Israeli Founder Contests Founding Myths

The Torah (or Old Testament) is a master work of literature and faith, but it tells many mythological tales that have little or no basis in real history, as Uri Avnery, one of Israel’s founders, has had the courage to declare, with an introduction from retired U.S. diplomat William R. Polk.

William R. Polk: The speech below is from the great Israeli commentator Uri Avnery, a former Irgun terrorist who fought for the creation of Israel; he also was a member of the Israeli parliament. What he has to say is not exactly new. Much of it has been pointed out by many of us historians for a long time and by other Israeli scholars.

The political effects of the myth on the creation of Israel are laid out by Shlomo Sand in his The Invention of the Jewish People and On the Nation and the Jewish People. But since neither the reality nor the critique of the myth is known to many, even practicing Jews, and what we know to be factual is firmly disbelieved by many, even practicing Christians, and because, like many religious myths, it can be lethal, the story deserves attention.

Israeli Uri Avnery

Israeli Uri Avnery

We are having enough trouble trying to make peace without being blindsided by myths. So I welcome having the myths treated as they should be treated, as myths, openly by a hero of the Israeli nation. Only if much of the imagination about the past and much of the basis of current ideology can be cleared away do we have a chance.

Uri Avnery’s keynote speech at Israel’s Kinneret College conference on “the Rock of our Existence the connection between Archeology and Ideology”:

First of all, let me thank you for inviting me to address this important conference. I am neither a professor nor a doctor. Indeed, the highest academic title I ever achieved was SEC (Seventh Elementary Class). But like many members of my generation, from early youth I took a profound interest in archeology. I shall try to explain why.

When asking themselves about my connection with archeology, some of you will think about Moshe Dayan. After the June 1967 war, Dayan was a national even international idol. He was also known for his obsession with archeology.

My magazine, “Haolam Hazeh,” investigated his activities and found that they were highly destructive. He started digging alone and collecting artifacts all over the country. Since the primary aim of archeology is not simply to discover artifacts but also to date them, and thus to put together a picture of the consecutive history of the site, Dayan’s uncontrolled digging created havoc. The fact that he used army resources only worsened matters.

Then we discovered that not only did Dayan expropriate the artifacts which he found (which by law belonged to the state) and stock them at his home, but he had also become an international dealer, getting rich by selling articles “from the personal collection of Moshe Dayan.”

Publishing these facts and speaking about them in the Knesset bestowed on me a singular distinction. At the time, a public opinion institute identified every year the “most hated person” in Israel. That year, I attained that honor.

However, the important question does not concern Dayan’s morals but a much more profound matter: Why were Dayan and so many of us at the time concerned with archeology, a science considered by many people as a rather dreary business? It held for us a profound fascination.

That Zionist generation was the first one born in the country (though I myself was born in Germany). For their parents, Palestine was an abstract homeland, a land they had dreamed about in the synagogues of Poland and Ukraine. For their native-born sons and daughters it was a natural homeland. They were yearning for roots. They trekked to every corner, spent nights around a campfire, came to know every hill and valley.

For them, the Talmud and all the religious texts were a bore. The Talmud and other scriptures had sustained the Jews in the Diaspora for centuries, but evoked no interest here. The new generation embraced the Hebrew Bible with unbounded enthusiasm, not as a religious book (almost all of us were atheists) but as an unequalled masterpiece of Hebrew literature.

Since they were also the first generation for whom the rejuvenated Hebrew was their mother tongue, they fell in love with the lively, concrete Biblical Hebrew language. The much more sophisticated, abstract language of the Talmud and other later books repelled them.

The Biblical events had taken place in the country they knew. The Biblical battles had been fought in the valleys they knew, the kings had been crowned and buried in the localities they knew intimately.

They had looked at night at the stars of Megiddo, where the Egyptians had fought the first recorded battle in history (and where, according to the Christian New Testament, the last battle the battle of Armageddon will take place). They stood on Mount Carmel, where the prophet Elias had slaughtered the priests of Baal. They had visited Hebron, where Abraham had been buried by his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, fathers of the Arabs and the Jews.

