The Distortion of Palestine

One principle seems to be guiding "Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History": The minimization and marginalization of the role Jews played in the history of Palestine.

In Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History, Nur Masalha (a Palestinian writer and academic who currently teaches at SOAS in London) seeks to accord Palestinians exclusive rights to antiquity and indigeneity in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, while at the same time maintaining their Arab heritage. The obvious problem with this is that the Palestinian people quite clearly trace their origins to seventh-century Arabia. It is true that there had been an Arab presence in parts of the territory prior to this, but there is little in contemporary Palestinian identity which demonstrates continuity of any kind with the ancient peoples who inhabited the land—Canaanites, Philistines, or Israelites. Masalha writes that “the Palestinians are the indigenous people of Palestine.”  But this is rather like writing that the Mexicans are the indigenous people of Mexico; it erases the destruction of indigenous peoples at the hands of successive empires, most recently the Arabs. And while Masalha repeatedly highlights the importance of listening to indigenous voices, he consistently downplays or ignores overwhelming proof of Jewish indigeneity between the river and the sea—early Hebrew inscriptions, archaeological evidence of events mentioned in the Bible and by Josephus, ancient synagogues, mikvahs, coins and more. One can only surmise that addressing this evidence would undermine the claim Masalha makes elsewhere in his book, that Zionism is a “settler-colonial” movement, and that Palestine was the most common term used to describe the land between the river and the sea.

Masalha’s book is driven by with three major claims. His first argument is that Palestine was “the conventional name used between 450 BCE and 1948 CE to describe a geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River and various adjoining lands.” According to him, this means that the Palestinians should be entitled to the entirety of the land. Second, Masalha proposes that the Palestinians are the indigenous people of Palestine, because “their autochthonous identity and historical heritage long preceded the emergence of a local Palestinian nascent national movement in the late Ottoman period and the advent of Zionist settler-colonialism before the First World War.” Finally, he asserts: “[T]he multi-layered heritage of Palestine is a history of mixed styles and contradictory traditions; a history full of twists and turns, of memory and forgetfulness, and of suppression and memory.” In support of these claims, Masalha writes that “evidence-based history requires a scientific approach, critical thinking, empirical and material evidence and accurate facts.” Unfortunately, though, his conclusions emerge from a non-scientific approach to the facts: he uses evidence selectively, elides evidence which contradicts his thesis, and emphasizes controversial and occasionally discredited historical interpretations.

On the first claim, on the enduring use of the name Palestine itself, Masalha provides no evidence to back up this claim. Nor does he identify the people or peoples who used the name Palestine so habitually. Instead, he writes: “The name is evident in countless histories, ‘Abbasid inscriptions from the province of Jund Filastin (Elad 1992), Islamic numismatic evidence maps … and Philistine coins from the Iron Age and Antiquity, vast quantities of Umayyad and Abbasid Palestine coins bearing the mint name of Filastin.” In other words: of the four specific examples produced to link Palestine to the Late Bronze Age (3300 to 1200 BCE), three are taken from the seventh century onwards. Despite its presentation as a four thousand-year history, Palestine has a distinct bias towards the era which followed the Islamic Conquest of the Levant in 636 CE. Of the 252 pages devoted to the period between the Late Bronze Age and the arrival of Modern Zionism, 156 are devoted to the Muslim era, and 226 cover the period after 135 CE, when the Romans officially named the territory Palestine for the first time. A scant 26 pages are set aside for the preceding era.

