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Review of Basem Ra’ad, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean.

 

Our understanding of reality is paradigmatic. That is, it comes from a learned picture drawn by culture and ideology. There can be various aspects to a paradigm: political, scientific, religious, etc. and sometimes they can overlap and even be contradictory. Also, they all are capable of changing over time. Individuals who live through such changes can suffer “culture shock.”

Normally, individuals adapt to the paradigms dominant among their socio-economic peers and, more generally their national states. This adaptation to the dominant paradigm is part of the education and acculturation process group members go through.  Having done so the initiate gets locked into his or her belief system with a conviction that it actually represents the world as it truly is. Unfortunately, there is nothing necessary about this conviction. To the extent that one’s paradigmatic worldview approximates things as they actually are, life can go along relatively smoothly. The best chance of this happening is at a very local level of life. However, where there are significant or growing discrepancies, tensions and conflict arise. Yet, even at their most discordant, imbibed paradigms can be utterly convincing for those raised within them.  Even when proven objectively false, they still can have the power to shape people’s perceptions and direct their behaviors.

Basem Ra’ad’s truly fascinating and well written book, Hidden Histories: Palestine and the Eastern Mediterranean is an excellent examination of the paradigms at work complicating and fueling the on-going competition in Palestine. Its lesson is a sobering one–our belief systems can falsify history and make a hell of our present world.

The paradigms now operating in Palestine are mostly religious, and among them the dominant one is that of the Israeli Zionists. This is the one that teaches its adherents that Palestine is the ancient and divinely promised homeland of the Jewish people. It also teaches that today’s Jews are the heirs the ancient Hebrews. The claims of ownership rest mostly on Old Testament stories rather than any objective historical evidence.  For the Zionists, this worldview is sufficient to give contemporary Jews priority to the land and its resources. In the process they and their supporters have sought to dismiss the notions that the original population base of Palestine stems from ancient Cana’anite stock and that there is probably an interrelationship of Hebrews and Cana’anites. Both of these hypotheses would strengthen the modern counter claims of the Palestinians.

The counterclaims of the Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, are based on age-old occupancy. Ra’ad makes the argument that, as suggested above, this occupancy is old enough to suggest that at least some of the native Palestinians may well be the heirs to the ancient Cana’anites. The Zionists, for their part, appear to secretly take this challenge seriously, for they have invested a lot of time and effort in trying to falsify it. A contributing problem that enters the field at this point is that many Palestinians are themselves reluctant to press the point of ancient lineage. They are caught up in their own religious paradigms, which teach them to take seriously the same bible stories the Zionists use to justify their claims to the land.

Ra’ad sees it as his mission to clarify the resulting confusion. As he tells us, “the past is distant and therefore exploitable by those who have the tools to wield for the purposes of power” (p.111) and as a result “historical facts and religious narratives” have been purposefully confused in a self-serving fashion (p. xi).  This has been happening for a long time. “After the Byzantine period, which succeeded in eradicating evidence of pagan precursors…Western ideas about Palestine developed from the 7th to the 9th centuries almost entirely in the imagination and in religious doctrine” (pp. 77-78). The Zionists are just the latest in this line of paradigm manufacturers.

In this role, the Zionists have inordinately powerful weapons. Those weapons are not only the propaganda engines of the modern media, government and education. They also have captured history itself. The modern concept of objective, academic history is little more than 150 years old, but in the case of Palestine its practice has made little difference. As Ra’ad shows, in the cases of both the Western masses and academic specialists, the Zionist “construction of identity” has prevailed, and in the process “the imaginary often has [had] a stronger effect than real connections” (p. 111).

Here are some examples Ra’ad gives of the imagination trumping reality in the competition for Palestine:

1. The notion that today’s Jews are the same people as the ancient Israelites. This is simply not true. “At the same time it is purported that the ‘first temple’ was built (tenth century BCE) the people living in Palestine were pagan in their religious practices. ‘Judaism’ did not develop until at least 500 years later . . . Palestine remained largely pagan until the fourth or fifth century CE, and it was then, and has been ever since characterized by a multiplicity of religious practices and ethnicities . . . the most likely scenario is that a percentage of the people who stayed on the land (now Palestinians) merely changed their religious affiliation over time” (p. 114). In other words, as the socio-political environment changed, significant elements of the peasantry evolved from pagan to Jewish to Christian to Muslim. This historical picture, increasingly suggested by archeological evidence and other scholarship, has no place in the Zionist paradigm. In that counter view most of the Palestinians come into the “land of Israel” with the Muslim invasion of the 7th century CE.

2. The biblically based denigration of the Cana’anite people and culture. This too paints a historically untrue picture of the past. The Old Testament, which so many religious Israelis (among others) take as literally true, “degrades the Cana’anites as pagans destined to become slaves or be exterminated” (p. 101). Yet the reality is that we owe to Cana’anite culture much that is foundational to our own way of life. For instance, our modern writing system originated with the Cana’anites, who supplied the “crucial creative force in the development of the phonetic alphabet” (p. 98).

3. Ra’ad notes that while the Zionist version of ancient history is demonstrably false, some Palestinians, as suggested above, have been seduced their own confirmed Muslim and Christian faith. Thus, “Palestinians often only aid Zionist rationalizations by falling into the trap of religious sequencing and associating themselves historically with the Muslim conquest in the seventh century (if they are Muslims) or the Christianization of Palestine in the fourth century (if they are Christians)” (p.145). The fact is that none of these groups were truly separate. They were part of a continually evolving montage of populations underpinned by a relatively stable peasantry.

In other ways as well, Israel constitutes a unique challenge for the Palestinians. As Ra’ad tells us, the Zionists are different that past colonial masters. Those sought to “impose their language, religion, values, clothing or lifestyle on the colonized.” But Israel “attempts to take everything from the native population and to systematically degrade their environment” (p. 157). A good example of this is given in chapter 10 of the book, entitled “Politics of Place Names.”  Here Ra’ad describes the Israeli extermination of Arab Palestinian place names and their replacement with Hebrew ones. In other words, as colonial masters the Zionists have no interest in converting the natives. Rather they wish them to disappear and toward that end they will not only make their lives economically insufferable. They will also subject them to a process of cultural genocide. Thus, as a people, the Palestinians are going through the worst possible form of culture shock.

How does one successfully fight against this? For Ra’ad one prerequisite to success must be “de-colonizing the mind” (p. 156ff) of the Palestinians themselves. They must come to both know and to value their actual ancient past in its historically objective form. For, even if the Palestinians get something approaching their own state (which presently does not look likely) they will still be without a clear understanding of their own history. Ra’ad himself knows of no better way of contributing to this process than documenting that hidden history and making clear the obstacles to its revelation.  Hidden Histories is his first effort to do so.  One suspects there will be others.

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