13 Nov The Shoah and The Nakba
We are approaching a point in civil discourse where we begin the slide into madness. To feel and express anguish over the torment that Israel suffered (and still suffers) in the Hamas attack becomes instantly equated with denouncing Palestinians, and to mourn in grief for what Palestinians suffered (and still suffer) under Benjamin Netanyahu’s siege of Gaza is to be branded anti-Semitic. (Semitic, by the way, refers to both Hebrews and Muslims, so anti-Semitism is something they hideously endure together. As for Netanyahu, he got exactly what he wanted – war as the ultimate diversion of attention to his corruption scandal — and Hamas gave it to him. )
We Americans and Europeans throw a mantle of Western rationale over the Israelis as if they were a reflection of ourselves, but that’s not true – they also are a Middle Eastern people, as torrential in their hyperbolic excitability and potential for vengeance as their neighbors. We invent a fixed boundary between Hamas and the Gazan population, when in truth that’s has become a porous barrier, worn thin by bitterness over half a century and more. The poet William Butler Yates wrote “too long the sacrifice can make a stone of the heart,” so now, when a Palestinian refugee in Gaza looks at a militant, she sees not a terrorist but a freedom fighter, and not a stranger but her own grown daughter or son. This, in circumstances of such extremity that both sides tell truths by now marinated in lies.
Myself, I had to wait until my emotions cooled so that my brain could attempt to write this, because I have friends I love , feminists and peace activists on both sides of this nightmare–among Israelis, and among Palestinians–who live, well . . . lived, in Gaza.
All I can offer is a possible interpretation of the ancient origins of this toxic dispute, a theoretical reading, a tracing through the Biblical and Koranic smoke and haze of distortion, of what may have happened, long long before the Balfour Declaration in 1917 blithely bestowed the unholy land — bleak and stony desert that it is – to Ashkenazic Europeans as a “Jewish state”; this “gift “was already populated by Palestinians, themselves the descendants, over many centuries, of Phoenicians. The gift would only intensify as a Zionist plea and demand after World War II, when the Nazis made their plans for the Jewish people horrifically clear.
But back to the beginning. The problem was born, naturally, with the first patriarch, variously described as Abraham/Abram/Avram. Abraham’s father Terah was, the myth tells us, a descendent of Noah, who lived in Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia, near modern day Iraq. Terah was likely a moon-worshipper, as were his ancestors, since his name is etymologically related to the Hebrew root word for moon. A number of sources cite him as “worshiping other gods” –other and different, that is, from the emerging forms of Yahweh, the male, stern, vengeful god who would become the deity of the Heberu/Hebrew tribes. In the Book of Joshua, its eponymous hero recounts the history of the Israelite nation, beginning with “Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, [who] lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.” [Italics mine.] According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Terah was an idolater who worshiped the Moon goddess Nanna. So the father of the father of all patriarchs was himself a goddess worshiper! This seems to have been around the time of the reign of the Sumerian King Sargon the Great (c2300 BCE) and the Akkadian Empire.
It’s fair to assume that Mesopotamia, including Abraham’s birthplace, Ur of the Chaldees, was largely comprised of goddess-worshiping cultures, among them the cults of Ishtar/Astarte/ Inanna. [See my post of 19 December, 2022, on Enheduenna, the world’s first writer, a high priestess, and Sargon’s daughter.] Abraham was born in Ur, although the exact site is, of course, much contested.
Yaweh, according to ancient texts, commanded Terah to take his family and go to the land of Canaan (parts of present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel/ Palestine), a region in transition politically and religiously both then and now, and settle there. Abraham was supposedly 75 at this time, and about to become the First Patriarch, founder of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Following his god’s command, Abraham took his wife Sarai–who was also his half-sister–his nephew Lot, and the wealth and slaves that they had acquired, and traveled to Shechem in Canaan.
But there was a severe famine in Canaan, so their households travelled on further south to Egypt. On the journey, Abraham instructed Sarai to identify herself only as his sister, fearing that the Egyptians would kill him in order to take his wife. because she was very beautiful. When brought before Pharaoh, Sarai said that Abraham was her brother, and the king thereupon took her into his palace and bestowed upon Abraham many presents and marks of distinction, including the hand of his own daughter, the Princess Agar — variously written as Ajar/Adjar/Ajjar/Hagar. However, when Pharaoh’s household was afflicted with great plague, Pharaoh realized that Sarai was Abraham’s wife and demanded that they leave Egypt immediately.
There are numerous accounts of the deep friendship that had begun and now would develop between Sarai, Abraham’s wife, and the princess, also considered to be the wife of Abraham, equal to Sarai. But these accounts have lost rather a lot in androcentric translation, since Princess Ajar/Agar is variously depicted as a concubine, a bondswoman, or as Sarai’s slave. Only in Savina, J. Tubal’s well-researched, scholarly book, Hagar, the Egyptian: The Lost Tradition of the Matriarchs, have I read a thorough account of this friendship, which seems to have lasted decades. In fact, the bond between the two women endured so long and solidly that Sarai, having returned to and lived in Canaan for ten years but still being childless, suggested that Abraham have a child with her Egyptian friend Ajar, and even quarreled with him when he was reluctant. He finally agreed.