This passionate attachment to the country was by no means preordained. Indeed, Palestine played no role in the birth of modern political Zionism. As I have mentioned before, the founding father, Theodor Herzl, did not think about Palestine when he invented what became known as Zionism. He hated Palestine and its climate. Especially he hated Jerusalem, which to him was a foul and dirty town.

In the first draft of his idea, which was addressed to the Rothschild family, the land of his dream was Patagonia, in Argentina. There, in recent times, a genocide had taken place, and the land was almost empty. It was only the sentiments of the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe that compelled Herzl to redirect his efforts towards Palestine. In his founding book, Der Judenstaat (“the Jewish State”), the relevant chapter is less than a page long and entitled “Palestine or Argentina.” The Arab population is not mentioned at all.

Once the Zionist movement directed its thoughts towards Palestine, the ancient history of this country became a hot issue. The Zionist claim to Palestine was solely based on the Biblical history of the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon and the events of those times. Since almost all the founding fathers were avowed atheists, they could hardly base themselves on the “fact” the God had personally promised the land to the seed of Abraham.

So, with the coming of the Zionists to Palestine, a frantic archeological search started. The country was combed for real, scientific proof that the Biblical story was not just a bunch of myths, but real honest-to-God history. (Pun intended.) Christian Zionists came even earlier.

There started a veritable attack on archeological sites. The upper layers of Ottoman and Mamelukes, Arabs and Crusaders, Byzantines and Romans and Greeks and Persians were uncovered and removed in order to lay bare the ancient layer of the Children of Israel and to prove the Bible right.

Huge efforts were made. David Ben-Gurion, a self-appointed Biblical scholar, led the effort. The Chief of Staff of the army, Yigael Yadin, the son of an archeologist, and himself a professional archeologist, searched ancient sites to prove that the Conquest of Canaan really happened. Alas, no proof.

When remnants of the bones of Bar Kochba’s fighters were discovered in Judean desert caves, they were buried on Ben-Gurion’s orders in a big military ceremony. The uncontested fact that Bar Kochba had caused perhaps the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history was glossed over.

And the result? Incredible as it sounds, four generations of devoted archeologists, with a burning conviction and huge resources, did produce exactly: Nothing.

From the beginning of the effort to this very day, not a single piece of evidence of the ancient history was found. Not a single indication that the exodus from Egypt, the basis of Jewish history, ever happened. Nor of the 40 years of wandering in the desert. No evidence of the conquest of Canaan, as described at length in the Book of Joshua. The mighty King David, whose kingdom extended –  according to the Bible – from the Sinai peninsula to the north of Syria, did not leave a trace. (Lately an inscription with the name David was discovered, but with no indication that this David was a king.)

Israel appears for the first time in sound archeological findings in Assyrian inscriptions, which describe a coalition of local kingdoms which tried to stop the Assyrian advance into Syria. Among others, King Ahab of Israel is mentioned as the chief of a considerable military contingent. Ahab, who ruled today’s Samaria (in the north of the occupied West Bank) from 871 BC until 852 BC was not beloved by God, though the Bible describes him as a war hero. He marks the beginning of the entry of Israel into proven history.

All these are negative pieces of evidence suggesting that the early Biblical story is invented. Since practically no trace whatsoever of the early Biblical story has been found, does this prove that it is all fiction? Perhaps not. But real proof does exist.

Egyptology is a scientific discipline that is separate from Palestinian archeology. But Egyptology proves conclusively that the Biblical history until King Ahab is indeed fiction.

Up to now, many tens of thousands of Egyptian documents have been deciphered, and the work is still going on. After the Hyksos from Asia invaded Egypt in 1730 BC, the Pharaohs of Egypt took very great pains to watch the happenings in Palestine and Syria. Year after year, Egyptian spies, traders and soldiers reported in great detail on events in every town of Canaan. Not a single item has been found, telling of anything remotely resembling Biblical events. (A single mention of “Israel” on an Egyptian stele is believed to refer to a small territory in the south of Palestine.)

