Rocking Israel to its Biblical core
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Rocking Israel to its Biblical core

February 9, 2001



"The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land [of Canaan] in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the twelve tribes of Israel."

Well if King David was a nebbish (modern translation might be "nerd"), one has to wonder how history will record Ariel Sharon, the man with such a past whom the Jews of Israel have just overwhelming elected their leader. Though not quite a King, as sad and tragic as the situation may be Sharon is definitely on top and no matter what happens now he has had already had a tremendous influence on the creation of today's Middle Eastern version of Apartheid. Indeed, we officially dub Ariel Sharon "Mr. Apartheid", and will appropriately use this reference to him in the future. In fairness though, we also point out that the Israeli Labor party is fully complicitous in creating today's Apartheid situation and that American Jewry must also bear partial historical responsibility for endorsing and legitimzing it. In the end, whenever that is, it will not work -- just as Apartheid in South Africa eventually crumbled, just as the various forms of direct colonization so much a part of the European expansion of centuries past became discredited in the last century. The question is the price that will be paid before what has been concocted is brought to an end, before justice is finally done. The question is if a genocidal war with weapons of mass destruction will be forced upon the region, and upon the post-Holocaust Jews now gathered in Israel, in order to undo what Sharon and Barak have wrought -- of late in the name of "separation" and "peace process".

Meanwhile, the very pillars of the Zionist mythology are more in doubt than ever. Just read this from


And Exodus never happened and the walls of Jericho did not come a-tumbling down. How archaeologists are shaking Israel to its biblical foundations.

By Laura Miller*

Arguing among themselves about the meanings of objects like pottery shards, animal bones and the foundations of long-ruined buildings is something archaeologists usually do in the privacy of their own profession. But when the argument is about who wrote the Bible, why it was written and what, if any, of the historical events described in the Old Testament are true -- and when the archaeologist's excavations are conducted on some of the most contested land in the world, the Middle East -- the tempest is almost guaranteed to boil over the rim of the teapot. No one knows this better than Israel Finkelstein, chairman of the Archaeology Department at Tel Aviv University, who, with archaeology historian and journalist Neil Asher Silberman, has just published a book called "The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Text."

"The Bible Unearthed" is the latest salvo fired in a pitched battle between those who consider the Old Testament to contain plenty of reliable historical facts, and those who, at the opposite extreme, say it's pure mythology. The debate reached the general population of Israel, sending what one journalist called a "shiver" down the nation's "collective spine," in late 1999, when another archaeologist from Tel Aviv University, Ze'ev Herzog, wrote a cover story for the weekend magazine of the national daily newspaper, Ha'aretz. In the essay, Herzog laid out many of the theories Finkelstein and Silberman present in their book: "the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land [of Canaan] in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the twelve tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united kingdom of David and Solomon, described in the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom." The new theories envision this modest chiefdom as based in a Jerusalem that was essentially a cow town, not the glorious capital of an empire.

Although, as Herzog notes, some of these findings have been accepted by the majority of biblical scholars and archaeologists for years and even decades, they are just now making a dent in the awareness of the Israeli public -- a very painful dent. They challenge many of the Old Testament stories central to Israeli beliefs about their own national character and destiny, stories that have influenced much of Western culture as well. The tales of the patriarchs -- Abraham, Isaac and Joseph among others -- were the first to go when biblical scholars found those passages rife with anachronisms and other inconsistencies. The story of Exodus, one of the most powerful epics of enslavement, courage and liberation in human history, also slipped from history to legend when archaeologists could no longer ignore the lack of corroborating contemporary Egyptian accounts and the absence of evidence of large encampments in the Sinai Peninsula ("the wilderness" where Moses brought the Israelites after leading them through the parted Red Sea).

Herzog's article led to a nationwide bout of soul-searching. After it appeared, universities organized conferences where distressed citizens could quiz experts on the details and meanings of this new and not-so-new research; Israeli newspaper journalists wrote stories casting the theories as blows against the cultural identity and even the political legitimacy of Israel; and scholars who quarrel with the ideas of archaeologists like Finkelstein wrote fiery letters and editorials denouncing them as "biblical minimalists."

