Across the Bay

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Heeeeere's Johnny!

I love it when John ("Juan") Cole expands his "expertise" to areas he knows absolutely nothing about. It's always an occasion to laugh at this poseur.

Today, he decided to go into the Ancient Near East to drive home the point that historical Jewish ties to Jerusalem are minimal at best:

[I]t is worth noting that the Assyrian and other ancient scribes, who wrote down everything that happened in the Middle East in the 900s BC, even mentioning obscure little rulers, never heard of David or his kingdom, and for all we know he was actually a bedouin chieftain later mythologized into a king with a city.

What we do know is that Jerusalem was under Muslim rule for nearly 14 centuries, longer than it was under the rule of anyone else.

Fascinating, considering that the Assyrians didn't expand westwards until about a century later (that would be beginning in the early 800s, not the 900s), that is about 100 years after David's death, and about 50 years after Solomon's death. It started with Assurnasirpal II, but really, it's tied to the campaigns of Shalmaneser III and his successors.

Although John's characterization of the Assyrian scribes is hilarious, I will point out that they did write down the names of contemporary Israelite rulers as they came in contact with them through their invasions! For instance, you have the mention of Humri (Omri, king of the northern kingdom of Israel) and bīt Humri (the House of Omri), i.e., the Omride dynasty. In fact, the northern kingdom of Israel was known in the Assyrian records as māt bīt Humri, "the land of the House of Omri." That king and his dynasty were also mentioned in the 9th c. stele of a Jordanian king, Mesha the Moabite. The Assyrians also mention King "Hezekiah the Judahite" in Sennacherib's annals during his siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE, when Sennacherib boasts that he has besieged Hezekiah in Jerusalem "like a bird in a cage." Also mentioned in the Assyrian records is Jehu, who in the Bible is said to have overthrown the Omride dynasty in the north.

David's mention comes from a mid-9th c. Aramean stele found in Tel Dan in northern Israel, probably erected by King Hazael, king of Aram-Damascus, a power player of the time. In fact, Shalmaneser's 841 campaign was aimed at crushing Hazael. He survived, and made incursions into northern Israel, which is the likely context of the Tel Dan stele. The stele mentions byt dwd, "the House of David" (i.e., the Davidic dynasty in Judah) in parallel to "Israel" (i.e., the northern kingdom). So, as evident from the Assyrian records and the Moabite stele, the northern kingdom of Israel was known as "the House of Omri" and, based on the Tel Dan stele, the southern kingdom of Judah was known as "the House of David." The fact that Assyrian scribes (whom John makes out to be wired bloggers!) didn't mention David means little.

Cole's purpose is clearly not a history lesson. His point is an old one, painting Jews as having no real or substantial historical tie to the land. He's free to think whatever he wants of course, but it becomes quite hypocritical when you hear Cole talk about 19th c. romantic nationalism:

Historians are unkind to nationalism of any sort. Nineteenth century romantic nationalism of the Zionist sort posits eternal "peoples" through history, who have a blood relationship (i.e. are a "race") and who have a mystical relationship with some particular territory. The Germans, who were very good at this game, called it "blood and soil." Nationalism casts about for some ancient exemplar of the "nation" to glorify as a predecessor to the modern nation. (Since nations actually did not exist in the modern sense before the late 1700s, the relationship is fictive. To explain what happened between ancient glory and modern nationalism, nationalists often say that the "nation" "fell asleep" or "went into centuries of decline. My colleague Ron Suny calls this the "sleeping beauty" theory of nationalism.)

But there are no eternal nations through history. People get all mixed up genetically over time, except for tiny parts of the genome like the mitochondria or the Y chromosome, on which too much emphasis is now put. Since there are no eternal nations based in "blood," they cannot have a mystical connection to the "land." People get moved around. The Turks now in Anatolia once lived in Mongolia (and most Turks anyway are just Greeks who converted to Islam and began speaking Turkish).

I'm not interested in the validity of this quote. But it struck me especially when compared to Cole's statement today about the Muslim tie to the land:

What we do know is that Jerusalem was under Muslim rule for nearly 14 centuries, longer than it was under the rule of anyone else, and Muslims consider the mosque on the Haram Sharif to be the third holiest site in the world.

Well? I think we all know the answer. If it's Arab nationalism, Palestinian nationalism, or some Islamic tie across the centuries, then that's ok. Otherwise, it's Nazi. You can't pick and choose when to accept this type of approach.

