You’ve perhaps heard that some Palestinian archaeologists and narrative-builders claim that the Palestinian Arabs of today are direct descendants of the Canaanites. The Canaanites, you may remember, are the people from whom, according to the Bible’s narrative, the Children of Israel conquered the Promised Land.
Should the Jews care?
A lot of supporters of Israel get very worked up about this (here’s one example). They believe—correctly—that Palestinian interest in the Canaanites is an attempt to construct a national narrative that gives today’s Palestinians first dibs on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
It’s ironic that some Zionists fell in love with the Canaanites for similar reasons. Aharon Amir, the influential poet and editor who died last month, was one of the founders, back around the time of Israel’s birth, of a literary, artistic, and ideological trend that won the name of the Canaanite movement. Amir and his colleagues believed that a people’s nature is determined by the geography it lives in. The Jews were Jews so long as they lived in exile, but once they settled in Palestine/Israel, they could no longer be Jews. They would revert to the culture, mores, and rituals inherent in the land—those of the ancient Hebrews and the Canaanites.
The historical, archaeological, and textual evidence for both the Palestinian and the Jewish Canaanite narrative is weak. Given population movements, invasions, and intermarriages over the three thousand or so years since the Canaanites flourished, it would be hard to say that anyone living in this land today is more of a direct descendant of the peoples of that time than anyone else is.
Archaeological evidence is always open to interpretation. In terms of artifacts, the Canaanite material culture (which archaeologists generally prefer to refer to as late Bronze Age culture) is not all that different from the newcomers that appear in the mountains at around 1200 BC, and who are generally identified as the precursors of the Israelite nation. What we know of the language of both peoples indicates that they had no trouble talking to each other.
It’s not hard to understand why a Canaanite origin appeals to the Palestinians. The Canaanites’ homeland was occupied by foreign invaders who claimed a divine right to their country. The Jews of today claim to be the descendants of those invaders. The Zionist claim that the Jews were returning to their ancestral land has often included a corollary that the Arabs are later interlopers and as such not truly rooted in the land. Connecting today’s Palestinians to the Canaanites of the third millennium BCE counters all those arguments.
The myths of Jewish and Palestinian origins are important in forging the common identity of each people. Note that calling a story a myth says nothing about its scientific, empirical truth. Myths are stories that tell us who we are; sometimes they are true, sometimes they are false. Most often, they are a mixture of some verifiable truth with a lot of speculation and folklore. That doesn’t make them illegitimate. We all need myths and we all need to know who we are and why we live where we do.
We also need to believe in our myths, so we seek evidence to prove them. That’s why archeology has been such a central, popular undertaking in modern Israel, and why it is becoming a central, popular undertaking among Palestinians as well.
But the solution to the conflict between the Jews and the Palestinians will not come out of one side proving the other’s myth false. Peace, if it comes, will be the product of political arrangements that allow each side to preserve its essential myths.
Yesterday I attended a meeting of Israeli archaeologists who gathered to discuss the future of their field in the event of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. One of the people who addressed them was Moty Cristal, a young lawyer who has long been involved in negotiations with the Palestinians.
“The word ‘acknowledgement’ doesn’t exist in Hebrew, and that’s too bad,” Cristal said. Both sides, he said, need to be able to acknowledge the other side’s myths, without feeling that such acknowledgement places one’s own myth in peril Acknowledgement sets aside what one thinks about the truth or falsehood of the other side’s story and just admits that it’s there and important to them.
In large measure, the current seemingly hopeless state of the conflict is due do a failure to acknowledge. Arafat refused to acknowledge the Jewish-Israeli attachment to the Temple Mount and tried to assert that it was based on a falsehood. That set off a chain of events that produced the al-Aqsa Intifada. Israel’s leaders have been unwilling to acknowledge the huge catastrophe, the Nakba, that the establishment of the Jewish state brought upon the Palestinians.
So let the Palestinians be Canaanites. At yesterday’s conference, archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University predicted that once the Palestinians have gotten their state and it’s had a chance to mature, they’ll product their own young historians and archaeologists who will shatter their cherished myths. So we Israelis can sit back and wait. In the meantime, we can let the Palestinians think of themselves as the modern incarnation of the Canaanites. So what?