Are today's Israelis children of ancient Israelites?



Two views, one from progressive-American site AlterNet, the other from an Israeli newspaper, about a book that challenges the foundation of the Israeli state.

(AlterNet) Controversial Bestseller Shakes the Foundation of the Israeli State: What if the Palestinian Arabs who have lived for decades under the heel of the modern Israeli state are in fact descended from the very same "children of Israel" described in the Old Testament?

And what if most modern Israelis aren't descended from the ancient Israelites at all, but are actually a mix of Europeans, North Africans and others who didn't "return" to the scrap of land we now call Israel and establish a new state following the attempt to exterminate them during World War II, but came in and forcefully displaced people whose ancestors had lived there for millennia?

What if the entire tale of the Jewish Diaspora -- the story recounted at Passover tables by Jews around the world every year detailing the ancient Jews' exile from Judea, the years spent wandering through the desert, their escape from the Pharaoh's clutches -- is all wrong?

That's the explosive thesis of When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?, a book by Tel Aviv University scholar Shlomo Zand (or Sand) that sent shockwaves across Israeli society when it was published last year. After 19 weeks on the Israeli best-seller list, the book is being translated into a dozen languages and will be published in the United States this year by Verso.

Its thesis has ramifications that go far beyond some antediluvian academic debate. Few modern conflicts are as attached to ancient history as that decades-long cycle of bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians. Each group lays claim to the same scrap of land -- holy in all three of the world's major Abrahamic religions -- based on long-standing ties to that chunk of earth and national identities formed over long periods of time. There's probably no other place on Earth where the present is as intimately tied to the ancient.

Central to the ideology of Zionism is the tale -- familiar to all Jewish families -- of exile, oppression, redemption and return. Booted from their kingdom, the "Jewish people" -- sons and daughters of ancient Judea -- wandered the earth, rootless, where they faced cruel suppression from all corners -- from being forced to toil in slavery under the Egyptians, to the Spanish massacres of the 14th century and Russian pogroms of the 19th, through to the horrors of the Third Reich.

This view of history animates all Zionists, but none more so than the influential but reactionary minority -- in the United States as well as Israel -- who believe that God bestowed a "Greater Israel" -- one that encompasses the modern state as well as the Occupied Territories -- on the Jewish people, and who resist any effort to create a Palestinian state on biblical grounds.

Inventing a People?

Zand's central argument is that the Romans didn't expel whole nations from their territories. Zand estimates that perhaps 10,000 ancient Judeans were vanquished during the Roman wars, and the remaining inhabitants of ancient Judea remained, converting to Islam and assimilating with their conquerors when Arabs subjugated the area. They became the progenitors of today's Palestinian Arabs, many of whom now live as refugees who were exiled from their homeland during the 20th century.

As Israeli journalist Tom Segev summarized, in a review of the book in Ha'aretz:

There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion, and the exile also never happened -- hence there was no return. Zand rejects most of the stories of national-identity formation in the Bible, including the exodus from Egypt and, most satisfactorily, the horrors of the conquest under Joshua.

But this begs the question: if the ancient people of Judea weren't expelled en masse, then how did it come to pass that Jewish people are scattered across the world? According to Zand, who offers detailed histories of several groups within what is conventionally known as the Jewish Diaspora, some were Jews who emigrated of their own volition, and many more were later converts to Judaism. Contrary to popular belief, Zand argues that Judaism was an evangelical religion that actively sought out new adherents during its formative period.

This narrative has huge significance in terms of Israel's national identity. If Judaism is a religion, rather than "a people" descended from a dispersed nation, then it brings into question the central justification for the state of Israel remaining a "Jewish state."

And that brings us to Zand's second assertion. He argues that the story of the Jewish nation -- the transformation of the Jewish people from a group with a shared cultural identity and religious faith into a vanquished "people" -- was a relatively recent invention, hatched in the 19th century by Zionist scholars and advanced by the Israeli academic establishment. It was, argues Zand, an intellectual conspiracy of sorts. Segev says, "It's all fiction and myth that served as an excuse for the establishment of the State of Israel."

Zand Gets Slammed; Do His Arguments Stand Up?

The ramifications of Zand's argument are far-reaching; "the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I are its descendants," he told Ha'aretz. Zand argues that Israel should be a state in which all of the inhabitants of what was once "British Palestine" share the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship, rather than maintaining it as a "Jewish and democratic" state, as it's now identified.

Predictably, Zand was pilloried according to the time-tested formula. Ami Isseroff, writing on ZioNation, the Zionism-Israel blog, invoked the customary Holocaust imagery, accusing Zand of offering a "final solution to the Jewish problem," one in which "No auto da fe is required, no charging Cossacks are needed, no gas chambers, no smelly crematoria." Another feverish ideologue called Zand's work "another manifestation of mental disorder in the extreme academic Left in Israel."

