Friday, February 14, 2014

From Canaan to Spain

A week ago, the veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat startled his Israeli interlocutors by  stating that his ancestors had been among the Canaanites who had lived in the city of Jericho three thousand years ago, before the conquering Children of Israel arrived there under Joshua’s leadership.

It was not made clear what Erekat’s remark was a reaction to. Whatever it has been, Tzipi Livni, in charge of the negotiations on behalf of Israel, decided "not to argue with Erekat on historical narratives, but rather concentrate on building a future of peace”. That aroused against her the great wrath of Economics Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home Party.

Bennet was quick to set out the Zionist historical narrative in all its length and breadth and glory - the Bible and the Divine Promise and the Land of Israel being Our Patrimony for 3800 (sic) years and 2000 Years of Yearning and all the rest of it. In the print media and on the net, dozens of furious rightists took up the cudgel and strove with all their might to extol the sole and exclusive rights of the Jews and smash to smithereens any claims of Erekat and the Palestinians. (Not much later, the zealous Bennett called Martin Schulz a liar to his face; Schulz , President of the European Parliament, spoke in the Knesset and dared to mention the more mundane problem of the water inequality between Israelis and occupied Palestinians.)

Does Saeb Erekat keep in his pocket the detailed lineage which links him with the Canaanites of three thousand years ago ? Probably not. On the other hand , does Naftali Bennett’s pocket contain a lineage culminating with Joshua’s bloodthirsty warriors? That, too, is rather in doubt . Incidentally, the name "Bennett ", common in the English-speaking world, is specifically related to another set of conquerors, the Normans who conquered England in 1066 and brought the name with them from France . (Even in this direction, it is not sure that Naftali Bennett has a clear lineage...)

The Bible, the Economy Minister’s favorite book, includes a detailed description of what  the Children of Israel (Bennett 's ancestors ?) did to the Canaanites (Erekat 's ancestors?)  three thousand years ago:

" And the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city [Jericho]. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.”  And later the Children of Israel under the leadership of Joshua moved on to  Ai : "And it came to pass, when Israel had made an end of slaying all the inhabitants of Ai in the field, in the wilderness wherein they chased them, and when they were all fallen on the edge of the sword, until they were consumed, that all the Israelites returned unto Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword.And so it was, that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. For Joshua drew not his hand back, wherewith he stretched out the spear, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai." And then on to Makkedah: "And that day Joshua took Makkedah, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and the king thereof/ He utterly destroyed them, and all the souls that were therein; he let none remain”. 

In fact, among modern historians this description is doubted, and considered an exaggeration by a writer a bit later among our ancestors – presumably someone with a particularly morbid imagination. But in order to hear such skeptical thoughts one needs to get to university. Pupils in Israeli schools are taught to regard the wars and massacres of Joshua as undisputed facts, and as acts committed under the direct command of God Himself.

Thanks to Christianity adopting the Old Testament as part of its own Scriptures, the story of Joshua’s bloody campaign was translated into all languages ​​of the world, and for centuries served as a source of inspiration and legitimacy to many who sought to conquer somebody else’s land and settle there. For example, those who conquered the land of Indians in North America and of Blacks in South Africa. By the way, Islam which adopted many Biblical figures as its own Prophets had the good taste not to include Joshua among them.

Still, who are we and who were our ancestors? Who are the Palestinians and who were their ancestors? Looked at soberly, the most likely answer is that the Jews now living in Israel and in many other countries do have ancestors who lived in this country two thousand years ago - and they also have other ancestors who lived in various other places. My own personal grandmother had very Mongolian cheekbones, which seems to indicate that some of my own ancestors came to Eastern Europe from the Far East rather than from the Middle East... The same, probably, is true for the Palestinians - some of them are descendants of people who lived here two thousand or three thousand years ago, or perhaps even more, who throughout the generations remained in the same village and used the same farming methods, while others of the Palestinians’ ancestors probably came at various later times.

In 1918, the Zionist leaders David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi published a book called "The Land of Israel, Past and Present". Arab inhabitants of Palestine - especially in the countryside – were shown to be descendants of Jews who lived there during the Roman period. Evidence was brought up to substantiate this theory, in particular that the Arab dialect of the country’s peasants was full of Hebrew and Aramaic words. The research found that some 10,000 names of villages, rivers, springs , mountains, valleys, and hills all over the country in fact preserved the ancient Hebrew names in the Arabs’ usage.

At the time Ben Gurion and Ben-Zvi, future PM and President of Israel, entertained some hope that if the Arab inhabitants would be shown that their  ancestors had been  Jews, they might want to be Jewish in the present time and to cast their lot with Zionism. This hope was dashed soon. Especially since the Zionist movement was striving very hard to buy land all over the country and establish on it Kibbutzim and Moshavim – very Socialist Zionist communities, in which there was no place whatsoever for Arabs, Jewish ancestry or not...

The narrative of the Palestinians’ Jewish origin was consigned to a dusty shelf, and its place was taken by a completely opposite idea, Far from the Palestinians having lived here for two thousand years and maintaining remnants of a Jewish ancestral heritage, they had not been here at all. The land was empty and deserted, when the Zionist pioneers arrived in the late Nineteenth Century. The Palestinians - recent immigrants, migrant workers who came here because the Zionists have developed the country and created jobs which attracted them. It was this narrative was set out at great length by Nadav Shragai, a veteran columnist of the Israeli right-wing, in reaction to Saeb Erekat’s Canaanite origin.  In an article which covered three pages in the weekend edition of "Israel Today" (nicknamed “The Bibinews")  Shragai gleefully listed surnames common among Palestinians, which prove that they have come here from other countries. For example, those called " El Masri " are of Egyptian origin, and those called " Mughrabi " have come here all the way from Morocco. Shragai forgot, however, to mention that this last name exists also among Israeli Jews…

A few days later came the exiting news of the Spanish Government 's intention to grant Spanish citizenship to all who could show that their ancestors were among the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. There are quite a few Israelis whose surnames indicate the city in Spain where their ancestors lived, Toledano and Cordovero and Saragusti and Valenci and Murciano. Many of them plan to go to the Spanish Consulate in Tel Aviv as soon as the law is finally enacted by the parliament in Madrid. "Now, the Ashkenazis will no longer be the only ones to have place to flee to" one of them told a Yediot Aharonot reporter.