Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Passover and the Biblical Argument for Israel

Religious belief leads to bad policy, but remembering when we were slaves in Egypt might work

I've blogged about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict 34 times during the past five years. The optimal time to do that probably is the week before Passover. After all, it is the biblical story of the Exodus that undergirds the argument in favor of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. On that point, I've had plenty to say, but I've never gotten the timing right.

Even this year, I'm a good week late--the first Passover Seder this year was Monday night. And people who were looking last week for a critical perspective on Israel and Palestine are likely not hunting hard for commentary this week.

One traditional phrase from the Passover seder expresses the hope that the seder will be held "next year in Jerusalem." Indeed, these last many years a good number of seders have been held at various locations in Jerusalem (one wonders how the phrase is turned when the seder is, in fact, in Jerusalem). In any case, my personal, aspirational, Passover phrase goes something like this, "next year I blog about the biblical argument for a Jewish state in Palestine in a more timely way."

Yes, the phrase needs work. Maybe it should be something more like, "next year, blog in Jerusalem."

Regardless, I have argued before that stories Jews generally tell for religious reasons, during seders and otherwise, is not a good basis for making policy. Establishing a theocratic state on land occupied by others based on a history of events that didn't actually happen was, and is, an undemocratic and unethical way to proceed. In "Monotheism and the Accidental God," I put it this way:

"We live in a world substantially shaped by the bible, variously interpreted as it is by Jews, Christians and Moslems. Never mind that there is no archaeological or trustworthy historical evidence for many biblical tales. The foundational story of the Exodus is fiction, however much it might pain me to say so. The Exodus story, and, particularly, the commandment to remember when we were slaves in Egypt, with its implied obligation to side with the oppressed, has been the rock on which I've constructed my (mostly secularized) commitment to social justice. The human capacity for self-deception being what it is, the Exodus story doesn't actually need to be true for me to experience it like some sort of inherited memory. But it can't hurt, I don't think, to seek a better and richer understanding of how the Bible came to be the book that it is, and how and why it came to tell the stories that it tells.

Throughout the 19th Century and a good portion of the 20th, the relatively young science of archaeology was actually focused on proving that much of the biblical account of early history, since about 1500 BCE (before the common era), was accurate. But as the science grew up, archaeologists determined that there is no factual basis for the story of the flight of thousands of Jews from Egypt. There is very little evidence of the existence of Jews, at all, before about 1000 BCE, when they begin to turn up in some Egyptian and, later, Assyrian accounts of a tribal people living in the Galilee and the hills around present day Jerusalem.

There is evidence that there were, briefly, two Jewish states, Israel and Judah, but the northern state of Israel, larger, more prosperous and more cosmopolitan than Judah, was smashed by Assyrian conquerers around 800 BCE. After the disappearance of Israel, scribes in Judah, in the service of a likely real-life Judean king by the name of Josiah, wrote what would become the Book of Kings, a story attributing the destruction of Israel to the failure of the Jews there to properly honor Jehovah, a particularly intolerant and demanding god who found himself unable to abide the proximity of other gods. However vexing the worship of other gods was to Jehovah, it was a common practice in the polytheistic Middle East, and a practice tolerated by the kings of the northern state of Israel, who ruled over a kingdom much more diverse than Judah.

Theologians can argue the ways in which monotheism is superior to polytheism (and they do), but the Judean scribes had a much more practical interest in attributing the downfall of Israel to the worship of other gods and to the creation of graven images; they were primarily concerned with creating a rationale to support the reconquest of the Galilee by Judah, the home of the true and devout worshippers of the one god, the one who had promised the land to the children of Israel. Telling a story about how Israel broke faith with Jehovah, with the added implication that Judah had kept faith, made for good propaganda [at the time]."

As it happens, Biblical accounts of things still make good propaganda.  Almost 3,500 actual years after the supposed events of the Exodus, the justification for the establishment of Israel and its maintenance as a Jewish (theocratic) state is frequently based on the notion that Jews were promised the land of Canaan.

But even my version of so-called "real" events places Jews in the area a good, long time ago, when the southern Jewish state of Judah survived the destruction of the northern state of Israel. This is not such dubious history, and establishes the notion that the area was once a homeland for the Jews. One that was never forgotten regardless of the intervening history, a history that somehow became inseparable from godly promises and religious beliefs.

The real history of Jews in the Middle East is a legitimate basis for a "right of return" for Jews in much the same way that history justifies a right of return for American Indians and Armenians and Tibetans and Palestinians. But it does not justify the establishment of a state that privileges Jews on land most recently occupied by Palestinians.

If Passover seders are to teach us anything, I believe they ought to remind us that "next year in Jerusalem" has arrived, and some of us are celebrating religious feasts on land and in homes taken from Palestinians by force. It would be better to discuss what it ought to mean to "remember that we were slaves in Egypt," that we Jews were once enslaved and oppressed by a mighty and pitiless enemy. That ought to expand our understanding of "never again."

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