Israel

Israel is one of the world’s great hotspots; perhaps the greatest, now that the Troubles in Northern Ireland have abated somewhat and the Civil War in Sri Lanka has come to an end. It’s true that violence in Israel has tapered off too, but it seems that everyone has an opinion on Israel and its relationship to the Palestinian Arabs whom they conquered at their founding, and then in the Six-Day War in 1967. These opinions roughly follow a left-right axis, with those on the left favoring Palestinians, and those on the right Israel. I think that this pattern was set during the Cold War: once Israel allied with the United States, and the Arab world the Soviet Union, well, that’s all that most people needed to know about who the good guys and who the bad guys were. That the United States picked Israel, even after such things as the Suez Crisis, the attack on the USS Liberty, or the shenanigans of Jonathan Pollard, is usually seen as a testament to the outsized influence of American Jews, who tend to be visceral partisans of Israel for obvious reasons, combined with the influence of American Evangelicals, who support Israel on account of their dispensationalist theology.

But I think that politics on a left-right scale doesn’t completely explain things. Allow me to share with you my own theory: you can divide the world into two types of people. The first group believes that no one has suffered like the Jews have suffered, so they’re pretty much allowed to do whatever they want from now on – they’re certainly entitled to their own ethnostate. The second group believes that no one has suffered like the Jews have suffered, so you’d think they’d be careful not to cause other people to suffer too (cf. “You shall not oppress the stranger that is within your gates, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”). In other words, we have a conflict between tribalists and universalists. Universalists simply don’t like hypocrisy, and they think that Israelis are hypocrites, having suffered oppression, and then proceeding to dish it out to other people. They believe that even if the Holocaust was “unique,” it still doesn’t justify the Apartheid state the Israelis have constructed. 

Alas, Zionism, of necessity, is tribal. The direct connection between the Shoah and Eretz Yisrael is taught in Israeli schools, and is on full display at Yad Veshem, the Israeli national Holocaust memorial. The museum there takes the form of a maze that gets tighter and tighter as you proceed through it, emphasizing how there was no escape from Nazi persecution. But as you come to the end you step out onto a terrace that affords a beautiful vista of the valley of Giv’at Beroshim – the idea being that the land of Israel is the answer to the problem of Jewish suffering.* I actually overheard an Israeli tour guide discounting this idea. He said that nowhere else in the world is the Holocaust taught this way, and furthermore the idea does not go over well with the Arabs. He said that President Obama, when he gave a speech in Cairo in 2009, specifically referenced it, and the guide imagined a telephone conversation a half hour afterwards between Obama and Netanyahu, who may have exclaimed: “Are you nuts?! Never say that to Arabs! To them, the Holocaust was a project carried out by European Christians – and it’s now Middle Eastern Muslims who are paying the price for it!” No, said the guide, that the State of Israel was founded after the Holocaust is simply a chronological coincidence. The Jewish settlers in Palestine could have declared their independence in the 1930s, but then the war intervened and prevented it from happening. The Holocaust is why Israel deserves to be strong, and to take its security seriously, but its existence is another matter entirely. The Jews have a right to their own state in the Levant because… that’s where their ancestors lived in the first millennium BC! (And how well does that idea go over with the Arabs? I stood there wondering. Are they just meekly supposed to accept the notion that they’ve been squatting for 1500 years?)

But I found that other people believe this too. If Israel is not compensation for the Holocaust, then it is simply the latest instantiation of the ancient Hebrew monarchy. In Jerusalem I spoke with a guy, a real settler type, who was carrying around a large Israeli flag, “just for fun.” He actually referred to the West Bank as “Judaea/Samaria” and said that archaeologists recently uncovered some more artifacts there from the First Temple period. “How can you ‘occupy’ your own country?!” he asked.

But I’m afraid that the Palestinians weren’t much better in their uses of history. Two of them matter-of-factly told me that the Jews lost the rights to their land after the Romans destroyed their temple in AD 70, and expelled them in the 130s. Clearly God was judging them.

How can you argue with people who think like this?

