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This Editorial was published in the Fourth R, Westar's bi-monthly Magazine. First published in 1987, The Fourth R shares the latest thinking from religion scholars and writers—in non-technical language aimed at a general audience.

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Who Owns the Holy Land?

From The Fourth R Volume 15-1 January–February 2002

Read Part 2: The Palestinian Claim

Read Part 3: The British Responsibility

Read Part 4: Who Solves the Conflict?

When the horrendous acts of terrorism befell the United States on September 11, I was not wholly surprised by that shocking event. My fear of what might happen as a consequence of the general unrest in the Middle East, and of the Palestinian intifada against Israel in particular, prompted me to publish an article earlier in the year, in which I wrote, 'the escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians has the potential to ignite a much larger conflict. The Holy Land is sacred to the three monotheistic faiths and is the meeting place between the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East. Conflict there can all too easily set the West on a collision course with the Islamic world, of which the gulf war with Iraq was but a forerunner. One has only to spend a little time in some Islamic countries to find out how much the West in general, and the USA in particular, is distrusted and even hated by many in the Islamic world'.

Over the last thirty-five years I have visited all the Middle Eastern countries from Egypt to Iran, some of them many times. In my earlier academic career it was my responsibility, for sixteen years, to study and teach the history of the ancient Middle East over the four thousand years which preceded the Christian era. This background has shown me that the Holy Land has probably witnessed more violent conflict in the last four thousand years than any other spot in the whole world.

The modern period of destabilization of the Middle East began with the Napoleonic wars. Since that time the Western imperial powers, Britain, France, Germany and Russia, and more recently the United States, have vied with one another either to conquer or to control that area of the world. The victory of the Allied powers over Germany and Turkey in 1918 left most of the Middle East in the power of the West. Even Turkey, though remaining free, went through a Western-style revolution.

The following decades saw the resurgence of the Islamic world. This had actually begun in the nineteenth century with the pan-Islamic movement initiated by the charismatic figure known as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–1897). He advocated widespread social reforms, which would not only modernize the Islamic world but also lead to its re-unification. However, it was not until after World War I, with the collapse of the Turkish Empire followed by the abolition of the Caliphate by Kemal Ataturk, that the various Islamic countries were able to establish their political independence and reject Western suzerainty. This is the wider context in which to understand, not only the present conflict within the Holy Land, but also the growing confrontation between the Western nations and the Islamic world.

What is the Holy Land?

We start with the Israeli claim to the possession of the Holy Land. The Holy Land is a relatively small piece of territory. In ancient times it used to be called Canaan and was said to stretch from Dan to Beersheba. At Dan, the northern boundary, the chief source of the Jordan river pours out as a large spring from the foot of the snow-capped Mt. Hermon. Beersheba in the south was on the edge of the desert which stretched all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba, and joins the Sinai Peninsula.

Small though it is, the Holy Land possesses a remarkable diversity of climate because of the Great Rift Valley. This is a massive geological fault that runs all the way from Turkey to Lake Tanganyika, with its lowest point in the Jordan Valley, some 1,100 feet below sea level. For this reason tropical fruits grow down at Jericho in the Jordan Valley, while, only thirty miles away, Jerusalem and Bethlehem can be covered with snow at Christmas. Western farmers would hardly find the Holy Land a 'land flowing with milk and honey' (as it was claimed to be), yet that is how it seemed to people used to desert life.

This narrow fertile strip along the Mediterranean coast was historically of strategic importance since it was the natural bridge between the continents of Africa and Asia. Because of the great desert which stretches from Syria to Arabia, the only way to travel between the two great river civilizations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia was through this land. This meant that not only the ancient trade route but the chief military route also ran through Canaan. Hence it has been the site of many battles and it is not surprising that its fortress hill of Megiddo gave rise to the name Armageddon, the mythical battle which will bring the world to an end.

