In politics, the past is forever under suspicion: revanchist attempts to appropriate it for one side and expropriate it for the other are rightly seen as counterproductive. Nonetheless, the “international community” has aligned itself with Israel’s claim that its dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs is the fulfillment of a promise made by God to Abraham in the Old Testament. Zionism has taken official possession of Palestine’s past — and hence of its present — on the basis of a Biblical myth.
Attempts to counter this have not always avoided a crass denial of the historic presence of Jews in Palestine. Such is not the intention of Keith Whitelam, former head of the departments of religious studies at Stirling and Sheffield Universities in Britain. His approach is based on that of the French Annales school of historians as represented, in particular, by Fernand Braudel (1902-1985), whose influence Whitelam explicitly acknowledges in the bibliography of his new book Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past.
Braudel posited three levels of time: the first geographical, the second economic and cultural, and the third that of events and individuals. It is the first, with its long-term and irresistible rhythms and cycles, that most concerns Whitelam; the second plays a subordinate but important role; while the third — the site of most historiography and propaganda alike — features merely as an occasional reference point.
Whitelam sets out from a very contemporary critique of the idea, so influential in Washington and the European capitals, “that Israel is reclaiming an ancient homeland with its capital in Jerusalem …” Uniquely, the post-colonial history of Palestine was written not by Palestinians but by the new colonizers: “a Zionist construction of the past… rapidly became its national narrative.”
Whitelam cites Newt Gingrich’s 2011 assertion during the Republican primary elections in the US that “there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire. And I think that we’ve invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab community, and they had the chance to go many places.”
Bible “a title deed”
This presumes “that a nation without a past is a contradiction in terms.” Lacking a past, the Palestinians necessarily lack national consciousness and peoplehood: “[t]herefore, they have no right to a land or a state.” For US politicians influenced by Christian Zionism, the Bible is the title deed to the land of Israel. ”Palestinians … cannot claim this past since it is seen to be Israel’s past as described in the Bible.”
With the establishment of the British Mandate (effectively an occupation) in 1920, Palestine was opened up to intensive archaeological investigation, the aim of which was to verify the Biblical narratives “of Moses and the escape from slavery in Egypt, the conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the taking of the promised land, the establishment of a monarchy or state under David and Solomon centered in Jerusalem.”
These archaeologists ignored earlier periods such as the Bronze Age, or later ones from the Arab invasion through to the Ottoman period. In 1999, however, the revisionist Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog wrote, “This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites never were in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described in the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom.”
Whitelam’s ambitious project is to rewrite Palestinian history from at least as far back as the Iron Age (1200-587 BCE), which had been construed by European scholars in such a way as to provide a justification for the Zionist movement’s exclusive claim to the land. The tale of these centuries is to be recast as being also “an intimate part of the rhythms of Palestine’s history binding past with present …”
Such a perspective ignores questions of ethnicity, which “tend to separate, to emphasize that which is different, and, in many cases, to lay exclusive claims to the past,” in favor of speculation as to what unites “those laid to rest in the [Iron Age] graves of Afula, Dothan, and Silwan” — their common humanity, shared modes of subsistence and vulnerability to the rhythms of time. In particular, Whitelam ignores “so-called great men” who, as he elegantly and characteristically phrases it, “have attracted most attention like the froth of the waves breaking on the shoreline.”
At the end of the Late Bronze Age the upheavals that engulfed the eastern Mediterranean “did not lead to the dramatic replacement of the indigenous population by new ethnic groups from outside, whether by Philistines or by Israelites.” While the West needed to cultivate “the image of a Davidic empire bringing order and civilization to Palestine and the wider region” in order to justify its lust for “imperial conquest, control, and supposed civilizing influence,” Whitelam denies “that the patterns of previous periods had been broken and transformed by a new structure” and repeatedly stresses the ability of the inhabitants of Palestine to absorb successive crises “with flexibility and adaptability.”
His alternative vision — shaped by the declines and revivals of economies, the increases and decreases of populations, the rise and fall of towns — integrates Palestine’s current travails into “the shifting, fluid and overlapping spheres of influence that are integral to its history” and implies the proverbial message: this too shall pass.
Ultimately, Whitelam seeks to evoke Palestine’s deep history by “exposing what is fundamental and what is peripheral to the rhythms of its past” and positing analogies to subsequent historical periods. Alternating periods of recession followed by expansion and growth are not so different from what we would now call cycles of boom and bust. The Assyrian conquest is compared to “claims of ‘shock and awe’ or the frightening military power deployed against Gaza.” Assyrians and Babylonians “projected on to [the conquered Palestinians] the notion that they longed for the imposition of ‘civilization’ and ‘freedom.’”
He adds: “It is the rhythms of time that undermine the structures that once looked so forbidding, so permanent. The various political structures and their agents that have sought to control Palestine have been transitory and borne along on the currents of the deep history of Palestine.”
The cynic may feel that such conclusions can only be of comfort to those living far from the turmoil of Israeli occupation and dispossession. Others may query the relevance of archaic regional rhythms in our fast-moving age of global oppression. Nonetheless, Whitelam’s little book offers a useful counter-narrative to the hegemonic myths of Zionism, avoids polemic and is beautifully readable.
Raymond Deane is a composer and political activist.