In February 2019, two Israelis found a 1,900-year-old coin from the time of the Jewish Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans (132-35 C.E.) in an area southwest of Jerusalem. Inscribed on one side of the coin were the words the "second year to the freedom of Israel."
This kind of evidence connecting the Jewish people to the land of Israel is exactly what Nur Masalha seeks to undermine in his new book, a dense and redundant effort to undercut what he calls "the foundational myths of Zionism."
As an anti-Zionist historian, Masalha exhibits typical contempt for "Zionist settler colonialism," but he distinguishes himself in one important way. He also endeavors to challenge "the fictional narratives of the Old Testament." In other words, he seeks to deny the Jewish connection to the Holy Land.
For example, he asserts that "there is no empirical historical evidence or facts to corroborate positively the Old Testament Exodus text." He further finds a "lack of material or empirical evidence for a 'United Kingdom of David and Solomon.'" He sneers at what he calls Jewish "myths of 'exile and return' and 'return to history.'" When he does acknowledge Jewish connections, he claims that the Jews were "Palestinians"—seemingly with no claim to the land.
In contrast, he posits that "Palestine and its local heritage have survived across more than three millennia through adaptation, fluidity, and transformation." In disjointed, repetitive, academic language, he labors to draw a continuous arc from the Late Bronze Age to the current day. Of course, Arabs have connections to the land they today call "Palestine." But to assert a continuous four thousand-year history is absurd. The territory has changed hands countless times, as Roman, pre-Islamic, Islamic, and modern empires came and went.
Not surprisingly, Masalha reserves his most unhinged treatment for the present, devoting a full seventy-nine pages to a chapter entitled "Settler-colonialism and disinheriting the Palestinians." He rants about Israeli "appropriation of Arabic toponyms" (a word he uses incessantly) and consumes eight pages excoriating European Jews for taking Israeli names upon emigrating at the turn of the last century.
The main points of the book are made in the introduction, which drags on for fifty-four pages. Masalha certainly could have saved a few hundred trees by truncating his opus into a political pamphlet but chose to stretch his ahistoric rant for ten more chapters. At one point, he notes that "historians often reproduce their own preoccupation with identity politics and imported nationalism." It is hard to disagree with him on that one.