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The Common Origin of and Split Between Arabs and Jews - Part Two of an Interview with Professor George E. Mendenhall

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This is part two of my interview with Professor George E. Mendenhall, one of the world's foremost authorities on biblical lore and the people of the Mediterranean region. For a biographical sketch of Professor Mendenhall, go to "Writers Archives" on this web site, scroll down to my name - Wolfe, Burton H. - click on that, and then click on the first part of the interview when the list of my articles appears. - BHW

W: All right, now we come to the part of this discussion that prompted me more than any other to solicit an interview with you for publication: the common origin of Arabs and Jews. Of course those are inexact categories. Since neither is a racial or universally applicable ethnic or cultural term, but the world is full of ignoramuses who construe them in such a manner, I kind of cringe at having to use those terms at all. The "Arabs" of today are in reality either just descendants of people identified as Arabs or descendants of people properly viewed as Persians - and the latter certainly is applicable to most of the inhabitants of Iran. Then there is the unfortunate propensity of the media and the populace to equate Israelis with Jews. Because it takes so much time and deviation from the subject to keep calling attention to these semantic difficulties (among other difficulties), we are almost of necessity stuck with Arabs vis a vis Jews. I always want to remind people of the problems with those terms, but having done so, I move on to the subject even while being unhappy with the way we have to formulate it. There was a time when Hebrews, or Jews, were using Arabic as their language, was there not?
M: Before the time of Moses people of the Eastern Mediterranean region were speaking a language that was the ancestor of Arabic, but then the Jews did not yet exist. The term Hebrew was used by many different people without a state, but that had nothing to do with the biblical people of Israel.
W: If that is so, and the people called Hebrews were speaking Arabic...
M: Only before the time of Moses they were, and probably the ones that came out of Egypt would have spoken a dialect of Arabic.
W: ..then people whom we of today call Arabs and people whom we of today call Jews were actually the same people at one time, were they not? If they were speaking the same language, you would certainly tend to come to that conclusion.
M: Yes, I would say so.
W: So, around Eighteen Hundred B.C., it would be difficult to find a people with an identification as Hebrews. They were still speaking Arabic, and it would be difficult if not impossible to separate them from people now called Arabs. So, what name could be applied to them at that early time? Just semitic language speakers?
M: We just do not know. It is possible that they may have been called Canaanites. The trouble is that the linguistic evidence we have does not fit into any present category. That's why I call it "the old coastal dialect." The people of the Late Bronze Age were already different, and speaking a language that had changed considerably from the "old coastal Semitic." People who had arrived by at least the Eighteenth Century B.C., were from northeastern Syria, which was Amorite territory. They had come and taken control over most of the city states; and this is the time of Abraham. Abram, the original of his name, is a good Amorite name. Abraham, the other form, is an archaic Canaanite name. The consonant h in the verb in this name is a linguistic feature that survived in the Arabic dialect of Yemen as we know from the inscriptions from there dating to the Late Iron Age.
W: Then, at some time, according to the Old Testament scriptures - which of course cannot be construed as presenting historical fact - there comes a split. Not necessarily an Arab-Jew split, but certainly an Egyptian-Jew split. Genesis presents Hebrews as people separate from Egyptians [Genesis 39 and 40], and Hebrews could not even eat bread at the same table with Egyptians [Genesis 43:32].
M: Yes. Well, we have pretty good evidence now that in Egypt of the new empire period [1500-1200 B.C.] there was a considerable population there which came from Canaan. We call them Canaanites, but in that area their language probably would have been more closely related to Arabic than to the Canaanite we know from the later sources. What happened was that in the course of the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age, all of the Late Bronze languages that we know largely from the Egyptian and cuneiform sources had their structure broken down. It's exactly what happened with the Norman conquest of England. The Old English language had case endings, many words and names that ended in gh, and a grammatical structure that were all lost after that conquest. And this same thing happened to semitic languages in the course of the centuries just before the time of Moses. We know what was going on from texts at Ugarit, north of Tripoli. We have several texts written by one of the local scribes in the twenty-two character alphabet instead of the twenty-eight character alphabet, which was basically Arabic. This was a contrast, you see, between the learned elite of the royal court and the man in the street who was speaking a colloquial dialect which became the lingua franca of the whole Mediterranean world. The point is, both languages were in use at least in urban regions.
W: But that in itself would not explain the Egyptian-Jew split that you see before an overall Arab-Jew split. Upon what was that based?
