A history of Israel and Palestine, Part 1

A Liberal Dose


A history of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, with sufficient context to give you a good idea of the full picture… I don’t even know where to begin.

The other day I saw a quote from a politician who was angry that people were calling Israelis “occupiers” of Palestine. They aren’t occupiers, this person said, they OWN it, because it was promised to them in the Bible (the “Promised Land,” literally). Well, even that is not as simple as it seems. So, I guess the place to start is (at least near) the beginning - between 4,000-5,000 years ago. (I really wish I could include a lot of maps in this! You can find them fairly easily online, though, if you look.)

No, wait, let’s start a couple of thousand years before even THAT… with the ancient people of Sumer. The Sumerians were the first known civilization in the world, and were located in Mesopotamia - specifically, what is now southern Iraq. One of their cities was named Ur (or Uruk) -which should be familiar to you Sunday School scholars out there, for reasons we’ll get to. Ur was one of the cities where writing first developed, around 3000 BCE. The civilization itself had started forming as early as 5500 BCE. A massive ziggurat was built in Ur around 4000 BCE, and a white temple erected atop that by 3500 BCE; it is likely that, a thousand years later, the Egyptians based their pyramids on such Sumerian ziggurats.

By 3000 BCE, the Sumerians had neighbors, who had possibly migrated northward from the Arabian peninsula: the Semitic people. “Semitic” refers to a language group. The word itself was invented in the late 1700s by European scholars, to describe these groups of people who spoke similar languages and thus must have had the same origins. Those scholars used the biblical name Shem (one of the sons of Noah), as in descendants of that branch of humanity as they understood it at the time.

Some Semitic people lived in cities, while many were nomads. They traveled on donkeys and herded sheep, trading with the city-dwelling Semites. One of those cities was called Akkad. ALL cities in Mesopotamia were, more accurately, city-states, each with its own king. Until the arrival of Sargon the Great, king of Akkad, around 2300 BCE. Sargon conquered several nearby Semitic cities and used his growing army to conquer all the Sumerian cities… building what was probably the first true empire in the world. Those Sumerian cities -including Ur - became Semitic cities. Eventually, the Akkadian language dominated most of Mesopotamia, while a different Semitic language group occupied The Levant, which is northeast of the Arabian Peninsula. The Levant includes modern Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

The Semitic cities of the ancient Levant became well known for their purple dye, which was prized by all their neighbors for many centuries and was made from mollusks indigenous to that part of the Mediterranean coast. In fact, the ancient Greeks called those Semites Purple People… or Phoenicians. Akkadians also called them Purple People, but in their own Semitic language:  ka-na-na-um. People of Canaan. Canaanite would branch off into several Central Semitic languages, including Phoenician, Arabic, and Hebrew. Historians refer to the Bronze Age people as Canaanites, then call them Phoenicians in the Iron Age, starting around 1200 BCE.

Most historians and Bible scholars believe the Hebrews were one of several Canaanite groups living in the Levant in the third millennium BCE. Not only the language, but much of the culture, of the ancient Hebrews was very similar to their neighbors. They were certainly all Semitic. According to the traditions of several different religions originating in the area, it was a Semitic man living in the (formerly Sumerian, by then Akkadian) city of Ur around 2000 BCE who took his family and flocks west to the land of Canaan. His name was Abram, or Abraham, and he had two sons (with different mothers): Isaac and Ishmael. Those sons (again, according to tradition) would become the ancestors, respectively, of the Jewish and Arabic people. Whether one chooses (as I’m sure many readers do) to regard those names as historical, or if one chooses to view them as symbolic, the conclusion is the same: Jews and Arabs have the same ancestors.

So, what happened?

Only 4,000 more years of history to cover! Stay tuned!

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    


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