The Canaanites

Since special rights of ownership are accorded these days to indigenous people; so we should first ask: Who were the indigenous people of the Holy Land? No one can say! Being the bridge between Africa and Asia this land was inhabited from very early times. But the earliest inhabitants of whom we have any historical knowledge were the Canaanites. They were a Semitic people, basically of the same stock as the Phoenicians, who occupied ancient Lebanon. The Canaanites and the Phoenicians constituted the Western branch of the Semitic family, the Northern being the Aramaeans, the Eastern the Assyrians and Babylonians, and the Southern the Arabs. The language known as Hebrew, originated as the language of the Canaanites.

These Western Semitic People left us a priceless heritage. They invented the alphabetic system of writing about 1400 bce. It was the most important product ever spread by the Phoenician traders, for it became the basis of the Greek, Roman, and Slavonic as well as the Arabic alphabets. The word Bible comes from the Greek word biblos , which meant 'letter' or 'book'. But Byblos is the name of the Phoenician town and port on the coast of Lebanon from which the Phoenician traders set out. What is more, the script in which the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible were written is known as the Canaanite script.

How are Jews and Canaanites related?

If the Canaanites were the earliest known indigenous inhabitants of the Holy Land, how are they related to the Jewish people, who now lay claim to the Holy Land as theirs by right?

Let me sketch two quite different answers to this question — the biblical answer and the historical answer.

The biblical answer

The biblical answer runs like this, starting with the story of Abraham. All Jews claim to be his descendants; so the Holy Land is rightfully theirs since it was given by God to Abraham and his descendants. Abraham belonged to the northern section of the Semitic people — the Aramaeans. The Jews long preserved this memory in the liturgy of their harvest festival, which began with the words, 'A wandering Aramaean was my father'. 1

The story of the Jewish people started when Abraham heard God say to him, 'Go from your country and your kindred to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great. By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves'. 2 So Abraham left Aramaea (which is today Northeastern Syria) and went forth to the land of Canaan. And when he reached Canaan God appeared to Abraham and said, 'To your descendants I will give this land'. 3 Elsewhere in the Bible this promise is made even more explicit — 'To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates'. 4 That meant everything between the Nile in Egypt and the Euphrates in Mesopotamia and, today, would include both the Sinai Peninsula at one end and most of Syria at the other.

In this very secular age many people may regard this ancient biblical material to be quite irrelevant. We need to remember, however, that all devout and religious Jews, supported by many Christian fundamentalists, take these ancient divine promises very seriously. The Jewish claim to possess the Holy Land, therefore, rests initially on a divinely given right, though few would be brave enough today to lay claim to the whole of both Sinai and Syria.

Even in the Bible, however, the process by which the descendants of Abraham actually took possession of the land of Canaan is much more complicated and is related in two successive traditions. In the first of these 5 we are told how Abraham and his descendants entered Canaan as semi-nomadic people who occupied the land not being used by the Canaanites. The Canaanites lived in walled cities and farmed the land in their immediate vicinity. For some centuries, therefore, the Abrahamic tribes shared the Holy Land with the Canaanites, mostly in peace but occasionally in conflict. There was even some intermarriage.

The second tradition starts with a time of famine, when the descendants of Abraham were forced to migrate to Egypt in search of food. By divine providence one of their number, Joseph, had already preceded them and risen to a position of prominence in Egypt from which he could welcome them and provide for them. According to this tradition the Hebrews, as they were now called, stayed in Egypt for some centuries until they were eventually reduced to slavery. They were delivered out of bondage and led back to the Promised Land by Moses.

The epic story of how this occurred dominated Jewish life thereafter. It stretches out over five whole books of the Bible — from Exodus to Joshua. This story constitutes a second tradition of how the ancestors of the Jewish people entered into possession of the Holy Land and there is a striking difference between the two. The first entry was by peaceful infiltration; the second was by military force. Moses led his people for forty years in the wilderness and lived only long enough to view the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo, which is in present day Jordan. It was left to Joshua to conquer the land from the Canaanites by force, starting with Jericho. As told in the book of Joshua, this was a quite bloody affair. Joshua and his army went from one Canaanite city to another and 'smote it with the edge of the sword and every person in it he utterly destroyed'. 6 According to the Bible the Israelite ancestors of the Jews not only conquered the Holy Land by force but they also completely exterminated the Canaanite population and then proceeded to parcel out the land to their own twelve tribes.

