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Writing Israel out of the History of Palestine

Every history is an invented history, or a society's cultural memory. When there are more groups than one present within a given community, we may reckon with more than one cultural memory. In a time of conflict the victors will decide which memory is the "correct" one and it will be written in textbooks and taught in schools. The historian might want to protest, as he insists that he knows the correct version, but memories cannot be controlled by professional historians who don't pay much attention to historical "facts."

By Niels Peter Lemche
University of Copenhagen
October 2012

Recently Richard Elliott Friedman reacted in the Huffington Post to a challenge from the president of Iran Mr. Ahmadinejod that Israel has no roots in the history of the Middle East ( It is of course not a problem to destroy any credibility concerning Ahmadinajod's interpretation of history. We all remember his denial of the Holocaust (which would earn him a year in prison if he ever visited Germany or Austria as a private person). Mr. Ahmadinejod is hardly a worthy opponent to a scholar of Friedman's status.

The interesting part of this is, however, why Prof. Friedman spent so much paper on refuting the assertions of the Iranian president. It is such a ridiculous postulate that we only need one reference, i.e., the Merneptah-stele, to tell us that there was something by the name of Israel in this region as early as 1200 BCE. And if you ask for more evidence, please see the Mesha inscription from Moab from the 9th century BCE. The rest of Prof. Friedmann's examples are only beating an already dead horse.

We may, on the other hand, ask why is there at present this obsession with the rewriting of Palestinian history? Even a liberal Israeli newspaper such as Ha'aretz has expressed regret that Palestinian historians are writing Israel out of the ancient history of Palestine, and a major study has recently been published by Motti Golani and Adel Manna discussing the way the other has been removed from recent history when it comes to the 1948 conflict.1 What is history to one part is non-history to the other: the foe does not exist.

But are Palestinian historians doing what has already been done to them? In 1996, Keith Whitelam published his The invention of Ancient Israel with the subtitle: The Silencing of Palestinian History.2 It was Whitelam's thesis that the history of ancient Israel has been promoted to such a degree that every other history relevant to Palestine has been silenced, i.e., deliberately suppressed, and he was evidently right. Recent studies have shown how this has worked since the establishment of modern Israel, with that State attempting to erase every remnant, or better, memory, of the presence of the Palestinians. We only need to mention the renaming of Palestinian sites, whether ancient or modern, sometimes with amusing results (such as the misnaming of Tell Sheikh el-'Areini as Gath in 1953).

Every history is an invented history, or a society's cultural memory. When there are more groups than one present within a given community, we may reckon with more than one cultural memory. In a time of conflict the victors will decide which memory is the "correct" one and it will be written in textbooks and taught in schools. The historian might want to protest, as he insists that he knows the correct version, but memories cannot be controlled by professional historians who don't pay much attention to historical "facts." They represent political decisions and choices and whatever people agree on as their "history."3 It is obvious that the erasing of Palestinian history after 1948 was a deliberate political act. It should therefore not be a surprise when the Palestinians also move to roll history back.

The really interesting thing is that "ancient Israel" as a cultural memory represents the deliberate choice of a certain community (according to my magical spectacles, this community is the Judaism of the Persian and especially Hellenistic and Roman periods). It can in many ways be argued that the choice of the version of "Israel's" history found in the Old Testament at the same time represented the silencing of all other histories relevant to other groups living at that time in the land of Palestine, including as the most obvious example the history of the Samaritans. Every story or memory not directly relevant to the Jewish elite of the fourth through first centuries (BCE) was silenced, forgotten and erased. Thus the memory of the Samaritan community at Mt. Gerizim was totally left in silence, apart from the temple destroyed by Hyrcanus shortly before 100 BCE. Only recently has a new interest in the history of the Samaritans appeared.

What happened was that the history of a Palestinian state of the name of Bît Humriya, respectively Samarina, or even Israel which was in existence roughly speaking between 900 and 700 BCE was rewritten in such a way that it also became Jewish history in the shape of biblical Israel. If the Samaritans had a memory of their own, i.e., a version of Israel's history that did not fit in, it was forgotten. Ancient Israel never existed, understood as the modern rewriting of the biblical story about the people of God, its "Israel." It is absolutely in line with this observation that "Israel" was, in Antiquity, never used as a political name. Thus the Hasmonean rulers called themselves leaders of the community of the Jews as testified by their coinage.4

It is, however, absolutely astounding that the only inscriptions from ancient times in which individuals proclaim themselves to be Israelites are found outside of modern Israel, on the Island of Delos. They are in Greek and the Israelites mentioned here comes from Crete (Knossos and Heracleon) and they expressly mention their attachment to the holy place at Gerizim.5 They have no religious ties to Jerusalem but to Gerizim, and should by all means be reckoned as Samaritans, but in their own eyes they are Israelites.

