Across the Bay

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Ethnohistory, Ideology, and Modern Politics

You may or may not have heard about the most recent stink up involving Rashid Khalidi. To make a long story short, Khalidi lent his byline to this bad polemical history of Jerusalem. Turns out, large segments of it were swiped from an equally bad polemical article by Kamil Asali. So the question was raised whether that constituted plagiarism. Khalidi denied it claiming he didn't write the article, and that a web article doesn't really qualify as a "publication" in any "real sense of the word."

But then came the bizarre cover-up. Khalidi, as mentioned right above, denied writing the article and said that it was "wrongly attributed to him" by someone at a "defunct organization." Of course, he didn't mention that he was the president of that organization at the time the article was published! Anyway, the "defunct organization" changed the byline to read "compiled by ACJ from a variety of sources." But, Khalidi's byline was still accessible through Wayback Machine, as evident from the second link above! Like I said, the whole thing stinks of fish!

But I'm not particularly interested in the plagiarism charge. I'm more interested in some of the claims the article makes, such as:

The oldest recorded name of the city, "Urusalem" is Amoritic. "Shalem" or "Salem" is the name of a Canaanite-Amorite god; "uru", means "founded by." The names of the two oldest rulers of the city, Saz Anu and Yaqir Ammo, were identified by the American archaeologist W.F. Albright as Amoritic. The Amorites had the same language as the Canaanites and were of the same Semitic stock. Many historians believe that they were an offshoot of the Canaanites, who came originally from the Arabian Peninsula. The Bible concurs that the Amorites are the original people of the land of Canaan.


In the second millenium BC, Jerusalem was inhabited by the Jebusites, a Canaanite tribe, and the culture of the city was Canaanite. The Jebusites built a fortress, "Zion", in Jerusalem. Zion is a Canaanite word meaning "hill" or "height." Jerusalem was also known as Jebus. Canaanite society flourished for two thousand years, and many aspects of Canaanite culture and religion were later borrowed by the Hebrews.

According to a number of historians and scholars, many of the Arabs of Jerusalem today, indeed the majority of Palestinian Arabs, are descendants of the ancient Jebusites and Canaanites. In 1902, the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer wrote in his book The Golden Bough: "The Arabic-speaking peasants of Palestine are the progeny of the tribes which settled in the country before the Israelite invasion. They are still adhering to the land. They never left it and were never uprooted from it."

There are other errors, cliches, annoying inaccuracies, and an overall dominating ideological ine, but I'm not really interested in deconstructing every little detail.

The two quotes above, however, are telling in more ways than one. In fact, the ideological line and its "facts" seem to be something of a conventional wisdom for some of the leading lights of ME Studies, including Khalidi's compadre Joseph Massad, and MESA president Juan Cole. You may remember my posts on Cole (see also the note on the 14 centuries of Islamic rule in the Khalidi/Asali piece) and Massad ("the Ancient Palestinian Hebrews") and their journeys to the Ancient Near East. Compare those to the article that carried Khalidi's byline (with which arguments, I think it's fair to assume, Khalidi agrees).

The first quote contains one of the most prevalent myths of Arabist revisionism, and that is that the "Arab" origin of the Canaanites. Readers might've come across this theory in reference to the Phoenicians. Helen Sader comments on the theory of Arab invasion: “First of all, there’s no proof of an early invasion from either the Arab peninsula or the Sinai. Of course, there has always been a certain interaction and fusion between people in the region, but the whole concept of invasion is but a projection of the 7th-century Arab invasion onto earlier times." There are variants on this theory, in terms of population movement etc., but the whole thing is outdated and faulty.

But the whole handling of the term "Canaanites" and the idea of Amorites as "offshoots" really reflects poor scholarship, historically and ethnohistorically. The terms have separate layered histories and their referents change across time. For instance, in the Late Bronze Age Canaan and Amurru were two separate geopolitical entities, with Amurru being a kingdom in south western Syria/northern Lebanon. In other words, it was north of the district of Canaan, which was a whole other area! An earlier (Middle Bronze Age) kingdom by the name of Amurru also existed in the west, perhaps on the Mediterranean, that may have been the ancestor (in name) of the LB Age one. But that too was north of Canaan.

