Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean, Basem L. Ra’ad, paper, 272 pp., List: $32; AMEU Price: $19.50 (includes postage). Order this book.
Reviewed by Jane Adas
Prof. Basem L. Ra’ad of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem has written a book guaranteed to challenge what we in the West think we know. Because of Judeo-Christian assumptions and the politics of Zionism, the West has resisted dealing with the implications of archeological and textual discoveries over the last century and a half that call into question the Bible as a historical document.
Clay tablets discovered in the 19th century bearing the Epic of Gilgamesh contain the story of a flood almost identical to the one in Genesis, but written 2,000 years before the Bible was put together. The ruins of Ugarit, uncovered by a Syrian farmer in 1928, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, found by a shepherd boy in 1947, reveal that Yahweh (usually translated as “Lord” in the Old Testament) was one of many sons of the chief god Il/El (translated as “God” or “Most High”). In the Dead Sea Scrolls’ Deuteronomy (32: 8-9), the Most High divides the people into nations according to the number of the sons of God and assigns one of them, Yahweh, to the Israelites. Cana’anite mythology includes prototypes of the Christ figure, such as virgin birth and resurrection after death.
The Ugaritic writing system is very close to ancient Cana’anite and to present-day Arabic, suggesting that the latter, rather than being a foreign import to the region with the Muslim conquest, is “the living storehouse and present reincarnation of all the other ancient languages in a now Arabized region” (p. 96). On the other hand, Ra’ad claims there is no evidence for ancient Hebrew, only “an appropriation of square Aramaic which developed in later periods” (p. 43). Nor is there archeological evidence of Joshua’s conquest of the “promised land” nor of Israelites sojourning in Egypt.
Cana’anite civilization flourished for several millennia in the region that is today greater Syria. It gave the world its first phonetic alphabet and its mythology influenced the Greek pantheon, where Ba’al became Zeus, as well as the three monotheistic religions. In the Old Testament, however, Cana’an is an idealized place where people favored by God are given the right to take the land from its unworthy pagan inhabitants by any means possible. Such thinking underlies many colonizing projects, as in the Americas and South Africa.
What makes Zionist colonization unique is its claim of nativity and return to a promised land based on a supposed identity stretching continuously over 4000 years. Ra’ad, however, argues that distinctions must be made between Hebrews (an ancient designation from ‘abiru – people who lived nomadic lives), Israelites (tribes presumably descended from Jacob), Jews of 2000 years ago (from Judea), and Jews of today. “For present-day Jews to claim these sorts of connections would be like Muslims from Indonesia, 2000 years from now, saying they descend from the prophet’s line and claiming Mecca and Medina as their ancestral homeland” (114).
Zionism appropriates what is useful or convenient from Palestinian culture, such as food, embroidery, and sacred sites, and even claims that Israelites invented the terrace farming so typical of the landscape, while trying to make the Palestinians themselves invisible. “Zionism aims to dispossess and uproot the native Palestinians completely and to install itself as the native culture” (142). They are abetted in this by western belief, especially the fundamentalist brand, in Biblical “history.”
Ra’ad carries his impressive erudition lightly. He even has a chapter on the “Cats of Jerusalem.” He introduces his Epilogue with, “This is not my last chapter. It is the beginning of another book.” Let us hope so, and as soon as possible, please.
Jane Adas covers the tri-state area for The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and is on the Board of Directors of Americans for Middle East Understanding.