God said to Abraham: ‘Give me a son’.
Abe said ‘man, you must be putting me on.’
God said ‘no’, Abe said ‘what?’
God said ‘You can do what you want, Abe, but the next time you see me coming you better run.’ (Bob Dylan Highway 61)
The big daddy of both Judaism and Islam is Abraham and the first part of his name means ‘father'(Hebrew is like that; never loses an opportunity to reinforce the faith). Abraham is supposed to have lived around 17-1900 B.C and he was the man God turned to when it came to finding a Chosen People.
The deal went like this: God promised to bless Abraham’s seed henceforth so he’d be the father of a people, he’d give them a promised land in half a millennia’s time and in return he wanted a few favours, you know, like killing his son. An angel stopped his hand but he was prepared to kill poor old Isaac ‘for you know that I am holy and must do as I am told’, as Leonard Cohen sang.
Another incidental price was that Abraham had to circumcise himself. Say what you want but that requires faith, especially when they only had sharp rocks to use as scalpels. Then, Abraham, being the generous soul the Torah paints him to be, turned to his slaves and said they could also join his Chosen People as long as they also lopped off their foreskins. Oh, to be one of Abraham’s slaves.
Incidentally, whilst the Jews trace their line through Isaac, Muhammad is supposed to have descended from the bloodline of Abraham’s other son, Ishmael. Add to the equation that Hebrew and Arabic are sister languages and you begin to see some of the complications that arise in the whole Israeli-Arab conflicts.
Isaac begat Jacob (When was the last time you heard of anyone being begotten? Did people pick up babes with ‘so, do you beget here often?’) who begat Joseph and his 11 mean brothers. Each of those begat their own tribe, 10 of which got lost in later troubles and now everyone from the Indians to the Kashmiris to the Welsh claim to be Jewish once in a while, just for fun.
Exodus – Movement of Jah People
The family clan moved on down to Egypt where they found favour with the Pharoahs, offering useful advice on begetting and adult circumcision. They eventually begot in trouble though and fell from grace, ending up as slaves of the Egyptians, along with a multitude of other ethnic groups that were swirling around Egypt at the time. In the whirlpool of race, religions and horny slave masters it became a bit confusing to know who was really an Israelite/Hebrew and who not, but modern day Jews are generally content that Moses found the right bunch to lead out of slavery.
Moses, was also born Jewish, according to the scriptures, though there’s some speculation that his pronounced stutter was actually because he didn’t speak any Hebrew. Either way he had a translator to help him get his message across and he was the intermediary between the Hebrews and the Pharoah. (“Let my people go!”)
After ten plagues of locusts, blood and death of every first born, Pharoah let Moses lead his people out of captivity and into the wandering in the deserts of Sinai for forty years. Moses walked up the mountain, came down with the new contract on stone tablets and then his followers heaved an enormous ‘Oi Vei!’ when they realised Moses hadn’t read the small print. Yup, they were still the Chosen People but it wasn’t too clear just what they had been chosen for.
In the meantime, God had also been busy with his lawyers and here wrote in all the 613 commandments that Jews are supposed to follow. The Christians couldn’t count higher than their fingers and so cut it down to 10.
Moses led the Hebrews through the desert until everyone from Egypt had died and a new, untainted generation was born, one that didn’t know that starving in the desert was any worse than slavery. Then, just as Moses came into view of his Promised Land that God had promised Abraham, he drops dead. Vengeful, jealous, sadistic – you can’t say God wasn’t ironic.
Moses is historical, at least, which is more than can be said from Abraham. The Exodus happened around 12-1400 BC and a series of war lords and kings created the first state of Israel, occasionally dividing it with the kingdom of Judah, as empires came and went. There was King Saul, David and then his son, Solomon, a pithy ruler with 1000 women in court, a man who spoke to the animals and then wrote books of erotic poetry.
