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Writing Israel out of the History of Palestine





Every history is an invented history, or a society's cultural memory. When there are more groups than one present within a given community, we may reckon with more than one cultural memory. In a time of conflict the victors will decide which memory is the "correct" one and it will be written in textbooks and taught in schools. The historian might want to protest, as he insists that he knows the correct version, but memories cannot be controlled by professional historians who don't pay much attention to historical "facts."



By Niels Peter Lemche
University of Copenhagen
October 2012


Recently Richard Elliott Friedman reacted in the Huffington Post to a challenge from the president of Iran Mr. Ahmadinejod that Israel has no roots in the history of the Middle East (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/richard-elliott-friedman/does-israel-have-no-roots-there-in-history_b_1941237.html ). It is of course not a problem to destroy any credibility concerning Ahmadinajod's interpretation of history. We all remember his denial of the Holocaust (which would earn him a year in prison if he ever visited Germany or Austria as a private person). Mr. Ahmadinejod is hardly a worthy opponent to a scholar of Friedman's status.

The interesting part of this is, however, why Prof. Friedman spent so much paper on refuting the assertions of the Iranian president. It is such a ridiculous postulate that we only need one reference, i.e., the Merneptah-stele, to tell us that there was something by the name of Israel in this region as early as 1200 BCE. And if you ask for more evidence, please see the Mesha inscription from Moab from the 9th century BCE. The rest of Prof. Friedmann's examples are only beating an already dead horse.

We may, on the other hand, ask why is there at present this obsession with the rewriting of Palestinian history? Even a liberal Israeli newspaper such as Ha'aretz has expressed regret that Palestinian historians are writing Israel out of the ancient history of Palestine, and a major study has recently been published by Motti Golani and Adel Manna discussing the way the other has been removed from recent history when it comes to the 1948 conflict.1 What is history to one part is non-history to the other: the foe does not exist.

But are Palestinian historians doing what has already been done to them? In 1996, Keith Whitelam published his The invention of Ancient Israel with the subtitle: The Silencing of Palestinian History.2 It was Whitelam's thesis that the history of ancient Israel has been promoted to such a degree that every other history relevant to Palestine has been silenced, i.e., deliberately suppressed, and he was evidently right. Recent studies have shown how this has worked since the establishment of modern Israel, with that State attempting to erase every remnant, or better, memory, of the presence of the Palestinians. We only need to mention the renaming of Palestinian sites, whether ancient or modern, sometimes with amusing results (such as the misnaming of Tell Sheikh el-'Areini as Gath in 1953).

Every history is an invented history, or a society's cultural memory. When there are more groups than one present within a given community, we may reckon with more than one cultural memory. In a time of conflict the victors will decide which memory is the "correct" one and it will be written in textbooks and taught in schools. The historian might want to protest, as he insists that he knows the correct version, but memories cannot be controlled by professional historians who don't pay much attention to historical "facts." They represent political decisions and choices and whatever people agree on as their "history."3 It is obvious that the erasing of Palestinian history after 1948 was a deliberate political act. It should therefore not be a surprise when the Palestinians also move to roll history back.

The really interesting thing is that "ancient Israel" as a cultural memory represents the deliberate choice of a certain community (according to my magical spectacles, this community is the Judaism of the Persian and especially Hellenistic and Roman periods). It can in many ways be argued that the choice of the version of "Israel's" history found in the Old Testament at the same time represented the silencing of all other histories relevant to other groups living at that time in the land of Palestine, including as the most obvious example the history of the Samaritans. Every story or memory not directly relevant to the Jewish elite of the fourth through first centuries (BCE) was silenced, forgotten and erased. Thus the memory of the Samaritan community at Mt. Gerizim was totally left in silence, apart from the temple destroyed by Hyrcanus shortly before 100 BCE. Only recently has a new interest in the history of the Samaritans appeared.

