The biblical story is familiar: Moses led the exodus of Israelites from Egyptian slavery; he descended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments; and, forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land, he prepared them for the leadership of Joshua ben Nun (meaning “God saves”). Delayed by the negative report of his spies about the Land of Canaan, Joshua waited 40 years for God to permit his entry into the land. Capturing the city of Jericho and the biblical homeland, Joshua and the Israelites built the foundation for Jewish national sovereignty.
Riveted in Hebrew school by the Joshua story many decades ago, I was drawn to The Joshua Generation, recently published with a curious subtitle: “Israeli Occupation and the Bible.” The author, Rachel Havrelock (who teaches English at the University of Illinois), explains that “the very point” of her book is “to show the trajectory of biblical interpretation that leads to Democrats, Iranians and Palestinians alike figuring as a dreaded and fearful ‘them’ to be opposed at all turns” by Israel and its allies. Her circle of condemnation closes with reference to Israel’s “systematic aggression,” using the Holocaust to justify its “military occupation” of Palestinians. She modestly declares: “I tell it as a Bible scholar.” So the denigration of Israel poses as Bible scholarship.
Havrelock tells her story as a partisan leftist, concluding: “Joshua’s conquest came to resonate with modern Israeli militarism.” And “as Israel’s formal occupation of territory spills over its fiftieth year,” it seemed to her an opportune moment to identify the Jewish state with Joshua’s military aggression. After all, she writes, “The word for settlement in the book of Joshua similarly forms the root of the word for Jewish settlements in the ‘West Bank.’ ”
Focusing (for 65 pages) on the “Joshua study group” that met in Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s home, Havrelock begins with his 1946 speech before the Anglo-American Committee when he explained: “We have called it Israel since the days of Joshua the son of Nun.” But by fusing “the public culture of Israel with biblical tales of ceaseless conquest,” Havrelock claims, Ben-Gurion prepared the way for occupation to become “a definitional part of the Jewish state.” The Joshua narrative has represented “an attempt to counter the portrayal of Israel’s war of independence as ‘the Nakba,’ ” a “catastrophe” for Palestinians.
For Havrelock, “the founding of Israel marks an instance of ‘settler colonialism’ ”: “the takeover of land … by a nonlocal group connected in some way to empire or Western powers,” not to its biblical homeland. It represented “a clear application of the colonial paradigm.” Revealingly, Havrelock relies on Ilan Pappe, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, as a primary source for the malfeasance of Israel. Even left-wing historian Benny Morris identified Pappe as “one of the world’s sloppiest historians; at worst, one of the most dishonest.”
It follows, for Havrelock, that “the legitimacy of the State of Israel depends upon the denial of Palestinian indigenous rights”—not millennia of Jewish history and memory. In her fantasy world, Palestinians can “cite their own sense of Canaanite history” with impunity, but Israelis are prohibited from embracing the book of Joshua as the story of return to their biblical homeland.
In Havrelock’s contrived world of unrelenting Israeli evil, “Ben-Gurion secured Joshua’s place in Israeli culture” by providing “a language for territorial expansion, military rule, and perennial war without having to quite confess their true cost and requisite brutality.” (The determination of Arab nations to destroy the fledging Jewish state in 1947-48 is ignored.) In 1967, as war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan loomed, General Moshe Dayan displaced Ben-Gurion as “the Joshua avatar,” declaring “We are … following the Joshua conquest.”
For Havrelock, the story of Joshua has been re-enacted in the West Bank (unidentified as biblical Judea and Samaria), where “orientalist perspectives blended with biblical longings.” Settlers (returning to their ancient homeland) are ponderously described as “fundamentalists in the age of late capitalism” with an “apocalyptic imaginary.” They have transformed their conquered land into “an incongruous patchwork of ethno-ideological enclaves.” So “the book of Joshua functions as a settler handbook” with Havrelock’s language of the left as its interpreter.
Curiously ignored by Havrelock is the irony that Jericho (where “the walls came tumbling down” from Joshua’s attack) is now inhabited by more than 20,000 Palestinian residents—without a single evil conquering Jewish settler. Jericho is no more occupied than the University of Chicago, where Professor Havrelock is free to spin fiction and hostility to Israel—the inheritor of Joshua’s evil conquest—as history.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016,” which was recently selected for Mosaic by Ruth Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book” for 2019.