Report from the (Now Quiet) Fronts #54: A Legacy of Evil

When the Great War ended in November 1918 the Russian Civil War had already begun, and the Reds were losing. By the beginning of 1919 the entire northern Caucasus was dominated by the Whites under General Anton Denikin, while the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had become independent.  Northwestern Russia was still in the hands of the Allies, and White General Nikolai Yudenich had begun organizing an army in Estonia.  Siberia and the far east were controlled by the Allies, the Czech Legion and sundry White forces coalescing under Admiral Alexander Kolchak, who proclaimed himself Supreme Rule of Russia.  The low point for the Bolsheviks came in June 1919, when General Pyotr Wrangel took Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) on the Volga River, only 200 miles from Moscow.


Close to crushing Bolshevism

What was the problem?  Well, the emerging Marxism-Leninism ideology and its repressive methods were not at all the popular, especially among the peasantry, who wanted their own land and could hardly understand the proffered benefits of communism.  As the Civil War developed, the violent repression of the Bolsheviks seemed, if anything, worse than that of the Czar, and the confiscation of food supplies for the Red Army created man-made famines that understandably dampened any peasant enthusiasm.  Men like Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were not inclined to judicial process or mercy; threats and summary executions were the way to solve any problems.

Further, the Red Army was initially hardly a first class military force, despite the efforts of War Commissar Leon Trotsky (assassinated in 1940).  Workers could not be turned into effective soldiers overnight, and in any case many of the “recruits” were dragooned, essentially facing a choice of joining the cause or being shot.  Such men were hardly enthusiastic about fighting, especially when death threatened, and given the growing propensity on both sides to simply slaughter prisoners, surrender was hardly attractive.  The result was predictable: indiscipline, mutinies, desertions and flight in the face of the enemy.



The Bolshevik leadership of course saw this as the essential reason why the Reds were losing battles, and the solution was of course obvious: more terror.  In December of 1917 Lenin had created the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-revolution and Sabotage – the Cheka (forerunner of the OGPU, NKVD and KGB) – a merciless secret police to eliminate political opposition, and in 1918 Trotsky organized the Special Punitive Department of the Cheka.  These were detachments that followed the Red Army and set up tribunals to judge soldiers, including officers (and the odd political commissar), accused of retreating, deserting or not showing enough enthusiasm.  Summary execution was very frequently the result.


Cheka on parade


Cheka at work


Even these draconian measures could not fully do the job, and in August 1918 Trotsky had the Cheka begin creating the notorious “barrier” or “blocking” troops, whose job was to shoot soldiers who retreated without orders, which generally meant just retreating, orders or not.  These were men from reliable Red Army units, but the Cheka was also building up its own paramilitary forces, which would swell to over 200,000 by 1921.  This was the beginning of the “Red Terror” (better, the “First Red Terror”), which by the end of the Civil War had executed anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 (conservative estimates) people.

The Red Terror, under the leadership of the head of the Cheka, “Iron” Felix Dzerzhinsky, established the basic mechanisms – intimidation, torture, extrajudicial executions and a degree of arbitrariness – that would characterize the security apparatus of the Soviet Union.  This was deemed necessary for the dictatorship of the proletariat to survive and was supported and justified by the ideology of the Bolshevik leadership: “To overcome our enemies we must have our own socialist militarism. We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia’s population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.” – Grigory Zinoviev (executed in 1936). And even those committed to the Bolshevik cause were not safe: “Do not look in materials you have gathered for evidence that a suspect acted or spoke against the Soviet authorities. The first question you should ask him is what class he belongs to, what is his origin, education, profession. These questions should determine his fate. This is the essence of the Red Terror.” – Martin Latsis (executed in 1937).


Iron Felix













Incidentally, a 15 ton statue of Dzerzhinsky was erected in 1958 in front of the Lubyanka, notorious home of the Soviet security apparatus from the Cheka to the KGB (and now of one of the directorates of the FSB, the current version of the Cheka).  It was torn down when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but a recent poll (2013) revealed that 45% of Russians want the statue re-erected.  Stalin would approve.


Felix before the Lubyanka

But the tide was turning. The White forces were generally as ruthless as the Reds, and their initial popularity quickly began to drain away. It also became clear that the major figures – Denikin, Yudenich, Kolchak, Wrangel – were not so much fighting for the restoration of the monarchy as for personal power. Further, the Red Army had the advantage of a central command and inside lines of communication, while the White armies essentially fought independently. And the Allies were leaving, as resurgent American isolationism and British war-weariness and near bankruptcy took hold; by the end of 1919 all significant Allied forces had left, except the Japanese, whose remaining forces were not withdrawn until 1925.

By the middle of summer 1919 the Red Army was larger than the White and capable commanders, like Mikhail Tukhachevsky (executed in 1937), were emerging and taking the offensive. On 14 October Tukhachevsky launched a counteroffensive after defeating the last White offensive on the eastern front and captured Omsk on 14 November. Kolchak’s forces began to disintegrate, and he surrendered his command to Ataman Grigory Semyonov (executed in 1946), who held the area east of Lake Baikal with Japanese support. The Japanese, however, began leaving in July 1920, and by September 1921 the remnants of Semyonov’s army, now little more than bandits, withdrew.


Kolchak’s retreat








With Kolchak’s army crumbling the Reds could concentrate on the south, and an alliance was made with the anarcho-communist Free Territory of Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine. Denikin’s army was soon in full retreat back to the Don River, and in March 1920 an attempt was made to evacuate the troops across the Kerch Straights to the Crimea. It was a disaster. Only 40,000 of Denikin’s men made it across, leaving behind their horses, heavy equipment and 20,000 comrades to the Reds. Denikin surrendered his command to Wrangel, who reorganized the army in the Crimea and invaded the southern Ukraine in October.


Denikin’s evacuation






The Reds appealed once again to Makhno, despite the fact that they had been attempting to assassinate him, and Ukrainian troops aided in the defeat of Wrangel in November. Less than two weeks later Makhno’s staff and subordinate commanders were arrested at a conference in Moscow and executed. Makhno escaped, but the Red Army and Cheka forces descended on the Free Territory with a vengeance, conducting a massacre of anarchists; Makhno carried on a guerilla campaign until August 1921, when he and a few men fled into exile. Wrangel, meanwhile, was unable to defend the Crimea, but he was able to evacuate all his people from Russia by November 1920.


The Free Territory



The threat in the west was the new Polish Republic, where head of state Józef Piłsudski was seeking to extend Poland’s frontiers east into Belarus and the Ukraine. After sporadic fighting throughout 1919 he launched a major offensive on 24 April 1920 and was immediately met by a Russian counterattack that drove the Poles back to Warsaw. But in August they destroyed the Red force, and the Russians accepted a cease fire in October. On 18 March 1921 the Treaty of Riga awarded Poland large chunks of Belarus and the Ukraine; the rest was absorbed by emerging Soviet Union.



Finally, in the northwest Yudenich, having guaranteed the independence of Estonia, launched in October 1919 an Allied-supported offensive aimed at capturing St. Petersburg. They easily reached the approaches to the city on 19 October, but Trotsky refused to surrender the birthplace of Bolshevism, arming the workers and rushing troops from Moscow. Soon facing three times the original number of defenders and dwindling supplies, Yudenich retreated to Estonia.











By the beginning of 1921 it was clear the Reds had won the war and now controlled most of the former Russian Empire, but troubles remained. The Russian economy had essentially collapsed (only 20% of the pre-war level), and requisitioning of food supplies by both sides, coupled with droughts, brought on the famine of 1921-22, which killed anywhere from two to ten million. The result was endless peasant revolts, which were crushed with what was now the standard brutality; in March 1921 in sympathy with striking workers in St. Petersburg the garrison of the Kronstadt fortress revolted and was promptly overwhelmed by 60,000 troops under Tukhachevsky. The Civil War offically ended in June 1923, but minor resistance continued into the 30s.






The human cost of the Civil War is impossible to determine with any accuracy, but by any estimate it was staggering. The White Terror killed some 300,000, including 100,000 Jews, while the Reds killed or deported 300,000-500,000 Cossacks. Perhaps 1-1.5 million combatants died in battle and captivity or from disease, and 7-8 million civilians perished in massacres and from starvation and disease; in 1920 some 3 million died of typhus alone. By 1922 there were perhaps 7 million homeless “street children,” dramatically revealing the extent of the carnage.


Street children

On 30 December 1922 the Bolshevik controlled republics – Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Transcaucasia – signed a treaty establishing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. By 1940 there would be 15 Republics, and as of 26 December 1991 there would be none. The de facto ruler of the new USSR was Vladimir Lenin, who was ruthless enough, but he died of a stroke in 1924 and Joseph Stalin took over and began eliminating all opposition and turning the workers’ paradise into a charnel house. Forced collectivization and rapid industrialization, for example, resulted in the man made Famine of 1932-1933, which left 7-8 million dead, and in just the two years 1937-1938 as many as a million people were executed. By Stalin’s death in 1953 anywhere from 20 to 30 million souls had perished due to his policies.


Lenin and Stalin 1922


The treaty creating the USSR



The face of evil





Special Report from the Fronts: June 1967




















(OK, I got carried away.  This was intended to be short and timely reflection on the Occupation, but the historian kicked in and produced this swollen document.)

Fifty years ago last month Israel began the Six Day War (5-10 June) by launching air strikes against the Egyptian Air Force. Initially the Israelis claimed they were attacked first, but later admitted they had struck the initial blow in their own defense, a “preemptive strike” in reaction to a build-up of Arab forces on their frontiers and Egypt’s closing of the Straits of Tiran, through which most of Israel’s maritime trade passed.  Israel had warned Egypt that blocking the Straits would be considered an act of war and in part had gone to war in 1956 because of precisely that.  President Nasser claimed that Israeli warships in the Gulf of Aqaba threatened Egypt and that Egypt had not signed the international convention declaring a right of passage through the Straits.  Ironically, Israel would later use the reverse argument when they were accused of violating the Geneva Convention in the Occupied Territories: the Palestinians had never signed it.

In any case, the Israeli population certainly felt seriously threatened, and because unlike the Arab forces the Israeli militia-army could not be kept on high alert for very long, Israel was forced to settle the issue more or less immediately. On the other hand, while the preemptive strike may be justified by the closing of the Straits, this was in many ways the beginning of the legitimizing of military action without a traditionally accepted casus belli.  Now we have invaded Iraq because we thought they had chemical weapons and might use them, and Israel, a nuclear power, threatens Iran with air strikes because they might be making a nuclear weapon.

