As early as I can remember, I was Jewish. I knew I was Jewish because my parents were Jewish and we had Seder on Friday nights when my mother would light the candles and my father would say prayers in Hebrew before we had the Sabbath bread and then dinner. I knew I was Jewish because on High Holy days my father would take me to synagogue and we would fast on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. When I was young I could never really remember which Holy Day was which, but I knew that on one of them we fasted all day. I also knew I was Jewish because when I went to Rose Bay Public School in the early fifties, that for weekly ‘scripture’ class, I went with the other Jewish kids to Jewish scripture. I also knew I was Jewish because my parents had arrived in Australia as Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany just before the Second World War and that my mother’s parents had been killed there because they had not been able to escape.
As a child, I was still a bit confused about my identity. I didn’t think I looked Jewish because unless I self-identified as a Jew, no one knew I was one. I also knew my parents were German, or at least had been German, and they still had fairly strong accents, they spoke German to my grandmother who lived with us, and we ate food that was different to my ‘Australian’ friends. I recall that I always felt awkward in the fifties when my friends would tire of playing at being cowboys and Indians and switched to playing Second World War games in which we would fight the Germans. I knew I was Australian and that my father must be Australian as he had been in the Australian army during the war. However, I also knew that my parents were in some sense German. In the end, I usually made up some sort of excuse and headed for home.
As puberty approached, so did my bar mitzvah. There was never any question I would not study for it and be prepared for it by the rabbi. The day duly came when I recited my prayers in Hebrew, at the Temple Emanuel in Woollahra. I had learnt the prayers by heart, as I could not understand Hebrew, though I had been taught to read the Hebrew letters in which they were written. I remember that shortly after my bar mitzvah, I began to doubt the existence of God and came to view Judaism and all religions as human-made fantasies, left overs from primitive times. I wondered at otherwise rational people who believed the most amazing tales (including miracles) of their own religion, but viewed the beliefs of other faiths, such as Hinduism or Zoroastrianism, as strange and unbelievable. After a while my parents accepted that I did not attend synagogue on High Holy Days. Indeed my mother soon joined the NSW Humanist Society and declared herself an atheist. I felt the same way, and when many years later the Australian Atheist Foundation was established, I was glad to become a member.
Despite having left Judaism, I still knew I was Jewish. I knew that I could migrate to Israel if I wanted to and become a citizen of Israel. I knew that I could be the target of anti-Semitic acts, though I can’t remember ever experiencing any. Given that I was no longer a believer, I was always in a bit of a quandary if I was asked my religion. I usually dealt with the question by saying that my parents had been Jewish refugees from Germany. Without me saying anything further, people knew I also was Jewish. I could of course have said I was not a practicing Jew. However, it seemed irrelevant and gratuitous to say this because even if I did not practice Judaism, I still remained a Jew because my parents had been Jewish. This was despite the fact that I did not look Jewish (whatever that meant) and my name did not seem Jewish. During the war my parents had changed our surname from Witkowski to Witton, a name they had made up for themselves, and so I felt my Jewish identity was in some way in hiding.
My religion has rarely come up in my daily life. Indeed, there have only been two reasons for me ever coming out as being Jewish. The first has been to oppose anti-Semitism. For example, if I overheard an anti-Semitic remark, though this has in fact almost never occurred. The second reason has been to support the Palestinian cause.
I had always been aware that Israel had been established for the victims of the holocaust and that I had relatives there. However, I came to realise that Israel had been established on Palestinian land, in the same way Australia had been established on Aboriginal land, and that in both cases the land and its original inhabitants had been subject to ‘ethnic cleansing’. For Palestine, this resulted in the creation of generations of refugees stranded in the countries around Israel prevented from returning to their homeland. Meanwhile Israelis, including some of my relatives, built kibbutzim on the land from which Palestinians had been evicted. It seemed the ultimate injustice that I, who had a safe and secure life in Australia, had a so-called ‘right of return’ to go and live in Israel while the Palestinians had no such right.
