The Israeli bludgeoning of Gaza and the callous targeting of civilians in late 2008 and early 2009 raises once again the issue of the relationship between this conflict and biblical myths.
One of my areas of research is in biblical studies, especially the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible as we tend to call it. So I would like to offer a critical assessment of the conflict from the perspective of these biblical narratives. Alongside the military and political conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is an ideological struggle, which often takes the form of claims to own key biblical myths, or at least to correspond to certain roles within them.
What are those myths? There is really one major one: the account that runs from the creation of the world in Genesis to the conquest of the land of Canaan (the so-called "Promised Land") in Joshua. In between we have the stories of Abraham, the move to Egypt with Jacob and Joseph, the oppression in Egypt, the Exodus from Egypt under Moses’s leadership, the wandering in the wilderness and then the invasion of Canaan.
Let me be perfectly clear: no reputable biblical scholar takes this as historical. It is mythology, or more specifically a political myth that is still powerful today (the idea of Promised Land is still used in the United States, for example). By myth I mean both a fiction and a motivating story that gives shape to deep questions about such social issues as one’s origins, the nature of society, state formation, gender relations and indigenous relations — to name but a few.
This point is important, since we find claim and counterclaim in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Some Jews, especially of the religious type, claim that the Jews have historical right to the land since Abraham bought a piece of it from the locals, or that the Jews are in fact the indigenous people of the land and that Palestinians are only recent arrivals (for example, see here, here and here).
On the Palestinian side we find the claim to be descendants of the original Canaanites whom the invading Israelites dispossessed (see here). More specifically, some Palestinians claim the original inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Jebusites (a branch of the Canaanites) as their ancestors. What is happening here is that each side is trying to claim various points of this biblical myth for their own story.
The problem for both sides is that it doesn’t have much historical basis. Forget the myth for a moment. As far as we can tell, both the Canaanites and the early Israelites (back in the first millennium BC) were from the same ethnic and geographical group. There was no invasion, no nomadic people coming out of the desert and occupying a promised land as the myth would have it. At least that’s the consensus on the ancient history of Palestine.
But there is a further problem: do the current Palestinians and Israelis actually descend from these earlier inhabitants? As with all ancient history, the conclusions must remain very tentative. The archaeological information is very thin (despite great energy devoted to archaeology in both Palestine and Israel for obvious political reasons) and the Bible is a very unreliable source for any historical information. On top of this, there have been significant movements of people, inter-breeding and the impossibility of tracing who comes from where.
The only firm historical conclusion we can reach is that when the Jews started arriving in large numbers in the early 20th century, the modern Palestinians were already there.
So let us return to the vital question of political myth. The key to political myth is that it provides a powerful motivating story that is also highly contested. It is also impervious to "facts", since finding an objective fact here is like nailing jelly to a wall. We can see how that mythic narrative is contested now.
Zionism has long claimed the status of the oppressed victim: the systematic exclusion of Jews through Europe’s long history, the pogroms and the Nazi effort at genocide. In other words, Zionists (a biblical term if ever there was one) claim that the Jews of today fill the role of the oppressed Israelites in the exodus from Egypt, and they therefore need a homeland in order to survive — the "Promised Land".
This story has been trotted out again and again in various forms for a good many decades. However, given that Israel is now largely secular and that relatively few people subscribe to the literal religious beliefs of Judaism, that biblical myth is losing its grip. Plus, it is hard to keep that mythical status of victim going when you are slaughtering someone else’s kids. We no longer hear that story invoked as much. Instead, we hear of "terrorist" Palestinians and "terrorist" Arabs who must be stopped. Or we hear that Palestinian movements like Hamas as really proxies for "terrorist states" like Iran. But the substitution is a weak one as this line simply doesn’t have the power of the biblical myth.
So the Palestinians have been able to claim the status of oppressed victim. Even more, they have managed to fill the spot of the Canaanites in the biblical narrative. Not a bad move, since that same myth has the Israelites come in as invaders from outside. As far as the political myth of the first books of the Bible is concerned, the Canaanites are the dispossessed and oppressed indigenous inhabitants who suffer at the hands of the colonial Israelites. This powerful political myth has become Palestinian.
As global sympathy shifts more and more towards the Palestinians, I would suggest that this realignment is partly about the shift in who owns that biblical political myth, along with (of course) the reality of imprisonment and violent death at the hands of Israelis.
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