The imaginary foundation of Israel


The imaginary foundation of Israel

The idea that Jewish people have had a ‘home' in western Asia for 3,500 years is deeply flawed, writes ISMAIL LAGARDIEN. What about the people who were there 4,000 years ago, or at any time before that?


THERE has been a necessary focus on the rise of ethno-nationalism around the world over the past decade or so and it has almost always been tied to land or “the state”. From rising white supremacy in the US to a drift to the far right on the back of ethnicity and purity in Hungary, India and Pakistan, searches for purity have shaped politics and political economy land ownership — and provoked violent responses.

Right under our noses, as it were, the Israeli ethno-nationalist state has taken shape, with consequent devastation for the Palestinians, and the story is told that they were never there, and that there was or is no such thing as “a Palestinian”. The Palestinians don’t have a history or a future. In places, it is dangerous — and a cause for violence — even to mention the word “Palestinian”. In a recent video clip that went viral, a man is seen attacking a Unicef worker and delivering a threat: Say Palestine, and I will kill you.

Israel is presented as the “home” of Jews and, as Benjamin Netanyahu has said, it has been home of the Jews for 3,500 years. There are two important issues at work here. The historical and philosophical are wilfully imbricated to justify the state of Israel, the erasure of Palestine (and Palestinians), and provide the Israeli Defence Force with a numinous seal. It is tedious to have to repeat what follows. Briefly, Netanyahu is wrong about his historical reference and he is delusional; what he says has no grounding in history or science. Let me try to explain why I make that statement.

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Invention of history

I break with one of my two favourite historians (Giambattista Vico and Eric Hobsbawm), especially the claim by the former that the history of a society is like that of an individual. Vico developed a philosophy of history which says the historical development of any society is like that of an individual: it’s born, goes through childhood, experiences difficult teenage years, muddles through its twenties, goes through its prime, has some kind of mid-life crisis, endures the deterioration of old age, then dies. And just like an individual, all societies must be understood on their own terms. Somewhat contradicting himself, and here I agree, he also said people conjured ideas and images in their minds, built stories around them and invented history. This he described as the conceit of nations. They become (in my words) the centre of their own attention.

It’s fair to say that Vico (1668-1744) put down his thoughts long before new knowledge emerged about our genealogical origins, human migrations and settlement, and what my other favourite historian described as invented traditions. This is the simplest explanation that I found. These inventions, Hobsbawm explained, were “cultural practices that are presented or perceived as traditional, arising from the people starting in the distant past, but which in fact are relatively recent and often even consciously invented by identifiable historical actors”.

The Biblical scholar Marc Zvi Brettler made a similar observation. “All history is created. Events transpire, but people tell and record, select and reshape them, creating historical texts… Some retellings of the past attempt to depict the events as they transpired, others cloak a particular ideology in historical garb, while still others aim primarily to enlighten or to entertain. These functions are not necessarily mutually exclusive; one person may compose an entertaining ideological text, or a text which was originally interested in the actual past may be reshaped by a later author with didactic aims,” explained Brettler, recipient of 2004 National Jewish Book Award for The Jewish Study Bible.

Unlike Vico, I do not believe human history “started” at any specific (and definitive) time and place. In my most radical imagination, to start thinking about human origins I would go back to the point(s) at which geochemistry turned to biochemistry, or when single-cell “life” turned to multicellular life, and then (I would venture) when hominins/hominids appeared… to when we walked upright and across the world, and to the present day. 

There are cases, to be sure, where we can point to historical events based on available knowledge and evidence, like the Natives Land Act of 1913, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, or for that matter unilateral declarations of independence by European settlers in Rhodesia or North America, both ostensibly seeking to break away from Britain. These marked specific events within specific contexts. It’s difficult to imagine arguments that can be had either way. I also find it difficult to believe that we have to understand the history of any one person or group of people as discrete. It is disingenuous to suggest that human evolution stopped, at some point, to satisfy or meet the expectations of divine intervention. I’m afraid things don’t work that way.

Out of Africa and into Asia

The idea that Jewish people have had “a home” in western Asia starting 3,500 years ago is deeply and tragically flawed. It ignores the passage of our species from Africa and into Europe and imagines that a supernatural being intervened or interrupted the spread of human beings to anoint or choose one group who would become Jews, Christians and Muslims. Abraham/Ebrahim would be the conduit between humans and their creator. Let’s stay with human migration for now.

If we take Netanyahu at his word — that the Jewish people have a home in western Asia because they have had it for 3,500 years — we may ask who was there 4,000 years ago (pick any date before that), and could they not claim to have a home where present-day Israel or even Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and southern Turkey are located? Again, it is tempting to dismiss this question lightly. This dismissal would conveniently ignore too many facts.

