Jews and Palestinians

American Jews who go to Israel frequently get what I call the "propaganda tour" - a highly fictionalized account of the origin and construction of the Jewish state. In this version, Zionists came to an unpopulated land, turned it green with native ingenuity, and thereby attracted a nuisance crowd of Arabs eager to catch the crumbs that fell from their tables. The real story of how land and water was acquired from Palestinian farmers, sometimes by purchase, sometimes by the familiar connivance's of European political economy, and sometimes by force and fear gets lost. The final struggle, where the Palestinians were utterly defeated in war and slaughtered and expelled from their lands is told as an epic with heroes on only one side.

Americans have seen this western, of course. We acquired our own land by a longer, more brutal, and far more drastic genocide. The story itself is at least as old as civilization.

In our modern scientific age we like to try to peer beneath the legends to see the facts, but when the contenders are still both alive and swinging, that gets difficult. Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, has dared to take a look and stir up the predictable hornets nest. His book
The Invention of the Jewish People
, a best seller in Israel for months, is now out in English. It's doubtful that a Jewish professor, or any professor at a major university in the US, would have dared to write such a book.

Patricia Cohen discusses the book and its story in The New York Times.

Despite the fragmented and incomplete historical record, experts pretty much agree that some popular beliefs about Jewish history simply don’t hold up: there was no sudden expulsion of all Jews from Jerusalem in A.D. 70, for instance. What’s more, modern Jews owe their ancestry as much to converts from the first millennium and early Middle Ages as to the Jews of antiquity.

Other theories, like the notion that many of today’s Palestinians can legitimately claim to be descended from the ancient Jews, are familiar and serious subjects of study, even if no definitive answer yet exists...

Professor Sand, a scholar of modern France, not Jewish history, candidly states his aim is to undercut the Jews’ claims to the land of Israel by demonstrating that they do not constitute “a people,” with a shared racial or biological past. The book has been extravagantly denounced and praised, often on the basis of whether or not the reader agrees with his politics.

For me, most of this argument is beside the point. Every nation, except perhaps for a few isolated cultures, is an artificial construction. Jewish identity doesn't depend on literal descent from Abraham but on shared religious and cultural history. On the other hand, Palestinian's claim to Palestine doesn't depend on whether or not they are direct descendants of those who lived in Israel in 70 AD. What I do believe in is that the truth, if not freeing us, can at least make our choices clearer.

Of course the religious fanatics and fabulists, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, won't pay any attention anyway.


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