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.
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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 enemy soldiers.
(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 Diaspora.
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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.
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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 was built.
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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 emigrated.
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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 Diaspora.
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.
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is o a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.