Home / BDS / Tom Friedman’s belief in an ‘ancestral homeland’ is a toxic myth and not history — Updated

Tom Friedman’s belief in an ‘ancestral homeland’ is a toxic myth and not history — Updated

Reading a recent post, I made the critical error of clicking on the link to a Thomas Friedman column. I will not engage Friedman’s screed against Ilhan Omar – for the record, I’m on Team Ilhan – because I believe Friedman has too much blood on his keyboard to be seriously engaged. I will, however, take exception to an aside of his. Friedman writes:

I am not dual loyal. I always put America first, but I want to see Israel thrive – just like many Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Indian-Americans and others feel about their ancestral homelands.

Don’t know how to break it to you, Tom, but Israel isn’t your ancestral homeland. You were born in Minnesota in 1953. Your parents also lived in the US. Wherever your grandparents came from, it wasn’t Israel, since it didn’t exist at the time.

What you’re referring to, Tom, without even noticing it, is the myth that Jews today are all the descendants of Jews who once lived in Palestine, and as such have an eternal right to the land. This is the founding myth of Zionism, and it often masquerades as history. Let’s blow it up, shall we?

Let’s get back to 516 BC. The date isn’t random: this is the approximate time the Persian king Cyrus the Great issued his declaration which allowed Jews to return to Judea and rebuild Jerusalem. We need a snapshot of Judaism in 516 BC, and we’ll go on from there.

The term “Jew” is fuzzy at this time. Historians refer to people of the time as “Judaic”, that is some sort of proto-Jews. Seventy years earlier, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar razed Jerusalem and exiled most of the skilled workers of Judea to Babylon. Most of the “common folk” (עם הארץ) remained, however, in Palestine.

So, there’s a large Judaic community in Babylon and the Persian Empire; a smaller but significant Judaic community in Egypt, near Yeb (they left impressive records), which will soon also come under Persian rule; and a Judaic community in Judea, of which we know absolutely zilch.

Not all Babylonian Jews were overjoyed by Cyrus’s declaration: Jerusalem had always been a hellhole, and in 516 it was literally an uninhabited dump. Most of the Jews decided to cleave to the dictates of the prophet Jeremiah (chapter 29):

“Build ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters […] and seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”

The colonizing column which left Babylon for Jerusalem was relatively small, and its leaders whined about it endlessly. They reached Judea, and the first thing they did was clash with the rather surprised local Judaic community. The leader of the colonizers, Ezra the Scribe, was a Jehovaist, i.e. a strict follower of Jehovah; and most of the Judaic people had some doubts about this deity. Jeremiah again (this time chapter 44):

“Then all the men […] answered Jeremiah, saying: As the word thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the Lord, we will not harken unto thee. But we will certainly do whatever thing goeth forth out of to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem: for then had we plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil. But since we left off to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and by the famine.”

The Jehovaists were a relatively new cult (this is too long to go into here; maybe another post), and they had an uphill fight.  Ezra demanded that the local Judaic community divorce and expel all the “foreign” women living in the community, as having a foreign woman was an affront to Jehovah; we don’t know what precisely happened then, as we have only Ezra’s version. But Ezra was an official of the king, and his word was sort-of law; so many of the local Judaic community left in a huff, presumably twisting a finger near their temple.

Shortly afterwards, for reasons unknown, the Jerusalem community promptly collapsed. Dunno, maybe expelling all those people was a not such a good idea.

Some unknown years later, likely around 20 or so, another attempt at building Jerusalem, this time by Nehemiah (another Jewish-Persian official), succeeded. At this time the Second Temple, by all accounts an unimpressive affair, was built. Nehemiah moans a lot about interference from people who might just be the people Ezra expelled, but we can’t know for certain.  And then Jewish history slides into a black hole.

We have little knowledge about what happens to the Judean community between 496 and 332, when Alexander the Great appears on the scene. We know that the priests became the ruling caste, and we know of one case when a high priest was assassinated in the Temple, whereupon his friend, the Persian pasha, entered the Temple, took out the body and brought it to proper burial. According to priestly myth, the priests protested the pasha’s entrance into the temple; they said he was impure. The pasha’s furious reply was “Am I more impure than the body lying in the Temple?” But we don’t even know when this happened. Herodotus, the father of history, is in the region in the 480’s, but he doesn’t mention either Jews or Jerusalem; supposedly they weren’t important enough.

