Israel, Palestine and the Forgotten Fate of Batis of Gaza

Gaza David Roberts

There were no Jews in Palestine before Zionism.

There are no real Palestinian people.

Modern Jews are Eastern European, with no real link to Israel.

Israel dealt with the residents of the Palestinian region peacefully and humanely in 1948.

British Mandate?

Hasmonean Dynasty?

Arab invasion?

Crusader states?

What does it matter?


It’s been a while since I’ve been able to revisit this little blog due to a tremendous amount of work, but a new semester and current events have inspired me to write again. What has especially inspired me to write again is the lack of historical understanding that I’ve witnessed in social media, the press, and in the arguments of many people that I hold dear. A new semester is coming soon, and I’m anxious to see what the next group of students know—or don’t know – about the history of Israel and Palestine.

The four statements above were written by educated people. All are false. All are worthy of discussion. The British Mandate is rarely mentioned in our current Israel vs. Palestine situation. No one knows what the Hasmonean Dynasty was, but they may recall the name “King Herod” from Nativity stories at Christmas. The Arab invasion…yes, the Arabs invaded the area in the 7th century, introducing Islam. They lived on the fringes and served as mercenaries, but they didn’t occupy the area that they now do. And Crusaders aren’t just a Medieval fantasy, but existed as a formidable European force which pushed out the Jews and Muslims from the area they now fight to control.

We find some of the earliest remains of human settlement in this highly contested area, and this contested area is one of the first areas where we witness human creativity: the ability to experiment with crops during the Neolithic revolution, our first stabs at artistic expression, a connection with the Holy before there was a God of Abraham, and some of our earliest burials, showing that we cared about our dead and wanted them remembered. We also find some of the earliest examples of conquest: Egypt built forts and garrisons here, the Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians wiped out populations here, the Sea Peoples – Greeks before there were Greeks – destroyed many towns and repopulated others.   The Persians brought back those exiled during earlier periods, including the Jews, who rebuilt their destroyed temple in Jerusalem as others rebuilt temples and shrines to their deities, gods and goddesses such as Ba’al and Astarte, who the people invoked long before they invoked Allah. Alexander the Great marched through this terrain and the Roman general Pompey annexed it for Rome, but this was ancient land in Alexander and Pompey’s day.

It does not surprise me that most people don’t understand the history of this region. It’s an old, complicated, multi-layered history. It is important to remember, however, that history is never easy, and that it is futile to bring up one event in history and not the events which precede it. Our discussions on Palestine and Israel don’t go deeply, because to go deeply means to become tangled in over 8,000 years of struggle.

It also means to admit that a good deal of history isn’t written, and even when it’s written, it’s forgotten. This is why I’m remembering Batis right now. Batis was a commander – or maybe a governor – or maybe just a eunuch who oversaw Gaza for the Persian Empire when Alexander invaded in 332 BCE. Alexander just besieged Tyre after a six month siege, and met with resistance at this heavily walled town on his way to Egypt. Batis refused to surrender Gaza. Alexander broke through the Gaza walls, massacring all of the men of Gaza and selling the children and women into slavery.

When it came to Batis, Alexander, angered by his defiance, pierced his ankles and dragged him by those pierced ankles to death.

Batis is barely a footnote in the histories of Alexander’s campaigns, and he is largely forgotten today.   To my knowledge, no one has ever chosen him as a theme for a painting or sculpture.   I’m willing to bet that even the proudest resident of Gaza doesn’t know Batis’ story.

And yet, Batis lived, died horrifically, and Gaza fell, only to rise again as a Greek polis. The Jews in the area (yes, they were here, too) would also face the onslaught of the Greeks, and their heroes would fall, and Jerusalem would fall and rise again, too.

I don’t know if remembering Batis and history will stop the carnage we witness today from all sides, but it can offer some consolation that we’ve been here before. We’ll be here again. We can, at least, remember that.