At this point, the story diverges, with the misogynistic and androcentric emphasis taking precedence: competitive tensions over Abraham’s affections supposedly arose between Sarai and Ajar, and Sarai complained to her husband that the “handmaid” no longer respected her. At one point, the Egyptian fled, but returned after angels consoled her. Ajar gave birth to Abraham’s son Ishmael when Abraham was eighty-six years old.
Some believe Sarai was originally destined to reach the age of 175 years, but 48 years of this span of life were taken from her because she complained of Abraham, blaming him as though he was the cause that Ajar/Hagar no longer respected her. Then a miracle was granted to her after her name was changed from “Sarai” to “Sarah” and according to one myth, a year later, her fertility was restored and Sarai gave birth to Abraham’s son Isaac.
Trouble begins with the birth of Isaac. Again, the legends bifurcate, with the Koranic versions depicting Ishmael as a sweet and wise child, while the Biblical Pentateuch in effect depicts him as wild and contentious. The younger Isaac was Abraham’s favorite, possibly because his was such an unexpectedly miraculous late birth that Sarai/Sarah famously laughed while bearing him. (A interesting aside: an alternate legend connects Sarah’s death with Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, which actually took place in this other version:, Samael came to Sarah and said: “Your old husband seized the boy and sacrificed him. The boy wailed and wept; but he could not escape from his father.” Sarah began to weep, and ultimately died of her grief in this far-more-normal version. All was not well, it appears, between the first patriarch and the first matriarch.)
Meanwhile, Ishmael and Isaac grew and played together and loved each other as brothers. But gradually, tradition and inheritance–in short, patriarchy–came between them. Finally, it infected the two women, their mothers, and Sarah (according to the received version) complained to Abraham that Isaac was his truest son, and should inherit everything. Furthermore, she said that Ishmael and his mother should be sent into exile. Abraham consulted his god Yaweh, who agreed–but only after promising Abraham that Ishmael would eventually father a great nation.
And so it was that with only some bread and water, the princess of Egypt and her son by Abraham the patriarch were sent “into the wilderness.” There they wandered, mourned their losses, and almost died of thirst, until an angel appeared to them, sent, apparently, by the same ambivalent Yaweh who had counseled Abraham to exile them in the first place. This time the angel found them water in the desert, and eventually brought their wanderings to rest at the place where Ishmael would eventually establish the world’s center of Islam: a place called Mecca.
Isaac, on the other hand, also fulfilled the prophecies by fathering via his “seed” Jacob and Esau, and Jacob by in turn fathering the tribes of Israel, with first Leah and then Rachel.
Islam follows the other trajectory, of course, honoring Ishmael as an ancestor of Mohammed and revering Hajjar as a great (and the first) matriarch of Islam. The two half brothers, sons of two women who lived together and loved each other for most of their lives, built themselves into desperate nations of competition and enmity over land, over which son would inherit that land, on which prophesied “great nations shall grow.”
Some accounts say that Sara had been a priestess before the move to Canaan, and numerous accounts claim that status for the princess Adjar of Egypt. What a deep pity, what a great sorrow, that Abraham, converting from his father’s pacific moon-goddess-worshipping religion instead to a new wrathful faith system, heeded neither woman.
So the two peoples, over millennia, were brought to disaster.
Sarah and Isaac’s people would be forced to endure The Shoah–the Hebrew word for catastrophe: The Holocaust, the attempted and almost successful genocide of six million European Jews.
Hagar and Ishmael’s people would be forced to bear The Nakba–the Displacement, exile and wandering, also catastrophic, commemorating the 1948 establishment of Israel and permanent exile of the majority of Palestinians, 700,000, from their homeland.
And where, you ask, do intellectual suppositions about ancient studies fit today’s headlines? How do they address the needs of a child gone wide-eyed so far now into violence-inflicted trauma that an entire lifetime will still be too brief for her to ever emerge?
But words are all I have.
This poem is from my newest collection, Harvesting Darkness, published by Spinifex Press.
After my time who knows what hells await.
Dystopias abound, and clocks run late
to spend those talents I so long misused
or squandered, assuming they’d crawl back, abused
but loyal, a cozy lap of purring poems
that, tame no more, scuffle along these ruins
trailing stink of wet fur, rumble of growls,
blood spots on the floor. Something prowls
wild, out of sight, but I can hear it hiss:
Too many words to bear, too many lists.
A child lies starving, staring at you. She knows:
Too much poetry. Need needs prose.
Failed as a savior, misnamed as a poet,
I am a killing field. How can I still not know it?