This past week, two events have reminded me that the battle against those who would erase Israel and the Holocaust. Both occurrences are education/academic in nature and do not involve any direct physical threats or examples of violence. However, they do help support those who wish to inflict violence in the future.
The first example involves ancient Israel and by implication modern Israel. In biblical scholarship there has been a “war” between the maximalists and the minimalists. Without going into too much detail, the former involves relying on the Hebrew Bible as an historical resource while the latter does not. Christian evangelicals tend to belong to the former although it is not exclusively Christian. The religion of the members of the later varies and the adherents may not belong to a religious denomination. Traditionally the former wrote “Histories of Israel” which tended to follow the biblical narrative. The latter questioned whether any such histories could be written.
In the current issue of the academic journal Biblische Notizen (193, 2022), there are a series of articles on the topic of maximalists and minimalists and who won the war. One contributor, Athalya Brenner-Idan takes a different path in the series (M&M: Some Reflections, 65-69). Instead of joining the combat over whether some biblical event is historically true or not, she focuses her gaze on the people most adamant about not assigning any historical validity of the Hebrew Bible. In her introductory paragraph, she writes about the minimalist wave in biblical scholarship as “a decidedly male/masculine and European (or Eurocentric) project.”
It is a curious fact that most of the scholars who define themselves as minimalists, or who are defined by others as such, are male scholars: search as one may, few female scholars are identified (65-66).
She acknowledges that she is perplexed by this phenomenon and does not know how exactly to interpret it.
Further, the minimalist wave is basically West European (66).
Not only is it a male European movement, “it is basically a Christian-Protestant endeavor (66). I cannot vouch for the religion of the minimalists, but certainly it is reasonable to claim that it consists of people raised in a Christian Protestant heritage.
Brenner-Idan observes that extreme minimalism is a mirror image of maximalism. They can be just as dogmatic in asserting their minimal belief or imposing them on the biblical texts as maximalists are doing the reverse. The minimalists cannot recognize when the biblical text is more likely to be historically accurate even in the face of a contrary external source or no external source at all. She harkens back to the Babel/Bible controversy at the beginning of the 20th century in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany when the Hebrew Bible supposedly originated as a Babylon derivative.
She mentions a couple of examples where minimalist dogmatism was exposed as historically bogus (the Tel Dan Stela, the Mesha Stela, the Khirbet Qeiyafa excavations, the sifting project in Jerusalem). Think of Representative Jim Jordan tweeting “Another Lie. Anyone surprised?” about the pregnant ten-year old in Ohio. There is no truth (except by chance) to the Hebrew Bible therefore there can be no archaeological discovery which corroborates the Hebrew Bible therefore these aforementioned discoveries must be frauds, misinterpreted, or ignored as best is possible.
Terminology proves to be as important in this biblical culture war as it is in the American history culture wars. Brenner-Idan notes the transformation from the traditional “Ancient Israel” to the supposedly neutral designation of the land as “Palestine.” She comments that it was not until Roman times when “Palestina” became a major geographical designation as part of an attempt to “obliterate” the term “Israel,” in other words a two-millennia ago effort to cancel Israel.
Brenner-Idan does not point out that the word “Palestine” derives from the Philistines of Goliath and Delilah fame. The Philistines were neither Arabs nor Semites. As a geographic or administrative term for the land under Ottomans and British rule, one could be a Palestinian Jew, a Palestinian Christian, or a Palestinian Moslem. Similarly today one can be a New York Jew, a New York Christian, or a New York Moslem with no connection to the Duke of York or even being English. After 1948 the meaning of the term changed to become more racial/ethnic.
Brenner-Idan observes that the “exercise of uncovering an author’s intent has thankfully been largely abandoned in scholarship in recent times, at least by modern scholars” (68). She doesn’t state it but one result is that scholars do not necessarily acknowledge that they are anti-Semitic, anti-Zion, and would prefer that the modern country of Israel did not exist. However, the same message can be delivered through terminology. For example, she cites a book title “The History of Ancient Palestine” rather than “The History of Ancient Israels.” She calls this an act of colonialism by computer comparable to what Israeli settlers are doing in the West Bank.
For the record, beginning in the mid-15th century BCE when the age of Egyptian imperialism in the land began, Egypt referred to the land as “Canaan.” The land of Canaan is a term known to the biblical writers as well. The Philistines had not even arrived yet and never did control the entire land of Canaan. To call the land “Palestine” then is historically bogus. It is part of the effort to cancel the Israelite record in the past so as to undermine the Israeli country in the present. Israel today can legitimate itself through its biblical Israelite heritage since that claim is based on a historically inaccurate text. Call the land Palestine because that is to whom the land belongs. Words do matter.
Now consider the recent op-ed piece by Steve Hochstadt, emeritus professor of history, entitled “The Republicans’ Holocaust Problem” (originally published in Tikkun). He refers not to the Republican effort to cancel the Holocaust but to “trivialize” it. Considering how frequently Republicans are to bandy about the word “Nazi” except when referring to themselves, it is easy to see how the dilution of term distorts the horrifying evil of it. When being forced to wear masks for your own protection is equated with Nazi behavior clearly we are dealing with people who have a limited understanding of history.
Hochstadt contrasts the Republicans who embrace Nazis (without necessarily mentioning Hitler) with Republican condemnation for politicians and government employees they don’t like. He writes “Republicans are attempting to remake the Holocaust into a normal political event.” Doesn’t that sound like transforming the insurrection of January 6 into “legitimate political discourse”?
He comments that he has “seen my students become uncomfortable when confronted with the facts about Christian persecution of Jews and Nazi admiration for American Jim Crow legislation in the 1930s.” As we all know, it has become increasingly illegal in many states to each anything that is divisive or would make students uncomfortable. Hochstadt asks, “How does one teach the Holocaust or slavery without detailing the responsibility of particular human groups for the inhuman treatment of fellow humans of other groups based on racist ideologies?” The answer is simple: DON’T TEACH IT!
We have to be fair, don’t we? Hochstadt cites Texas House Bill 3979 which requires teachers to present multiple perspectives when discussing “widely debated and currently controversial” issues. He quotes Gina Peddy, the executive director of curriculum and instruction in the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake:
Just try to remember the concepts of 3979 … make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.
So if anti-Semitic Holocaust-deniers are parents of the students in the school system, then one must acknowledge their right to influence the curriculum.
Hochstadt recognizes the efforts of “Christian nationalist parties in Europe all seeking to diminish the Holocaust, especially the role played by Christians in their own nations.” Their argument is “The Holocaust is over, and Christian nationalists all over Western society have been calling for Jews to get over it.” He writes:
They are using the inevitable discomfort of students learning their predecessors committed genocide to try to sanitize the history they will learn.
So far, Holocaust teaching has suffered only collateral damage in the Republican war against American history according to Hochstadt. He ends with a warning:
Today teachers of American history are the targets of Republican censorship. Holocaust teachers, you’re next.
On July 21, one day before the publication Hochstadt’s op-ed, Jewish leaders in Pennsylvania called out the Republican gubernatorial candidate for his ties to an anti-Semitic organization.
On July 23, one day after the publication of Hochstadt’s op-ed, Marjorie Taylor Greene came out of the closet and proudly declared herself to be a Christian nationalist.
The battle continues.