“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.



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Neil Godfrey

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.”

    1. 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.

      1. Jews have been living in this area for very, very long time. A population of Jews has lived there dating prior to 1st century. For your sympathy with Palestine, answer this – who are Palestinian people? What is Palestinian language? What is Palestinian culture? What is Palestinian clothing? Which is Palestinian food? What is Palestinian history? Answer – nothing. Palestine is a modern construct. Most “Palestinians” are actually Arab migrants from post WW1 era who are squatting on that land when they could easily go to Jordon, Syria or Saudi Arabia. When British established their mandate, total Arabs in that area was a small population, as this was a dry and desert land.
        Should Temple Mount also be given to Islam because of its fake claim that Muhammad flew to Jerusalem on a winged donkey?
        You might try to sympathize with these Arabs but truth is they are there for an Islamic jihad. Muslims are expressly anti-Jews. Their book Koran orders them to kill all Jews in order to hasten the Judgement Day. Israel is a very small country that is on the defense. There is no need for Arab “Palestinians” to squat there and be Mujahid when there are 57+ Muslim countries they can easily go to. Palestine is not their ancestral home, nor do they have any historical claim to it.
        Israel has a right to self-defense against these Arab Islamic extremists sitting on its borders. And yes, women too are complicit in these terrorist acts.

          1. You showed me Arabs under Ottomans. Exactly according to expectations. And, BTW Jews are there, aren’t they? So your answer to “who are Palestinian people? What is Palestinian language? What is Palestinian culture? What is Palestinian clothing? Which is Palestinian food? What is Palestinian history?” is – a migrant Arab population under Turkish rule.

            Now would you say that Jerusalem belongs to Turks or Arabs but not to Jews? Levant passed under Muslim rule after Siege of Jerusalem which was overthrown by Godfrey of Bouillon to establish Kingdom of Jerusalem. There was one Godfrey who freed Jerusalem and here is another Godfrey defending its Islamic enslavement. Oh the irony!
            Ottomans recaptured it, and 500 years later the British captured it after breaking up Ottoman Empire. This is all a tussle of power. Muslims were strong so they captured it. Israel is strong now so they took back their land.

            Thankfully, except bearded Orthodox Jews, Israel relies more on its brains than on Yahweh, more on missiles than psalms. Who has been providing a significant bulk of electricity to Palestine and Gaza strip electricity – it is Israel. Israel today is an extremely small country, which itself in uninhabited in many parts. The opposition to it is religious, impractical and based on some old claims by Muhammad.

            Israel, however, ain’t going anywhere. The rest can make up their mind in compromise.

            1. I suggest you have a look at Palestinian history for the answers to your questions — not anti-Palestinian propaganda. I have posted the answers to your questions on this blog several times over now but I don’t think you want to know the Palestinian view, certainly not their history or cultural identity and history.

              And please tone down the anger and hatred that seeps through your comments. Spare just a little compassion for Palestinians, too.

            2. What is Palestinian language?

              Spoer, Hans Henry; Haddad, E. Nasrallah (1909). Manual of Palestinean Arabic for self-instruction. Jerusalem: Syrisches Waisenhaus.

              I have sought to adapt this work to the Arabic student interested in the dialect as such, as well as to those requiring the language for daily use in Palestine; also to the passing traveller seeking to make himself understood, and to understand those about him. —(p. iii)

              “History of the Palestinians”. Wikipedia.

              The Arabic-language newspaper Falastin (Palestine) was founded in 1911 by Palestinian Christians

              Overview of Palestine’s demographics
              Year: 1914
              Jews: 94
              Christians: 70
              Muslims: 525
              Total: 689
              NB: Estimates by Sergio DellaPergola (2001), drawing on the work of Bachi (1975). Figures in thousands.

              Cf. “Demographic history of Palestine (region)”. Wikipedia.

  5. i find it funny that joe wallack recently said that israels war in the ot was defensive. Thom stark in his review of paul copans book,said:

    Second, the commenter claims that Israel’s wars in the Canaanite conquest were “defensive.” This is a claim he has made repeatedly in response to my book, which he claims to have read. But had he read my book, he would know that I devote several pages to refuting this argument. At the most basic level, Israel’s conquest of Canaan was an aggressive campaign. They didn’t invade Canaan because Canaanites were attacking them first. They invaded Canaan, according to the text, because they were on a mission from God to obliterate the Canaanites, to wipe them off the map, and take their land from them. They’re not called the “conquest” narratives for nuthin’. How this commenter can claim, with a straight face, that an aggressive invasion of foreign territory is somehow “defensive” is beyond my capacity to comprehend. Now, it’s true that a few of the battles are portrayed as defensive, in a certain sense, but let’s get this straight. Why was Israel being attacked by the Canaanites? Were the Canaanites attacking the Israelites for no reason? Um, no. The Canaanites were attacking the Israelites because the Israelites attacked them first. The Canaanites were defending themselves against Israelite aggression! Not the other way around. The text itself is quite plain on this point. It’s just insane to characterize Israel’s conquest of Canaan as “defensive.” As far back as Origen, at least, a clear distinction was made between Israel’s defensive wars, and its genocidal conquests. Origen said that the defensive wars were morally permissible, but the genocidal conquests, if taken literally, were morally condemnable. Moreover, even if we were to concede that, somehow, Israel’s wars in Canaan were “defensive,” that hardly justifies the wholesale slaughter of women and children! Were they worried an army of toddlers was going to wipe them out? Give me a break! This isn’t modern warfare. Israel wasn’t carpet bombing cities. They fought armies outside the cities, and then went in, allegedly on Yahweh’s orders, and slaughtered all of the non-combatants, including women and children, after the warriors had been defeated. And let’s not forget that these were their orders even before they entered Canaan in the first place! That’s not a defensive war. That’s aggression. That’s genocide.

    I stated in my book that one of the problems with our Scriptures is that they teach us to reason just like war criminals, just like the modern perpetrators of genocide we love to loathe. This commenter has proven my point splendidly. Well done!

    As for his reference to Christopher Hitchens, what this commenter is doing is attempting to insinuate that because I disapprove of Israel’s genocides, I must want to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth. This is malicious deceit, not worthy of the name Christian, but typical of fundamentalist apologists. It’s disheartening and sad to see that some people’s grasp on their religion is so feeble that they have to resort to these sorts of deceitful and underhanded tactics to “score points” for their cause. But this whole line of reasoning is based on the spurious assumption that Israel was in danger of being wiped out, had they not slaughtered Canaanite babies. But the reality is, despite what the conquest narratives tell us, the actual history of Israel’s emergence in Canaan was not very violent at all. Israelites were Canaanites. There was no mass exodus out of Egypt, and their was no grand conquest into Canaan. The archaeological record is unequivocal on these points. Thus, it is simply not true that Israel had to kill women and children in order to survive. And anyone who claims the wholesale slaughter of children is necessary in order to survive needs to get their head checked and their propaganda meter re-calibrated.

    In short, yes, Israel committed genocide. No, they didn’t have to do so in order to survive. Yes, I condemn the positive portrait of genocide painted in the Bible. No, that doesn’t make me anti-Semitic. After all, the Canaanites were Semites too. (Or doesn’t this commenter realize?) So when I’m sticking up for the Canaanite babies, I’m pro-Semite all the way.

    1. Also can you give me the link/reference to the Thom Stark quote you have posted here. I have not been able to find it in the review of his that I have accessed online. Thanks

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