The Six Day War took place just as I was graduating from college, and while I was on my way to becoming an historian of antiquity, my understanding of Israel was still shaped by the popular image of Exodus, of David versus Goliath, of the beleaguered democracy, of making the desert bloom.  I was thrilled by the marvelous victories of the Israeli Defense Force and the triumph of Jewish democracy over Arab autocracy, taunting a pair of Lebanese brothers who lived in my dorm.

This all changed rapidly as I learned more of the history of modern Israel and of the war itself.  Did two millennia of persecution and the Holocaust really justify displacing the Palestinians, who were certainly innocents in what Europe had done to the Jews?  Initially, in fact, Theodor Herzl and the Zionists simply wanted a state for Jews anywhere, recognizing that as part of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine was clearly not an option for state-building.  And the creation of a Jewish homeland was hardly high on the list of European priorities.

Theodor Herzl

With the outbreak of the Great War, however, the situation changed.  The desire of both the Allies and the Central Powers to cultivate European Jewry because of their supposed financial resources (yes, governments actually believed some of the anti-Semitic fantasies) provided the Zionists a more receptive audience.  On the other hand, British (and to a lesser degree French) military and political interests in the Arab regions of the Turkish Empire also provided a forum for Arab nationalism.  The Allies of course dealt with all this by making clearly conflicting promises to everyone in the region.

Arthur Balfour

The pivotal moment came in November 1917 with the publication of the intentionally vague Balfour Declaration:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The political calculation behind this seems to have been to garner support from German, Russian and American Jews, who would, respectively, undermine the German war effort, keep Russia in the war and attract more American support (another case of dramatically overestimating Jewish influence and power).  None of these things would happen.  Instead, already suspicious Arab allies were outraged, and Britain ended up being saddled with Mandatory Palestine for the next thirty years.  Many later labeled the Balfour Declaration one of the worst mistakes ever made by the British Empire.

For centuries Muslim, Christian and Jewish Palestinians had lived peacefully as neighbors, but that changed with the establishment of the British Mandate in 1920.  Jews began to pour into the territory: in 1920 they constituted about 11% of the population; in 1936 it was close to 30%, a huge increase given the high Arab birth rate.  The financial backing of the Jewish settlers was immense compared to that of the Muslims, allowing them to buy land and develop infrastructure.  Muslims considered the Jews a People of the Book, but having occupied the land for more than a millennium, they certainly did not share the enthusiasm of the Christian West for the resurrection of ancient Israel, which policy was increasingly viewed as another example of European imperialism.

The growing influx of European Jews was seen – quite understandably – as an invasion supported by the British, and most Arab leaders refused to cooperate in creating Muslim-Jewish institutions.  Sectarian strife began in the twenties, producing the first Palestinian terror groups, and a full blown Arab revolt exploded in 1936, Arabs attacking Jews and destroying their farms and the British Army, supported by 6000 armed Jewish auxiliaries, attempting to suppress them.  When the revolt ended in 1939 some 5000 Arabs, 200 British and 400 Jews were dead.  The British, incidentally, began the policy of collective punishment of Palestinians by destroying their houses, a policy later adopted by the new state of Israel.

Jews leaving Jerusalem

Arabs “escorted” from Jerusalem by British troops

A British-Jewish Special Night Squad

Palestinian fighters

Abd al-Rahim al-Hajj Muhammad “General Commander of the Revolt”

Dead also was any idea of peaceful coexistence.  The Jews responded to Arab opposition and terrorism by organizing their own militias, such as the relatively disciplined Haganah, which would become the core of the Israeli Defense Force, and less savory groups, like the Irgun and Lehi (Stern Gang), outright terrorist organizations.  Meanwhile, the British soldiers, who ultimately were targeted by both sides, were likely cursing the name of Arthur Balfour.

Irgun: bombed Arab bus 1947

Stern: assassination of peace mediator Folke Bernadotte 1948

Avraham Stern – founder of Lehi (and supporter of the Nazis)

Irgun: King David Hotel 1946

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Supreme Commander of the Irgun

Irgun: hanged British soldiers 1947










The Second World War brought matters to a head.  The slaughter of some six million European Jews could hardly fail to magnify the Zionist cause and the guilty consciences of Europe and America, which had turned away many Jewish refugees before the war.  The British Empire was in full retreat, and London was certainly open to any measures that would get them out of Palestine.  Finally, the war had produced an organization, the United Nations, which could serve as an international mechanism for the creation of a Jewish state.  Also crucial was the immense power of post-war America, whose President, Harry Truman, favored the creation of a new Israel, despite the objections of most of his advisors.  Joseph Stalin also supported the idea, which makes one wonder.

In November 1947 the UN voted to partition the Mandate, creating separate Jewish and Arab states and an international status for Jerusalem.  In hindsight the Arabs, now seemingly forever caught in a growing apartheid web of Israeli occupation, clearly should have taken the deal, but the Arab world did not see the self-determination talked about by the Americans, just another exercise in western manipulation of their affairs.

World Zionist Organization 1919 territorial claim

UN Partition Plan 1947












Zionism was a European phenomenon, the Holocaust (and to a great degree the persecution of Jews in general) was a European phenomenon and there had not been a Jewish state for almost two millennia. Why should there be one now?  And more important to the Arabs, why here?  Palestine had been Muslim and under the control of Islamic states for more than a thousand years (and had generally treated the Jewish minority far better than the Christian west).  I certainly could feel at least a twinge of the outrage when having met Arab families who could demonstrate possession of their land back into the nineteenth century and further, I had to listen to someone speaking English with a New York accent explain how it was in fact his land.

Well, for all the persecution and hatred of the people who “murdered the Christ” ancient Israel and Judah were an inseparable part of Christianity, which had after all accepted the Hebrew Testament, and Israel was where Jesus had walked. Today, many American Protestants, notably Evangelicals and sundry fundamentalists, are enthusiastic supporters of not just Israel but of its most extreme policies.  The British had painted themselves into a corner with the Balfour Declaration, and Hitler had made that corner virtually inescapable for them and the Americans.

The immediate response to the partition was violence, as Arab armies converged on the territory assigned to Israel, and it turned into inter-state warfare when Israel proclaimed her status as a sovereign state on 14 May 1948.  Here was the first of the “David versus Goliath” wars, at least in popular imagination.  In fact, Israel fielded almost twice as many troops as her opponents, and the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) estimated that Israel would handily defeat the forces of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

And so they did.  When the war ended in March 1949, Israel had acquired 60% of the territory initially assigned to the Arabs and now had a foothold in Jerusalem.  More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled; yes, contrary to the popular mythic version of their history, the Israelis did engage in ethnic cleansing.  (In the next three years about 700,000 Jews entered Israel, many fleeing Arab countries.)  In the state of Israel itself some 400 Palestinian villages (against 10 Jewish communities) were emptied of people, creating a class of Internally Displaced Persons among the Arab citizenry, and by 1950 one in four Israeli Arabs was an IDP, barred from their homes and land, which were confiscated by the state.  The laws applied also to descendants, so the situation continues to this day.

King Farouk I of Egypt

King Abdullah I of Jordan

1948 Arab-Israeli War

First Israeli Expansion











For Palestinians this was al-nakba, “the Catastrophe.” In 1950 Jordan annexed the remaining non-Israeli territory, the West Bank (Gaza was occupied by the Egyptians), and offered the inhabitants Jordanian citizenship.  Many Palestinians turned this down, and only Britain recognized the annexation, while the Arab states, anxious to keep the Palestinian question alive, pressured the Jordanian King, Abdullah I, to declare the annexation “temporary.”  This temporary arrangement would last 17 years and be replaced with something much more onerous.

In 1956 Israel joined in a secret coalition with Britain and France, who were responding to the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and fielded 175,000 troops (twice that of her allies) to attack Egypt. Worldwide outrage erupted, mainly directed against the French and British for their blatant assault on a sovereign state in order to protect their imperial interests, and domestic and international pressure soon forced them to withdraw, leaving President Nasser in power.  Israel was primarily – and understandably – concerned about regular terrorist attacks coming out of Gaza and Soviet weaponry going into Cairo and would be delighted to see a weakened Egypt without Nasser.  They occupied Gaza and Sinai and refused to leave when their erstwhile allies gave it up, and it took two more weeks of threats of sanctions and lifting of American aid by President Eisenhower (the first and last American President to stand up to Israel) to finally force them out.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion

President Gamal Abdel Nasser

Suez Crisis


Unlike the humiliated French and British, Israel benefited from the brief war, her defiance of the US and international community winning important guarantees: a UN presence in Sinai and the opening of the Straits of Tiran, which had been closed by Egypt in 1951. Nasser kept the canal and his power and emerged with an enhanced reputation, but he failed to understand that he had been saved by American diplomacy not the Egyptian military.  While the Israelis correctly concluded that their citizen soldiers were better trained and could conduct large scale operations, Nasser deceived himself and his people by concluding that his forces could take on the new kid on the block.

The Suez Crisis set the stage for the Six Day War, suggesting to Egypt, Syria and Jordan that together they could defeat Israel. They could not, and while much of the world marveled at tiny David facing the Arab Goliath again, the CIA in fact concluded that it would take Israel less than two weeks to defeat the Arabs.  It took less than one, and Israel made out like a bandit.

Battle for Sinai

Battle for the Golan Heights

Battle for the West Bank

(Whether the Egyptians shot retreating soldiers or the Israelis murdered some POWs is still debated, but another more disturbing incident of the war is now perfectly clear: Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats deliberately attacked the intelligence ship USS Liberty, killing 34 and wounding 174 American sailors; see my post “Our Best Ally and the USS Liberty” ( 

Prime Minister Levy Eshkol of Israel


President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt


King Hussein I of Jordan


Sallah Jadid of Syria

President Abdul Rahman Arif of Iraq











President Lyndon Johnson


General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev











When Washington finally forced the Israelis to accept a ceasefire (they were ultimately dependent on American resupply), they had seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Eretz Yisrael had attained its greatest territorial extent – ever – and possession of all of Jerusalem, which meant control of sites sacred to all three Abrahamic religions: the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the el-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.  (Perhaps the most iconic image from the war is that of jubilant Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall; less well known is the immediate destruction of 135 Arab houses and a mosque to create the plaza that now fronts the Wall.)

