Charlton Heston starring as Moses in "The Ten Commandements", 1956 film by Cecil B. DeMille.

The rationale for formally designating Israel a Jewish state – as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now demands [1] – rests on three religious-political pillars: God’s purported covenant with Moses instructing the ancient Israelites to conquer the land, the injustice of the Roman-era Diaspora that supposedly removed them centuries later, and the brutal persecution of European Jews in the Holocaust.

Yet, the first two of these pillars appear to be based on almost no historical reality, the stuff of legend and possibly even lies that crumble under any serious scrutiny.

Normally, such ancient stories might be regarded as harmless tales that some people treasure as part of their Judeo-Christian faiths, except that Netanyahu’s new demand means that these myths now threaten peace in the Middle East and conceivably could push the modern world into more bloody warfare. Therefore, they must be given fresh examination.

Ironically, it was the Nazis’ drive to exterminate European Jews during World War II that is the one pillar founded on historical reality, although some extreme enemies of Israel insist on making Holocaust denial a central feature of their attacks.

Also, some adversaries, like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have argued that it is unfair to make the Palestinians pay for a crime against humanity committed by the Germans. [2]

Yet, the Holocaust is not in historical dispute. That horrible reality – an industrial-style extermination campaign that also targeted Gypsies, homosexuals and Communists – was proven after the World War II from a multitude of Nazi records, photographs and eyewitness accounts.

It is the tales of Moses from the Torah (or the first five books of the Old Testament) and the legend of the Roman Diaspora that lack serious historical underpinnings.

The Diaspora myth has been addressed in a new book by Israeli historian Shlomo Sand [3], When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? [4]
It debunks the notion that Rome removed the Jewish people en masse from the Holy Land in the First and Second Centuries A.D. and scattered them across Europe.

Instead, most East European Jews appear to be descendents of converts, principally from the Kingdom of the Khazars in eastern Russia, who embraced Judaism in the Eighth Century, A.D. The descendants of the Khazars then were driven from their native lands by invasions and – through migration – created the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe.

Thus, Sand argues, many of today’s Israelis who emigrated from Europe after World War II have little or no genealogical connection to the land. According to Sand, a bitter irony of Israel’s founding may be that it displaced Palestinians who could be the actual descendants of the ancient Israelites, who stayed on the land and eventually converted to Islam.

Other descendants of those ancient Israelites maintained Judaism as a strong presence in the Middle East, both in Palestine and in successful communities from Egypt to Iraq and Iran. These Jews faced few religious pressures until after Israel was founded in 1948, when this new European intrusion into Islamic lands was viewed in the context of the Crusades a millennium ago.

The Moses Myth

Yet, while questioning the Diaspora myth is a sensitive topic for many Israelis and their supporters around the world, it is even touchier to challenge the Biblical claim that God, through Moses, struck a covenant with the Israelites to conquer the land and possess it for all time.

Because the Torah is sacred to Jews – and to many Christians as the revealed word of God in the Old Testament – it has been dangerous to examine the factual history behind these texts in an objective manner.

For centuries, the Catholic Church and some Protestant faiths persecuted anyone who questioned Moses’s supposed authorship of the chapters even though their internal contradictions and the description of Moses’s death at the end of Deuteronomy made that long-held belief untenable.

As Richard Elliott Friedman recounts in his 1987 book, Who Wrote the Bible?, “Religious opposition to the new investigation (into the traditional belief about Moses’s authorship) persisted during the 19th Century” and didn’t collapse until 1943 when Pope Pius XII “encouraged scholars to pursue knowledge about the biblical writers.”

Modern Biblical scholars now agree that Moses was not the author of the Torah, that the stories were passed down orally from the 14th Century B.C. and were put into writing centuries later. But the legendary figure of Moses has remained almost beyond criticism, not only for many Jews but for people of the Christian and Islamic faiths. (He is treated as a holy messenger in the Koran.)

Many Americans think of Moses as the angry but righteous leader as portrayed by Charlton Heston in the 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments”, or they think of their feel-good Bible studies as children. Yet, many archaeologists believe that the Moses stories were largely made up.

“This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel,” summed up Professor Ze’ev Herzog, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University.

“The many Egyptian documents that we have make no mention of the Israelites’ presence in Egypt and are also silent about the events of the Exodus.”

However, other scholars believe that some did emigrate to Egypt, suffered in servitude there, and may have been led back to Canaan by Moses or a Moses-like leader.

Nevertheless, because of the powerful influence of the Torah (and the Old Testament), the biblical Moses carries extraordinary religious and historical weight, inspiring Israeli settlers to claim Palestinian lands as rightfully theirs and rallying fundamentalist Christians across the American heartland to embrace whatever actions the Israelis take.

A Tyrannical Leader

But who was Moses?

According to biblical lore, Moses was a Hebrew child raised in the royal Egyptian court before breaking with his protectors and remaking himself into a leader of Hebrew slaves. He guided them out of Egypt and transformed them, as they wandered for decades in the Sinai desert, into an Israelite nation, giving them specific laws and detailed rules of behavior.

