July 2021 KELLEY KIDD I was only a first grader in a small Southern town when Ben Gurion declared the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948. At that moment I was six years old and the child of white Southern conservative protestants. It was very exciting to me, despite my tender age and fledgling education. My Bible upbringing taught me that the land of Israel had been promised by God to the descendants of Abraham. After thousands of years of exile from that land, it now appeared that the ancient promise of God was coming true–and in my lifetime!
According to the Biblical story God spoke to a man named Abram, an inhabitant of a city in the Tigris and Euphrates River Valley in present day Iraq. And God told Abram to leave the city of his forbears and to take himself and his family to live in Canaan, the strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediteranean Sea. When Abram obeyed, God then promised to give that land to him and to his offspring. One of his sons ,Isaac, received the same promise, and one of Isaac’s sons named Jacob became the heir to the same promise. After Jacob had fathered numerous sons, he was renamed Israel, and God promised to give this land to his descendants, who were then referred to by his name Israel. Collectively then they were the Israelites. My Mother told me that currently those people were called Jews. Many folks referred to this new state in the promised land as “a Jewish State” and its name was Israel, after the patriarch of the same name.
Although only six years old, I was thought old enough to be told that this new state was a refuge for survivors of anti-Jewish persecution which had lasted for several thousands of years and recently culminated i the slaughter of six million of them–almost all noncombatants, including millions of mothers, small children and old people. This horrifying story of persecution added a second justification to the re-creation of the long hoped-for “Promised Land ” of the early covenants.
There were other stories, including dramatic ones from my Mother’s Bible, which helped me to understand how the Jews came to establish a much earlier nation, and how that nation was destroyed by the military aggression of imperial powers. The dramatic Bible stories of the descendants of Israel and his sons continued with a famine in Canaan which drove them to seek help from Egypt. There through God’s miraculous employment of one of the sons’ apparent misfortune, the government of Egypt welcomed the Jews to live as sojourners in Egypt, but with the clear understanding that they would eventually be restored to live in the land of Canaan. On his deathbed Israel got his children to promise that his body would be returned to Canaan to be buried with his father and grandfather, Isaac and Abraham. These stories occupied Genesis, which comprises most of the first book within the Hebrew Bible.
Genesis is the first of five “books” which I later learned form the “Torah”, the most sacred portion of the Hebrew Bible to Jews And the other four tell the story of how the prophet Moses led the Israelites out of the bondage imposed by Egypt’s Pharaoh, the Egyptian Empire’s priest/king. This escape from bondage happened hundreds of years after the Egyptians took the Jews captive and enclaved them. So these four books were apparently the first revolution against dehumanizing imperial power. To a little boy who was also learning about the birth of his country through revolt against a demeaning empire, the story of Moses and the Jews bore strong resemblance to the story of Washington and the American patriots. Equally heroic and thrilling was the fact that the Jews were struggling to be free to worship their god, who of course I understood to be our own God, the only one there really is.
Through Moses these Jews received holy law codes by which they were asked by God to shape their personal and communal life in the land of Canaan. The codes in turn were to intended make of them a people “chosen” by God to set an example of personal and communal ideals. According to this story God intended their lives to become models for the other “families of the earth” to emulate. The codes were accompanied by a divine warning that failure to live by those codes would be punished by exile from their promised land of Canaan. And this exile would be laden with their suffering and humiliation until they turned back to God. Their returning to live by God’s instructions would then be rewarded with God’s help in returning to the land to live in peace and prosperity once again.
Although the Hebrew Bible tells some of the story of the Israelite struggle until the end of the fifth century B.C.E., it does not deal with the efforts of the same religious and cultural group to live under the domination of the Persian, Greek and Roman empires during he more nearly 400 years between the return of many Jews to the Land after approximately 70 years of exile under Babylonian rule. During that long interval between the story told by the “Old Testament” and the Jesus years, Jews lived in substantial numbers as the majority population in the southern portion of the land that included Judah and Jerusalem. Since that period of Jewish living in the land had little apparent relevance to the history that Christianity valued, I did not learn until much later about the religious and spiritual growth of the Jewish people during that long period. But the political and religious setting portrayed by the Gospels does portray the dominance of Jews and Judaism in that Land throughout that period.
ISRAEL IN THE PROMISED LAND BEFORE THE EUROPEAN EMPIRE EXPELLED THE JEWS
In short I was taught as a child that the Jews occupied most of the area between the Jordan River and the Mediteranian Sea for more than 1,000 years between the Moses era and the forcible eviction of the Jews from the area in the the first century A.D. During that long indwelling the Jews endured in the land by holding it against both other indigenous groups and outside invaders. At various times Philistines, Midianites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans –among others–tried to wrest the “Promised Land” from various Jewish governments, but all failed at doing more than temporarily weakening the grip of the Jews. Until Rome. This long struggle of the Jews to have and to return to the Land n the post-biblical period began to give me a third reason to think that Jews had a right to seek and to struggle for the right to have a government of their own in the land.
From extra-Biblical sources I also learned that the Jews had revolted against imperial domination from Rome in the late first century B.C.E. and again early in the second century–both rebellions coming during the time depicted in the Gospels as the life of Jesus. Rome put down the patriotic efforts of Jews to reclaim their sovereignty in their own land by slaughtering millions and by driving most of the survivors into exile.
