Rachel Havrelock is a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and its historical interpretation. She is an associate professor of Jewish Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of three books as well as the writer/director of the play, From Tel Aviv to Ramallah. Her latest work, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line (2011, University of Chicago Press), examines five national myths in the Hebrew Bible and examines which have had political currency and which have been repressed.
While in San Francisco to promote River Jordan, I interviewed Havrelock about the Israel of biblical mythology and its impact on the present day conflict in Israel/Palestine. She argues that while certain interpretations favor expansion and conquest, others may provide an inspiration for coexistence, while colonial ideas of partition and rigid borders need to be thrown out to favor a new post-national model. What follows is an edited transcript of the full interview. To view an eleven minute edited selection of the video click here.
river jordan book
San Francisco, CA. November 22, 201
DZ: What led you to take on the subject of your book, River Jordan?
RH: I initially approached the topic with an interest to how biblical paradigms impacted modernity, or in other words: what is the connection between Biblical Israel and Modern Israel? So I really began almost with the issue of the map. How is it that in both Israeli and Palestinian national traditions that the Jordan is a central border that seems to define the collective, impact national identity in a very dramatic way, and how did this biblical symbol become realized in modernity?… Ultimately what I write about is that those things—the line from one to the other, especially the line from the bible to modernity is not so straight, and rather contested and circuitous.
What did your research on biblical history tell you about the current conflicts over land in this area? What did you discover as you were making your way through this subject?
When we as scholars look at the Bible, we don’t see a uniform document, but instead we have collated traditions and documents and political ideas that come from very different quarters. So some of the sources in the Bible come from really different historical periods, and some of the sources in the Bible come from really different ideological or political schools. So there were about five different “maps” as it were that emerged from the Hebrew Bible. Now there are no cartographic maps—it’s all words. But there are boundary lists, which is the ancient Hebrew way of talking about space and imagining it. So there are these five different maps: one of them reaches all the way to the Euphrates River [in present-day Iraq]; one of them ends at the Jordan River; one of them encompasses both sides of the [Jordan] River Valley; one of them is a very constricted area around Jerusalem; and one of them is a very fluid regional model where national groups or tribal groups aren’t really so discreet, but rather they overlap and have competing claims[…].
So then I started thinking, “How did this Jordan border end up as a contested border between Israelis and Palestinians?” And here the answer is neither the Bible, nor the fact that it is, as many would say, a “natural border.” Right? Many would say: “It’s a river, it’s a natural border. So of course that’s always been the border.” And to begin with, I don’t think that rivers necessarily are borders. I mean, a river can connect people just as much as it can divide them.
The real answer as to how the Jordan comes into Israeli and Palestinian national traditions is through a group called the Palestinian Exploration Fund [PEF]—a group of explorers, erstwhile archaeologists who are also members of the British Royal Engineers. And they were sent [in 1871] by the British military, but also by this subscriber-based organization [the PEF] to produce a map. And the British imagined ousting the Ottoman Empire from the region, and you can’t oust an empire without a map. So the PEF map ultimately went from the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, and also adhered to another geographical formula from Dan in the north, to Be’er Sheva in the south. So the PEF map, the twenty-six sheets [of maps], really formed the British idea of what Palestine would look like. And when General Allenby went into battle to fight the Ottomans [in 1917] he had the PEF map and the land that he conquered basically conformed to it. Ultimately this was the British idea, and so in 1922 they created Palestine and Transjordan, and created geographical entities that really correlated with that map[…].
Ultimately it’s neither the Bible, nor Islamic traditions, nor long ethnic ideas that led to these borders, they were British lines on a map to facilitate oil export and administrative units of the British Mandate. And so these borders are the ones that become so contested and so sensitive within the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
How did these British-drawn borders become such a driving force in the ideology of the Zionist movement?
