Monday, August 20, 2007

"Arab-Israeli Tensions" Go Back to . . . Nebuchadnezzar?

At first this just seemed a funny, but stupid little mistake, but the more I thought about it, the more problematic it became. In the middle of an article about an interesting little find in Biblical archaeology—an actual dated receipt for a payment to the temple in Babylon—our author drops in a bizarre zinger, the sort of thing you would expect out of a high school or college term paper.

During the course of this struggle [between the Babylonians and the Egyptians], Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem. Zedekiah, a Babylonian-appointed king of Judah, later rebelled, which led to yet another Jerusalem siege [by the Babylonians] in 587-586 B.C., during which a large segment of the population was deported. Arab-Israeli tensions in the region have continued until the present day.
Wait a second . . . where are the Arabs in this story, again? Babylonians are not Arabs, and it's the Babylonians the Israelites (NB: not Israelis) are fighting. Not even the Egyptians are Arabs.

That's right: there are no Arabs in this story.

But maybe she meant Muslim-Israeli rather than Arab-Israeli? Well, sorry, but we're some 1200 years before Muhammad, so there were no Muslims, either.

No, what's happening is that our author anachronistically projects the very modern "Arab-Israeli conflict," which already problematically labels all Middle-Eastern Muslims "Arab," back onto the ancient world in order to establish a continuity that doesn't exist. Now, why would she do that? Two reasons, I think.

Here's one. The article continues:
In fact, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein made links between himself and King Nebuchadnezzar in speeches and by use of billboards that showed Hussein shaking hands with a drawing of the ancient king, according to Aaron Brody, assistant professor of Bible and archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion and director of the Badè Museum.

"Nebuchadnezzar vanquished surrounding nations, so Hussein wanted to draw parallels with his own reign and that of the former Mesopotamian leader," Brody told Discovery News.

So, much the same way many modern leaders attempt to establish continuities between themselves and some ancient culture, especially some ancient leader, Saddam was working to show how he's a modern Nebuchadnezzar, the great Babylonian (not Arab) king. And our author continues to help him—however, I'm going to guess, unwittingly—by throwing in the phrase "Arab-Israeli tensions" with reference to the Babylonian conquest of the Israelite kingdom.

But this leads to the second part of what's going on here. Hooking Saddam up with Nebuchadnezzar suits her purposes because it also hooks up the modern state of Israel with the ancient kingdom of Israel, and indeed appears to establish that the roots of the modern conflict go all the way back to ancient Israel, which was already, 2700 years ago, defending itself from hostile "Arab" neighbors wanting to "push her into the sea." It reinforces the modern understanding of Biblical mythology, that Israel was on the land in the beginning and so the establishment of the modern state of Israel is only re-establishing what was there a long time ago. At the same time, it conveniently ignores the Biblical story of the Hebrews conquering Canaan (=Palestine), so the Bible in fact never claims that the Israelites were always and originally living in the disputed territory. It claims, rather differently, that God gave it to his people, the Israelites, and helped them conquer it. So, in order to buy that, you have to believe that the Bible is, in fact, historically accurate, and, further, that its historical accuracy includes certain statements by a certain God, in whom you will also have to believe.

Now, at the end of the day, I'm guessing that the author of this article wasn't even really thinking about what she was saying in terms of the ways it reinforces all the wrong ideas about Arabs, Muslims, the state of Israel, and the (poorly-named) Arab-Israeli conflict. I'm guessing it was a ham-fisted transition to the story of Saddam trying to deploy ancient Babylonian history as part of his self-aggrandizement campaign. But it's damaging nonetheless. It's bad writing, but it's even worse politics, so why not work just a little bit harder and avoid both?

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