The term Amurru itself is older, and in Akkadian amurrû (Sumerian MAR.TU) simply means "Westerners," that is, from the vantage point of people in Mesopotamia. They appear especially in late 3rd millenium-2nd millenium texts as tribal pastoral groups that become integrated with the populations of Mesopotamian cities and assimilated into the Sumero-Babylonian culture. Then in the 2nd millenium, "Amorites" (people with "Amorite names") become leaders of the major cities of Mesopotamia (for a handy brief history, see Robert Whiting's article "Amorite Tribes and Nations of Second Millenium Western Asia" in Jack Sasson (ed.) Civilizations of the Ancient Near East vol. 2 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2000] pp. 1231-1242. See also, Kathryn Kamp and Norman Yoffee, "Ethnicity in Ancient Western Asia during the Early Second Millennium B.C.: Archaeological Assessments and Ethnoarchaeological Prospectives." Bulletin of the American School of Oriental Research 237 [1980]:85-103.) Here is a paragraph from the introduction that should give you an idea about the complexity of the matter:

What we know of the Amorites comes from references to them in the written records of other peoples, primarily from Mesopotamian or Syrian cuneiform documents, but also to a lesser extent from Egyptian and other sources. Nontextual sources are even less rewarding. The archaeological evidence for the Amorites is scanty and not to be separated from the artifacts of other ethnolinguistic groups with which they shared the area. No one has yet been able to identify an Amorite pot or weapon with certainty. Therefore, the reconstruction of the ethnolinguistic group known as the Amorites is based on snippets of information, often contradictory... (p. 1231)

Much of the theories about them in the mid-20th c. were based on the assumptions that "Amorite" represented not just (a) particular social group(s) but also a language. The latter assumption took on a life of its own and simply became an umbrella term for what is now known as "Western Semitic" (as opposed to, say, Akkadian which constitutes "Eastern Semitic"). It became a catchword for the linguistic ancestor of later Northwest Semitic dialects. The problem is we don't have a single text in that supposed language or, better, cluster of dialects. All the texts were written in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the time. All we have are names and a few words that differ from standard Akkadian onomastics and grammar, and those come from Syria (i.e., the "west"), such as the Middle Bronze Age city of Mari, modern Tell Hariri on the middle Euphrates (there's a massive archive of texts from Mari and its vicinity). One of the foremost authorities on Akkadian, Prof. Shlomo Izre'el explains why basing the notion of a dialect continuum on scanty evidence involving personal names (PN) and scattered features is problematic:

(1) PNs may well stem form a specific language, but they are not necessarily indicative of the vernacular. Trying to learn about the vernacular's features from analyzing PNs is wrong methodologically, in my opinion. When we have loanwords or some interferences in syntax or morphology, only then we can learn something substantial on the interfering language, which may be the case at Mari. I wouldn't call it Amorite, though, but just "the substratum of the OB of Mari" or the like...
(2) Amorite for me, if I am to use it at all, is not a language. It would be a cluster of virtual vernaculars used during a large span of time and throughout a large georgaphical space, dialects about which we have no data at all as regards their contemporary use. This is why I call it a myth. This myth suggests that there actually was a dialect or a continuum of dialects (i.e., a language) that we know something of. I don't think there is such a thing.

So this is the point: we have very little data to base the notion of a "language" on. What we have are some West Semitic features which might indicate, as Prof. Izre'el noted, a set of substrata in each location. To attempt an identification of this "language" and a correlative ethnic group is bad methodology. Prof. Izre'el clarifies:

First one decides, on the basis of insufficient evidence that there was such a language, Amurrite, of which dialects are spread in Mesopotamia in the OB times. Then this becomes a truism, and a language mentioned once in a fragmentary context is then referred to as one of its dialects on the analogy of the mentioning of Am/wnanu as related to Amurrites in another place. If this is no myth, what is a myth? Linguistic affiliation cannot be derived by analogy of tribal affiliation.

The error is aggravated when we mix categories like "Ugaritic" and "Canaanite" with "Amoritic" as is often done.

Furthermore, these "Amorites" didn't call themselves that. For instance, as Whiting writes, "rather than calling themselves 'Amorites,' the tribal elements around Mari were known as Khaneans. The earliest record of an Amorite ruling Mari comes from an inscription of Yakhdun-Lim, son of Yaggid-Lim, who calls himself 'King of Mari, Tuttul, and the land of Khana'." (p. 1235). "Khana" actually means "tent dwellers". A comprehensive study of the tribal, pastoralist, and political terminology used in the Mari letters is Daniel Fleming's excellent 2004 book, Democracy's Ancient Ancestors: Mari and Early Collective Governance. The link allows you to search within the book. Here are the instances where Fleming discusses "Amorrites." See especially p. 39 (through 43, esp. 42):