During that time, Moses announced a covenant with God that granted the Israelites permanent dominion over the lands across the Jordan River, and he instructed them to destroy other peoples inhabiting those territories. Moses, however, never returned to the Promised Land, dying near the Jordan, before the conquest began.

Though Moses is regarded by many as a great law giver (the Ten Commandants) and as a major force in the formation of monotheism (the belief in one God), the text of the Torah present him as a cruel and tyrannical leader.

From a modern perspective, Moses might be viewed as a “dictator who killed his own people” when they disobeyed him and an advocate of genocide against outsiders. His claims that he spoke with the Lord sound more like a megalomaniac who believed he could scare a primitive people into following his orders by claiming they were edicts from God.

Indeed, over the centuries, many tyrants have used religion (especially monotheism) to justify repression and to eliminate enemies and rivals. The religious wars in Europe during the Middle Ages are a classic example of how kings and popes wrapped their personal power in the bloody cloak of religion, torturing and burning alive “heretics” who wouldn’t submit.

The biblical Moses appears to have been such a tyrant, though the Sunday school version often played down this extreme side of his personality.

In Exodus, for instance, there is the famous story of the Israelites, creating a visible idol of their God in the form of a golden calf while Moses is absent on Mount Sinai. When Moses returns with stone tablets conveying laws of behavior, he is furious and smashes the tablets.

According to the Torah, Moses then grinds up the golden calf, mixes it with water and makes the Israelites drink it. Then, Moses recruits what we would today call a “death squad.”

The Torah reads: “Moses stood at the gate of the camp and said, ‘Whoever is for the Lord, to me!’ And the Levites gathered round him. And he said to them, ‘Thus said the Lord God of Israel, “Put every man his sword on his thigh, and cross over and back from gate to gate in the camp, and each man kill his brother and each man his fellow and each man his kin”’ And the Levites did according to the word of Moses, and about three thousand men of the people fell on that day.”

In other words, Moses ordered a massacre of Israelites whom he regarded as his enemies, people who had challenged his authority in the form of dancing around the golden calf.

Robert Alter in his 2004 book, The Five Books of Moses, comments on Moses’s instruction: “each man kill his brother,” etc.

“This chilling command enjoins the sword-wielding Levites to show no mercy to friend or kin,” Alter wrote. “The figure of three thousand dead in the next verse indicates that this is not an indiscriminate massacre but an assault on the ringleaders – or perhaps, those guilty of the most egregious excesses – among the orgiasts.”

Higher Authority

It also seemed that whenever Moses was setting some rule, whether as grand as the Ten Commandants or as minor as personal hygiene, he always invoked the Almighty.

In Leviticus, for instance, God supposedly takes a direct interest in dictating how women should be treated after childbirth, with one set of rules for giving birth to sons and another for daughters.

According to this account, the Lord tell Moses, “Speak to the Israelites, saying ‘Should a woman quicken with seed and bear a male, she shall be unclean seven days, as in the days of her menstrual unwellness she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And thirty days and three she shall stay in her blood purity. She shall touch no consecrated thing nor shall she come into the sanctuary till the days of her purity are completed.

“And if she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation, and sixty days and six she shall stay over her blood purity. And when the days of her purity are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a yearling lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a turtledove for an offense offering to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest. And he shall bring it forward before the Lord and atone for her, and she shall be clean from the flowing of her blood.”

If you think that’s a lot of unnecessary detail, you should read the Lord’s instructions via Moses for how to assess whether a boil is leprosy or not.

In Deuteronomy, Moses explains to the Israelites about their right to reclaim the land of their forefathers, again speaking for God:

“And the Lord your God shall bring you to the land that your fathers took hold of, and you shall take hold of it, and He shall do well with you and make you more multitudinous than your fathers.”

Moses also makes clear that God expected the conquest to include massacres and genocide. Again speaking for the Lord, Moses said:

“I will bring back vengeance on My foes and My enemies I will requite. I will make My shafts drunk with blood, and My sword will eat up flesh from the blood of the fallen and captive, from the flesh of the long-haired foe.”

In his final blessing to the Israelites, Moses makes the genocide message even more explicit, painfully so. He called on them to “smash the loins of [the Lord’s] foes, that His enemies rise no more. … Your enemies cower before you and you on their backs will tread.”

So, more than 3,000 years later, should a modern state like Israel be demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as an explicitly Jewish state, as Netanyahu now says?

The Diaspora Myth

The second pillar – the Roman Diaspora – also comes from ancient times though not as far back as the stories of Moses. If anything, however, the Diaspora has less of a historical basis.

In When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? Dr. Sand, an expert on European history at the University of Tel Aviv, says the Jews were never exiled en masse from the Holy Land and that the myth of the Diaspora was used by Zionists over the past century to buttress their argument for creating Israel.

Sand, a European Jew born in 1946 to Holocaust survivors in Austria, argues that until the Zionist movement arose, Jews thought of themselves as Jews because they shared a common religion, not because they possessed a direct lineage to the ancient tribes of Israel.

