Within the Christian tradition, Christmas is traditionally a time for peace and reconciliation. Hopefully, the knowledge imparted in this article will help two non-Christian peoples, Jews and Palestinians, to put aside their differences and recognise their essential oneness.
For Part 1 of this series, see here (link).
These are extracts from "The Invention of the Jewish People" in which the Israeli Jewish scholar Shlomo Sand demonstrates that the Palestinians, far from being Arab aliens, are just Jews who converted to Islam. Palestinians and Jews are the same people.
“He shall even return, and have intelligence with them that forsake the holy covenant” (Dan. 11: 30)—the consoling prophecy of the prophet from Babylon—was interpreted by Rabbi Saadia Gaon in the tenth century CE as follows: “They are the Ishmaelites in Jerusalem; and then they defiled the mighty temple.” The great Jewish scholar, who translated the Bible into Arabic, continued his commentary: “[He] shall speak marvelous things against the God of gods” (Dan. 11: 36)—“outrageous words against the Lord of Eternity, till he discharge his anger with Israel, then the Creator will destroy the enemies of Israel.” He went on to interpret the verse “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12: 2), saying, “at is the resurrection of the Israelite dead, destined to eternal life. Those who will not awake are those who turned away from the Lord, who will descend to the lowermost level of hell, and will be the shame of all flesh.”
In 1967 these comments from the works of Saadia Gaon, expressing his profound grief about Islamization, were presented and highlighted in a fascinating essay by the historian Abraham Polak, the founder of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University. Soon after Israel seized the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, this scholar thought that the conquered population would become an insoluble problem for the State, and cautiously brought up the vexed issue of “the origin of the Arabs of the Land of Israel.” Polak, a confirmed Zionist, was a bold student of Islam, and he disliked unjustifiable suppressions of memory, as we shall see in the next chapter. Since no one was willing to talk about those who did “forsake the holy covenant,” those “Ishmaelites in Jerusalem,” or those “enemies of Israel” who “turned away from the Lord,” he took the almost impossible mission upon himself.
His important essay did not argue that all Palestinians were the direct or exclusive descendants of the Judeans. As a serious historian, he knew that over thousands or even hundreds of years almost any population, especially in such geographic junctions as the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, mingles with its neighbors, its captives or its conquerors. Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Egyptians and Crusaders had all come to the country and always mingled and integrated with the local population. Polak assumed that there was considerable likelihood that Judeans did convert to Islam, meaning that there was a demographic continuity in the agrarian “people of the land” from antiquity to our time, and that this should be the subject of a legitimate scientific study. But as we know, what history did not wish to relate, it omitted. No university or other research institution responded to Polak’s challenge, and no funds or students were assigned to the problematic subject.
Bold as he was, Polak was not the first to raise the issue of mass Islamization, and he pointed this out in his introduction. In the early days of Zionist settlement, before the rise of Palestinian nationalism, the idea that the bulk of the local population descended from the Judeans was accepted by a good many.
Israel Belkind, for example, one of the first Zionists who settled in Palestine in 1882, and a leading figure in the small BILU movement, always believed in the close historical connection between the country’s ancient inhabitants and the peasantry of his own day. Before he died he summed up his thinking on the subject in a small book, which included all the controversial assumptions that would later be erased from national historiography: “The historians are accustomed to say that after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, the Jews were scattered all over the world and no longer inhabited their country. But this, too, is a historical error, which must be removed and the true facts discovered.”
Belkind argued that the subsequent uprisings, from the Bar Kokhba revolt to the insurgence in Galilee in the early seventh century, indicated that most of the Judeans continued to live in the country for a long time. “The land was abandoned by the upper strata, the scholars, the Torah men, to whom the religion came before the country,” he wrote. “Perhaps, too, so did many of the mobile urban people. But the tillers of the soil remained attached to their land.” Many findings reinforce this historical conclusion.