The historical answer

Was it really like that? I turn now from the biblical answer to the historical answer. The Bible is a little library of books of many genres. Its narratives can be mythical (or symbolic), legendary, fictional or historical. In the Bible we do have some genuine historiography but only from about 900 bce onwards. What precedes that is pseudo-history, a mixture of myth, legend and tribal oral tradition and even then it is told from the point of view of the final victors of Canaan. From this it is possible to reconstruct a general account of what took place in the Holy Land before the reign of King David.

The stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, shadowy figures though these now are, nevertheless point to a time when semi-nomadic tribes from Aramaea began to infiltrate into the land of the Canaanite city-states. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not related to one another as father, son and grandson, as the Bible now portrays them. The names refer to separate tribal migrations. The Abraham migration settled round Hebron. The Isaac migration settled near Beersheba. The Jacob tribe settled near Shechem, or modern Nablus.

There is good reason to conclude that some, but by no means all, of these Aramaean settlers did go down to Egypt, even though there is absolutely no archaeological evidence to confirm their presence there. The biblical figure of Joseph is entirely fictional. Some scholars have referred to the Joseph story 7 as the first novel ever written. Its purpose was to join up the patriarchal traditions with the Mosaic tradition in order to form one continuous narrative. There probably was an historical Moses, for his name is Egyptian and not Hebrew. He probably did lead a migration back to Canaan but it was relatively small, say, about five thousand people. On entering the Holy Land they linked up with their fellow Hebrews and made a tribal treaty with them; memories of this amphictyony, as it technically called, are found in the covenant described in Joshua, chapter 24.

But these early tribes did not annihilate the Canaanites, as the book of Joshua implies, though there were some fierce local skirmishes. They lived in reasonable harmony with the Canaanites, occupying the pastoral stretches of land outside the Canaanite city-states. It was not until a common enemy arrived on the scene that the Israelites and the Canaanites eventually became integrated into one people.

The common enemy were the Philistines. These were not a Semitic people but a highly cultured people of Greek origin, who landed on the Mediterranean coast in the twelfth century bce. They introduced the use of iron for both weapons and farm implements; thus they took the Holy Land out of the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age. They established strong walled cities along the coast, some of whose names have survived to this day — Gaza, Ashdod, and Askelon. As soon as they were well established, the Philistines began to move into the interior, and, because of their superior weapons, they were able to make the Israelites and the Canaanites subject to their rule. It was the need to re-establish their independence, which brought the Canaanites and the Israelites together in a common cause. Under the leadership of David, the young new Israelite king, the Philistines were finally forced back to their coastal cities. There their power and influence remained until Roman times. That is why the Romans called the Holy Land Palestina — the land of the Philistines.

Thereafter David established a strong and stable Kingdom, which at its height included much of modern Jordan and Syria. He also subjugated the remaining Canaanite cities, the most important of which was Jerusalem. From this time onwards the indigenous Canaanites and the incoming Israelites began to fuse into one people though it took some centuries. The Israelite tribal traditions dominated the culture of the people but the indigenous religious practices, celebrated at what were called the 'high-places', were not finally eradicated until the seventh century.

In some ways David had established a mini-empire and his rule was looked back upon as the Golden Age. It was his son Solomon, who squandered this inheritance; he imposed forced labour in order to carry out his lavish building programme, which included the first Temple. As a result the Kingdom of David split into two on the death of Solomon. The larger section rejected the dynasty of David, took to themselves the name of Israel, and established a new capital at Samaria in the north. The smaller group, which remained faithful to the Davidic dynasty and retained Jerusalem, called itself Judah; it is from this term that we derive the word Jew.