My personal feeling is that Israel is no less legitimate than any other country created in the twentieth century – but this legitimacy has little to do with the Holocaust, and even less with any history recorded in the Bible. Instead, Israel is a settler nation, like Canada, the United States, or Australia. Enough people moved there, bought up enough land,** constructed the apparatus of a state, wheedled the Balfour Declaration*** out of the British, and then recognition of their independence from the UN. What more do you need? Its treatment of the Palestinians is distasteful, of course, but it would really have helped if the Arabs had not declared war on the state in 1948, and in 1967, and in 1973, and in 1987, and in 2000, and continue to carry out attacks even now. I confess that I find it hard to sympathize with people who so readily resort to violence, and that there is great deal of merit in Golda Meir’s claim that “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” In any event, I was surprised at how much pro-Palestinian sentiment the Israelis tolerate. The settler pictured above claims that the police will confiscate his flag as “too provocative” when he shows up at certain rallies. And I was amazed at some of the t-shirts on sale in the Old City expressing things that would never be allowed, say, about Armenians or Kurds in Turkey.

Self-government may be preferable to good government, but having been to both places now I think I would rather live on the West Bank than in Egypt. As tribal as Zionism may be, functionally it does produce some positive externalities for everyone.

* Fr. Richard LeSueur of St. George’s College, Jerusalem first pointed this out to me.

** Alan Dershowitz, in The Case for Israel, makes a big deal about land ownership. According to him, it is self-justifying. (By this notion, I guess the Chinese who have turned Vancouver into “Hongcouver” have the right to declare their independence – in fact, they already constitute a nation! It suggests that every sovereign state ought to take immigration, and real estate, very seriously.)

*** Courtesy Tom MacMaster, an interesting dissenting view on the Balfour Declaration by the Jewish Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India:

Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom. If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go back to agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship and to have admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain, or to be treated as an Englishman. I have always understood that those who indulged in this creed were largely animated by the restrictions upon and refusal of liberty to Jews in Russia. But at the very time when these Jews have been acknowledged as Jewish Russians and given all liberties, it seems to be inconceivable that Zionism should be officially recognised by the British Government, and that Mr. Balfour should be authorized to say that Palestine was to be reconstituted as the “national home of the Jewish people”. I do not know what this involves, but I assume that it means that Mahommedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.

I assert that there is not a Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or of desire with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or less degree the same religion. It is no more true to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation: of the same race, perhaps, traced back through the centuries – through centuries of the history of a peculiarly adaptable race. The Prime Minister and M. Briand are, I suppose, related through the ages, one as a Welshman and the other as a Breton, but they certainly do not belong to the same nation.

When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country, drawn from all quarters of the globe, speaking every language on the face of the earth, and incapable of communicating with one another except by means of an interpreter. I have always understood that this was the consequence of the building of the Tower of Babel, if ever it was built, and I certainly do not dissent from the view, commonly held, as I have always understood, by the Jews before Zionism was invented, that to bring the Jews back to form a nation in the country from which they were dispersed would require Divine leadership. I have never heard it suggested, even by their most fervent admirers, that either Mr. Balfour or Lord Rothschild would prove to be the Messiah.

I claim that the lives that British Jews have led, that the aims that they have had before them, that the part that they have played in our public life and our public institutions, have entitled them to be regarded, not as British Jews, but as Jewish Britons. I would willingly disfranchise every Zionist. I would be almost tempted to proscribe the Zionist organisation as illegal and against the national interest. But I would ask of a British Government sufficient tolerance to refuse a conclusion which makes aliens and foreigners by implication, if not at once by law, of all their Jewish fellow-citizens.

I deny that Palestine is to-day associated with the Jews or properly to be regarded as a fit place for them to live in. The Ten Commandments were delivered to the Jews on Sinai. It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mahommendan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history. The Temple may have been in Palestine, but so was the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion. I would not deny to Jews in Palestine equal rights to colonisation with those who profess other religions, but a religious test of citizenship seems to me to be the only admitted by those who take a bigoted and narrow view of one particular epoch of the history of Palestine, and claim for the Jews a position to which they are not entitled.

Robert the Monk

One of my favorite pieces of medieval rhetoric is Pope Urban II’s speech at the Council of Clermont in 1095, when he called the First Crusade. The version I have my students read is by Robert the Monk, which was written some twenty years afterwards, but is very much from the mental world of the Crusades. I reprint it from the ever-useful Internet Medieval Sourcebook, with interlineated comments.

“Oh, race of Franks, race from across the mountains, race beloved and chosen by God – as is clear from many of your works – set apart from all other nations by the situation of your country as well as by your Catholic faith and the honor which you render to the holy Church: to you our discourse is addressed, and for you our exhortations are intended. We wish you to know what a grievous cause has led us to your country, for it is the imminent peril threatening you and all the faithful which has brought us hither.