Unlike the tribal categories binū yamina and binū sim'al, "children of the right (hand)" and "children of the left (hand)," amurrûm is not a self-given name. The "right" and "left" may even refer to south and north, as they do in ancient Hebrew, facing the rising sun, but these are entirely different names. Individual persons do not identify themselves as "Yaminite" or "Sim'alite," but rather by the tribal units below these two umbrella categories. Nevertheless, the attribution of tribes to these two divisions is made by the people themselves. By origin, the word "Amorrite" is entirely different, and this difference should be kept in mind when we follow its common use in modern scholarly literature. Because "Amorrite" designates a category of outsiders, this naming will be unconscious of native identities and therefore both inaccurate in whom it groups together and liable to carry negative overtones. In its primary Mesopotamian use, it describes a certain sort of people who come from regions to the west, evidently somewhere in Syria, and the term has little use in discussion of contemporary peoples and events in areas further west, north, and south. There is no sharp break of unfamiliarity, but rather a gradual loss of precision.

Regardless of the Middle Bronze Age situation, the relationship with the later Late Bronze Age kingdom of Amurru, or the even later references in the Bible to the 'ĕmōrî ("Amorite") are far from clear or linear. The development of an "Amorite" ethnic identity in any one period is also unclear (though not necessarily non-existent), let alone the continuity of such an identity, and the cohesiveness of its members. But to jump from that ambiguity to a facile equation of "Canaanite," "Amorite" and "Jebusite" is plain ridiculous.

I won't dwell on the term Canaanite. Those interested can consult Anson Rainey's article "Who is a Canaanite? A Review of the Textual Evidence" Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 304 (1996): 1-15. Rainey's survey however deals only with the Late Bronze Age material. The article is a critical response to Niels Peter Lemche's 1991 volume, The Canaanites and their Land: The Tradition of the Canaanites.

I'm more interested in the term "Jebusites." Clearly, this term is at the heart of the argument. This Palestinian identity advocated (or, created) by the Khalidi/Asali article is built around the Jebusites' possession of Jerusalem prior to David's takeover of the city. But there are interesting implications in picking this particular term/group.

The article identifies the Jebusites as a Canaanite tribe. Here's the problem. The only place where the term Jebusite appears is the Bible. II Samuel 5:6 recounts the episode of David's takeover of Jerusalem. There, the Jebusites are simply called "the inhabitants of the land." They are mentioned in the "table of nations" in Gen 10 and Gen 15. They are listed among the various peoples of the land in Exod 3:8 (along with the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, and Hivites). Elsewhere, Jebus (Yebus) is equated with Jerusalem (Judg 19:10-11; I Chron 11:4-5). However, Jerusalem is not known by that name outside the Bible (for an excellent article on Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age Jerusalem, see Nadav Na'aman's "The Contribution of the Amarna Letters to the Debate on Jerusalem's Political Position in the Tenth Century B. C. E., Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 304 (1996): 17-27). But other than this, absolutely nothing is known of this group (and, on a related note, the fact that they're listed alongside the Canaanites would lead one to believe that they were a separate group, also from the Amorites for that matter, but it's not clear whether they were an ethnic group, or whether they themselves used the term Jebusite, etc.). How can anyone build any theory whatsoever on such poor evidence?!

Here's where a whole set of interesting questions can be raised. In recent years, Palestinian nationalist scholars like Said, Khalidi and Massad, found wonderful allies in a group of biblical scholars/historians like Keith Whitelam, Thomas Thompson and others like them. Keith Whitelam for instance, wrote a book called The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History. The book was given a glowing review by Said in the Times Literary Supplement, and dubbed a "courageous" book. Said was also returning a favor, so to speak, as he was the singlemost cited reference in Whitelam's book. Needless to say, the book became the Bible of Palestinian nationalists. It was translated into Arabic, and is hailed as the "real story" that the imperial West sought to hide (as evident from the subtitle of the book itself). In fact, if you do a Google search for Keith Whitelam, you'll see the book pop up on several Palestinian websites, along with similar characterizations as the ones I mentioned. For reviews, you could also do a search for some that are available online. A short review in MEQ can be found here (scroll down). Another review in a more "sympathetic" journal (though the review isn't by any means laudatory) is the one by Edward Fox in the Journal for Palestine Studies 26.2 (1997):102-103.

One of the ironies of the book is that Whitelam accuses 19th c. and early-mid 20th c. biblical scholars of thinking about Ancient Israel in terms of the modern state of Israel (alongside their own religious beliefs). Yet in conflating all the other non-Israelite ancient peoples of the region with the term "Palestinian" he commits the exact same error, only from the other side! But here you can see where Massad's "Ancient Palestinian Hebrews" comes from, even if it mixes up even Whitelam's thesis! But hey, that's Massad after all, so don't be harsh! He also thought the Hebrews spoke Aramaic and not Hebrew, and that dhimmi was an Orientalist racist trope.

