In an age when Israel may be on the verge of altering fundamentally the role that religion plays in public life and when courageous Israeli scholars are questioning the very premises of Zionism, the time may be ripe to take a fresh look at Jewish history and to learn from it.
Except for a few extremists on both the Jewish and Palestinian sides, most people today accept the fact that the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is inhabited by two nations and that neither is likely to go away. But coming to terms with the current situation is only the first step on the road to a lasting solution to a crisis that will not be resolved without serious changes in the way each people sees itself. Despite their leaders' willingness to sit down and talk about a two-state solution, many Palestinians have yet to come to terms with the fact that Jews do, indeed, have an historical connection to the country, albeit not the same historical connection that is professed by Judaism. On the other hand, Jews need to be reminded that during none of the periods when their ancestors ruled the land was the population ever homogenous, ethnically or religiously. I would argue that the country was at its best during times when all of the groups were encouraged to exist side-by-side, with no claim of superiority by one over the others.
The taboos the rabbis encouraged against mixing with the outside world certainly helped Jews to survive as a people and, significantly, to preserve Jewish teachings so that they might be studied in a modern, planet-wide society than can stand to benefit from many of them. But in an age when the center of Jewish life is no longer in the Diaspora, the rabbinic religion is quite damaging and nowhere is this more evident than in Israel itself. The combination of a ghetto mentality and the emergence of the modern State of Israel has turned the historical homeland into an abode of racism that should be seen as an insult to the concept of the pursuit of justice, the central theme of Jewish thinking for more than two millennia.
Does this mean that the anti-Israel propagandists are correct that Zionism is racism? Not at all, for in its pure form, as it was understood by the members of the First Aliyah in the 1880s, and by other immigrants in the succeeding decades, Zionism meant that Jews should return to their historical home and live in harmony with the environment and with the native populations, both Jewish and non-Jewish. So then, if Zionism is not racism, why does Israel discriminate against its non-Jewish citizens? Why have some Zionists come to support racist policies? Because, we must consider that the source of racism in Israel is not Zionism, but Judaism - not the moral values and legal guidelines of the Torah, but the theological context in which they have been framed. In other words, the problem as I see it is connected with monotheism, a belief that, of course, is not limited to Judaism. Nevertheless, Jews should be among those who lead humanity away from it, remembering that it was not always the belief of the Jewish people.

The Omrides

In recent years, archaeologists and historians of the ancient Near East have been debating the question of whether or not there was ever a united kingdom of David and Solomon and little by little it is looking as though there was not. Instead, it appears Solomon may have been some kind of tribal chieftain in the southern extreme of what would become the Kingdom of Israel and that David may have been a mercenary employed by a powerful Philistine city-state. Nevertheless, the descriptions given of the organization and affairs of Solomon's reign, which the writers of the text preserved in the biblical Book of Kings, portray an age of peace, wisdom, and architectural accomplishments, which seems to fit perfectly with another kingdom that was just as much Israelite, though quite a bit more historical. This was the kingdom of Omri, who ruled Israel during the ninth century B.C.E., not from Jerusalem but from Samaria, in the north.
Apparently, Israel as a monarchy did not catch the attention of the surrounding world until Omri's time, when references began to appear in the inscriptions of the various kingdoms of the region. Unlike many of the leaders of modern Israel, Omri understood that strength came not from separating yourself from the other, the one who is alien, but from making the other a part of you. So he arranged for his son, Ahab, to marry Yzbaal, daughter of the King of Tyre, which at that time was the major maritime power of the eastern Mediterranean. Under the Omride dynasty many peoples and religions were welcomed into Israel and the result was a strong, stable, and productive society, which went into a decline only after the Omrides were overthrown by a religious zealot, who instituted a policy of worshiping only the god, Yahweh (YHWH or Jehovah), and who was probably allied with a competing kingdom, Aram-Damascus, which soon turned on the zealot anyway.
Now, as it turns out, the writers of the Kings text were also worshipers of Yahweh and for this reason they put a negative spin on everything having to do with the religiously and ethnically tolerant House of Omri. They even punned visciously on Queen Yzbaal's name, changing it to Jezebel, which has a vulgar connotation in biblical Hebrew. And that is probably how the myth was born, the myth that the people of Judah, the heirs to the Kingdom of Israel, needed to separate them selves from that which was alien. But, each time they did this, their society crumbled and they were conquered.
I do not mean to idealize the cultures with which ancient Israel associated. Indeed, Omri's Tyrian allies practiced human sacrifice. However, as even the Bible hints, so did the Israelites, including the ones who worshipped Yahweh. In fact, critical analysis of the patriarchal narratives suggests that in an early version of the famous binding of Isaac story, Abraham does not stop at the last second, but kills his son. This is corroborated by a story from the Midrash - a collection of Jewish traditions related to, but not included within, the Hebrew biblical narrative - wherein Isaac does in fact die by his father's hand. The greatness of the Omrides was their wisdom to recognize that their people were no more ethical, no more chosen, than anyone who lived around them. And so, they welcomed aliens, they absorbed and assimilated all of the people, and in doing so they built a society that was developed and organized enough to begin to reform itself. I would not be at all surprised if that core of legal and moral guidelines that we have come to know as the Covenant Code and which is preserved in the Book of Exodus, chapters 21-23, was written in some form during the Omride period. After all, the code mentions, several times that one must help the alien - exactly the policy for which the Omrides were condemned! Leaders of both Jewish and Christian belief systems have been taken in by the propaganda of Kings and have thus forgotten the Omride lesson.

