Man-made Israel (and the obsessive erasure of Palestinian history)

Keith W. Whitelam

Sam Bahour

Mondoweiss  /  July 31, 2020

Hellbent on crafting an umbilical cord between itself and a biblical, mythical 2000-year old past, Israel has erased the ancient history of Palestinians.

Keith W. Whitelam, The invention of ancient Israel -The silencing of Palestinian history; London: Routledge, 1997; 296 pp.

What do you get when you mix ten decades of biblical studies, an Old Testament, the ideology of Zionism, and a tablespoon of politically motivated archaeology, all mixed in a bowl of historical evidence? Author Keith W. Whitelam (photo) undertook this recipe and reports on the results in The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (of 1997). The short answer to the question is that one is left with a toxic modern state, hell-bent on crafting an umbilical cord between itself and a mythical 2000-year old past. In other words, the State of Israel.

If no one were hurt during this process, one could just turn a blind eye and be content that, To each his own. But when the results of the recipe never produce a stable product, and an entire people are continuously being battered into oblivion, we each have a responsibility to step in and say enough is enough.

The Invention of Ancient Israel is not an easy read. It is one of those books that when you finish reading the last lines and look up you feel like you just emerged from a washing machine. (I was moved to revisit Whitelam’s book by Israel’s plans to annex parts of what it calls “Judea and Samaria”, the West Bank.) Utilizing a heavy dose of quotations from a long list of resources, Whitelam builds a case that “The Silencing of Palestinian History” has been happening, purposely and for very political ends. He writes,

“The problem here is that the notion of a ‘Palestinian history’ is confined to the modern period, an attempt to articulate accounts of national identity in the face of dispossession and exile. It is as if the ancient past has been abandoned to Israel and the West.”

He goes on to note a passage from Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question (Said et al. 1988) that “Palestine has been the home to remarkable civilization ‘centuries before the first Hebrew tribes migrated to the area’ (1988: 235).” This is hard to imagine if you listen to the discourse on Israel in today’s world.

All of these efforts to wipe Palestinians from history, ancient or otherwise, do not come as a surprise for those of us directly engaged with Jewish and Christian Evangelical audiences. I cannot recall the number of times, while in an impassioned—and sometimes heated—debate, the questions will be thrown to us out of the blue. Where did you Palestinians come from? Was there ever a Palestine? Isn’t Palestinian identity merely a reflection of their dispossession? All of these are posed as probing questions, whereas, in reality, they are all the same outrageous and racist remark uttered by Israel’s only female prime minister (1969-1974) Golda Meir. “There were no such thing as Palestinians,” she was quoted as saying in the Sunday Times and Washington Post in June 1969. “When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? … It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist,” Meir said.

Sadly, 51-years later this hogwash is still being propagated. It may be sad, but it is not surprising. As Whitelam points out, “The conceptualization and representation of the past is fraught with difficulty, not simply because of ambiguities and paucity of data but because the construction of history, written or oral, past or present, is a political act [emphasis added].” A political act indeed.

One such political act of reconstructing the ancient past to serve the present is the excavation and rebirth of Masada, an ancient fortress in southern Israel’s Judean Desert, which sits on a massive plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. According to a first-century Romano-Jewish historian, the siege of Masada by Roman troops from 73 to 74 CE, at the end of the First Jewish–Roman War, ended in the mass suicide of the 960 rebels from a splinter group of the Jewish Zealots who were hiding there. Whitelam notes,

“[T]he political significance of Masada is encapsulated in its choice as the location for the annual swearing-in ceremony for Israeli troops and expressed through the nationalistic slogan… ‘Never again shall Masada fall’.”

Masada “developed from a relatively obscure incident in the past, ignored in the Talmud and medieval Jewish literature, to represent the paradigm of national identity.”

Interestingly, Whitelam writes,

“Biblical scholarship employs a bewildering array of terms for the region: ‘the Holy Land’, ‘the Land of the Bible’, ‘Eretz Israel’ or ‘the Land of Israel’, ‘Israel’, ‘Judah’, ‘Canaan’, ‘Cisjordan’, Syro-Palestine’, ‘Palestine’, and ‘the Levant’. To the casual reader…these terms may appear to be interchangeable or even neutral. Yet the naming of land implies control of land: designations such as ‘Levant’, ‘Middle East’, or ‘Near East’ betray a Eurocentric conception of the world.”

Maps, like names, similarly play a defining role for a particular discourse.

In exposing various scholars’ works on Palestine, Whitelam makes a keen observation. Even when scholars admit that “this region was not the sole reserve of Israelites and Judaeans but was populated by various ‘inhabitants of ancient Palestine,’” that admission “does not extend to their identification as ‘Palestinians.’ The inhabitants are for the most part anonymous, only taking on an identity when they become Israelite or Judaean.” He then concludes that in these scholars’ works, “It is possible to refer to the ‘Palestinian coastline’, ‘Palestinian agriculture’, or the ‘Palestinian economy’, but the inhabitants are never described as Palestinian.”

All of these are man-made distinctions, no doubt. Can we fully blame the Jewish community for being perplexed in trying to defend Israel today in the manner the Zionist and Israeli operatives desire them to? It is no wonder why so many keep repeating the same talking points (a.k.a. hasbara) ad nauseam, even after being presented factual information about modern Israel’s unfortunate founding. It seems that ‘Ancient Israel’ is needed to blur modern Israel’s war crimes.

The backbone of this book is a call for “the gradual exposure of the interrelationship of the discipline of biblical studies with politics [to] provide a better understanding of the forces which have helped to shape the imagination of a past that has monopolized the history of the region.”

As such, a resultant of this approach is the conclusion that “the picture of Israel’s past as presented in much of the Hebrew Bible is a fiction, a fabrication like most pictures of the past constructed by ancient (and, we might add, modern) societies.”

Inconvenient facts

While reading this book many other writings and authors came to mind.

Israeli historian Ilan Pappé’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine which is based on unclassified Israeli documents that were re-classified after the publishing of his book. Yes, there is much to hide.

Outstanding reporting from Haaretz by Israeli journalists, Adam Raz’s ‘Secret Israeli Document Reveals Plan to Keep Arabs Off Their Lands’, Hagar Shezaf’s ‘Burying the Nakba: How Israel Systematically Hides Evidence of 1948 Expulsion of Arabs’, and Noa Landau’s ‘Israel Set Up a Front Company to Boost Image and Fight BDS’. Yes, real money and real effort are being spent to hide the past and dictate the present.

Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh’s TEDxRamallah talkRe-imagining the Great Rift Valley, and Palestinian professor Basem L. Ra’ad’s Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean. Yes, it is an act of non-violent defiance today to speak of the Palestine that existed before Israel.

The biblical scholarship may have chosen, to date, to silence Palestinian history but Israel and the world at large are going to need to come to terms with the Palestinian present because those of us in Palestine are not going anywhere and those of us in exile are coming home, sooner or later.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant and a frequent commentator on Palestinian affairs from Ramallah/Al-Bireh in Occupied Palestine; he is co-editor of Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994)