Biblical “Israel”, an ideological concept with 10+ applications

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by Neil Godfrey

My recent blog entry on the Haaretz article ties in with summaries I began a few years ago on Philip Davies’ pioneering book, In Search of Ancient Israel. (Only the four first links work yet — the remaining two will be finished one day, Time-and-Chance willing.)

Niels Peter Lemche in his Prolegomena in The Israelites in History and Tradition writes an excellent discussion about the problematic nature of attempting to define ancient or biblical Israel in racial or ethnic terms. After examining the concept of nation-state and surveying a range of examples of various other racial and national identities, he concludes:

An ethnic group consists of persons who think of themselves as members of the group, in contrast to other individuals who are not reckoned to be members and who do not reckon themselves to belong to this group. No ethnic group has ever been able to create a situation of stability that will last for centuries. Rather, ethnic groups are be definition unstable, with borders that can be transgressed in every possible way. As a matter of fact, an ethnic group is a part of a continuum of ethnic groups with overlapping borders, with probably many identities, held together by a founding myth or set of myths and narratives about how this particular group came into being. An ethnic group may probably also result simply from the existence of such myths with the ability to create identity among people. (p.20)

That last sentence would seem to be the most pertinent in the case of the creation of the concept of a “Jewish ethnic group”.

But back to Philip Davies. Here is a copy of one section of my notes from my earlier (yet to be competed) webpage:

The Israel of the Biblical Literature

  • Is it a political group? Political groups rarely coincide with one ethnic or religious group, and the kingdom of Israel was no exception. It consisted of many diverse racial and religious groups.
  • Is it an ethnic group? Ethnic groups are rarely the same as political or religious groups.
  • Or is it a religious group? Religious groups are generally mixed ethnic groups and found across different political groups.
  • Or can it mean all of the above?

Will it mean the same to an archaeologist studying the physical remains of Iron Age Palestine as it means to the authors of the various uses it has in the Bible?

The Israel of the Bible has at least 10 different meanings.

In the Bible Israel can mean:

  1. the name of the ancestor Jacob
  2. the name of the league of 12 tribes
  3. the name of a united kingdom whose capital was Jerusalem
  4. the name of the northern kingdom whose capital was Samaria (after the above kingdom broke up)
  5. after 722 bce, another name for Judah
  6. after the exile into Babylon, another name for the socio-religious community in left in the province of Yehud
  7. the name of a group within this community, the laity (as distinct from ‘Aaron’)
  8. the name for the descendants of Jacob/Israel
  9. a pre-monarchic tribal grouping in Ephraim
  10. adherants of various forms of Hebrew and Old Testament religion.

We may frequently (though certainly not always) say in what sense the Bible uses the word at any particular time, but that still leaves us with the question:

What sort of word is this that is so fundamental to the Bible yet so wide-ranging and flexible?

In the Bible the word always has an ideological or theological meaning. It means some individual or group that at some time belongs to God whether they are God’s failures and rejects or his success stories. It is a literary and theological term that changes its meaning to fit different stories. (The New Testament continues and extends the different uses of the word Israel, again with an ideological meaning.)

An Invention called “the Jewish People”

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

My heading, “an invention called the Jewish people” is taken from an article recently published in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. It’s about a book by Professor Zand of the Tel Aviv University. The article concludes with:

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.

Some of those facts:

  1. “There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion”, and the exile of 70 c.e. also never happened. At the most, tens of thousands were exiled. Most were permitted, and most did, stay in the land. It follows, if exile is a myth, that the idea that Jews since the twentieth century are “returning” to “their land” is a myth.
  2. When the Arabs conquered the land, many of the Jews converted to Islam and were assimilated among the conquerors. It follows that many Palestinian Arabs today are descendants of the original Jews.

Tom Segev, author of this article, writes:

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. . . . . Zand quotes from many existing studies, some of which were written in Israel but shunted out of the central discourse.

So how did the Jewish Diaspora originate?

From Tom Segev’s article on Prof. Zand’s book in the Haaretz:

  1. emigration of their own accord
  2. many Jews in Babylon had simply remained of their own will
  3. members of other faiths were forced to become Jews (c.f. the Book of Esther which says narrates just such an event — many converting because of fear of the Jews.)

Specific case-studies discussed by Zand:

  1. the Jewish kingdom of Himyar in the southern Arabian Peninsula
  2. the Jewish Berbers in North Africa
  3. the Jews in Spain — these originated from Arabs who became Jews and who arrived with the forces that captured Spain from the Christians; these mingled with European individuals who had become Jews.
  4. the first Jews of Ashkenaz (Germany) . . . became Jews in the Khazar Kingdom in the Caucasus.

Segev notes:

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.

The original Haaretz article is worth the full read, not least for the same page’s other interesting news of the sort that does not normally see light of day in the English speaking Western media.

The story will not be news to those who already appreciate the fictional nature of the Bible’s Exodus and genocidal Conquest narratives. Nor to those familiar with some of the racist fictions that were concocted in the latter nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. Focus on Nazi racist myths has obscured from much public memory the fact that such racist ideologies and cults of physical ideals inflicted many races, nations and peoples then, many Jews included.

One day the world will look back on the current myths underpinning Zionism as with no more factual foundation than their nineteenth century and early twentieth century counterparts — and that were likewise used to rationalize ethnic cleansing and expansion of “living space”.