Even if one would like to believe that the Bible only exaggerates real events, the fact is that not even a tiny mention of the exodus, the conquest of Canaan or King David has been found. They just did not happen.

Is this important? Yes and no. The Bible is not real history. It is a monumental religious and literary document, that has inspired untold millions throughout the centuries. It has formed the minds of many generations of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

But history is something else. History tells us what really happened. Archeology is a tool of history, an invaluable tool for the understanding of what took place. These are two different disciplines, and never the twain shall meet.

For the religious, the Bible is a matter of belief. For non-believers, the Hebrew Bible is a great work of art, perhaps the greatest of all. Archeology is something entirely different: a matter of sober, proven facts.

Israeli schools teach the Bible as real history. This means that Israeli children learn only its chapters, true or fictitious. When I once complained about this in a Knesset speech, demanding that the full history of the country throughout the ages be taught, including the chapters of the Crusades and the Mamelukes, the then minister of education started to call me “the Mameluke.”

I still believe that every child in this country, Israeli and Palestinian, should learn its full history, from the earliest days to this day, with all its layers. It is the basis of peace, the real Rock Of Our Existence.

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14 comments for “Israeli Founder Contests Founding Myths

  1. January 5, 2015 at 9:55 pm

    Historically interesting, but entirely irrelevant to the fact that the Israeli government proclaimed Israel’s boundaries on May 15th 1948 in order to be recognized by the Comity of Nations and was duly recognized within those boundaries and only those boundaries. Whatever lay outside of those boundaries was quite simply, not Israeli, not a part of the Jewish People’s proclaimed and recognized homeland state.

    The archaeological record or lack of, is also irrelevant to the fact that it it has been illegal to acquire territory by war since at least 1933, any war and Israel has never legally acquired any territories by agreement since proclaiming itself to the world to be “an independent republic within frontiers approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its Resolution of November 29, 1947” (ibid) ( more)

    Furthermore it’s irrelevant to the fact that on May the 22nd 1948 the Israeli Government itself confirmed it was occupying, i.e., held under “military control”, territories “outside the State of Israel” … “in Palestine”, none of which has ever been legally annexed to the State of Israel. Based on the Israeli Government statements of 1948, hundreds of subsequent UN/UNSC resolutions have given Israel hundreds of opportunities to adhere to the binding Laws and UN Charter articles those resolutions emphasize and re-affirm. ( more)

  2. January 5, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    This controversy is the most recently lighted candle on the cake, in addition to scores of controversies that assist in distracting and dodging and trying to minimize or obscure the right, accurate and true heart of the matter in Palestine that became Israel. The basic problem is not non-evidence of ancient archaeology, the settlements on the West Bank, the Wall, the Siege of Gaza, or any of these recent events…it is simply the 60 year militant enforced and unwelcome presence of all of those Jewish European Refugees and non-Palestinian Jews in and on the soil of Palestine – FACT.
    Jewish apologists for Zionism fail to come to terms with the basic facts and the heart of the matter, and would like us to forget the real and the complete picture, as if it will all turn into peace and happily ever after, if they can bust the n number of Myths in their history. It will not, because that is not the problem.
    The Pre-1967 borders are pretty well established in history… so what is there to “negotiate?” In Palestine, the pre 1948 borders are still valid and as well-defined, even more legitimately so!

    It would be quite difficult for Israelis who call themselves a “State” but who have not yet written or ratified a Constitution, or established and defined geographic borders to define it, to face a competing State which had, and which might include a lot of the land upon which the Israelis are squatting, or lay claim to lands which they intend to move in on and absorb at some future date.

    You gotta remember, the Zionist argument is from River to River. To give up an inch of what they have persuaded the “Jewish people” is their rightful home, is to give up the entire land. With Eretz Israel, it has to be all or nothing.

    Time will eventually and inevitably bring them to nothing!