When Alexander comes on the scene circa 330, and with him people who actually know how to write history, we have a different snapshot of Jewish communities. There is a very large Jewish community in Persia, Syria, and Asia Minor; there is a huge, and hugely important, Jewish community in Egypt; and there is a relatively small community in Judea, with Jerusalem a minor city.

There are enough Jews around for Alexander to grant them several privileges, which will be kept for centuries and be ratified by the Caesars. Jews are exempt from work on the Sabbath, pay 1/7 less tax, are exempt from military duties, and there’s good reason to believe they were exempt from all taxes every seventh year (the shemitah). Not bad.

Judea is unfortunately placed between Syria and Egypt, and so became the prime marching land for the armies of Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria. The region changes hands several times. Then comes the Hasmonean rebellion.

The issue is messy in the extreme, so we’ll stick to the basic political facts. When the dust settles, there is a large Hasmonean kingdom, unloved by the Jewish people and hated by basically everyone else. This kingdom uses the inner collapse of the Seleucid Empire to bite off bits of Syria and what is today Jordan. It extends so far, at one point a major security issue is the Armenian Empire. Then, in 63 BC, Pompey comes along to stabilize the east, settles a Hasmonean civil war by taking Jerusalem and entering the Holy of Holies, and basically anoints Herod as king.

By this time, Judaism is a phenomenon to be reckoned with all through the Known World (oecumene, i.e. the world known to the Greeks and Romans). There are large communities all over Asia Minor, Jews are a major factor in Egypt (where they run the army), there are large communities of Jews in Greece (where they were unknown in Alexander’s time), and a large and vibrant community in Rome itself. The latter, outraged by Pompey’s defiling the Holy of Holies, would give a major financial boost to Julius Caesar in his civil war with Pompey; and once Caesar wins, he would bestow privileges upon the Jewish religious communities. Historians estimate that at this point, or close to it (4 BC, the alleged birth of Jesus, is commonly used as a benchmark), one in every ten residents of the Roman World is a Jew.

Again: 10% of the residents of the Roman Empire were Jewish circa 4 BC. That’s a very long way from the “who?” period of Herodotus’ visit to Palestine, and the communities are much, much stronger than they were even in Alexander’s time.

What happened? Jewish history is stubbornly silent on this point (or, for that matter, just about any other point), but all the evidence (particularly the archeological one) points to a massive campaign of conversion to Judaism, lasting centuries. Like Protestantism much later, Judaism had much to offer to a burgeoning middle class: seriousness, piety, stability, honesty, and a network of Jewish centers everywhere. Presumably that 1/7 reduction in taxes and the exemption from military service didn’t hurt, either.

In fact, Jews are all over the place – unless that place is Palestine. And they make the priestly caste obsolete even before the Second Temple is destroyed. Jerusalem is away and awful. Every community builds its own synagogue and – evidence is sketchy – likely has a rabbi by the 2nd century BC. A rabbi, not a priest. Technically, every Jew has to make it to the Temple at least on Passover and sacrifice; this is too unwieldy, so what happens is that every community sends a representative with money, who then buys cattle in the name of the entire community in Jerusalem, where it is then sacrificed. We’re talking huge amounts of money, moving all across the known world – and Hellenistic kings and Caesars alike make sure these convoys are not messed with.

To summarize:

Circa 4 BC, 10% of the Empire is Jewish. And there are plenty of Jews in the rival empire, the Parthian one.

The vast majority of those Jews were neither born, nor lived, in Palestine. Onwards.

Roman rule rubs the Al Qaeda faction of the Judea Jews – they preferred the name “zealots” – the wrong way. There are constant rebellions. Jesus’s reply to the question whether it is permitted to use coins with the face of the Caesar – “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” – may be trollish, but the question was real. After all, the Caesars encouraged worship of themselves, which made the coins articles of avoda zara, idol worship. Zealots claimed control of Jerusalem by heathen rulers was offensive to God.

How many people supported them, and how many opposed them? Excellent question, to which we have no good answer. Obviously the elite opposed the zealots and the idea of war with Rome.

