 years ago, and that was four years ago.’”

That joke was told by the Indian-American historian Dipesh Chakrabarty during a lecture in Be’er Sheva last year. It’s not by chance that he chose to tell it in Israel: Imbecilic declarations of a similar nature are often heard in this country, too.

In the early 1990s, the government announced celebrations of “Jerusalem’s 3,000th anniversary.” Speakers at the grandiose festivities explained with historical precision that, “King David conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites 3,000 years ago.”

At the time, I watched a “Jewish sound-and-light spectacle” projected on the walls of the Old City. This was long before the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and Miri Regev. The prime minister was Yitzhak Rabin, and the tourism minister was Uzi Baram – both of them from Labor. If proof is needed of the groundlessness of the celebrations, suffice it to note that the city’s 3,000th anniversary was also celebrated in 1953, under David Ben-Gurion.

When the past is mythological and lacks concrete historical corroboration, playing around with the dates is not a problem. At the same time, Israeli governments are prone to speak with abysmal seriousness about mythological events. By the same token, the Greeks could mark the 4,000th anniversary of the castration of Uranus.

But in recent days, the situation has become distinctly worse. Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose father was a historian, is not making do with a monopolistic takeover of the state – he’s out to corral its history, too. The crowning peak of his historiographical legacy is probably the nation-state law. Many people have addressed different aspects of the legislation, from the downgrading of the status of Arabic, to the law’s anticipated impact on Israel’s relations with American Jewry. But the scandal of the law begins with its first 12 words: “The Land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people.”

The attempt to determine historical truth by means of laws is ridiculous. But what makes it impertinent as well is that this claim is blatantly incorrect – even according to the Bible. As the scholars of Jewish history Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin note in their article “Israel Has No Motherland”: “The biblical story is not one of birth from the land, but of those who always came to the land from elsewhere.”

According to the Bible, the Promised Land was not the homeland of Abraham (who came from Ur of the Chaldees) or of the Israelites (who came from Egypt). It is impossible both to rely on the divine promise to “inherit” the land, and to talk about it as a “homeland.” The contradiction here is clear. The history we are familiar with shows, in addition, that the actual Jewish people, in the form we know it today, was born in the Diaspora and not in the Land of Israel.

But more than it distorts Jewish history, the nation-state law mangles the history of this land. For the assertion that “The Land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people” is intended primarily to dictate a particular, and extremely dubious version of the political history of the disputed land in which we live.

Even though the Jewish chapter of this country’s history is amazingly short, Zionist education has instilled in the Israeli consciousness a highly simplistic attitude toward that history: that this land has self-evidently been registered under the name of the Jewish people from time immemorial.

Concurrent with the nation-state law, we are seeing the emergence of an industry of apologetic literature that seeks to restore pride in the history of this land. The leading figure in this endeavor is historian Rivka Shpak Lissak, who during the past decade published a trilogy: “When and How the Jewish Majority in the Land of Israel Was Eliminated” (English translation, 2015) and, in Hebrew, “When and How the Jewish Diaspora Emerged,” and “When and How the Arabs and the Muslims Migrated to the Land of Israel.” As the titles suggest, the three books were written to refute Shlomo Sand’s book “How and When the Jewish People Was Invented” (titled in English “The Invention of the Jewish People”).

In her most recent book, “When and How the Arabs Migrated,” published this year, Lissak declares that her purpose is to refute the hypothesis that the Arabs were the original inhabitants of this land. Based on a meticulous summary of existing works, primarily by Zionist historians, she argues that, although the Land of Israel was indeed under Muslim conquest from 640 to 1099 C.E., it “was not an Arab Muslim country.” However, she does admit that at the end of the Mamluk period, in the 16th century, and thereafter as well, there was already an Arab majority here, and writes: “In the Ottoman period, the country’s population consisted of a Muslim majority and a Christian minority.” It’s noteworthy that even Lissak doesn’t claim that the Jews were a majority here, but rather that until the 14th century the Christians constituted the largest ethno-religious group. She also admits that the Christians’ culture was Arabic.

Fairy tale

Lissak’s book, then, sets out to demolish but ends up corroborating. Luckily for the patriotic historian, she has a strong card to play: the Bible. She asserts, for example, that Jerusalem was a Jewish city for 1,000 years, explaining that from the 10th century B.C.E. until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, in 587 B.C.E., Jerusalem was a “Jewish city,” as though this were a solid historical fact. But all the talk about “Jewish history” in ancient periods is quite dubious.

It’s important to understand that the scientific study of the history of the Levant in the Iron Age treats the term “ancient Israel” with considerable skepticism. Since the 1990s, many scholars have maintained that it would be best to abandon that term altogether, as it refers to an entity that is meaningless in historical terms. For example, the influential biblical scholar Niels Peter Lemche noted in a 2008 article that the kingdom of David and Solomon “nowadays may be considered a fairy kingdom rather than a historical fact.”

His colleague from the University of Copenhagen, Thomas L. Thompson, explained in his book “The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel” (2000) that the concept of “Israel” itself, as it appears in the Bible, is a literary fiction. “We can say now with considerable confidence that the Bible is not a history of anyone’s past,” he writes. “The story of the chosen and rejected Israel that it presents is a philosophical metaphor of a mankind that has lost its way.”

That view is not accepted by all scholars, but in the view of the minimalist school of thought, to which Lemche and Thompson belong, the only reason that “ancient Israel” is still being referenced scientifically is that the evangelical community in the United States and elsewhere is interested in hearing this story.

It turns out, then, that the claim that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people” is at best dubious. Of course, it doesn’t follow from this that the Jews have no historical association with the country, or that the Palestinians have exclusive rights to it. But it’s worth recalling that throughout the history of this land, a broad range of peoples and groups have lived in it: Christians, Samaritans, Greeks, Canaanites and others. Some of them thrived here for periods that are longer than the whole history of Jewish sovereignty. In the Gaza Strip, for example, a Zeus-Dagon cult existed for 300 years, and in Hebron there was a temple devoted to the androgynous embodiment of Hermes.

Maybe in the near future the pagans and the genderqueers will also demand rights to worship in the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

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