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A SPECIAL REPORT:
Ancient Israeli Myths Deter Peace
9 JuLY 2009
The rationale for formally designating Israel a Jewish state – as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now demands – rests on three religious-political pillars: God’s purported covenant with Moses instructing the ancient Israelites to conquer the land, the injustice of the Roman-era Diaspora that supposedly removed them centuries later, and the brutal persecution of European Jews in the Holocaust.
Yet, two of these pillars – Moses conveying God’s covenant to the Israelites and the Roman Diaspora – appear based on almost no historical reality, the stuff of legend and possibly even lies that crumble under any serious scrutiny.
Normally, such ancient stories might be regarded as harmless tales that some people treasure as part of their Judeo-Christian faiths, except that Netanyahu’s new demand means that these myths now threaten peace in the Middle East and conceivably could push the modern world into more bloody warfare. Therefore, they must be given fresh examination.
Ironically, it was the Nazis’ drive to exterminate European Jews during World War II that is the one pillar founded on historical reality, although some extreme enemies of Israel insist on making Holocaust denial a central feature of their attacks.
Also, some adversaries, like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have argued that it is unfair to make the Palestinians pay for a crime against humanity committed by the Germans.
Yet, the Holocaust is not in historical dispute. That horrible reality – an industrial-style extermination campaign that also targeted Gypsies, homosexuals and Communists – was proven after the World War II from a multitude of Nazi records, photographs and eyewitness accounts.
It is the tales of Moses from the Torah (or the first five books of the Old Testament) and the legend of the Roman Diaspora that lack serious historical underpinnings.
The Diaspora myth has been addressed in a new book by Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? It debunks the notion that Rome removed the Jewish people en masse from the Holy Land in the First and Second Centuries A.D. and scattered them across Europe.
Instead, most East European Jews appear to be descendents of converts, principally from the Kingdom of the Khazars in eastern Russia, who embraced Judaism in the Eighth Century, A.D. The descendants of the Khazars then were driven from their native lands by invasions and – through migration – created the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe.
Thus, Sand argues, many of today’s Israelis who emigrated from Europe after World War II have little or no genealogical connection to the land. According to Sand, a bitter irony of Israel’s founding may be that it displaced Palestinians who could be the actual descendants of the ancient Israelites, who stayed on the land and eventually converted to Islam.
Other descendants of those ancient Israelites maintained Judaism as a strong presence in the Middle East, both in Palestine and in successful communities from Egypt to Iraq and Iran. These Jews faced few religious pressures until after Israel was founded in 1948, when this new European intrusion into Islamic lands was viewed in the context of the Crusades a millennium ago. [More on Sand’s book below.]
The Moses Myth
Yet, while questioning the Diaspora myth is a sensitive topic for many Israelis and their supporters around the world, it is even touchier to challenge the Biblical claim that God, through Moses, struck a covenant with the Israelites to conquer the land and possess it for all time.
Because the Torah is sacred to Jews – and to many Christians as the revealed word of God in the Old Testament – it has been dangerous to examine the factual history behind these texts in an objective manner.
For centuries, the Catholic Church and some Protestant faiths persecuted anyone who questioned Moses’s supposed authorship of the chapters even though their internal contradictions and the description of Moses’s death at the end of Deuteronomy made that long-held belief untenable.
As Richard Elliott Friedman recounts in his 1987 book, Who Wrote the Bible?, “Religious opposition to the new investigation (into the traditional belief about Moses’s authorship) persisted during the 19th Century” and didn’t collapse until 1943 when Pope Pius XII “encouraged scholars to pursue knowledge about the biblical writers.”
Modern Biblical scholars now agree that Moses was not the author of the Torah, that the stories were passed down orally from the 14th Century B.C. and were put into writing centuries later. But the legendary figure of Moses has remained almost beyond criticism, not only for many Jews but for people of the Christian and Islamic faiths. (He is treated as a holy messenger in the Koran.)
