July 9, 2009
The rationale for formally designating Israel a Jewish state "" as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now demands "" rests on three religious-political pillars: God's purported covenant with Moses instructing the ancient Israelites to conquer the land, the injustice of the Roman-era Diaspora that supposedly removed them centuries later, and the brutal persecution of European Jews in the Holocaust.
Yet, two of these pillars "" Moses conveying God's covenant to the Israelites and the Roman Diaspora "" appear based on almost no historical reality, the stuff of legend and possibly even lies that crumble under any serious scrutiny.
Normally, such ancient stories might be regarded as harmless tales that some people treasure as part of their Judeo-Christian faiths, except that Netanyahu's new demand means that these myths now threaten peace in the Middle East and conceivably could push the modern world into more bloody warfare. Therefore, they must be given fresh examination.
Ironically, it was the Nazis' drive to exterminate European Jews during World War II that is the one pillar founded on historical reality, although some extreme enemies of Israel insist on making Holocaust denial a central feature of their attacks.
Also, some adversaries, like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have argued that it is unfair to make the Palestinians pay for a crime against humanity committed by the Germans.
Yet, the Holocaust is not in historical dispute. That horrible reality "" an industrial-style extermination campaign that also targeted Gypsies, homosexuals and Communists "" was proven after the World War II from a multitude of Nazi records, photographs and eyewitness accounts.
It is the tales of Moses from the Torah (or the first five books of the Old Testament) and the legend of the Roman Diaspora that lack serious historical underpinnings.
The Diaspora myth has been addressed in a new book by Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? It debunks the notion that Rome removed the Jewish people en masse from the Holy Land in the First and Second Centuries A.D. and scattered them across Europe.
Instead, most East European Jews appear to be descendents of converts, principally from the Kingdom of the Khazars in eastern Russia, who embraced Judaism in the Eighth Century, A.D. The descendants of the Khazars then were driven from their native lands by invasions and "" through migration "" created the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe.
Thus, Sand argues, many of today's Israelis who emigrated from Europe after World War II have little or no genealogical connection to the land. According to Sand, a bitter irony of Israel's founding may be that it displaced Palestinians who could be the actual descendants of the ancient Israelites, who stayed on the land and eventually converted to Islam.
Other descendants of those ancient Israelites maintained Judaism as a strong presence in the Middle East, both in Palestine and in successful communities from Egypt to Iraq and Iran. These Jews faced few religious pressures until after Israel was founded in 1948, when this new European intrusion into Islamic lands was viewed in the context of the Crusades a millennium ago. [More on Sand's book below.]
The Moses Myth
Yet, while questioning the Diaspora myth is a sensitive topic for many Israelis and their supporters around the world, it is even touchier to challenge the Biblical claim that God, through Moses, struck a covenant with the Israelites to conquer the land and possess it for all time.
Because the Torah is sacred to Jews "" and to many Christians as the revealed word of God in the Old Testament "" it has been dangerous to examine the factual history behind these texts in an objective manner.
For centuries, the Catholic Church and some Protestant faiths persecuted anyone who questioned Moses's supposed authorship of the chapters even though their internal contradictions and the description of Moses's death at the end of Deuteronomy made that long-held belief untenable.
As Richard Elliott Friedman recounts in his 1987 book, Who Wrote the Bible?, "Religious opposition to the new investigation (into the traditional belief about Moses's authorship) persisted during the 19th Century" and didn't collapse until 1943 when Pope Pius XII "encouraged scholars to pursue knowledge about the biblical writers."