 Note:  the painting above is David Roberts’ painting of Gaza, 1839. 



Crushed by Grendel, Rediscovered through Archaeology

Crushed by Grendel, Rediscovered through Archaeology

Is this Heorot, the great drinking hall of King Hrothgar?  Archaeologists have discovered this 6th century hall in Lejre, the first capital of Denmark, complete with the bones of suckling pigs and chickens…and gold!  Click on the link above for more!


Belief and History


This has been a very busy semester, so I haven’t been posting very much here.  However, sometimes things come up in classes which warrant intense discussion, and I wanted to explore these issues in a different way.  Unfortunately, today’s college classroom may not be the place for intellectual discussion anymore.

Often, my college students will offer statements such as “I have a right to my opinion and I don’t think that the Holocaust happened.”  When asked why not, there is never any concrete rationale, just the idea that it didn’t happen because they think it didn’t happen.   When I bring up the disappearance of 8 million, the photos, the graves, the concentration camps, the paperwork, the eyewitness accounts on both sides, the artifacts and the statements of those who worked in the camps, the students usually shrug and say, “well, people still believe what they want.”

At what point did we agree that we can believe what we want, regardless of evidence to the contrary?  I am reminded of the Church father Tertullian’s statement: Credo quia absurdum (I believe even though it is absurd).  Tertullian was discussing the mystery of Christianity for the believer, not historical facts.   This concept, fideism, really comes up with religious faith only, and often religious faith when crossed with scientific proof.   Certainly da Vinci understood this concept when faced with scientific realities contradicting Biblical statements.

When it comes to the Holocaust, we could cite anti-Semitism as an easy cause, and we could cite Nationalism when it comes to other examples of belief and history (that there was no Armenian genocide, for one example).  Racism also figures in this (that American slavery was a benevolent system, that people of color are inferior to white people, etc).

What I see from my perspective as a professor is different:  it is belief because of something heard “somewhere” and then believed.

Even the most fervent Holocaust denier will offer statistics to support his theory.  The Turkish Nationalist will also cite reasons for  denying the Armenian genocide (that it was World War I, there were deaths on both sides).  The White Supremacist will cite “scientific” studies supporting racial inequalities.  We can debate the authenticity and accuracy of these sources, but sources are still provided.

Today’s student will not provide sources.  Opinion is enough.

The “deniers” are also passionate about their case.  The students I’ve encountered have no agenda.  They have picked up a belief, held it, and have gone on to accept it regardless of evidence.  Not only is this acceptable to the student, but this is also acceptable to his peers.  When the danger of this belief is pointed out by other peers and by teachers, the student simply shrugs and continues in belief.

Do we blame the decline in humanities?  Critical thinking skills lost to test taking strategies in our schools?  The openness of the Internet, which provides unfiltered information to those unable to filter?  Charismatic figures who spout statements without sources?

And how can we teach history in this new world?

One student recently brought up the reality that today’s student isn’t asked to explore these ideas.  These are test questions, where there is no room for critical thinking.  They can define holocaust for a test, but can’t explore the moral dimensions.  By exploring the many dimensions of history, we begin to understand more than “what happened.”  We separate fact from opinion.   If we take history seriously, we won’t be able to rip out the parts we don’t like and we strip way fantasy.  And if we take history seriously, we are less apt to repeat the great tragedies of history, such as the systems of slavery and the mass extermination of people.

By the way, the Holocaust happened.


Winter is Coming – Wolf Rites and Old Russia


Last Call for the Civil War Shows at the Met!

Last Call!  The two amazing shows on the Civil War (the Civil War and American Art and the Civil War Photography) will close on September 2!  Don’t miss them!


Worshipping the Sun


A little note during our intense New York heat wave:  it’s much hotter in other parts of the world.  At least one man, the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, would have felt quite content with our 100 degree days.

