Thursday, October 11, 2012

Jewish history

Sixty years after its foundation, Israel refuses to accept that it should exist for the sake of its citizens. For almost a quarter of the population, who are not regarded as Jews, this is not their state legally. They hold Israeli ‘citizenship’ but not nationality. Palestinian Israelis are discriminated against socially, educationally and economically. The Palestinian inhabitants of annexed Jerusalem, meanwhile, have neither nationality nor citizenship, but residence permits which are frequently revoked. At the same time, Israel presents itself as the homeland of Jews throughout the world, even if these are no longer persecuted refugees, but the full and equal citizens of other countries.

Every Israeli knows that he or she is the direct and exclusive descendant of a Jewish people which has existed since it received the Torah in Sinai. After the destruction of the second temple, in 70 AD they spent two thousand years of wandering which brought the Jews to Yemen, Morocco, Spain, Germany, Poland and deep into Russia. According to this story their uniqueness was never compromised. Any descendant of the people forced into exile 2,000 years ago is a Jew. Palestine belonged to the Jews, rather than to an Arab minority that had no history and had arrived there by chance. The wars to reconquer their land were just; the violent opposition of the local population was criminal.

The Jews of the world, white, black and brown, are the sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses, after leading the Jews out of Egyptian enslavement, gave them laws. Emerging from the desert, the Jews conquered the promised land of Canaan, which became Judea and Israel, later the mighty kingdom of David and Solomon. In 70CE the Romans destroyed the temple at Jerusalem and drove the Jews from their land. A surviving Jewish remnant was expelled when Muslim-Arab conquerors colonised the country in the 7th Century. And so the Jews wandered the earth, the very embodiment of homelessness. But throughout their long exile, against all odds, the Jews kept themselves a pure, unmixed race. Finally they returned, after the Holocaust, to Palestine, “a land without a people for a people without a land.”

Is the Bible a historical text? The first modern Jewish historians, such as Isaak Markus Jost (1793-1860) and Leopold Zunz (1794-1886), did not think so. They regarded the Old Testament as a theological work reflecting the beliefs of Jewish religious communities after the destruction of the first temple. It was not until the second half of the century that Heinrich Graetz (1817-91) and others developed a “national” vision of the Bible and transformed Abraham’s journey to Canaan, the flight from Egypt and the united kingdom of David and Solomon into an authentic national past. The idea of the Jews as a race was formed in the 19th Century in response to the ethnic-nationalisms burgeoning throughout post-Napoleonic east and central Europe. As Russians, Poles and Germans claimed their respective sets of heroic precursors, stressing their Orthodox or Catholic heritage to the exclusion of the Jews, certain Jewish intellectuals set out to invent their own national mythology. Scripture was a key tool. By constant repetition, Zionist historians have subsequently turned these Biblical “truths” into the basis of national education.

But discoveries made by the “new archaeology” discredited a great exodus in the 13th century BC. Moses could not have led the Hebrews out of Egypt into the Promised Land, for the good reason that the latter was Egyptian territory at the time. And there is no trace of either a slave revolt against the pharaonic empire or of a sudden conquest of Canaan by outsiders. Nor is there any trace or memory of the magnificent kingdom of David and Solomon. Recent discoveries point to the existence, at the time, of two small kingdoms: Israel, the more powerful, and Judah, the future Judea. The general population of Judah did not go into 6th century BC exile: only its political and intellectual elite were forced to settle in Babylon.

Then there is the question of the exile of 70 AD. There has been no real research into this turning point in Jewish history, the cause of the diaspora. And for a simple reason: the Romans never exiled any nation from anywhere on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean. Apart from enslaved prisoners, the population of Judea continued to live on their lands, even after the destruction of the second temple. Some converted to Christianity in the 4th century, while the majority embraced Islam during the 7th century Arab conquests. Yitzhak Ben Zvi, a president of Israel, and David Ben Gurion, its first prime minister both stated on several occasions that the peasants of Palestine were the descendants of the inhabitants of ancient Judea. Today more than half of Palestinians live outside Palestine, most in refugee camps. Those who remain on their land experience military occupation and varying degrees of apartheid. Israel is a state which forbids marriage between a ‘Jew’ and a ‘non-Jew’,

But if there was no exile after 70 AD, where did all the Jews who have populated the Mediterranean since antiquity come from? From the Maccabean revolt of the mid-2nd century BC to the Bar Kokhba revolt of the 2nd century AD, Judaism was the most actively proselytising religion. Centres of converted Jews bloomed in Damascus and Alexandria and all around the east Mediterranean. Aggressive proselytising in Rome – where the religion was particularly popular among women – irritated the conservative pagan classes as much as Christianity would later, leading to several expulsions of Jews from the city. But Judaism continued to grow, unwittingly preparing the way for Christianity, a Jewish heresy which preached an even more universalist message and gave up the demand for converts to be circumcised.