The reason for this imbalance is obvious. After the suppression of the indigenous Jewish Bar Kochba Revolt in 135 CE, the Romans changed the name of the area from Judea to Palaestina. Before this date, the claim that Palestine was the most commonly used description for the territory in question is unconvincing. But this is not the same as denying the existence of Palestine, even if it was not constituted in the way that Masalha describes. As Masalha reminds us, the first use of the term Peleset”is recorded in the thirteenth century BCE, and with reference to a specific area of the land—probably the coastal plain, and possibly some inland areas as well. Masalha acknowledges as much when he writes that “the Assyrian-derived name of Philistia was most often used initially for the southern coast and later for Palestine as a whole.” However, he does not specify when exactly this “later” was, presumably because he knows that it wasn’t until the second century. Elsewhere he hedges his claim, saying “The Assyrian name pi-lis-te referred to an area that runs from Gaza to Tantur, and may include much larger lands inland,” and “in all probability, the land of the Peleset extended further north to Mount Carmel”—but once again without citing supporting evidence.

Despite its presentation as a four thousand-year history, Palestine has a distinct bias towards the era which followed the Islamic Conquest of the Levant in 636 CE.

Even when he is writing about the Bronze Age, Masalha strives to emphasize the Arab connection: “Arabic-language epigraphic evidence from Palestine east of the Jordan River is extensive, with some Arabic inscriptions dating from the Roman era and as early as 150 AD. In fact, Palestine is extremely rich in Arabic inscriptions, most of which date from the early Islamic and Umayyad periods.” A more relevant observation, especially in a chapter dealing with the Late Bronze Age up to 500 BCE, would clearly be the numerous Hebrew inscriptions discovered by archaeologists, dating from this period. These include the Khirbet Qeiyafa pottery sherd, the Gezer Calendar, the Siloam Inscription, the LMLK seals, and the Lachish Letters. “New archaeological discoveries and epigraphical evidence can help us read the history of Palestine through the eyes of the indigenous,” Masalha asserts. But he simply ignores the archaeological discoveries and epigraphical evidence which would allow us to read the history of Palestine through the eyes of its indigenous Jewish population as well. This is the approach of a propagandist, not a scholar.

Instead of acknowledging the extra-biblical evidence, both written and material, which proves that the Jewish people—and not merely the Jewish religion—did originate in the land between the river and the sea, Masalha chooses to focus on the straw man argument of whether the Old Testament is the literal truth. Why? Because he wants to marginalize the Jewish connection to the land.  This instinct extends to the sections of the book dealing with Iron Age archaeology: “Crucially, after more than 150 years and thousands of biblical excavations carried out in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, there is still no material history or archaeological evidence for the ‘Kingdom of David’ from 1000 BCE.” Argument by assertion does not make it so. At the very least Masalha should have engaged with dissenting voices. An example: in his recent review of Yosef Garfinkel’s In the Footsteps of King David: Revelations from an Ancient Biblical City in the London Review of Books (hardly a bastion of Zionism), the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch notes, with regard to archaeological excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafah, southwest of Jerusalem:

It is necessary to set out this quite technical case to show its importance. This is a settlement of Jews, created by a powerful government. The Bible provides plausible names for that regime. In fact, the minimalist case that David never existed had already been holed below the waterline in 1993, when an Aramaic inscription was found in northern Israel, celebrating the defeat by the King of Damascus of a … “King of the House of David” … At least by the later ninth century BCE … there was a memory of the founder of the Judahic dynasty as David. The excavations chronicled in this book give substance to that fleeting reminiscence, and they do so with the appropriate relationship to the biblical text. They show its general reliability: a first king called Saul is likely to have yielded to a usurper called David, who was able to expand on his predecessor’s successes and who showed energy in marshalling people to build planned and impressively defended urban centres with little precedent in the previous Hebrew society of the Judges. (LRB, September 27th 2018)

MacCulloch goes on to argue that the Bible’s account of King Solomon’s empire is an exaggeration. It is one thing to critique the Biblical narrative, another thing to dismiss it entirely—which is the approach Masalha takes by ignoring the recent archaeological finds.

