Across the Bay

Friday, December 10, 2004

Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dream

The Egyptian paper Al-Ahram, that beacon of integrity, has published a spectacularly stupid piece by luminary (and aspiring heir apparent to high priest Edward Said) Joseph Massad. I'm not interested in discussing Massad's moronic intent on redefining anti-semitism as I've got better things to do with my time. But I will take some time to point out some hilarious stupidities uttered by him along the way. Take these passages for instance:

"The term "Semite" was invented by European philologists in the 18th century to distinguish languages from one another by grouping them into "families" descended from one "mother" tongue to which they are all related. In this context, languages came to be organised into "Indo-European" and "Semitic", etc. The philologists claimed that Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, etc., were "Semitic" languages, even though philologists could never find a parent Semitic language from which they all derived.
In keeping with the Protestant Reformation's abduction of the Hebrew bible into its new religion and its positing of modern European Jews as direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews, post- Enlightenment haters of Jews began to identify Jews as "Semites" on account of their alleged ancestors having spoken Hebrew. In fact the ancient Hebrews spoke Aramaic, the language in which the Talmud was written, as well as parts of the bible. Based on this new philological taxonomy and its correlate racial classifications in the biological sciences, Jews were endowed with this linguistic category that was soon transformed into a racial category.

You see, the term was "invented" by philologists! No, it was appropriated from the Bible. Genesis 10 lists a "table of nations," in the form of genealogies, which function as lists of the peoples known to the Ancient Israelites. It also relates all the various peoples of the earth back to the sons of Noah, for Noah's family, according to the Israelite myth of the Flood (itself common in the Ancient Near East), were the only humans to survive a flood that destroyed all the earth. As such, they were responsible for all of humanity that came after the flood. These sons were called Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Each one had his descendants, and each one of these descendants had a land, clans, and a language. Here's a formulaic verse to clarify: "These are the descendants of Shem according to their clans and languages, by their lands, according to their nations." (v. 31.) This is different from what's related in the following chapter (Genesis 11), where it's said that all humans shared the same language after the Flood, and it wasn't until the episode of the tower of Babel that God "confounded the speech of the whole earth." (v. 8).

The line of Shem includes Terah, the father of Abram, who is the grandfather of Jacob, who's the eponymous ancestor of Israel. I.e., this is how, in genealogical language (common in tribal societies, including the Arabs), Israel located itself in the world. These lists that explain the multitude of nations and languages are by no means confined to Israel, but are rather found in various mythologies and theogonies.

So, since Israel was traced back to Shem, whence the term "Semitic," the Hebrew language was (and continues to be) classified as a Semitic language. So, the term was by no means "invented"! It was simply a heuristic term based on the Bible which was at the heart of Christian European culture. It's just that in the post-Said universe, everything the "orientalists" did was an "invention" and had nothing to do with the "reality" of the "East" which they "imagined" in order to dominate.

Today, different terms are used beside Semitic (also Hamitic, which was used to classify ancient Egyptian, for instance, because Mitsraim -- the Hebrew word for Egypt, cf. Arabic misr -- is listed as a descendant of Ham in Genesis 10). Today one finds categories like "Afro-Asiatic" which depart from the earlier, Bible-based terminology, although the older terminology is still very much in use. Also, philologists didn't completely and uncritically rely on the the biblical list outlined in Genesis 10. For instance, "Canaan" is listed as a descendant of Ham (and he begets Sidon), but philologists rightly categorized the Canaanite dialects (including Phoenician, the language of Sidon) as Semitic, because it was clearly closely related to Hebrew. So, as the field gained more sophistication, and as more texts were discovered and deciphered by those goddamned orientalists, modifications were made. The categories were kept for heuristic and organizational purposes.

It is true that 19th c. philologists were interested in "language family trees," and it was another way of trying to understand the inter-relatedness of language groups, and to classify them. For instance, it's undeniable that the Romance languages are all related, and they're all in turn related to (or descendent from) Latin, etc. On the other hand, it's clear that Indian and Arabic, for example, are not from the same "family" of languages, etc. So, Massad's derision shows nothing more than his ignorance. What does Massad mean when he writes that philologists "claimed" that Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic are related? Is he implying that this was another Orientalist act of "imagination?" It's clear that the above languages are related. Anyone who actually knows Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic (Massad doesn't know the first two), would immediately notice the similarities and affinities. So the notion of a posited "common ancestor" of these languages, what's referred to as "Proto-Semitic," is not a crazy "claim." (I found this tree on the web, and it's fine for the purpose of giving an example. You'll see that Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew are listed under "Central Semitic" with Aramaic and Hebrew categorized as Northwest Semitic, while Arabic is South-Central.) It's a way for scholars, namely historical linguistis, to explain developments and similarities and inter-relations. Besides, this kind of comparative linguistics is by no means restricted to 19th c. European philologists! For example, Saadiah Gaon, the 9th-10th c. Jewish scholar (born in Egypt, lived in Tiberias and Babylon) who translated the Hebrew Bible into Arabic, was already making grammatical comparisons between Arabic, Hebrew and Aramaic, and using them to illuminate each other.