The Second Israeli Expansion

Israeli soldiers at the
Western Wall

Clearing the area before the Wall










The Israelis now also controlled the West Bank, which was promptly named the Judea and Samaria Area, though the term did not come into regular use until Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. The territory of the West Bank was in fact the heart of ancient Israel, Judea being the southern state of Judah (which ended up composing the history found in the Old Testament) and Samaria the northern state of Israel (completely maligned in the Bible).  A great irony of the creation of modern Israel is that inasmuch as the partition was based on demographics most of ancient Israel fell to the Arabs.  And this is certainly on of the central facts behind the sad fate of the Palestinians.

Ancient Israel Based on the Bible

Israel and Judah 9th century BC


Israel now occupied all that “homeland” (real or imagined), and while Israel was initially concerned with security – the occupation would quickly fuel Palestinian terrorism – the extremists saw the possibility of recreating ancient Israel, or at least the swollen image of it in the Judah-edited Old Testament.  Reestablishing a state that had ceased to exist two millennia earlier was questionable enough, but claiming territory for that state on basis of a clearly unhistorical holy book strikes me as absurd.  But because Christianity has also accepted that book as sacred, many clearly do not see Israel’s actions as absurd – or as violations of international law.

Before the end of June Israel brought East Jerusalem and surrounding land under its administration, calling it “municipal integration,” but it was clearly annexation, which was confirmed by the Jerusalem Law of 1980.  The occupied Golan Heights were to be retained for security reasons and settlements began to appear, leading in 1981 to the Golan Heights Law, by which the region was formally annexed.  Only Costa Rica recognized the Jerusalem annexation and Micronesia the Golan annexation – one wonders why these two states.

One of the fundamental provisions of the post-World War II international agreements, such as the Fourth Geneva Convention and the United Nations Charter, is the prohibition of annexing or settling territory acquired through war, whatever the reason.  Israel apparently felt exempt from this, for security reasons but increasingly in the West Bank simply because it was believed to be the land of Israel.  These settlements were not merely “obstacles to peace,” as the United States calls them, but gross violations of international covenants the United States is pledged to uphold.  Nevertheless, Israel was continually protected from hostile resolutions of the United Nations by the American veto in the Security Council.

Already in 1967 Israel reestablished the old settlement of Kfar Etzion, whose inhabitants had been massacred in the 1948 war.  More ominous was the foundation on the outskirts of Hebron of Kiryat Arba in 1968: the land was confiscated from Palestinians on the grounds of military needs, but it was in fact intended for a Jewish settlement.  Because of the connection between Hebron and Abraham (who might have once been a local cult figure), the city is sacred to everyone and has attracted a particularly nasty group of Jewish settlers, who are holed up in the old town, protected by the Israeli military.  Kiryat Arba has a park dedicated to Meir Kahane, whose Kach party is considered a terrorist organization even by the Israeli government, and nearby is the grave of Baruch Goldstein (an associated shrine, attracting thousands of visitors, has been bulldozed by the government), who slaughtered 29 Palestinians praying in a mosque. Both these men grew up in Brooklyn.

Kahane Tourist Park

Meir Kahane

Kiryat Arba

Baruch Goldstein

















The confiscation of land for Jewish settlements became standard policy during the 1970s, though it was denied by the Israeli government.  When a Likud government under Menachem Begin (former leader of the terrorist Irgun; a later Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, led the Stern Gang) took power in 1977, the process accelerated, and later the government began subsidizing housing in the settlements (which continues to this day), drawing huge numbers of Israelis who were moved far less by the dream of ancient Israel than by cheap available housing.  Whatever the motivation, these colonists were creating the “facts on the ground,” a growing Jewish population that made it more and more difficult for the land to be returned to the Palestinians.

Ytizhak Shamir, Prime Minister and former terrorist

Menachem Begin, Prime Minister and former terrorist.

Yasir Arafat, President and former terrorist





In 1983, as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, Israel removed the settlements from Sinai, and in 2005 those in Gaza, in both cases facing serious resistance from the settlers.  Unfortunately, with Israel controlling Gaza’s frontiers, waters and air space this rump Palestinian state became the world’s largest open air prison, periodically blasted by the IDF because some Hamas jerk shoots a rocket into Israel.  As of today, approximately 1,730,000 Palestinians are living in a semi-wasteland, and malnutrition has become a serious problem.

Meanwhile, the Jewish population in the Occupied Territories continues to swell, as increasingly right wing governments blithely paint Israel into a corner.  There are now some 800,000 Israeli Jewish citizens residing in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and a growing number of Israeli-only roads slicing up Palestinian territory.  Israeli and foreign governments still talk about the “two state solution,” but it has become an impossibility.  Even were the government willing – an extremely unlikely development – attempting to evacuate the settlements would almost certainly lead to extreme violence and civil strife.

What then?  There are now some 2,754,000 Palestinians in the West Bank (and 5,000,000 in Arab countries), and their birth rate is much higher than that of the Jews – excepting the ultra-Orthodox Haredi (who are producing a growing number of Israeli males who know virtually nothing but the Torah).  They certainly cannot be simply expelled, and that leaves two possibilities: annex the territory and give the citizenship to the Palestinians or continue with the current policy.  The first will not happen because Jews would then be a minority, a difficult proposition if Israel is to be a “Jewish” state, and one could expect the new voters to be unsympathetic to many Israeli institutions.

That leaves the status quo, which can lead only to some form of an apartheid state, which is already taking shape in the West Bank.  I visited Israel/Palestine about twenty-five years ago, when the settler presence was much smaller and the Israelis-only road network was just getting underway, and even then the West Bank was beginning to look like something out of the Middle Ages.  The settlements are for the most part on hill tops or ridges, looming like little fortified cities over the Palestinian communities below.  The traditional whitewashed houses of the villages, where water is increasingly in short supply, are in dramatic contrast to the modern accommodations, malls and swimming pools of the settlements, which are like bits of American suburbia planted in the Holy Land.

Settlement life

Israel has now occupied Palestine longer than the Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe, a tragedy for the Palestinians and ultimately the Israelis.  The Palestinian leadership, such as it is, has been frequently corrupt and seems to have a special knack for doing just the wrong thing, but consider a half century of rather unpleasant (by contemporary western standards) occupation: how would you feel after a lifetime of second class status – at best – and watching your ancient homeland being recolonized?   Or seeing your home destroyed because someone in your family was arrested (collective punishment, another violation of international law)?  Or being shot with relative impunity because you were defending your olive trees from settler vandals?

Back a quarter century ago I and a companion visited a Palestinian family in Bani Naim, five miles east of Hebron, and when we entered the children began crying.  They thought we were Israelis.

The sad history of Palestine











Stuff from Way Back #29b: Roma Aeterna

The last and most critical reason depends upon how one understands life in the Roman Empire, and there is much we do not know about life in the rural areas of the provinces. I am, however, convinced that it was basically good, convinced especially by the belief that the Empire could not have been generally so stable and last so long were its inhabitants generally oppressed. This of course comes close to making a circular argument, but the evidence appears to support the contention that at least until the Anarchy life in the Empire for the average free person was relatively comfortable or at least acceptable. Imperial structures based entirely on fear are simply not stable over the longer run – consider the Assyrian Empire.

Strong evidence that the Roman Empire was not such a bad place to live lies in the fact that apart from the Jews the Romans essentially did not have to concern themselves with the revolt of subject peoples. This strikes me as an impossibility were the Empire held together only by fear. There were of course revolts, which were suppressed with great brutality, but they all occur in areas that were recently or incompletely pacified: Gaul in the 50s BC, Illyricum in AD 6, Germany in AD 9, Boudicca in AD 59, Civilis in AD 69, Mesopotamia in AD 116. Once an area had been controlled for perhaps a generation Roman rule was accepted.

The one exception was the Jews, who undertook two disastrous revolts against Rome, the results of which were to forever change (and improve) the nature of Judaism by ridding the religion of the temple and all the rituals and sacrifices characteristic of polytheism and allowing it to become more introspective and spiritual. The Jews were a special case inasmuch as their monotheism prevented them from being assimilated into the polytheist Greco-Roman culture of the Empire as were all the other subject peoples. Understanding this, the Romans granted the Jews special exemptions from such things as any obligation to the imperial cult and allowed them more local autonomy, but friction was impossible to avoid. It was not just the religion, which affected every aspect of their society, but also the fact that this religion was inextricably entwined with the idea of a national state, given them by god. This was one thing Rome could not grant, given the strategic importance of Syria-Palestine.

It didn't work out

It didn’t work out

Generally Roman rule appears to have been accepted, certainly once the generation of the conquest had passed. The provincials, a least in the towns and cities, were easily assimilated and ultimately Romanized. The highly urbanized and Hellenized east fit readily into the urban Greco-Roman culture of the Empire; though Latin was the official language, Greek was the real lingua franca of the eastern provinces. In the west Roman civilization was simply at a much higher level of development than that of the Celtic and German tribes and naturally dominated, once again at least in the municipalities.

I believe that up until the Anarchy Rome gave more than she took. She obviously robbed the provincials of their nominal independence, but for many, especially in the Greek east, this was meaningless since they had already been under the control of someone else. Self-determination for the Greek states had essentially disappeared with the conquests of Alexander, but Rome had no problem allowing the Greeks and everyone else to run their own cities and communities. In fact, she had little choice but to allow a great deal of local autonomy, since administering the Empire at the grassroots level was beyond the manpower and financial resources of the state. Rome followed a traditional imperial pattern by making alliances with the local elites and drawing upon their experience by allowing them to govern locally under the auspices of the Roman officials at the province level. Such had the additional benefit of shrinking the imperial presence in the lives of the Empire’s subjects.

Rome of course also collected taxes. There is a great deal of dispute over what the tax burden was like for the average inhabitant of the Empire, but my estimation is that from the end of the Republic to the Anarchy that burden was not particularly onerous – in general. The civil wars in the first century BC saw the financial rape of the wealthy eastern provinces, but the return to stability and the systemization of provincial administration and tax collection seems to have produced a tolerable level of taxation. In any case, the Empire certainly prospered in the next two and a half centuries, suggesting relatively comfortable or at least livable economic circumstances for most inhabitants. With the Anarchy this changes rapidly, as continual civil war and barbarian invasion drives the government to extremes of revenue collection, which in turn begins to strangle the productive classes of the Empire.
In return the imperial subject received a number of things, the most important of which was peace and security. We tend to underestimate the value of peace because no wars have rumbled through the United States for a century and a half and we are used to it. For most human beings decades, let alone centuries, of peace is a highly compelling commodity. It is clear in the modern world that most people, even in places like America, would gladly trade some of their freedom and civil rights for security and comfort. So, that Gaul who fought against Caesar probably hated Rome, but his grandson would likely think more about the eight legions on the Rhine that prevented the Germans from trashing his farm every summer.