This evasiveness continues in the next chapter. Ostensibly, this section of the book deals with the 500 to 135 BCE period, of which Masalha writes: “Palestine was the name used most commonly, consistently and continuously for over 1200 years throughout classical and Late Antiquity, from the highlight of classical Athenian civilization in 500 BC until the end of the Byzantine period and the occupation of Palestine by the Muslim armies in 637-638 AD.” If the chapter deals with the period from 500 to 135 BCE, then why does Masalha refer to the hundreds of years which followed? Again, the conclusion one must draw is that he is surely aware that Palestine simply wasn’t the most commonly, consistently and continuously used name between 500 to 135 BCE. And so, he conflates this era with the post-135 CE period.

It was during the former period that Masalha’s star witness, Herodotus, famously described the land of Palestine. Masalha suggests that Herodotus “uses the term in its wider sense and not merely in reference to Philistia, or the coastal strip of the land from Carmel to Gaza, but also the interior of the country (Herodotus 1841: 135) … Herodotus not only mentions Palestine as an autonomous district of Syria but describes it geographically, as the country we know today, but also including some adjoining areas in the Sinai and the north, as well as in the area east of the river Jordan.” There are a number of problems with this. For one thing, there’s no consensus among the scholars as to the accuracy of Herodotus’s writing; in any case, his writings strongly suggest that he only visited the coastal plain. During the Persian and Ptolemaic periods, the official name for the area was Coele-Syria, with Judaea the official name for the part of the country where Jews were a majority. Herodotus specifically refers to the peninsula running from Phoenicia beside the sea by the way of Syrian Palestine: “The region I am describing skirts our [Mediterranean] sea, stretching from Phoenicia along the coast of Palestine-Syria till it comes to Egypt, where it terminates.” Clearly, Herodotus is describing the coastal plain of present-day Israel and Gaza. Masalha does not cite any sources in support of his claim that Herodotus is “describing it as the country we know today,” or that “Herodotus’ conception of Palestine included the Galilee.”

One can’t but assume that Masalha wants to exaggerate the Arab connection to Palestine, while simultaneously downplaying and/or denying the Jewish connection. Masalha notes Herodotus’ description of the southern Palestine sea ports as “occupied by Arabians.” Masalha also emphasizes the expansion of Idumite territory to the south. The Idumites were of Arab origin. It’s clear that for at least two hundred years during the period covered in this chapter, there was an official province called Judah within the wider area. But Masalha chooses to mention the Idumites, and not Judah. He continues: “Herodotus, who travelled widely in Palestine and Syria and beyond the coastal region, does not mention Judaea or refer to Jews.” Again, there is no evidence that Herodotus travelled to the hill country, where the Jews lived. But even if he had, the insinuation is made in order to downplay the Jewish connection (there is no room for Jews in Masalha’s “pluralist” reading of Palestine’s history, other than as passive members of a “faith community” living under Arab Muslim hegemony), despite the fact that at the time Herodotus was writing, during the fifth century BCE, there was a province called Yehud (Judah) within the area Masalha claims was most commonly known as Palestine. The problem, such as it is, is resolved by Pomponius Mela. Writing in the first century, Mela notes that various names are used to refer to Syria: Coele-Syria, Mesopotamia, Damascus, Adiabene, Babylonia, Judaea, Commagene, and Sophene. Pliny the Elder writes “the part adjacent to Arabia being formerly called Palestine, and Judeaea, and Coele-Syria.” In short, the name Palestine—and Judah—only referred to specific parts of the area between the river and the sea.

Masalha offers a hegemonic Arab chronology masquerading as pluralism. He “argues for reading the history of Palestine with the eyes of the indigenous people of Palestine,” and says that “reading the history of modern Palestine through the eyes of the indigenous people can shift the emphasis away from hegemonic Ottoman, British and Zionist chronologies and provide new indigenous perspectives.” And yet, when dealing with the period up to the year 135 CE, Masalha does not provide a single indigenous source to support his claims, preferring to extol imperial voices like Herodotus. “The name Palestine was used by the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians, classical Greek writers, Romans, Christian Byzantines and Medieval Arabs,” he writes, without providing any evidence that during the classical period it was used by the indigenous people themselves. Indeed, the only indigenous voice he cites during this period is Josephus, who “used the toponym Palestine.” But when Josephus does mention Palestine, he is referring to the coastal region; he uses the term Judaea much more frequently, a fact which—predictably—Masalha elides.