That kind of overheated rhetoric is a standard straw man in the endless roil of discourse over Israel and the Palestinians, and is easily dismissed. But more serious criticism also greeted Zand's work. In a widely read critical review of Zand's work, Israel Bartal, dean of humanities at the Hebrew University, slammed the author's second assertion -- that Zionist academics had suppressed the true history of Judaism's spread through emigration and conversion in favor of a history that would give legitimacy to the quest for a Jewish state.

Bartal raised important questions about Zand's methodology and pointed out what appears to be some sloppy details in the book. But, interestingly, in defending Israel's academic community, Bartal supported Zand's more consequential thesis, writing, "Although the myth of an exile from the Jewish homeland (Palestine) does exist in popular Israeli culture, it is negligible in serious Jewish historical discussions." Bartal added: "no historian of the Jewish national movement has ever really believed that the origins of the Jews are ethnically and biologically 'pure.' " He noted that "[i]mportant groups in the [Zionist] movement expressed reservations regarding this myth or denied it completely."

"As far as I can discern," Bartal wrote, "the book contains not even one idea that has not been presented" in previous historical studies. Segev added that "Zand did not invent [his] thesis; 30 years before the Declaration of Independence, it was espoused by David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and others."

One can reasonably argue that this ancient myth of a Jewish nation exiled until its 20th century return is of little consequence; whether the Jewish people share a common genetic ancestry or are a far-flung collection of people who share the same faith, a common national identity has in fact developed over the centuries. But Zand's central contention stands, and has some significant implications for the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Changing the Conversation?

The primary reason it's so difficult to discuss the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the remarkably effective job supporters of Israel's control of the Occupied Territories -- including Gaza, still under de facto occupation -- have done equating support for Palestinian self-determination with a desire to see the destruction of Israel. It effectively conflates any advocacy of Palestinian rights with the specter of Jewish extermination.

That's certainly been the case with arguments for a single-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until recent years, advocating a "single-state" solution -- a binational state where all residents of what are today Israel and the Occupied Territories share the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship -- was a relatively mainstream position to take. In fact, it was one of several competing plans considered by the United Nations when it created the state of Israel in the 1940s.

But the idea of a single, binational state has more recently been marginalized -- dismissed as an attempt to destroy Israel literally and physically, rather than as an ethnic and religious-based political entity with a population of second-class Arab citizens and the legacy of responsibility for world's longest-standing refugee population.

A logical conclusion of Zand's work exposing Israel's founding mythology may be the restoration of the idea of a one-state solution to a legitimate place in the debate over this contentious region. After all, while it muddies the waters in one sense -- raising ancient, biblical questions about just who the "children of Israel" really are -- in another sense, it hints at the commonalities that exist between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Both groups lay claim to the same crust of earth, both have faced historic repression and displacement and both hold dear the idea that they should have a "right of return."

And if both groups in fact share common biblical ties, then it begs the question of why the entirety of what was Palestine under the British mandate should remain a refuge for people of one religion instead of being a country in which Jews and Arabs are guaranteed equal protection -- equal protection under the laws of a state whose legitimacy would never again be open to question. (source)

(Haaretz) An invention called 'the Jewish people': Israel's Declaration of Independence states that the Jewish people arose in the Land of Israel and was exiled from its homeland. Every Israeli schoolchild is taught that this happened during the period of Roman rule, in 70 CE. The nation remained loyal to its land, to which it began to return after two millennia of exile. Wrong, says the historian Shlomo Zand, in one of the most fascinating and challenging books published here in a long time. There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion, and the exile also never happened - hence there was no return. Zand rejects most of the stories of national-identity formation in the Bible, including the exodus from Egypt and, most satisfactorily, the horrors of the conquest under Joshua. It's all fiction and myth that served as an excuse for the establishment of the State of Israel, he asserts.

According to Zand, the Romans did not generally exile whole nations, and most of the Jews were permitted to remain in the country. The number of those exiled was at most tens of thousands. When the country was conquered by the Arabs, many of the Jews converted to Islam and were assimilated among the conquerors. It follows that the progenitors of the Palestinian Arabs were Jews. Zand did not invent this thesis; 30 years before the Declaration of Independence, it was espoused by David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and others.

If the majority of the Jews were not exiled, how is it that so many of them reached almost every country on earth? Zand says they emigrated of their own volition or, if they were among those exiled to Babylon, remained there because they chose to. Contrary to conventional belief, the Jewish religion tried to induce members of other faiths to become Jews, which explains how there came to be millions of Jews in the world. As the Book of Esther, for example, notes, "And many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them."