Akhenaten ruled Egypt for seventeen of the most contentious years in Egyptian history (1351-1334 BCE).  He decided to throw out the gods of Egypt, especially the popular god Amun-Re, in favor of the Aten.  The Aten is the disc of the sun, and Akhenaten initiated a program which demanded the worship of this sole god.  It was, arguably, the first time in history that someone undertook such radical, unprompted change.

Akhenaten’s appearance reflected these changes:  exaggerated features which have been explained as medical conditions or simply as having East African features, ambiguous gender, and poses which do not occur earlier in royal art, such as the very human act of kissing his daughter.   Amarna art celebrates exaggeration while also exploring realism in age, human behavior, and body size:  his wife, Nefertiti, can look gloriously beautiful but also aged, women now have heavy legs and hips, his mother, Tiya, is filled with expressive attitude.

But his images of the Aten are always simply the disc of the sun.  Court artists from his new capital, Akhenaten (now known as Amarna) depict him worshiping it or allowing its rays to reach down on him while holding the ankh, the sign for life.   The plurality and multiplicity of divinity is now One:  the sole god, the god who protects Akhenaten, the royal family and the land.  One sizzling hot sun.

Akhenaten’s program didn’t last.   Egypt moves back to its ancestral religion and relegates the Aten to what it was before Akhenaten’s radical movement.  A pharaoh who may or may not have been Akhenaten’s son (Tutankamum) becomes well known for his tomb, and nothing more.  A new dynasty far more recognizable by name (the family of Ramses the Great) will take over Egypt.  Egyptians will attempt to erase Akhenaten’s memory from the earth:  images smashed, texts destroyed, names erased from the record, and the town of Akhenaten razed.

One thing that remains is a poem found in the tomb of one of the Amarna officials, a man named Ay.  Inscribed on its walls in an area far hotter than New York is an ancient praise to the sun, Akhenaten’s Aten.  Read it in today’s intense heat, and remember:  the blazing sun was once worshiped:

You rise beautiful from the horizon on heaven,
living disk, origin of life.
You are arisen from the horizon,
you have filled every land with your beauty.
You are fine, great, radiant, lofty over and above every land.
Your rays bind the lands to the limit of all you have made,
you are the sun, you have reached their limits.
You bind them (for) your beloved son.
You are distant, but your rays are on earth,
You are in their sight, but your movements are hidden.

You rest in the western horizon, and the land is in darkness in the manner of death,
sleepers in chambers, heads covered,
no eye can see its other.
Anything of theirs can be taken from under their heads, they would not know.
Every lion goes out from its den,
every snake bites.
Darkness envelops, the land is in silence, their creator is resting in his horizon.
At daybreak, arisen from the horizon, shining as the disk in day,
you remove the darkness, you grant your rays,
and the two lands are in festival,
awakened and standing on their feet.
You have raised them up, their bodies cleansed, clothing on,
their arms are in adoration at your sunrise.

The entire land carries out its tasks,
every herd rests in its pastures,
trees and plants are sprouting,
birds flying up from their nests,
their wings in adoration for your spirit.
Every flock frolics afoot,
all that fly up and alight,
they live when you have shone for them.
Boats sail north and south too,
every road is opened at your sunrise,
and the fish on the river leap at the sight of you
Your rays penetrate the Great Green.

You who cause the sperm to grow in women,
who turns seed into people,
who causes the son to live in the womb of his mother,
who silences him in stopping him crying.
Nurse in the womb, who gives breath to cause all he has made to live,
when he goes down from the womb to breathe on the day of his birth,
you open his mouth in form,
you make his needs.
When the chick in the egg speaks in the shell,
you give it breath within to cause it to live,
you have made him, he is complete, to break out from the egg,
and he emerges from the egg to speak to his completion,
and walks on his legs, going out from it.

How numerous are your works, though hidden from sight.
Unique god, there is none beside him.
You mould the earth to your wish, you and you alone.
All people, herds and flocks,
All on earth that walk on legs,
All on high that fly with their wings.
And on the foreign lands of Khar and Kush, the land of Egypt
You place every man in his place,
you make what they need,
so that everyone has his food,
his lifespan counted.