ROME CREATES PALESTINE AND THE JEWS LIVE IN EXILE FROM THEIR HOMELAND
By the middle of the 2nd century A.D. the European empire of Rome had renamed the area Palestine after the long vanished Philistines, who were themselves probably a migrant colony from Europe. Where the Jews had called the area Judea and Israel, the Romans underscored their slaughter and eviction by calling the area after one of the then vanished groups the Jews had previously displaced.
After the European Empire of Rome evicted the native Jews nearly two thousand years passed without the existence of any state in which Jews formed the majority of the populattion or had the protection of any government committed to their well being nd safety. On the contrary wherever Jews lived their presence has been tolerated at most, but usually resented and frequently resisted violently. More often they have been been marginalized as second class citizens. Frequently they have been despised, persecuted and subjected to unofficial and official violence. On the whole Christian nations and regimes have been much worse than Moslem ones, but nowhere have they lived long without considerable resistance from non-Jewish institutions and majorities.
Throughout the two millennia since their expulsion by Europeans the Jewish people have maintained their ancient expectation that they would some day be restored in peace in “the promised land” generally referred to by others as Palestine. And throughout those many centuries other political powers have dominated Jerusalem and the Promised Land without once ever establishing a local government capable of being considered an independent entity or state. No religious or ethnic or language group has given its identity to the land in any manner other than inclusion within a much much larger framework that relegated Palestine to a province or a satrapy.
Since the destruction of the Jewish State by Rome, the land has been ruled from afar by dynasties in Rome and Constantinople and Egypt and Baghdad and London, but never again by an indigenous government that represented the people who actually lived in the land. Palestinian never meant Jews in any political sense, and no Palestinian individual or group ever ruled Palestine. Even now the term Palestinian simply refers to those whose birthplace or family background includes residency in the land coupled with ANY ethnic or religious identity OTHER than Jewish. And the Palestinian identity comes not from Jews or their allies, but from those opposed to the existence of the State of Israel. There are many Israeli citizens who are Arabs and members of the religion of Islam; there are no Jews who are members of any political organization which represents Palestinians. The fact that Jews were relatively a small part of the population of Palestine for two thousand years was the result of the exclusion and marginalization of Jews within Palestine by political powers seated elsewhere.
In the early 19th century there was a brief tendency in Europe to give Jews the rights of non-Jewish citizens. But by the late decades of that century repression took on racial as well as religious justifications. “Antisemitism” became a popular ideology and practice in virtually all European countries, including those within the Russian and German nations and spheres of influence.
During almost all of the first and second millennia after the Roman expulsion from “the Promised Land” Jews lived in “other people’s countries” as second class citizens– at best. They were always the outsider, the oddball, the “stranger in a strange land”. Usually they were despised. To Christians they were usually seem as “God killers” or nit-picking “Pharisees” , rejecters of God’s Messiah, a sect that misinterpreted their own sacred Hebrew scriptures, or perhaps at best as a people whose Old Testament had been happily reinterpreted by a New Testament that replaced Jewish legalism with a gospel of love and forgiveness through the sacrificial death of God’s only son. No matter what version of Jewish inadequacy you imbibed, most non-Jews saw Jews as stingy or dirty or clannish or stiff necked or cowardly or evil communists or just as evil greedy capitalists. Maybe the average Jew despiser saw these people several of those negative images. The point is Jews were taken to be deserving of the marginalization they received from many nations and from many people and institutions even in nations which permitted Jews to be “permanent. residents”. Jew were often the targets of mob violence and individual. expressions of disgust and hatred. Jews not only survived, they kept their religion alive and growing in depth of insight and practice. And they contributed intelligence and often rare decency wherever they went. And always many of them longed for the messianic age when Jews would be restored to live in their Promised Land in peace with each other and the nations.
So the addition of anti-Semitism in a racial sense to the religious and cultural animosities of earlier centuries led to the ultimate assault on the Jews, those people whose roots and many of their aspirations remained in the Land. Zionism was born out of this combustible mix of difficulties, as well as the secular aspirations of young Jewish socialists. The latter yearned for a society in which Jews would be organized in collectives and cooperatives–a socialism of worker control and social equality. Finding their way back to the promised land, Zionists created a Hebrew speaking extended community in the very land their religious forebears had cherished as home. The Land in the late 19th and early 20th century was a backwater and unrepresented province of the weak Turkish Empire. it was relatively poorly populated and its resources relatively undeveloped.
The late 19th Century nurtured some growth in Arab nationalism, a movement which extended throughout the much larger region of the Middle East, an area in which the “Palestine” of Roman control was a very small portion. The Promised Land of the Jews and the projected “Zion” of modern Jewish aspirations was not the scene of a strong Arab “Palestinian” identity until after the Jews had established a state in 1948. The first and strongest leader of the Arab “Palestinian” movement was in fact born in Egypt in 1927 and necessarily led a movement which has never required birth in Palestine, and which has permitted membership only to non-Jews.
“Palestine” from mid 19th century to 1948 seemed ripe for the location of a democratic state in which Jews would be free from persecution for either their ethnic identity or religious practices and beliefs, a state which would be democratically run by a population of many backgrounds and diverse nationalities, but, nevertheless a state in which a majority Jewish population would endure safety and respect for Jews.
The seal on the deed of the Zionists to their state was the Holocaust of course. Six hundred thousand Jews in Palestine reacted to the slaughter of 10 times that number of Jews for simply being Jews. They claimed their right to a state which would protect and welcome Jews, and were met with the resisance of the Islamic and Arab world. Recently the State of Israel has also faced considerable resistance from Western leftists and progressives. But that is the subject of a later posting.