In 2014, Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator in talks with Israel, proclaimed himself a direct descendant of the ancient Canaanites, one of the tribes believed to have inhabited what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories prior to the Israelites’ arrival. Erekat did so while rejecting Israeli government insistence that Israel be recognized as a Jewish nation.
Erekat’s obvious point -- which he's made repeatedly, along with other Palestinian, Arab and Muslim political and religious leaders, as well as some Christian leaders who favor the Palestinian side -- is that Israel has no real claim to call itself a Jewish state. Moreover, goes this line of reasoning, Israel is, in fact, a purely colonial enterprise because the people we call Palestinians are descendants of the land’s true indigenous population.
According to this logic, it's not only today’s Jewish settlers in the West Bank, which Palestinians claim as part of their hoped-for nation state, who are colonizers. Rather it's all Jews, no matter where they live in Israel, because the Canaanite-Palestinian historical connection predates Israelite-Jewish claims on the land.
If you read Arabic, look at this piece from the Palestine Press for clarification of Erekat’s position. If not, here’s an English-language piece refuting Erekat from The Algemeiner, a right-leaning, New York-based Jewish print and web publication.
Western news media reports often pass along the Canaanite-Palestinian linkage claim unchallenged. This happens more often in opinion pieces than hard news stories. However, on occasion the claim makes its way into a bare bones, dueling assertions-piece presented without clarifying context or background.
So here’s some context and background that religion-beat writers would do well to keep in mind.
To begin, biblical and archeological claims are difficult if not impossible to unequivocally substantiate historically.
The former is often a matter of interpretation rooted in faith, reason, culture -- or the rejection of all or any of them. This is true no matter whose faith claims are at issue.
The latter, meanwhile, are continually being revised as new discoveries come to light. An example of the latter is this piece from The Washington Post. Note that it links the Canaanites with the Lebanese, not the Palestinians.
Israel and the vast majority of Jews around the world, of course, reject the Palestinian claim outright. They, and I, view it as just another lame attempt to delegitimize Jewish statehood in the Middle East by presenting “alternative facts" (tip of the hat to Kellyanne Conway for giving us this unique phrasing).
As with Palestinian claims, the web is loaded with links to Jewish claims about Palestinian origins and who predates who in the region over which the two sides continue to struggle violently. Here’s a section of one such piece offered by the staunchly pro-Israel think tank Middle East Forum.
The idea of Jews as "settler-colonialists" is easily disproved. A wealth of evidence demonstrates that Jews are the indigenous population of the Southern Levant; historical and now genetic documentation places Jews there over 2,000 years ago, and there is indisputable evidence of continual residence of Jews in the region. Data showing the cultural and genetic continuity of local and global Jewish communities is equally ample. The evidence was so copious and so incontrovertible, even to historians of antiquity and writers of religious texts, some of whom were Judeophobes, that disconnecting Jews from the Southern Levant was simply not conceived of. Jews are the indigenous population.
Frankly, Middle East history is not my expertise, so while I have my opinions (Can you guess what they are?) I'm not about to pass definitive judgement on competing tribal narratives based on the very distant past. Nor do I think they're terribly important at this point.
I’ll elaborate on this point below. But first:
The Canaanite-Palestinian claim has two parallels. The first is that Jesus was a Palestinian, even though the designation “Palestine” was not use in the region during his lifetime, and would not be until a century or so later when the Romans imposed it.
I've heard pro-Palestinian Christians, clergy and lay activists alike, dismiss Jesus’s Jewishness, saying that he was Palestinian and even the first martyr to the Palestinian cause — murdered, of course, by the Jews of his time.
This essay by a well-known Palestinian journalist and activist explains Palestinian reasoning on this.
The second parallel -- well, the second parallel is purely a matter of religious belief, with which I will not argue here. Though I will label it aspirational supercessionism.
Islam presents itself as the final revelation in the Abrahamic lineage, supplanting both Judaism and Christianity and correcting their faults. It also claims that the Jewish prophets, including Abraham, and Jesus, were in fact Muslims because of their fidelity to the God known in Arabic as Allah.
So what's the bottom line here?
From my perspective, arguments that rely on “facts” cherry-picked from antiquity and faith claims hold little water when debating seemingly intractable, contemporary geopolitical disputes. Where we’re at and how we move forward toward a solution is what matters.
So beware, scribes, when either side starts throwing about faith claims or unprovable “facts” from thousands of years ago to gain political advantage in the here and now. History matters, but unprovable claims should never be taken on face value in journalism.