The Persians and Inclusiveness

But the Persians learned it very well. In 539 B.C.E. they conquered Babylon, and eventually everything from the Indus River to North Africa and Ionia (eastern Greece) and put together the largest and most ethnically diverse empire that had ever existed, one that endured for two centuries. One of the secrets of Persian success, I think, was the subtle way in which they accepted as their own the cultures of each national group. In doing so, they united all of the nations within a common ideology of the nascent Zoroastrian religion. When the Persian king, Cyrus, marched into Babylon, he made it clear that he did so in the names of Marduk and Ishtar, the chief god and goddess of the city, he helped to rebuild temples, and consequently he was seen as a friend and ally. Indeed, for 200 years Babylonians served the Persian Empire, even rising high in the ranks of its administration. Cyrus and his son, Cambyses, dealt with the people of Judah in a similar manner, building a new temple and liberating Jerusalem in the name of Yahweh and in the name of the goddess with whom Yahweh consorted (the Judahites had a national goddess called Asherah).
The Persians also talked with the leaders of each ethnic group living within the empire and studied their cultures and national mythologies. In Babylon, they found a highly developed legal system and great literature. When they came to the Judahites, they found something very unusual, for the legalistic and the literary had been combined into various written works, full of imaginative parables that illustrated why the laws were necessary. But the written works did not all tell the same story, nor did they include the monotheistic theology the Persians had recently developed and which they realized could be used to bind together their growing empire. So, they continued to study Judah, inviting Judahite priests, scribes, and storytellers and their families to study with their Persian counterparts. Thus, the Judahites learned about the Persian god, who was said to be the god of the universe.
We don't really know the details of what happened during the two centuries of Persian rule. But it is during this time period that the first two lasting monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, emerged and it happened in a setting in which Persians and Judahites were living side by side and in which Judahites, like Babylonians, were serving in the Persian court. Perhaps the Judahites reasoned that the universal deity, who was called the Ahura Mazda, had something to do with Aaron and Moses. Then, there is a story preserved in the Book of Nehemyah, which tells of how the priest, Ezra, is appointed by the Persian emperor to travel to the land of Judah, renamed as the province of Yehud, to become its religious leader and to introduce to the people something that Ezra called the Torah. Ezra then read his Torah to the people, who recognized only parts of what they heard.
Now if you were to ask a rabbi, particularly an Orthodox one, about this, you would be told that according to Judaism there had been an earlier Torah, authored by Moses, but that the Torah had been destroyed by the Babylonians a half century prior to the Persian takeover. With a straight face, the rabbi would then tell you God had contacted Ezra and dictated the Torah, verbatim, just as he had done for Moses, some 800 years earlier. However, reasoning according to Okham's Razor you will suspect that, probably, Ezra wrote the Torah himself - not from scratch but from those earlier writings, which incidentally have been identified within the Bible and separated by scholars in modern times. You will also begin to suspect that the Persians and Zoroastrianism had something to do with the birth of Judaism as we know it. It seems the early Jews, my ancestors, were assimilated into the Persian mindset with such success that they later came to believe it had been theirs from the beginning. In the process, of course, the Persians became a little bit Jewish, just as they became a little bit Babylonian, and a little bit of a lot of other things.

A Canaan for Today

In my view, these lessons from history indicate there is an alternative available to Israel and to the Jews of the 21st century that involves not the forced deportation of people, nor the division of the country into two independent states with the weaker group tucked away behind a fence, nor the replacement of Israel with an Arab-dominated Palestine that might become an Islamic republic. Imagine if Israel were to adopt the outlook of the Omrides and the Persians.
The first step would be to eliminate all of the discrimination the state promotes against its Arab citizens. After that, Israel should open its arms to all Palestinians, promote cultural exchange, and offer them citizenship in what initially would be a confederation of two states and perhaps, ultimately, a united country in which Jewish or Arab ethnicity no longer mattered. At the same time, a post-rabbinic Israel could promote to Palestinians a new kind of Islam, one that emphasizes the many human values the two peoples share and, I would suggest, one that contains no theology at all.
Certainly, under current circumstances Israel would have valid reasons - all having to do with security - to resist a confederation. Similarly, Palestinians at the moment would not be comfortable to confederate given the power of the Israeli military. But I think that on a planet whose nation-states are becoming ever more interdependent, there are ways to address these issues. First of all, while there would be open borders between the two states with some Israelis residing in Palestinian territory and some Palestinians residing in Israeli territory, the Israeli army would not be allowed to operate inside Palestinian territory without the permission of the Palestinian government. More importantly, while Israel would be responsible for the external security of both states, the confederation as a whole could be made part of NATO (or some new international military force) and this, I think, should put both Israel and Palestine at ease as to their long-term future.
Palestinians claim they come from a society that was distinctly local, rather than simply Arab or southern Syrian. Let us offer them a way to be just that, but in the setting of a pluralistic, bi-national confederation, not in the pan-Arab sort of way that the one-state solution usually suggests. In fact, since genetic studies are beginning to reveal that Jews and to some extent Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Canaanites, it may be quite appropriate to name the new confederation Canaan.

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