Cultural memory is everything but a neutral story about the past. It is a highly political issue. It is not about some stray inscriptions in Hebrew or about pig bones or the absence of pig bones, it is about what people believe in or are told to believe in as their story. It is certainly also something people are not ready to depart from easily. We saw in Israel the very violent reaction to Shlomo Sand's study, The Invention of the Jewish People6 very shortly after it appeared. To many Israeli readers (and non-readers) it was the worst book ever published, although Sand is himself a Jewish historian at the University of Tel Aviv. This is not about whether or not the book is as bad as some claim or whether or not Sand is right, it is about his challenge to the accepted cultural memory of modern Israel.

So moving back to Friedman's settlement with Ahmadinejod, Friedman is obviously right and Ahmadinejod wrong, but at the same time Ahmadinajod is right and Friedman wrong if we begin to discuss the content of the word "Israel" in this connection. Friedman definitely subscribes to the official version of Israel's cultural memory. This memory is founded on the Bible and therefore has marvelous support everywhere in Jewish and Christian communities. It may, on the other hand, be questioned whether or not this Israel of Friedman is representative of the society that once existed in Palestine in ancient times. If Ahmadinejod argued that biblical Israel is an invention and foreign to the ancient history of the Middle East, he is not left totally in the wilderness. On the other hand, he probably does not have a clue about any of this.

To be sure, it is possible to write a history of ancient Palestine without recourse to the Old Testament. I have done so, and it worked perfectly. The cultural memory embedded in the Old Testament has not much to contribute to this history. It rather distorts the history of the country by focusing exclusively on only one element and ignoring all the other elements belonging to the ancient history of this territory.7

And a final note: I have constantly used the name ‘Palestine’ of the territory otherwise called Canaan, Eretz Israel, the Holy Land, and more. According to Israeli historians this name is Roman and a consequence of Hadrian's renaming of the country after the Bar Kochba rebellion. It is true that the Romans reintroduced the name, but Herodotus had previously used it of the territory between Egypt and Syria, and before him, Sennacherib campaigned (according to his own annals) in Palestine. Having a name for the place where you live means identity; removing this name means removing, cancelling identity. Hadrian did, indeed rename the country, but he did not replace the name of Israel with Palestine but the name of the province of Judah. We have absolutely no indication that before the rebellion the political name of the country was Israel.


1 Two Sides of the Coin: Independence and Nakba 1948. Two Narratives of the 1948 War and its Outcome (Dordrecht: Republic of Letters, 2011).

2 London: Routledge, 1996.

3 Reminding us of Napoleon's view of history: Isn't it a fable which people have agreed on.

4 Particulars will be published in my contribution to an introduction to Cultural Memory studies and the Bible edited by Pernille Carstens.

5 Cf on these now the discussion in Magnar Kartveit, The Origin of the Samaritans (Vetus Testamentum, Supplements, 128; Leiden: Brill, 2009), 216-24, but also the more sharply formulated commentary in Niels Peter Lemche, The Greek Israelites and Gerizim in Tal Davidovich, in Tal Davidivich (ed.), Plogbillar & svärd: En festskrift till Stig Norin (Uppsala: Molin & Sorgenfrei, 2012), 147-154.

6 London: Verso, 2009.

7 Cf. my The Old Testament between Theology and History (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 393-453. On the history of ancient Israel as invented, cf. also Mario Liverani, Israel's History and the History of Israel (London: Equinox, 2005).