Foreign Occupation

From the end of the eighth century until the beginning of the Christian era the Holy Land became subject to a continual series of invasions by foreign powers. The northern Kingdom of Israel lost its independence to the Assyrians in 722 bce and never again recovered its own identity. The southern Kingdom of Judah was overrun by the Babylonians in 586 bce and its royal family, its aristocracy, its priests, and its educated classes were taken off into Exile in Babylonia. Thus began the long period of the dispersion of the Jews among the nations, a fact which has lasted until the present.

Although the Persians, after conquering Babylonia, allowed the Jews to return, not all Jews chose to do so. Those who did return rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple, but were never granted self-rule. From 586 bce right up until 1948 ce the Holy Land was ruled by others than Jews. The majority of Jews increasingly lived outside of the Holy Land in the Diaspora, as it is called.

After Persian rule came the Greeks and finally the Romans. There was one brief interlude to foreign rule of the Holy Land. In 164 bce the Jews revolted against their Greek overlords, who ruled from Damascus. It started when the Greek rulers tried to enforce Greek culture on the Jews, burning their holy writings and destroying their synagogues. The Jewish people had a temporary victory which enabled them, for a little over three years, to establish an independent state and even issue their own coinage.

The Greeks proved too powerful in the end and once again the Jewish inhabitants of the Holy Land became a subject people. Yet after the revolt there developed a high-priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, who exerted considerable local influence in Jerusalem and its environs, provided they did not challenge their political overlords.

Greek rule of the Holy Land as a whole was exchanged for Roman rule with the arrival of Pompey in 63 bce. Not long after this Julius Caesar appointed, as procurator of the province of Palestine, a man from the area called Antipater, who was not a Jew but an Idumaean. The Idumaeans were the descendants of the ancient Edomites and they had been forced to adopt the Jewish religion during the time of the Hasmoneans. After Antipater died of poisoning, his son Herod established himself as King of Judea and ruled the Holy Land with an iron hand for nearly forty years, with the acquiescence of the Romans.

After Herod the Great the Romans divided the Holy Land into separate areas of local government, known as tetrarchies, and eventually appointed their own procurator over Judea. That explains the presence of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem, while one of the Herods ruled Galilee.

There was much diversity among the Jewish people. Some Jews were thoroughly Hellenised and Romanised; they were reasonably satisfied with the state of affairs. At the other extreme were restive activists, longing for an opportunity to re-establish an independent state. This is reflected in the Gospel records about Jesus of Nazareth, as when he answered a leading question about taxes and said, 'Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar and God what belongs to God!'

This restiveness reached a climax some forty years after the death of Jesus in the year 66 ce. According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, there was much division among the Jews. It amounted almost to civil war in Jerusalem, between the activist Zealots at one extreme and more peace-loving Jews at the other. One is reminded of the current conflict in Afghanistan between the Taleban and the rest. The Zealots stormed the Temple Mount and took control. So the Roman Emperor Vespasian sent his son Titus with three legions to restore order. The Romans besieged Jerusalem, but it was not until 70 ce that they finally crushed all Jewish resistance and expelled the remaining inhabitants. They destroyed the city and Temple on the ninth day of the Jewish month of Ab, almost the exact anniversary of the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians in 586 bce. It has remained a Jewish day of mourning until the present. Nothing of Herod's Temple remains today except a part of the outer wall. This has become the famous Wailing Wall, to which devout Jews turn to mourn their past and to renew their hopes for the future. It is a powerful symbol for Jewry all round the world.

The Jews of the Diaspora

For most of the next two thousand years only a tiny number of Jews lived in the Holy Land; the vast majority of the Jewish people have lived outside of the Holy Land. Yet they have always retained the hope that some day they would return. Their annual celebration of the Passover ritual has always ended with the words, 'Next year, Jerusalem'.