Better than Germans

Better than Germans

The Empire meant more uniform laws and more efficient mechanisms of justice. This is not to say that the average person was guaranteed justice – as today, money and social standing played a large role – but he certainly had a better shot at it. There were material benefits of course. Those military roads that knitted the Empire together could be used by anyone, dramatically enhancing communications and consequently commerce. In fact, take an area the size of the Roman Empire and guarantee more or less continuous peace for a couple of centuries, and the economy can hardly fail to prosper, assuming reasonable levels of taxation.

But far more important, second only to peace, was that the Roman Empire was an open society and became more so as it aged. Rome exported Romanitas, that is, her culture and language, though not through any state directed policy. In the east Romanitas dovetailed perfectly with the Hellenism that had helped shape it, while in the west it naturally overwhelmed the less sophisticated native cultures, at least in the municipalities, which were focal points of Romanitas. Speak Latin and act like a Roman, and few will worry about your Celtic blood.

Even the once precious citizenship was available to non-Romans. By the time of the Principate citizenship was politically meaningless on the national level, but municipal politics remained vibrant, and in any case the citizenship brought enhanced social status and some economic advantages. During the Republic, Rome was loathe to extend citizenship to non-Romans – the Italian allies had to revolt to get it – but this hesitation broke down rapidly with the advent of the autocracy. In AD 212 the emperor Caracalla granted the Roman citizenship to virtually every free male in the Empire. Now, he did it as a way to raise more revenues, and being a Roman citizen pretty much lost all its value when everyone was one, but the act is symbolic of the character of the Empire. Henceforth, a Roman who could trace his ancestry back to the early Republic had the same legal status as someone whose ancestors had painted themselves blue and fought Caesar. The conquerors had lost their special status in an increasingly cosmopolitan world. This points the way to the Late Empire, when Italy will simply be another set of provinces.

The city was one of the two primary mechanisms for the Romanizing of the Empire. They were the bastions of Romanitas, settled originally by Italians and bringing the trappings of Roman civilization to the provinces. And Rome had an unofficial policy of encouraging urbanization: the more urbanized a province was the more economically active it was and the easier it was to secure. Cities and towns of course also helped spread Romanitas, and they provided higher quality recruits for the provincial military units, who, incidentally, received the citizenship upon discharge.

A nice place to raise a family

A nice place to raise a family

The other major Romanizing element was the army, an irony considering that one rarely sees soldiers as a civilizing force. But half the Roman military establishment was composed of the provincial auxiliaries, for whom the army was a factory creating new Romans. One was not going to pick up the finer points of Roman culture in a legionary camp on the Danube, but the recruit learned basic Latin, the essentials of being Roman and came to think of himself as a Roman. It is estimated that during the first two centuries of the Principate the auxiliaries supplied a stream of about 15,000 Romanized provincials a year.

The Empire wants you!

The Empire wants you!

There was a two-way street connecting Rome to the provinces. As she exported Romanitas, she was also importing provincial talent, products of the Romanizing of the Empire. These were people whose bloodlines were not at all Italian but who did not for a minute consider themselves anything other than Roman. The emperors Trajan and Hadrian came originally from Spain, completely Roman but descended at least in part from Iberians. The emperor Septimius Severus hailed from North Africa, and during the Anarchy emperors came all over the Empire.

Despite Monty Python’s Life of Brian (the best and truest film ever made about Rome) most people think of the Roman Empire in negative terms – slaughtering Gauls, scattering Jews, oppressing Christians – but to my mind the Empire was perhaps the finest imperial structure ever, which accounts in part for its longevity. This was an incredibly cosmopolitan entity, a rare and seemingly successful multicultural state. The British Empire turned subjects into quasi-Englishmen, but Britain never relinquished its status as imperial master; one was not about to find an African or Indian in Parliament. Rome civilized western Europe and did it without the snottiness and hypocrisy of the British.

Welease Bwian!

Welease Bwian!

What have the Romans ever done for us?” Plenty.

Joshua Redux

The current Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems the embodiment of intransigence and resistance when it comes to the West Bank and peace with the Palestinians, but he appears almost liberal when compared to his Economics Minister, Naftali Bennett. Bennett is head of the extremist Jewish Home party, the third largest group within the coalition currently controlling the government, and he is willing to bring that government down should “Bibi” continue showing such weakness. His is a sweeping mission: “My task is to keep Judaism alive, to make it stronger and to fight its enemies.” Inasmuch as slightly more than half of world Jewry lives outside Israel, his mission statement might be a bit too sweeping, but conservative Israeli politicians seem to feel that Israel is Judaism.

Joshua Redux

Joshua Redux

In his struggle Bennett’s main concern is the West Bank, the territory that in the eyes of the world is to become the Palestinian state. In the eyes of Bennett, however, the West Bank is Israel. He actually has a point, at least to the extent that this territory was once Judea and Samaria, the heart of ancient Israel. But that was a couple of millennia ago, and one can hardly claim, as he does, that the land has belonged to the Jews for 3000 years. There have certainly been Jews living in the area all that time, but the state of Israel disappeared in antiquity and until the creation of modern Israel Jews were a minority. If any group can claim the land on the basis of continuous habitation, it would be the Arabs. Bennett’s reply to this argument is simple: anyone who makes it does not understand history, at least history as he imagines it. Thus, referring to the Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank is completely wrong, because, as Bennett puts it, “You can’t occupy your own land.”



This is of course nonsense, and in any case, claiming territory on the basis of prior occupation, especially so long ago, is an extremely dangerous principle. But Bennett would doubtless point out that Israel is a special case because of the history of the Jews and especially the Holocaust, a proposition perhaps more palatable to the West because ancient Israel and its “history” are so important to Christianity. Special case or not, the problem is that people who are not Jews have been living on this land for more than a thousand years and are wondering why they must be displaced because of the actions and guilt of the West. Palestine was manifestly not, as the Zionist catchphrase put it, “a land without a people,” and in 1948 the Palestinians saw half of their homeland given to the Jews by an international organization created and dominated by a country whose President was anxious to secure the American Jewish vote for his reelection.

armed non-people

armed non-people

But historical fact notwithstanding, Bennett, like many others, fervently believes Judea and Samaria are part of Israel, and consequently, settling Israeli citizens in the West Bank, seen as a gross violation of international law by the rest of the planet (quietly by the US), is quite proper. And like the Lord of Hosts once smiting the idol worshippers in the land He gave unto His people, there is the Israeli Defense Force, smiting their modern enemies, though they are no longer idol worshippers. These are the Chosen People, chosen a second time by the United States, the closest thing earth now has to a Judge of the Nations. The world is treating Israel unfairly, according to Bennett, an ironic supposition given that under the protection of the United States Israel is permitted behavior condemned by international covenants (which we are pledged to uphold).

Bennett believes time is on his side since the settlement program, despite the (empty) objections of the Washington, is actually accelerating, and every Israeli colonist is, as they say, a fact on the ground. There are already more than a half million Israelis (including almost half the ministers in the Netanyahu cabinet) living in the West Bank; send in enough and it is Israel, regardless of quibbles about silly international law. But Bennett is not an unreasonable man and is willing to compromise. Israel will annex only Area C, which is to say, 68% of Palestinian territory, and the Arab inhabitants (180,000) will be offered the blatantly second class citizenship already enjoyed by their cousins in Israel proper. The other 32% of the West Bank will be administered by a toothless Palestinian Authority, protected of course by the Israeli Defense Force and Shin Bet, the Israeli secret police. This sounds a lot like the Generalgouvernment, the Nazi administrative structure that ruled Poland. And sooner or later the entire area would almost surely be annexed.

Apartheid plan

Apartheid plan

Bennett and friends apparently do not see the underlying problem in all this – or they simply do not care. Apart from the fact that outright annexation of that much territory, acquired through conquest, is likely to be difficult for even ever compliant Washington to swallow, Israel would then control a huge and ever growing Arab population, confined to obvious Bantustans. Not only would this guarantee eternal hostility and instability, but Israel would be not just a Jewish state but also an Apartheid state. On the other hand, so long as the United States puts up with it, what do the Israelis care what the world thinks? The Palestinians are doomed. Where are the Romans when you need them?



(I just discovered a related news item regarding the West Bank, one that demonstrates the strength of Israel in American politics.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was speaking before the Republican Jewish Coalition and happened to refer to the West Bank as “occupied territory,” which characterization did not please the crowd.  He promptly apologized to billionaire Zionist Sheldon Adelson for his “misstatement,” though of course the West Bank is as much occupied territory as Poland was under the Germans.  The UN resolution of 1947 created the state of Israel, and the West Bank and Jerusalem were not part of that state.  That the Arabs did not accept the partition is irrelevant; the resolution also created a Palestinian state, the territory of which Israel is now occupying (and settling).  And the American media?  A former White House hack, Bill Burton, responded to a question from Candy Crowley of CNN by saying that the remark showed that Christie is “not on top of his game,” which is perhaps true if he dared to speak the truth to this particular audience.  But Crowley then told viewers that presidential candidates are “all going to make really stupid mistakes, which that was one.”  She could not be bothered to even mention that this “really stupid mistake” involved stating a fact.)



And question it they did. Former Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton told CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday that Christie’s remark is “the sort of thing that shows he’s not on top of his game like you need to be when you’re a presidential candidate.” Instead of pointing out the absurdity of Burton’s statement, Crowley validated his point, saying, “They’re [presidential candidates] all going to make really stupid mistakes, which that was one.” Just like that, the self-described “most trusted name in news” assured viewers that there is no Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Stuff from Way Back #24: Jesus, Jews and Romans

Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus, falls of course on December 25, but this is simply a tradition, inasmuch as no one has the vaguest idea on what day of the year he actually first saw the light – or in exactly what year for that matter. From the meager evidence in the New Testament the year of his birth most likely fell in the period 6 to 4 BC. Dionysius Exiguus was apparently the first to date from the birth of Christ in 525, though the practice did not become widespread until the eighth century. The Romans traditionally dated from the presumed founding of the city (753 BC in our system), while the Greeks dated in four year Olympiads from the presumed first Olympic games (776 BC), and it may be that confusion with the latter resulted in a four year error. So it is currently between 2017 and 2019.

