Lima, 1987. I was travelling in Peru. In a monastery, close to the Plaza de Armas, we were shown a family tree, painted in fresco on the monastery walls. It traced the ancestry of the monastery’s Abbotts all the way back to St. Paul, ‘the rock’ on which the church (all churches) was built. The inheritance was clear and tossed out almost casually by the monk-guide. But for me, the opportunity was just too good to miss – the goal wide open. I asked, “how can you have a family tree among a group of celibates?”. The tour party moved on, unmoved. My question hung in the air like a broken lantern. Late that day, a block away, I was offered a pair of cowboy boots made from the fine and delicate leather of an aborted calf.
Karl Sabbagh (2018) A Modest Proposal: To solve the Palestine-Israel conflict, Oxford: Skyscraper Pubs.
It was a trick of the highest wit and insight when Jews declared that Jewish-ness was passed on by the mother (the definition of a Jew is someone whose mother was Jewish). This instantly allowed claims of (a) racial purity, and (b) direct lineage to Abraham. And this allows Israel to claim the ‘right of return’ – that Jews today are the living descendants of Abraham (well, his wife/niece, Sarah, actually) and have the right to reclaim their territorial inheritance – the land they won in battle from Canaanites, Philistines and others.
The insight came thousands of years before we understood Mitochondrial DNA – that part of our genetic inheritance, which can come only from the mother (a man can do a DNA trace for both father’s and mother’s ancestry: a woman can only trace her maternal ancestry). So there should be an unbroken genetic line coursing through Jewish women of all generations – assuming no interruption through infidelity, sexual violation, enforced conversion, forgetfulness and so on.
That assumption is more flaky than somewhat. As I’ve referred to in other Blogs, DNA archaeology shows that among the non-feathered bipeds (us) there is no such thing as racial purity – not even racial identity. Go two or three generations back and the gene pool is already so mixed up that we are – all of us – related to the Queen of Sheba [No, Queen Bey – that is not affirmation of your royal specialness – it’s the opposite!] – see Adam Rutherford’s book: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived. Jewishness is, however, a legitimate ethnicity: “the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition” (Dict. Def.). But a race? Not so much.
This applies in the same way to Muslims. Not alone among revisionist historians Shlomo Sand shows (in The Invention of the Jewish People) there was so much conversion and counter-conversion between Jews and Muslims that that particular gene pool is as mixed up and integrated as Cezanne’s palette of paints. Look at the phenotypes: my cousin, Jonny (London jazz musician and Jew) could be twin to my good, Syrian friend Khaled (Muslim and IT specialist). In fact, Muslims lay claim to many of the same prophets and historical figures as do the Jews – enough to make it puzzling why Jews and Muslims don’t join together in global celebration of mutual heritage. But we don’t. Well, Khaled and I do.
But we were mixed up from the very starting gun. Abraham, it is said, had two ‘wives’, Hagar and Sarah (the status of both, actually, disputed). In the story, Hagar bore Ishmael, and then Sarah bore Isaac. Sarah adopted her husband’s newfound religion, Hagar did not. Ishmael fought with Isaac. Abraham, instructed by ‘god’, banished Hagar and Ishmael into the desert where ‘god’ consoled Hagar promising that from Ishmael S/He will build “a great nation”. Out of his progeny came, goes the narrative, the great Muhammad. So, first off, Jews and Muslims are buds and branches on the same ‘family tree’. Ishmael was disinherited, while descendants of Isaac declared themselves ‘the chosen people’ – not an announcement designed to soothe family wounds.
Well, eventually came Jacob who supposedly federated the 12 (later, 13) ‘tribes of Israel’, which were later to be fully united under King Solomon – tribes of Reuben, Naphtali, Zebulon, Asher and the rest. Meanwhile – well, somewhat later – on the other side of the (gene) pond Muhammad lived, had an influence as great as Moses and Jesus and then died leaving an uncertain inheritance. Out of this uncertainty came the division between the Sunni Muslims (Muhammad left no inheritance) and Shi’a Muslims (who claim direct inheritance).
It is a puzzling turn of history that inheritance issues among Muslims lead to murderous internal competition and conflict, while no such contestation happens in the Jewish tradition. The inheritance tussle that began the day after Muhammad’s death persists to this day, virtually intact. And yet you will search in vain for a Jew (apart from the Cohens and Levis – priests and their assistants) who will claim to be a descendant of a particular one of the tribes of Israel. Much less will you find Jews who contest their inheritance from the many and varied patriarchs. There are divisions among Jews, but these are over liturgical interpretation – and Jews, by and large, don’t kill each other to emphasise their point of view.
This does not make us Jews any the less murderous and aggressive in laying claim to what some think is theirs – many Jews, in the name of the State of Israel (falsely, since Israel is NOT constitutionally a Jewish state) inflict murderous intent upon Palestinians and others who get in the way of their ‘inheritance’ of Palestine. Thomas Suarez, in his book State of Terror: How Terrorism Created Modern Israel, documents in pitiless and relentless detail the terror raids and ethnic cleansing that attended the creation of Israel in 1948, committed and justified so as to ‘reclaim’ a lost heritage. As this Blog is being written, an Israeli court has ordered the demolition of a Palestinian village, Khan al-Ahmar, to make way for Jewish settlements.
The disinheriting of Ishmael continues apace. Inheritance kills.
The devil in all this historic mess is the very notion of inheritance, the belief that accomplishments and frustrations of earlier generations become the rights and concerns of this generation; that we can find identity and meaning in those accomplishments and frustrations, rather than (re)discover our own in this generation.
But inheritance and merit are in direct opposition. That you have a (probably contested) right to the success of predecessors inevitably means that you have not earned that which you seek. You are a freeloader on history. A sponger on the past.
But, still, inheritance works, more or less, at the family level, though there is some dispute as to how far back through the generations it is reasonable to go. A family which made its own fortune and wishes to pass it on to its children is generally accepted as having the right to do this – though that is contested where inheritance consolidates economic inequalities, as it most often does. In that case, inheritance is limited by taxes. Just as doggedly fought for, but a lot more tenuous, is the claim that because your great-great-great-etc. grandfather killed enough people, pillaged enough land and booty and twisted the arm of an enfeebled king, so you are due the inheritance of a peerage and a seat in our great deliberative chambers. Really? Marital fidelity is hardly a defining characteristic of our aristocracy, for starters.
It is when elevated to the level of nation states, peoples and generations that inheritance enters into a struggle to find legitimacy and becomes life threatening. This is partly because the claims are so much more contestable – but, on the other hand, resources available to the claimant (the inheritor) are often so much greater – and militarised. Inheritance becomes enmeshed in power politics. In our case here, neither the Jewish claim to genetic inheritance can be sustained (just whose mixed-up DNA is claiming the Israel inheritance?), nor the Muslim claim to speak for Muhammad – even if what people say he said 1,386 years ago were true – the world has moved on somewhat in the intervening period. The deceit in the notion of a family tree (celibates and others) is the impression it gives that today’s branches are still nourished by yesteryear’s roots. They are not. Rights dissolve in history and gene pools.
The claim to historical, inherited rights should not be mistaken for anything other than an ornament on a family tree. Israel’s right to statehood is based on just the same right as almost all other states in the world, including Britain and the USA: the right of conquest. Israel and Muslim nations should seek their legitimacy in the acts and dispositions of today, measured against today’s moral standards. Branches on the family tree have modern roots, embedded in the here-and-now. The case for a one-State solution to the Israel/Palestine issue is compelling – other than for the obvious dangers of an apartheid state. Democracy is a greater binding force than inheritance claims.