Many Hebrew place names have been preserved, unlike the Greek and Roman names that were meant to replace them. A good number of burial places, sacred to the local inhabitants, are joint Muslim and Jewish cemeteries. The local Arabic dialect is strewn with Hebrew and Aramaic words, distinguishing it from literary Arabic and other Arabic vernaculars. The local populace does not define itself as Arab—they see themselves as Muslims or fellahin (farmers), while they refer to the Bedouin as Arabs. The particular mentality of certain local communities recalls that of their Hebrew ancestors.
In other words, Belkind was convinced that he and his fellow pioneers were meeting “a good many of our people … our own flesh and blood.” To him, the ethnic origin meant more than the religion and the daily culture derived from it. He argued that it was imperative to revive the spiritual connection with the lost limb of the Jewish people, to develop and improve its economic condition, and to unite with it for a common future. The Hebrew schools must open their doors to Muslim students, without offending their faith or their language, and, in addition to Arabic, must teach them both Hebrew and “world culture.”
Belkind was not the only one to promote this historical outlook and this distinctive cultural strategy. Ber Borochov, the legendary theoretical leader of the Zionist left, thought the same. During the Uganda controversy that shook the Zionist movement, Borochov adopted a consistent anti-Herzl position. He was, in contemporary parlance, a sworn Palestinocentric, arguing that the only solution that would ensure the success of the Zionist enterprise was settlement in Palestine. One of the arguments cited by this Zionist Marxist seeking to convince his leftist readers was historical, flavored with ethnocentrism:
The local population in Palestine is racially more closely related to the Jews than to any other people, even among the Semitic ones. It is quite probable that the fellahin in Palestine are direct descendants of the Jewish and Canaanite rural population, with a slight admixture of Arab blood. For it is known that the Arabs, being proud conquerors, mingled very little with the populations in the countries they conquered … All the tourists and travelers confirm that, except for the Arabic language, it is impossible to distinguish between a Sephardic porter and an Arab laborer or fellah … Hence, the racial difference between the diaspora Jews and the Palestinian fellahin is no more marked than between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.
Borochov was convinced that this kinship would make the local population more receptive to the new settlers. As theirs was a lower culture, the fellahin around the Jewish colonies would soon adopt the ways of Hebrew culture, and would eventually merge with it entirely. The Zionist vision, based partly on “blood” and partly on history, determined that “a fellah who speaks Hebrew, dresses like a Jew and adopts the outlook and customs of Jewish common people would be in no way distinguished from the Jews.”
Among the Poale Zion membership, the political-ideological movement led and shaped by Borochov, were two gifted young men whose names would become famous. In 1918, when David Ben-Gurion and Itzhak Ben-Zvi were staying in New York, they wrote a sociohistorical book entitled Eretz Israel in the Past and in the Present. They wrote it first in Hebrew, then translated it into Yiddish in order to reach a wider Jewish-American public. This was the most important work about “Eretz Israel” (which, in the book, consisted of both sides of the Jordan River and stretched from El-Arish in the south to Tyre in the north), and it was very successful. It was well researched, and its statistical material and bibliographic sources were impressive. But for its passionate nationalistic tone, it might have been an ordinary academic work. Israel’s future prime minister contributed two-thirds of the text, and the rest was written by the future president. The second chapter, which dealt with the history and present situation of the fellahin, was composed by Ben-Gurion in full agreement with his coauthor. They wrote, in complete confidence, Historical reason indicates that the population that survived since the seventh century had originated from the Judean farming class that the Muslim conquerors had found when they reached the country.
The fellahin are not descendants of the Arab conquerors, who captured Eretz Israel and Syria in the seventh century CE. The Arab victors did not destroy the agricultural population they found in the country. They expelled only the alien Byzantine rulers, and did not touch the local population. Nor did the Arabs go in for settlement. Even in their former habitations, the Arabians did not engage in farming … They did not seek new lands on which to settle their peasantry, which hardly existed. Their whole interest in the new countries was political, religious and material: to rule, to propagate Islam and to collect taxes.
