"Palestinian nationalism has long been a plagiarized version of Zionism.”
BY ELI KAVON • JULY 15, 2019
The impression in paleo-Hebrew on the ancient seal in clay is remarkable. It reads: “Berechyahu, the son of Neriyahu, the scribe.” A student of the Hebrew Bible would immediately recognize this name. This is the bulla (stamp) of Baruch ben Neriyah, the scribe of the prophet Jeremiah. The bulla was used to seal correspondence. The black and white photograph of the seal appears in The Oxford History of the Biblical World (1998). I could not stop thinking about Baruch’s seal as I read Sha’i ben-Tekoa’s two-volume tour de force, Phantom Nation: Inventing the “Palestinians” as the Obstacle to Peace (2018). The author’s work is meticulously researched and renews the debate on “national identity theft.” It is a long read but worth the time invested by both author and reader. And I could not stop thinking of that photograph of Baruch ben Neriyah’s 2,500-year-old clay seal.
Ben-Tekoa’s thesis in his exhaustive study can be summed up succinctly in one of his statements: “Palestinian nationalism has long been a plagiarized version of Zionism.” It is the fashion of post-Zionists to portray the State of Israel as an “invented nation.” Their reasoning is that the modern nation-state is alien to the Jewish past and that the revival of Hebrew and a secular Zionist goal to settle Israel without the traditional messianic advent – and the original sin of stealing the Land of Israel from its “indigenous population” – comprise a phony sense of nationhood. Nothing could be further from the truth. First, the indigenous population of the Land of Israel is the Israelites and the Jews. The Canaanites and Philistines disappeared thousands of years ago and it is absurd for any ethnic group living today to claim descent from these long-gone peoples. The Canaanites and Philistines live on only in the realm of the study of the ancient past and archaeology. There is no original sin. How odd it is that a Christian theological concept has made its way into modern secular Jewish intellectual and political life.
Second, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda revived Hebrew as a spoken language. Yet, from the Tanach to modern times, Hebrew has served valiantly as a literary language. It is the language of the poets of medieval Spain, Italy and Ashkenaz, the language of Jewish law codes, the language of Judeo-Arabic philosophy translated by the Ibn Tibbon family into Hebrew, the language often of commerce, and the language of correspondence. It is a lie that Hebrew needed to be “invented” for an artificial nation. Hebrew was always there, waiting for Ben-Yehuda and others to bring it to life as a spoken language in a living national culture. Spoken Modern Hebrew has been adapted from biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, Hebrew prayer, medieval liturgy and even secular poetry, as well as from the often ignored Hebrew in Maskil Enlightenment literature. I find no Arabic in the Tanach or the Mishna. Hebrew, emerging out of the lost ancient peoples of the Ugaritic and Akkadian languages, is the indigenous language of the Land of Israel.
Third, let us debunk the notion that narrowly defines the modern nation-state. Sovereignty is a central component of modern countries – a different sovereignty from that of our ancestors in the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah, as well as the Maccabee Hasmonean kingdom. But that is sovereignty nevertheless. All Jews in exile, from Krakow to Baghdad, prayed for the messianic return to the Land of Israel, the restoration of Jewish sovereignty, and the building of a third temple. This hope united all Jews and preserved them as a nation without a land. The same goes for Halacha, Jewish law. As acculturated as Jews were in different lands, the differences in their observances and their prayers did not constitute separate “Judaisms.” It was one Jewish faith.
Halacha, to paraphrase Heine, was a portable homeland. From Lunel to Pinsk to Alexandria, Jews were a halachic nation. Jews were one nation. The fact that modernity overthrew the messianic component of this nation without a homeland is irrelevant. The reality is that nationhood and religion are intimately related. Secular Zionism did not hesitate to secularize the notions of the traditional messianic idea and incorporate them into their action and ideology. As well, from the aljama to the kahal, Jews’ self-government constituted a nation apart from the non-Jewish majority. The Jewish politics of today cannot be torn from the political savvy of our ancestors and their autonomy in exile.
Welcome to the wounded world of George Orwell’s Winston Smith: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” Add to this – “Jesus was a Palestinian.” This Palestinian Jesus is a distant cousin of Nazi Germany’s Aryan Jesus. I never believed Jesus was my savior. He was a failed messiah. I respect Christians for their beliefs. But Jesus was born a Jew, was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, lived and preached as a Jew in the Galilee, and was executed by Rome as a Jewish rebel. Those who deny that Jesus was a Jew are engaged in “Land of Israel Denial.” These are the same folks who erase from the history books the Hebrew Bible, the Merneptah Stela, Jerusalem’s City of David, the Tel Dan inscription, the Shalmanesser III Obelisk, the stela of Mesha the Moabite, the Hasmonean coins, the Western Wall, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bar-Kochba letters, the Beit Alpha synagogue mosaic, the Mishna, the Midrash, the paytan cantorial poets. And of course, the clay stamp of Baruch ben Neriyah. Deny the Holocaust. Deny the ancient origin of our people in Eretz Yisrael. Deny Jewish history. Deny literary and archaeological evidence. Deny history and prostitute it to ideology.
Add to Orwell’s newspeak: Zionism is imperialism. This lie equates Jews fleeing the pogroms and poverty from the Russian Pale of Settlement with the colonial ambitions of great empires in India, the Congo, and Algeria. I am not the descendant of Khazars whose elite converted to Judaism in the eighth century. This is yet another lie that epitomizes “Eretz Yisrael Denial.” The overwhelming proof from the Bible, historical scholarship, and archaeology is that the origin point of the Jews is the Land of Israel. Ben-Tekoa writes: “The re-birth of the Jewish commonwealth is a direct slap in the face to Islam’s plagiarized image as Allah’s chosen people who are destined to rule the world – versus the millions of Christians whose faith has survived and even been energized by the return of the Jews to their common bible’s promised land. Under Islam, by contrast, the existence of Israel is a mortal threat to the very existence of Islamic belief.” Ben-Tekoa’s most interesting theme is the role that the Algerian war to throw out the colonial French only a few years before the emergence of the PLO and al-Fatah played a central role in transforming a Muslim struggle to destroy the Jews into the rebellion of a Palestinian nation against Zionist occupiers. This is not about a 100-year political struggle between two nations. It is grounded in religion and history dating back 1,400 years.
My given name includes the title of the chief deity of the ancient Canaanites, a name that was transformed into one of those of the God of Israel. The relationship between Canaanite culture and religion and that of ancient Israelite religion and culture is still being debated. But the point is moot. If the Canaanites are, indeed, the original denizens of the Land of Canaan – that was thousands of years ago and does not reflect today’s reality. My name says more about “indigenous peoples” than any propaganda spewed at the UN. How many more lies will the world embrace? This attack on the Jewish people – on the reality of the existence of Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch ben Neriyah – is the product of a false narrative that is worthy of George Orwell’s ministry of truth.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.
This article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post on July 15, 2019, and be viewed on their website by clicking here.