Sol Invictus on a date

Sol Invictus on a date

The birth date in December might be calculated as nine months from the spring equinox, when Jesus was believed to have been conceived, but there is no way to confirm the date of conception. Astronomy does not help since the star of Bethlehem, like the three kings, was clearly later added, in this case to fulfill a prophecy. More likely the December date was determined by two Roman holidays, the Saturnalia and celebration of Sol Invictus, both of which occurred around the winter solstice. Placing the birth at this time would provide Christians with an alternative to the pagan holidays, especially as a contrast to the celebration of the birth of the “unconquered sun god.” This latter idea dates back to a 12th century bishop but is challenged by many scholars. If he was born in December, it would have been mighty cold in that manger.

Despite the fact that all our knowledge of Jesus comes from the New Testament and sources derived from it, there is little question that he actually existed. It is simply impossible to believe that the religion could possibly have the impact and ultimate success it enjoyed were it all based on an elaborate hoax. On the other hand, we can be certain of very little of his life: he was an immensely charismatic and successful preacher, probably in the Galilee, almost certainly challenged the authority of the Temple and priesthood and was executed as a criminal. All other details of his life preserved in the Christian testament are at the very best suspicious and in most cases clearly false, added by his disciples and later writers to enhance the story. Religion works like that.


Jesus as Sol Invictus

Jesus as Sol Invictus

the Aryan Jesus

the Aryan Jesus

Regarding Christmas, for example, the Roman census for taxation was based on residence, not place of birth, which would be an incredibly stupid way to do it. Jesus’ birthplace was probably Nazareth in the Galilee, where his ministry was, certainly not in Bethlehem, which as the birthplace of David (whose own existence is now doubted) conveniently fulfills a number of Hebrew prophecies. The value of associating Jesus with predictions in Hebrew sacred writings regarding the coming of the messiah/king is obvious, since such supports his status as the chosen of the one god, the anointed one. In the gospels he enters Jerusalem seated on an ass, exactly as had been prophesied in Zechariah.

Jesus follows a pattern typical of the Hebrew prophets. Communing with god, the man realizes the corruption of the ancestral religion by the authority in the state, the king and/or priests (the fusion of secular and religious authority is a commonplace), and challenges it. He usually comes to a sad end but is remembered as a holy man and an agent of god. The difference in the case of Jesus is that this sad end will become part of the core belief of an entirely new religion, one which will bring a new understanding of the one god. That core belief, incidentally, the death and resurrection that serves as a beacon of hope for man, derives to a great degree from the Greek mystery cult. Christianity might in fact be considered something of a product of the encounter of Judaism and Hellenism.
We of course will never know, but it seems highly unlikely that Jesus believed himself to be the son of god. He was after all a Jew, and the rigorous monotheism of his inherited religion would not likely allow him to consider a divisible deity, a Yahweh with offspring, or for that matter the triune god of the religion he gave birth to. He might in his last years, swayed by the adoring crowds, have thought himself the promised messiah, the man sent by god, but it is difficult to believe that even on the cross he thought himself actually divine.

Jesus died because he was in the eyes of the priesthood a heretic and thus a threat to the established order and their authority. In the same way more than a millennium later the Church felt compelled to take action to suppress the Albigensian and Waldensian heresies not just because they were an affront to god but also a challenge to the authority of the Church. The story of Jesus scourging the moneychangers in the Temple is a vivid demonstration of his challenge.
In the interest of ecumenical harmony the Catholic Church has in the last century declared that the Romans and not the Jews were responsible for the death of the Christ, there of course being no advocacy group for the Romans. The Roman procurator of Judea did in fact have to sign off on the execution and was thus complicit, but his motivations would have nothing to do with the religious mission of Jesus. While the Romans found the exclusiveness of Hebrew monotheism offensive, imperial provincial policy was generally tolerant of local customs, so long as the taxes were paid and order was maintained; the Druids were a focal point of Gallic nationalism and resistance to Rome and thus had to go.

The issue in Judea was maintaining order. The priesthood was telling Pilate that with his growing mobs of followers and more important, his threat to the established Jewish authority Jesus was leading the province into disorder. The empire was maintained by alliances with the local elites, who with Roman support actually governed at the grassroots level. Pilate would certainly have been more than willing to sacrifice a seeming rabble-rousing preacher in order to placate the real power in Judea. And if indeed the crowds began calling Jesus “King of the Jews,” the procurator’s attention would certainly be caught, since that sounded like a nationalist movement and a direct threat to Roman rule.

So Jesus died, and for two millennia the Jews were blamed, further stoking the flames of anti-Semitism in Europe. What was forgotten was that he had to die. That was the whole point of his stay on earth, to die and be resurrected, to carry away the sins of man and provide hope for rebirth. As Bobby Zimmerman astutely observed: “Even Judas Iscariot had god on his side.”

A final element in the story, Paul. Were it not for Saul of Tarsus, the new religion would certainly have died, just another Jewish heresy. Stripping the new beliefs of their encrustation of Jewish ritual practices, he made Christianity palatable for the gentile world, and the easy movement of people and ideas facilitated by the Roman Empire allowed it to spread across the Mediterranean and European world. Paul was, after Jesus himself, far and away the most important figure in the history of Christianity.

photo of the conversion of Saul

photo of the conversion of Saul

Whatever one thinks of the historicity of his life, the message of the Galilean preacher is a good one, urging humans to eschew anger and violence and treat one another with compassion.  Unfortunately, it seems the inevitable fate of a successful ideology is to betray its principles, and Christianity triumphant would become an instrument of intolerance and violence and bring centuries of suffering to the human race.  Nevertheless, Jesus had given the ancient god of the Hebrews now a smiling face.  And Mohammed would wipe off that smile and resurrect the Lord of Hosts.

Apartheid Old and New

A great man has died.

Nelson Mandela towered over his contemporaries, not just in South Africa but across a continent filled with brutal dictators, power-hungry rebels and religious fanatics. Mandela was the very rare successful revolutionary leader who was able to make the transition to peaceful democratic politics and lead his nation rather than dominate it. He participated in the peaceful dismantling of the worst racist structure of the second half of the twentieth century, urging reconciliation rather than revenge, astonishing for a man who had been imprisoned by the previous regime for 27 years. That Mandela was something less than a saint at times in his career does not detract from his accomplishments, and the failures of the current government of South Africa serve to increase his stature.

The celebration of his life and struggle against apartheid may also serve as a reminder that apartheid is still with us, though perhaps not on the grand scale of the Afrikaners, who relegated the entire native population of southern Africa to a second class status institutionalized by the state. This apartheid of the twenty-first century is not yet formally institutionalized nor so blatantly racist, but it is just as real and oppressive for those living under it. The new Afrikaners in fact cooperated in the 1970s with a virtually completely isolated South Africa in the development of nuclear weapons.

old apartheid

old apartheid

old apartheid

old apartheid

The new apartheid is being established of course by Israel in the West Bank, that is, occupied Palestine. Growing discrimination in the state of Israel against the 20% of the citizen body that is Palestinian is easily documented, but the discriminatory laws, the unofficial segregation and the sporadic violence are not part of any organized government instituted system. Instead, the developing official system of exclusion and imposed economic and social inferiority is found in what is internationally recognized as Palestinian land, making the Israelis more like the Nazis than the Afrikaners, surely an ironic turn. That this is all done in the name of military necessity makes it no less apartheid, especially considering that virtually none of the measures have anything at all to do with real security demands.

With seemingly randomly chosen exclusionary zones, Jewish only roads and residential enclaves and the total absence of any civic rights on the part of the Palestinians the Israeli occupation certainly looks like pre-liberation South Africa. The only real difference is that the land suffering under this system is not actually part of the state of Israel. It appears, however, that this is changing, inasmuch as there are now a half million Israeli colonists settled in Palestine, and there is not the slightest sign that they will ever leave. Rather, more and more Israelis are pouring in, despite the blatant violation of basic and well established international law and the opposition of almost all the international community. Israel is rapidly becoming the international pariah that South Africa once was.

new apartheid

new apartheid

new apartheid

new apartheid

Unfortunately, the Palestinians have no Nelson Mandela. Their iconic leader, Yasser Arafat, was a more typical revolutionary, excessively violent and utterly inept as a head of state. Not that it would make any difference. South Africa faced worldwide condemnation and sanctions, which played a major role in bringing down the apartheid regime. Israel has the virtually unqualified support of the United States, despite its constant violation of international covenants this country has pledged to uphold. There will be no international sanctions.

The colonization and the oppression must go on because there is no obvious way out. What Israeli government would attempt to evacuate five hundred thousand settlers when many of them would need to be forced, as was the case with the handful removed from Gaza. Will the Israeli army fight Israelis? Would these people ever agree to become a Jewish minority in a Palestinian state? And if Israel decides to annex “Judea and Samaria,” as many extremists desire, would it grant citizenship to the Palestinians, thus making Jews a minority in the Jewish state? The only answer is continuing apartheid.

The only hope is that the situation will become so unpleasant and injurious to American interests that it must act. One would think that even the American Congress could not stomach the forcible annexation of a conquered country. On the other hand, America no longer seems to care at all what the rest of the world thinks or how hypocritical it appears. The Palestinians can hope for nothing from the one time light of liberty to the world.

Stuff from Way Back #23: Seleucids, Jews and the Birth of Hanukkah

The historian got a bit carried away on this one.)


The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, began on November 27. Until the 19th century Hanukkah was a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, nowhere near as important as Passover and Purim, but this began to change rapidly with the growing emphasis on Christmas in the same century. The movement began in Germany, where Jews were more assimilated and secure than in Eastern Europe, when Jewish families began displaying Christmas trees, though usually not referring to them as such. The dates of Jewish religious holidays are determined by a lunisolar calendar, which means that Hanukkah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev, may fall anywhere from late November to late December. This dating consequently helped facilitate the association with Christmas.


Further connecting the two celebrations is the tradition of gift-giving. In Christianity the practice probably derives from the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which occurred around the winter solstice (probably why the feast of Christmas was placed at that time) and included a day of gift-giving. The tradition also has Biblical support in the gifts presented to the infant Jesus by the three wise men. In Judaism the custom dates back to 17th century Poland, where children were given small amounts of money (Hanukkah gelt) to present to their yeshiva teachers. Hanukkah could thus serve as a kind of alternate Christmas, when Jewish children could receive gifts like their gentile friends.


Because of these factors, as Christmas became an ever more important holiday, supplanting Easter, the importance of Hanukkah also grew. In the 20th century Christmas was rapidly commercialized in the United States, as business realized the profit potential of the holiday, and American marketing ultimately turned it into the major retail occasion of the year, vital to the American economy. So lucrative has it become that countries with only tiny Christian populations are now celebrating it as a major holiday. With its far smaller consumer base Hanukkah has lagged in this development, but by the 21th century it is every bit as commercialized as Christmas.


