Scholar Claims Bible Scholars Suppress Palestinian History in Favor of Israelites, BAR Mar-Apr 1996.
Twenty years ago—in the third issue of BAR—I wrote an article entitled “Kathleen Kenyon’s Anti-Zionist Politics—Does It Affect Her Work?” The article shocked and angered many in the academic world, which was not accustomed to this kind of journalism—or rather was not accustomed to asking this kind of question in public.
We have come a long way in 20 years. What I suggested may have been implicit in Kenyon’s work has become very nearly explicit in a paper delivered by Keith W. Whitelam at the Annual Meeting last November. A professor of religious studies at the University of Stirling, in Scotland, Whitelam accuses Biblical scholars and archaeologists, especially Israeli Zionists, of distorting ancient history in order to suppress the history of the ancient Palestinians who were there long before the Israelites.
Apparently Whitelam’s paper was considered so significant that it was delivered in one of the very few sessions sponsored jointly by the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Academy of Religion and the American Schools of Oriental Research. Almost all of the other talks are sponsored by one or the other, sometimes by two, but only on the rarest of occasions by all three.
Let it be said at the outset that Whitelam is no kook. He is smart and articulate. What he says is grounded in serious scholarship. In part, that is what makes it so insidious. In another session, on archaeological fakes, the distinguished senior research fellow in the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oscar Muscarella, admonished the audience to beware of forgeries of ancient Greek vases built up from a genuine potsherd base; good forgers know that a suspicious curator will probably take a scraping from the base to test the authenticity of the entire vase. Whitelam constructs his argument similarly. On an authentic scholarly base, he builds faked scholarship.
For Whitelam, the scholarly effort to reconstruct “the ancient past … is a political act.” The key word here is “is”; not “was,” but “is.” This “political” reconstruction, in Whitelam’s judgment, “continues.”
The 19th-century purview, says Whitelam, based on its understanding of “the rational, superiority of European and Western civilization which has its main taproot in the supposed ethical monotheism of ancient Israel” is an ideology that still “continues” (emphasis supplied). Biblical scholarship of the 19th century and early 20th century “dehumanizes” and “devalues indigenous cultures and histories.” He contends that these attitudes also dominate current scholarship.
Whitelam quotes an address by the Bishop of Salisbury to the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1903 in which the bishop referred to “the abomination of Canaanite culture which was superseded by the Israelite culture.”
Whitelam then proceeds to examine the work of the dean of Biblical archaeologists from the 1930s to the 1960s, William Foxwell Albright. Whitelam declares him guilty of an “undisguised racism which is staggering … in its intensity” because he attempted to defend the herem, the destruction of towns and their entire populations during the Israelite conquest of Canaan.
Whitelam claims that it is impossible to write objective, disinterested history. This is a widely held view of modern historians. Yet that can never be the end of the observation. To make it balanced, several additional things must be said. First, some historians are clearly more biased, more ideologically motivated, than others. Second, historians, Biblical and otherwise, can be expected to try to become aware of their biases, to examine them carefully and to try very hard to avoid letting these biases affect their work. Third, some historians are much better at avoiding biased accounts than others. Whitelam’s biases are painfully obvious; this is in marked contrast, as we shall see, to the work of the best archaeologists and Biblical scholars working today.
In judging Albright, Whitelam focuses on a vulnerable observation concerning the herem, damning Albright as a “racist” and ignoring an extraordinary body of scholarship that remains unrivalled, although a significant part of it is dated. It is a mark of patricidal scholars like Whitelam that they judge their scholarly fathers, not by the standards of their day, but by current standards. It is not that these patricidal scholars are totally wrong, only that they are woefully unbalanced and mean-spirited. But that is not the worst of Whitelam.
Whitelam rightfully speaks out against earlier generations of scholars who understood history as an evolutionary development by which later peoples replaced earlier peoples in a continually enlightened stream of progress. According to this now outmoded historiography, Israel replaced (and improved on) earlier civilizations (just as Christianity replaced and improved on Judaism).
With considerable cunning, Whitelam applies these principles to current scholars, especially Israeli scholars.
The fact is that in the last decade more and more Biblical scholars and archaeologists have been very careful to try to be as objective and balanced as possible. They have been remarkably good at redressing the biases of past scholarship, deserving our praise rather than our condemnation.
Moreover, recent scholarship has been unusually successful in its appreciation of non-Israelite cultures. No one would deny the Tendenz of Biblical authors to favor the Israelites in preference to other peoples (although the Israelites are also roundly condemned by Biblical authors when they deviate from God’s laws). But mainstream scholarship has been assiduous in redressing this Tendenz.
The pre-Biblical (and contemporaneous) civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia have long been the subject of intense, appreciative and independent scholarship.
More recently, Israel’s arch-enemy, the Philistines, whose name was once synonymous with crass boorishness, have been brought out of the shadows. We now understand the Philistines to have had a distinctive material culture in many ways superior to that of the Israelites. We know this thanks primarily to the work of two Israeli archaeologists, Trude and Moshe Dothan.
Other scholars are bringing to light in considerable distinctiveness the Edomites, the Moabites, the Arameans, the Hurrians and other contemporaneous cultures.