Them's fightin' words. In this field, it seems, there are few worse epithets to throw at a colleague than "minimalist." The moniker is usually applied to a controversial group of European biblical scholars, sometimes called the Copenhagen School, who have insisted that since there is, to their minds, so little corroborative evidence supporting the stories in the Old Testament, the scriptures should be regarded as a collection of legends, and figures like David and Solomon considered "no more historical than King Arthur.." The inflammatory implication behind the name "minimalist" (which Finkelstein and Silberman dismiss as a canard invented by the group's "detractors") is that an emotional, religious or political agenda, rather than a judicious weighing of the facts, drives their research. Their most vehement critics accuse the minimalists of being anti-Bible and anti-Israeli, for to some any attack on the historical legitimacy of the Bible, with its grand national myth of a people chosen by God to rule in the Promised Land, is a blow struck at the legitimacy of the current state of Israel.

The walls didn't come a-tumbling down, because there were no walls

Into this incendiary territory steps Finkelstein, a prominent and well-respected Israeli archaeologist. Although his staunchest critics, including William Dever, professor of Near East archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona, and Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, have called him a "minimalist," his defenders scoff at the label. "The Bible Unearthed" does observe that "from a purely literary and archaeological standpoint, the minimalists have some points in their favor," but it concludes that "archaeology has shown that there were simply too many material correspondences between the finds in Israel . and the world described in the Bible to suggest that the Bible was . fanciful priestly literature, written with no historical basis at all."

Nevertheless, Finkelstein is an iconoclast. He established his reputation in part by developing a theory about the settlement patterns of the nomadic shepherd tribes who would eventually become the Israelites, bolstering the growing consensus that they were originally indistinguishable from the rest of their neighbors, the Canaanites. This overturns a key element in the Bible: The Old Testament depicts the Israelites as superior outsiders -- descended from Abraham, a Mesopotamian immigrant -- entitled by divine order to invade Canaan and exterminate its unworthy, idolatrous inhabitants. The famous battle of Jericho, with which the Israelites supposedly launched this campaign of conquest after wandering for decades in the desert, has been likewise debunked: The city of Jericho didn't exist at that time and had no walls to come tumbling down. These assertions are all pretty much accepted by mainstream archaeologists.

Finkelstein's latest and most controversial claim, however, concerns the dating of certain ruins, including those at a site where he co-heads an ongoing excavation: Megiddo. Megiddo is thought to be the location of the final, future battle of Armageddon, but it is also named in the Bible as one of the major provincial capitals in the united kingdom of Israel under the reigns of David and Solomon. When archaeologists discovered the remains of monumental structures at Megiddo in the 1920s and 1930s, they promptly attributed them to Solomon's time. In "The Bible Unearthed," Finkelstein and Silberman present Finkelstein's argument for redating these structures, including the massive "Solomon's Gates" found in several similar cities, to a period about 100 years later, and they give credit for building them to King Ahab, husband of the notorious heathen Jezebel and a ruler much reviled for his apostasy in the Old Testament.

Some of his colleagues find this theory unacceptable. Dever declares that Finkelstein is "the only archaeologist in the world" who advocates the redating. Lawrence Stager, a professor of the archaeology of Israel at Harvard and director of the Harvard Semitic Museum, says "Ninety-five percent of the specialists in the field would disagree with him" and dismisses Phyllis Tribble, a professor of biblical studies who enthusiastically reviewed "The Bible Unearthed" in the New York Times Book Review, as someone who "doesn't know much about the Old Testament and archaeology."

And while Baruch Halpern, a historian who was a co-director of the Megiddo excavation with Finkelstein, describes the book as "excellent" and "challenging," he remains unconvinced by Finkelstein's redating of the Solomonic ruins because the theory relies overmuch on pottery seriation, a technique for dating sites using ceramic remains, which he distrusts. Nevertheless, Halpern expresses surprise at the extent of the ire Finkelstein's theory has evoked. "This touched an incredibly vital nerve ... They can't abide the thought that the consensus might be mistaken. If one of the only absolute anchors between archaeology and the text is removed, they are thoroughly at sea."

