Jerusalem’s History Revisited and Revised
Confined to my home library by the corona virus shutdown of our public library, I recently reread Jerusalem Besieged (2004) by George Washington University Professor Eric H. Cline. It provides a detailed summary of the ancient Holy City from Biblical Canaan to modern Israel. Appropriately rejecting absurd Palestinian claims of descent from ancient Canaanites and Jebusites, he seeks fairness by suggesting that modern Israelis also lack “a legitimate pedigree” that would link them to Biblical Israelites.
According to Professor Cline, the ancient lament of Jews (“If I forget you, O Jerusalem”) “might equally be the cry of the modern Palestinian exiles.” It is, however, a flawed analogy. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (who dismissed six million Jewish deaths in the Holocaust as a “fantastic lie”) has imaginatively identified Palestinians with ancient Philistines. In the first century CE, Josephus wrote his multi-volume Antiquities of the Jews, but no one has yet written “Antiquities of the Palestinians.” The reason is obvious: there are none. Respected Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi has dismissed such fallacious claims. Indeed, even Professor Cline acknowledges that “claims that modern Palestinians are descended from the ancient Jebusites are made without any supporting evidence.”
Palestinians, as Professor Cline writes, “often refer to the loss of their homeland” (in 1948 and again in 1967) as their “Nakba” or “catastrophe.” Their “ongoing exile from the lands in which they once lived is perceived by many as the equivalent of the Babylonian Exile of the Jews.” But the “many” are not identified and the historical equivalence trope is a failed attempt to adapt Jewish history to fit modern Palestinian claims. It was, after all, Jordan’s “West Bank,” not “Palestine,” that passed to Israel following the Six-Day War in 1967.
Professor Cline realizes that “the concept of a right of return for those conquered in battle and subsequently exiled does not have much support by way of historical precedent in the Middle East.” Recognizing that “it took two thousand years for the Jews to return to Israel after their defeats by the Romans,” Professor Cline “hopefully” wishes that “it will take considerably less time for the Palestinians to be able to reclaim at least some of the land that they lost in 1948 and 1967.” Which lost land he does not identify. Would it be Biblical Judea, where Hebron is the location of the burial site of the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs? Or Jerusalem, where King David reigned after relocating his throne from Hebron and the Holy Temples were built millennia before the emergence of Islam?
Professor Cline’s book concludes with his linkage of “the cry of the modern Palestinian exiles” to Psalm 137 (“If I forget you, O Jerusalem” ), the lament of exiled Jews in Babylon. In his imaginative rewriting of history Palestinians have become the new Jews. He repeats, and implicitly embraces, Palestinian yearning to usurp the Jewish history that is deeply embedded in prayers that entwine ancient memory, religious texts and national yearning.
To be sure, history is not a science; it is reconstructed through interpretation — based on evidence. The risk, however, is that fiction can be reimagined as fact. Jerusalem, as Professor Cline’s title suggests, has indeed been “Besieged” for millennia. But that does not entitle Palestinians — or historians — to revise Jewish history in the Land of Israel, whose origins are recounted in the Hebrew Bible, to satisfy Palestinian claims that are barely older than Professor Cline.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a Best Book for 2019.