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From Babylon to now, fight goes on and on

The current bloodshed in Israel and Gaza is part of a struggle that goes back 3,000 years. It won’t end anytime soon.

An ancient carving of a winged bull with the head of a man.
Babylonians, who carved this impressive winged bull, were not the first or the last to fight over the land of Israel. This, at the Louvre in Paris, is a reproduction of a carving on display the Oriental Institute Museum.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

The Bible is not the gateway to history that some wish it to be.

The Passover story? Enslaved Jews making bricks, Moses, plagues, escape from Egypt? None of it supported by a shred of historical evidence.

Oh, the ancient Egyptians were there. The mummy of the pharaoh in Exodus, Ramses II, is on display in Cairo. As are the pyramids. Somebody built them. But the Egyptians who, like the Germans, were sticklers for documentation, are tellingly mum on this topic. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago is jammed with hieroglyphics recording everything from tax receipts to recipes for beer. But nothing about a certain people being let go through means miraculous or mundane.

That said, it is generally accepted that the armies of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, really did lay siege to Jerusalem in 589 BC, culminating in the destruction of the city, as laid out in 2 Kings 25. Archeologists have found pottery shards, bronze arrowheads and distinctive jewelry, leading them to believe the invasion took place. Score one for the Bible.

But even if it didn’t, even if those broken pots led scholars astray, the continual warfare over this patch of land can’t be denied. From Assyrians to Macedonians, Romans to Persians, Turks to Brits ... the list goes on and on.

Which is a long way of explaining why I’m leaping to add my two cents about What Needs to Be Done about the latest bloodletting over Jerusalem and the area around it. Which puts me right in the swim of popular thought, because though loud, neither side has the faintest clue what to do next.

“Free Palestine,” makes for an easy slogan. But given Israel’s track record of success against sovereign states, with armies and air forces and everything, the chances of those jammed in Gaza in miserable poverty bringing about this liberation through violence, say by randomly firing missiles at Israeli cities, is vanishingly small. It’s a bad plan, despite the world’s alarming tendency to overlook the Palestinian assaults that trigger this and past spasms of killing (If Potawatomi started lobbing rockets into Chicago because the land was once theirs, the world might admire their brio, but they wouldn’t get a whole lot of sympathy after the United States struck back, hard. Israel notwithstanding, defending one’s country when attacked is a fairly accepted part of the international order. It only seems wrong when Jews do it, to those who aren’t happy with Jews wherever they are, whatever they do).

That said, Israel has no plan, either. Rather, having had a plan, having tried to work this out, it is shamefully content to give up and let the years spool by while nibbling away at what little land the Palestinians have left and offloading their own moral responsibility as a nation to try to fix things. The Jewish state risks becoming unrecognizable, at least to many American Jews, as the “Jewish” part grows more glittery-eyed and fanatic, the “state” more brutish and ham-handed. Created by secular Jews looking for a safe haven in the very spot they’ve been hanging out at for 3,000 years, Israel is becoming deformed by religious fanaticism, worsened by the malpractice of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a blundering right wing nationalist/criminal in the Jair Bolsanaro/Viktor Orban/Donald Trump mold.

Picking one side or the other is a false choice. The Palestinians jam their fist into a brick wall, then show off their bloody knuckles to a temporarily interested world, mistaking their momentary coo of sympathy for some kind of actual progress. And Israel risks turning Judaism into merely another brand of oppression. (Yes, you can be Jewish and not blindly support Israel or its latest folly; but Israel is without question the face of Judaism in nation form, and what it does reflects on the religion whether we like it or not. I’ve picked over the Torah, looking for the part that says it’s OK to oppress people who live on land you want, and haven’t found it yet.)

So where does that leave us? A completely unacceptable situation that seems like it will go on forever. It certainly has so far. But history does offer comfort. Everything does in fact end, eventually. Mighty Babylon fell in 539 BC. If you’re wondering how this current mess resolves itself, ask a Potawatomi, if you can find one.