Ordinarily, the precise dating of buildings erected 3,000 years ago in a kingdom that long ago passed away into ancient history would preoccupy only a small group of specialists. Once the Bible's involved, though, all bets are off; its influence on contemporary Israeli identity is still tremendous.. "It's used as a deed, as an outline of what people are going to do, as a way of proving your genealogy," says Amy Dockser Marcus, former Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and author of "The View From Nebo: How Archaeology Is Rewriting the Bible and Reshaping the Middle East."

Giving aid and comfort to Israel's enemies?

And it's not just Israel where the scriptures have provided a blueprint for political and cultural as well as religious projects. Take the story of the conquest of Canaan, for example: a legend about a "righteous" nation seizing a great country from a people who did not deserve it. It has implications for the establishment of the current state of Israel, but the Europeans who colonized America deliberately invoked that conquest myth, as well, in their campaigns against Native Americans. The Bible's story of David, who with his great army captured Jerusalem and united a vast empire in Palestine, and his son Solomon, who built the First Temple in Jerusalem and many magnificent gates, palaces and stables throughout the land, depicts the united kingdom as ancient Israel's Golden Age. The founders of the modern state of Israel invoked that kingdom and heralded its "restoration." And even Jews who consider themselves secular can experience the revelation of David and Solomon's relative insignificance as deflating.

Others see the downgrading of David and Solomon's reigns as positively ominous. In a response to Herzog's article in Ha'aretz, Hershel Shanks of the Biblical Archaeology Review lumped both Herzog and Finkelstein with the biblical minimalists and accused them of having "a political agenda." "[A]t the extreme," Shanks wrote, "they can even be viewed as anti-Semitic." According to Marcus, "People say that Finkelstein means well but what he's doing is giving amunition to people who are anti-Israel, and you do see some of this stuff turning up on pro-Palestinian web sites, for example." Finkelstein himself has no patience for such charges, maintaining that he has no political agenda and is just a scholar doing his job. "Nonsense," he replied by e-mail when the "ammunition" issue was raised. "Research is research, and strong societies can easily endure discoveries like this."

By comparison with today's skeptical turmoil, the early years of the modern Israeli state were a honeymoon period for archaeology and the Bible, in which the science seemed to validate the historical passages of the Old Testament left and right. As Finkelstein and Silberman relate, midcentury archaeologists usually "took the historical narratives of the Bible at face value"; Israel's first archaeologists were often said to approach a dig with a spade in one hand and the Bible in the other. The Old Testament frequently served as the standard against which all other data were measured: If someone found majestic ruins, they dated them to Solomon's time; signs of a battle were quickly attributed to the conquest of Canaan.

That confidence was not entirely misplaced; in particular, the Old Testament contains very detailed genealogies and gets high marks in geography. Eventually, though, as archaeological methods improved and biblical scholars analyzed the text itself for inconsistencies and anachronisms, the amount of the Bible regarded as historically verifiable eroded. The honeymoon was over.

According to Jack M. Sasson, professor of Judaic and biblical studies at Vanderbilt University, "There is a kind of curtain drawn across the Bible. After it you can find history, before it not. Most responsible scholars in the '20s began with Abraham. As time progressed, the curtain moved further down, and people were debating whether Exodus really happened, then the conquest. Now the big debate has slipped even further [into the present]. It has gotten down to being about the monarchy."

Beyond the founding myths

Marcus says that Finkelstein is "difficult to dismiss because he's so much an insider in terms of his credentials and background. He's an archaeologist, not a theologian, and he is an Israeli. It's hard to say that someone who was born in Israel and intends to live the rest of his life there is anti-Israeli." In her mind, Finkelstein's work parallels a broader change in Israeli society led by those who, like Finkelstein, were born after the task of state building had been accomplished. "They're not as wedded to the mythology of Israel," she says "Their identities are not as caught up in toeing to the traditional narratives. This group of historians has gone into the archives and done a lot of research and come up with new interpretations of Israel's recent past. Israel Finkelstein is part of that, but he's looking at Israel's ancient past." Marcus calls this group of scholars "new historians"; others have dubbed the trend "post-Zionism."

