Israel’s Mythological Borders: An Interview with Rachel Havrelock

Rachel Havrelock is a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and its historical interpretation. She is an associate professor of Jewish Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of three books as well as the writer/director of the play, From Tel Aviv to Ramallah. Her latest work, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line (2011, University of Chicago Press), examines five national myths in the Hebrew Bible and examines which have had political currency and which have been repressed.

River Jordan, I interviewed Havrelock about the Israel of biblical mythology and its impact on the present day conflict in Israel/Palestine. She argues that while certain interpretations favor expansion and conquest, others may provide an inspiration for coexistence, while colonial ideas of partition and rigid borders need to be thrown out to favor a new post-national model.

To see more interviews in the Perspectives series by Upheaval Productions, please click here.

What follows is an edited transcript of the full interview. 

DZ: What led you to take on the subject of your book, River Jordan?

RH: I initially approached the topic with an interest to how biblical paradigms impacted modernity, or in other words: What is the connection between Biblical Israel and Modern Israel? So I really began almost with the issue of the map. How is it that in both Israeli and Palestinian national traditions that the Jordan is a central border that seems to define the collective, impact national identity in a very dramatic way, and how did this biblical symbol become realized in modernity?… Ultimately what I write about is that those things—the line from one to the other, especially the line from the bible to modernity is not so straight, and rather contested and circuitous.

What did your research on biblical history tell you about the current conflicts over land in this area? What did you discover as you were making your way through this subject?

When we as scholars look at the Bible, we don’t see a uniform document, but instead we have collated traditions and documents and political ideas that come from very different quarters. So some of the sources in the Bible come from really different historical periods, and some of the sources in the Bible come from really different ideological or political schools. So there were about five different “maps” as it were that emerged from the Hebrew Bible. Now there are no cartographic maps—it’s all words. But there are boundary lists, which is the ancient Hebrew way of talking about space and imagining it. So there are these five different maps: one of them reaches all the way to the Euphrates River [in present-day Iraq]; one of them ends at the Jordan River; one of them encompasses both sides of the [Jordan] River Valley; one of them is a very constricted area around Jerusalem; and one of them is a very fluid regional model where national groups or tribal groups aren’t really so discreet, but rather they overlap and have competing claims….

In the book I sort of look at these different geographic ideas and how along with the geographic ideas the different sources imagine political community, the identity of ancient Israel, and the span of its land, and you get a lot of different answers there, right? You have a kind of national mythology that is expansionist, you have one that likes clear definitive borders, and you have others that are much more fluid and muted and have a very different idea of how Israel would live alongside its neighbors. The next move I make in the book is to see how these biblical ideas were inherited in the formation of Christianity and Judaism. And the answer there is that early Christianity and early Judaism liked the idea of the Jordan as a border, and they ended up rather than claiming that as a necessary territorial border, they ended up using the Jordan River as a symbol of the collective. And the Christian collective as well as the early Jewish collective was defined in terms of ritual boundaries. So the Jordan stays in people’s imaginations for a long time as a ritual border.

So then I started thinking, “How did this Jordan border end up as a contested border between Israelis and Palestinians?” And here the answer is neither the Bible, nor the fact that it is, as many would say, a “natural border.” Right? Many would say: “It’s a river, it’s a natural border. So of course that’s always been the border.” And to begin with, I don’t think that rivers necessarily are borders. I mean, a river can connect people just as much as it can divide them. The real answer as to how the Jordan comes into Israeli and Palestinian national traditions is through a group called the Palestinian Exploration Fund [PEF]—a group of explorers, erstwhile archaeologists who are also members of the British Royal Engineers. And they were sent [in 1871] by the British military, but also by this subscriber-based organization [the PEF] to produce a map. And the British imagined ousting the Ottoman Empire from the region, and you can’t oust an empire without a map. So the PEF map ultimately went from the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, and also adhered to another geographical formula from Dan in the north, to Be’er Sheva in the south. So the PEF map, the twenty-six sheets [of maps], really formed the British idea of what Palestine would look like. And when General Allenby went into battle to fight the Ottomans [in 1917] he had the PEF map and the land that he conquered basically conformed to it. Ultimately this was the British idea, and so in 1922 they created Palestine and Transjordan, and created geographical entities that really correlated with that map…