What happened was that the history of a Palestinian state of the name of Bît Humriya, respectively Samarina, or even Israel which was in existence roughly speaking between 900 and 700 BCE was rewritten in such a way that it also became Jewish history in the shape of biblical Israel. If the Samaritans had a memory of their own, i.e., a version of Israel's history that did not fit in, it was forgotten. Ancient Israel never existed, understood as the modern rewriting of the biblical story about the people of God, its "Israel." It is absolutely in line with this observation that "Israel" was, in Antiquity, never used as a political name. Thus the Hasmonean rulers called themselves leaders of the community of the Jews as testified by their coinage.4

It is, however, absolutely astounding that the only inscriptions from ancient times in which individuals proclaim themselves to be Israelites are found outside of modern Israel, on the Island of Delos. They are in Greek and the Israelites mentioned here comes from Crete (Knossos and Heracleon) and they expressly mention their attachment to the holy place at Gerizim.5 They have no religious ties to Jerusalem but to Gerizim, and should by all means be reckoned as Samaritans, but in their own eyes they are Israelites.

Cultural memory is everything but a neutral story about the past. It is a highly political issue. It is not about some stray inscriptions in Hebrew or about pig bones or the absence of pig bones, it is about what people believe in or are told to believe in as their story. It is certainly also something people are not ready to depart from easily. We saw in Israel the very violent reaction to Shlomo Sand's study, The Invention of the Jewish People6 very shortly after it appeared. To many Israeli readers (and non-readers) it was the worst book ever published, although Sand is himself a Jewish historian at the University of Tel Aviv. This is not about whether or not the book is as bad as some claim or whether or not Sand is right, it is about his challenge to the accepted cultural memory of modern Israel.

So moving back to Friedman's settlement with Ahmadinejod, Friedman is obviously right and Ahmadinejod wrong, but at the same time Ahmadinajod is right and Friedman wrong if we begin to discuss the content of the word "Israel" in this connection. Friedman definitely subscribes to the official version of Israel's cultural memory. This memory is founded on the Bible and therefore has marvelous support everywhere in Jewish and Christian communities. It may, on the other hand, be questioned whether or not this Israel of Friedman is representative of the society that once existed in Palestine in ancient times. If Ahmadinejod argued that biblical Israel is an invention and foreign to the ancient history of the Middle East, he is not left totally in the wilderness. On the other hand, he probably does not have a clue about any of this.

To be sure, it is possible to write a history of ancient Palestine without recourse to the Old Testament. I have done so, and it worked perfectly. The cultural memory embedded in the Old Testament has not much to contribute to this history. It rather distorts the history of the country by focusing exclusively on only one element and ignoring all the other elements belonging to the ancient history of this territory.7

And a final note: I have constantly used the name ‘Palestine’ of the territory otherwise called Canaan, Eretz Israel, the Holy Land, and more. According to Israeli historians this name is Roman and a consequence of Hadrian's renaming of the country after the Bar Kochba rebellion. It is true that the Romans reintroduced the name, but Herodotus had previously used it of the territory between Egypt and Syria, and before him, Sennacherib campaigned (according to his own annals) in Palestine. Having a name for the place where you live means identity; removing this name means removing, cancelling identity. Hadrian did, indeed rename the country, but he did not replace the name of Israel with Palestine but the name of the province of Judah. We have absolutely no indication that before the rebellion the political name of the country was Israel.



Notes

1 Two Sides of the Coin: Independence and Nakba 1948. Two Narratives of the 1948 War and its Outcome (Dordrecht: Republic of Letters, 2011).

2 London: Routledge, 1996.

3 Reminding us of Napoleon's view of history: Isn't it a fable which people have agreed on.

4 Particulars will be published in my contribution to an introduction to Cultural Memory studies and the Bible edited by Pernille Carstens.

5 Cf on these now the discussion in Magnar Kartveit, The Origin of the Samaritans (Vetus Testamentum, Supplements, 128; Leiden: Brill, 2009), 216-24, but also the more sharply formulated commentary in Niels Peter Lemche, The Greek Israelites and Gerizim in Tal Davidovich, in Tal Davidivich (ed.), Plogbillar & svärd: En festskrift till Stig Norin (Uppsala: Molin & Sorgenfrei, 2012), 147-154.

6 London: Verso, 2009.

7 Cf. my The Old Testament between Theology and History (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 393-453. On the history of ancient Israel as invented, cf. also Mario Liverani, Israel's History and the History of Israel (London: Equinox, 2005).