He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'. Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder If I could put a notion in his head: 'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I'd ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down.'
-Robert Frost, from his poem “Mending Wall”
The following is a reflection from my time thus far in Jerusalem, where I am now taking a summer course at Hebrew University on the History and Archaeology of Jerusalem.
At 8:00 last Sunday morning I sat down for the first of four kitschy, quasi-propagandist movies I would view that week. Funded by the Ir David Foundation, a right wing Israeli association “committed to continuing King David’s legacy as well as revealing and connecting people to Ancient Jerusalem’s glorious past”, this movie required 3D glasses as I “traveled back in time” to view David’s heroic and improbable conquest of Jerusalem from the Canaanites. Yet was I transported back into history or myth?
The story of David’s conquest of Jerusalem is presented in 1 Chronicles 11:4-9:
David and all Israel marched to Jerusalem, that is, Jebus where the Jebusites were, the inhabitants of the land. The inhabitants of Jebus said to David, ‘You will not come in here.’ Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, now the city of David. David had said, ‘Whoever attacks the Jebusites first shall be chief and commander.’ And Joab son of Zeruiah went up first, so he became chief. David resided in the stronghold; therefore it was called the city of David. He built the city all round, from the Millo in a complete circuit; and Joab repaired the rest of the city. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord of hosts was with him (NRSV).
Most scholars agree that the audience for which 1 Chronicles was written was post-exilic, an audience somewhat akin to Israelis today. The community who composed 1 Chronicles had been a people without a land; their historical reality included defeat and humiliation at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar and exile to Babylon. Those who returned to the land needed a story to strengthen their collective religious and national identity. Who better than the fierce figure of King David, who according to the Deuteronomistic historians took on the Brobdingnagian Goliath (1 Sam 17) and unified the kingdom of Judah on a scale Saul could not achieve? The chroniclers present David as a man without fault or weakness, leaving out his more salacious moments recorded in 2 Samuel – such as his relationship with Bathsheba – and the threat to his kingdom by his own son, Absalom. David, in other words, is the picture of the modern Israeli Sabra: a strong and fervently nationalistic Jew.
This picture of David is ubiquitous in Israel today. Museums and archaeological sites open to the public abound, using media and an un-nuanced perspective on “Biblical history and archaeology” to present an Israel that rightly belongs to the Jews. Springing from this worldview, right-wing Israelis – who, by the way, currently hold much of the political and sociocultural power, and therefore craft the dominant narrative – behave much like their Chronicler counterparts did toward the Am Ha’aretz, “the people of the land.” Whether impoverished Judeans and Samaritans left behind subsequent to the Babylonian exile or modern Palestinians who have inhabited the land for centuries, the “myth of the empty land” seems to prevail. Indeed, biblical scholar Sara Japhet asserts that despite evidence to the contrary, “for the book of Ezra-Nehemiah the Neo-Babylonian period in the land of Israel is non-existent. It is a historical vacuum […] there is a direct transition from the destruction of the Temple to its restoration.” Likewise, nearly every right wing Israeli movie I have viewed has included a direct paraphrase of Zechariah 8:4-5: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.” (NRSV)
Were there no children playing in the streets of Jerusalem prior to 1948? The Zionist rallying cry, “a land without a people for a people without a land” certainly reflects this view. Yet this exclusive solidarity with the Chroniclers among modern Israelis excludes those dissenting inclusive voices in the Hebrew Bible, also written during the post-exilic period: that of the authors of Ruth, who claims David to be a descendant from a Moabitess, and Jonah, who asserts that God honored the repentance of the Ninevites and did not destroy them.
Clearly, the Chroniclers present only one exclusivist point of view in the Hebrew Bible, yet powerful and wealthy modern rightwing Israeli institutions, who understand themselves to be a post-exilic community, emulate the dominant perspective of the Biblical post-exilic community. Today chosen-ness, as with the Chroniclers’ “remnant theology”, has become a way to marginalize, persecute, and exclude – to the point that the Israelis, who themselves weep over the Western Wall of the destroyed Temple, have constructed a second wailing wall for Palestinians.
The tragedy is, I do not believe that this situation is black and white. Plenty of Jews have been victim to Arab attacks, a former grand mufti of Jerusalem sought to conspire with Hitler, and Jews should have access to their religious sites in Jerusalem. But pro-Israeli propaganda to which I have been subject – in the name of an academic course no less! – as well as the dominant Israeli racist attitude toward Arabs all drive me to feel even more zeal to protect Palestinian rights. In other words, the Jewish tactics are self-defeating, at least in my case. I can respect, and even sympathize with, a person who is authentically trying to understand the other. But the boorish exclusivity I have perceived in the case of Israel leads me to believe that what Israel needs more than ever is not King David, but Ruth and Jonah, and perhaps the Prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV).
All photos were taken by the author of this post and are used here with permission of the author.
 Sara Japhet, “Periodization: Between History and Ideology,” in Judah and the Judeans in the Neo-Babylonian Period, eds. Oded Lipschits and Joseph Blenkinsopp (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2003), 81.