This non-scholarly approach descends into farce when Masalha skips the entire 135 BCE – 135 CE period. He ignores these years because there is no conceivable way of covering them without acknowledging the indigenous Jewish presence between the river and the sea, and that the indigenous Jews did not call the land Palestine. A truly scholarly approach to the subject would have acknowledged the classical references to Judaea as well as Palestine, pagan writers like Hecataeus of Abdera and Clearchus of Soli using the term as early as 300 BCE. Masalha writes: “The toponymic use of the name Judah dates from the 8th century and refers to the region of the southern highlands, foothills and adjacent steppe lands only at some stage in the course of 8th-early 6th century BC.” This is simply false. We have already noted the Persian state of Yehud; the name continued into the Greek period. And then in the second century BCE, the Hasmoneans conquered much of the territory that Masalha suggests was always known as Palestine, including most of Idumea. From 63 BCE, the official designation was Judea, whose territory incorporated the regions of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. The term Palestine was not in official use—if it was the most commonly used term, then why was it not used as the official name for the territory? And as for “Israel”:  Masalha writes “the name Israel exists first in the ninth century BC and is used until the fourth quarter of the eighth century BC, when this name gives way to the name of the Assyrian province of Samaria.” “This name gives way” is a revealing choice of words for the violent imperial conquest and mass expulsions of the Jewish population by the Assyrians; once again, it renders hollow Masalha’s claim to be interested in indigenous voices.

After 135 CE, Masalha is finally on firmer ground. Following the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt, the Romans designated the area as “Palaestina” for the first time. (It was reorganized into three subdivisions during the Byzantine era). And yet, there are still significant and revealing omissions in Masalha’s account. For example, he claims that “since the creation of Israel in 1948 historians in the West have tended to avoid referring to the historic name of the Palestinian city, Caesarea-Palaestina, and use only the name Caesarea Maritima.” But the name Caesarea Maritima clearly predates Caesarea-Palaestina, which only came into use during the Byzantine era. Elsewhere, in a similar vein, he writes: “Struggles over land, toponyms, naming and renaming between indigenous peoples and settler-colonists are common. Examples include Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), Islas Malvinas (the Falkland Islands), Istanbul (Constantinople), Northern Ireland (Ulster; the Six Counties), Azania (South Africa), Aotearoa (New Zealand), Palestine (Israel), al-Quds (Jerusalem).” The names Constantinople and Jerusalem clearly preceded Istanbul and al-Quds. But this doesn’t stop Masalha from implying that these names were forced onto the cities by settler-colonists. It seems as though, for Masalha, conquest carried out by Islam doesn’t count.  

When detailing the later Roman and Byzantine period, Masalha deliberately downplays the Jewish connection to the land between the river and the sea. He writes gushingly about the development of Christianity and major Christian figures during this period—Origen, Jerome, and Eusebius, to name but a few—but nothing about Rabbi Akiva or Judah Hanasi, the Sanhedrin, the Mishnah, the hundreds of synagogues built across the Galilee (but naturally, he mentions the “beautiful churches and numerous monasteries”), or indeed the Palestinian Talmud itself! This is a violent erasure of the historical record. If Jesus can be described as one of the prominent residents of Palestine (even though he was born in Judaea), then why not Rabbi Akiva? Masalha points out that the Romans renamed Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina. But he chooses not to explain that this was because they wanted to transform a Jewish capital into a Roman colony, and once more shows his contempt for the non-Arab indigenous people of the land. Masalha writes enthusiastically about how Eusebius “took pride in his native country of Palaestina,” but he does not share a telling quotation from his Praeparatio Evangelica. The Syrians who devised the alphabet, Eusebius writes, were actually “Hebrews who inhabited the country adjacent to Phoenicia, which was itself called Phoenicia in ancient times but afterwards Judaea, and in our time, Palestine.” Masalha also cites Jerome approvingly, but not his reference to “Judaea, which is now called Palestine.” This selective use of evidence is central to his modus operandi.