Tongues are separated in speech, and forms too –
Their skins are made different,
for you make foreign lands different.

You make a Flood in the underworld, and bring it at your desire
to cause the populace to live, as you made them for you,
lord of all they labour over,
the lord of every land.
Shine for them, O disk of day, great of dignity.
All distant lands, you make them live,
you place a Flood in the sky, to descend for them,
to make waves over the mountains like the Great Green,
to water their fields with their settlements.
How effective they are, your plans, O lord of eternity!
A Flood in the sky for foreigners, for the flocks of every land that go on foot,
and a Flood to come from the underworld for Egypt,
your rays nursing every meadow,
you shine and they live and grow for you.
You make the seasons to nurture all you mae,
winter to cool them,
heat so they may taste you.

You have made the far sky to shine in it,
to see what you make, while you are far, and shining in your form as living disk.
risen, shining, distant, near,
you make millions of forms from yourself, lone one,
cities, towns,. fields, the road of rivers,
every eye sees you in their entry,
you are the disk of day, master of your move,
of the existence of every form,
you create … alone, what you have made.

You are in my heart, there is none other who knows you
beside your son Neferkheperura-sole-one-of-Ra.
You instruct him in your plans, in your strength.
The land comes into being by your action, as you make them,
and when you have shone, they live,
when you rest, they die.
You are lifetime, in your body,
people live by you.
Eyes are on your beauty until you set.
All work is stopped when you set on the west;
shine, and strengthen (all for) the king.
Motion is in every leg, since you founded the earth,
you raise them for your son who come from your body,
the king who lives on Right, lord of the two lands,
son of Ra who lives on Right, lord of Risings,
Akhenaten, great in his lifespan,
and the great king’s wife whom he loves, lady of the two lands,
Neferneferuaten Nefertiti, eternally alive.

(translation of Miriam Lichtheim)

One Hundred and Fifty Years Later

ImageOne hundred and fifty years ago, a good deal of Manhattan was under siege.  The New York Draft Riots were in their second day.   New Yorkers would have locked themselves in their houses, worried that the events of yesterday would continue. 

Those events involved the burning of significant parts of Manhattan, the destruction of the Colored Orphans Asylum, the murder of about 100 innocent black people, and the attack on the homes of both wealthy and anti-slavery New Yorkers.  Mobs of mostly Irish men were protesting the draft, and standing against the threat that the newly freed slaves would bring to their jobs.   They did not want to die for a black man’s freedom, so they killed them in New York streets.

Last night, it rained in New York.  The rain also fell on the first night of the Draft Riots, but the rage continued.  Most of the North was celebrating the Union victory at Gettysburg.  In New York, the veterans of Gettysburg came to put down the riot.  It took weeks, perhaps even decades, to heal the city.

In Florida, families would have been mourning their dead from Gettysburg.  They may have questioned the North as well:  how self righteous of the North to say that the South mistreats its black people when they hunt them down and lynch them in New York!  To burn down an orphan’s asylum showed a deep lack of respect for life, and the slave — even as property — was much better respected…or so they may have thought. 

It is one hundred and fifty years later, and New Yorkers are gathering to mourn a young black man killed in Florida’s streets, as the man who took his life was found “not guilty”.   Just as those black New Yorkers were doing nothing but walking around one hundred and fifty years ago in the wrong place at the wrong time, Trayvon Martin was walking around and doing nothing, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  

We will never know exactly what happened on the night Trayvon Martin was killed, but I would like to think that those black men murdered on New York’s streets one hundred and fifty years ago may have thought that, riding on the victory of Gettysburg, we would see a restored Union based on freedom and basic human rights.  And this Union would include Florida, and in Florida, or in any state for that matter, a black man could live without fear. 

They must have thought it would be better one hundred and fifty years later.