The Judeo-Hellenic Hasmoneans forcibly converted the Idumeans of southern Judea and the Itureans of Galilee and incorporated them into the people of Israel. Judaism spread across the Middle East and round the Mediterranean. The 1st century AD saw the emergence in modern Kurdistan of the Jewish kingdom of Adiabene, just one of many that converted. During the 5th century, in modern Yemen, a vigorous Jewish kingdom emerged in Himyar, whose descendants preserved their faith through the Islamic conquest and down to the present day. Arab chronicles tell of the existence, during the 7th century, of Judaised Berber tribes; and at the end of the century the legendary Jewish queen Dihya contested the Arab advance into northwest Africa. Jewish Berbers participated in the conquest of the Iberian peninsula and helped establish the unique symbiosis between Jews and Muslims that characterised Hispano-Arabic culture.  The most significant mass conversion occurred in the 8th century, in the massive Khazar kingdom between the Black and Caspian seas. The expansion of Judaism from the Caucasus into modern Ukraine created a multiplicity of communities, many of which retreated from the 13th century Mongol invasions into eastern Europe. There, with Jews from the Slavic lands to the south and from what is now modern Germany, they formed the basis of Yiddish culture. Clearly this history does not fit with ‘Palestinian’ Jewish nationalism.

The Israelis who seized Jerusalem in 1967 believed themselves to be the direct descendents of the mythic kingdom of David rather than, for instance, of Berber warriors or Khazar horsemen. The Jews claimed to be a specific ethnic group that had returned to Jerusalem, its capital, from 2,000 years of exile and wandering.and   supported by biology as well as history. Since the 1970s supposedly scientific research, carried out in Israel, has striven to demonstrate that Jews throughout the world are closely genetically related.  Eran Elhaik, PhD of Johns Hopkins University  applied a wide range of population genetic analyses (principal component, biogeographical origin, admixture, identity by descent, allele sharing distance, and uniparental analyses) and concluded that "our findings support the Khazarian Hypothesis and portray the European Jewish genome as a mosaic of Caucasus, European, and Semitic ancestries"   Michael Hammer of University of Arizona. They looked at Y-chromosome haplotypes - this is the genetic material passed from father to son down the generations. What they revealed was that Arabs and Jews are essentially a single population, and that Palestinians are slap bang in the middle of the different Jewish populations. Another team, lead by Almut Nebel at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, took a closer look in 2001. They found that Jewish lineages essentially bracket Muslim Kurds, but they were also very closely related to Palestinians. In fact, what their analysis suggested was that Palestinians were identical to Jews, but with a small mix of Arab genes - what you would expect if they were originally from the same stock, but that Palestinians had mixed a little with Arab immigrants. So, as far as male lineage goes, the genetic story is very clear. Palestinians and Jews are virtually indistinguishable. Analysis of elements in mitochondrial DNA (which is passed from mother to daughter) seemed to show that Jewish populations around Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East were derived from at least 8 unrelated 'founding mothers'. The most likely explanation was that they were from local populations that bred with immigrant Jewish males. Their offspring became absorbed into the Jewish community.

Sand himself wrote "As of today, no study based on anonymous DNA samples has succeeded in identifying a genetic marker specific to Jews, and it is not likely that any study ever will. It is a bitter irony to see the descendants of Holocaust survivors set out to find a biological Jewish identity: Hitler would certainly have been very pleased!"

No human group remains ‘pure’ over hundreds of years with an admixture of southern Arab, Greek, Persian, Egyptian, and Frankish blood, today’s Palestinians are of Judean ‘stock’. This means the population closest ethnically to the ancient Israelites are the Palestinians. The same Palestinians the Jewish state expelled en masse in 1947 and 48, and again in 1967.

Adapted from this article by Schlomo Sand, professor of history at Tel Aviv university

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