In the first and second Zionist Congresses there were a lot of motivations, whether it came from pogroms in Eastern Europe, or the Dreyfus Affair—the idea that even in enlightened France Jews were never fully going to be citizens—so the driving force—I mean again it came from many quarters, but the idea was that Europe was going to likely become increasingly dangerous for the Jews. And we have to realize that this is the nineteenth century, so European nationalism is the reigning movement. Everybody in Europe is thinking in terms of national borders, national language, a long ancient history that justified the new national configurations. And of course in a world of nationalism, especially nationalist Europe, the Jews were the odd people out. I mean they couldn’t, for a lot of reasons, quite be nationalized, however much they wanted to be in places like Germany or France. So Jewish nationalism really arises from—initially—from systems of European nationalism.
In the early congresses it was really just “where could the Jews go to?” So there’s the so-called “Uganda Plan,” about settling Jews in [present-day] Kenya [and Uganda]; there was the Argentina plan that led to one sort of cooperative settlement that ultimately faded; there were even some American ideas at that point. And then Theodor Herzl, kind of the initial ideological father of Zionism, realizes that there’s simply no way for world Jewry to get behind political Zionism if the terrain to which they aspired was something that had no connection to Jewish tradition. So ultimately before his death Herzl and the Zionist movement in general decided that they were going to aspire to biblical Israel in some form or another. Going back to the earlier piece, there’s still the question of where biblical Israel is. And from the Bible itself you come up with at least five possibilities that have different political corollaries.
So the Zionists did not draw a map and did not define biblical Israel until 1919 at the point of the Paris Peace Conference. At this point the Zionists drew a map that in the east went almost all they way to the Hijaz Railway [well into present-day Jordan], a railway that the Ottomans had built to bring pilgrims into the Saudi peninsula—it was supposed to take them to Mecca, but it never ended up going all the way to Mecca. So they aspired to that to the East, Be’er Sheva [now in Israeli territory] in the south, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and the Litani River [in today’s Lebanon] in the north. And they drew this map on the basis of biblical traditions [from one interpretation found in the Book of Joshua] and they submitted this to the British… And so this was the first map. Before this Jewish geographic traditions were really imaginations that facilitated Jewish ritual and Jewish life.
One thing you note in your writing is that various interpretations of the map of Israel have coexisted throughout history.
We tend to think that that people in antiquity knew who they were and where they belonged, but it was a very fluid model. And, in fact, it really seems that the beginnings of ancient Israel was a tribal confederation. And a tribal confederation had groups constantly coming in and moving out… So groups would enter into an alliance and their traditions would become incorporated—whether those were political traditions, cultural traditions, geographical contributions—and sometimes groups would leave… So it’s a constantly morphing idea, it’s not as if there’s this ancient Israel that remains stable throughout time. It was always changing. And so those changing instantiations of Israel are recorded ultimately in the Hebrew Bible in terms of these geographic traditions. People were coming in and out. It was not stable, it wasn’t something that was fixed[…].
Book of Joshua has been the most influential book in the Zionist movement and influenced it in some very militarized ways, so it’s a little ironic. But there also is a very potent geographic tradition in the Book of Joshua. In chapters twelve through twenty-one there are all these regional maps, or boundary lists, if you will. And they talk about the tribes of Israel ultimately settling and living, and they concede to the fact that Israel under Joshua did not expel everyone or exterminate them, but rather that they live alongside them.
And so, we see in these traditions in the Book of Joshua the coexistence of overlapping claims, the simultaneity of different identities and different peoples, and we also really get to a regional model. In chapter fifteen of the Book of Joshua there’s even a verse that says, “Until today the Tribe of Judah and the Jebusites live in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem is divided between them. So there, right in the Bible, is the idea of a shared Jerusalem, which really is much closer to the reality of contemporary Jerusalem and it has biblical precedent. So I would say to those who say, “Wait, Jerusalem must be Judaized. Palestinians must be run out of their neighborhoods,” and the ideas that this has to be done in the name of King David—I would tell them to look closer at the text and see how these traditions of coexistence have as much root in the bible as the military traditions that inspired the early [Zionist] movement and the wars, in many ways.