First rule of giving a speech: flatter your audience!

“From the confines of Jerusalem and from the city of Constantinople a grievous report has gone forth and has repeatedly been brought to our ears; namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race wholly alienated from God, ‘a generation that set not their heart aright and whose spirit was not steadfast with God’ [Ps. 78.8], violently invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by pillage and fire.

Second rule: denigrate the opponent. They were Turks, not Persians, but the latter word adds a nice classical touch. Note the Pope’s use of scripture to buttress his insults.

They have led away a part of the captives into their own country, and a part have they have killed by cruel tortures. They have either destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of their own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent. The kingdom of the Greeks is now dismembered by them and has been deprived of territory so vast in extent that it could be traversed in two months’ time.

Brilliant stuff. Lurid tales of inventive tortures and executions, with a good deal of blasphemous behavior for good measure. You can tell he’s addressing a male audience, because he passes over the rape of women but dwells on forced circumcision – the idea of sharp objects near a man’s groin are always going to make him pay attention.

“On whom, therefore, is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you, you upon whom, above all other nations, God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the heads of those who resist you? Let the deeds of your ancestors encourage you and incite your minds to manly achievements – the greatness of King Charlemagne, and of his son Louis, and of your other monarchs, who have destroyed the kingdoms of the Turks and have extended the sway of Church over lands previously possessed by the pagan. Let the holy sepulcher of our Lord and Saviour, which is possessed by unclean nations, especially arouse you, and the holy places which are now treated, with ignominy and irreverently polluted with the filth of the unclean. Oh, most valiant soldiers and descendants of invincible ancestors, do not be degenerate, but recall the valor of your progenitors.

Be worthy of your ancestors! This is always an effective appeal, especially when one of those ancestors is the mighty Charlemagne. Calif Hakim ordered the Holy Sepulcher destroyed in 1009; clearly the memory of this animated the Crusades almost ninety years later.

“But if you are hindered by love of children, parents, or of wife, remember what the Lord says in the Gospel, ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me’, ‘Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life’ [Matt. 10.37; 19.29]. Let none of your possessions retain you, nor solicitude for your family affairs.

I’m not sure that this is quite what Jesus had in mind when he said these things, but hey, why not use them? WWJD?

For this land which you inhabit, shut in on all sides by the seas and surrounded by the mountain peaks, is too narrow for your large population; nor does it abound in wealth; and it furnishes scarcely food enough for its cultivators. Hence it is that you murder and devour one another, that you wage war, and that very many among you perish in intestine strife.’

This is tendentious, but revelatory. In some ways the Crusades were an admission of failure on the part of the Church – a big “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” Knights weren’t always upstanding or chivalrous. Sometimes they could be like armed gangs, and they loved fighting each other when there weren’t any real wars to join. They didn’t want to kill each other in tournaments, but sometimes they did, and the Church hated this needless shedding of Christian blood. It repeatedly proscribed tourneying, to no avail. Finally, it turned around and blessed this class of people – only if they killed non-Christians, far from Europe. So here the pope is trying to denigrate France – you’re a great people, but your land is bad, and you need to get out of it. There’s not enough of it for all of you, which is why you fight each other! (Probably not true: they liked fighting each other anyway – it’s what they did.)

“Let hatred therefore depart from among you, let your quarrels end, let wars cease, and let all dissensions and controversies slumber. Enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulcher – wrest that land from the wicked race, and subject it to yourselves. That land which, as the Scripture says, ‘floweth with milk and honey’ [Num. 13.7, Num. 14.28, Lev. 20.24, etc.] was given by God into the power of the children of Israel. Jerusalem is the center of the earth; the land is fruitful above all others, like another paradise of delights. This spot the Redeemer of mankind has made illustrious by his advent, has beautified by his sojourn, has consecrated by his passion, has redeemed by his death, has glorified by his burial.

And if France features a good people in a bad land, then Palestine features bad people in a good land! What more natural a thing than to take the good people and give them the good land, as God originally did for the Hebrews? (There are plenty of biblical quotations to justify this.)

