Palestinian roots of Western civilization: an interview with Basem Ra’ad

Basem Ra’ad is a professor at Al-Quds University in occupied East Jerusalem. For the past two decades, he has been researching the ancient past of Palestine, much of which concerns the Western and Israeli appropriation of ancient languages and cultures, from the Canaanite alphabet to the Canaanite pantheon of gods and goddesses. Born in Jerusalem, Ra’ad has, since Israel’s conquest of Palestine in 1948, lived in the Diaspora; down to the present, he is forced to enter the city of his birth on a tourist visa. Israel routinely refuses or complicates entry to Palestinian holders of foreign passports and to foreigners who want to go in and work for Palestinians or act in solidarity, which is to say that for most of his professional academic career, Ra’ad has lived in a state of limbo. In June, Pluto Press published the fruit of his long years of writing and research, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean. Jonathan Scott recently spoke with him about his work.

Jonathan Scott: One of the main points of your book is that the blueprint for Israel’s conquest of Palestine and its oppression of the Palestinians is the Old Testament Bible. In Western secular society many will surely disagree, and yet you spend a good part of the book explaining the nature of this relationship.

Basem Ra’ad: Because many people in the West still cannot see the uses the West has made of that same Old Testament model and how invested it is in the recent progress of Western civilization and the colonizing projects that have benefited the West, especially the US. I explain in detail how Western civilization, a fairly recent construct, includes not only ownership of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, but also the Bible and the models in it. Zionism has been exploiting this construct, first in getting the West to support it, whether through [British Lord] Balfour’s promise in 1917 or US support in 1947 and later, or in its propaganda and other implementations.

Of course, decolonization in the Third World has occurred and people are aware of that, but in Palestine colonization has deepened and Westerners have a blind spot and don’t see it as colonization. Often even the most liberal, unconsciously or even consciously, consider the Judeo-Christian model as part of their “tradition.” Despite all the archaeological findings and other evidence that negate the Bible’s historicity, the public mind still accepts the Bible as history, which gives uncanny legitimacy to a great injustice.

In a way, the “Judeo-Christian” compound has a contradiction built into it. Christ represents values that are opposed to hatred, oppression and disregard for the rights of others, and many Western thinkers have recognized that. But many preachers and followers still romanticize violence and racism in the Old Testament: the Canaanites are evil pagans whose lands and properties are free for the taking, as sanctioned by Yahweh; David is a hero; the Philistines are crude. So are the Babylonians and even the Egyptians, according to this perception. Ismail (Ishmael) is made into an unsavory person. All these ancient biases are solidified and, as many Hollywood films demonstrate, collapsed onto the present “Arab” region. Often they have been transferred to other locations, so that the “Indians” were “Philistines” and enslaved black people were thought of as “Canaanites.”

JS: You show that recovering the Palestinians’ ancient past is a task inseparable from the Palestinian anti-colonial national liberation struggle, but at the same time you’re suspicious of nationalist conceptions of Palestinian history. How do you reconcile the two?

BR: It’s a dilemma, really. Palestinians were living with their culture and identity in a natural and less conscious manner, until the Zionist incursion. The irony, as I point out, is that an obsessed and invented sense of identity as brought in by the Zionists can surprise and overcome an unwary people, as happened in other colonizing situations in the past. So the key now is not to imitate that fabricated identity or simply respond to it. To go for an “Arab” or Muslim identity is in many ways to fall into Zionist traps. In my opinion, it’s too late now to advocate a universal sense of identity for Palestinians, which they lived in before 1948, since that would end the struggle for their rights, and it is too dangerous to affirm the sort of identity that keeps self-colonizing trends operating and accepts the status quo of a Palestine reduced to Gaza and the West Bank. It would be a tragedy if “peace” were achieved without rectifying all the historical and cultural injustices and exposing the deceptions. That would normalize the abnormal. It is necessary, therefore, to work toward nourishing a regional and cultural consciousness that recognizes and incorporates the depth of Palestinian and regional history and culture.

JS: A new line of scholarship in Israel, represented best by Meron Benvenisti’s Sacred Landscape and Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, argues that the State of Israel’s claim of Jewish nativity in Palestine is ideological, with no basis at all in the scientific literature or the historical record of the region. How does your work compare to theirs?

