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Are the Palestinians Canaanites? Should We Care?

April 9th, 2008by Haim Watzman · 21 Comments · Culture and Ideas

You’ve perhaps heard that some Palestinian archaeologists and narrative-builders claim that the Palestinian Arabs of today are direct descendants of the Canaanites. The Canaanites, you may remember, are the people from whom, according to the Bible’s narrative, the Children of Israel conquered the Promised Land.

Should the Jews care?

A lot of supporters of Israel get very worked up about this (here’s one example). They believe—correctly—that Palestinian interest in the Canaanites is an attempt to construct a national narrative that gives today’s Palestinians first dibs on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

It’s ironic that some Zionists fell in love with the Canaanites for similar reasons. Aharon Amir, the influential poet and editor who died last month, was one of the founders, back around the time of Israel’s birth, of a literary, artistic, and ideological trend that won the name of the Canaanite movement. Amir and his colleagues believed that a people’s nature is determined by the geography it lives in. The Jews were Jews so long as they lived in exile, but once they settled in Palestine/Israel, they could no longer be Jews. They would revert to the culture, mores, and rituals inherent in the land—those of the ancient Hebrews and the Canaanites.

The historical, archaeological, and textual evidence for both the Palestinian and the Jewish Canaanite narrative is weak. Given population movements, invasions, and intermarriages over the three thousand or so years since the Canaanites flourished, it would be hard to say that anyone living in this land today is more of a direct descendant of the peoples of that time than anyone else is.

Archaeological evidence is always open to interpretation. In terms of artifacts, the Canaanite material culture (which archaeologists generally prefer to refer to as late Bronze Age culture) is not all that different from the newcomers that appear in the mountains at around 1200 BC, and who are generally identified as the precursors of the Israelite nation. What we know of the language of both peoples indicates that they had no trouble talking to each other.

It’s not hard to understand why a Canaanite origin appeals to the Palestinians. The Canaanites’ homeland was occupied by foreign invaders who claimed a divine right to their country. The Jews of today claim to be the descendants of those invaders. The Zionist claim that the Jews were returning to their ancestral land has often included a corollary that the Arabs are later interlopers and as such not truly rooted in the land. Connecting today’s Palestinians to the Canaanites of the third millennium BCE counters all those arguments.

The myths of Jewish and Palestinian origins are important in forging the common identity of each people. Note that calling a story a myth says nothing about its scientific, empirical truth. Myths are stories that tell us who we are; sometimes they are true, sometimes they are false. Most often, they are a mixture of some verifiable truth with a lot of speculation and folklore. That doesn’t make them illegitimate. We all need myths and we all need to know who we are and why we live where we do.

We also need to believe in our myths, so we seek evidence to prove them. That’s why archeology has been such a central, popular undertaking in modern Israel, and why it is becoming a central, popular undertaking among Palestinians as well.

But the solution to the conflict between the Jews and the Palestinians will not come out of one side proving the other’s myth false. Peace, if it comes, will be the product of political arrangements that allow each side to preserve its essential myths.

Yesterday I attended a meeting of Israeli archaeologists who gathered to discuss the future of their field in the event of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. One of the people who addressed them was Moty Cristal, a young lawyer who has long been involved in negotiations with the Palestinians.

“The word ‘acknowledgement’ doesn’t exist in Hebrew, and that’s too bad,” Cristal said. Both sides, he said, need to be able to acknowledge the other side’s myths, without feeling that such acknowledgement places one’s own myth in peril Acknowledgement sets aside what one thinks about the truth or falsehood of the other side’s story and just admits that it’s there and important to them.

In large measure, the current seemingly hopeless state of the conflict is due do a failure to acknowledge. Arafat refused to acknowledge the Jewish-Israeli attachment to the Temple Mount and tried to assert that it was based on a falsehood. That set off a chain of events that produced the al-Aqsa Intifada. Israel’s leaders have been unwilling to acknowledge the huge catastrophe, the Nakba, that the establishment of the Jewish state brought upon the Palestinians.