Whitelam's book is an offshoot (excuse the pun) of Edward Said's Orientalism. In fact, a veritable industry of how archaeology in Israel is another form of colonialism (etc.) has come to life in recent years. Correlative to that is the rise of Palestinian archaeology. An excellent article on these matters is Alexander Joffe and Rachel Hallote's "The Politics of Israeli Archaeology: Between 'Nationalism' and 'Science' in the Age of the Second Republic," Israel Studies 7.3 (2002): 84-116. Joffe himself has reviewed many a volume dealing with archaeology and politics in several academic journals, mostly in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. Here's a quick relevant quote from a footnote in the article co-authored with Hallote:

Departments of Archaeology exist in most Palestinian universities and an official Palestinian Department of Antiquities was established as part of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Tourism and consciousness raising are the stated goals of the Palestinian archaeological enterprise (interview with Department of Antiquities director Hamdan Taha, Palestine Report, July 16 1999). The aims of the Palestinian Institute of Archaeology and Journal of Palestinian Archaeology at Bir Zeit University include the "shaping Palestinian historical consciousness" and "relevant independent answers, methodological or ideological, to questions concerning their cultural heritage and country:" (see A full analysis of the Palestinian archaeological enterprise is beyond the scope of the present study. An impression gathered from the few sources available to us is that initially (late 1980s to early 1990s) Palestinian 'versions' or 'narratives' tended to elide over the topics of ancient Israel and Jews generally, treating them minimally or in a somewhat tortuously neutral fashion. Emphasis appears to have been placed on the alleged neglect of Islamic sites and periods, and on contextualizing ancient Israel, and Biblical archaeology as a whole, as merely episodes in much longer frameworks. This approach followed the lead of Glock. More recently (mid 1990s to present) the tendency has been to discount, excise, or wholly revise the questions of ancient Israel and any Jewish presence. Elite promotion of the ideas that Palestinians were descended from Canaanites, Philistines, or third millennium B.C.E. Arabian migrants, has been considerable, despite the lack of evidence or logic to support these claims, and their inherent contradiction with Islamic mythology. See "A historical battleground," Jerusalem Report, September 30, 1997. See also the important study by Nimrod Hurvitz, "Muhibb ad-Din al-Khatib's Semitic Wave Theory and Pan-Arabism," Middle Eastern Studies, 29 (1993): 118-34. Palestinian revisionism has not surprisingly coincided with Palestinian denial of any Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, an issue which, as noted by Shlomo Ben-Ami, manifest strongly during negotiations during 2000. See "End of a journey," Ha'aretz, September 14, 2001. Some measure of inspiration for these latter developments has been derived from continuing academic debates over the historicity of the Bible, and the strong divisions between the unfortunately labeled 'maximalist' and 'minimalist' factions. Strongly anti-Zionist books by Biblical scholars Keith W. Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History, (London, 1996) and Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel, (New York, 1999) stand out. The intellectual influence of Hayden White and Edward Said might also be considered in this respect, along of course with the specific efforts of revisionist Israeli historians (e.g., Ilan Pappé, "Biblical Narratives, Review of Western Scholarship and the History of Palestine," Journal of Palestine Studies, 29 (2000):102. These latest efforts to generate Palestinian identity in 'real time' should be understood in their historical context, as the intersection of ethnogenesis, Arab nationalism, and the continued spread of Western intellectual thought. See lately Baruch Kimmerling, "The Formation of Palestinian Collective Identities: The Ottoman and Mandatory Periods," Middle Eastern Studies, 36 (2000): 48-81. (pp. 112-113)

Another important figure in this business was the late Michael Prior. He, like Whitelam made no bones about his politics. Thompson on the other hand, has shied away from such public and overt political identification. However, the appearence of an article by him in Prior's pseudo-academic anti-Zionist journal, Holy Land Studies, makes that identification rather clear. The aim of the journal is described here. Regular contributors include luminaries like Ilan Pappe and (co-founding editor) Nur Masalha. The title of Thompson's article: "Is the Bible Historical? The Challenge of ‘Minimalism’ for Biblical Scholars and Historians."

The title reflects a crucial point. The entire premise of Whitelam's book (and indeed Thompson's and other so-called minimalists) is the historical unreliability of the Bible as a source for writing the history of Canaan. For online essays on the debate, see here.