  3. January 5, 2015 at 7:21 am

    Uri Avnery: And the result? Incredible as it sounds, four generations of devoted archeologists, with a burning conviction and huge resources, did produce exactly: Nothing. From the beginning of the effort to this very day, not a single piece of evidence of the ancient history was found.
    Jct: Wrong. David Rohl found convincing biblical archeological evidence in a Test of Time. The problem is they have their timeline wrong and are looking in the wrong eras. They say: Don’t see Solomon’s Temple in the Iron Age strata, wasn’t there. But funny there’d be such a big temple there 300 years earlier! during the Late Bronze Age.” Get it? Another: “Speaking of the Habirus in the Armana letters, they sure sound like David’s Hebrews of 300 years later.” Get it? It’s like looking for evidence of the 1940s World War II in the 1960s level! He even found a letter from King Saul to Pharaoh and another from his sonI find it amazing that now that David (see his Youtbe videos) has found the evidence of the Israelites in archeology that no one wants to admit he’s right. Should go lay a bet with William Hill, Bookmakers UK!
    Neatest of all, he identifies Pharaoh Shishak who conquered Jerusalem to cop all King Solomon’s gold from his son Rehoboam to become the richest King in the World. With King Solomon’s treasure, he became Shishak the Great, greatest Pharaoh ever. Sure, there were some great pharaohs but Shishak built the most and biggest monuments of them all with the most and biggest bankroll of them all.

  4. January 5, 2015 at 7:20 am

    Uri Avnery: And the result? Incredible as it sounds, four generations of devoted archeologists, with a burning conviction and huge resources, did produce exactly: Nothing. From the beginning of the effort to this very day, not a single piece of evidence of the ancient history was found.
    Jct: Wrong. David Rohl found convincing biblical archeological evidence in a Test of Time. The problem is they have their timeline wrong and are looking in the wrong eras. They say: Don’t see Solomon’s Temple in the Iron Age strata, wasn’t there. But funny there’d be such a big temple there 300 years earlier! during the Late Bronze Age.” Get it? Another: “Speaking of the Habirus in the Armana letters, they sure sound like David’s Hebrews of 300 years later.” Get it? It’s like looking for evidence of the 1940s World War II in the 1960s level! He even found a letter from King Saul to Pharaoh and another from his sonI find it amazing that now that David (see his Youtbe videos) has found the evidence of the Israelites in archeology that no one wants to admit he’s right. Should go lay a bet with William Hill, Bookmakers UK!
    Neatest of all, he identifies Pharaoh Shishak who conquered Jerusalem to cop all King Solomon’s gold from his son Rehoboam to become the richest King in the World. With King Solomon’s treasure, he became Shishak the Great, greatest Pharaoh ever. Sure, there were some great pharaohs but Shishak built the most and biggest monuments of them all with the most and biggest bankroll of them all.

    • Zachary Smith
      January 6, 2015 at 9:50 pm

      From the David Rohl wiki:

      Born 1950. Started out as a rock musician in 1968. Got some kind of Photographer’s degree in 1969/1970. Became a sound engineer in 1974. “Royalties from four solo artist and composing recording contracts enabled him to retire from music and focus on Egyptology, in particular to develop the New Chronology which he had been working on for five years during his music career.”

      What”retirement” seems to have involved was Rohl’s starting and directing an “Institute for the Study of Interdisciplinary Sciences”. Purpose?

      The Institute for the Study of Interdisciplinary Sciences, ISIS (1985–2005) was a British educational charity established in 1985 and founded by researchers formerly connected with the Society for Interdisciplinary Studies (SIS) whose original purpose was to examine and debate the revisionist theories of Immanuel Velikovsky. (!}

      From 1988 to 1990 Rohl got himself some Credentials at a university. Fast learner, he was.

      Wrote a bunch of books, then went back to music.

      As for his ‘expertise’, here is a bit of commentary.

      http://anarchic-teapot.net/2013/03/david-rohl-how-to-fail-a-test-of-time/

      Rohl is basically a disciple of the crank Velikovsky.

  5. Zachary Smith
    January 3, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    Uri Avnery comes across as quite a sensible fellow. That he was ever a “terrorist” seems up for debate, for his Wiki says he joined the Irgun at age 15 – rather too young to be trusted with life-or-death matters involving combat.

