Like most nation-states, Israel is built on a set of myths used to justify and legitimize its existence. In the case of the Zionist state the myths are a compilation of Judeo-Christian misconceptions, steeped in a colonial paradigm with no bearing on actual documented history.
The use of colonial tropes and perversion of history, particularly Jewish history, makes for a powerful combination that has earned Israel support from European and neo-European states alike. Like all myths, however, an elementary understanding of history and the posing of simple, reasonable questions unveil the cracks behind Zionism, the founding ideology of the Israeli state.
One of Zionism’s greatest absurdities is its reliance on the biblical state of Israel as the basis for its legitimacy. This state, as narrated by the Bible, was the only home of the Jewish people.
According to the myth, there was an Israeli kingdom, composed of a community disconnected ethnically from its neighbors, which was subsequently displaced from its homeland by the Romans in 70 CE. Dispersed to the far corners of the world, the Jews of Israel dreamed of returning to their homeland, a hope that was finally realized with the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948.
While this is an overly simplified paraphrasing of the Zionist narrative, it nevertheless encapsulates the argument repeated by Israeli and American politicians in favor of Israel’s uniqueness and the need for maintaining its Jewish character.
There are several problems with this narrative. Firstly, historians and archeologists have noted that the inhabitants of the unified Kingdom of Israel and Judah were not a separate ethnicity distinct from other populations residing in the region. Indeed, long before the ‘exile’ that followed the Roman destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, a large number of Jews lived outside the Kingdom of Israel and Judah in Babylonia, Persia, and elsewhere, as an integral part of those societies. Moreover, the most important developments in Jewish culture and religious law were born out of Jewish communities living outside of Palestine, such as the writings of Mūsā ibn Maymūn (or Maimonides) who codified the Talmud. There was, as such, no sense of a shared Jewish national identity, nor was there a need for one.
What sense of national identity may have existed during that time would have been extremely time bound.
The united Kingdom of Israel and Judah existed for only a century (1030 BCE – 930 BCE), before splitting into two kingdoms – the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The former was conquered by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE, while the latter existed as an independent state until 586 BCE until it too was absorbed by the Babylonian Empire.
Moreover, because there is no actual archeological proof of the vast Jewish kingdom beyond the Old and New Testament, all this talk of the biblical Jewish state assumes that the bible texts are true.
The biblical narrative also ignores the fact of religious conversion. In the Israeli narrative, religious and ethnic Jewish identity are inseparably intertwined. While Jewish religio-ethnicity plays a critical role in the Israeli national mindset, conversion from and to Judaism undermines the myth of ethnic purity on which the Israeli state rests. For example, the Israeli government has opposed the Palestinian right of return because of its potential impact on the country’s ethnic makeup. However, some geneticists and historians hypothesize that a large amount of historic Palestine’s’ Jewish inhabitants converted to Islam, and that some of today’s Palestinians may well be their descendants.
The biblical justifications for the state of Israel further fracture when considering the claim of exile in 70 CE. As noted above, well before the revolt against the Romans in 66-70 CE, numerous Jewish communities lived outside the lands of Palestine. This makes the trauma of “exile” limited in both impact and meaning. Furthermore, contemporary evidence does not show that large-scale forcible exile occurred during that time. One simply has to ask, if the Romans had indeed exiled a large amount of the Jewish community in Palestine, how then was the community able to conduct another revolt 60 years later that successfully took over the area from the Romans for a period of two years?
Serious historians, including Israelis, have regularly pointed out the flaws in the biblical narrative supporting the Israeli state’s Jewish roots. As the Israeli historian Dr. Shlomo Sand documented in his book, The Invention of the Jewish People, the notion of a national link between Judaism and the lands of historical Palestine is a relatively modern phenomenon developed during the 19th century by European Jews. As such, Zionism, which was born out of this thinking, is steeped in a specifically European experience.
While the Jews of Europe suffered through pogroms and systematic discrimination, Jewish communities elsewhere did not experience nearly the same level of intensity and degree of persecution. Because of these particular roots, the modern Israeli states is defined and shaped by European notions of ethnicity, statehood, and identity, and ultimately driven by a project of state building rooted in a colonial mentality. In other words, indigenous non-European communities living on such lands are routinely marginalized, their rights ignored, and their community and lifestyle dehumanized, pushed aside for the needs of ‘civilized’ Europeans.
Let us not beat around the bush. Israel is a colonial state (in fact, the original Zionist colonizers were unabashed about calling Zionism, a ‘colonial project‘), with certain Apartheid-like structures in place to ensure the continued dominance of a transplanted population over the indigenous people.
Zionism bears numerous similarities to other colonial narratives that manipulate religious understandings in order to justify rule and abuse. As with Zionism, during the late 19th century and early 20th century, South Africa’s white Afrikaners manipulated Christian and Calvinists beliefs to justify their superiority as whites and their divine right to South African land (one can say the same for the United States and its belief in Manifest Destiny as the basis for its expansion over most of the continent). This was quite a common strategy for European and neo-European colonial nation building in the 19th century, and Zionism is built on that zeitgeist.
This historical and religious manipulation does not hold up to today’s current archaeological, scientific, and recorded evidence and will not stand the test of time. Yet, these myths continue to be propagated and used as the underlying justification for Israel’s existence as an exclusively Jewish state. The phrase of a “land without a people, and a people without a land” encapsulates this myth, one that was utilized to horrifying ends in 1947-1948 and continues to allow horrible crimes sixty years later.
Is it not high time to confront these myths?
*Yazan Al-Saadi is a staff writer at Muftah.