Towards a History of the Land

I don’t have anything original to add to the criticism (which encouragingly has come from across the political spectrum) that greeted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ new video heralding the continued Jewish presence in the Land of Israel. The film is inaccurate, infantile, insensitive, racist, and unfunny. Like much of today’s propaganda, it seems to have been targeted at people who have already been convinced, and not at those whose hearts and minds the MFA should be striving to win over. Despite all this, though, I want to address the clip seriously, as it provides a fascinating insight into how the history of this land is understood by its contestants.

It is important to note that the clip does not present the traditional Zionist paradigm. “Between Tanakh [the Bible] and Tashach [1948]” was the slogan of the early Zionist movement, with the intervening years considered irrelevant. This is where the false notion of “two thousand years of exile” comes from. The MFA film alludes to the current thinking, itself partly a response to the denial of Jewish history here, that there has been a more or less constant Jewish presence (even if it’s sometimes been paltry) throughout the land’s tumultuous history.

In the film the history of the land is the history of its rulers: Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, and British (spare a thought for the ignored Canaanites and Persians). The only ones to remain faithful to the land were the Jews, passively waiting (like their Diaspora counterparts!) while empires rose and fell. It’s nonsense, of course. Firstly, even when they’ve been able to, a majority of Jews haven’t wanted to live here. And secondly, even without sovereignty, Jews have been actively involved in the history of this place, whether they were building spectacular synagogues and writing the Talmud during the Byzantine period or taking an important role in trade and political intrigue during the Ottoman era.

Whatever its flaws (which can’t be excused), it’s clear that the film is a response to the increasing denial of Jewish history here. The most nonsensical aspect of this is the claim that everyone who ever lived here was Palestinian, including Jesus, even though he lived in the Roman province of Judea (which wasn’t renamed Palestine until nearly one hundred years after Jesus’s death). It’s also nonsensical because contemporary Palestinian culture (if not Palestinian identity) clearly finds its roots in the Muslim conquest of the seventh century. The contradictions here remind me of V.S. Naipaul’s observation that the Islamic conquest was the most successful imperialist exercise in history because the conquered people did not behave as if they had been conquered.

While a lengthy national conflict isn’t the best recipe for good history, we should strive for a serious, honest and accurate history of the land, even if it contradicts our cherished national myths. Here are a few interesting examples: current evidence suggests there was a Christian majority long after the Muslim conquest, possibly until the 11th century. The Ottomans invited the Jews to “return”, long before Theodor Herzl came up with the idea. Most poignantly, the place-names of Palestinian villages frequently preserved the original names of Jewish villages from thousands of years earlier, for example Battir or Beit Jibrin, not to mention the obvious correlation between the Arabic name for Jerusalem — Al-Quds — and the Hebrew word for Temple, Beit HaMikdash.

Instead of a history of rulers, an endless list of bloody succession battles, or labeling everyone who ever lived here Palestinian, thus denying them the ability to speak for themselves, we should strive to uncover more of the actual continuities which have characterized life here over the millennium. What remained the same, even as people changed their religion or migrated to other parts of the country? How did people identify themselves, and what was their relationship to their rulers (who have mostly come from elsewhere)? What do the archaeological remains tell us? How might we write a history of Israel/Palestine that is not subordinated to nationalist imperatives? There are no easy answers to these questions but we should not let our national loyalties stop us from pursuing the truth. One can be a proud Israeli or Palestinian without pretending that the Palestinians were never here or denying the Jewish history of this place. Instead of twisting the history to make cheap propaganda videos, we should take pride in living in such a historically rich and diverse land.

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