However, at the turn of the 20th Century, Sand asserts, Zionist Jews began assembling a national history to justify creation of a Jewish state by inventing the idea that Jews existed as a people separate from their religion and that they had primogeniture over the territory that had become known as Palestine.

The Zionist movement also invented the idea that Jews living in exile were obligated to return to the Promised Land, a concept that had been foreign to Judaism, Sand states.

If Sand’s thesis is correct – and it has faced no substantive rebuttal – it would suggest that many of the Palestinian Arabs have a far more substantial claim to the lands of Israel than do many European Jews who arrived there asserting a God-given claim.

Indeed, Sand theorizes that many Jews, who remained in Judea after Roman legions crushed the last uprising in 136 A.D., eventually converted to Christianity or Islam, meaning that the Palestinians who have been crowded into Gaza or concentrated in the West Bank might be direct descendants of Jews from the Roman era.

In his book – and in an interview with Haaretz about his book [5] – Sand challenged the myth that the Romans relocated the Jews by force to Europe. In the interview, he said:

"I started looking in research studies about the exile from the land - a constitutive event in Jewish history, almost like the Holocaust. But to my astonishment I discovered that it has no literature. The reason is that no one exiled the people of the country.

“The Romans did not exile peoples and they could not have done so even if they had wanted to. They did not have trains and trucks to deport entire populations. That kind of logistics did not exist until the 20th Century. From this, in effect, the whole book was born: in the realization that Judaic society was not dispersed and was not exiled."

The True Descendants

Asked if he was saying that the true descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Judah are the Palestinians, Sand responded:

"No population remains pure over a period of thousands of years. But the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I are its descendents.

“The first Zionists, up until the Arab Revolt 1936-1939, knew that there had been no exiling, and that the Palestinians were descended from the inhabitants of the land. They knew that farmers don’t leave until they are expelled.

Palestinian farmer: early 20th century.

“Even Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, the second president of the State of Israel, wrote in 1929 that, ’the vast majority of the peasant farmers do not have their origins in the Arab conquerors, but rather, before then, in the Jewish farmers who were numerous and a majority in the building of the land.’"

Criticism of Sand’s book has focused mostly on his credentials as an expert on European history, not ancient Middle Eastern history, a point that Sand readily acknowledges.

One critic, Israel Bartal, dean of humanities at the Hebrew University, attacked Sand’s credentials, but disagreed mostly over Sand’s assertion that the Diaspora story was created as an intentional myth by Zionists seeking to fabricate a direct genealogical connection between many of the world’s Jews and Israel.

“Although the myth of an exile from the Jewish homeland (Palestine) does exist in popular Israeli culture, it is negligible in serious Jewish historical discussions,” Bartal wrote in the newspaper Haaretz. “Important groups in the Jewish national movement expressed reservations regarding this myth or denied it completely.”

In other words, Bartal is not so much disputing Sand’s historical claims about the Diaspora or the origins of Eastern European Jews, as he is contesting Sand’s notion that Zionists concocted a false history for a cynical political purpose.

But there can be no doubt that the story of the Diaspora has played a key role in the founding of Israel and that the appeal of this powerful narrative has helped generate sympathy around the world, especially in the United States.

"After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people remained faithful to it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom," reads the preamble to the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

As recently as Israeli’s bombardment of Gaza [6] in January 2009, the myth of the Diaspora was used to justify the slaughter of some 1,400 Palestinians dead, including many children and other non-combatants. When the Israeli government investigated alleged war crimes by its army, Israeli troops testified that extremist Rabbis had proclaimed the invasion a holy war.

The troops said the Rabbis brought them booklets and articles declaring: “We are the Jewish people. We came to this land by a miracle. God brought us back to this land, and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land.”

Today, with the emergence of a new Likud-led government in Israel, the Diaspora myth and Moses legends are intruding again on the prospects for finally achieving peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has insisted on a new precondition for talks – that the Palestinians must agree to a “public, binding and unequivocal” recognition that Israel is “the nation state of the Jewish people,” [7] not simply the nation state of the people of Israel. Netanyahu is making this demand although Arabs make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population.

This appears to be another case of ancient bloody myths contributing to a modern bloody reality.


[2Excerpt from President Ahmadinejad’s statement at the Durban II Conference in Geneva on April 21, 2009: "Following World War II, they resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering and they sent migrants from Europe, the United States and other parts of the world in order to establish a totally racist government in occupied Palestine. And, in fact, in compensation for the dire consequences of racism in Europe, they helped bring to power the most cruel and repressive racist regime in Palestine." Full text here:

[3Shattering a ’national mythology’;

[4The book was in the best-seller list in Israel for 19 weeks and quickly went to 3 editions when published in French (Comment le people juif fut inventé, Fayard, Paris, 2008). In France it received the "Aujourd’hui Award", a journalists’ award for top non-fiction political or historical work. More translations are in progress and the book is scheduled for publication by Verso in English in 2009.

[5Shattering a ’national mythology’;