    But he’s quite right about the events described in Exodus. There is precisely zero evidence for them. I read the old testament the first time when I was a teenager, and even then I raised an eyebrow about the numbers. Exodus 12:37 says there were 600,000 men who set out on foot, not counting dependants. There was also an enormous “mixed multitude” of non-Hebrews, and lots of cattle.

    Assume each man had only one wife, and they had only two children. Ignoring the “mixed multitude” tagging along, the population was much larger than the city of Rome at it’s height in about 100 A.D. Each and every day that hoard was going to need 1,200 tons of ‘manna’ for food, and two and a half million gallons of water for just the humans. What the livestock ate and drank in a desert is not mentioned in the bible, but that was surely an unmentioned miracle too. Sewage management for all the people and animals – surely still another miracle.

    No, where I rebelled was when I got to the book of Joshua. That God was a mass murderer and one who gloated about it was just too much. Somebody was telling some serious lies about what had happened!

    So it was quite a relief for me when the archeologists reported that the entire Exodus story was just an ancient Origin Myth.

    Fairly recently I confronted an elderly relative about the atrocities of the Exodus. Naturally he’d never heard of them, for he hadn’t read the Holy Book he worships, and of course that’s not something they ever talk about in Sunday School. So he tackled the subject and for the first read up on it. Reporting back, he admitted all that I had said was true, but he was simply not going to think about it ever again. That’s ONE way to solve a problem, I guess.

    • January 6, 2015 at 6:32 am

      Zachary Smith,

      Some people are just incapable of facing the truth for what it might cost them, such as your elderly Jewish friend, whose world will come crashing down if he accepts the truth for what it is; Then, there are those who are simply too ignorant to understand, and too stupid to do anything about the ignorance. Ignorance is also baggage, as well as comfort and security in living a mythological life. We all come with baggage, some people never check theirs, try to carry it on every trip, and find it difficult to discard old and outworn articles or fashions!

  6. JWalters
    January 3, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    Thanks for this myth-busting article. Jewish Americans of goodwill need to divest themselves from the manipulated herd, and stop reflexively defending Jewish supremacists (and the war profiteers behind them). More historical facts that don’t fit the myths –
    http://warprofiteerstory.blogspot.com

    • January 5, 2015 at 3:19 pm

      History, as written, is unequal in benefit and bereft of truth, biased in favor of the writers… usually the victors in war and politics, and the governing body of the nation, or leading scholars of the “movement” or controlling interests of the time.

      This bias is a known bias, and is usually taken into account by “scholars of history” whose study includes the written works of scholars who have preceded them.

      I have long suspected that the “story of the Jews,” which passes for their history is, a self-justifying myth, made of whole cloth and phony.

      But, so too is a lot of “Christian history,” which was and is, essentially the same as is the so-called “History of Western Civilization.”

      • JWalters
        January 5, 2015 at 5:59 pm

        I completely agree with you. The history of the Christian church torturing people is appalling. This is not a religious issue. Religions, corporations, and banks can all get taken over by money grubbing monsters.

  7. Joe
    January 3, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    No people has a right to resources on the basis of ancient history. All human races lived in the mideast at some point during the migrations from South Africa, and have the same claim. If one group controlled an area at some point, that was by displacing others who have a prior right. There is no adequate historical record of titles, no grounds to suppose that such titles would be economically fair if known, and no record at all of the countless changes of possession in prehistory. Such claims are inherently nonsense.

    Further, historical wrongs do not justify wrongs in the present. The individuals are not the same. There are no surviving Jews affected by the Nazi repression, let alone the expulsion two thousand years ago. Are we to let their descendants steal the resources of the descendants of ancient persecutors, descendants who have not taken any resources? Must we then allow the persecution of Jews by those from whom they seized the land? On what records shall we challenge a claim that they persecuted others? What shall we take from them to satisfy the hundreds of claims of subsequent expulsions?

    Wrongs within modern record must be redressed by grants of common resources when the individual claims cannot be sorted out, not by stealing the resources of an unrepresented group. Valid claims for redress are individual claims, not the claims of opportunist descendants many generations later.