The Hanukkah celebration lasts for eight days and nights, during which period a nine branched candelabrum, the Menorah, is used to mark the passage of the nights. The ninth candle is actually not part of the ritual apparatus but originally served as a simple source of light. The eight candles are at the core of the holiday, since they reflect the miracle that gave rise to the festival. And that miracle is way back.


Judea, the southern Jewish state, fell under Greek control with the dismantling of the Persian empire by Alexander, and after his death in 323 BC it ultimately became part of the Ptolemaic empire. It remained under Ptolemaic control until 200 BC, when the weakness of the Ptolemaic state allowed Antiochus III, ruler of the vast Seleucid empire to the north and east, to seize all of Palestine. This exchange of Greek masters probably had little effect on the Jews beyond elevating the pro-Seleucid faction in the aristocracy and priesthood over the pro-Ptolemaic. The tiny Jewish state was, however, of particular concern to its new ruler inasmuch as it was near the frontier between the two kingdoms and covered the main road between Syria and Egypt.

The Seleucid Empire

The Seleucid Empire

The Greek policy towards the Jews was one of tolerance, an important facet of their increasingly cosmopolitan culture. Greek polytheism, like virtually all religions outside the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), had no impulse to holy war and could easily accept new gods, which were frequently identified with their own. Greek philosophy, which had been steadily moving away from the old Olympic deities towards more abstract conceptions of god, could in fact see something positive in the invisible, non-mythic god of the Jews, though many of the traditional practices of the Temple were considered barbaric superstition. Many polytheists found the aggressive exclusiveness of the monotheists to be offensive, but the Greek rulers, like the Romans later, had no problem so long as order was kept and the taxes were paid.


There was, however, a potential problem lurking in the confrontation of Hellenic (Greek) and Hebrew culture. Not only was Hellenization an important tool in the attempt to unify the Greek empires, but many of the economic and political elites in the non-Greek cities were inclined to go Greek, whether to gain advantage or because Greek civilization was simply more sophisticated and attractive. This had an impact even upon the traditionally aloof monotheists, many of whom saw this as a natural development of their religion, that is, maintaining Yahweh but forgoing the ritual and cultic practices. Moreover, since the Greeks accepted the notion of divine inspiration the Torah and the Law would still have a place.


The Hellenizing Jews of course stirred a reaction from the traditionalists, who saw their ancestral religion being assaulted and certainly resented such outrages as Greek gymnasia and nude exercise in the holy city of Jerusalem. Further, a candidate for the office of High Priest required the approval of the Seleucid monarch, which inevitably led to political intrigue and corruption. These problems were exacerbated by the existence of the pro-Seleucid and pro-Ptolemaic factions and the constant squabbling of two powerful Jewish families, the Hellenizing Tobiads and conservative Oniads. These conflicts would lead to the emergence of an independent Judea.


The sequence of events that preceded the Maccabean revolt is a hotly debated topic, but the following account, while not absolutely certain, is one that makes excellent sense of the information presented in the ancient sources.


The 170s BC saw increasing strife over the position of High Priest, during which conflict the Seleucid government played no real role. Matters came to a head in 169 BC, when Antiochus IV invaded weakling Egypt. On the way back north he visited Jerusalem, and always in need of money, while there he looted some of the gold and silver in the Temple, outraging Jews more by his entry into the Holy of Holies than by the theft. This obviously increased the tensions and aided the anti-Hellenizers, but the affair might have passed were it not for developments in Egypt.


The Second Temple?

The Second Temple?

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (and friend)

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (and friend)

In 169 BC Antiochus had left Egypt paralyzed by leaving behind two rival claimants to the Ptolemaic throne, one in Memphis and one in Alexandria. But during the winter the rivals reconciled and agreed to rule jointly, causing Antiochus to return in the spring of 168 BC. While he was there, a rumor of his death led the anti-Hellenizers to see Egypt as their savior, and a group led by the deposed High Priest Jason attempted to seize control of Jerusalem. They failed to take the citadel, where the current High Priest, Menelaus, had taken refuge with the Seleucid garrison, but they controlled the rest of the city, and the affair had ignited a virtual civil war among the Jews.


Meanwhile, in Egypt Antiochus had been thwarted from ending the Ptolemaic dynasty and compelled to leave Egypt by the Romans (see Stuff from Way Back #10: A Circle in the Sand), making Jerusalem all that more important to his defenses. With Jerusalem in open revolt Antiochus had little choice but to capture the city, free Menelaus and punish the rebels. When he left, the rebels reappeared and captured the city once again, and the king sent his minister Apollonius to crush the revolt and settle veterans in the city, enhancing its character as a gentile and Greek city. The “Macedonian” veterans were Syrians, who promptly established their own shrines and cultic practices on the Temple hill, and Jews felt that their traditional religion was threatened with extinction. Most fled the city and spread the fire of revolt across Judea. Playing an instrumental role in the rebellion were the Hasidim, the scribes and interpreters of the Law, whose livelihood was threatened along with their religion.


The revolt was perceived by Antiochus as essentially a political act, compromising the security of his kingdom, but it certainly had a religious content, especially with the leadership of the Hasidim. Antiochus consequently targeted the religion, not because he objected to the faith per se and wanted a holy war – such was a virtual impossibility for a Greek monarch – but because the religion was an integral part of a movement that threatened the state. The result in late 167 BC was the prohibition of traditional practices, such as circumcision (always despised by the Greeks as an assault on the body) and honoring the stipulations of the Law, and the notorious “abomination of desolation,” the establishment of a cult of Zeus Olympios in the Temple. Destroy the religion, the barbara superstitio, and thus destroy the rebellion.


But the religion was not destroyed. Rather, Seleucid rule in Judea was. In 166/5 BC scattered opposition to the decrees coalesced into an organized revolt under the leadership of the five brothers of the Hasmonean house, particularly Judas, called Maccabeus. Fortunately for the rebels, the Seleucid empire was in decline and with troubles elsewhere could not spare adequate forces for Judea, and in 164 BC peace was bought by rescinding the offensive decrees. Judas ordered the cleansing of the Temple, and in the process it was discovered that there was only enough purified oil to burn in the Temple for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight nights, which was long enough for more purified oil to be produced. And thus the festival of Hanukkah was born.


Potatohead Maccabeus

Potatohead Maccabeus

Judas Maccabeus

Judas Maccabeus

The truce did not last, and more warfare resulted, ending with the defeat and death of Judas in 160 BC. Seleucid rule in Judea was seemingly restored, but in 150 BC a civil war erupted in the empire, allowing the Hasmoneans to reassert their independence and ultimately extend their power north into the former state of Israel and south to the Egyptian frontier. The Jewish kingdom lasted almost a century. In 64 BC Pompey the Great ended the Seleucid empire, which by then was limited to the city of Antioch, and when in the following year the king of Judea reneged on a deal with Rome, he captured Jerusalem. Judea became a Roman dependency and ultimately a province.


One might wonder what might have developed had there been no troubles with Antiochus and thus no desecration and Jewish revolt. The success of the Hasmoneans marked the resurgence of the traditional form of Judaism, and without it the Hellenization of the Jews might well have ultimately resulted in the disappearance of the old religion. And the world would have been spared Christianity and Islam.

Wogs Need Not Apply

This is an issue of small significance compared to the revelation of our government’s massive surveillance programs and the administration’s Gestapo approach to dealing with informants, but it is symptomatic of our lopsided and self-destructive support for Israel.  And you are hardly likely to hear about this in the mainstream media.


Congress is now considering two bills (S. 462 and H.R. 938), which are both versions of the United States-Israel Strategic Partner Act of 2013.  Though the US and Israel have been joined at the hip for forty years, Congress continually passes bills such as these in order to fine tune the relationship, which is to say, add more clauses.  These are inevitably in favor of Israel, often to the detriment of Americans, and some are simply baffling.  For example, last year Congress passed the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Act of 2012, which commits the US to “the security of the state of Israel as a Jewish state.”  What does that mean?  How (and why) are we to guarantee the cultural make-up of a foreign society?  What exactly does “Jewish state” mean anyway, when twenty percent of Israel’s citizen body is not Jewish?


This new partnership act includes a visa waiver agreement with Israel.  The Visa Waiver Program permits the US and a foreign country (currently thirty-seven of them) to allow their citizens to visit one another for up to ninety days without a visa.  This is of course an excellent arrangement for friendly nations, but not surprisingly the agreement with Israel will contain a provision absent from previous agreements: Israel will retain the right, not extended to the US, to deny entry to any American citizen without explanation.  Apart from being blatantly unfair and insulting to Americans (who were not consulted about this), this provision is a humiliation for America.


Israel’s history of hassling visitors and denying many access to Israel or the Occupied Territories, often seemingly capriciously or for incomprehensible reasons, is so rich that the Department of State felt compelled to post a travel advisory on its website:  “U.S. citizens are advised that all persons applying for entry to Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza…may be denied entry or exit without explanation.”  One would think that this essentially guts the agreement as far as Americans are concerned, but nothing is impossible in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of our relationship with Israel.  And the advisory specifically notes that “U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin may face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may be denied entry.”


Indeed!  Negroes and Irish need not apply.  This sort of blatant profiling and discrimination is technically illegal in America and counter to our stated values, but one might argue that given Israel’s experience with Palestinian terrorism, it is a perfectly sensible policy.  Perhaps, if the profiling actually only dealt with reasonable suspicion of a threat, but example after example demonstrates that this is quite obviously not the case.  If there is even the vaguest suspicion that you are pro-Palestinian or a critic of Israel, that you work for an NGO that has been critical of Israel or that you have simply visited a country hostile to Israel, you will be hassled and possible thrown out.  That this sort of thing really does happen is clear from the State Department advisory, since the statement must necessarily be an implicit criticism of Israel, something that is normally a mortal sin for the US government.


Here is a particularly obnoxious though typical example.  Nour Joudah, a US citizen, began teaching high school in the West Bank town of Ramallah last year; she had a one year multiple entry visa and a residency permit.  After one semester she took a vacation out of the country, and when she returned in January via the Allenby Bridge from Jordan, she was held up for six hours and then denied entry with no explanation.  Acting on the advice of the Israeli embassy in Washington, she tried again through Ben Gurion airport.  This time she was interrogated for hours, strip searched, taken to a detention center and deported back to Jordan the next day.  A surprisingly frank call from the US Consulate in Jerusalem informed her that nothing could be done to help “when it comes to Israel.”


