Keith Whitelam’s Rhythms of Time: A History of Palestine Beyond the Twin Tyrannies of Biblical and Western-nationalist Consciousness

Keith Whitelam - Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine's PastKeith Whitelam’s 1996 work The Invention of Ancient Israel represented a groundbreaking criticism of the double erasure of ancient Palestinian history. Whitelam’s devastating ideological critique demonstrated how, first, biblical studies had reified the Bible’s construct(s) of Israel as the imaginary object of its own historical investigations and, second, how Western nationalism had superimposed its own interests onto this “Israel” – at the expense of any history of the actually existing inhabitants of ancient Palestine.

In what reads as an extended essay, Whitelam’s most recent book, Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past (BenBlackBooks, 2013), offers just such a history of Palestine. In the absence of significant written sources from the Bronze and Iron Ages, some have denied that the composition of a history of ancient Palestine is possible. Despite this inherent difficulty, Whitelam succeeds in providing a vision of Palestinian history which offers a real alternative to the twin tyrannies of biblical and modern Western-nationalist ideologies. And this is no mean feat. Whitelam manages to do so by utilising the approach advocated by Fernand Braudel and the French Annales school: Rhythms of Time describes ancient Palestinian history according to the longue durée, avoiding explanations that have recourse to “great” individuals or specific events for descriptions of the gradually perceptible changes wrought by the changing natural and economic rhythms of the region. If this approach is something of a necessity, given the dearth of primary sources, the approach is also the author’s preference – a way to sidestep the biblical and Western biases which have silenced Palestinian history; a strategy to provide modern inhabitants of the region with an equally valid claim to the past.

Rhythms of Time should be viewed above all, therefore, as a form of maximalist history-writing – as the recovery of those voices which have been suppressed or lost as a result of earlier purported histories of the region.

Foremost among Whitelam’s concerns for attempting such a history is the effect of history-writing on non-Israeli inhabitants of modern Palestine. That is, he wishes to redress the frequently made but highly spurious claim that Palestinians are not a people, a claim which forms the basis for denying their right to a nation state in Palestine-Israel.

What underlies such a claim, writes Whitelam, “is a very important principle: the idea that a nation without a past is a contradiction in terms. If the Palestinians do not possess a past, they cannot possess a national consciousness or be a people. Therefore, they have no right to a land or a state” (Kindle 69-71). The problem is exacerbated by the persistent claim, within the Christian culture in the West and within the Zionist culture in Israel, that the modern state of Israel is somehow guaranteed by what was written in the Bible, that a state created in 1948 has 3000-year-old roots:

    For Bush, as for many American politicians like Gingrich, the modern state has a past and that past is described in the Bible. For them, this is the return to a god-given land. The Bible becomes the title deed in the contemporary struggle for the land. Palestinians, by contrast, cannot claim this past since it is seen to be Israel’s past as described in the Bible. Israel has a past and so it has a present as a modern state. Palestine has no past and so no present. (78-80, 90-91)

Since the nineteenth century and during early colonialism, the “Holy Land” has been viewed through this biblical lens, to the detriment of its actual inhabitants. For Western tourists, “the contemporary inhabitants were extras on the stage on which the biblical events had been acted out.” The region was viewed through a biblical lens which glorified the imaginary past described in the Bible while treating the actual inhabitants as undeserving of the land, as having no comparable claim on the land. This is taken to absurd lengths in theme-parks in the United States such as The Holy Land Experience, in Orlando, Florida, which nonetheless serve as an illustration of the power of religious-nationalistic images of the past:

Goliath Burger
Goliath Burger, The Holy Land Experience (photograph by Raymond Walsh, manonthelam.com)

Again it [The Holy Land Experience] is a fantasy land, an imagined place that is presented as though it is real; but a place where the lived realities of the inhabitants of Jerusalem are erased. It is a construction of the Orient as fantasy; a world sanitized of real inhabitants and their indigenous culture. If you are feeling thirsty and hungry on your trip, then you can drop into the Oasis Palms Café and enjoy a ‘Thirsty Camel Cooler’ or a ‘Goliath Burger’. (131-134)

Whitelam sees the continuity of Palestine from ancient times to the present subsisting not in modern conceptions of the nation state or even in political empires which have regularly ruled the region, but in a shared mode of life  which unites the various peoples in the region who are otherwise divided by various ethnic labels.

Palestinians and Palestine have a past that needs to be written from the ancient past to the present and put together as a coherent story; not one that only starts in the nineteenth century or during the period of the British Mandate but one that goes back millennia to the Bronze Age and stretches through to the present. Palestine in the Iron Age forms part of a rich and intricate historical tapestry whose threads, set deep in the past, continue into the present. (345-348)

Whitelam’s history thus avoids ethnic and political distinctions for a focus on economic and geographic descriptions of Palestine over the longue durée. His analysis finds a region which is subject to periodic reorderings, economic shifts and geographic shifts.  Most importantly, he sees the Iron Age not as the period in which a unique nation or ethnic group called “Israel” emerged, but as a period which bears a resemblance to changes which occurred in the Early Bronze Age and which will repeat in the future.  He finds in Palestine “a region that is difficult to subdue and control … ever resistant to state or imperial control, finding ways—some times through direct conflict but more often than not by subtle ways of non-participation—to maintain its local identities and autonomy” (1811-1813). And this conclusion serves as a warning to those who would cling to a more narrow religio-national view of the region.

Rhythms of Time is a visionary essay, seeking to forge an entirely new path in Palestinian history-writing. There has been a growing recognition in recent decades that any purported history which paraphrases the Bible’s narrative – of conquest, United Davidic Kingdom, divided Kingdoms, exile, and return – is no history at all. What is required is a casting off of the twin tyrannies of biblical narrative and Western nationalist consciousness, and Whitelam offers one approach which does just that. It is an approach that no doubt needs to be “filled out” and developed in subsequent treatments, and not everyone will agree with the Annales school approach which it follows. But it is a fresh account, it is a realistic account, and it is a necessary account.

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