Comments (15)

This is really an excellent piece: a perceptive reflection on present discussions. I will not yet come into thus unimportant discussion as my ability to read and write is still too limited, except to point out that Israeli complaints about Palestinian views of the past are not quoting Palestine's--or Jordan, Lebanon and Syrians--finest scholars. This is comparable to describing Israeli scholarship by quoting the mayor of Jerusalem for Israeli opinions about tgw historicity of David.
I think we should get back to some old principles regarding the cultural heritage of this region and open up again the question of a history of Palestine for ALL Palestinians.
#1 - Thomas L. Thompson - 10/23/2012 - 11:09

Interesting, and let us not to be disturbed by archaeological or epigraphical evidence. Yet, it is worthy to mention the coins of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, 66 - 73 CE, where the term Shekel of Israel is mentioned on the silver coins minted during the first five years of the war. And I wonder why is Shimon Bar Kokhba named Nasi - President of Israel, in 132 CE.
Robert Deutsch
#2 - Robert Deutsch - 10/23/2012 - 14:54

The use of the term 'Israel' in the Bar Kpkhba coinage does not refer to the land but to the people. The same is true of 'Nasi of Israel'. It cannot be denied that 'Israel' was the self-designation of Jews from (as I have argued) the sixth century BCE, even though 'Israel' as a political entity and 'land of Israel' as a geographical entity refer to what became Samaria. Jerusalem was never an Israelite city (and incidentally is not now, if one respects international law).
The connection between 'Israel', meaning the congregation of Jews, and Palestine is ancient and continuous. What it never has been is exclusive. And the land known in Hebrew as erets yisrael was never applied to Palestine in biblical times. It is first attested for certain in the Mishnah, where it has more than one definition. In fact, its meaning is halakhic, not merely geographical.
#3 - philip davies - 10/23/2012 - 16:19

'President of Israel'? Or rather 'Prince of Israel'?

#4 - Emanuel Pfoh - 10/23/2012 - 16:59


President, because Yadin brought in the material from the Bar Kochba rebellion to the Israeli cabinet with the words: Here is a greetung to you Mr President from the former president of Israel. I believe that it is Yael Zeruvavel (Recovered Roots) that has the story.

#5 - Niels Peter Lemche - 10/23/2012 - 20:37

Dear NP,

that's how national myths are forged: projecting the present into the past!

#6 - Emanuel Pfoh - 10/23/2012 - 21:00

Dear Manu and Niels Peter,
Prince and president are not so different: the one presiding is the first among us.

Dear Mr. Deutsch,
I am pleased that you raise the historical need for evidence. How does it suggest that Judah was part of Israel? Remember that by the time of Bar Kochba, even Galilee was Jewish, a word which had begun to lose its roots.
Professor Emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#7 - Thomas L. Thompson - 10/23/2012 - 22:41

Lemche writes: "Ahmadinajod is right and Friedman wrong if we begin to discuss the content of the word 'Israel.'" But "Israel" is mentioned as a polity in the Merneptah stele, the Tel Dan stele, the Mesha stele, and the coins that Robert Deutsch cites. Lemche's extreme position is simply unfounded and bizarre. I can only conclude that like his friend Ahmadinajad, Lemche "does not have a clue about any of this."
#8 - Ron Hendel - 10/24/2012 - 04:19


You are supposed to know something about cultural memory (I know your book) so you should have the ability to understand the argument.

Instead in a not very brought polemical way you misquote me and simple show that you have not a clue to what cultural memory is.

I wrote "So moving back to Friedman's settlement with Ahmadinejod, Friedman is obviously right and Ahmadinejod wrong, but at the same time Ahmadinajod is right and Friedman wrong". By citing only the last sentence you have totally misrepresented my argument.

You also forgot to tell that I actually mentioned Mesha and Merneptah. Tel Dan well, I still have some problems with it (referring to Gmirkin's article on tool slippage in SJOT). In the argument about this which will be printed some day in an introduction book to cultural memory and biblical studies I specifically refer to my old idea (pave Tom) that Merneptah's Israel is to be sought in the mountains north of Jerusalem, i.e., around Nablus. As Philip wrote, it has no old relation to Jerusalem and Judah/Judea.

For a person of your status, I had expected more.

#9 - Niels Peter Lemche - 10/24/2012 - 05:31

Lemche's point seems to be (to quote his last sentence): "We have absolutely no indication that before the rebellion the political name of the country was Israel." This is counterfactual. He also states: "If Ahmadinejod argued that biblical Israel is an invention and foreign to the ancient history of the Middle East, he is not left totally in the wilderness." The claim that the biblical representations of Israel are "foreign to the ancient history of the Middle East" is also counterfactual. The biblical representations of Israel are just as native to the ancient Near East as are the representations of Assyria, Moab, or Egypt in their written sources. Lemche seems to have an "all-or-nothing" position, which insists that if anything in the Bible is historically untrue, then everything is historically untrue. This position is precisely that of the biblical inerrantists, but in reverse.
As Pascal famously wrote, "les extrèmes se touchent," extremes meet.

