“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” George Orwell.
After recently publishing the 10 Ikhras talking points on Palestine for Arab-Americans we received an enormous amount of feedback and questions. Talking point #8, in particular, “Religion: A Distractor And An Opportunity”, was a subject of great interest and led to many questions and inquiries. This is not surprising given the currently dominant, but false, religious framing of the conflict in Palestine in public discourse and the continued exploitation of popular religious mythology in Zionist propaganda narratives. In addition, the religious right within the US Muslim (Palestinian, Arab and non-Arabs alike) community and its counterproductive role in Palestine solidarity activism has further reinforced the Zionist claim system by repeating essentially the Jewish Zionist narrative as if historical while overlaying Muslim titles on the characters. It is essential for Palestine solidarity activists to be informed about the ancient history of Palestine, the abuse of religion by advocates of the Zionist colonial project, and the adoption of self-colonizing myths by members of our own community. In order to effectively dispel the religious myths exploited by Zionism, informed activists will be addressing myths common to all three monotheistic religions. This must be done without catering to the religious sensitivities of any faith group, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. To help confront and effectively respond to this abuse of religion in furtherance of the Zionist colonial project, ikhras is publishing this primer on the topic of religion and Palestine for activists. We are also providing a list of books for further reading on various aspects of the ancient and modern history of Palestine. Before Zionism appropriated the land it sought to appropriate its ancient past. The struggle for the liberation of Palestine begins by reclaiming our history and heritage. This contribution comes in response to the many inquiries and questions ikhras has received on the subject. It is our sincere hope that it helps cast aside self-colonizing mythologies, generates real knowledge, and empowers Palestinian, Arab, and all Palestine solidarity activists.
While religion has been exploited in all settler-colonialism, it has a particularly insidious variety in the Zionist state, which exploited all past religious and cultural preconceptions and notions that have since been shown to lack historicity. The Zionist project is keen to keep people in the condition of ignorance which existed before about various religious aspects. It has relied on and extended, in particular, extremist 19th-century fundamentalist/millennial movement in the US and Britain, described in general as “sacred geography,” what can now be described as Christian Zionism, which still provides a solid base of Western support. Zionism has given people the false impression that the conflict is a religious one and that Jewish claims predate the Muslim/Christian presence in Palestine. Since religion is the declared agenda, this represents a great opportunity to disentangle its grip on people’s minds.
Depending on whether the audience is religiously inclined or unreligious, the activist can approach a wide range of issues from points of religious (mis)understanding, analysis of key biblical narratives, or debunking of religious mythology.
It should be possible, with the right tools, to dispel many of the religious myths that underpin the Zionist claim system, indeed the credibility and historicity of the Old Testament (Tawrah/Torah) and the accounts used to justify colonial projects (particularly in what became the US, in South Africa and elsewhere). Whether one believes in biblical accounts or not, the argument can be made that they have been abused as convenient models for dispossession and genocide of native peoples. (See the books by Michael Prior and Nur Masalha.)
Each one of the Zionist claims can be dismissed (for example, in a book by Basem Ra’ad Hidden Histories, more than 30 Zionist claims are listed in the index and analyzed in the text). Perhaps most relevant to the claim-system is to disconnect the Zionist strategy of extending “Jewish” presence to the myths about ancient Jews, Israelites and Hebrews. The last two are idealized communities whose presence has been exaggerated by the influence of biblical accounts in Western consciousness, and who are not linked except by tradition to ancient Jews. Don’t let the Zionists succeed in extending their claims by confusing themselves with ancient “Israelites” and “Hebrews” (in fact, there are even Zionist agendas now to equate the “Israelites” with the “Cana’anites”). Moreover, ancient Jews are not present Jews, as shown by the conversions in many parts of the world in more recent periods, particularly the Khazars in the 8th century CE (see Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe and recently Shlomo Sand’s Invention of the Jewish People). There is now sufficient knowledge and scholarship to state that present Jews (especially European, North African and Spanish Jews) were converts to the religion in more recent centuries, that “Exodus” and later “Exile” are both myths, and that present Jews have no real links to Palestine or the region. In fact, many (even early Zionists) have argued that present Palestinians are the likely descendants of past “Jews” or “Israelites.” You don’t need to make this same argument, but it is clear that the Palestinian population (which is based in its region) is a diverse mixture of all the past populations, regardless of changes in religious affiliation over millennia. One could give the parallel that Jews saying Palestine is their “ancestral” land is like Muslims in Indonesia or Afghanistan claiming Mecca and Arabia as theirs to own (in the past the Crusaders and others tried to make the same claim about Palestine because they said Jesus was born and crucified there).