    The same argument applies to native Americans. Shall we return all lands of the US to them, on the grounds that they obviously were expelled unfairly? It would be impossible to sort out the claims fairly, because the wronged and the wrongdoers are long gone, and uninvolved persons now have claims on the same resources, so we must rely upon equal opportunity legislation to correct resulting inequalities of all kinds. Probably none of the US zionists would give up their own land to native Americans in pursuit of justice. Yet we know very well what zionists have taken from the Palestinians.

    When the wrongs are recent enough to see what was taken, and approximately from whom, it is fair to insist upon redistribution, reparations, etc. If we do not, we encourage unjust expropriation. When the zionists seized most of Palestine by bribing US officials to twist arms at the UN, and following that up with terrorism and coercion, as they have done for the last four generations, they unjustly expropriated property for which there are modern records, and that must be returned.

    Yet it is difficult to say exactly who took what in Palestine, who deserves what, and what improvements would have occurred without the expropriation. So in making the necessary redistribution it is necessary to fairly define the affected populations and resources, and apportion resources proportionately to the two populations, and among individuals thereof in proportion to their former resources, with some minimums and maximums. Two states must be created with viable infrastructure and resources, separated by a large DMZ. Persons who cannot retain their property should receive its equivalent or shares of the common wealth. This can be done fairly. If Israel refuses it must be subject to imperative sanctions until it displaces its demagogues and opportunists. If military defeat is necessary to do justice so be it. Israel should also pay the US massive reparations for interference in its affairs and bribing officials to make massive undeserved aid grants.

    This injustice by Israel would have been corrected long ago if economic concentrations had not gained control of US elections and mass media. It may be that the destruction of US democracy by its oligarchy is inseparable from the zionist project, but it is very likely that democracy must be restored in the US to gain justice for the Palestinians. And the Jewish people will be far safer under democracy, with a just US foreign policy, than they can be under the tyranny their demagogues have helped bring upon the people of the United States, Israel, and Palestine.

  8. Elmerfudzie
    January 3, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    After reading your article, one might come away with the notion that today’s information technology network will disprove myth and alleviate, as time passes, the problem of fact distortion. Far from the truth! both the written word and smartphone video-clips are sometimes deleted forever on the internet and at the most inopportune moments! example; during acts of violence or insurrection. Besides, the real issue comes down to is this, and it’s true for both Christians and Orthodox Jews, we live by faith and not by sight. The land of Canaan was never clearly defined however it was thought to encompass about six thousand square miles west of the Jordan River and the inhabitants were mostly Semitic tribesmen, Amorites, Canaanites and Jebusites and too were invaded by “sea peoples”, perhaps Hittites but in any case, people who are now, probably, modern day Palestinians. This historical scenario predates many recoverable records, circa 3000-2000 BCE or BC for this writer. A lot of cultural blending took place among these tribes so much so that the Amorites and Canaanites spoke a Hebrew-like language. At that time, (I reference, Josh 12), there were allegiances to the Pharaoh and speaking of Egyptians, there are records of a “jesus” and his twelve apostles that predate, by a thousand years or more, those events depicted in the Christian bible, this is especially true for Roman Catholic ceremonies, derived from our ancient Egyptian antecedents. Again, not by sight but by faith, do we go forward.

    • W. R. Knight
      January 3, 2015 at 5:15 pm

      “After reading your article, one might come away with the notion that today’s information technology network will disprove myth and alleviate, as time passes, the problem of fact distortion. ”
      Not a chance. Consider that today’s information technology did nothing to dispel the myth that the Russian supported rebels shot down MH17 or that Putin was responsible for the crisis in Ukraine. If anything, modern information technology is no more than a means of spreading disinformation at light speed.

  9. Piotr Berman
    January 3, 2015 at 11:12 am

    The ideology of Israel relies on Torah, since the historicity of the patriarchs, Covenant, Conquest, King David etc. is “controversial” at best. But the founding myth owes most to the New Testament, the idea of “Immaculate Conception”.

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