#10 - Ron Hendel - 10/24/2012 - 20:09

The term Shekel of Israel which appear on the coins denote their value in relation to the actual weight of the silver. There are a number of possible explanations for the use of the word Israel in connection with the shekel unit. It may be a reference to the geographical entity, the Land of Israel, or to the historical kingdom of Israel. In the Hebrew Bible, the names Israel and Children of Israel came to represent the Jewish people, while the earliest mention is on the Victory Stele of Merneptah, dated to ca. 1220 BCE. Here the name Israel means “people” or “nation” (ANET 378). Following the split of the United Monarchy around 920 BCE, “Israel” came to be used as the name of the Northern Kingdom alongside Judea to its south. On the Mesha stele, dated to ca. 825 BCE, the term “King of Israel” appears a number of times in reference to Israel as a kingdom, also, “Israelite prisoners of war” (ANET 320). On the Dan inscription, from the last quarter of the 9th BCE, the name “Israel” appears in reference to the kingdom: “King of Israel” (Biran & Naveh 1995, 12, line 8). In the Shalmaneser III stele, Ahab, King of Israel, is referred to as “the Israelite” (ANET 279). In 721 BCE, Sargon II of Assyria conquered Samaria and the Kingdom of Israel effectively ceased to exist (ANET 284-285). The term “Israel” appears commonly in the New Testament (Matthew 6:2; Luke 3:32, 34; John 1:31, 48, etc.). But the term Israel is completely absent from the epigraphic record and re-appears only in 66 CE on the Revolt coins. The appearance of the term Israel in the New Testament is particularly worthy of mention, as its composition was contemporary to the Jewish Revolt, and it was written from Millenarian motives similar to those which sparked the rebellion. The term Israel in the New Testament sometimes refers to the people: “a ruler will come out who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6) “ a light to enlighten the eyes of the nations and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:32) “and Israel pursuing the law of Righteousness” (Paul 9:31). In other passages, Israel refers to the land: “and return to Israel” (Matthew 2:20), “and he arose and took the child and returned to Israel” (Matthew 2:21) “you shall not succeed in passing the cities of Israel” (Matthew 10:23) etc. If so, the term Israel is defined by its context, sometimes as the country and sometimes as the people. Simon Bar-Kokhba adopted the title “Prince of Israel” alongside another leader referred to as "Eleazar the Priest". On the Year 1 Bar-Kokhba coins the following legend appears: “Year One of the Redemption of Israel”, and on the year 2 coins “Year 2 of the Freedom of Israel”. Similarly, in the Bar-Kokhba letters, dated to relatively early in the rebellion: “Year 3 of Simon bar-Kokhba, prince of Israel”, or in relation to the redemption of Israel: “Year 2 of the redemption of Israel, from Simon Ben-Kosiba, prince of Israel, dwelling at Herodion”, while in a further Aramaic document the following phrase appears: “Year 1 of the redemption of Israel”, etc. From the use that Bar-Kokhba made of the term “Israel” when he adopted the title of “Nasi Israel” and the fact that he dated his letters according to the redemption of Israel, it is clear that he was referring to “the people of Israel”. If so, one may then conclude that the term "Shekel of Israel" can have two different meanings: 1) Shekel of (the Land) of Israel. 2) Shekel of (the People) of Israel. Seeing as these coins were used to pay the half-shekel contribution to the upkeep of the Jerusalem Temple, and paid only by Jews, we can assume that the meaning was "Shekel of (the people) of Israel". Despite this fact, the two ideas do not contradict one another, and we cannot deny the possibility that the term "Shekel of Israel" may include both meanings: "Shekel of the Land and People of Israel".
Robert Deutsch
#11 - Robert Deutsch - 10/24/2012 - 21:09

Oh my!
I had thought this discussion had begun with
Lemche's reference to 'biblical Israel' as a questionably historical entity, and had understood the term 'biblical' as referring to the Hebrew Bible. Many have discussed the distinction between a 'biblical' and an 'historical' Israel since the 1970s and especially since Philip Davies' well known discussion of this difference. If the function of this list is discussion (and not mobbing each other--as I think might have been the real point of Freedman's 'Response to Lemche', this may be a way of getting back on the track. It is certainly in this context that I had asked Mr. Deutsch for his evidence for thinking bjz
storicak Israel was actually a part of Judah, beyond its function within a literary trope.


Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#12 - Thomas L. Thompson - 10/25/2012 - 14:15

Considering the proposition that the current Iran has deep roots in the history of the ME and that the current Israel has not I would like to ask how such propositions are judged and what criteria are applied to determine rootedness.
Ancient Iran was not Muslim. If being Muslim is an essential characteristic of modern Iran how can the ancient and the modern be manifestations at different times of the same thing? If religion is not essential what does determine continuity?
Is continuity important in determining the rights and duties of currently existing groups? If so, why? Are the rights and duties arising from being human in a given situation at the present time not enough to guide our actions? Is just treatment of others really affected by what we find or fail to find in the epigraphic record of many years ago?
If we determined that the Biblical record, with its warriors and kings, is absolutely true how far would that go toward establishing continuity between people then and people now?
If we went to the other extreme and decided that the same record was a complete fiction compiled by poets, theologians and storytellers of a much later, but still ancient date, would that destroy any idea of continuity? Poets and theologians can found a group which persists through time as well (however well that is) as warriors and kings can do this, surely?
I think that people hasten too much to make or deny claims of continuity in particular terms without asking in general terms what such claims mean and how they are verified or built into the foundations of moral systems.
#13 - Martin - 11/05/2012 - 17:07

I am perplexed by this back-and-forth that conflates "apples and oranges" absent setting the requisite parameters and agreement on definitions. Clearly, extrabiblical sources refer to an Israel whose nature remains unclear. Besides, there is more than a 300-years hiatus between the Merneptah stele and the Tel-Dan basalt ostracon that questions the meaning of this evidentiary silence. The name Israel was adapted by the authors of the Hebrew Bible as evidenced by the change of Jacob. It is Jacob who blessed Judah and his alter ego Israel who blessed the sons of Joseph thereby awaeding Judah the succession of Samaria. In other words, the authors of the Bible- the Jerusalemite pristly scribes in the main, stole the identiry of the pre-exilic Samarians, designating them as their ancestors, but later turning the Samaritans into their enemies. 1,2 Maccabees have nothing to say about Israel or Israelites raising the question whether the Bible was authored AFter these extra-canonical books. The Hasmonean state, primarily in Yehud (Jannaeus' conquests ephemeral and geopolitically meaningless) was never an Israel. An interesing point to note: names of politis or places were given to people or polities by other peoples, e.g., Sumer, Mitanni, Canaan, P-e-l-e-s-e-t and Israel. The real problem is that in the mind of Jews and fundamental Christians, Israelites is synonymous with Jews or at least proto-Jews when in fact nothing is further from the 'truth' , that is, all the available, or absent, evidentiary material.
#14 - Michael Nathanson - 05/29/2014 - 03:07

Dear all,
I realize the it's been 3 years from the previous comment. Nevertheless, discussions on this subject, always appear to be limited in their scope. A person like me, and I would characterize myself as a biologist, fail to see much hard evidence especially from the theological side of the debate. There also seems to be a serious gap between true archeological fact and the theories build around them. One of the major sources of evidence, impossible to tamper with, has been totally left out of the discussion is genetics. In light of genetics, for instance the book of Shlomo Sand is, to my personal opinion, totally out of focus. So is there a Jewish people and can it be tracked down to Middle East is, to my knowledge, not disputed by any geneticist. As this evidence is impossible to fake, other evidence incompatible with it should be further scrutinized.
Some of you may also have heard of the Cohen modal haplotype. In short, it is a genetic trait associated with the Jewish priesthood (Cohanim). It is a y-chromosome linked mutation (Cohen status is transferred from father to son). This mutation can be traced back ca. 3000 years. So, I don't have a clue if there ever was an Aaron or if he was the brother of Moses. However, there clearly was a strict religious social structure way before the minimalists claim the religion was "invented" and the stories written in 500-200 BCE.
#15 - Stefan Soback - 08/19/2017 - 09:31

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