There are endless stories similar to this, and I also experienced this petty behavior, though on a much smaller scale.  In 1991 I entered Israel through the Ben Gurion airport and made the mistake of accompanying my travel companion to the same customs station.  He was a Black from Cincinnati who had converted to Islam and adopted the very unlikely name of Herb Mohammed.  When the official saw Mohammed on his passport, she asked me if I was with him, to which I said yes.  We were then both sent to a room occupied by what looked like the Israeli military, who took our passports.  After cooling our heels for an hour or so we were given our passports and dismissed without a word of explanation.  Trivial perhaps, but common – and insulting, especially for a citizen of a country that is sending Israel, a very wealthy state for its size, a few billion dollars every year.  Incidentally, when I left Israel on El Al, I received the most thorough search I have ever experienced, and I had crossed frontiers in the Warsaw Pact curing the Cold War.


Why are our national politicians so willing to do this sort of thing?  Can you imagine this arrangement being proposed for any other country?  Are they afraid to be called anti-Semites?  Do they believe in some Jewish international financial cabal that will finance their campaigns?  It must be some sort of fear thing, since it is very hard to believe that virtually all our national politicians are so enamored of Israel, a state that frequently spits in our face and violates almost as many international agreements as the Third Reich, that they would continually adopt positions that are actually detrimental to the US.  Apparently the powerful Zionist lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, looms over the frightened gentiles in Congress like some Lord of Hosts, ready to smite those who will not do Their will.


Actually, the Christian extremists perhaps have a positive reason: watch over Israel and lobby for the third temple, which would bring on the End of Times they desire so much.  Then those pesky Jews will either become good Christians or be slaughtered.  Meanwhile, better that Jews should live in Israel instead of their neighborhoods.



not a terrorist

not a terrorist

not a terrorist

not a terrorist

not a terrorist

not a terrorist

Magic Fire and Empty Pockets

John Wayne as Wagner

John Wayne as Wagner

Wednesday was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), easily one of the greatest composers ever to have picked up a pen.  There appears to be no middle ground with Wagner; he is either despised or adored by serious music aficionados.  I am in the adoration camp and believe that he was in fact the greatest composer ever, certainly of opera – or music drama as he calls it.  I consider Der Ring des Nibelungen to be the supreme achievement of western music; for me the sweetest, most moving moment in all opera comes in Die Walküre, when Brünnhilde tells Sieglinde that she is carrying in her womb the greatest hero of all time, Siegfried, and his theme is heard for the first time.  Chuck Berry is very cool, of course, but Wagner provides the aesthetic shiver.

While many of his theoretical writings on music, especially his ideas on Zukunftsmusik (“music of the future”), are a bit strange (Did he really believe sculptors and painters would be satisfied just producing props, sets and backdrops for opera?), there is no question that his operas do indeed mark a towering advance in music.  Contrary to general practice, his carefully crafted librettos were written by himself, and there is consequently in the Ring and his mature operas an unprecedented intimacy between the words and the music surrounding them.  What the characters are singing is for the first time – at least to this degree – utterly important, which is probably why the increasing use of supertitles in opera houses has stirred renewed interest in the composer.

Wagner also broke ground in the music of his later operas, pushing the traditional tonal systems to their limits and dramatically influencing the next generation of composers, such as Gustav Mahler.  Ultimately, his work led to the often blatantly atonal “music” of twentieth century composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.  His use of leitmotivs or musical themes certainly points the way to cinematic music.

Behind this incredibly beautiful music, however, is a miserable human being.  Wagner was domineering, and his opinions (on just about everything) were rarely affected by counterarguments and were expressed whether desired or not.  He shamelessly used his friends, constantly borrowing money that would never be repaid and squandering it on luxuries.  One might say that after music debt was the second constant in his life.  He essentially deserted his first wife, Minna Planer, and had a conspicuous affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of his greatest benefactors.  He produced three children with Franz Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, while she was still married to his loyal conductor Hans von Bülow, who finally allowed a divorce so that Cosima might became Wagner’s bride.  In short, he seemed to think the world owed him a living, and given the music he created, I think it did.

What Wagner is best known for, certainly among those who have no familiarity with his music, is his anti-Semitism, something that might have been forgotten amidst all the other anti-Semitism of the nineteenth century but for the fact that he actually wrote about it and especially because Adolf Hitler loved his music.  A great deal of energy has been spent looking for the traces of anti-Semitism in his works, focusing on figures like Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger and the Mime and his colleagues in the Ring.  There is no evidence whatsoever for this, and Wagner was so wrapped up in the dramas and characters he was presenting that it seems unlikely he would consciously model them after Jews.  And if there is anti-Semitism lurking behind figures and ideas in his operas, it is so subtle and subjective that it certainly does not matter to those who love the music.

Though it is hardly a justification, Wagner’s anti-Semitism was very common among enlightened Europeans in the nineteenth century, and it lacked the crude characteristics of the grass roots hatred found in the rural areas.  Wagner certainly did not advocate pogroms or separation and lived in the part of Europe where Jewish assimilation was most advanced.  Since many of his friends were in fact Jewish, he could hardly support violence or other extreme measures against them.  His campaign against the music of the Paris composer Giacomo Meyerbeer has more to do with Wagner’s initial envy of Meyerbeer’s success and what he perceived as unjust treatment by the popular composer than it did with Meyerbeer’s Jewishness.  Wagner was plainly annoyed and frustrated by the popularity of Meyerbeer’s operas, which he considered inferior to his own vision and works.  And there were many Jews in music, such as Gustav Mahler, who could easily ignore Wagner’s various shortcomings and see only the musical genius.

Wagner as the über-anti-Semite chiefly derives from two developments after his death.  The first was the emergence of Haus Wahnfried, the Wagner residence in Bayreuth, as a notorious center of anti-Semitism, presided over by his widow, Cosima, until her death in 1930.  She herself may not have been seriously anti-Semitic, but her establishment certainly attracted a number of unsavory characters, like the racist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who married one of the Wagner daughters and took up residence in Bayreuth.

The second and far more important development was the association of Wagner with the Third Reich.  Hitler was surely aware of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, but the attraction was the music, which would have held him spellbound even if the composer had never uttered an anti-Semitic word.  Wagner’s obvious German nationalism and connection with Teutonic myth would have appealed to Hitler more than the anti-Semitism.  The fact that there was virtually no one else in the Nazi hierarchy that had any desire to sit through a Wagnerian opera suggests a lack of identity between National Socialism and the music of the future.

Abetting Hitler’s love of Wagner was the composer’s daughter-in-law Winifred’s love of Adolf Hitler.  Her husband, Siegfried, died the same year as his mother, and Winifred became the pro-Nazi mistress of Wahnfried, where Hitler would be a regular visitor.  She would only go so far when it came to the master’s music – she refused to put swastikas on the shields of the Gibichungen in Die Götterdämmerung – but Hitler’s frequent presence at Bayreuth and the clear affection between him and the family – he was “Wolfie” – forever bound Wagner to the Reich.

And Wagner’s attitude to Hitler?  He certainly would have applauded the ultra-nationalism and the final unification of all Germans, and one might guess he would find the pomp and incredible showmanship of the Nazi state very attractive.  Humiliating the French would likely also appeal to him.  But Wagner was a revolutionary, not just in his music but also in politics, at least in his youth, and he participated in the anti-monarchy revolts of 1848 and was forced into exile in Switzerland.  Once successful he seems to have retreated to some degree from these sentiments, especially when a monarch, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, showered him with money, and the creation of the German Empire pleased him.  Yet, it is hard to see Wagner enthusiastic about the absolute and particularly vulgar dictatorship established by Hitler, and for all his anti-Semitism I find it impossible to believe that the soul manifested in his music could abide the Final Solution.

But in the end – who cares?  Were Wagner himself a mass murderer, the music would still be the music and that is all the matters.  Modern Israel has had an unofficial ban on performing Wagner, which is simply silly.  The messenger is not the message.  And in any case Wagner is unwittingly performed: the traditional wedding march (“Here Comes the Bride”) comes from Lohengrin.

Finally, a little known connection between Wagner and America.  The American Centennial Commission in 1876 commissioned Wagner to write a piece of music for the occasion, resulting in the obscure American Centennial March, clearly not one of the master’s great compositions.  He himself said the best thing about the piece was the $5000 he was paid for it.

Stuff from Way Back #16: Moses and the Exodus (screenplay by King Josiah)

(The Preface of my novel mentioned that the Exodus is now in serious doubt.  Here is a fuller presentation of the arguments.)

Nothing is known about the historical Moses, and even his existence is now seriously doubted.  The stories about him found in Philo, Jospehus and the Midrash and Talmud have long been recognized as secondary and unhistorical, and our sole “primary” source for the leader of the Exodus is the Old Testament, which is itself derivative.  The first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch or Torah, are manifestly not historical documents, but rather the final version of a tradition that constantly revised stories handed down through perhaps thirty generations.  Like Homer’s Iliad, most of the Old Testament is oral history that was subsequently written down, though unlike the Iliad and the Odyssey, whose texts were thus frozen, the books of the Bible continued to be revised and edited.

Biblical scholars have discerned four major “authors” or strands interwoven in the text of the Pentateuch: the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Priestly and the Deuteronomist; and these sources were themselves assembled and edited into the finished product by a group of compilers, collectively known as the Redactor.  The oldest of these sources, the Yahwist, is dated to the tenth century BC, already two to three centuries after the putative date of the Exodus, and the editing of the texts continued into the sixth and fifth centuries BC and later; even as late as the time of Jesus there still existed no accepted canon for the Hebrew texts that made up the Biblical tradition.  And to this day the tiny Jewish community of Samaritans, the survivors of the northern Jewish state of Israel, possesses a Torah different from that of mainstream Judaism, the product of the southern state of Judah.

The books of the Pentateuch, once ascribed to Moses himself, almost certainly contain no real history.  They comprise instead collections of folk tales, wisdom and cultural information gradually assembled over the centuries into the often incoherent and inconsistent narrative that has come to be accepted as the early history of Israel.   Oral tradition is notoriously unreliable as a mechanism for preserving an historical narrative, since whatever the accuracy of the original account that account will inevitably be modified with each subsequent telling, as old material is forgotten or reshaped by the bard’s own environment.  As such, the facts and history were very malleable.  All the major figures of the Patriarchal period, such as Abraham, were most probably local heroes or cult figures, whose stories were modified and woven into the developing tapestry of a Hebrew national history as those localities came under the control of the west Semitic tribes that had accepted Yahweh.  A few, like Joseph, might be vague reflections of actual historical characters, but none of the exploits attributed to these figures can be accepted as historical fact.  Further, these stories were constantly revised by later editors, who reworked them according to the ideas, institutions and events contemporary to their own environments.  The figure of Moses’ brother, Aaron, for example, was added to the Exodus story much later by the Priestly source to emphasize the dignity and importance of the priesthood, which was frequently at odds with the prophets, who traced their line back to Moses.