Then again, the elite of the Roman world was – everywhere – collaborationist. That’s how it got to be the elite. And we know there was real hatred between the common folk and the elites – priests and rabbis both.

Be that as it may, in 70 AD Roman armies set the Temple ablaze. If that was offensive to God, he left no comment. From that point onwards, Judaism did not have a center. There was, however, no exile.

I’ll repeat it: there was no exile.

For starters, the Romans did not have an infrastructure for a massive exile. Certainly, the 66-70 war caused massive bloodshed among Judean Jews. We have no idea as for the numbers, but they must have been great. And the Romans did sell tens of thousands into slavery – so many slaves, in fact, that slave prices dropped all over the empire.

But Judean Jewry continued to exist. Sixty years later, there would be enough angry Jews there for another rebellion, The Bar Kochva debacle. Legend has it that when the last rebel city, Betar, fell, the Romans were up to their knees in blood. The war was certainly a bad one for the Romans; they went to a lot of effort to wipe it from the records.

But, again, there was no exile. And 70 years later, the Jewish community in Judea was in its finest bloom: the collaborationist elite would write the Mishnah, there would be previously unknown wealth all over the place, and new synagogues everywhere.

Whereupon we reach the calamitous 3rd Century AD, and the empire begins to collapse. By the end of the 4th century, most Jews of the empire would disappear. There is only one recorded pogrom. We can safely assume they did what many Pagans did: they converted to Christianity when the emperors converted and staying non-Christian became too onerous. (We’ll leave the baffling episode of Julian the Apostate and the Third Temple for another time.)

Then the rabbis and the Talmud cloak it all up. They come up with the myth that “because of our sins, we have been exiled from our land and pushed away from our homeland.” It’s certainly a better line then “look, we tried to work with the Romans and fucked it all up,” but it has nothing to do with historical fact. It’s a myth; but it’s a myth repeated endlessly in prayer, and it is a myth which allowed people who were often despised and sometimes persecuted to believe in redemption: “Return to us, O Lord, our judges as before, and councilors as of old; remove from us sadness and all moaning, and reign upon us you alone, O God, in grace and mercy, and find us just in our trial. Blessed be thee, God, a king loving justice and judgement.”

And this is the myth that allows Tom Friedman to somehow believe Israel is his “ancestral homeland”, and the myth under whose spells 18-year-old Jewish boys kill 14-year-old Palestinians.

The myth that there is a Jewish Homeland, when there was never any. The desperate plea of a downtrodden people, transformed by Zionism into a toxic myth.

Myth isn’t history, and it doesn’t convey any rights. Before we fight the myth, we need to know it is a myth. You shall know the truth, and it will make you sick.

Update: A note on sources

Following my post on the “ancestral homeland myth”, several people asked for sources.

As I noted in the post, we know absolutely zilch about what happened in Judea during the building of the Second Temple and the two centuries following. I’ve used Biblical sources and Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews” – all problematic, but we simply don’t have others. I tried to give the Biblical sources the necessary subversive twist, showing the sources actually counter the intention of their editor.

For this reason, I omitted the Hasmonean period entirely – we simply don’t have good enough sources about the rebellion, what came afterwards and the internal struggle within the princedom/kingdom of Judea at the time. I have my own opinions, of course, and may publish them in another post (next Hannukah?); but we are once again shadow-boxing here and every contention I make is likely to be hotly contended by many.

The numbers of Jewish residents in the Empire in the late century BC is not much in dispute. Jewish historians have shied away from the idea of mass conversion to Judaism, and I am thankful for the person I consider my mentor, Boaz Evron of blessed memory, for arguing the issue forcefully in his Ha’Heshbon Ha’Leumi (Hebrew, 1988).

Regarding the issue of the lack of exile itself, the focus of the piece: several years ago, during the Shlomo Sand debate – which produced plenty of heat but little light – every serious Israeli historian admitted that the idea of a mass exile by the Romans has no basis in actual historic evidence. The fact that most Jews lived out of Judea in 70 AD, when the Temple was destroyed, is also not disputed among historians. (It’s worth noting the debt Sand owes to Evron, which he acknowledges.)

Lay people, of course, do. But they do so because they are relying on myths, not history.

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