So let the Palestinians be Canaanites. At yesterday’s conference, archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University predicted that once the Palestinians have gotten their state and it’s had a chance to mature, they’ll product their own young historians and archaeologists who will shatter their cherished myths. So we Israelis can sit back and wait. In the meantime, we can let the Palestinians think of themselves as the modern incarnation of the Canaanites. So what?

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21 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Myths in Collision: Velikovsky and the Zionist Narrative « South Jerusalem: Gershom Gorenberg and Haim Watzman // Apr 9, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    [...] 9, 2008 by Haim Watzman Speaking of myths (see my previous post, Are the Palestinians Canaanites? Should We Care?), I received an e-mail today from a nice woman I’ve spoken to on the phone a few times, Shula [...]

  • 2 Whitey // Apr 9, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    Could the people from the mountains have been the precursors of the Jews if indeed they had no trouble communicating with the Canaanites in the latter’s language? To believe this would necessarily mean that the Jews didn’t originate as slaves in Egypt, arriving at a later time with Johsua in Israel. Because if they came from Egypt it’s hardly likely they would have spoken so freely with the people they found in Canaan.

  • 3 Y. Ben-David // Apr 9, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    Actually, it is the Palestinians who are afraid of historical and archaelogical research. That explains their obsessive attempts to destroy Jewish artifacts on the Temple Mount. They claim on the one hand that there never was a Beit HaMikdash, as you point out, yet they work hard to destroy evidence of something they claim never existed and fear Jewish archaeological work, again fearing we might find something they say never existed.
    Then there is the case of Dr Albert Glock, who was a Christian archaeologist from the US. He wanted to create a Palestinian archeological “narrative” yet he encountered suspicion from both university people and locals in the places he tried to do excavations. He was finally murdered for his trouble.
    I also heard once that the Jordanians have prohibited archaeological work on the east shore of the Dead Sea, fearing that Jewish sites like that of Qumran will be discovered there…again, something they claim never existed.

  • 4 Clif // Apr 9, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    I have a friend who is black who, years ago, gave me a tattered book to read and asked me to tell him what I thought of it.

    The book was an account of the ancient Egyptian civilization and made the case that all we have heard of it are lies and distortions by white people about a people who were in fact, black.

    There was no scholarship to the book. References were few and only to other accounts that said essentially the same thing the author was saying. It was a defiant polemic.

    When I returned the book I told my friend that it was an interesting read but I didn’t think it made a strong case. Now my friend and I are quite close, I refer to him as my big brother and he calls me his little brother (about 15 years separate us) and we don’t hesitate to discuss anything. We got to talking about history and how important it is to people. We talked about how those who were stolen from their country of birth were deliberately deprived of their history along with everything else they might call their own.

    This book was a cry for a history, for a place to be taken among all the others who take their history for granted, a claim to a place at the table if you will.

    So how is one to respond? You’ve made the case that there is no harm in the Palestinians making a claim to be Canaanites and I think the same case could be made for blacks seeing themselves as heirs to ancient Egyptians. But the problem is that the “truth”, whatever it may be, is then reserved for members of the group to discover. Until then we all make believe what others ask us to believe.

    Isn’t this a rejection of the rational for the irrational? I’d be the first to agree that man is not primarily a rational animal but how can we find any points upon which to anchor reason if we accept this casting of history as any would have it?

    Heritage is such a tricky thing. It allows an individual to claim all kinds of things for him/herself that have absolutely nothing to do with what the individual has done in his/her own life. Take the infant child of a rabid claimant for one heritage and have that innocent and ignorant infant raised by the hated enemy. Can we doubt the infant will grow to hate the very family whose “blood” runs in his/her veins even while seeing identity in the opposing heritage?

    Did you see the movie, “Gandhi”? Do you recall the scene where a Hindu is filled with remorse for killing a Muslim child and comes to Gandhi asking how to be free of the torture of guilt? Gandhi charges the man with raising his own son as a Muslim. The man cannot bear the thought and runs away.