He also connudled with the Queen of Sheba and here you have the birth of Rastafarianism as their alleged son, Menalik, started a line that ran on down to Haille Selassie, the 111th link in the chain. You can imagine Menalik sitting around, smoking a spliff and listening to Solomon’s tales of the Torah and making his own notes for future generations in Jamaica. (‘Yah man, dat Exodus – movement of jah people! Scuse me while I light my spliff’)
The First Jewish State of Israel
The problem with having a Chosen Land in the most prime real estate in the Mediterranean is that every empire worth its salt was likely to pass through and claim it for their own. First came the Assyrians, tribes from Syria/Iraq/Turkey and they sent 10 of the Israelite tribes out of there, to be forever lost in history – unless you wonder where the hook noses of the Kashmiris come from.
Next came the Babylonians and they decided to take the Jews home with them. In 586BC they invaded, destroyed the temple and deported the locals to Babylon – modern day Iraq. It took another invasion, this time of the Persians and Cyrus the Great a couple of centuries later, to allow the return of the Jews and the rebuilding of the temple. At this point all the scriptures were reassessed, rewritten in a new script and otherwise remade. Any writer can tell you the benefits of a second draft, after all.
Then came Alexander the Great who brought such fancies as Greek Gods, nude wrestling and male gymnastics, all cultural forces designed to weaken the foundations of the Jewish faith, and all pagan influences that would later make the bulk of early Christianity. The Jews didn’t take this lying down, of course and rebelled and managed to claim independence in some areas before the Romans came steaming in around half a century BC.
The Romans and the Diaspora
The Jews were getting really quite tired of being stomped all the time and began to speculate if this might not be a good moment for their messiah to turn up and break some heads. In an era of riots, whispered rebellion (‘No! We’re the People’s Front of Judea!’) and insurgence, stepped J.C himself. (‘I come not to bring peace but a sword’).
When his rebellion ended up vertical on a cross, the discontent continued and the rebellion to mark the end of Jews in Israel was in 70 AD. It went well for a while but no one could take on the Romans in the long run. After three years they massacred the Jews, deported many of the rest and turned the others into slaves.
This marked the beginning of the Diaspora, a forced mass immigration that hit 5th gear with the last rebellion of 130 AD when the Romans decided these Jews were nothing but trouble and sent them on their way.
There followed 1900 years of spreading throughout the world, assimilating themselves into other countries and doing their damnedest to hold themselves together as a people. Something they achieved against all the odds, though enough non-Jewish blood was brought into the race that today in Israel you can see more ethnic varieties than you can shake a stick at.
Perhaps as a consequence of this deep sense of Jewish nationhood, they were met with persecution and strife wherever they went, at least, whenever the shit hit the fan. After all, if you couldn’t blame the plague on the gypsies because you’d killed them all, the Catholics because you’d burnt them all, then you might as well choose your local Jewish merchant as a scapegoat, particularly if you owe him money.
Zionism and Israel
In the mid 19th century a guy called Herzl got the Zionist bug and began to canvass support for a growing tendency to migrate back towards Israel. In essence it was a secular movement, stirred by the rise of nationalism across Europe and the Jews didn’t want to feel left out. Or maybe they were just sick of being massacred all the time.
The early settlers generally spoke German or Yiddish and it was only with a good deal of reluctance that they agreed to learn Hebrew, a dead language used only in prayers and revived by Ben Yahuda and other academics. Think of how many new things had been invented in the space of 1800 years that they had to find words for…
Then, of course, came the Holocaust, and the rest is history. The collective guilt of the world for the Nazi crimes pushed the Jewish issue into the spotlight and, Uganda having been turned down, the UN voted to give the Jews Palestine, despite the fact that the Palestinians were already living there.
Some religious sects were quite against the idea of the Israeli state as the Messiah was supposed to come first. Many of the black suited religious in Israel today refuse to serve in the army on this basis. They’re quite happy to get government checks to carry on studying the Torah though.