This essay is not really about politics; it’s about how politics reflects mythology.
When 15th-Century European explorers “discovered” (a phrase used until only a few years ago) the “new world,” the power of myth enveloped their images of its indigenous inhabitants. Christopher Columbus initially wavered between the “noble savage” projection (innocent, generous children) and its opposite (sub-human, treacherous savages). Quickly, the latter won out. “Indians” were shameless, naked fornicators and idolaters.
Perhaps more importantly, their notions of ownership condemned them in the eyes of the whites. They had no respect for or even any concept of private property. In maintaining the land collectively, they were the original red communists. “They are fit to be ruled,” wrote Columbus; they could be trained to be industrious slaves. When this prediction proved unrealistic, the Spaniards responded with genocide.
The Europeans were generating a new mythology (actually, not so new, as we’ll see). And this story was based on an idea about land: empty land. The land itself was full of potential. However, wrote John Locke, “…land that is left wholly to nature is…waste.” And as early as the 1570s, allegorical personifications of “America” as a female nude appeared in European art. “Virgin” land evokes fantasies of defloration. Sir Walter Raleigh was quite clear about that: Guiana “…hath yet her maydenhead.”
This is deliberately constructed mythic language. The indigenous people had, of course, worked the land for eons. They were farmers, not pony-riding Sioux warriors, as later stories would portray them. And the land was hardly empty. The pre-1492 population of the Western Hemisphere was over 100 million.
To justify what were essentially unprovoked military invasions, Europeans (they were not calling themselves “white” yet) needed to differentiate themselves from these people. The way to do this was to merge sexual and racial ideology.
Although observers noted that Native Americans had never known prostitution or venereal disease, the process of “othering” required that they be perceived as unable to control their bodily impulses. Intellectuals debated whether they even had souls. Some argued that they were children, to be protected and civilized, while others claimed they were “natural slaves” (Aristotle’s term), set apart by God to serve those born for more lofty pursuits.
This is an essential component of America’s creation myth. It sings of people who came seeking freedom from religious persecution, charged with a holy mission to destroy evil, save souls, carve civilization out of darkness – and get rich. R.W.B. Lewis wrote that this story saw “…a divinely granted second chance for the human race…emancipated from history…Adam before the Fall.”
Indeed, many were convinced that Christ would return in America and history would end. The millennium was at hand: “The Gospel hath crossed the western ocean.” The story was so moving because the entire adventure was imagined in Biblical images. Columbus called his voyages the “enterprise of Jerusalem.” A hundred and twenty-eight years later, the English Pilgrims saw themselves as Israelites, leaving Egypt/England for the “New Jerusalem.”
Unfortunately, however, to the extent that it bears any relationship to the archeological evidence, an unbiased reading of the Old Testament reveals that the Exodus story is intertwined with the original invasion – and genocide – of Palestine, which like now, had an indigenous population that the invaders were intent on replacing through holy warfare. What do you suppose happened to the population of Jericho once the “walls came tumbling down?” Joshua 5:20-21 lays it out clearly:
…at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.
Later, we recall, King David defeated the Philistines. It is more than a linguistic/historical oddity that the word for “Palestine” in Arabic is “Philistina.”
Three thousand years later, the English Puritans reasoned that since God had guided them in their crossing of the waters, they now had the sacred responsibility (or, from the native’s perspective, license) to seize and utilize the land.
From the start, our American stories of domination came packaged in the language of liberation. Everyone had a role to play: whites were the Chosen People, America was the Promised Land and Native Americans were the Philistines. This is the foundation of the Myth of American Innocence.
It is also the foundation for what I’m calling the Myth of Israeli Innocence. Ironically, the 19th Century Europeans who created the philosophy of Zionism were partially inspired by the American myth, which in turn had been inspired by the Hebrew story.
The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand’s book The Invention of the Jewish People argues in part that these European intellectuals essentially invented the story of ancestors who been expelled from their homeland centuries ago in order to create the emotional climate for Jewish nationalism.
Another Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, explains how the story of a people needing to return to their ancestral land coincided with the agendas of two powerful interest groups. The first was Protestant Evangelism, which advocated for “Christian Restorationism.”
The Christian world, in its own interest, adopted the idea of the Jews as a nation that must one day return to the holy land. This return, in their view, would be part of the divine scheme for the end of the world, along with the resurrection of the dead and the second coming of the Messiah…The theological upheavals of the Reformation beginning in the 16th century produced a clear association, particularly among Protestants, between the idea of the end of the millennium and the conversion of the Jews and their return to Palestine.
Zionism was therefore a Christian project of colonization before it became a Jewish one…A powerful theological and imperial movement emerged that would put the return of the Jews to Palestine at the heart of a strategic plan to take over Palestine and turn it into a Christian entity…
Christian restorationism is a perfect example of what Joseph Campbell called a “de-mythologized world” because it literalizes Biblical mythology, and secular persons find it comically fraudulent. But any observer of the absolutely bizarre relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and such contemporary right-wing televangelists as John Hagee, a man who is absolutely dedicated to the eventual conversion (or, failing that, the destruction) of all Jews prior to the Apocalypse, can see how influential this view remains.
The second interest group was British (and later, American) imperialism. In making the case that Jews were a nation belonging to Palestine, and therefore should be helped to return to it, Pappe notes,
They had to rely on British officials and, later, military power… (Lords) Shaftesbury, Finn, Balfour, and Lloyd George liked the idea because it helped Britain gain a foothold in Palestine. This became immaterial after the British took Palestine by force and then had to decide from a new starting point whether the land was Jewish or Palestinian—a question it could never properly answer, and therefore had to leave to others to resolve after 30 years of frustrating rule.
Now, our American responses to news of the latest Israeli crimes in Gaza or the West Bank are crafted by several factors:
1 – An American political establishment (both Republican and Democratic) and corporate media that have favored the Israelis in such a one-sided manner for over sixty years that we can only conclude that Israel has functioned during that time as a surrogate for American foreign policy.
2 – An immensely well-funded, fundamentalist-Protestant Christian establishment whose expectations of Armageddon and fulfillment of “prophecy” require this violence to hasten the coming of the “End Times.”
3 – Residual guilt, perhaps, for the Holocaust.
4 – Generations of unrelenting, racist demonization of Arabs.
As a result, most Americans over a certain age still tend to see Israel as the innocent victim of crazed, Muslim terrorists. But this essay is not really about politics. As always, I’m interested in the myths that we unconsciously enact.
All of the above factors rest upon and help sustain the most recent expression of the mythic framework I’ve been describing: “empty,” un-utilized land; victimized people in search of a homeland; a city on a hill; the highest of ideals; the best of intentions – and significantly – ferocious savages – Others – who attack the good, innocent people of Eden for no reason whatsoever.
We’ve seen this all before. It seems so familiar at the gut level because it is one of the foundation myths of Western culture, of America, and with curious circularity, of Israel.
Part Two of this essay is here.