Hidden Histories argues that the history of Palestine has been hidden, and that the struggle for Palestinian rights has also to encompass the struggle for their history and culture.
Basem L Ra’ad, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean (Pluto Press 2010), xiii, 272pp.
The Palestinian people did not lose only their land in the Nakba of 1948, but their history as well. In Hidden Histories, Ra’ad explores how the Israeli colonisation of Palestine is also a colonisation of the Palestinian past; a continuing cultural appropriation which is particularly important because of the central role played in Zionism by the idea that the Jewish people are the original and therefore rightful owners of the territory.
It is ironic that in reviewing this analysis of the suppression of Palestinian history beneath Israeli discourse it should be necessary to start with Jewish history, but an understanding of the distortions of Jewish history is necessary to appreciate the full scale of the more complete disappearance of the Palestinian past. The Zionist version of the history of Palestine has a Jewish state existing in the region from the tenth century BCE, under Kings David and Solomon, and continuing until the mass expulsion of the Jewish people into exile by the Romans at the end of the first century CE. Modern Jewish populations across the world would be the descendants of these exiles, for whom the ‘Holy Land’ remains their rightful home.
This mythical history forms part of the institutions of the Israeli state - the Declaration of Independence of Israel refers to the Exile, as do Israeli bank notes - but a number of writers have shown that it is myth, not history. Recently, Shlomo Sand in The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso 2009) presented a convincing case that the Exile never happened, that there was no great expulsion from Palestine under the Romans. The existence of Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East is testament not to an ‘Exile’ but to Judaism’s success as an expansionist religion in the ancient world, to which significant numbers were prepared to convert. The best known mass converts were the Khazars, a Turkic people living in present day Ukraine and Georgia who converted in the eighth century CE, but these were only the latest in a number of less familiar but historically well-attested conversions.
Sand’s book has received some rather unreasoning criticism, but much of what he argues has been recognised by scholars for some time. The problem is that this scholarly recognition has not been allowed to alter public understanding of the history of the Jewish people or of Palestine; unsurprising, when history does not follow myth in providing a justification for the existence of the state of Israel. Sand himself has commented, in response to a negative review by Simon Schama, that scholars of Jewish antiquity have known for some time that the Exile did not happen, but that most people in Israel are still convinced that it did.
If this is true for Jewish history, it is even more the case for the history of the Palestinians. The Zionist version portrays the Palestinians as undifferentiated, nomadic Arabs, effectively writing them out of existence, as in the phrase ‘a land without a people for a people without a land.’ If they are allowed a distinct history in the area at all, it is only since the arrival of Islam in the seventh century CE; long enough ago, you might think, but not a patch, longevity-wise, on claims to descent from the tenth century BCE kingdom of David. The idea that the Palestinians are only relatively recent arrivals in Palestine is sometimes adopted by Palestinians themselves. Ra’ad recounts hearing Palestinian Muslim speakers refer to their 1,300-year history in the region, or Palestinian Christians to their 1,700-year one, dating back to the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century CE.
This conflation of religion, identity and history must surely be a response to that same conflation in the Zionist account, and to the extent that it accepts religion as the determinant of history and identity, it precludes the possibility of a more ancient Palestinian, as opposed to Jewish, history in the area. Modern Jewish people are not, as a result of their religion, more likely than anyone else to be descended from people who lived in Palestine in the first century CE. Understanding this is a useful historical truth to set against Zionist myths, but it is therefore only half the battle. It does not address the dominant idea that the story of pre-Islamic, pre-Christian period is the story of the ancient state of Israel only. Much of the Biblically-derived history of ‘ancient Israel’ is of dubious historical merit - attempts for example to find a historical King David in the tenth century BCE have been ill-founded - and Ra’ad shows how this frequently mythological Biblical history is based on appropriating and obfuscating the real history of the area.