M: On the basis of culture, I would say. There was a cultural contrast, because they had come from drastically different environments. The Egyptians were the snobs of ancient times, anyway. The term for "human being" in Egyptian, remech, meant "Egyptian." Anyone who was not Egyptian was part of a lower order of society. It is simply the all-too-frequent attitude toward aliens.
W: So, it could not have been a split based on any kind of ethnicity.
M: No. Different culture, different way of life, different customs, even different taboos.
W: Then, at some time, there is an overall Arab-Jew split, whether on the basis of culture or religion or any aspect but ethnicity, which is impossible because these are two peoples who have common origins and cannot be distinguished ethnically. What was the earliest point in history when the overall separation of Arabs from Jews occurred, and how, in your opinion, did that happen?
M: This is a very complex and multi- beginning already in the Bronze Age. Our only useable evidence derives from language and writing systems, for those are the most characteristic traits of any culture. Toward the end of the Bronze Age, from circa Fifteen Hundred to tTwelve Hundred B.C., there was a considerable influx of non-semitic speaking populations from the North and East. They intermarried with the earlier population whose language consisted of an indefinite number of dialects, but in general the linguistic structure was Arabic. When the non-semitic speaking populations took control, their speech habits became normative. Since they could not pronounce many of the consonants of the semitic languages, those letters were dropped from the alphabet. We have direct evidence of this from Ugarit about Thirteen Hundred B.C. where at least one scribe that I mentioned before wrote texts using a twenty-two character alphabet. That shorter alphabet evolved into the Phoenician/Canaanite and Hebrew alphabets, and the language was the common denominator of culture all over the Mediterranean region, especially in the cities. Meanwhile, in the countryside and along the desert fringe, the older language and writings system remained in use. There is virtually unanimous agreement that the two complexes separated around Twelve Hundred B.C. when groups migrated from Palestine and Transjordan to northwestern Arabia, taking their language with them. In this relatively isolated region the old language evolved into at least eight different dialects of pre-Islamic Arabic, which are attested to in inscriptions from Syria to Yemen and beyond. Some were found even in the ruins of the Roman theater at Pompeii. For the last couple of thousand years, the Jews and Arabs were in constant contact, usually harmonious and often mutually beneficial, in the Near East; but the East Europeans who became Jewish in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries A.D. never had any significant contacts with or knowledge of the Arabs until recently. Conflict arose only after the European Jews became enamored of the late Nineteenth-Century ideologies of nationalism and racism.
W: That explanation necessarily avoids any exact explanation of how semitic speakers in the Near East became separately identified as Arabs and Jews. And I don't blame you for avoiding any pinpoint conclusion, since that might be impossible and at the very least would only be an unprovable hypothesis. I just want to be sure you are understood to be saying that as late as the Nineteenth Century or even the earliest part of the last century there was not any adverse or hostile separation between the two peoples. You are confident of that being the case so late a time in history?
M: Oh, yes. From the very beginning, in the Koran, for example, the
earliest Islamic authority, Christians and Jews are called "people of the book" who are under protection. The polytheists or pagans were what the early Moslems were opposed to. Jews frequently had high positions in the royal courts of medieval Islam.
W: Here is where I have to disagree with you, at least in significant part. There is a thirteen hundred-year history, beginning around the Eighth Century A.D., of Arab persecution and slaughter of Jews in many areas of the Mediterranean region and/or the Ottoman Empire. It was based, conceptually or religiously at least, on sections of the Koran that view Jews as inferior people, "apes" and "pigs" as interpreted by many Islamic clerics, who are justifiably subjugated by Moslems or Muslims and even warred upon if necessary. Like the Judaeo-Christian Bible, the Koran can be read in different ways. Some of the most powerful parts of it teach that Islam is the only true religion, all who do not follow it are
infidels on the wrong path, and their sinful and even anti-God conduct must be corrected so that they are brought into line on an earth governed by Islam. And one of the most ironic aspects of this part of Islamic teachings, unless we have been misled, is that Jews taught Arabs their religion. Or, at the very least, the Arabs picked up their basic religious concepts from Jews: the monotheistic concept, the existence of prophets such as Moses and Jesus, and some of the tales told in Judaeo-Christian scripture - revised, of course, in the Koran.
M: In the first place, every religion has its own bigoted specimens who act in a way that brings shame to the religion. That is why, by the way, that the Lord's Prayer includes the phrase "Hallowed be Thy Name." Islam is very definitely one aspect of the continuity of what I call the total biblical tradition, including both Jewish and Christian elements. In fact, one of my students years ago wrote a dissertation on the similarities between the covenant in the Old Testament and the concept of covenant, Arabic ma'hid, in early Islam. It's strikingly similar.