“This royal city, however, situated at the center of the earth, is now held captive by the enemies of Christ and is subjected, by those who do not know God, to the worship of the heathen. She seeks, therefore, and desires to be liberated and ceases not to implore you to come to her aid. From you especially she asks succor, because as we have already said, God has conferred upon you above all other nations great glory in arms. Accordingly, undertake this journey eagerly for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the reward of imperishable glory in the kingdom of heaven.”

More praise of his audience, and more denigration of the enemy. Note how here he personifies Jerusalem as a sort of damsel in distress, appealing to the natural protective instincts of his audience (even if this particular aspect of chivalry didn’t really become prominent until later in the Middle Ages). Note too how participating in a Crusade will put you straight on the road to heaven.

When Pope Urban had urbanely [nice!] said these and very similar things, he so centered in one purpose the desires of all who were present that all cried out, “It is the will of God! It is the will of God! [Deus vult! Deus vult!]” When the venerable Roman pontiff heard that, with eyes uplifted to heaven, he gave thanks to God and, commanding silence with his hand, said:

“Most beloved brethren, today is manifest in you what the Lord says in the Gospel, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ [Matt. 18.20]; for unless God had been present in your spirits, all of you would not have uttered the same cry; since, although the cry issued from numerous mouths, yet the origin of the cry as one. Therefore I say to you that God, who implanted is in your breasts, has drawn it forth from you. Let that then be your war cry in combats, because it is given to you by God. When an armed attack is made upon the enemy, this one cry be raised by all the soldiers of God: ‘It is the will of God! It is the will of God!’

A war-cry is always useful, especially one as self-righteous as this!

“And we neither command nor advise that the old or those incapable of bearing arms, undertake this journey. Nor ought women to set out at all without their husbands, or brother, or legal guardians. For such are more of a hindrance than aid, more of a burden than an advantage. Let the rich aid the needy and according to their wealth let them take with them experienced soldiers. The priests and other clerks, whether secular or regulars are not to go without the consent of their bishop; for this journey would profit them nothing if they went without permission. Also, it is not fitting that laymen should enter upon the pilgrimage without the blessing of their priests.

And here we have the equivalent of the middle section of a drug commercial, when they list all the disclaimers (e.g. “pregnant women should not take Propecia or even handle broken tablets for risk of birth defects”). He has riled up the audience, but he knows that enthusiasm is not enough – he wants to inspire a discrete set of competent participants, and to avoid a large, undisciplined mob (unfortunately this didn’t quite work: the first, “People’s” Crusade, was a disaster). But he ends on a high note, and with another brilliantly self-serving scriptural quotation:

“Whoever, therefore, shall determine upon this holy pilgrimage, and shall make his vow to God to that effect, and shall offer himself to him for sacrifice, as a living victim, holy and acceptable to God, shall wear the sign of the cross of the Lord on his forehead or on his breast. When, indeed, he shall return from his journey, having fulfilled his vow, let him place the cross on his back between his shoulders. Thus shall ye, indeed, by this twofold action, fulfill the precept of the Lord, as he commands in the Gospel, ‘he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me’” [Matt. 10.38].

Links

  • 155-year-old mousetrap, on display in the Museum of English Rural Life, claims its latest victim.
  • The Helgo Treasure, from Viking Age Sweden, includes a bronze Irish crozier, a Coptic ladle, and a bronze Buddha from the Indian subcontinent – a testament to how much Vikings were plugged into early medieval trading networks.
  • Related: a Viking woman was buried with a ring reading “For Allah.”

Etruscans

From the Guardian (although it is anachronistic to say “Turkey”; the term “Anatolia,” being more purely geographical, would be a better one to use):

The enigma of Italy’s ancient Etruscans is finally unravelled

DNA tests on their Italian descendants show the ‘tuscii’ came from Turkey

They gave us the word “person” and invented a symbol of iron rule later adopted by the fascists. Some even argue it was they who really moulded Roman civilisation.

Yet the Etruscans, whose descendants today live in central Italy, have long been among the great enigmas of antiquity. Their language, which has never properly been deciphered, was unlike any other in classical Italy. Their origins have been hotly debated by scholars for centuries.

Genetic research made public at the weekend appears to put the matter beyond doubt, however. It shows the Etruscans came from the area which is now Turkey – and that the nearest genetic relatives of many of today’s Tuscans and Umbrians are to be found, not in Italy, but around Izmir.

