2017-05-26

“We do not believe in God, but he nonetheless promised us Palestine”

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by Neil Godfrey

Part of the Uganda Protectorate that was transferred to the British East Africa Protectorate was at one time under serious consideration as a homeland for Jews.

Odd, don’t you think, that primarily secular Jews have led the Zionist movement while pointing to the Bible as the justification for their “return” to Palestine. When the Zionist movement was founded in the nineteenth century it was opposed by religious and most orthodox Jews. Zionism’s founder, Theodore Herzl, argued for a site in east Africa as the best place for a Jewish homeland for the foreseeable future. So what happened?

It was the British who were in large measure responsible for Palestine becoming the designated homeland. Protestant Britain, informed by Western Christian scholarship in a time of colonialism and imperialism, contributed to strong support among non-Jews for the Zionist movement focused on Palestine.

Most religious Jews argued against Zionism, insisting that the Jews were meant by God to remain outside Palestine and return was unthinkable without the messiah.

The secular early Zionists quoted intensively from the Bible to show that there was a divine imperative to colonize Palestine,  or in their discourse, to redeem Eretz Israel. But in fact the Bible is not a very useful text for reinventing a Jewish nation: the father of the nation, Abraham, was not from Palestine, the Hebrews became a nation in Egypt and the Ten Commandments were given to them in Egypt (the Sinai). . . .

(Pappe, I. (2016). “The Bible in the service of Zionism: “we do not believe in God, but he nonetheless promised us Palestine” in I. Hjelm and T. L. Thompson, eds., History, Archaeology and the Bible Forty Years After “Historicity”, 1st ed. Oxon, Routledge, p. 206.)

Eventually a few religious Jews did come to accept Zionism with Palestine as their focus and argued that the time of God’s punishment was coming to an end, that return to Palestine without the messiah was the new divine will.

Despite the several weaknesses of the Bible as a justification for claiming Palestine as the natural homeland of the Jews, the Bible was used to win support from among both Jews and gentiles (especially the British and Americans).

Several studies have shown that the gravitation towards Palestine as the epicentre of Zionist visions and aspirations was facilitated, among other factors, by a very keen and intensive Protestant interest in connecting the Jewish colonization of the “holy land” with divine and apocalyptic Christian doctrines, which saw the return of the Jews as precipitating the second coming of the Messiah. 

The orientation of Zionism towards Palestine followed European scholarly preoccupation with biblical Israel in the age of colonialism and imperialism. (Pappe, p. 207, my bolding)

That scholarship had a strong religious bias. Palestine was viewed as a land that rightfully belonged to Israel and other peoples inhabiting the land at different times were there either illegitimately or temporarily. Essentially non-Jews in Palestine “didn’t count”, Arabs were seen as nomads, and consequently the land was in effect empty, just waiting to be reinhabited by a people without a land.

At the same time, scholarship came to invent a Jewish nation with ancient roots as the rightful occupants. Despite archaeological evidence to the contrary (see, for example, The Archaeological Evidence for Ancient Israel) Jerusalem was depicted as a major centre for a viable Israelite empire from the days of David and Solomon.

A religious narrative was embraced by many secularists as a historical charter of birthright and nationhood.

In speaking of the “unholy alliance” between Christian scholarship and secular Zionism, Pappe writes:

The most common thread was the ability to Zionize, or nationalize, anyone who lived in the biblical era up to the Roman time and then de-Palestinize others — namely question other people’s, even indigenous ones, affinity or connection to the land of Palestine, up to the arrival of the early Zionists. (p. 208)

One would expect that any movement inspired by socialist ideology (as early Zionism very largely was) would be keen to respect the rights and equality of all races and creeds, but unfortunately this was not the case with Zionism:

But as Zeev Sternhell (1999), and before him Zachary Lockman (1996) and Gershon Shafir (1989) among others have shown, this was always a very conditional and limited version of Socialism and Marxism. The universal values and aspirations that characterized the various ideological movements in the Western Left were, very early on, nationalized or Zionized in Palestine. (p. 209)

And so the Bible was read by both religious and secular Zionists as a text that justified past conquests. Present day clashes between Jewish settlers and Palestinian Arabs were also interpreted “biblically” as re-enactments of the age-old struggle with Canaanites.

Public education policy from the time of Ben Gurion required that the Bible be taught “as a national text to be inserted in a core place in the educational systems”.

Then 1967 happened. Israel found itself in possession of the sites of the most notable events of the Biblical narrative.

The Bible continues to fuel twin narratives:

  1. All Israel, especially Jerusalem and the West Bank, was always Jewish by right and remained so until the Jews were cruelly expelled;
  2. Palestine remained essentially an empty land until the return of the Jews once more in the late nineteenth century.

The second map in the Atlas

Pappe cites The Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Martin Gilbert (2010) as typical of the mindset.

The first map is a good place to start. It shows the Jews of Palestine before the Arab conquest. Fair enough, we may say, as this demonstrates the romantic Zionist claim to Palestine. But one would have expected at least one map that informs us about the Arab’s chronicles in Abbasid, Mamluk, Seljuk, or Ottoman Palestine. But there is none of that.

The subsequent map is of the Jews in Palestine in all these Islamic periods, periods in which they constituted less than 1 per cent of the population.

The third map is about the first Jewish immigration of 1882. The myth of the “empty land waiting for the landless people” is recreated in these first three maps.

The biblical map is not directly displayed here but it is the basis for the story (a Palestinian atlas would begin the story with the arrival of Zionism as the departure point for the conflict). (p. 215, my bolding and formatting)

It’s a tragedy. Antisemitism is an evil. But surely we do no favours to Israelis or Palestinian Arabs if we confuse the political ideology grounded in the biblical myth with the “natural right” of one race over another.