Many Americans think of Moses as the angry but righteous leader as portrayed by Charlton Heston in the 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments,” or they think of their feel-good Bible studies as children. Yet, many archaeologists believe that the Moses stories were largely made up.
However, other scholars believe that some Israelites did emigrate to Egypt, suffered in servitude there, and may have been led back to Canaan by Moses or a Moses-like leader.
Nevertheless, because of the powerful influence of the Torah (and the Old Testament), the biblical Moses carries extraordinary religious and historical weight, inspiring Israeli settlers to claim Palestinian lands as rightfully theirs and rallying fundamentalist Christians across the American heartland to embrace whatever actions the Israelis take.
A Tyrannical Leader
But who was Moses?
According to biblical lore, Moses was a Hebrew child raised in the royal Egyptian court before breaking with his protectors and remaking himself into a leader of Hebrew slaves. He guided them out of Egypt and transformed them, as they wandered for decades in the Sinai desert, into an Israelite nation, giving them specific laws and detailed rules of behavior.
During that time, Moses announced a covenant with God that granted the Israelites permanent dominion over the lands across the Jordan River, and he instructed them to destroy other peoples inhabiting those territories. Moses, however, never returned to the Promised Land, dying near the Jordan, before the conquest began.
Though Moses is regarded by many as a great law giver (the Ten Commandants) and as a major force in the formation of monotheism (the belief in one God), the text of the Torah present him as a cruel and tyrannical leader.
From a modern perspective, Moses might be viewed as a “dictator who killed his own people” when they disobeyed him and an advocate of genocide against outsiders. His claims that he spoke with the Lord sound more like a megalomaniac who believed he could scare a primitive people into following his orders by claiming they were edicts from God.
Indeed, over the centuries, many tyrants have used religion (especially monotheism) to justify repression and to eliminate enemies and rivals. The religious wars in Europe during the Middle Ages are a classic example of how kings and popes wrapped their personal power in the bloody cloak of religion, torturing and burning alive “heretics” who wouldn’t submit.
The biblical Moses appears to have been such a tyrant, though the Sunday school version often played down this extreme side of his personality.
In Exodus, for instance, there is the famous story of the Israelites creating a visible idol of their God in the form of a golden calf while Moses is absent on Mount Sinai. When Moses returns with stone tablets conveying laws of behavior, he is furious and smashes the tablets.
According to the Torah, Moses then grinds up the golden calf, mixes it with water and makes the Israelites drink it. Then, Moses recruits what we would today call a “death squad.”
In other words, Moses ordered a massacre of Israelites whom he regarded as his enemies, people who had challenged his authority in the form of dancing around the golden calf.
Robert Alter in his 2004 book, The Five Books of Moses, comments on Moses’s instruction: “each man kill his brother,” etc.
It also seemed that whenever Moses was setting some rule, whether as grand as the Ten Commandants or as minor as personal hygiene, he always invoked the Almighty.
In Leviticus, for instance, God supposedly takes a direct interest in dictating how women should be treated after childbirth, with one set of rules for giving birth to sons and another for daughters.
According to this account, the Lord tell Moses, “Speak to the Israelites, saying ‘Should a woman quicken with seed and bear a male, she shall be unclean seven days, as in the days of her menstrual unwellness she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And thirty days and three she shall stay in her blood purity. She shall touch no consecrated thing nor shall she come into the sanctuary till the days of her purity are completed.
If you think that’s a lot of unnecessary detail, you should read the Lord’s instructions via Moses for how to assess whether a boil is leprosy or not.
In Deuteronomy, Moses explains to the Israelites about their right to reclaim the land of their forefathers, again speaking for God:
Moses also makes clear that God expected the conquest to include massacres and genocide. Again speaking for the Lord, Moses said:
In his final blessing to the Israelites, Moses makes the genocide message even more explicit, painfully so. He called on them to “smash the loins of [the Lord’s] foes, that His enemies rise no more. ... Your enemies cower before you and you on their backs will tread.”
