In Part 1 of my study, whether Israel or the Palestinians are an invented people, I gave a brief overview of how the land of Canaan became known as Palestine. Ancient Canaan was occupied by seven different groups of people who were the original inhabitants of the land. With the arrival of Israel and the occupation of the land under Joshua, the Canaanites were conquered and eventually assimilated into Israel.
The Greek historian Herodotus was the first person to call the land of Canaan “Palestine.” Josephus, the Jewish historian, also used the name Palestine to designate the land of Israel. However, it was the Roman emperor Hadrian who officially called the Roman province of Judea Provincia Palestina. Thus, after many years of usage, the name Palestine became the official designation for the land that once belonged to Israel.
The name Palestine does not convey the diversity of the people who inhabited the land where biblical Israel lived, since the name referred only to the land of the Philistines. The fathers of the Church followed the practice of the Romans and called the land Palestine. In the Middle Ages it became very common once again to designate Palestine “the Promised Land.”
With the conquest of the land by Islamic forces in 633, the land of Palestine was in Arab control for many years. In 1517 the Turkish forces took control of Palestine and subjugated it until 1917 when the British forces occupied Palestine. After the British conquered the land from the Turks following World War I, they called the land “Palestine” and it has been known by that name ever since.
The United Nations, with American support, was instrumental in the formation of the modern state of Israel. On May 15, 1948, under the leadership of Ben Gurion, the modern state of Israel was born. At that time, the old city of Jerusalem, as well as the areas of Judea and Samaria were under Jordanian and Syrian control and they remained so until 1967, when during the seven-day war, Israel took control of most of the areas dominated by Syria and Jordan.
It was the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the results of the seven-day war that gave rise to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The conflict has been exacerbated by the historical revisionism of a group of scholars known as “minimalists.”
The Invention of Israel
Biblical minimalists believe that the stories found in the Bible are mostly fictional. Minimalists hold that the stories of the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the land under Joshua, and the united monarchy are the creation of the post-exilic community of Jews who returned to Jerusalem after their exile in Babylon.
One example of biblical minimalism is the book by Keith Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (London: Routledge, 1996).
Whitelam claims that Jews and Christians have silenced the voices of Palestinians in order to advance their own historical, theological, and political purposes.
The minimalists’ revisionist understanding of the Hebrew Bible affirms that the history of ancient Israel is an invented history, the product of the Jewish community in the Persian and Hellenistic eras designed to give legitimation to a group of people who tried to occupy the land that belonged to the Palestinians.
Whitelam’s book is based on the writings of the Palestinian writer Edward Said, whom Whitelam quotes with approval. Whitelam’s views have been cited many times by Palestinian writers who say that the modern state of Israel has nothing to do with biblical Israel.
An article published by the Ahlul Bayt News Agency says that Whitelam’s book “shows how the ancient history of Palestine has been deliberately obscured by the search for Israel. The author argues rather convincingly that ancient Israel has been invented by scholars in the image of European nation-states.”
The article continues: “Whitelam argues that the picture of Israel’s past presented in much of the Hebrew Bible is a fiction, a fabrication like most pictures of the past constructed by ancient (and, we might add, modern) societies.”
But Whitelam is not alone in declaring that Israel is an invented people. Jewish author Shlomo Sand (read my post on Shlomo Sand), in his book The Invention of the Jewish People (London: Verso, 2009), wrote:
What would happen if the Jewish nation was a modern invention? What if the Palestinians who are oppressed by Israel were the true Israel of the Bible?
What if the Palestinian Arabs who have lived for decades under the heel of the modern Israeli state are in fact descended from the very same “children of Israel” described in the Old Testament?
And what if most modern Israelis aren’t descended from the ancient Israelites at all, but are actually a mix of Europeans, North Africans and others who didn’t “return” to the scrap of land we now call Israel and establish a new state following the attempt to exterminate them during World War II, but came in and forcefully displaced people whose ancestors had lived there for millennia?
What if the entire tale of the Jewish Diaspora – the story recounted at Passover tables by Jews around the world every year detailing the ancient Jews’ exile from Judea, the years spent wandering through the desert, their escape from the Pharaoh’s clutches – is all wrong?