    The scene took my breath away, it was so powerful in ripping open to our view the situation of humanity.

    Equally powerful, in the closing moments of the movie, “Ran”, in which brother has fought brother and the world has been brought to ruin, with one last chance of happiness for a father destroyed by a sniper’s bullet killing his only remaining son, one soldier turns to another and says, “I curse the gods for allowing this to happen” to which the other replies, “do not blaspheme! The gods look down on us and weep for what we do to ourselves”

    I would happily give up any heritage in exchange for having these scenes indelibly impressed in the minds of children.

  • 5 Y. Ben-David // Apr 10, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Haim said:
    ————————————————————
    So let the Palestinians be Canaanites. At yesterday’s conference, archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University predicted that once the Palestinians have gotten their state and it’s had a chance to mature, they’ll product their own young historians and archaeologists who will shatter their cherished myths. So we Israelis can sit back and wait. In the meantime, we can let the Palestinians think of themselves as the modern incarnation of the Canaanites. So what?

    ————————————————————–

    Very even-handed, laid-back, tolerant, PC. Why get excited? Of course, in the meantime, before the Palestinians reach the same high level of “progressive-conciousness” as Herzog (who I believe is a member of the “minimalist”-school of Biblical Archaeology which agrees with the Muslims who say the Bible is a historical fraud) they are telling everyone, not just their fellow Palestinians, that we Jews are usurpurs, frauds, and liars who have NO connection with Eretz Israel.

    I love the way “progressives” arbitarily define what is politically-correct for them. Once, Shimon Peres said “what is important is NOT land, but the spirit”. So it was then suggested that Peres should tell the Palestinians that we are doing them a favor by NOT giving them a state, since we are teaching them that spirit is more important than land. The head of Sapir College in Sederot in a recent interview in Makor Rishon responded to this claim by saying “no. We Israelis are advanced people who are the ones who should be universal and thus adopt Peres’ philosophy. The Palestinians are primitive and so they SHOULD be nationalists (as Herzog says), and eventually once they reach our high level, then they will realize that Peres is right”.
    So “progressives” like Peres and Herzog say “advanced people are anti-nationalist, primitive people are nationalists” and Palestinians, being primitive, should be nationalists.” Who says this is correct? (not to mention the arrogance and subtle racism involved). Maybe it is the other way around. A totally arbitary decision by the “progressive-PC” crowd. Just like when the decide based on their “progressive” ideology that global warming is man-made, instead of realizing the science is not at all clear on the matter. Thus, science takes a back seat to “progressive” ideology.

    Don’t forget the first mishna in Baba Metzia. Two people are both holding onto a garment. Both say “the whole thing is mine”. In the end, the court orders them to divide it. If one says “you know what, since you are a primitive and I want to show how ‘progressive’ I am, I will say ‘what different does it make who’s it is’, and if it makes you feel better, I will say ‘you know what, maybe he’s right'”-that one will end up losing everything. There is such a thing as truth, after all, so it DOES matter if there is no truth in the Palestinian claim that they are ancient Canaanites.

  • 6 Tzvi Mackson // Apr 11, 2008 at 6:15 am

    Maybe the Palestinians are actually descendents of Israelites.

  • 7 Y. Ben-David // Apr 11, 2008 at 7:29 am

    Tzvi:

    David Ben-Gurion in his early days tried to claim that the Palestinians were exactly what you said….decendents of the ancient Israelites. He said this would make them welcome the returning Jews as “long, lost brothers”. It didn’t work out that way.

  • 8 TzvI Mackson // Apr 13, 2008 at 8:36 pm

    Y. —

    Does this give you a reason to doubt any other aspects of Mr. Ben Gurion’s reasoning?