Zand quotes from many existing studies, some of which were written in Israel but shunted out of the central discourse. He also describes at length the Jewish kingdom of Himyar in the southern Arabian Peninsula and the Jewish Berbers in North Africa. The community of Jews in Spain sprang from Arabs who became Jews and arrived with the forces that captured Spain from the Christians, and from European-born individuals who had also become Jews.

The first Jews of Ashkenaz (Germany) did not come from the Land of Israel and did not reach Eastern Europe from Germany, but became Jews in the Khazar Kingdom in the Caucasus. Zand explains the origins of Yiddish culture: it was not a Jewish import from Germany, but the result of the connection between the offspring of the Kuzari and Germans who traveled to the East, some of them as merchants.

We find, then, that the members of a variety of peoples and races, blond and black, brown and yellow, became Jews in large numbers. According to Zand, the Zionist need to devise for them a shared ethnicity and historical continuity produced a long series of inventions and fictions, along with an invocation of racist theses. Some were concocted in the minds of those who conceived the Zionist movement, while others were offered as the findings of genetic studies conducted in Israel.

Prof. Zand teaches at Tel Aviv University. His book, "When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?" (published by Resling in Hebrew), is intended to promote the idea that Israel should be a "state of all its citizens" - Jews, Arabs and others - in contrast to its declared identity as a "Jewish and democratic" state. Personal stories, a prolonged theoretical discussion and abundant sarcastic quips do not help the book, but its historical chapters are well-written and cite numerous facts and insights that many Israelis will be astonished to read for the first time.

The mosquito from Kiryat Yam

On March 27, 1948, a meeting was held in Hiafa concerning the fate of the Bedouin of Arab al-Ghawarina in the Haifa area. "They must be removed from there, so that they, too, will not add to our troubles," Yosef Weitz, of the Keren Kayemeth (Jewish National Fund), wrote in his personal diary. Two months later, Weitz reported to the organization's director, "Our Haifa Bay has been evacuated completely and there is hardly a remnant of those who encroached our border." They were probably expelled to Jordan; some were allowed to remain in the village of Jisr al-Zarqa. The fate of the Arab al-Ghawarina Bedouin has recently made the headlines thanks to Shmuel Sisso, mayor of the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Yam. He has filed a complaint with the police against Google. The reason is the addition that one of the site's surfers, a resident of Nablus, attached to the center of Kiryat Yam in the world satellite photo, stating that the city is built on the ruins of a village that was destroyed in 1948, Arab al-Ghawarina. Sisso's complaint says that this is slanderous.

The facts are as follows: The lands of the Zevulun Valley were purchased in the 1920s by the JNF and by various construction companies, among them one called Gav Yam. The Zionist Archives have the plan for the establishment of Kiryat Yam, dated 1938, and a letter from 1945 states that there were already 100 homes there. Government maps from the British Mandate period identify the territory on which Kiryat Yam was built by two names: Zevulun Valley and Ghawarina. Thus it appears that this was not a settlement but an area in which Bedouin resided.

The Web site of the Israeli organization Zochrot (Remembering) states that there were 720 people at the site in 1948 and that the area was divided among three kibbutzim: Ein Hamifratz, Kfar Masaryk and Ein Hayam, today Ein Carmel.

This story has been making the rounds on the Internet and drawing responses, which can be summed up as follows: "If Sisso is suing Google because they stated that he is living on a destroyed Arab village, the implication is that he thinks this is something bad." Sisso, a lawyer of 57 who is identified with Likud and was formerly Israeli consul general in New York, says, "I don't think there is anything bad about it, but other people might think it is bad, especially people abroad, and that is liable to hurt Kiryat Yam, because people will not want to invest here. Since we are not sitting on a Palestinian village, why should we have to suffer for no reason?"

Moroccan-born, Sisso arrived in Israel in 1955. "I wandered around the whole region and I saw no trace of anyone's having been here before us and supposedly expelled." He asked an American law professor how, if at all, Google could be sued for slander or for damages. This, he says, is the contribution of Kiryat Yam to the struggle against the right of return (of the Palestinian refugees).

It could turn out to be the most riveting trial since Ariel Sharon sued Time magazine, but mayor Sisso has no illusions: "Me against Google is like a mosquito against an elephant," he said this week.

Who America belongs to

Two professors, Gabi Shefer and Avi Ben-Zvi, were guests this week on Yitzhak Noy's "International Hour" current events program on Israel Radio. The anchor, sounding slightly concerned, asked whether the achievements of Barack Obama show that the United States no longer belongs to the white man. Prof. Shefer confirmed this: Obama is an immigrant, he said. Prof. Ben-Zvi asked to add a remark: Gabi Shefer is right, he said. They are both wrong. If Obama were an immigrant, he would not be eligible to be elected president. He was born in Honolulu, some two years after Hawaii became the 50th state of the union. (source)