- Most interesting article written by a prominent Israeli
peace activist, journalist and former member of the Israeli Knesset. He
discusses the role of myth and the bible and how it relates to Jewish and
- --Ed Corrigan
- TONIGHT THE JEWS all over the world will celebrate the
Seder, the unique ceremony that unites Jews everywhere in the defining
Jewish myth: the Exodus from Egypt.
- Every year I marvel again at the genius of this ceremony.
It unites the whole family, and everyone - from the venerable grandfather
to the smallest child - has a role in it. It engages all the senses: seeing,
hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. The simplistic text of the Haggadah,
the book which is read aloud, the symbolic food, the four glasses of wine,
the singing together, the exact repetition of every part every year - all
these imprint on the consciousness of a child from the earliest age an
ineradicable memory that they will carry with them to the grave, be they
religious or not. They will never forget the security and warmth of the
large family around the Seder table, and even in old age they will recall
it with nostalgia. A cynic might see it as a perfect example of brain-washing.
- Compared to the power of this myth, does it really matter
that the Exodus from Egypt never took place? Thousands of Egyptian documents
deciphered in recent years leave no room for doubt: the exodus of masses
of people, as described in the Bible, or anything remotely like it, just
never happened. These documents, which cover in the finest detail every
period and every part of Canaan during this epoch prove beyond any doubt
that there was no "Conquest of Canaan" and no kingdom of David
and Solomon. For a hundred years, Zionist archeologists have devoted tireless
efforts to finding even a single piece of evidence to support the Biblical
narrative, all to no avail.
- But this is quite unimportant. In the competition between
"objective" history and myth, the myth that suits our needs will
always win, and win big. It is not important what was, the important thing
is what fires our imagination. That is what guides our steps to this day.
- THE BIBLICAL narrative connects up with documented history
only around the year 853 BC, when ten thousand soldiers and 2000 battle
chariots of Ahab, King of Israel, took part in a grand coalition of the
kingdoms of Syria and Palestine against Assyria. The battle, which was
documented by the Assyrians, was fought at Qarqar in Syria. The Assyrian
army was delayed, if not defeated.
- (A personal note: I am not a historian, but for many
years I have reflected on our history and tried to draw some logical conclusions,
which are outlined here. Most of them are supported by the emerging consensus
of independent scholars around the world.)
- The kingdoms of Israel and Judea, which occupied a part
of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, were no different
from the other kingdoms of the region. Even according to the Bible itself,
the people sacrificed to various pagan deities "on every high hill
and under every green tree". (1 Kings 14:23).
- Jerusalem was a tiny market town, much too small and
much too poor for any of the things described in the Bible to have taken
place there at the time. In the books of the Bible that deal with that
period, the appellation "Jew" (Yehudi in Hebrew) hardly appears
at all, and where it does, it clearly refers simply to an inhabitant of
Judea, the area around Jerusalem. When an Assyrian general was asked "talk
not with us in the Jewish language" (2 Kings 18:26), what was meant
was the local Judean dialect of Hebrew.
- The "Jewish" revolution took place in the Babylonian
exile (587-539 BC). After the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, members
of the Judean elite were exiled to Babylon, where they came into contact
with the important cultural streams of the time. The result was one of
the great creations of mankind: the Jewish religion.
- After some fifty years, some of the exiles returned to
Palestine. They brought with them the name "Jews", the appellation
of a religious-ideological-political movement, much like the "Zionists"
of our time. Therefore, one can speak of "Judaism" and "Jews"
- in the sense accepted now - only from then on. During the following
500 years, the Jewish monotheistic religion gradually crystallized. Also
at this time, the most outstanding literary creation of all times, the
Hebrew Bible, was composed. The writers of the Bible did not intend to
write "history", in the sense understood today, but rather a
religious, edifying and instructive text.
- TO UNDERSTAND the birth and development of Judaism, one
must consider two important facts:
- (a) Right from the beginning, when the "Jews"
came back from Babylon, the Jewish community in this country was a minority
among the Jews as a whole. Throughout the period of the "Second Temple",
the majority of Jews lived abroad, in the areas known today as Iraq, Egypt,
Libya, Syria, Cyprus, Italy, Spain and so on.
