Dispelling Myths About Palestine and Israel: Myth #2

Today's guest post, the second of a continuing series, was written by G.J. Tarazi

Read the first post here.

Myth: The current State of Israel is a continuation of Biblical Israel

This myth took a long time and a lot of energy to unravel and extricate from my theology. Growing up in a fundamentalist church, I consistently heard from the pulpit and I was taught in Sunday school classes that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. I was also taught that the Bible accurately describes real people and real events. However, as an evolving historian (with an BA and an MA in History), I began to question these foundational beliefs of my faith. To my surprise and delight, the answers to my questioning strengthened my faith. I continue to learn that the message of the Bible is true and powerful, regardless of the historiography of the stories and events it describes. I am always amazed by how my theological ancestors grappled with defining and relating to God and to the rest of humankind. The Bible gives me a firm foundation for my faith – when it is freed from the burden of being a book of history.

There is no doubt the belief that “the current Jewish State of Israel is the continuation of biblical Israel” is deeply embedded in most churches. This myth is foundational to other biblical myths regarding “the chosen people” and “the promised land.” However, this historical connection myth must first be dispelled before we can critically examine the other two biblical myths.

In order to carefully dispel this persistent myth, I will focus on two significant areas. First, I will consider how we define and read the Bible, which greatly impacts how we view history. Second, I will examine the recent seminal work of Professor Shlomo Sand, which reframes Jewish and Israeli history by meticulously separating theology, mythology, and ideology from history and archeology.

Biblical Israel represents the story of the development of Judaism as conveyed by the Hebrew Scriptures written over centuries. It is important to note, however, that the Bible is not a history book. Indeed, there are no conclusive historic and archeological connections between Biblical Israel and the current “Jewish State.”

Judaic scholars and commentators are generally in agreement that the Hebrew Scriptures are not history nor were they meant to be read as works of history. Throughout rabbinic interpretation of scriptures (midrash), scholars have focused on the meaning, value and applicability of the stories shared in the Hebrew Scriptures. These stories describe Yahweh and the people’s developing relationship with the Creator and their role in the world to do tikkun olam (to heal or fix what is wrong in the human condition). The lack of historic accuracy in the Hebrew Scriptures was accepted and was never a concern in the commentaries. The meaning and power of the stories were more important than their lack of historic accuracy.

Even Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently said, as they were preparing to celebrate the 3,000th anniversary of the story of David’s capture of Jerusalem, “The biblical account of the capture of the city is the only one we have, and in the opinion of most modern scholars, the Bible is not an entirely reliable historical document.” The historic existence of biblical David also remains unclear. There are no conclusive or verifiable records of David outside the Hebrew Scriptures. There are no references to him in Egyptian, Syrian or Assyrian documents of the time, and the many archaeological digs in the so-called City of David failed to turn up so much as a mention of his name.

The 2010 work of Dr. Shlomo Sand, professor of History at Tel Aviv University, entitled The Invention of the Jewish People has been called a “quiet earthquake of a book [which] is shaking historical faith in the link between Judaism and Israel.” Sand meticulously presents historic and archaeological evidence that contradicts and shatters the connections between the current State of Israel and biblical Israel. His comprehensive reference sections of footnotes and endnotes counter the myth of a historic connection. He also carefully defines “people,” and in so doing unravels the meaning of “Jewish people,” who are making this claim of connectivity based on their holy scriptures and their Zionist ideology. Even though Professor Sand has been attacked mercilessly, his conclusions have not been refuted. Historians, archeologists and reviewers, who write without a political or ideological agenda, have been consistent in their assessments of this work. Here is a short sample:

Amazon describes the work as, “A historical tour de force, The Invention of the Jewish People offers a groundbreaking account of Jewish and Israeli history. Exploding the myth that there was a forced Jewish exile in the first century at the hands of the Romans . . . Sand argues that most modern Jews descend from converts, whose native lands were scattered across the Middle East and Eastern Europe.”

In a comprehensive and careful review, critic Tony Judt writes, “In cool, scholarly prose he has, quite simply, normalized Jewish history. In place of the implausible myth of a unique nation with a special destiny – expelled, isolated, wandering and finally restored to its rightful home – he has reconstructed the history of the Jews and convincingly reintegrated that history into the general story of humankind. The self-serving and mostly imaginary Jewish past that has done so much to provoke conflict in the present is revealed, like the past of so many other nations, to be largely an invention. Anyone interested in understanding the contemporary Middle East should read this book.”

Sand concludes that the Jews should be seen as a religious community comprised of a variety of individuals and groups that had converted to Judaism but who do not have any historical right to establish an independent Jewish state in the Holy Land. In short, the Jewish people, according to Sand, are not really a “people” in the sense of having a common ethnic origin and national heritage. He concludes that they do not have a historical or political claim over the territory that today constitutes Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, including Jerusalem.

Sand also says that Jews have little in common with each other. They have no common "ethnic" lineage owing to the high level of conversion in antiquity. They had no common language, since Hebrew was used only for prayer and was not even spoken during the first century. Yiddish was, at most, the language of Ashkenazi Jews. Some claim that Judaism unites Jews, but this does not make them a people. Similarly, we cannot think of Muslims and Christians as a people. And, based on many polls and surveys, most Jews throughout the world do not consider themselves religious Jews. Further, many claim that Zionism unites Jews, however, Zionism is a political ideology, which does not make Jews a people. According to Sand, "Jewish People" is a political construct, an invention. http://dissidentvoice.org/2010/08/a-terrible-disease-of-the-mind/

In another review, critic Zaid Nabulsi writes, “ . . . that the claim that the Jews of today are the ethnic offspring of the biblical Jews is yet another Zionist myth, because all records tell us that the current Jews are the descendants of Khazar tribes who converted to Judaism, and have no genetic link whatsoever to the Jews who lived in Palestine during Roman times. The latter, he concludes, are, most ironically, none other than the Palestinians of today who converted to Islam (or Christianity), because the Romans apparently never exiled anybody. Moreover, Sand demolishes the myth of the kingdoms of David and Solomon by proving they are pure legends that never existed. What is astonishing is that, to date, no Israeli historian has been able to debate, let alone refute, any of Sand’s devastating findings.”

Dispelling this myth – that present day Israel is a continuation of biblical Israel – is a slow process of learning and discernment. We can see why this myth is appealing to those thoughtful and sincere Christians who are geographically and psychologically removed from the modern State of Israel. It provides a sense of continuity, as if biblical dramas were still being played out, and offering us with theological questions to ponder. We, as humans, have a need to connect to our past and to feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. But even as we recognize that stories hold great power and can teach us a great deal, as the Bible does, there is a real danger in confusing those stories with history. We know that the modern State of Israel is a real place with a true social, economic, and political history. It occupies a land that has been a borderland of various empires and kingdoms before, during and after the time of Jesus.

Finally, it is a place where real people live, people who are not part of an ongoing biblical drama. And, these real people are suffering great injustices.

- G.J. Tarazi

Ghassan (G.J.) Tarazi was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother, four months after his parents were forced to leave their home in Jerusalem in 1948. His family migrated to Brooklyn, NY in 1955.  He serves as chair of the Alliance of Baptist’s Community for Justice in Palestine and Israel. He and his wife have organized and led members of Ravensworth on trips to Israel and Palestine and have been very involved in the Palestine cause and the struggle for justice in Palestine and Israel locally, nationally, and internationally. He is a founding member of Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace. He and his wife live in McLean, VA.