Here, also, there are striking similarities between contemporary politics and the way ancient history gets studied. Many of the new dating methods used by Finkelstein and others to undermine the historicity of certain Bible stories involve seeing the first Israelites as part of the fabric of Middle Eastern life rather than as a remarkable exception. "The Bible Unearthed" notes that in the 1970s, archaeologists began to use long-term anthropological models, which were built by scholars who compared many cultures to see how civilizations tend to develop along predictable lines. Certain artifacts -- monumental buildings, administrative correspondence, royal chronicles and national scripture like the Bible -- are almost always "a sign of state formation, in which power is centralized in national institutions like an official cult or monarchy."

That kind of state didn't exist in Jerusalem during David and Solomon's time, so Finkelstein and Silberman argue that the Old Testament must have been written (though perhaps "compiled" is a more accurate term) later. They peg a king descended from David, Josiah, who ruled over a much more developed Jerusalem more than 300 years after David, as the one who ordered its transcription. Josiah, according to "Unearthing the Bible," needed a national scripture to cement a strictly monotheistic religious orthodoxy and to promote the idea that only a king of Davidic lineage could reunite the lost empire. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Old Testament is still used to forge a national identity for today's Israel, since according to Finkelstein and Silberman, it was created to do just that in the ancient world.

The Old Testament is also a story about how special Israel is, singled out from its neighbors by God's orders. Archaeology used to mimic that separatism. "For a long time the archaeology of Israel was studied in isolation," says Marcus. "Israel Finkelstein sees modern and ancient Israel as part of the broader Middle East . I consider him part of an emerging common ground. He's an archaeologist starting to look at the past in a different way." Finkelstein, when asked about the comparison to the new historians, replied, "The general atmosphere in this country, and in my generation, is very different now from that of, say, 20 or 50 years ago. There is a strong cultural activity going on here, and part of it is a fresh thinking about the past -- distant and more recent." Techniques like the long-term anthropological models Finkelstein prizes pull ancient Israel and, metaphorically, modern Israel, back into the texture of Middle Eastern life, so it's no wonder they're associated with a new, more pro-peace process current in Israeli culture.

How those views will weather the current faltering of the process and the probable election of hard-liner Ariel Sharon is uncertain. The election of Sharon, who many believe ignited the current intifada when he provocatively visited the Temple Mount, a site sacred to both Jews and Muslims (and who is quoted in the pages of the Jan. 29 issue of the New Yorker saying "the Koran doesn't mention Jerusalem once . In the Bible it is mentioned 676 times"), may reflect a more general retrenchment on the subject of Israel's symbolic underpinnings. Finkelstein remains unfazed by his critics: "I am sure that no educated Israeli or American Jew for that matter, would want me to silence the results of my research. We are an open, democratic society, and we need to face these things -- both on the distant past and on the more recent one. In fact, this makes us a stronger society! And I really don't think -- let me know if I am wrong -- that there is a committee sitting somewhere in, say, Switzerland, and deciding the fate of nations according to historical or biblical research." [ - 7 February]

* Laura Miller is an editor of Salon.

February 2001


(February 27, 2001)
Was it the Likud Party, or the Labor Party, that authorized more illegal settlements in the occupied territories since the Gulf War and the Madrid Peace Conference?

(February 26, 2001)
For those who still needed proof of the cravenness and duplicity of Israel's Labor Party, the party that spawned "Peace Now" and "Oslo" among other gross deceptions, it came today.

Defectors say Iraq tested Nuclear Bomb
(February 25, 2001)
When Iraq was more overtly building nuclear weapons, the Israelis struck in 1981 destroying the Osirak reactor near Baghdad that could have provided the crucial processed uranium fuel.

"Go back, we don't want you"
(February 24, 2001)
General Colin Powell, now combining even more closely than usual the Pentagon with the State Department, was afraid to go to Gaza; and rightly so.

The Hebron MASSACRE - 7 long years ago
(February 24, 2001)
Abraham's dysfunctional family has had unbelieveable historical ramifications for which the focal point today is Hebron, site of Abraham's burial place, a religious site to both Jews and Muslim alike who are today quite literally at each other's throats.