- The Jews of that period were not a "nation"
- the very idea did not yet exist. The Jews of Palestine did not participate
in the rebellions of the Jews in Libya and Cyprus against the Romans, and
the Jews abroad took no part in the Great Revolt of the Jews in this country.
The Maccabees were not national but religious fighters, rather like the
Taliban in our days, and killed many more "Hellenized" Jews than
- (b) This Jewish Diaspora was not a unique phenomenon.
On the contrary, at that time it was the norm. Notions like "nation"
belong to the modern world. During the period of the "Second Temple"
and later on, the dominant social-political pattern was a religious-political
community enjoying self-government and not attached to any specific territory.
A Jew in Alexandria could marry a Jewess in Damascus, but not the Christian
woman across the street. She, on her part, could marry a Christian man
in Rome, but not her Hellenist neighbor. The Jewish Diaspora was only one
of many such communities.
- This social pattern was preserved in the Byzantine Empire,
was later taken over by the Ottoman Empire and can still be detected in
Israeli law. Today, a Muslim Israeli cannot marry a Jewish Israeli, a Druze
cannot marry a Christian (at least not in Israel itself). The Druze, by
the way, are a surviving example of such a Diaspora.
- The Jews were unique only in one respect: after the European
peoples gradually moved on to new forms of organization, and in the end
turned themselves into nations, the Jews remained what they were - a communal-religious
- THE PUZZLE that is occupying the historians is: how did
a tiny community of Babylonian exiles turn into a worldwide Diaspora of
millions? There is only one convincing answer to that: conversion.
- The modern Jewish myth has it that almost all the Jews
are descendents of the Jewish community that lived in Palestine 2000 years
ago and was driven out by the Romans in the year 70 AD. That is, of course,
baseless. The "Expulsion from the Country" is a religious myth:
God was angry with the Jews because of their sins and exiled them from
His country. But the Romans were not in the habit of moving populations,
and there is clear evidence that a great part of the Jewish population
in the country remained here after the Zealots' Revolt and after the Bar-Kochba
uprising, and that most Jews lived outside the country long before that.
- At the time of the Second Temple and later, Judaism was
a proselytizing religion /par excellence/. During the first centuries
AD it fiercely competed with Christianity. While the slaves and other downtrodden
people in the Roman Empire were more attracted to the Christian religion,
with its moving human story, the upper classes tended towards Judaism.
Throughout the Empire, large numbers adopted the Jewish religion.
- Especially puzzling is the origin of "Ashkenazi"
Jewry. At the end of the first millennium there appeared in Europe - apparently
out of nowhere - a very large Jewish population, the existence of which
was not documented before. Where did they come from?
- There are several theories about that. The conventional
one holds that the Jews wandered from the Mediterranean area to the North,
settled in the Rhein valley and fled from the pogroms there to Poland,
at the time the most liberal country in Europe. From there they dispersed
into Russia and Ukraine, taking with them a German dialect that became
Yiddish. The Tel Aviv University scholar Paul Wexler asserts, on the other
hand, that Yiddish was originally not a German but a Slavic language. A
large part of Ashkenazi Jewry, according to this theory, are descendents
of the Sorbs, a Slavic people that lived in Eastern Germany and was forced
to abandon its ancient pagan creed. Many of them preferred to become Jews,
rather than Christians.
- In a recent book with the provocative title "When
and How the Jewish People was Invented", the Israeli historian Shlomo
Sand argues - like Arthur Koestler and others before him - that most of
the Ashkenazi Jews are really descended from the Khazars, a Turkic people
that created a large kingdom in what is now South Russia more than a thousand
years ago. The Khazar king converted to Judaism, and according to this
theory the Jews of Eastern Europe are mostly the descendants of Khazar
converts. Sand also believes that most Sephardi Jews are descendents of
Arab and Berber tribes in North Africa that had converted to Judaism instead
of becoming Muslims, and had joined in the Muslim conquest of Spain.
- When Jewry stopped proselytizing, the Jews became a closed,
ethnic-religious community (as the Talmud says: "Converts are hard
for Israel like a skin disease").
- But the historical truth, whatever it is, is not so important.