The Canaanites (who Whitelam thinks have been especially badly treated; he refers to them as Palestinians) have also been the subject of much recent research. Their literary output, as reflected in the Ugaritic tablets, has been widely praised as a predecessor of Israelite literary output. (Whitelam mentions the Ugaritic tablets as if he were the first scholar to appreciate their literary significance and elevated morality, as if other scholars were trying to suppress appreciation of them.) Modern archaeologists have also stressed the continuities between Late Bronze Age Canaanite civilization and Early Iron Age Israelite civilization.
Recent finds unearthed by Israeli archaeologists show that some Israelites believed that their God Yahweh had a female consort.
The conquest of Canaan, as described in the Bible, has been the subject of intense criticism. Many scholars, both here and in Israel, regard early Israel as made up mostly of Canaanite peasants.
As I write this, I have just read a column by the distinguished Bible scholar Bernhard Anderson that is to appear in our sister magazine, Bible Review. Anderson refers to Psalm 29 as “an ancient poem that Israel may have adapted from Canaanite culture.” This raises no eyebrows on anyone’s part.
This is surely enough to show that modern scholars are hard at work—and with considerable success—to give us as objective an account of ancient history as they possibly can. They surely have no hesitation in redressing what may be seen as the Biblical authors’ bias, recognizing that the Biblical authors’ primary concern was with theology, not history.
None of this finds its way into Whitelam’s purview. Whitelam justifies his concentration on Albright’s discussion of the herem because this same “rhetoric … has been taken up and reinforced by Israeli scholarship after 1948 … and continues to defend a construction of the past which devalues indigenous cultures and histories. The rhetoric of biblical studies, just like the rhetoric of much of modern Zionism, refuses to acknowledge the inherent value of indigenous culture and its right to its own history.”
Whitelam calls his paper “Inventing Ancient Israel.” It was invented to perpetuate what he calls the “stranglehold on the study of Palestine and the ancient Near East which biblical specialists, historians and archaeologists have exerted” so as to “exclude” the study of “Palestinian history, and with it Palestinian religion.”
“The Palestinian intifada,” Whitelam tells us, “ha[s] … contributed to the continued fracturing” of an “imagined past” that left no room for a history of the indigenous population.
Because of this “displacement of ancient Palestinian history … ‘Israel can make claims [here Whitelam is quoting Professor Edward Said] for its historical presence based on its timeless attachment to a place, and supports its universalism by absolutely rejecting, with tangible military force, any other historical or temporal (in this case Arab Palestinian) counterclaims’” (parentheses in original).
According to Whitelam, Biblical scholars are part of a contemporary cabal to deprive Palestinians of their land- “Biblical studies has formed part of the complex arrangement of scholarly, economic, and military power by which Palestinians have been denied a contemporary presence or history,” he writes. Again quoting Said, Whitelam states, “‘It is as if the Zionist web of detail and its drama choked off the Palestinians.’”
Biblical studies’ search for ancient Israel is illegitimate because it does not give equal weight to Palestinian, by which he means Canaanite, history. “There has been no rhetoric available by which to articulate and pursue the history of ancient Palestine.”
According to Whitelam, what appear to be objective historical studies are simply “a profaned detached objectivity.” Modern Israeli scholarship has “reinforced” this obliteration of Palestinian history, says Whitelam. “Biblical studies, as a discipline, has evolved a rhetoric … which has dispossessed Palestinians of a land and a past.”
“Palestinian history” must be “freed from the tyranny of the discourse of biblical studies.” Whitelam calls upon scholars “to expose the political and religious interests which have motivated the invention of ancient Israel.”
This is a dangerously politicized history. After Whitelam’s talk, University of Judaism scholar Ziony Zevit expressed the fear that positions like Whitelam’s could, by their divisiveness, destroy the field of Biblical studies. A similar politicization of scholarship has in fact destroyed some historical disciplines.
Because there is no such thing as completely unbiased objective history, Whitelam apparently feels free to give us a completely politicized history, with all his tendentiousness revealed like dirty shirttails flapping in the wind. Unlike most scholars today, Whitelam makes no effort to produce unbiased history or even to conceal his own obvious biases. That is probably why Whitelam’s friend and co-author Robert Coote has said that this paper of Whitelam’s has gone “over the top.” The distinguished Israeli Bible scholar Avraham Malamat used stronger language in a letter read to the audience; he called it “outrageous … anti-Bible and anti-Israel.”
Let me be plain- There is nothing wrong with calling for an examination of ancient Canaanite civilization. There is nothing wrong with such a pursuit, nor should anyone criticize another scholar’s interest in ancient Israel or in the relationship between ancient Israel and contemporary civilizations. What is wrong—and here Whitelam is egregiously guilty—is the pursuit of history—either Canaanite or Israelite—in the service of a modern political agenda. Yes, some scholars in the past have been guilty of using ancient Israelite history in support of the Zionist cause. But at least in recent years, they were making a determined effort to be objective and unbiased. That cannot be said of Keith Whitelam.
We can only hope that people like Whitelam will not gain sufficient force to destroy our field—just at the time when politicians and diplomats are trying so hard—and with considerable success—to bring peace to the Middle East.