Feeling I needed to do something concrete about this, I decided late last year to join Jewish and non-Jewish members of the Australian contingent who, together with over 1 400 people from all over the world, took part in the Gaza Freedom March. This event aimed to publicise the fact that Israel had turned Gaza into what David Cameron, Britain’s Prime Minister, has recently described as “a prison camp”. Gaza is a place where some half a million people, including many families with disabled and injured children and ailing old people, are being collectively punished by Israel to live in abject poverty. They are denied commerce and communication with the rest of the world, and even humanitarian aid, while vital infrastructure such as sanitation plants, destroyed by Israeli bombing, cannot be repaired because of the Israeli blockade.
I went on the Gaza Freedom March partly because I felt that as a Jew I had a moral responsibility to do so. I knew that others who were not Jewish were also taking part and their reasons were just the same in terms of opposing injustice, cruelty and the increasing racism of Israel, but I felt a particular need to take part because I was Jewish.
However, it is only in the last week that I have realised that many of the historical ‘facts’ of Jewish history are in fact myths and, at a personal level, that I am not even genetically Jewish. This realisation has come about by reading Shlomo Sand’s international bestseller The Invention of the Jewish People. This book, originally published in Hebrew in 2008, is the work of an Israeli historian who teaches at Tel Aviv University, and is a ground breaking analysis of the myths that have shaped not only my world but also Israel. The myths he examines and shows to lack historical basis are such central Zionist beliefs as that of the exodus from Egypt and the exile of the Jewish people from their homeland. He also draws on a wide range of existing research to demonstrate convincingly that Jews do not share a common genetic descent from Abraham, Isaac and Joseph.
He uses existing, though often conveniently ignored, historical scholarship to show that the biblical stories that are used to justify Israel’s usurpation of Palestine have no basis in historical or archeological record. For example, he shows how there are no historical or archeological records to lend any credibility to such stories of the Bible as the migration of the whole Jewish population (i.e. Jacob and his 12 sons) to Egypt and then their wholesale exodus from Egypt, led by Moses, to the ‘promised land’. Indeed, upon mere reflection, it defies credibility that this could have occurred. The idea that Moses led all the so-called Children of Israel out of Egypt and then wandered for forty years in the desert before returning to Israel is quite preposterous. There is firstly the fanciful assertion that the waters of the Red Sea ‘parted’ allowing both the children of Israel to escape and conveniently causing the wholesale destruction of the pursuing Egyptian forces. Sand shows there is absolutely no Egyptian record of this having taken place. It needs to be recalled that Egyptian records are vast and detailed, and a momentous event such as this would not have escaped being recorded. Moreover, given that there were ostensibly some 600,000 Jewish warriors that were being led by Moses, this means that we are talking, with their families and others, of some three million people wandering in the desert for some forty years. Just try and think of the logistics of such a trek. It defies understanding.
Further, with regard to Moses being ‘given’ an empty promised land of milk and honey, the reality is that archeological records show that the so-called promised land was both populated and indeed ruled by Egypt. As Sand writes: “In the thirteenth century BCE, the purported time of the Exodus, Canaan was ruled by the still-powerful pharaohs. This means that Moses led the freed slaves out of Egypt…to Egypt?” (p.118)
More significantly, Sand examines the historical and archeological records to prove that the exile of the Jews from Israel, whether in 586 BC after the destruction of the First Temple, or in 70 CE with the Roman destruction of the Second Temple,never occurred. The idea of exile is of course the great myth that has justified the return of the Jewish homeland and the dispossession of the Palestinian people. He shows how in ancient times there have never been historical examples of the uprooting of entire populations of sedentary agricultural peoples leaving lands empty. Sand draws on the works of many scholars whose inconvenient findings have been consistently ignored in the face of the purported truth of the Bible. He shows how the uncritical perpetuation of historical myths in Israel’s universities have been engineered by universities such as the Hebrew University, having two separate history departments: one named the Department of Jewish History and Sociology; the other named the Department of History.