Perhaps it's a bit much to ask John to be consistent, but if he were really "unkind" to nationalism of any kind, one would expect to see that applied to Arabs and Muslims as well.

By the way, to eliminate any possible distortions or strawmen, I am not saying this in support of any attempt to destroy the Aqsa Mosque or what have you! The Israeli government itself is after such extremist groups (Kahanists, etc.).

My point is let's deal in the realm of politics. Don't jump back and forth. But Cole has made a living writing apologetics. Take for instance this recent tirade against -- who else? -- "rightwing Zionists," which sounds more like Louis Farrakhan than anything else:

As with the Zionist Right generally, he makes the mistake of racializing the Sudan problems, using anti-Semitic language accusing "Arabs" of killing thousands of "black Africans."

But the "Arabs" of the Sudan are black (some are brown or lighter shades of black, but not by any means all, and anyway so are e.g. Eritreans just to the south). The Sudanese "Arabs" just speak Arabic or identify with the Arabs. It isn't a matter of US-style race, which is based on color. Moreover, the people of Darfur are Muslims and many know Arabic. So the massacres in Darfur are not about "Arabs" versus "black Africans." They are between two groups of Muslim black Africans.

[here Cole posts two pictures of two African men]

I defy anyone to tell me which is the "black African" and which the "Arab" Janjawid in these pictures.

The rightwing Zionists want to racialize the Sudan conflict in American terms, as "Arab" versus "black African" because they want to use it to play American domestic politics, and create a rift among African-Americans and Arab-Americans. Both of the latter face massive discrimination in contemporary society, and they should find ways of cooperating to counter it. What is happening in Darfur is horrible with regard to the loss of life and the displacement of persons, but the dispute is not about race. It is about political separatism and regionalism.

Only Cole could racialize and primordialize ethnicity while simultaneously denouncing the supposed racializing of ethnic conflict! He never once mentions that the terms "black" and "Arab" are in fact used by the parties in the conflict themselves. The Arabs call the Fur, Masalit, Baggara and Zaghawa, zurga ("black") and identify themselves as Arab (and are called "Arabs" by the Fur et al.) Regardless of the fact that they both share the same skin color, or the same religion or language! This is very much an "ethnic conflict"! These are ethnic boundaries, regardless of whether we can tell them apart in pictures!

The one other time that Cole even bothered to mention the massacres in Darfur, he wrote to enlighten us:

Most of the principals on both sides of the conflict are Arabic speaking Muslims, demonstrating that such ethnic markers do not explain everything, or sometimes very much, in the Middle East. In this case a traditon of provincial autonomy and conflicts between herders and settled farmers are more important.

Here he decided that ethnicity should be reduced to religion and language! Oh, and for good measure, categorically asserted that this was not an ethnic conflict because it's more about "provincial autonomy between herders and farmers" (what he now fancily calls "political separatism and regionalism." Can you feel the expertise?)

In other words, ethnicity for Cole is to be viewed in "primordialist" terms. It's a bunch of trait lists (language, religion, race/skin color, etc.) that are observable to the outsider. In that sense, he himself is one step removed from Husri and Aflaq and the racialist primordialist Arab nationalists.

Ethnicity doesn't work that way. Ethnicity is a process of identification and differentiation. In that sense, it's the group itself that decides what are the meaningful markers and boundaries. It may not be color, language or religion! That doesn't make it less an ethnic conflict. It's cognitive. And the fact that they use terms like "zurga" or "Arab" means that these are meaningful ethnic boundaries for them.

In contrast to primordialism, there is the "circumstantialist" or "situational" approach. The main name attached with this approach is Fredrik Barth, who in 1968 edited the now classic Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. In that book, it so happens, there's an essay by Gunnar Haaland entitled "Economic Determinants in Ethnic Processes." Coincidentally, that essay discusses the Fur at length. John should've read that essay before blurting out his nonsense.

But, again, this wouldn't be the first time John wrote apologetics (especially on behalf of Arabism), even as Darfur was almost completely ignored and brushed aside by the Arab league and much of the Arab press. Ironically, the fact that he brought in the "Zionists" into this, accusing them of "creating" categories is eerily similar to the official line from Khartoum! Once again, Cole and the tyrannical regimes are practically indistinguishable. I'm not even going to bother commenting on that insane Farrakhan-like statement about "Zionists" planting the seeds of strife between African-Americans and Arab-Americans! That's more nut-house material to be discussed by Cole and his conspiracy theorist friends.

How can anyone take such a poseur seriously?