A prominent problem with oral history is that the fish will always get bigger with each retelling.  Exodus and Numbers, for example, record that there were 600,000 men following Moses; that would make the Hebrew force more than half the estimated population of New Kingdom Egypt.  But the exaggerations and physical impossibilities recorded in the Biblical narrative are, ironically, not that serious a problem.  The supernatural will naturally and obviously permeate an account of an ancient people redefining their relationship with their deity, and the Bible is after all considered by believers to be divinely inspired.  This has led many to examine the miracles, such as the plagues sent by Yahweh, in terms of natural phenomenon that have been exaggerated and distorted by oral transmission.  This approach has worked well in many instances – the Nile did occasionally turn red and did produce plagues of frogs – and not so well in others – the death of the Egyptian first born can hardly be explained in rational terms.  But this can all be discarded by the non-believer, who need not buy into the alleged miracles.

Obvious mythic stories may also be identified without undermining the basic fact of the flight from Egypt.  For example, the tale of the important infant being set adrift in a basket on a river and then rescued to fulfill his destiny was a common one in antiquity: Romulus and Remus were floated on the Tiber and Sargon of Akkad on the Euphrates.  The same may be said of passages that conflict with the nature of Egyptian society.  The Pharaoh, as an example, was a god incarnate, and even the more humanized god king of the New Kingdom was not about to give audiences to the unimportant, especially not despised Bedouins.  The foreigners erecting Pharaoh’s buildings is the Delta were for the most part not chattel slaves but conscript labor, and there is little reason to believe that the Egyptians, who built border forts in the east to keep not just invading armies but also Canaanite migrants out of the Delta, would dispatch an army after a clutch of them leaving Egypt.  And it is even harder to understand – without divine intervention – how they were able to escape Pharaoh’s professional troops.

None of these contradictions and exaggerations, typical of oral tradition, need injure the historicity of some sort of Exodus, any more than the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid negate the fact that Troy actually was sacked by Greeks.  That there is an Exodus story in fact suggests a real event, since such epic tales were rarely, if ever, made from whole cloth, and partly for this reason Biblical scholars who have otherwise dismissed the Torah as ahistorical accept the Exodus, despite a complete lack of non-Biblical evidence.  (There is the victory stele of Merneptah, erected in 1207 BC, which in a list of enemies smashed in Canaan names “Israel,” using glyphs that generally indicate a nomadic people rather than a place.  This is the earliest appearance of the term Israel in an historical context, but exactly who these people are is completely unclear, and in any case nothing is said of their origins.)

The lack of any mention of the Exodus by one of the most serious record-keeping societies in pre-modern history might of course be attributed to the vagaries of time and destruction or to its insignificance in the affairs of Egypt.  But the archaeological record – or the lack of it – is more difficult to explain away, especially when the remains support an alternate history.  For the Exodus itself there are two archaeological difficulties.  First, while there are indeed royal granaries in Tjeku, almost universally accepted as the site of the Biblical Pithom, they date to a period later than the thirteenth century BC.  This problem might be dealt with, though unconvincingly, by pushing the date of the Exodus forward or assuming another location for Pithom, but the second difficulty admits to no apparent solution.  According to the Bible, before moving into Canaan the Hebrews sojourned at Kadesh (or Kadesh-barnea or Enmishpat), which is now identified with Ain el-Qudeirat, a substantial oasis in northern Sinai, on the Egyptian side of the frontier with modern Israel.  There are pottery remains from the Middle Bronze Age, far too early for dating the Exodus, and there are a series of forts, erected by the united Monarchy and Judah and dating from the tenth to the sixth centuries BC.  There are no remains from the centuries in which the Exodus might be dated and no signs of a substantial group of people settling in the oasis.

The real Moses?

The real Moses?

More compelling, however, are the results of four decades of excavation in the West Bank, the heart of ancient Judah and Samaria.  Scholars have long considered the Biblical account of the Conquest inadequate: how could a ragged group of refugees with their families in tow so easily conquer central Palestine and establish a strong and viable state and the dominance of Yahwism in less than a generation?   There were also already suspicions about the towns allegedly conquered by Joshua and company, and it is now accepted that most of them were later insertions in the narrative.  Many, like Jericho, simply did not exist at the time of the Conquest, and many places supposedly destroyed by the newcomers in fact fell during the Catastrophe, which changed the face of the eastern Mediterranean a century later.  More ominous, the towns given to the tribe of Judah by Joshua are identical to the frontier towns of seventh century BC Judah, and indeed, the campaigns of Joshua make more sense in the later environment, specifically the reign of King Josiah (639-609 BC) of Judah, than five hundred years earlier.

What the modern archaeological surveys have revealed is the essential lack of any evidence for the historical narrative presented in Joshua, Judges, Samuel and the earlier parts of Kings.  Instead, the pattern of the settlements in the highlands of Judea and Samaria show three successive waves of settlement from the east: first in the period 3500-2200 BC, then 2000-1550 BC and finally 1150-900 BC.  The intervals between these periods witnessed dramatic collapses of population with most of the settlement sites being deserted.  The material cultures of these settlements are roughly similar and, hardly surprising, on a much smaller and cruder scale than depicted in the Bible or actually found in the Canaanite towns in the western lowlands.  Even the largest villages contained only a few hundred people and had no public buildings of any sort and virtually no luxury items.  Little evidence of serious record keeping and even cult activities has been found and certainly no evidence of Yahwism.

The most likely understanding of this archaeological landscape makes the Hebrews indigenous to the region, a conclusion that dovetails with the absence of any evidence for the Exodus account.  The settlers appear to be primarily pastoralists from the Jordan valley and beyond, and in fact the earliest remains of each incursion are in the eastern fringes of the highlands and reveal dwellings arranged in oval patterns, certainly reflections of the oval arrangement of tents in a Bedouin encampment.  While local climate change during these two and half millennia may have played some small role, the real impetus behind the changes in population was the condition of the cities and villages in the coastal plain.  Pure animal husbandry requires some contact with farming villages in order to acquire certain goods, such as metal tools, and grain to supplement the meat and dairy diet.  If this is not available from traditional farmers, the pastoralists themselves must become more seriously involved in agriculture, which will ultimately lead to more sedentary communities and permanent settlements.  Once the grain surpluses and trading networks revive, old nomadic traditions and the agriculturally unrewarding nature of the highlands drive the populations back to pastoralism, and settlements begin to vanish.  This sort of relationship between farmer and Bedouin has been documented from antiquity to the present.

The settlement and de-settlement patterns in Judea and Samaria do indeed appear to match the history of the higher cultures to the west.  The second interval of settled population collapse (1550-1150 BC) occurred during the period of Egyptian rule, when agriculture flourished and the surpluses allowed highland settlements to be abandoned in favor of pastoralism.  When that stability and security, and consequently the trading network, vanished in the Catastrophe of the twelfth century BC, a final wave of settlement building resulted, producing some 250 sites.  Because the Catastrophe had vaporized the Hittite Empire to the north and turned Egypt into a weakling, until the approach of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the ninth century BC there was no imperial power looming over Palestine, and tiny communities in the central highlands were able to develop and coalesce into an actual state – Israel.  Or perhaps two states – Israel and Judah – since the Biblical account of a single state fracturing into two cannot be trusted.

Thus, the people who became the Hebrews were indigenous to Palestine; they were in fact Canaanites.  So, from where comes the story of the Exodus and the Conquest?  Given the identity between the towns associated with Joshua and those with King Josiah and the recognition that Judges is part of what is called the Deuteronomist History, compiled in the time of Josiah, one can surmise that the epic tales of early Israel were fabricated in the late seventh century BC to support and in a sense sanctify the policies of Josiah, who might be identified as a latter day Joshua.  This was also the time of the Twenty-sixth (Saite) Dynasty, the last gasp of Egyptian power, when for a final time the Pharaohs nosed into Palestine.  This resurgent Egypt, a reminder of the glorious days of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties, put the Two Lands back into the big picture being assembled in Jerusalem, allowing old tales of desert wanderings, forgotten conflicts and migrations in and out of the Delta to be woven into a new narrative of Hebrew origins useful to Josiah and his associates in their plans to “recreate” a unified and purified Israel.

King Josiah gets the first reviews.

King Josiah gets the first reviews.

Details found in the Torah in fact fit the seventh century BC far better than the thirteenth.  The kings of the Saite Dynasty were indeed erecting new buildings in the Delta, including Pithom, the Egyptian names in the Joseph story were more popular at this time and in Exodus the unnamed (!) Pharaoh seems to see Palestine as a threat rather than part of the Egyptian empire.  To the east, Kadesh, so prominent in the Exodus, is now the site of a Judean fort, and Edom, whose king refuses the Hebrews passage, only became a state in the seventh century.  It may be that these late details cover an ancient story of departure from Egypt, but they certainly show that the material was being rewritten and do add to the evidence for a seventh century origin for the Exodus and Conquest.

That the Old Testament is a sacred text for millions of Hebrews, Christians and Muslims ought not to obscure this historical reality of its composition and nature.  The early books of the Bible are clearly not history, and the details in them simply cannot bear the weight of the conclusions that have been laid upon them.  Trying, for example, to locate Mt. Sinai is an utterly futile exercise, since all the textual clues date from a later age that itself had not the vaguest idea where Sinai was, and the very existence of the mountain is now doubted by most scholars.  Most important, the god portrayed in the Pentateuch is a historical mishmash, revealing elements of the primitive henotheistic tribal deity of the age of Moses, the institutionalized national god of the states of Israel and Judah and the more perfectly monotheistic universal lord of the later prophets.  From this hodgepodge of stories and images of god the believers, ancient and modern, (and Hollywood) have taken what they will, inevitably creating a Moses and an Exodus that reflect the society and values of the interpreter, rather than what might conceivably have actually existed some three thousand years ago.  Moses and his god are a work in progress, constantly being reinvented, from the time of King Josiah to that of Cecil B. De Mille.