And so just to go back in time, the Ottoman Empire spanned today what we call the Middle East and the British ousted them in World War I. Following this period it literally became a discussion among Europeans—and every once and a while at these conferences Americans would attend also—about what kind of world, what kind of political system to create in those territories. So these nation-states that we talk about today—whether it’s Iraq or Syria or Jordan or Israel or Lebanon—are ultimately products of these European discussions. This isn’t the topic of this book, but I will say that the most important driving force was the burgeoning oil economy, and so it was most important to the British and the French as well to create terrain and political systems that would facilitate the massive export of oil to Europe…

At the time of the conferences Jewish and Palestinian nationalists were outside, sending letters, lobbying for some kind of territorial and political rights. In one case they let [Zionist leader] Chaim Weizmann address the delegates at the conference and they also brought in the Arab leader, Faisal, who was the son of the Sharif of Mecca and very much a player in World War I and afterwards. During this period of time Jewish as well as Arab nationalists disseminated all kinds of geographic ideas. There were all kinds of political systems that they could imagine—federations, bi-national states, regional models, more land, less land—there were a lot of ideas that were on the table in the Jewish and the Arab national camps, and in one case Chaim Weizmann and Faisal even met. And at that moment, that meeting, they even had an idea about how Jewish national aspirations could coexist with Arab national plans [realized in the Faisal-Wiezmann Agreement of 1919]. Ultimately when the British drew the lines, including the eastern border at the Jordan, suddenly Arab as well as Jewish nationalists became very certain about where their desired homeland lay. Ultimately it’s neither the Bible, nor Islamic traditions, nor long ethnic ideas that led to these borders, they were British lines on a map to facilitate oil export and administrative units of the British Mandate. And so these borders are the ones that become so contested and so sensitive within the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Initially, as you said, the specific borders weren’t as central to the Zionist movement. A lot of the Zionist movement was fairly secular—there was a religious wing, too, but overall it was mostly secular—and so they wanted a Jewish state but the specific borders were not as important. How did these British-drawn borders become such a driving force in the ideology of the Zionist movement?

In the first and second Zionist Congresses there were a lot of motivations, whether it came from pogroms in Eastern Europe, or the Dreyfus Affair—the idea that even in enlightened France Jews were never fully going to be citizens—so the driving force—I mean again it came from many quarters, but the idea was that Europe was going to likely become increasingly dangerous for the Jews. And we have to realize that this is the nineteenth century, so European nationalism is the reigning movement. Everybody in Europe is thinking in terms of national borders, national language, a long ancient history that justified the new national configurations. And of course in a world of nationalism, especially nationalist Europe, the Jews were the odd people out. I mean they couldn’t, for a lot of reasons, quite be nationalized, however much they wanted to be in places like Germany or France. So Jewish nationalism really arises from—initially—from systems of European nationalism.

In the early congresses it was really just “where could the Jews go to?” So there’s the so-called “Uganda Plan,”  about settling Jews in [present-day] Kenya [and Uganda]; there was the Argentina plan that led to one sort of cooperative settlement that ultimately faded; there were even some American ideas at that point. And then Theodor Herzl, kind of the initial ideological father of Zionism, realizes that there’s simply no way for world Jewry to get behind political Zionism if the terrain to which they aspired was something that had no connection to Jewish tradition. So ultimately before his death Herzl and the Zionist movement in general decided that they were going to aspire to biblical Israel in some form or another. Going back to the earlier piece, there’s still the question of where biblical Israel is. And from the Bible itself you come up with at least five possibilities that have different political corollaries. So the Zionists did not draw a map and did not define biblical Israel until 1919 at the point of the Paris Peace Conference. At this point the Zionists drew a map that in the east went almost all they way to the Hijaz Railway [well into present-day Jordan], a railway that the Ottomans had built to bring pilgrims into the Saudi peninsula—it was supposed to take them to Mecca, but it never ended up going all the way to Mecca. So they aspired to that to the East, Be’er Sheva [now in Israeli territory] in the south, the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and the Litani River [in today’s Lebanon] in the north. And they drew this map on the basis of biblical traditions [from one interpretation found in the Book of Joshua] and they submitted this to the British… And so this was the first map. Before this Jewish geographic traditions were really imaginations that facilitated Jewish ritual and Jewish life.

