Writing Israel’s History: Imposing Identities on Ancient Palestine

A Bedouin protestor is detained by Israeli police women during a demonstration against Israeli government’s plans to relocate Bedouins in the Negev desert, on 15 July 2013 in the southern city of Beersheva. (Photo: AFP -Davif Buimovitch)

A Review of Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past by Keith W. Whitelam

Keith Whitelam’s 1996 book The Invention of Ancient Israel
: The Silencing of Palestinian History argued that Palestinian history had been displaced by the history of ancient Israel, effectively effacing non-Israelite populations of the land or reducing them to a minor role. Now he has written a sequel, in the form of a history that he feels should replace standard biblically-based and Israel-centred narratives of ancient Palestine.

As biblical historians now recognize, the Bible is not history. Its tales of patriarchs, of escape from Egypt, of conquest and empire, deportation and return are stories, memories, exercises in self-identity – what the Italian Semitist Mario Liverani calls an “invented history” in his book Israel’s History and the History of Israel. What, then, is the real story of ancient Palestine?

Whitelam has not loosened his grip on the ideological dimensions of his subject. He begins with a survey of how the romantic “history” of the Holy Land developed in Europe in the last few centuries, along with its sibling, “Orientalism.” It is largely for this reason that this book confines itself to the Iron age (1250–500 BC), the period on which Zionist memory most intensely focuses. But he avoids the dramatic narratives of kings, prophets, wars and theophanies and follows what Fernand Braudel and the French Annales school called the history of the longue durée, which tracks the recurrent interaction of human existence and terrain, climate and technology. These follow the rhythms of time of the title, and the book challenges the perception that the brief period in which the kingdoms of Israel and Judah emerged and disappeared was epochal or axial, marking a radical departure in the patterns of life. Rather these few centuries reflect the long-term patterns of human life dominated by agriculture, migration and trade.The first historical characters to be introduced are the bones of four individuals from the Jezreel valley, who once lived at the dawn of the Iron Age (c. 1250 BCE), and then another three-hundred buried in a different fashion a little further south. The labels we might wish to attach to these humans (Canaanite, Israelite, Palestinian) are beside the point: rather, what identity did these people once claim for themselves? Would they have recognized each other as kin, stranger, enemy? What were their fears and aspirations? They were, at any rate, not kings or nobles, probably not soldiers, priests or prophets. Over 90 percent of the population in that age were farmers, whose primary preoccupation was survival. They were also, however, affected by human behavior. Palestine was prey to the organized and aggressive societies of Egypt and Mesopotamia, but also the trading and colonizing peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly the Greeks. Trade, migration and warfare were, like agriculture, part of the constant negotiation between the land and its occupants. Political borders, which forever fluctuated, were of less significance than roads and harbors, whose courses were determined by hills, rivers, shorelines and by the patterns of trade that exploited these arteries.

The central moral of this book is that humans share one common human history. But for some reason we also feel the need to create levels of identity – personal, familial, local, national – that require differentiation from others; and these identities impose themselves on the past. We have to learn that these stories cannot be imposed on others, far less mistaken for truth.

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Still live in fairy-tale-land about Israel? Time to wake up: The Map of the “Greater Israel” even is hammered on the currency:

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Israel. Not looking for Peace. Nor Talks. But this…

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