Myth is stronger than truth, and it says that the Jews were expelled from
this land. This is an essential layer in modern Jewish consciousness, and
no academic research can shake it.
- IN THE LAST 300 years, Europe turned "national".
The modern nation replaced earlier social patterns, such as the city state,
feudal society and the dynastic empire. The national idea carried all before
it, including history. Each of these new nations shaped an "imagined
history" for itself. In other words, every nation rearranged ancient
myths and historical facts in order to shape a "national history"
which proclaims its importance and serves as a unifying glue.
- The Jewish Diaspora, which - as mentioned before - was
"normal" 2000 years ago, became "abnormal" and exceptional.
This intensified the Jew-hatred that was anyhow rampant in Christian Europe.
Since all the national movements in Europe were - more or less - anti-Semitic,
many Jews felt that they were left "outside", that they had no
place in the new Europe. Some of them decided that the Jews must conform
to the new /Zeitgeist/ and turn the Jewish community into a Jewish "nation".
- For that purpose, it was necessary to reshape and reinvent
Jewish history and turn it from the annals of a religious-ethnic Diaspora
into the epic story of a "nation". The job was undertaken by
a man who can be considered the godfather of the Zionist idea: Heinrich
Graetz, a German Jew who was influenced by German nationalism and created
a "national" Jewish history. His ideas have shaped Jewish consciousness
to this day.
- Graetz accepted the Bible as if it were a history book,
collected all the myths and created a complete and continuous historical
narrative: the period of the Fathers, the Exodus from Egypt, the Conquest
of Canaan, the "First Temple", the Babylonian Exile, the "Second
Temple", the Destruction of the Temple and the Exile. That is the
history that all of us learned in school, the foundation upon which Zionism
- ZIONISM REPRESENTED a revolution in many fields, but
its mental revolution was incomplete. Its ideology turned the Jewish community
into a Jewish people, and the Jewish people into a Jewish nation - but
never clearly defined the differences. In order to win over the religiously
inclined Jewish masses in Eastern Europe, it made a compromise with religion
and mixed all terms into a one big cocktail - the religion is also a nation,
the nation is also a religion, and later asserted that Israel is a "Jewish
state" that belongs to its (Jewish?) citizens but also to the "Jewish
people" throughout the world. Official Israeli doctrine has it that
Israel is the "Jewish nation state", but Israeli law narrowly
defines a "Jew" as only a person who belongs to the Jewish religion.
- Herzl and his successors were not courageous enough to
do what Mustafa Kemal Ataturk did when he founded modern Turkey: he fixed
a clear and sharp border between the Turkish nation and Islamic religion
and imposed a complete separation between the two. With us, everything
remained one big salad. This has many implications in real life.
- For example: if Israel is the state of the "Jewish
people", as one of our laws says - what is there to stop an Israeli
Jew from joining the Jewish community in California or Australia? Small
wonder that there is almost no leader in Israel whose children have not
- WHY IS IT so important to differentiate between the Israeli
nation and the Jewish Diaspora? One of the reasons is that a nation has
a different attitude to itself and towards others than a religious-ethnic
- Similarly: different animals have different ways of reacting
to danger. A gazelle flees when it senses danger, and nature has equipped
it with the necessary instincts and physical capabilities. A lion, on the
other side, sticks to its territory and defends it against intruders. Both
methods are successful, otherwise there would be no gazelles or no lions
in the world.
- The Jewish Diaspora developed an efficient response that
was well suited to its situation: when Jews sensed danger, they fled and
dispersed. That's why the Jewish Diaspora managed to survive innumerable
persecutions, and even the Holocaust itself. When the Zionists decided
to become a nation - and indeed did create a real nation in this country
- they adopted the national response: to defend themselves and attack the
sources of danger. One cannot, therefore, be a Diaspora and a nation, a
gazelle and a lion, at the same time.
- If we, the Israelis, want to consolidate our nation,
we have to free ourselves from the myths that belong to another form of
existence and re-define our national history. The story about the exodus
from Egypt is good as a myth and an allegory - it celebrates the value
of freedom - but we must recognize the difference between myth and history,
between religion and nation, between a Diaspora and a state, in order to
find our place in the region in which we live and develop a normal relationship
with the neighboring peoples.