BR: I’m not sure that that is what Benvenisti says, I mean about the issue of Zionist inventions of Palestinian history. Certainly Benvenisti is good on recording Zionist Judaization of the Palestinian map and the insidious manipulation of Palestinian names by translating them from Arabic to Hebrew, but as I show in Chapter 10 of my book, it is possible to fall into the trap of Zionist theories this way. For example, Benvenisti, despite his appreciation of the injustice done to the Palestinians, still works within Zionist and Western theorizations about ancient languages. I show something different. Shlomo Sand brings together a lot of previously documented but little publicized facts about how it is impossible to consider Jews “a people,” and how Zionism has exploited the myths about “Diaspora” and “exile” and so on, which are unsustainable in historical terms. I think it is useful to use such writers, whether they are writing in the West or in Israel. But what I’m urging is the development of a regional and Palestinian history.

JS: There is a tragic dimension to your work, what you call “Palestinian self-colonization,” yet you have some optimism about being able to reverse it.

BR: Self-colonization is more dangerous than colonization itself, when one accepts or believes what the colonizer wants and what works against one’s national and existential interests. I give many examples of that phenomenon. Any optimism I have about reversing it depends on some intellectual leadership and the possibility of affecting the educational system and the minds of future generations. Unfortunately, religious thinking in our case tends to complement other self-colonizing traps, and that’s more difficult to deal with than cultural or historical preconceptions. I believe working toward a regional cultural identity can help to overcome self-colonization, but ideological and national systems on both sides tend to resist that. And this self-colonization becomes more drastic because of the relative success of Zionism in appropriating the ancient past, exploiting the religious tradition, and adding and formalizing even more falsifications.

JS: What’s the worst falsification?

BR: That’s pretty easy: the replacement of a genuine history of the people with religious narratives that pretend to be history. The most basic falsification is that the Palestinians that exist on the land are “Arabs,” with the emphasis on a meaning of “Arab” determined by various western biasing factors that give the impression of them as nomadic or as descendants from the Muslim conquest in the 7th century CE. This is the cornerstone of the Zionist claim system, which then gives present “Jews,” who are confused with ancient “Hebrews,” “Israelites” and ancient Jews, prior possession. It is also one of the self-colonizing elements in the thinking of some Palestinians and Arabs. One needs to dismantle the myth of this Zionist claim system, and affirm the continuity of the population over millennia and their farming-village character regardless of the shifts in religious affiliation. I provide evidence of that, which by the way is a conclusion that even early Zionist writers, and even the most biased travelers, confirm, directly or indirectly.

JS: The Canaanite god Ba’al plays a big role in the story you tell. What’s the link between Palestinians and Ba’al?

BR: Sometimes I joke about the meaning of my last name, “thunder,” and so say that I descend from this ancient god of rain and fertility, Ba’al, whose signpost (like Zeus, who derives from him) is the thunderbolt. Ba’al was a most central god in Canaanite mythology, the most immediate and most lasting mythology of our region, from which the later monotheisms derive, this despite the demonization of the Canaanites in the Bible and in the construct of Western civilization, whether these “Canaanites” are those dispossessed in the biblical narratives, or the coastal Canaanites called “Phoenicians,” or the Carthaginians, who are the same people.

There are two main Ba’al themes I pursue in the book: first, the use of the Ba’al cycle narratives from Ugarit [an ancient port city in what is now Syria] in the later writing of the Bible, sometimes with reversed outcomes; and second, evidence that confirms the polytheistic remains in the biblical text itself. There is undisputed evidence now that the original biblical text was altered in later centuries to camouflage its pagan nature. One of the ironies about the Western puritanical and missionary movements is that they campaigned against “paganism” in the Americas and Africa, always using Ba’al as the symbol of this condemned paganism, while preaching another pagan religion they assumed to be the only true one.

In retrieving remnants of the ancient past in Palestine and the region, it is still possible to find the meanings of this rain god who dies and is resurrected in the common language and customs of Palestinian and other people in Greater Syria. For example, when Palestinian farmers refer to their produce as “Ba’al,” which is something you can hear every day, meaning their fruits and vegetables are fresh and organic, are not factory farmed, loaded with pesticides.

JS: I was reminded of Freud’s last work, Moses and Monotheism, while reading your book. There Freud argued that the whole Judeo-Christian tradition is based on an “original murder,” that of the Egyptian Moses by the Midianites, a tribe that worshipped the volcanic god Yahweh. According to Freud, to establish their new religion the Midianites had to kill off the original Egyptian Moses and then replace him with a new one while covering up, systematically, the murder they had just committed. In a definite way, your new empirical research takes us back to the scene of this “original crime.”