The following is commonly accepted: genetic evidence shows that ancestors of current human populations in Europe, Asia and the Americas (everywhere outside Africa) left the continent many centuries ago. I always stuck to the conservative 60,000 years ago. This migration certainly occurred more than 3,500 years ago. Until new data comes forward, there is little scientific evidence to deny that. One research project detailed that when migrating out of Africa more than 500,000 years ago, our species passed through western Asia and expanded “into the Levant and Arabia during the good times, then became extinct in the bad times… this area (present-day Israel included) was not only a potential migration route between Africa and Eurasia, in either direction, but it could also have been a melting pot on numerous occasions.”  

Elsewhere in the same research journal, Science, it is recorded that: “The oldest known H. sapiens fossils outside of Africa, from Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel, have been dated to just 90,000 to 120,000 years old… fossil evidence from Misliya Cave, Israel, [suggests] that our species had already left Africa by ∼180,000 years ago.”

There is no evidence or even an oral tradition that confirms the intervention of a divine being, say 90,000 years ago. Also, the Abrahamic traditions probably took root less than 10,000 years ago.

The conclusion by scientists — that migration across the Levant included settlements as “melting pots” — does not sit well with the idea of a 3,500-year-old exceptionalist view. It is important to point out that these conclusions were not reached by radical anti-Israel activists. The research was supported and funded by, among others, the humanities faculty at the University of Haifa and the Israel Science Foundation.

To imagine you can stop history at any point and claim it as the single formative origins of anyone is the most egregious display of Ptolemaic parochialism. You can do as you wish, of course, and people can pray to the gods of their choice, but forcing your views onto others and making them comply with your imaginings is offensive and dangerous. It is doubly offensive (and dangerous) when you believe your creator has wished your view on others — and that you can die or kill for all of that.

The Bible tells them so

Try as he might, there is nothing Netanyahu can say to convince everyone beyond his sphere of influence that his creator intervened 3,500 years ago to stop human migration and impose a new and exceptional set of laws. The same can be said of other Abrahamic faiths. That certainty is, unfortunately, not available to us, as Walter Brueggemann suggested in David’s Truth: In Israel’s Imagination and Memory.  

In Netanyahu’s imagination there is no difference between himself (and his people) and his creator. Did god not create us all in his image? (Genesis 1:27). On this basis, just parenthetically, the god of people in Finland may have blue eyes and blond hair, or in Ethiopia the god may look, well, like an Ethiopian.

“In the iconography of Minoan Crete,” writes Francesca Stavrakopoulou of Exeter University, “the human king and his deity are almost impossible to distinguish: one appears in the image of the other, much as the first humans are created in the image of their Creator in Genesis”.

Netanyahu’s claims are not unique. Modern conceptions of religion were invented and pleated with politics, society and self-images. Colonial and settler expansion was driven, in large part, by self-images of “godhood” and “godliness” to justify dominion over indigenous people. The British were most confident about their status. (See Hilary Carey’s book God's Empire: Religion and Colonialism in the British World, c 1801-1908.)

Ever since 1492, when Christopher Columbus made landfall in the New World and was hailed as a heavenly being, the accidental god has haunted the modern age. From Haile Selassie, acclaimed as the Living God in Jamaica, to Britain’s Prince Philip, who became the unlikely centre of a new religion on a South Pacific island, men made divine ― always men ― have appeared on every continent. And because these deifications always emerge at moments of turbulence ― civil wars, imperial conquest, revolutions ― they have much to teach us,” Anna Della Subin wrote as a note to her book Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine.

When you study or make claims about your religion or cultural beliefs, you often start from a religious world view. To paraphrase Ben Saler, Netanyahu’s conception of Israel is contiguous with/to his conception of his religious beliefs, both of which are weak.

There is no evidence that everything in the bible is historical fact; that Abraham even existed, or that Netanyahu’s creator somehow intervened in human migration from Africa and expansion across the earth, then stopped it 3,500 years ago and blessed the people in the region. This probably accounts for the idea that the Israeli Defence Force and all its actions bear a numinous seal. Finally, if we have to accept or understand history exclusively in Netanyahu’s terms, we may be falling into a trap in which everything that happened before 3,500 years ago never actually took place.

In sum, Netanyahu’s claim is spurious (it cannot be sustained by scientific evidence), it is manipulative (there is no evidence that his creator stopped the passage of time to create a home for one group of people), but it is unsurprising — there are other religious beliefs that claim exceptionalism, and true believers who are prepared to die and kill for their beliefs.

♦ VWB ♦

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