Masalha simply ignores the archaeological discoveries and epigraphical evidence which would allow us to read the history of Palestine through the eyes of its indigenous Jewish population as well. This is the approach of a propagandist, not a scholar

Ironically, given that Masalha claims to be offering an indigenous perspective, he glorifies the Arab Conquest. “The glories of Arab geography and cartography,” for example, is not a particularly scientific observation; nor is referring to Salah al-Din’s “spectacular victory” at the Battle of Hittin. “Palestine had been brought fully within the Islamic Caliphate in 637-638,” Masalha informs us, while the “gradual but steady move to Arabic as the official lingua franca in Palestine and the Near East was neither difficult nor protracted,” as “Arabic and the Arabisation of Palestine added more cultural layers to Palestine’s already rich and complex identity.” This is simply the whitewashing of imperial conquest. And it isn’t limited to quibbles about the word “Palestine”, or the extent of the coastal plains. About the Dome of the Rock, he writes, “The sanctity and centrality of Jerusalem is enshrined in its very Arabic name: Bayt al-Maqdis (the ‘house of the holy’) or al-Quds (the ‘holy’)”; but fails to mention the reason for this name. Sources tell us that ‘Umar bin al-Khattab asked the patrikios of the city to “show me the Mosque of David.” The name Al-Quds— The Holy—is an abbreviation for Bet al-Makdes, which is the Arabic for the Hebrew name for the Temple, Beit Ha-Mikdash (“The Sanctified House”).

Masalha also notes that the first Muslims faced Jerusalem, but doesn’t explain why. The records, the history, they do explain why. The Umayyads built the Dome of the Rock as a Third Temple—the early Muslims believed they were superseding Judaism just as they were superseding Christianity. Once again, Masalha doesn’t mention this. To do so would be to acknowledge that the Jewish connection to Jerusalem predates the Arab-Muslim connection by nearly two thousand years.

As I noted earlier, Masalha devotes 156 pages to the period of Arab rule in Palestine. Despite this imbalance, this is the most convincing part of the book, with fascinating material on the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, and the Ottoman era. The section on Dhaher Al-‘Umar is particularly interesting, even if Masalha’s claim that he carved out a form of independent “statehood” seems a tad overstated. Most importantly, he convincingly demonstrates the origins of what would later become Palestinian identity. It is unfortunate, thus, that Masalha seems unable to explore these themes without doing everything possible to denigrate the Jewish relationship with the land. He is unable to conceptualize his notion of Palestinian identity and nationhood without setting it in opposition to the Jews. At the same time, he doesn’t refer to the treatment of Jews at the hand of the Muslim authorities over the centuries. Instead he repeats the tired old myth of Jews living happily under Muslim rule before Zionism came along and ruined everything: “Until the advent of European Zionism in the late 19th century relations among the Palestinians (Arabic-speaking Muslims, Christians and Jews) were peaceful and stable, forged by centuries of coexistence, shared history and shared country (Khalidi, W. 1984).” Nothing about the reality that, under Muslim rule, Jews had by law a lesser status than Muslims; nothing about the 1517 attacks in Safed and Hebron; nothing about the 1838 attack on Safed.

