Mobilizing the Bible

by Mark Chmiel

The following review is forthcoming in the summer edition of the Journal of Palestine Studies.

The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-Colonialism in Israel-Palestine, by Nur Masalha. New York and London: Zed Books, 2007. 321 pages. Notes to p. 335. Bibliography to p. 354. Index to p. 366. $126.00 cloth; $36.00 paper.

Among the most prominent of the ideological weapons deployed in service of Israel’s Jewish ethnocracy are the Bible and biblical archaeology. In his latest book, The Bible and Zionism, Palestinian scholar Nur Masalha concentrates on how both are used to effectively further Zionist and Israeli strategic aims. The book, divided into three parts, provides an effective critique of these tactics and offers constructive resources for countering the “invented traditions” used in support of Israeli state power.

Part one, divided into two chapters, focuses on Jewish and Christian Zionism, respectively. In chapter one, Masalha investigates how Jewish Zionism, “a secular European conquering ideology and movement[,] mobilized the figurative language of the Jewish religion into a sacrosanct ‘title deed’ to the land of Palestine signed by God” (p. 16). Masalha highlights the role played by David Ben-Gurion, an atheist who used the Bible “especially the Book of Joshua” to mobilize both secular and religious Jews in the cause of the Zionist project. Zionists (and, later, Israelis) were also able to skillfully deploy the themes of “promised land” and a “chosen people” to gain acceptance for the idea of a State of Israel from European Christians, who were themselves adept at using the Bible to justify colonial intervention in other lands.

Christian Zionism, the subject of chapter two, began in the era of the Protestant Reformation, and boasts a long lineage of intellectual and pastoral advocates that predate Theodore Herzl, the “father of Zionism,” by centuries. Masalha focuses the nexus between Protestant theology and colonial interests in Britain leading up to the pivotal Balfour Declaration of 1917. He then scrutinizes the rise of U.S. Christian fundamentalist support for Israel, which paralleled the rise of the post-1967 Jewish fundamentalist settler movement, and particularly the development of “Armageddon Theology.” Masalha demonstrates how, for such fundamentalists, “the existence of the Palestinians, including a Palestinian Christian church, is either ignored completely or maligned as theologically liberal and spiritually dead, an irrelevance in the inexorable movement of world history towards the imminent return of the Jewish Messiah” (p. 129).

Part two focuses on particular themes of how Jewish fundamentalist movements have recently aided the secular Israeli drive toward domination of Palestine. In chapter three, on neo-Zionism, Masalha shows how some Jewish fundamentalists take seriously the biblical/divine call to wipe out the “Amalekites,” a biblical non-Jewish tribe: “Clearly for [Rabbi] Hess Amalek is synonymous with the Palestinian Arabs, who have a conflict with the Israeli Jews, and they must be annihilated, including women, children, and infants. His use of the Arabic term jihad leaves no doubt as to whom such a war of ‘annihilation’ should be waged against” (p. 151). Chapter four attends to Jerusalem and the work of fundamentalists to Judaize the Old City, while chapter five examines the remarkable way in which the twelfth-century Jewish scholar Maimonides has been embraced by fundamentalists in their campaign against the Palestinians: “The reinvention of one of the great symbols of Arabo-Muslim-Jewish understanding as a religious bigot is an extraordinary phenomenon that is a product of post-1967 Israel” (p. 210).

Part three considers the archaeological enterprise and also offers examples of ways in which scholars have successfully countered the Zionist narrative. In chapter six, Masalha examines the emergence of the religious nationalism of Hamas, giving critical attention to Hamas’s own use of “promised land” discourse and its Charter’s vision of Islamic sovereignty in Palestine, which, like Israeli exclusivism, does not allow for full equality among all citizens. Chapter seven explores Israeli historiography and pro-Zionist biblical scholarship, especially the contributions of archaeology: “Traditional biblical scholarship has been essentially ‘Zionist’ and has participated in the elimination of the Palestinian identity, as if over 1,400 years of Muslim occupation of this land has meant nothing. This focus on a short period of history a long time ago participates in a kind of retrospective colonizing of the past. It tends to regard modern Palestinians as trespassers or ‘resident aliens’ in someone else’s territory” (p. 262). Masalha then assesses the contribution of recent archaeology and the critical biblical school of Minimalism in subverting this scholarship.

In the next two chapters, Masalha gives extensive overviews to two thinkers who offer some hope of countering the Zionist narrative by dint of their dogged willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and articulate a humane vision for both peoples in Palestine/Israel. Masalha appreciatively reviews how Catholic theologian Michael Prior stood in solidarity with the Palestinians by critiquing biblical narratives justifying the domination of “the Canaanites,” past and present. Masalha then approvingly treats the many works of Edward Said specifically on the question of Palestine and endorses “the creation of a democratic framework which respects the right of equal citizenship of all inhabitants of Palestine-Israel (including the return of those ethnically cleansed by Zionism), irrespective of religious affiliation” (p. 319).

Drawing on Hebrew, Arabic, and English sources, Masalha’s cogent essays give both the scholar and the common reader a strong sense of the links between recent history and contemporary events, and between the politics of dispossession and the religious justifications used to defend it. While some essays overlap and have slight repetition, Masalha’s extensive and sobering book deserves a wide readership, especially in the United States, where the pro-Israel lobby has received increasing support from those who see the Bible as central to what is happening on the ground in Israel and Palestine.