W: Again depending on what part of the Koran you read, the philosophy in that body of scriptures and the scriptures compiled as the Old and New Testaments run parallel courses in many instances.
M: Sure. Islam is a late, shall we say descendant, of the biblical tradition. I think everybody agrees on that.
W: Well [laughing], knowledgeable and honest people do, I suppose. As for the majority who consider themselves religious Jews and Moslems or Muslims, but have scarce understanding of the basic teachings in either Judaism or Islam, I think they would accuse you or me of blasphemy or heresy.
M: Oh, but the Moslems themselves accept Moses and Jesus as prophets. Mohammed is only the last in the series of prophets, after a long hiatus in which prophecy had been gone.
W: Whether Moses and Jesus are accepted as prophets or not, the vast majority of Moslems or Muslims do not accept either Christianity or Judaism as valid religions. They are taught from the time they are children that the only valid religion is Islam, that the entire world should speak only Arabic, and that there must be an ongoing jihad - violent to some, educational to others - until the ways of all infidels are corrected and the entire world is united under the teachings and rules of Islam. Therein lies the problem, and it has been exacerbated and inflamed to the extent now that any peaceful resolution seems to be impossible.
M: Again, you are dealing with an anthropological constant. How many Jews and Christians regard Islam as a legitimate religion? The problem arises largely because of ambitious politicians who have used the two traditions [Judaism and Islam] to support ends which are in contrast to their religious ethic, which can only result in catastrophe. And that's the irony of the present conflict.
W: Again I have to disagree with you and with some of the individuals who read my article on the mistakes at the root of the present Near East madness. My critics insisted in the comments I received that the fundamental error of creating a Jewish state in the middle of hostile Arabs was politically based. Politics certainly played a part in that insane decision, but since a Jewish homeland could have been created elsewhere, I insist that the placement of it in what used to be Palestine was based on the interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures as promising the "holy land" to God's "chosen people," the Jews. Well, now it has become an UNholy land because of that lunatic conception, and the opposition to Jews by tens of millions of Arabs following the teachings of maniacal Islamic clerics preaching "destruction of the Jews" is so far advanced that I cannot see any way of controlling the situation other than by either moving Israel to another area of the earth or creating a permanent United States-Israeli-United Nations force of at least half a million troops in the Near East, armed to the hilt and ready to destroy any Arab organization or state which attacks Israel. But since I am just the interviewer and you are the interviewee, and I do not pretend to be an expert on Near East affairs or any aspect of them, I leave the last word to you.
M: It is well known that the founder and father of modern Zionism had no idea at all that there was any connection between Jews and Palestine, or "the Holy Land." It was a Christian minister who told him, and thus the Bible was used as an excuse and justification for their ideology and actions. That Zionist ideology originally was based on late Nineteenth Century nationalism, racism, and socialism; and the Bible had nothing to do with it, just as the Bible has little or nothing to do with the operational ideology of most Israelis. When Rommel was marching across North Africa endangering the British control of the Near East, Roosevelt sent an emissary to Palestine to ask the Zionists what their aims were. The reply can be read in the published archives of
our State Department: one, to take over all of Palestine and part of Transjordan; two, to transfer the existing population to Iraq; three, to become the dominant political power in the Levant. There is no reason to believe that the Zionist aims have changed significantly. Note the Golan Heights, the many thousands of "settlers," and the fourth most powerful army in the world. Lord Balfour's "homeland for the Jews" has
thus become the successor to the "Empire of David." There can be no peace so long as the Israelis continue to rob the existing population of their homes, property and livelihood, murder their children for throwing stones at IDF [Israel Defense Force] tanks, and do their best to make life in Israeli-occupied territory so miserable that suicide bombing is a welcome alternative. It is even more tragic that our politicians simply cannot see that we cannot have "national security" so long as we send those alien conquerors tons of bombs and billions of U.S. dollars.
W: Thank you, professor, for taking so much of your valuable time to provide the information in this interview. Whatever disagreements there may be, at least you have shown, from a historical perspective, what a tragedy it is that two peoples from the same stock should be spending the short time we all have on this earth slaughtering each other instead of trying to cooperate with each other for their mutual benefit. I can only hope that the educational information you have provided in this OpEdNews forum will be passed on, via reprints or republications or any possible means, to everyone involved in any way with the conflict between Arabs and Jews. Education, if it is spread widely enough and if people get the message from it, at times can serve as a beginning to the end of violent conflict based on mutual hatred.
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