This brings us to Political Zionism’s arrival to Palestine. Much of this section rehashes earlier material about settler colonialism. The merits of these arguments largely fall beyond the remit of this piece, but there are a few important issues to note. Masalha states that “Russian writings on Palestine inspired early Zionist colonial-settlers,” and that “Russian nationals formed the hard core of Zionist activism.” The absence of empirical standing to these claims aside, it is not as though Jews were full and equal members of Russian society in the nineteenth century; they were more often than not at the mercy of the Christian majority who regularly subjected them to pogroms, from which they were desperate to escape. Any assessment of early Zionism that ignores this context is remiss. By labeling the early Zionists as Russians, Masalha aims to deny the legitimacy of their connection to the land between the river and the sea. He also devotes eight pages to examples of early Zionists (referred to, disparagingly, as “members of the predatory Zionist Ashkenazi elite of Israel”) hebraizing their names—eight more pages than he devotes to the period between 135 BCE and 135 CE. These are the tactics of a polemicist, not a scholar.

Masalha quotes Keith W. Whitelam, author of The Invention of Ancient Israel, who writes that the land “has actually been non-Jewish in terms of its indigenous population for the larger part of its recorded history.” This goes to the heart of the problem. Masalha writes that “the Jewish contribution to the multi-faith, pluralist heritage and long history of Palestine is undeniable.” But we learn nothing about this in Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History, other than a line or two about glass-making and other commercial interests under the Arabs. And yet Jews were a majority in the land whose history Masalha seeks to tell until at least the second century, and possibly even as late as the fourth century. The reason they ceased to be a majority is because legitimate demands for independence were brutally suppressed by the Roman and Byzantine empires. Masalha lambasts biblical scholarship’s “exclusive interest in a small section of the history of the land”; but is that any different from his complete lack of interest in the same section of the land? He adds: “Traditional biblical scholarship has been essentially ‘Zionist’ and has participated in the elimination of the Palestinian identity, as if 1400 years of Muslim occupation of this land meant nothing.” Again: what is the difference between this and Masalha’s work, as if more than 1400 years of Jewish civilization in this land mean nothing to him? “The Palestinians share common experiences with other indigenous peoples who had their self-determination and narrative denied, their material culture destroyed and their histories erased, retold, reinvented or distorted by European white settlers and colonizers,” he tells us, as he happily erases Jewish material culture and history, distorting and denying it. He facilely equates the early Zionists with European white settlers and colonizers, without pausing to consider what made Zionism different—the simple fact that the Jews are indigenous to the land.

Masalha denies Jews the agency to define themselves. “In post-exilic Judaism,” Masalha writes, “… being Jewish meant belonging to a community of faith, the Jewish faith.” We can imagine how Masalha might react were someone to tell him what being Palestinian means; for him to tell Jews what being Jewish means is similarly noxious, doubly so when his claim is false. In a brilliant review of Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People, Hillel Halkin notes that it is not Jewish peoplehood that was invented but the notion of Jewish non-peoplehood, specifically the idea that Jews merely belonged to a community of faith. We even know the precise moment this happened. It was during the French Revolution, when Stanislaw de Clermont-Tonnnere declared that French Jews should be “granted everything as individuals and denied everything as a nation,” an approach Masalha enthusiastically adopts in his book. The word am, people, appears literally hundreds of times in the Bible, but there is nothing whatsoever about a community of faith. This is because the latter is a modern invention of non-Jews.

Given the numerous flaws with this book, one may ask: what’s the point of reviewing it in the first place? Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History is an important text because it reflects a certain strand in Arab and left-wing thought, whereby the Jews are false interlopers with no connection to this region beyond the right to live at the mercy of the Arab Muslim majority. Masalha repeats the canard that Ashkenazi Jews are mostly descended from converts—this claim has been repeatedly and systematically debunked. Ultimately, his book is tragically misguided, because there is nothing wrong with calling for a more pluralist understanding of the history of the land between the river and the sea. Zionist historiography, with the slogan “from the Bible to 1948” and its own downplaying of the non-Jewish history of the land, is also inaccurate and should be challenged. But, despite Masalha’s rejection of the “liberal Zionist slogan” of “one land, two peoples,” or the notion of “Israel-Palestine,” surely this remains the only narrative that might lead to peace and reconciliation between the two peoples. 

*Nur Masalha, Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History, Zed Books, pp. 458.


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