This premise is behind Cole's statement (see link above):

[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.

If you take the time to read Na'aman's article mentioned above, you'll get a much more "informed" picture. For more of Cole's statements, see here, and peruse here. This statement comes from the first link: "I just saw someone question Palestinian descent from the ancient peoples of Palestine. But we are all descended from the Moabites, and Palestinians and Jews are more likely to have the traces of that descent in their mitochondria and Y chromosomes than the rest of us (we're all cousins of a sort, but they are closer to being first cousins)." The statement is almost laughable (we are all descended from the Moabites!?), but the mish-mash of putative ancestors (Canaanites, Amorites, Jebusites, and now Moabites) is indicative. I have refrained from entering into the genetics debate, but if you read my post on Cole linked above, you'll realize his racialist/biological premises when approaching ethnicity.

But here's the screaming paradox as far as the Khalidi/Asali article, and the whole Jebusites-as-Palestinians theory are concerned: the only historical mention of the Jebusites comes exclusively from the Bible! So, David's historicity is unreliable, but the Jebusites' is!? Furthermore, as noted before, the Bible does not elaborate at all on the Jebusites. How can we speak of an ethnic identity if we know absolutely nothing about the Jebusites!? What exactly is it that ties the Palestinians to the Jebusites, besides of course, the claim to Jerusalem? What is the narrative (see this volume edited by Spickard and Burroughs, esp. Stephen Cornell's article and Spickard and Burroughs' concluding essay)? As Joffe and Hallote noted, and as the Cole post and the Khalidi/Asali article indicate, the narrative void (and that's what it is) is filled with Arab-Islamic history. That's why both Cole and Khalidi/Asali end up making the same remark about the 13-14 centuries of Islamic rule over Jerusalem.

Another delicious paradox lies in the list of scholars Khalidi/Asali rely on: Frazer and Albright. In other words, they (esp. Albright) are the hated "Orientalists" who are mercilessly attacked by Thompson, Whitelam, et al.! But by creating the Jebusite identity, Khalidi/Asali are falling back on the same premises, only with infinitely poorer scholarship!

Far more interesting scholarship was written in the early 20th c. by the giant orientalist Gustav Dalman, whose multi-volume magnum opus Arbeit und Sitte in Palästina remains a classic and an invaluable enormous source of information on the customs and language of Palestinian peasants. Dalman's philological work on the similarity in the language used in the Talmud and the Bible and by Palestinian peasants is fascinating, and at one point in my graduate career I wrote several papers on weather terminology and its usage in biblical mythology and popular proverbs. The works of the Palestinian Toufic Canaan (German-trained orientalist) on the folk-religions of Palestinians were used by Albright and others. His works mirror similar endeavors in Lebanon by people like Msgr. Michel Feghali or Anis Frayha. Even the 18th-19th c. travel literature such as the work of W. M. Thompson, viciously attacked by the Said acolytes today as part of the colonization of Palestine (or, as a marriage of missionary activity and empire, see, e.g., this article on Edward Robinson. No one by the way, is denying these guys' biases or what have you.), is far more useful than this Jebusites-as-Palestinians political stuff.

That brings up yet another hypocrisy, which is something I noted in my post on Cole. If it is Palestinian nationalism, it's ok. Israeli nationalism however, is another story. In fact, one may add Phoenicianism here. Phoenicianism, though built on much, much more than what the Jebusite theory is built on (we have texts, artifacts, sites, etc.), is brutally ridiculed by those same Arab nationalists. Yet somehow, if the Palestinians concoct a Jebusite identity based on little more than thin air, it's solid. The funny part is that this identity is completely alien to most Palestinians, as noted by Joffe and Hallote. Unlike Lebanon, (but also Egypt and Iraq in varying degrees. On Assyrian identity, see this excellent article by noted Assyrianist Simo Parpola [PDF]) there is no well-established and pervasive pre-Arabo-Islamic narrative. On that, see Asher Kaufman's excellent Reviving Phoenicia. I must bring up once more Kaufman's deliciously ironic remark on As'ad AbuKhalil's horrible introduction to his Historical Dictionary (which I posted on here). Kaufman noted that the fact that AbuKhalil is at pains to ridicule and minimize or eliminate any validity to Lebanon's Phoenician heritage and the Phoenicianist narrative, proves just how pervasive it really is. Furthermore, AbuKhalil ends up beginning Lebanese history with the Canaanites!!

At the end of the day, is all this another variation on "Palestine-first"? Who knows. But as far as Khalidi's article is concerned, nevermind the plagiarism charge. The substance is far fishier.