Around the same time Faisal was promoting the idea of the re-institution of an Islamic empire in the entire Levant [eastern Mediterranean, roughly from Syria through Egypt]. At this point in time the Arabs don’t draw a map, they just talk about it; and the Zionists draw their first map, and they argue for it. But then 1921 comes, the British start fixing the Jordan as a border and the mainstream Zionist movement drops the East Bank tradition. Ze’ev Jabotinsky opposes it; he drops out of the [Zionist Organization in 1923]. He founds the Revisionist Party, and in the words of a popular song he said, “There are two banks to the Jordan. This one is ours, and so is the other”—it rhymes in Hebrew.  And of course the Revisionists would later come into power in the form of the Likud Party [now leading the Israeli government]. So in other words, the British drew the lines and what happened subsequently in both cases in the Arab national as well as the Jewish national camp, all kinds of religious and cultural traditions are mustered to justify the claims to exactly the borders drawn by the British. Another example, in the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] Charter—I don’t remember the article at the moment—but in the PLO Charter it states that Palestine falls exactly where the British Mandate borders were. So in fact, this imperial construction ultimately determines the national aspirations of Jews—or Israelis—and Palestinians.

As you say, historically Israel, or the idea of Israel, did not have any fixed borders. But even today the State of Israel is one of the only countries without clearly defined international borders. Depending on who you ask—even within Israel—you’ll hear different answers as to where Israeli control of territory ends—or should end—whether it be the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the border with Lebanon, etc. What are the implications of a state—not universally, but widely recognized internationally—without official borders?

Yeah, it’s a great point. I mean on the one hand there is a correspondence, because if we look to the Hebrew Bible as the charter of the ancient Jewish past—fluidity of borders! They exist in a state of contest. You know, who and what Israel is, is an always morphing always changing issue. We jump ahead to the present time in the twentieth century and, exactly as you said, Israel exists in an unstable state without declared borders. So there’s this whole question of where and what is this place. And part of me thinks that there’s a lot of possibility there. The fact that the State of Israel is not fixed, is fluid, means that there is the possibility of a different kind of formation, or the simultaneous existence of many interpretations. But at the same time, exactly as you said, these borders are neither declared nor recognized. In the minds of many Israelis, what they call the “biblical map of Israel” is a reality. And that so-called “biblical map of Israel” goes from the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, and from basically from Dan, not to Be’er Sheva, but to Eilat [at the southern most tip of Israeli territory]. So this kind of river-to-the-sea paradigm exists very strongly—I mean, as you say, not in everyone’s mind—but it exists very strongly as a legitimate claim [in Israeli discourse].

If we actually look at the actual geographic and demographic reality, there is no State of Israel like that. There is no discreet Jewish place that corresponds to firm borders. In Palestinian circles—although in many cases is a, you know, a desire for a liberated West Bank and more-liberated Gaza Strip—but ultimately the national imagining is similarly a Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. What I’m proposing is ultimately a regional approach that would begin with no longer projecting these national desires, national myths if you will, onto the existing landscape, but instead stopping and actually looking at who lives there and where they are and what their resource needs are. And so instead of aspiring somehow to a fixed separate Israel or a fixed separate Palestine, let’s admit it’s a fluid place with all kinds of population mixtures and that, in fact, however violent and however brutal, people are living side-by-side in the same place. And so I really want to actually—as much as I describe and diagnose them in my book—what I’m proposing is moving back from these national myths and looking at what’s there, at the same time we look at the very real resource needs of growing populations, primarily of water. Because there has to be a major shift in water use—in Jordan, in Palestine, and in Israel. And in fact the state of national competition is disastrous when it comes to resource use, just resource distribution, and resource conservation.