The Arabic language, Ra’ad shows, is not the late interloper into the region that it is often portrayed, but is closely related to ancient languages like Cana’anite and Aramaic. This relationship is obscured by the practice of labelling inscriptions in languages like Cana’anite, Aramaic, and Moabite as ‘ancient Hebrew’, when they are nothing of the kind. Ra’ad points out in fact that ancient Hebrew, as a separate language denoting a separate people, did not exist at all; it is simply a version of Aramaic written in a special religious script. In a similar way, Israel industriously Hebraises ancient place names, promoting the Hebrew version as a reclamation of the original name when the opposite is true. For example, the town known in the West as Acre has the Hebrew name Acco, which is usually given as its original, ancient name. The real form of its name in the oldest inscriptions, however, is ‘Akka, the same form as in modern Arabic.
Crucially, in this area where religious affiliation, identity and history are held to be synonymous, the very idea of ancient monotheism can also be challenged. Ra’ad summarises recent work which shows that the god of the Old Testament is not one god at all, but several: a head god called Il or El, and a number of junior gods, one of whom was Yahweh. Ra’ad does not go into detail on this point, but even El is usually referred to in the plural form ‘Elohim’, underlining the polytheistic pantheon which later compilers of the holy books were at pains to conceal (for more on this, see for example Walter Beltz, God and the Gods: Myths of the Bible, Penguin 1983). This polytheism is a central part of the real ancient history of the area, and even underlies the place names of some of the most sacred sites. Jerusalem, for example, is well known as a holy city to all three monotheistic religions of the area, but its name is itself a reference to the polytheistic past. Jerusalem was originally Ur-Salem, meaning ‘the place of the god Salem’, one of Il/El’s juniors.
This is largely all recognised by many scholars, while, as in the case of later Jewish history, being in direct contradiction to the Zionist version of Palestine’s past. Further scholarly recognition and exploration of these real histories is important, but it is not the only task. The wider issue is how the denial of Palestinian history has been used as part of the appropriation of Palestinian culture, a process which includes the Hebraising of ancient place names and Cana’anite inscriptions together with more day to day issues like the claiming of many Palestinian traditional foods as typically Israeli or Jewish. The latter might seem like a small thing, but it is clearly a profoundly alienating one on a daily basis. Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian exile, also refers to the appropriation of Palestinian dishes as Israeli specialities as particularly difficult to take (Ghada Karmi, Married to Another Man. Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine, pp.18-19).
The appropriation of Palestinian culture could clearly fill a whole book itself, and Ra’ad only scratches the surface here. His purpose is not to cover in detail the different ways in which Palestinian history and culture has been erased, but to set out a manifesto for its recovery. He is also suggesting ways in which aspects of daily life for Palestinians under Israeli occupation can reveal the effects of that occupation, as he shows for example in his chapter on the cats of Jerusalem. At first sight, this chapter might seem a little odd, introducing an irrelevant aside in between discussion of self-colonisation and the politics of place names, but on consideration it is justified, and not only because cats are always relevant. In Ra’ad’s contention, the harsh treatment of cats in East Jerusalem is not only an expression of the frustration and humiliation of daily life for Palestinians in the city, but is also a metaphor for the destruction of Palestinian society by Israel. The cats live in a cat-eat-cat world of violence rather than solidarity, and the expropriation of Palestinian culture and history is in effect an attempt to impose that sort of society on the Palestinians themselves. Recent attention to the minutiae of Palestinian life by other writers has also revealed how fruitful this approach can be, for example a recent article in Race & Class showed how drivers ignoring traffic lights in Ramallah can also be part of the resistance; Yazan Al-Khalili, ‘(R&B) rhythm and blues: post traffic lights in Ramallah and Al-Bireh City’.
Ra’ad is not setting out to supply missing Palestinian history, and for details of many of the topics he touches on, like Cana’anite language and history, polytheism or Biblical place names, this is a starting point after which the interested reader would need to look elsewhere. It is rather a clear and passionate argument that the history of Palestine has been hidden, and must be uncovered. The struggle for Palestinian rights has also to encompass the struggle for their history and culture. This is a convincing step in that direction.
Yazan Al-Khalili, ‘(R&B) rhythm and blues: post traffic lights in Ramallah and Al-Bireh City’, in Race & Class 52 (3), 2011, pp.21-42.
Walter Beltz, God and the Gods: Myths of the Bible (Penguin 1983).
Ghada Karmi, Married to Another Man. Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine (Pluto Press 2007).
Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso 2009).
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now.
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