So, more than 3,000 years later, should a modern state like Israel be demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as an explicitly Jewish state, as Netanyahu now says?
The Diaspora Myth
The second pillar – the Roman Diaspora – also comes from ancient times though not as far back as the stories of Moses. If anything, however, the Diaspora has less of a historical basis.
In When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?, Dr. Sand, an expert on European history at the University of Tel Aviv, says the Jews were never exiled en masse from the Holy Land and that the myth of the Diaspora was used by Zionists over the past century to buttress their argument for creating Israel.
Sand, a European Jew born in 1946 to Holocaust survivors in Austria, argues that until the Zionist movement arose, Jews thought of themselves as Jews because they shared a common religion, not because they possessed a direct lineage to the ancient tribes of Israel.
However, at the turn of the 20th Century, Sand asserts, Zionist Jews began assembling a national history to justify creation of a Jewish state by inventing the idea that Jews existed as a people separate from their religion and that they had primogeniture over the territory that had become known as Palestine.
The Zionists also invented the idea that Jews living in exile were obligated to return to the Promised Land, a concept that had been foreign to Judaism, Sand states.
If Sand’s thesis is correct – and it has faced no substantive rebuttal – it would suggest that many of the Palestinian Arabs have a far more substantial claim to the lands of Israel than do many European Jews who arrived there asserting a God-given claim.
Indeed, Sand theorizes that many Jews, who remained in Judea after Roman legions crushed the last uprising in 136 A.D., eventually converted to Christianity or Islam, meaning that the Palestinians who have been crowded into Gaza or concentrated in the West Bank might be direct descendants of Jews from the Roman era.
In his book – and in an interview with Haaretz about his book – Sand challenged the myth that the Romans relocated the Jews by force to Europe. In the interview, he said:
"I started looking in research studies about the exile from the land - a constitutive event in Jewish history, almost like the Holocaust. But to my astonishment I discovered that it has no literature. The reason is that no one exiled the people of the country.
“The Romans did not exile peoples and they could not have done so even if they had wanted to. They did not have trains and trucks to deport entire populations. That kind of logistics did not exist until the 20th Century. From this, in effect, the whole book was born: in the realization that Judaic society was not dispersed and was not exiled."
The True Descendants
Asked if he was saying that the true descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah are the Palestinians, Sand responded:
Criticism of Sand’s book has focused mostly on his credentials as an expert on European history, not ancient Middle Eastern history, a point that Sand readily acknowledges.
One critic, Israel Bartal, dean of humanities at the Hebrew University, attacked Sand’s credentials, but disagreed mostly over Sand’s assertion that the Diaspora story was created as an intentional myth by Zionists seeking to fabricate a direct genealogical connection between many of the world’s Jews and Israel.
In other words, Bartal is not so much disputing Sand’s historical claims about the Diaspora or the origins of Eastern European Jews, as he is contesting Sand’s notion that Zionists concocted a false history for a cynical political purpose.
But there can be no doubt that the story of the Diaspora has played a key role in the founding of Israel and that the appeal of this powerful narrative has helped generate sympathy around the world, especially in the United States.
As recently as Israeli’s bombardment of Gaza in January 2009, the myth of the Diaspora was used to justify the slaughter of some 1,400 Palestinians dead, including many children and other non-combatants. When the Israeli government investigated alleged war crimes by its army, Israeli troops testified that extremist Rabbis had proclaimed the invasion a holy war.
Today, with the emergence of a new Likud-led government in Israel, the Diaspora myth and Moses legends are intruding again on the prospects for finally achieving peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has insisted on a new precondition for talks – that the Palestinians must agree to a “public, binding and unequivocal” recognition that Israel is “the nation state of the Jewish people,” not simply the nation state of the people of Israel. Netanyahu is making this demand although Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population.
This appears to be another case of ancient bloody myths contributing to a modern bloody reality.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on July 9, 2009.