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