For some, it may work to debunk the biblical accounts through various means: the Bible as an edited version of earlier mythologies in the region (e.g., the creation story, or the Flood, which is a duplicate of the earlier account in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Ugaritic mythology and its pantheon of gods). Some scholars have argued that the monotheistic religions are a direct development from the previous founding polytheistic religions in the region. Even the biblical text itself can be used to prove this point. As an example, you can ask the more knowledgeable about the Bible to compare various translations of a passage such as Deuteronomy 32:8-9. The Qumran (or Dead Sea) Scrolls, which were discovered in 1947 and were unknown before, show clearly that the biblical text was doctored by scribes to remove evidence of worship of many gods. (The correct translation is clarified in only one official translation now, The New Jerusalem Bible.) This passage also shows that Yahweh, god of the Israelites (or Jacob’s descendants) is one of many sons of the chief god in the pantheon, the Most High, Īl (El). The implications of this passage dismantle notion of chosen-ness or Jewish monopoly concerning the idea of the One god.
Another subject to address is sacred places and their invention. As shown in Ra’ad’s Hidden Histories, invariably the holy sites are inventions, unrelated to the events they purport to register, and so even if one is to believe in the accounts the places are not genuine. This applies to Christian and Muslim sites, but even more specifically to Jewish sites such as the Western or Wailing Wall which was not known as part of any Jewish tradition until the 18th century or at the earlier Ottoman conquest in 1516 CE (that is five hundred years ago at most). Other now “Jewish” maqams were taken over from Muslim tradition after 1948, as Meron Benvenisti shows. The appropriation of Muslim traditions is therefore, ironically, other than such practices as translating place names from Arabic to Hebrew phonetics, one of the methods used to cover up Palestinian presence and make the landscape look like it has a Jewish character.
There are many topics to be raised on religious issues about the three monotheistic religions, and about the discoveries and scholarship that enlightens them. Recommended readings (in alphabetical order; this is not the place to comment on sources or particular points in them, or any reservations about the content):
Abu El-Haj, Nadia. Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Benvenisti, Meron. Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. [Mostly about the ungrateful use of Arabic names by Zionist naming committees, distorted to Hebrew phonetics; caution: some of Benvenisti’s linguistic assumptions are Zionist and he seems to believe the original names were “Hebrew-Aramaic” and Jews were in exile and returned “home,” though he attacks the insidious work of the committees and is appreciative of the beauty of Arabic place names.]
Ben-Yehuda, Nachman. The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Myth-Making in Israel. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
Blau, Joshua. The Renaissance of Modern Hebrew and Modern Standard Arabic: Parallels and Differences in the Revival of Two Semitic Languages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. [It shows that Hebrew was revived by committees in the early 20th century by using mostly Arabic roots.]
Finkelstein, Israel, and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Free Press, 2001. [This book discredits the historicity of several biblical accounts, but has to be read with caution for possible replacements in the claim system.]
Gilgamesh. The Epic of Gilgamesh (about 2500 bce). Transl. with an introduction by Andrew George. London: Allen Lane, 1999 [re-issued by Penguin.]
Khalidi, Walid. All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. Washington, D. C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.
Koestler, Arthur. The Thirteenth Tribe. New York: Random House, 1976.
Masalha, Nur. The Zionist Bible: Biblical Precedent, Colonialism, and the Erasure of Memory. London: Acumen, 2013. [Be aware this text has some typos; in places quite good on misappropriation of biblical accounts in militarizing Israeli “civic religion” and creating a false Jewish memory.]
Obenzinger, Hilton. American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. [It shows these two authors were basically the first anti-Zionists, or at least anti-fundamentalist; see discussion of them in Ra’ad, Hidden Histories.]
Pappé, Ilan. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006. [By now a classic and authoritative reading of the 1948 Nakba, along with Walid Khalidi’s All That Remains.]
Prior, Michael. The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.
Ra‛ad, Basem L. Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean. London: Pluto, 2010; التاريخ الخفي Beirut: Dar el Adāb, 2014. [Eleven chapters on various topics: religious developments; sacred sites; Ugarit; the alphabet; identity; appropriation; self-colonization; place names in Palestine; and retrieval of ancient heritage.]
Redford, Donald B. Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Sand, Shlomo. The Invention of the Jewish People. 2008. Trans. from the Hebrew by Yael Lotan. London: Verso, 2009. [This is a book to read in detail; the title tells the story of the various conversions that resulted in present Jews; it discredits notions of “exile” and suggests present Palestinians are the likely descendants of past populations.]
Thompson, Thomas L. The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
Note: Many books can be added of course, and readers are invited to supplement this list.