Saturday, December 26, 2009

Bad Science

To say, there was no Jewish temple in Jerusalem is a historical lie (in the interest of de-legitimizing legitimate Jewish claims to their history in the city); to say Palestinians are not a people with distinct roots and attachments to the Holy Land is also a lie, used to de-legitimize the Palestinian sense of history and belonging.

To say, we don’t have evidence of a united Jewish kingdom at the beginning of Israelite history, i.e., to deny the veracity of the biblical stories about David and Solomon is not a betrayal of the Jewish nation of today but based on the belief that authentic nationhood cannot be based on unverified and unverifiable myths of origin at the expense of scientific veracity. To say that some biblical stories are contrived is not to declare the entire corpus of ancient Judahite historiography a literary contrivance. It matters, especially in connection with the repeated international calls among academics for a boycott of Israeli institutions of higher education, whether Israeli and Jewish scholarship elsewhere meet the highest standards of excellence. It is therefore of utmost importance that archeological explorations of sensitive places, such as those conducted in Silwan, the so-called “City of David,” are conducted under the auspices of internationally recognized bodies such as UNESCO. Right now, however, the “City of David” archeological park is run by the Jewish settler organization ELAD and excavated under the guidance of archeologists committed to finding evidence of the truth of “biblical” history, which is bad science and creates bad blood between Jews and the Arab residents of Silwan who are being harassed in the name of archeological research or, more accurately, by the concerted and state-sponsored effort of securing evidence of a biblical myth that is seen as the ultimate legitimization of Jewish rule over East Jerusalem. (On the controversial Silwan excavations, see this excellent short documentary.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Paddy Ashdown: Battle for the Holy Land-Jerusalem

I stumbled on this excellent video production when I read through the number 39 (2009) issue of the Jerusalem Quarterly, where Craig Larkin has a brief review. Well worth spending the hour and forty minutes it takes to watch the entire series.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Apropos David Brooks and the Story of Hanukkah

Note: This is a comment on David Brooks's op-ed in the NYT of December 11, 2009, on the story of Hanukkah. (The NYT online edition no longer accepted comments by the time I read the article.)

Reading the Hanukkah story as a morality tale, as David Brooks does, is fine. It’s a kind of sermon that bases its moral claims, intended to teach a lesson about current trends, on trends one reads into the ancient scriptures. This too would be fine if the authority of the moral of the story did not rest on the claim to have uncovered the true historical core of an ancient story. Analogies between  ancient stories and modern conflicts are a conjuring trick not just performed by preachers but also by historians who attempt to render ancient events plausible by using modern terms and situations to describe what is ultimately unknowable. We don’t know anything reliable about the Maccabees that goes beyond the lively but tendentious and contradictory accounts found in texts written decades after the events and in the interest of justifying the rise to power among the Jews of a family of usurpers who took the high priesthood and the title of kings without any leg to stand on in earlier Jewish tradition. Their only claim to fame was the act of cult restoration known as “hanukat ha-bayit,” the rededication of the temple. The Books of the Maccabees are ancient propaganda of a type familiar since the days of the Assyrian empire. Power required divine legitimization; no better source of legitimacy than the restoration of an ancient cult that had been tampered with. (For a brilliant scholarly analysis of this aspect of the story of Hanukkah see Steven Weitzman, "Plotting Antiochus's Persecution" in Journal of Biblical Literature 123/2 (2004) pp. 219-234.)

Neither David Brooks nor President Obama, in his brief message on this occasion, realized the ironies entailed in the rabbinic transformation of Hasmonean propaganda into the miracle of the small quantum of oil, sufficient for a day, that lasted for an entire week. Nor does David Brooks consider the irony of the fact that the rabbis banished the Books of the Maccabees from their canon. It’s not in the Jewish Bible, ladies and gentlemen; it’s only in Christian Bibles, where it is sometimes stowed away (along with other interesting literature) in the apocrypha. The Crusaders, btw, loved the Maccabees.

What Brooks is really saying is that the virulence of Hanukkah arises not from its psycho-social effect of compensating for Christmas but from its revival in the Zionist movement. The Books of the Maccabees celebrate brash action taken not just against the Seleucids (who were Macedonians rather than Greeks; the entire characterization of the Maccabean revolt as the uprising of a Taliban-like group [Brooks's "angry bearded men"] against Western universalists is amusing but significantly mischaracterizes the affair) but also against Jewish traditionalists, and for political reasons that were much simpler and more mundane than the morality tale allows. Modern Zionism realized an affinity with the ancient “muscled Jews” (as Herzl’s second in command, Max Nordau, called them) and has since foregrounded precisely those aspects of the story that the rabbis sought to obscure and neutralize.

Brooks's morality tale is, of course, quite timely. The modern synthesis of rabbinic religion and Maccabean political and military activism has bred a type of Judaism that is indistinguishable from the politicized Islam of the Mullahs and the Ayatollahs. This modern phenomenon gives us little to celebrate and much to fear.