Council on foreign relations help legitimize Sharon
(February 23, 2001)
The Council on Foreign Relations, New York-power elite-based but in recent years integrating more with the Washington government and corporate elite, has been for quite some time, to put it bluntly, a rather tricky and chicanery Israeli-oriented Zionist center when it comes to matters relevant to Israel.

Iraq - The great Cover-Up
(February 23, 2001)
As terrible as what the Israelis, with their superpower American ally (and European connivance), are doing to the Palestinians, what has been and is being done to the Iraqis and the Chechnyans is also truly appauling.

Arab expulsion admitted by Sharon Ally
(February 22, 2001)
One day maybe Israel -- like South Africa and Chile before it -- will have some kind of "truth finding" commission to try to purge itself of the past.

Protests in Jordan
(February 22, 2001)
If it weren't for the Hashemite Regime in today's Jordan, yesterday's Transjordan, and before that the East Bank of Palestine, the Israelis would never have been able to vanquish the Palestinian people in days past and would never be able to do to the remaining Palestinians what is happening today.

Powell and Sharon - Street protests?
(February 21, 2001)
Clearly, the US is rushing to court unpopularity across the world, contrary to expectations that the Bush national security establishment would conduct itself with a degree of sophistication.

"This is only the beginning"
(February 21, 2001)
The crippling is not just physical. Psychologically, culturally, economically, and even morally, the Palestinian people are being twisted and tortured beyond all recognition of their former selves.

Gaza Ghetto, Gaza Concentration Camp, Gaza Prison
(February 19, 2001)
For four months, the Gaza Strip has been effectively isolated from the world. Over 1 million Palestinians are caged in an area of not more than 365km2.

Locked in an Orwellian eternal war
(February 19, 2001)
President Bush Jr didn't seem so confident the other day as he told the world of the newly increased bombing of Iraq. But he made it clear that "until the world is told otherwise" the Americans are convinced they run the world and it is up to them to decide whom to bomb, whom to favor, whom to take out, whom to reward.

Arafat collapsing
(February 16, 2001)
The Arafat Regime is collapsing. Here are some of the details, twisted somewhat of course because the reports are from Israel's best newspaper, Ha'aretz, in view of the fact that Palestinian and Arab news sources are unable and unwilling to provide such insights.

The realization, "perhaps the dream"
(February 16, 2001)
Out of the cycle of violence the gradual, hesitant understanding - perhaps the dream - will grow, that the only way is through a struggle to create a land of Israel/Palestine that is undivided in both physical and human terms, pluralistic and open; a land in which civilized relations, human touch, intimate coexistence and a link to a common homeland would be stronger than militant tribalism and the separation into national ghettoes.

"Collective suicide" or Zionism united?
(February 15, 2001)
If there is a national unity government, it will be evident that the differences between Labour as the main branch of the left and the Likud as the main branch of the right are not that big.

Death and assissination
(February 14, 2001)
It didn't take long for the Israelis, now Sharon-led, to start creating the escalating provocations that will then bring about still more Palestinian rage which will then give the Israelis the excuse they seek to pulverize the Palestinians still harder, possibly destroying the regime they earlier created, and possibly leading to another Palestinian "nakbah" (disaster).

Israelis strike, Palestinians without strategy
(February 13, 2001)
The Israelis have had a long-term strategy for a very long time; and they have pursued it regardless of what party was in power and who happened to be Prime Minister of the moment.

Dozens of Palestinians wounded
(February 12, 2001)
Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinians in the West Bank Monday as Israel's rightwing Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon sought to forge a unity government.

"Holy war" is forever
(February 12, 2001)
Fifty four years ago when an international commission of that day was hearing from Jews and Arabs about what the new U.N. should do about Palestine there was testimony from very credible and very establishment Jewish Zionist sources opposing creation of a "separatist Jewish State" precisely because it would bring about an unending conflict with the Palestinian Arab population.

War preparations continue
(February 11, 2001)
The Arafat Regime, the "Authority", is near collapse -- not just financially, but credibility wise as well. The Israeli government is near "unity" -- with General Sharon in charge.