  • 9 Jeff // Jun 28, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    Once, Isreal’s neighbors think they have proof that they are decendents of canaanites, they will increase their efforts to destroy Isreal. Canaanites or not, this land was given to Abram, Isaac, and Jacob. When Isreal left Egypt, they were headed home to reclaim what was already their land. And Palestine, as you know, did not exist until 135AD when the roman emporer tried to obliterate and rememberance of Isreal. and call the land Palestine as an insult to Isreal.

  • 10 logical palestinian // Apr 16, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    Thw jews who occupied palestine has NO CONNECTION AT ALL to Palestine. they are europeans africans and some are from Kaukasus.

    The canaanites come from the arabian peninsula 3000 BC not from Europe. Who are you jews? you are a bunch of people who belive in a religion called judaism , you are not an ethnic people. Even a chinese can convert to judaism and suddenly according to your mad fantasi he he have hebrew orgins and he left Palestine 2000 years ago… Come on, look at yourselfs in the merror, you jews who come from Russia have the same feature as russians, and you who are from Eritrea have exactly the same feature as the people of eritrea, and now you come here to discuss whether if palestinians have canaanite orgins? If not palestinians can refer to have canaanites orgins so who can?? swedish people?

  • 11 Gregory Pollock // Apr 18, 2010 at 6:39 am

    My genes are not your genes, and I will crush yours, for otherwise you shall crush mine, and only the ones that crush leave any trace. I make you my enemy before you make me yours. God gave us this land in invasion–as Darwinian as any Darwin. Yet something else endures, never quite goes away into its sentenced vanishing. The Qur’an has a verse, along with many other verses, that reads something like “Vie among yourselves in good works, and leave your differences to me.” Another reads something like “If we had wished we could have made you one people, but then the matter would be determined.” Another: “We created you as many peoples, so you might challenge one another.” I am no Muslim, so asked one Believer of the first quote, “leave your differences to me,” does this not imply Muslims might be wrong, as differences are to be determined/decided outside any closed faith? He gave no reply. This thing that will not quite be crushed, that avoids all claim of superior genes–I think that is what we are afraid of. The world is greater than any faith or nation; I think this will always be so. I have lost and will lose, but I say the Qur’an has something to tell us. There is a way out beyond any mountain top. No one owns it–and we fear that too. So claim you are most ancient; something methinks shall be that does not bother to hear your claim. However special yours are, there are children born elsewhere most seconds.

  • 12 andy // Dec 2, 2011 at 6:23 am

    Palestinians are from Canaanites.. but they are mixed with the lost tribes… they have been living there since the time of Jesus.. Palestinians are actually one of the first descendents of Christianity (Gentiles) and they were also Jews before Jesus came… The reason they speak Arabic is because when Islam took over.. Arabic is what they needed to know to read the Qur’an.. they were told to convert or leave the Land where there family have always lived.. so they converted.. they didn’t want to leave there land.. But Muslims left Christians city’s for them to stay in, like Bethlehem ect. ect. but with a Muslim Law… Jews, christian, and Muslims since then were living in Peace together for a long time.. until 1948

  • 13 mik // Nov 2, 2012 at 2:01 pm

    Honestly, the Palestinians are probably not ‘pure’ descendants of the Canaanites. However, they would have greater claim to this background than Israelis have to the claim that they are the chosen people mentioned in the Torah/Old Testament.

    Look at the name origins of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi – the two major groups of Jews in the world today – ‘Ashkenazi’ denotes Jews from Germany, while ‘Sephardi’ denotes Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. Furthermore, being Jewish means being part of an ethnoreligious group. In other words, you can convert to Judaism and become as Jewish as Moses. It doesn’t take a great leap of intuition to understand that Judaism and the Jewish ethnicity/religion has had its roots of identity and culture firmly planted in Europe long enough to make its claim to the region it currently holds invalid. This would be a truism, if it wasn’t for the immediacy of territorial claims in current-day Israel.

    If Israeli historians and archeologists choose to go into their ancient past to justify their right to the land, they must also accept their long history in Europe and apply their own standards of judging land rights to the plight of the Palestinians. The more mature response , however, would be to accept that Israel is there to stay, as are the Palestinians, and sort out an agreement.