The European Human Genetic Conference in Nice was told on Saturday the results of a study carried out in three parts of Tuscany: the Casentino valley, and two towns, Volterra and Murlo, where important finds have been made of Etruscan remains. In each area, researchers took DNA samples from men with surnames unique to the district and whose families had lived there for at least three generations.

They then compared their Y chromosomes, which are passed from father to son, with those of other groups in Italy, the Balkans, modern-day Turkey and the Greek island of Lemnos, which linguistic evidence suggests could have links to the Etruscans.

“The DNA samples from Murlo and Volterra are much more highly correlated to those of the eastern peoples than to those of the other inhabitants of [Italy],” said Alberto Piazza of the University of Turin, who presented the research. “One particular genetic variant, found in the samples from Murlo, was shared only with people from Turkey.”

This year, a similar but less conclusive study that tracked the DNA passed down from mothers to daughters, pointed to a direct genetic input from western Asia. In 2004, a team of researchers from Italy and Spain used samples taken from Etruscan burial chambers to establish that the Etruscans were more genetically akin to each other than to contemporary Italians.

More at the link.

 

The Bin Laden Tapes

Four years ago I participated in “Genefest,” a conference in honor of the retirement of Gene Garthwaite, a history professor at Dartmouth College and one of my undergraduate influences. Although I did not follow him into Middle Eastern studies, I was pleased to see him again, and to learn about what his other former students were up to. One of these, Flagg Miller, gave an interesting presentation on the Bin Laden tapes, a cache of audio cassettes acquired in Afghanistan in 2002 and which he had been analyzing. I am pleased to see that his extensive research has borne fruit in the form of a book, entitled The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qa’ida (Hurst Publishing, 2015). A VICE News article by the author provides a synopsis:

What I Learned About al Qaeda from Analyzing the ‘Bin Laden’ Tapes

In the months following the Taliban’s evacuation of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in December 2001, cable news networks set up operations in the city in order to report on the war. In the dusty back rooms of a local recording studio, a CNN stringer came across an extraordinary archive: roughly 1,500 audiotapes taken from Osama bin Laden’s residence, where he had lived from 1997-2001, during al Qaeda’s most coherent organizational momentum.

Discovered untouched by a local Afghan family after the rest of the house had been ransacked, the tapes were slated for use as blanks for recording Pashto pop-songs. CNN intervened with a cash-down offer and a different plan.

The FBI first reviewed the collection and declined stewardship. The vast majority of the tapes feature speakers who, although well-known Muslim preachers, reformers, and radicals across the Arabic-speaking world, were not al Qaeda members. Some recordings dated back to the 1960s and were considered to be more of interest to historians than intelligence analysts.

Unable to use the tapes, CNN passed them on to academics, first at Williams College and later Yale University. During those years I was brought on as the archive’s primary researcher. Trained as a linguistic anthropologist, I had spent many years studying political discourse, Islam, and audiocassette technologies in Yemen, Bin Laden’s ancestral homeland.

Over 10 years later, my resulting book focuses on key tapes in order to re-examine al Qaeda’s origins, development, and ideology leading up to 9/11. At the center of my study are just over a dozen previously untranslated speeches by Bin Laden dating from the late 1980s through 2001.

What do the tapes reveal about Bin Laden and al Qaeda? Here are several surprising discoveries.

First, Bin Laden was not al Qaeda’s leader at its outset — in fact, the organization sought to marginalize him. The “al Qaeda” frequently evoked in Western intelligence and law-enforcement circles referred originally to a specific training camp in eastern Afghanistan called Al-Faruq. Founded in the late 1980s, the camp was directed largely by Egyptian and North African militants who aimed to overthrow ruling regimes within the Islamic world….

Second, while al Qaeda is typically distinguished from other militant and terrorist groups for its unequivocal focus on attacking the West and the United States, the organization’s chief leaders prioritized multiple enemies, foremost among them authoritarian leaders within the Arab world. Bin Laden’s speeches from as late as 1993 avoid any public mention of directing militant activity toward America, despite the fact that massive US-led coalition forces had been stationed in his homeland for a full three years….

Third, Bin Laden’s first and most notorious “Declaration of War against the United States” in 1996 was neither a declaration nor a call to war. These labels were given to Bin Laden by Western journalists and translators who sought to draw attention to growing Arab anger at the devastating effects of US-led sanctions against Saddam Hussein on Iraq’s people.

Read the whole thing.