The Jews of the Diaspora have been frequently discriminated against, much more in the Christian world than in the Islamic world. Although the term 'anti-Semitism' was coined as recently as 1879 to refer to this discrimination, the roots of Christian anti-Semitism are now acknowledged to go back to the first century and are even present in John's Gospel. By the fourth century Christians had come to regard Jews as the crucifiers of Christ and, for that reason, judged them to be condemned by God to perpetual migration.

In much of Europe during the Middle Ages, Jews were denied citizenship, barred from holding government posts, excluded from membership in the professions and denied ownership of agricultural land. From the Middle Ages came the practice of segregating the Jewish populations into ghettos and this lasted until the early nineteenth century. Forced often to become the rag and bone collectors, this industry led them later to become the great traders of clothing and footwear. Some became prominent in banking and money-lending.

The Jews' economic and cultural successes tended to arouse economic resentment among the populace and this prompted the forced expulsion of Jews from several countries, England (1290), France (fourteenth century), Germany (1350s), Portugal (1496), Provence (1512), and the Papal States (1569). The Spanish Inquisition forced the expulsion of that country's large and old-established Jewish population in 1492. Only Jews who had converted to Christianity were allowed to remain. As a result of these mass expulsions the centres of Jewish life shifted from Western Europe and Germany to Poland and Russia.

The Enlightenment and the French Revolution brought a new religious freedom to Jews in France and Western Europe. But in Russia, widespread anti-Jewish riots, or pogroms, broke out in 1881. Jews were stripped of their rural landholdings and several million Jews migrated to the United States in the next four decades. The most brutal anti-Semitism of all time was that of the Nazis inspired by Adolf Hitler (1933–1945). This took the form of deliberate genocide. An estimated 5,700,000 Jews were exterminated in such death camps as Auschwitz. The memory of this more than anything else motivated the modern Zionist movement, culminating in the establishment of the State of Israel. Though anti-Semitism still exists, this modern tragedy led to world-wide sympathy with the Jewish people.


Let me now summarize. The Jewish people claim possession of the Holy Land on these grounds:

- The land was promised and given to them by God.

- Their distant ancestors conquered the land by force.

- To this we may add from historical research (as Jews usually do not) that they have the blood of the indigenous Canaanites running in their veins.

- They lived continuously in the land for over a millennium, until they were expelled from it by force, first by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and later by the Romans.

- They have long been a people without a land of their own.

- In modern times the anti-Semitic persecution to which they have been continually subjected through the centuries, particularly by Christians, and reaching the state of genocide under the Nazis, has meant they must have a land of their own to provide for them a safe refuge from their enemies.

So after nearly two thousand years the Jews have returned to the Holy Land to claim what they believe is rightfully theirs. They have a very strong claim to the Holy Land.

Unfortunately for them, however, the Holy Land has long been inhabited by others. To them we turn in the next article.

Lloyd Geering is Foundation Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and the author of several books including Christian Faith at the Crossroads and Tomorrow's God. His new book, Christianity without God, appeared in 2002.

Notes 1. Deuteronomy 26:5. 2. Genesis 12:1–4. 3. Genesis 12: 7. 4. Genesis 15: 18. 5. Genesis 12–36. 6. Joshua 10: 39 7. See Genesis 37–50.

Further Reading

Ashrawi, H. This Side of Peace. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.

Bergen, K., D. Neuhaus, and G. Rubeis (eds). Justice and Intifada: Palestinians and Israelis Speak Out. New York: Friendship Press, 1991.

Bickerton, I. J., and C. L. Klausner. A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. New Jersey: Englewood Cliffs, 1998.

Chacour, E. and M. E. Jensen. We Belong to the Land. London : Marshall Pickering, 1992.

Masalha, N. Land without a People. London: Faber, 1997.

Morton, H. V. In the Steps of the Master. London: Methuen, 1984.

Perowne, S. The Later Herods. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1958.

Perowne, S. The Life and Times of Herod the Great. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956.

Said, E. W. The Politics of Dispossession. London: Vintage, 1995.

Said, E. W. The Question of Palestine. London: Vintage, 1992.

Tuchman, B. Bible and Sword. London: Phoenix, 2001

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