So what I really advocate, in the book and beyond that, is a regional idea. Particularly an idea of federated regions. Again, in looking at actual population distributions you could have a place that you call “Palestine” that could roughly be in the West Bank; you have a place you can call “Israel” that’s around the coastline; in the Negev Desert in the south and in the Galilee to the north you have mixed populations—Jewish, Palestinian mixed populations. So I’m really starting to think in terms of four federated regions. So there’d be a federal system to deal with taxation, tariff, import issues, but at the same time you would also have regional representative bodies that would deal with the concerns of the populace. And when I talk about this I’m also talking about full enfranchisement of Palestinians and a system of just distribution of resources.

So a lot of my stressing that these borders are artificial, is that also these national mythologies that suspend these borders and continue to charge them with desire and emotion and passion, let’s scale it back and look at what the borders are: they’re the construct of British empire to help get oil to Europe… I feel further that a regional model is necessary not only because the two-state solution is a ruined idea, but we’re also really in an age where global capital is very deft at acquiring those resources for itself, including in the region of the Middle East acquiring those water resources. So the regional model is a way of staking a claim to resources which I think is truly post-national. 

I’m glad you voiced your position on seeking a new model. It’s not commonly heard.

Yeah, I know. There aren’t very many people who are ready to say the two-state solution is over. I mean, just to historicize that, I mean we can’t forget that as much as the borders of Mandate Palestine are a British construct, so is the idea of partition, right? The British during World War I made grand promises to Jewish as well as Arab nationalists. And whether it’s the Balfour Declaration or the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, each group had its document that promised them a privileged claim to that land. And the British had a disaster on their hands because from the beginning the two groups aspired to a national entity. And no one ever said, “You know what? In the end you have to develop a bi-national or federal model.” No one ever said it. And so following the Palestinian General Strike from 1936-1939, the British brought in commissions and they started trying to parcel the land, drawing more artificial lines so that they could maintain these promises for a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. And partition didn’t work in 1938. It didn’t work in 1947.

It brings us to the occupation that results from the 1967 war, and we spent, you know, the 1990s and 2000s as Americans investing tremendous money and resources in this idea that never came to fruition, that did not relieve the burden of the occupation on Palestinians, that did nothing to assuage Israeli fear of being under attack, and didn’t come into being! So I think that once and for all let’s abandon this idea and let’s start thinking of something else. I mean we can’t just keep recycling this notion, which was a bad idea to begin with!… It’s not going to come into being and there are huge questions about who it would even serve if it did come into being.

One of the questions I have for you—I was going to bring it up later but you started to talk about it previously—has to do with water. In your work discussing the initial Jewish settling by the Zionist movement, going back to the early-1900s and before, you address this. Could you discuss the role of water the development of Zionism and in early decision-making by Zionists as to where they should settle?

Right, we can’t forget that the Jordan River is not only a border but it’s also a vital water source in an arid region. And early political Zionism can also be termed “practical Zionism…” So initially the Zionist movement and the Jewish National Fund really looked towards river valleys because the idea was agriculture. Agriculture in Jewish nationalism as well as in Palestinian and Jordanian nationalism, agriculture is a very central symbol. The idea of farming the land, having the land produce; it’s understood that the farmer, the peasant, really carries the soul of the national group. You know, it’s a very romantic, European idea that makes its way—that’s sort of “the nation depends on its peasants and their traditions.” This was intensified in Zionism because Jews in Europe couldn’t own land and they couldn’t farm. So part of the Zionist thinking—and many people have even diagnosed it as a form of internalized anti-Semitism—the idea was that the Jewish body was unhealthy. It had been constricted to the study house or to mercantilism, to business; it hadn’t been allowed to be healthy and strong and masculine. So we have this whole idea of the “new Hebrew” or the “new Jew.” And again we can see all kinds of European national standards of body and gender and sexuality in play here. So the idea was to “redeem” the land through farming and through Jewish labor, and also to redeem the Jewish body—to make it strong and healthy again, and have it almost resurrect the biblical ideas, the bodies of Joshua and the warriors…

