< < <
Date Index
> > >
Founding myths of the state of Israel
by Louis Proyect
11 March 2002 20:31 UTC
< < <
Thread Index
> > >
Last Friday night I attended a lecture by Jillian Schwedler on 
"Political Islam" at Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, 
Massachusetts. Her talk was marred by a kind of conventional 
political science approach to the question. She stated that when the 
Islamic Brotherhood was "included" in the political process in 
Jordan, it was successfully co-opted. But when it is "excluded", as 
it was in Egypt, the result is terrorism. During the discussion 
period, a particularly perceptive member of the audience commented 
that terms like "inclusion" or "exclusion" are not helpful when they 
are presented without a side-by-side class analysis of Jordan and 
Egypt. The absence of terrorism in Jordan might have more to do with 
the absence of extreme economic inequality than anything else. To her 
credit, Schwedler admitted that this was true.

Afterwards we attended an informal reception for the speaker at the 
elegant new home of Prof. Ahmet Tonak, organizer of the lecture 
series and gracious host. As might be expected, the topic of 
discussion remained centered on the evening's lecture. Given the 
progressive make-up of the attendees, it is not surprising to have 
found universal condemnation of Ariel Sharon.

Perhaps fortified by my third bottle of beer and my customary desire 
to shock and outrage conventional liberal thinking, I stated that the 
only solution was to create a purely secular state based on equal 
rights for the Palestinians, especially since everybody knows that 
there is no archaeological basis for the claim of a Jewish state in 
the Biblical era. I said that Moses never existed; the walls of 
Jericho never came tumbling down; and, most importantly, there were 
no Kingdoms of Israel or Judah led by Solomon, David, et al.

This led one guest to practically jump out of her seat and shout, 
"How can you say that? The evidence is all around you if you visit 
Israel. Just go, you'll see it for yourself."

Almost on cue, the Saturday NY Times reported on the following 

"Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did 
Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably 
never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of 
Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built 
Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader 
whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for 
a fledgling nation."

Lee I. Levine, a professor at the Hebrew University, wrote a recent 
essay titled "Biblical Archaeology," that states: "There is no 
reference in Egyptian sources to Israel's sojourn in that country and 
the evidence that does exist is negligible and indirect." 
Furthermore, the few indirect pieces of evidence, like the use of 
Egyptian names, "are far from adequate to corroborate the historicity 
of the biblical account." 

Nor is there clear evidence for the conquest and settlement of 
Canaan, the ancient name for the area including Israel. Since 
excavations show that Jericho was unwalled and uninhabited, Levine is 
forced to admit that there is scant evidence for "the violent and 
complete conquest portrayed in the Book of Joshua." And, as if 
intended to give the guest at Ahmet's reception a stroke, there is, 
according to Levine, an "almost total absence of archaeological 
evidence" backing up the Bible's grand descriptions of the Jerusalem 
of David and Solomon. 

The net effect of this and other scholarship in the same vein has 
been the creation of a new Torah, accepted by all wings of Judaism 
except the orthodoxy, that now treats the story of Moses, etc. as 
legends. The hope is to re-establish the ethical core of Judaism, an 
urgent task obviously in the light of the brutality of the state of 
Israel today, which rests on these bloody legends of the Old 

Although I was pleasantly surprised to find my arguments corroborated 
in the NY Times, I had been following this "revisionist" scholarship 
in one form or another for quite some time. Only a couple of weeks 
earlier, I had come across an article titled "False Testament: 
Archaeology Refutes the Bible's Claim to History" by Dan Lazare in 
the March 2002 Harper's Magazine, an article that I referred my 
antagonist to. I told her that I would be glad to visit Israel, if 
she would read the article. Although Harper's, as is their wont, does 
not make this or any of their other fine articles online, I would 
strongly urge comrades to track it down since Lazare's stance is far 
more radical than the NY Times's, as one might expect. He starts his 
article with a call to re-evaluate all that we have associated with 
unvarnished Old Testament history, like the reactionary Paul 
Johnson's 1987 best-selling "History of the Jews" (I would add bad 
movies like "Exodus" to the list). Lazare says:

>>Not long ago, archaeologists could agree that the Old Testament, 
for all its embellishments and contradictions, contained a kernel of 
truth. Obviously, Moses had not parted the Red Sea or turned his 
staff into a snake, but it seemed clear that the Israelites had 
started out as a nomadic band somewhere in the vicinity of ancient 
Mesopotamia; that they had migrated first to Palestine and then to 
Egypt; and that, following some sort of conflict with the 
authorities, they had fled into the desert under the leadership of a 
mysterious figure who was either a lapsed Jew or, as Freud 
maintained, a high-born priest of the royal sun god Aton whose cult 
had been overthrown in a palace coup. Although much was unknown, 
archaeologists were confident that they had succeeded in nailing down 
at least these few basic facts.

