I grew up on the Gulf Coast in Alabama, and as a white Southern male in that culture, I was not as racially sensitive as I should have been (I’m sure I’m far from perfect now!). The deal was sealed quickly after my conversion to Christianity at the same age. When I came to realize how black Christians deeply and profoundly identified with Old Testament narratives on the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, I was somehow better able to appreciate the horror of it all. When I thought of black slaves crying to the God who is Love for liberation, I found myself especially moved. As I say in my writings, sometimes religious reasons are the ones that really break through for people, helping them to more clearly understand how to understand the flaws of their own culture and its history. I guess that’s true for me.
Fair enough, but it seems to me that the next step in the process of discovery would be the realization that the Hebrew Bible is a manual of conquest, expropriation, and genocide; that the Christian Bible is an appendix to that manual that makes no serious effort to challenge the legitimacy of God’s expropriative-genocidal commands (Jesus came to complete the law, not to overturn it); and that the Qur’an is an attempt to co-opt both the manual and the appendix and present it in a new language to a different constituency. That, at any rate, was the lesson I learned from my own conversion–from Islam, to a generic Abrahamic Judeo-Islamic faith, to deism, to Objectivism. And that, I’m afraid, is part of “the horror of it all” as well.
I’m persistently amazed by readings of the Hebrew Bible–like Michael Walzer‘s in Exodus and Revolution–that focus on the ancient Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt, but somehow manage to ignore much of what they did after they got out. Far more of the Hebrew Bible discusses the bloody aftermath of liberation than discusses the act of liberation itself. And the aftermath was such as to raise the question whether the “liberation” was worth the price. Few still think that the Soviet defeat of the Nazis genuinely “liberated” Eastern Europe. Why should anyone think that Kings David, Solomon, or Saul genuinely “liberated” ancient Palestine? If they didn’t, then how is the Hebrew Bible, on balance, a text of liberation? Yes, Martin Luther King Jr. and the leaders of the civil rights movement used the rhetoric of the Hebrew Bible in the fight for equal rights. We should be glad that they left its politics by the wayside.
In the East Jerusalem slum of Silwan, there stands a ridiculous monument to the “exodus politics” of the Hebrew Bible–the so-called “City of David” national park, where the dramas of archaeological Zionism are played out at the expense of Silwan’s Arab residents. For the Arabs of Silwan (and for Palestinian Arabs generally), the supposedly liberatory narrative of the Hebrew Bible has meant flat-out expropriation (click around some of the links in this paragraph for an idea). Since 9/11, Americans have found themselves quite free to explain contemporary Islamist politics by way of passages in the Qur’an. I’m the last person to complain about that. But it is just as plausible to suggest that there is a connection between the expropriative character of contemporary Zionism and the frankly supremacist claims of the Hebrew Bible. Forgive me, if having seen the former, I lack any sympathy for the latter. But I lack it.
If the Hebrew Bible is going to be invoked for its narrative of liberation, it behooves us to take a good look at the rest of the text. It also behooves us to consider connections between the text and land-use policy in contemporary Israel/Palestine, policies that invoke the language of freedom, rights, property, privatization, and the free market in the name of some extremely dubious attitudes, laws, policies, and activities. For a good start, I’d recommend Oren Yiftachel’s Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine (Penn, 2006), or Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar’s Lords of the Land. Then re-read God’s commands to the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible (or read this typical defense of Israeli policy in Silwan). Is it really possible to discount the connection between “religious reasons” and perpetual conflict?
P.S. Thanks to Issam Nassar for the Yiftachel recommendation.
P.P.S. My use of links here (and elsewhere) should not be taken to involve wholesale endorsement of every claim in any link. Incidentally, some links in the Wikipedia entry on “Silwan” are dead.