Initially when they were looking prior to 1921 east of the Jordan, also in the Yarmouk River Valley, the idea was really to look to these river valleys that would become Jewish breadbaskets and it would create labor for Jewish immigrants and it would also sustain them. So these river valleys had a very important role in practical Zionism, and the Jewish National Fund bought its first land particularly along the Jordan River. The very first kibbutz, which I write about, Kibbutz Degania, was just east of the Jordan River… But you know, practical Zionism translated also into symbolic ideas. And so particularly these early kibbutzim, these early communal settlements along the Jordan River symbolically were broadcast as symbols of the modern crossing of the Jordan River, right?—this new moment of Jewish redemption. In the bible, in the Book of Joshua, Joshua leads the people of Israel across the Jordan River and this ends their wandering through the wilderness following the exodus from Egypt. So these kibbutzim at the Jordan—and they were secular, right?—this was coming out of a secular national paradigm. There was a whole translation of biblical symbols out of the religious mode and into the secular national one. Developing these communities became the symbol of the redemption of world Jewry. So there’s a way in which practical Zionism broadcast its goals not in quotidian terms, but instead in biblical, symbolic terms.

In discussion of initial Zionist settlement you’ve written that “Settlement was a means of asserting borders that could later be upheld as nonnegotiable.” Can you discuss this practice and its legacy and implications today?

From the beginning of the British Mandate until its end, Jewish nationalists and Palestinian nationalists pretty much landed on their techniques of influencing policy. And the Jewish means of influencing policy was to establish settlements. You know, the British would often look at where Jewish settlement was and they would say, “Okay, that’s an inalienable part of a Jewish state because there’s Jewish settlement there.” So this notion of funding and creating and establishing Jewish communities became a primary means of boundary assertions. Right? The idea was: “We’re not entirely going to wait until people tell us where we can be. We’re going to assert where we want to be through settlement.” And settlement became the way very early on that Jewish nationalism claimed territory. Of course we can see this legacy, particularly after 1967 when the West Bank and Gaza were occupied. Militarily the idea was: “We have these lands, so go create,” in the famous phrase, “facts on the ground.” Right? “Go make the Jewish presence real and realized.”

The current settlements in the West Bank in many ways structurally are inheritors of this notion, right? You assert the territory you want, the territory you believe was part of the ancient Jewish homeland through settlement, and so structurally there’s a real parallel. And in terms of government sponsorship of course there’s a parallel. And in terms of government incentive. Right? The early kibbutzim, the land was bought with funds from world Jewry, from the Jewish National Fund, and developed by the pioneers. And of course today there are incentives by the Israeli government for settlers to live there. So structurally we are looking at a kind of continuity. But politically it’s something very different. There’s a way in which much of the contemporary settler movement is not engaged in kind of practical Zionism. Right? The idea is not: “Let’s establish a state that is sustainable and where we can live.” The idea is in many cases much more apocalyptic: “Let’s stop at nothing to realize what we see as these ancient prophecies of homeland and nation in the Bible.” And in some cases, not all, settlers are even working against the state, right? Their notions of God, and apocalypse, and Jewish destiny trumps their identity as citizens of the State of Israel. So sure there’s a structural comparison but at the same time there’s a real political, ideological difference…

But again, going back to my earlier idea about regionalism, the other appeal to a kind of federated regionalism is no population transfer. And by which I mean, whether there are Palestinians in what gets called the region of Israel, they would have full minority rights. And the Jews that end up in the region of Palestine, if they can play by the region’s rules, there would also be full enfranchisement. What would have to change, of course, is the distribution of resources. You asked me earlier about water, and of course the West Bank sits on top of the Mountain Aquifer, which is the most viable water source in the region right now. This is one of the reasons why Israel’s been so reluctant to relinquish the territory of the West Bank. The Mountain Aquifer is almost entirely claimed by the State of Israel and the Palestinians end up with about five to seven percent of the viable water in the region. So what would have to change—what must change—is that you have Palestinian towns and villages with literally not enough water to sustain their daily lives, and next door will be a settlement with a dairy and green lawns and trees and flowers. I mean it—So again I think that part of the appeal, even to people who aren’t politically inclined to like a regional idea in place of a national one is that you don’t have to go transferring people. Right? You don’t have to have people moving across the endlessly proliferating lines. But what must change is not only enfranchisement and rights, but also the rights to things like water and energy and movement.