Historical linguistics have been refined and much of the 19th c. philologists' premises (and data) have naturally been updated. You have more sophisticated study now in, e.g., language contact and sociolinguistic, that factor in language change. (See Sarah Thomason and Terrence Kaufman, Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991, and Peter Trudgill, Sociolinguistics [4th ed., London: Penguin Books, 2000].) But it should be mentioned that Proto-Semitic was always understood as a hypothetical category! There were attempts to equate it with Akkadian (the oldest Semitic language known to us today) or Arabic (with the Pan-Arab wave), but both attempts failed. As for the issue of scholars attempting to find and reconstruct a mother of all languages (Monogenetic Hypothesis), it predates the 19th c. philologists, and has more theological roots. For more on this, see Umberto Eco's book The Search for the Perfect Language (Tr. James Fentress. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997) in the series edited by Jacques Le Goff, "The Making of Europe."

The point is, Massad is out of his league and it shows. When in doubt, always fall back on Orientalist "invention" and "imagination" to account for your ignorance.

But there is something else here that's mixed with ignorance. Massad outdoes himself with the following idiotic statement:

"In keeping with the Protestant Reformation's abduction of the Hebrew bible into its new religion and its positing of modern European Jews as direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews, post- Enlightenment haters of Jews began to identify Jews as "Semites" on account of their alleged ancestors having spoken Hebrew. In fact the ancient Hebrews spoke Aramaic, the language in which the Talmud was written, as well as parts of the bible."

I'm not sure what the hell he means by the Protestant Reformation's "abduction" of the Hebrew Bible, and I frankly am not sure I want to know! (Does he perhaps mean in the same way that Islam "abducted" Chrsitianity and Judaism?!) I'm also not sure what the underlying premise of the comment on the Jews' "alleged ancestors" is. Only someone who's operating on racialist premises would include "alleged" in there because he's thinking about "ancestry" in genetic terms. This is the emphasis of anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian historian Keith Whitelam, whose book is translated into Arabic and circulated in the ME as "scientific proof" against "the claims of Jews to the land," etc... See, if you must, his article "The Identity of Early Israel" in Social-Scientific Old Testament Criticism (ed. D. J. Chalcraft. The Biblical Seminar 47. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997) pp. 172-203, for his views on ethnicity and common ancestry. The modern ethnicity studies have long departed from the biological and genetic models. It's now accepted that ancestral claims that bind ethnic groups together are often either fully cognitive or at least partially so. In many cases, the groups making these claims are aware of their fictive nature. They function very well, and in a very real manner nonetheless. I'll leave it to you to figure out why Massad would be interested in inserting "alleged" in there.

But here's the dumbest part of the statement: "In fact the ancient Hebrews spoke Aramaic, the language in which the Talmud was written."

Take a couple of minutes to finish laughing... OK, let's get back to this crock of horse manure. Yes, Aramaic was used by Jews, and for quite a while too, and so was Arabic. But Hebrew, in various forms and at various historical stages, continued to be used, even alongside other languages. It was sometimes used for writing purposes (religious texts, poetry, etc.) but it was also used for speech. Even after the introduction of Aramaic, and its influence on Late Biblical Hebrew, Hebrew continued to develop. Hence Mishnaic/Rabbinic Hebrew and Medieval Hebrew etc. For an accessible history of the Hebrew language, see Angel Sáenz-Badillos' book, A History of the Hebrew Language (Tr. John Elwolde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). The whole idea here is to dissociate Jews from the Biblical heritage (and thus, from Jewish ties to and history in the land laid out in the Bible) through two ways (both of which are common myths in the ME, propagated by various anti-Semitic TV shows on Hizbullah's channel, Al-Manar TV, which might soon be banned from France for its anti-Semitism): 1- that Judaism is not related to the Biblical Israelite heritage, but rather to the later Talmud. 2- Jews didn't speak Hebrew, they spoke Aramaic (or other European languages or Russian. Thus, if you're influenced by Arabism -- a language-based ethnic identity -- the Jews can no longer claim to be "a people"), and modern Israeli Hebrew is unrelated to its ancient predecessor. (Modern Israeli Hebrew is a matter of continued debate among scholars. See the work of Prof. Shlomo Izre'el of Tel Aviv University and the project of a corpus of spoken Israeli Hebrew. Some Ultra-Orthodox Jews also dissociate modern Hebrew from the "Holy Tongue" of Biblical Hebrew. Needless to say, they're often used and quoted by Arabs wishing to use this for political propaganda.)

So, Massad is in the business of "resemanticizing" and redefining terms and concepts and history to fit his ideology. He wants to redefine "anti-Semitism" and to redefine Jewish identity and heritage. All this without knowning a word of Hebrew (see Martin Kramer's entry "Zion Envy" Thu, Oct 28 2004 11:44 am. Scroll to bottom.) But this goes beyond Massad. Edward Said's assault on the enterprise of Oriental philology is the real culprit. Look at the result! A ME studies professor who thinks the Ancient Israelites always spoke Aramaic! We've gone from philology to "misology!" How many Islam scholars in the US today take time to learn Syriac/Aramaic, Hebrew, and even Greek, and employ them critically in their work? Older scholars like the late giant Franz Rosenthal or Siegmund Fränkel or Theodor Nöldeke or Carl Brockelmann et al. (down to Joseph Schacht and John Wansbrough and Werner Diem) knew the crucial importance of Aramaic in the study of early Islam. (Christoph Luxenberg's recent attempt was overzealous and methodologically flawed, but this shouldn't dissuade scholars from pursuing the significant path of Arabic-Aramaic Sprachbeziehungen [language relations and language contact] in early Islam and the Quran [cf. Fränkel's classic work on "foreign words" in Arabic]. See the more cautious article by François de Blois in the Bulletin of the Schools of Oriental and African Studies [Volume 65, Issue 1, pp. 1 - 30].)

But all this is gibberish to Massad. It's all an Orientalist colonial "invention." Another expert hath spoken.