To argue that after the conquest of Jerusalem by Titus and the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt Jews altogether ceased to cultivate the land of Eretz Israel is to demonstrate complete ignorance in the history and the contemporary literature of Israel… The Jewish farmer, like any other farmer, was not easily torn from his soil, which had been watered with his sweat and the sweat of his forebears … Despite the repression and suffering, the rural population remained unchanged.
This was written thirty years before Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, which asserts that the whole people was forcibly uprooted. The two committed Zionists wished to join the local “natives,” believing wholeheartedly that this could be achieved thanks to their shared ethnic origin. Although the ancient Judean peasants converted to Islam, they had done so for material reasons—chiefly to avoid taxation—which were in no way treasonous. Indeed, by clinging to their soil they remained loyal to their homeland. Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi saw Islam, unlike Christianity, as a democratic religion that not only embraced all converts to Islam as brothers, but genuinely revoked the political and civil restrictions and sought to erase social distinctions.
The authors underlined that the Jewish origin of the fellahin could be revealed by means of a philological study of the local Arabic language, as well as by linguistic geography. They went even further than Belkind in stressing that a study of ten thousand names of “all the villages, streams, springs, mountains, ruins, valleys and hills ‘from Dan to Beersheba’ … confirm[s] that the entire biblical terminology of Eretz Israel remains alive, as it had been, in the speech of the fellah population.” Some 210 villages still bore clear Hebrew names, and in addition to the Muslim law there was, for a long time, a code of “fellahin laws, or unwritten customary judgments, known as Shariat al-Khalil—the laws of the patriarch Abraham.” Beside many village mosques there were local shrines (maqam) commemorating such sainted figures as the three patriarchs, certain kings, prophets and great sheikhs.
In 1929 Ben-Zvi’s position was more moderate: “Obviously it would be mistaken to say that all the fellahin are descendants of the ancient Jews, but it can be said of most of them, or their core.” He maintained that immigrants arrived from many places, and the local population was fairly heterogeneous, but the traces left in the language, place-names, legal customs, popular festivals such as that of Nebi Musa (the prophet Moses), and other cultural practices left almost no doubt that “the great majority of the fellahin do not descend from the Arab conquerors but before that, from the Jewish fellahin, who were the foundation of this country before its conquest by Islam.”
But when the Islamised native Jews (Palestinians) didn't buy into the ethnic brotherhood option being dangled by the incoming Zionist Jews, the Zionist Jews then rewrote history to exclude them, depicting them as the descendants of Arab invaders.
The Arab uprising and the massacre in Hebron, which happened the year Ben-Zvi published his booklet, and subsequently the widespread Palestinian revolt of 1936–39, took the remaining wind out of the sails of the integrationist Zionist thinkers. The rise of a local nationalism made it very clear to the educated settlers that their ethnocentric bear-hug had no future. The inclusive concept briefly adopted by Zionists was based on the assumption that it would be easy to assimilate a “low and primitive” Oriental culture, and so the first violent resistance from the objects of this Orientalist fantasy shook them awake. From that moment on, the descendants of the Judean peasantry vanished from the Jewish national consciousness and were cast into oblivion. Very soon the invention of the jewish people the modern Palestinian fellahin became, in the eyes of the authorized agents of memory, Arabian immigrants who came in the nineteenth century to an almost empty country and continued to arrive in the twentieth century as the developing Zionist economy, according to the new myth, attracted many thousands of non-Jewish laborers.
It is not impossible that Baer’s and Dinur’s postponement of the exile to the Muslim conquest of the seventh century was also an indirect response to the historical discourse proposed by such central figures as Belkind, Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi. To Zionist thinking, this pioneering discourse defined too loosely the parameters of the “ancient nation”—and worse, it might have granted too many historical rights to the “native populace.” It was imperative to bury it as quickly as possible and erase it from the national agenda.
From now on, early Islam did not convert the Jews but simply dispossessed them. The imaginary exile in the seventh century CE came to replace the baseless religious narrative about a mass expulsion after the fall of the Second Temple, as well as the thesis that the Palestinian fellahin were descendants of the people of Judea. The time of the expulsion was unimportant—the main thing was the precious memory of a forced exile.