That is no longer the case. In the last quarter century or so, 
archaeologists have seen one settled assumption after another 
concerning who the ancient Israelites were and where they came from 
proved false. Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way 
into the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been an 
indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan River around 
1200 B.C.

Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have been spliced 
together out of various pieces of local lore. The Davidic Empire, 
which archaeologists once thought as incontrovertible as the Roman, 
is now seen as an invention of Jerusalem-based priests in the seventh 
and eighth centuries B.C. who were eager to burnish their national 
history. The religion we call Judaism does not reach well back into 
the second millennium B.C. but appears to be, at most, a product of 
the mid-first.

This is not to say that individual elements of the story are not 
older. But Jewish monotheism, the sole and exclusive worship of an 
ancient Semitic god known as Yahweh, did not fully coalesce until the 
period between the Assyrian conquest of the northern Jewish kingdom 
of Israel in 722 B.C. and the Babylonian conquest of the southern 
kingdom of Judah in 586.

Some twelve to fourteen centuries of "Abrahamic" religious 
development, the cultural wellspring that has given us not only 
Judaism but Islam and Christianity, have thus been erased. Judaism 
appears to have been the product not of some dark and nebulous period 
of early history but of a more modern age of big-power politics in 
which every nation aspired to the imperial greatness of a Babylon or 
an Egypt. Judah, the sole remaining Jewish outpost by the late eighth 
century B.C., was a small, out-of-the-way kingdom with little in the 
way of military or financial clout. Yet at some point its priests and 
rulers seem to have been seized with the idea that their national 
deity, now deemed to be nothing less than the king of the universe, 
was about to transform them into a great power. They set about 
creating an imperial past commensurate with such an empire, one that 
had the southern heroes of David and Solomon conquering the northern 
kingdom and making rival kings tremble throughout the known world. 
>From a "henotheistic" cult in which Yahweh was worshiped as the chief 
god among many, they refashioned the national religion so that 
henceforth Yahweh would be worshiped to the exclusion of all other 
deities. One law, that of Yahweh, would now reign supreme.<<

For those who want to pursue the topic in depth, I recommend Keith 
Whitelam's "The Invention of Ancient Israel" (Routledge, 1996), which 
is the best all-round scholarly treatment of the topic and, just as 
importantly, the political ramifications.

In the chapter titled "Inventing Ancient Israel," he mounts an 
extended critique of biblical scholar G. E. Wright, who uses the 
out-of-date understanding of Israel's past to implicitly defend 
justify Israel's territorial ambitions today. Wright states:

"The conquest of Canaan whereby Israel secured a land for itself, was 
interpreted as God's gift of an inheritance. The land was not 
interpreted as belonging to various individuals and families of 
Israel as a natural right, but was thought of as a gift of God. Thus 
there came about a special understanding of the meaning of property 
and of obligation in relation to God, the land, which was God's gift, 
would be taken away at a future time."

Whitelam replies:

"It is astounding that he should believe that it was to the benefit 
of the indigenous people that they were wiped out and their land 
appropriated by Israelites or Arameans. This is an even more extreme 
variant of Lord Balfour's speech to Parliament in June 1910, 
critiqued by [Edward] Said, in which he argues that the British 
government of Egypt was exercised for the good of Egyptians and the 
whole of the civilized West. It forms part of the standard 
justification of imperialism and colonization in that the imperial 
power acts on behalf of the indigenous population. Equally astounding 
is Wright's view that this appropriation of land was in the long-term 
good of Palestine since the survivors were forced to remain on a thin 
strip of the coast where they became a great trading force. As Elon 
(1983: 150) points out, many early Zionists were of the unthinking 
belief that Zionism represented progress with the implied or 
expressed assumption that Jewish settlement would ultimately benefit 
the Arabs. In fact, the Arab population were considered to be 
potential Zionists and were expected to welcome the Jews as a matter 
of course. Elon concludes that this was so self-evident for most 
Zionists that they never considered any alternative perception of 
what was happening. Similarly, the facts of the past are so 
self-evident for Wright that he does not consider any alternative 

Now that we have an "alternative construction" accepted by segments 
of official Jewry, it should be integrated with the task of exposing 
Zionism's crimes. Not only is Israel acting against the legitimate 
rights of the Palestinian people, it is doing so in the name of a 
bunch of lies.

Louis Proyect, lnp3@panix.com on 03/11/2002

Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org

< < <
Date Index
> > >
World Systems Network List Archives
at CSF
Subscribe to World Systems Network < < <
Thread Index
> > >