BR: I think it’s important not to be fixated on the “Judeo-Christian tradition.” Let us not forget that another “original crime” still hangs in the minds of people who are obsessed with the Judeo-Christian tradition and its primal and other appeals. Combining “Judeo” and “Christian” is filled with contradictions. The more obvious crime is of course the sacrifice of Jesus. It is convenient to hang on to the virtues while at the same time going back to use the Old Testament models for justification of all sorts of other crimes against peoples and lands. Love and hate, charity and robbery, mercy and violence, they often get mixed up in such thinking and actions. Getting back to what you mention about Freud: there have been many theories about the origin of the idea of this god from Egyptian priests, or that Yahweh, the god of the Old Testament, is Midianite. I believe the origins of this mythology that has been accepted by the West is more immediately to be found in the region of Canaan (Greater Syria), an intermediate region with a special geography, rather than Egypt and Mesopotamia exclusively. I offer a more proximate interpretation of the growth of so-called monotheism from the regional polytheistic pantheon in the Eastern Mediterranean. As I show, the gods in the three “monotheistic” religions are really different gods, and Yahweh, the god who is assumed to be The One, was merely one minor god in a pantheon of gods, whose importance was greatly exaggerated as a result of the West receiving the two-tiered bible and insisting on its sole truth or uniqueness at a time of ignorance. Now, despite all the new discoveries to the contrary, there is so much investment in this bible that religious institutions and of course Zionism consistently and deceptively attempt to muffle new findings or interpret them still within the confines of the established view of things. In the past, there was ignorance, now there is resistance to the truth and circumlocution to protect entrenched and profitable privileges.

JS: You reject the idea that American novelists Herman Melville and Mark Twain were friends of Zionism; in fact you claim them for anti-Zionism.

BR: Both Melville and Twain were two of the severest critics of sacred geography and of the missionaries, and so how could they have been Zionists? Mocking sacred geographers, those who sentimentalized and appropriated Palestine as “the Holy Land,” is the main target of Twain’s Innocents Abroad and Melville’s Clarel. Twain in particular is satirical about biblical accounts about Palestine and the invention of sacred places. What the Zionists hang on to is his saying that Palestine was “barren.” But he says the same thing about Greece and its islands. Then, for Melville, barrenness is an essential quality that has profound significance, as I explain in my book. At the same time, Melville also says in his journals that the Arabs are the only cultivators of the soil in Palestine. Palestine is both green and barren in places, as it has been for millennia and as is still today. We should not fall into the trap of assuming that if the Zionists misuse some writers we should believe that and so dislike them. Our task instead should be to retrieve them and their integrity and greatness from the clasps of Zionist abuse.

More fundamentally, both writers saw in Palestine the model on which the US national myth was built, that of the “Promised Land,” whose original people (the American “Indians”) have to be exterminated and replaced by those chosen by Yahweh. It is a model they rejected and deconstructed. I demonstrate this through a close reading of their works.

Melville and Twain were truly the first anti-Zionists in the West, though perhaps not in the sense that we understand it today. They were against fundamentalism and monomania, against self-centered obsessions, against the use and abuse of religion to serve self-interested, colonial ambitions. Why do you think Melville was attacked after writing Typee? Why did he print his epic work Clarel only for private circulation? Why is Huck Finn not taught in some US high schools? Of course patriots and others want to appropriate such writers as much as they can, and try to forget that they are critical of the fundamentals of the US system and now of Zionist underpinnings. We should save Melville, Twain and others from from such use.

Returning to Twain’s Innocents Abroad, his narrator ironically doubles Palestine and the US as “home,” and his creation of a self-ironic narrator must be understood if the work as a whole is to be understood. The narrative is constantly shifting in its tone and the position of its narrator, which is difficult to consider for what is regarded as a travel narrative. There is that haunting passage in Innocents where the narrator looks at the people in the north of Palestine and expresses the pioneering sentiment that the requirement of pity makes the white man feel so angry that he wants to “exterminate” the whole lot. I gave a paper last year at the annual Twain conference that shocked a lot of the people, where I explained how to interpret the work consistently. I get into that a bit at the end of my third chapter. Anyway, throughout Innocents the narrator ridicules the biblical narratives, i.e. the sentimentalizing of sheer violence and murder, and the sacred geographers, who are his main target, e.g. Grimm, Robinson, and Thomson, whom he mentions by name and quotes to show their delusions. In fact, at one point Twain says that the Bedouin Arabs are the only remnant left of the “Israelites.” There is a lot more to say there. The important emphasis is Twain’s deconstruction of the US national myth of origins, which of course the Zionists are good at glossing over and people generally want to avoid seeing.

Jonathan Scott teaches writing and literature at New Jersey City University.