The PA is about to collapse
(February 10, 2001)
How ironic history can be. After generations of struggle and such suffering the regime that rules the Palestinians is now in the hands of Ariel Sharon representing Israel, the U.S. Congress representing the financial levers of the American Empire, and the European governments which in this situation operate on the pretense that they are better than either of the above.

Rocking Israel to its Biblical core
(February 9, 2001)
Well if King David was a nebbish (modern translation might be "nerd"), one has to wonder how history will record Ariel Sharon, the man with such a past whom the Jews of Israel have just overwhelming elected their leader.

Sharon maneuvers for starting position
(February 9, 2001)
It's time for serious political confusion and disinformation now. As the armies prepare themselves for the clashes likely to come in one form or another, the politicians maneuver for new starting positions.

Clinton pardoned Mossad spy for Israelis
(February 9, 2001)
The Israelis adore Bill Clinton, as all the pollsters know. Deep down even the common everyday Israelis know he was their man in the White House.

The many crimes of Ariel Sharon
(February 8, 2001)
Some incorrigible optimists have suggested that only a right-wing extremist of the notoriety of Likud leader Ariel Sharon will have the credentials to broker any sort of lasting settlement with the Palestinians.

Sharon wastes no time - Arafat bows
(February 7, 2001)
We will give him the benefit of the doubt. If he comes with good ideas that will bring us closer to the peace process, why not? The world has seen many such situations before.

Holy war for Jerusalem
(February 7, 2001)
We're on the way now to a new and expanded struggle, maybe even a religious war, Jerusalem the focalpoint.

The cold logic of Sharon
(February 7, 2001)
Many Israelis just stayed home. Others cast a blank vote. But a considerable minority thrust Ariel Sharon into the greatest electoral landslide in that country's history -- obviously as well an overwhelming majority of those who did vote.

Sharon wins and Peres wants in
(February 6, 2001)
He may be a brutish thug, he may fit the definition of war criminal, he may be a Jewish racist -- but now he is also the Prime Minister-elect of Israel, overwhelmingly swept into power in a way few imagined possible just a year ago.

All sides now committed to escalation
(February 6, 2001)
Now the real craziness begins. The Palestinians are committed to heating things up to demonstrate their resolve and their capabilities. The Israelis are committed to "stopping the violence" which means clamping the boot down on the Palestinians even more harshly.

The legacy of Ariel Sharon
(February 5, 2001)
This is a place of filth and blood which will forever be associated with Ariel Sharon. In Israel today, he may well be elected prime minister.

BBC casts doubt of Pan AM convictions
(February 5, 2001)
In advance of whatever the Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi is going to produce as "evidence" of innocence today, the BBC has published the following story quoting the very Scottish law professor who arranged the trial in The Netherlands casting great doubt about the veracity of the verdict reached:

What's left of Israel's left
(February 5, 2001)
What's left of Israel's left is in a fractured and demoralized state of affairs. Not only is Ariel Sharon about to become Israel's Prime Minister, but in all likelihood he is to be swept into power tomorrow in a landslide unprecedented in Israel's history.

The Pan Am 103 Verdict
(February 3, 2001)
The papers are filled with pictures of happy relatives of the victims of the 1988 bombing of PanAm 103. A Libyan, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, was just found guilty of the bombing by a Scottish court in the Hague, his co-defendant, Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah, being acquitted... What's wrong is that the evidence against Megrahi is thin to the point of transparency.

Rivers of blood
(February 2, 2001)
The bloodiness and racism of Sharon's past is fact. And these two articles help bring that past forward to the present.

Waiting for Sharon
(February 2, 2001)
They believe a Sharon victory will be a boon for their cause. 'He will expose the true face of Israel,' says an activist in Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement in Nablus, 'and force the world, including the US, to address its real responsibilities to the peace process...

Israeli Arabs boycott Barak, await Sharon
(February 1, 2001)
As the extreme right-wing revolution in Israel nears, as Ariel Sharon and friends prepare to take over political power, the "Israeli Arab vote" will not be enough to save Ehud Barak, and in fact it will not even be mobilized on his behalf this time, though Yasser Arafat and his friends have surely tried.

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