Those scholars who attempt to prove that today’s Palestinians were “the true Israel of the Bible” are silencing Israelite history in order to promote a political agenda. Minimalist revisionism leaves Israel with no history, no past, and with no land.
The Invention of the Palestinians
On the other hand, Palestinians claim to be the true heirs of the people of the Bible. For instance, Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi wrote: “According to a number of historians and scholars, many of the Arabs of Jerusalem today, indeed the majority of Palestinian Arabs, are descendants of the ancient Jebusites and Canaanites.”
The same argument is made by the article published by the Ahlul Bayt News Agency:
“The Palestinian people have stronger claims to originality and authenticity. In fact, Palestinians predated the Israelites by thousands of years.
Remember, even Abraham, the patriarch, had to purchase a burial place for his wife Sara from a local Palestinian. The story is mentioned in the Bible.
Moreover, the Shekel, the name of the Israeli currency, was a Palestinian currency long before the advent of the Israelites. This fact, too, is corroborated by the Bible.
In truth, the Palestinians had developed a prosperous civilization long before the arrival of the quasi-barbarian Israelites who conquered the country by way of genocide and ethnic cleansing. A fleet look at the Old Testament would elucidate the facts in this regard.”
What the article does not say is that the people from whom Abraham bought the land were Hittites (Gen. 23:3) and that the Shekel was already in use by the Akkadians at the end of the third millennium B.C.
Arab revisionism has identified the Palestinians with the Hittites, the Amorites, the Jebusites, and the Philistines. And yet, no historical document of antiquity, not even the Bible, calls a people “Palestinians.” Palestine is always used to designate the Roman province of Judea Provincia Palestina.
Palestinians, as a designation for a group of people, originated in the 20th century. An article titled “Myths, Hypotheses and Facts: The True Identity of the So-called Palestinians” says:
Palestinians are the newest of all the peoples on the face of the Earth, and began to exist in a single day by a kind of supernatural phenomenon that is unique in the whole history of mankind, as it is witnessed by Walid Shoebat, a former PLO terrorist that acknowledged the lie he was fighting for and the truth he was fighting against:
“Why is it that on June 4th 1967 I was a Jordanian and overnight I became a Palestinian?”
“We did not particularly mind Jordanian rule. The teaching of the destruction of Israel was a definite part of the curriculum, but we considered ourselves Jordanian until the Jews returned to Jerusalem. Then all of the sudden we were Palestinians – they removed the star from the Jordanian flag and all at once we had a Palestinian flag.”
“When I finally realized the lies and myths I was taught, it is my duty as a righteous person to speak out.”
Archaeologists have not discovered any document that mentions ancient Palestinian culture, Palestinian language, Palestinian history, or a Palestinian monument. The article mentioned above also says:
The present-day “Palestinians” are an Arab people, with Arab culture, Arabic language and Arab history. They have their own Arab states from where they came into the Land of Israel about one century ago to contrast the Jewish immigration. That is the historical truth. They were Jordanians (another recent British invention, as there has never been any people known as “Jordanians”), and after the Six-Day War in which Israel utterly defeated the coalition of nine Arab states and took legitimate possession of Judea and Samaria, the Arab dwellers in those regions underwent a kind of anthropological miracle and discovered that they were Palestinians – something they did not know the day before.
The issue is complex. I believe that modern day Israelis are the real descendants of biblical Israel. But what to do with the people whom we call Palestinians? Now that they live in the land, the two-state solution may be the answer to the political quagmire faced by these two people, since no Arab country wants to host the Palestinians. However, since the Palestinians and the Arab nations refuse to accept Israel’s right to exist as a people and as a nation, it may take the legendary wisdom of Solomon to divide the “baby” (the land) among the two people.
For those who want to read a good historical summary of the whole controversy, I recommend the following:
From a Jewish Perspective: “Myths, Hypotheses and Facts: The True Identity of the So-called Palestinians.”
From a Palestinian Perspective: “Jerusalem: A Concise History” by Rashid Khalidi.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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