One thing you note in your writing is that various interpretations of the map of Israel have coexisted throughout history. If you see coexistence among versions of maps and borders, do you see any of these interpretations providing a model for a future coexistence, not just of maps, but of people?

We tend to think that that people in antiquity knew who they were and where they belonged, but it was a very fluid model. And, in fact, it really seems that the beginnings of ancient Israel was a tribal confederation. And a tribal confederation had groups constantly coming in and moving out… So groups would enter into an alliance and their traditions would become incorporated—whether those were political traditions, cultural traditions, geographical contributions—and sometimes groups would leave… So it’s a constantly morphing idea, it’s not as if there’s this ancient Israel that remains stable throughout time. It was always changing. And so those changing instantiations of Israel are recorded ultimately in the Hebrew Bible in terms of these geographic traditions. People were coming in and out. It was not stable, it wasn’t something that was fixed. Palestine, at a much later period, was also very similar, right? There were groups of people, they had regional identities, they had family identities, they had clan identities. And ultimately, you know, very much later in time, it really takes European nationalism for what the Jews are and what the Palestinians are to get configured as being national. So, again, it’s not like these things are stable over time. You know, there were many co-existing ideas. People thought of themselves as part of a region, part of a family, part of a clan, part of a place. It wasn’t fixed in these national terms with definitive boundaries.

Going back to the idea of the Bible, there are two maps that have really impacted political life—not only Jewish political life but also Christian and European political life that also inherited the Bible as the Old Testament. And one of these is this idea from the Book of Deuteronomy and related sources of sort of, you know, the expansionist idea of conquest and expelling indigenous others. The other idea—the kind of priestly idea of discreet land that ends at the Jordan River. These have participated in a prominent way in modern political thought. But there are other maps there. And the ones that I talk about in the book, that I try to make available—also for political use—are, on the one hand, this idea of [Israel] where boundaries aren’t fixed lines; they’re open fluid frontiers. And people cross them. They go in and out… Another tradition—it doesn’t yield so much a map, but that’s very important to me, is the Book of Ruth where you have a woman from the east side of the river from Moab being fully incorporated into the west side of the river in Bethlehem. And it’s also a story that really advocates not only for contact and coexistence, but also for the participation of women in the national collective.

And finally—This is quite ironic, because in many ways the Book of Joshua has been the most influential book in the Zionist movement and influenced it in some very militarized ways, so it’s a little ironic. But there also is a very potent geographic tradition in the Book of Joshua. In chapters twelve through twenty-one there are all these regional maps, or boundary lists, if you will. And they talk about the tribes of Israel ultimately settling and living, and they concede to the fact that Israel under Joshua did not expel everyone or exterminate them, but rather that they live alongside them. And so we see in these traditions in the Book of Joshua the coexistence of overlapping claims, the simultaneity of different identities and different peoples, and we also really get to a regional model. In chapter fifteen of the Book of Joshua there’s even a verse that says, “Until today the Tribe of Judah and the Jebusites live in Jerusalem.” Jerusalem is divided between them. So there, right in the Bible, is the idea of a shared Jerusalem, which really is much closer to the reality of contemporary Jerusalem and it has biblical precedent. So I would say to those who say, “Wait, Jerusalem must be Judaized. Palestinians must be run out of their neighborhoods,” and the ideas that this has to be done in the name of King David—I would tell them to look closer at the text and see how these traditions of coexistence have as much root in the bible as the military traditions that inspired the early [Zionist] movement and the wars, in many ways.

David Zlutnick is a documentary filmmaker living and working in San Francisco. His latest film is Occupation Has No Future: Militarism + Resistance in Israel/Palestine (2010), a feature documentary that studies Israeli militarism, examines the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, and explores the work of Israelis and Palestinians organizing against militarism and occupation. You can view his work at www.UpheavalProductions.com.

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