Pappe, I. (2016). “The Bible in the service of Zionism: “we do not believe in God, but he nonetheless promised us Palestine” in I. Hjelm and T. L. Thompson, eds., History, Archaeology and the Bible Forty Years After “Historicity”, 1st ed. Oxon, Routledge, pp. 205-217.

 


 

5 Comments

  • Ross Cameron
    2017-05-26 06:29:52 UTC - 06:29 | Permalink

    Then, of course, there`s Kamal Salibi`s proposition the all the settlements in the Hebrew Testament (which haven`t been found in Palestine) are still there in West Arabia.

  • Bob de Jong
    2017-05-26 12:47:42 UTC - 12:47 | Permalink

    It looks as if you base this informative post on the book by Ilan Pappé. I’m not sure if you have introduced Pappé elsewhere on you blog; anyway, when interpreting a text, it is always prudent to be aware of the motives and background of the author. Ilan Pappé is a marxist, strongly anti-zionist, political activist. Fine to discuss his views, but it is also good to take notice of the criticism that has been published regarding his work. One of these criticisms suggets that – in many instances – Pappé’s poltical views take precedence over historical rigour. In other words, Pappé gets his facts wrong. And even in your brief review, there are instances to be found, which tend to colour his acccount to suit his views. Some examples:

    – “Theodore Herzl, argued for a site in east Africa as the best place for a Jewish homeland”. In fact, a movement to establish a Jewish state in Israel predates Herzl’s zionism. Already in 1839 Sir Moses Montefiore petitioned Sa’id, Khedive of Egypt, for a Jewish homeland in the region of Palestine. In 1840, Yehuda Aryeh Leon Biba, Judah ben Solomon Chai Alkalai and Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, all 3 Rabbis (!), promoted that Jews move to Palestine and re-settle there. In 1896, Herzl published his book, Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews) in which he writes that the Jewish people should establish a homeland in Palestine, or elsewhere (notably in Argentinia) only if this were not feasible in Israel. Herzl engaged with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to discuss the options for a Jewish state in Palestine, but to no avail. Then, in 1903, the Kishinev pogrom in Russia made him investigate the offer that the British had made for a state in Uganda. (actually, the desigated area was located in Kenya). Herzl proposed the ‘British Uganda Program’ as a temporary refuge for Jews in Russia in immediate danger. Herzl made it clear that this program would not affect the ultimate aim of Zionism, a Jewish entity in the Land of Israel.

    None of the above is contested by serious historians. This example shows how Pappé twists and turns history around: Herzl never argued for a site in Africa as the best place for a Jewish homeland, and a homeland in Palestine was widely supported among religuous Jews.

    – “the Bible is not a very useful text for reinventing a Jewish nation: the father of the nation, Abraham, was not from Palestine……..etc.”. This argument reminds me of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7. Difficult to find relevancy in its current reasoning. The bible contains many passages that link the land of Israel to the Jewish nation, from the promise made to Abraham, to the stories of Joshua, David etc. Has Pappé not read these books? I’m not arguing for the historicity of these texts, but Pappé’s ignoring them creates a false impression.

    I think that Pappé shows how the bible has been (and still is) used in a political conflict, such as the Arab Israeli conflict. I don’t find that thesis very shocking, the bible has been used to support one side (or both sides) of various conflicts for centuries. What is lacking in Pappé is the insight that Zionism was largely motivated by the dire position of Jews around the world, in particular in Europe, where they were being persecuted and murdered. The situation worsened over the 19th century, giving rise to the wish for a Jewish homeland. Britain was indeed instrumental in establishing this homeland in Palestine; but wasn’t this due to mostly political opprtunity (Britian held the mandate of that region), rather than Protestant motives?

  • Neil Godfrey
    2017-05-26 13:07:37 UTC - 13:07 | Permalink

    I am commenting after reading your opening line. I made it very clear what my source was. You only had to read it.

    I see another paragraph, the third from the bottom, that denies a point I never made in the post.

    I am reluctant to read the rest of your comment because from past experience and skimming the little I have done this time it appears that once again you have not read my post with any serious care and are not addressing the actual point it makes, your triggers being touched once again leading you to another one-sided political rant.

    I fear you will never tolerate the slightest tarnishing of the Zionist myth.

  • Bob de Jong
    2017-05-26 15:41:50 UTC - 15:41 | Permalink

    Just to be clear: my opening line is not contesting anything, just confirmation. You only introduce Pappé in your 4th paragraph, and I could not fiind a mention of Pappé anywhere else on your blog. I wanted to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

    Third paragraph from the bottom comments on a sentence in your first paragraph: “Theodore Herzl, argued for a site in east Africa as the best place for a Jewish homeland for the foreseeable future.”

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-05-28 00:47:19 UTC - 00:47 | Permalink

      On the third paragraph from the bottom — exactly. I was very careful how I worded his plan but you missed the nuance in the last phrase.

      I trust you find nothing to fault in the content of the post or in my references derived from Pappe’s chapter.

      You come across as an ideological, black and white, knee-jerk respondent to anything that might be interpreted in the slightest negative way about Jews and Zionism or give the slightest credence and listening ear to anyone who has any sympathy for Palestinians and Arabs. I can predict you to go in fighting for the honour and honesty and integrity of the Jews as a people or race on the one hand, and the lying, dishonest, incompetent, evil character of Palestinians and Arabs as a people and individually on the other.

      It depresses me too much to think that some people interpret anything critical of some actions by some Israelis as if I am justifying murder by their opponents, and anything slightly sympathetic enough to listen to the Palestinian point of view as covert antisemitism.

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