  • 14 Shanntal // Nov 22, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    Clearly not all pelpoe are born to hate, and there are pelpoe that want to give love and understanding a chance, but there are also pelpoe that are not so, and I am affraid this kind of pelpoe exits on both side.For Israel to be loved and accepted, she must treat Palestinians as humans and open a door for compation and love. Putting cement walls around their communities and preventing them from living a life we all take for gratnted may be a temporary soluition, but not a lasting one. I suggest start working with them to better their life, show that you care, set up factories in their lands, help them with healthcare and education, and fun and entertainment. That is what I would do, and If I was palestinian, I would give love a chance also. I am an Iranian.

  • 15 zion jackson // Dec 24, 2012 at 5:09 am

    I have recently found out through genetic testing that i am Ashkenazi jew. The results stated my geneology originates from the middle east and england/africa due to my heritage. I am not religious and do not observe Judaism so one may ask how i consider myself a jew? Because Jews are a people, a race. We have roamed this earth for 4000 years, a mix of armenid/mediteranean and thrived into a blossoming race. During exile we would mix with various other races for a generation but would return to our own as the racial mix would create a physical appearance that would help us blend in our host country. We are not white, we are middle eastern/armenian/mediteranean. Its the occasions inter mix with eurasians that has given us a European look

  • 16 aaa // Feb 8, 2013 at 4:34 am

    i don’t think he meant there was no such thing as a ‘genetic’ jew. of course there is. i think he meant that, because the jews are partly ethnically european, and because jewish culture owes more to its 1000 years in europe (and european culture owes a lot to jews) than its however many millennia, the jews can be thought of as a ‘european’ race or culture.
    See ‘Yiddish Civilization: the rise and fall of a forgotten nation’

  • 17 Zhang // Jan 29, 2014 at 8:30 am

    Please do not kill Palestine children…

  • 18 ALEC // Mar 27, 2014 at 10:06 am

    Are palestinians canaanites?

    http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com/2009/01/shared-genetic-heritage-of-jews-and.html

    Looks like it’s a ‘yes’. Or they’re the descendants of Ancient Hebrews.

    Does it matter?

    Of course not. Whether or not they’re descended from canaanites, nothing gives israelis the right to treat them as they have in the past decades.

    Some extra information on Ashkenazi Jewish genetics: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131008112539.htm

  • 19 Jason // Jul 30, 2014 at 11:46 pm

    Okay, so there’s an admixture and the majority of Ashkenazi mtDNA is non-Jewish. According to the study cited in the article Alec links to, it only amounts to about 12.5 percent of the total Ashkenazi genome.

    More to the point is the table from the study:
    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_8sY9bx8acNM/SXY1_svkjeI/AAAAAAAAARc/c9zVKvXIY8c/s1600/Hammer_2000_Jew_Arab_Ychromosome.png

    It finds that not only are Jews around the world far closer to each other than to populations of their host countries, Palestinians fit squarely in the middle of those Jewish populations.

    We’re all the same people. We’re all Canaanites. Yes, Jews have European genes. Palestinians have Arab genes. Both have African genes. None of us are purebred.

    In fact, after years of frustration at finding no evidence whatsoever of the Exodus, i.e. that the Jews were a separate people from the Canaanites they allegedly conquered, many archaeologists are concluding that if the Exodus ever happened, it involved only a very small group of people. What evidence does exist? That a revolution of sorts took place in Canaanite city-states like Hazor and Megiddo. That possibly the lower classes rose up and destroyed the existing power structure centered around palace and temple… and separated themselves.

    I’m not singing “kum-ba-yah.” Partisans of one side or another can use this information however they want.

    But after nearly a century of hostility, Amir’s Hebrew-speaking nation of Canaan is sounding better and better.

  • 20 Esam // Aug 13, 2014 at 3:14 am

    The name Canaan is an arabic name and it means to accept ones fate with piety. Moreover, there is a good number of Palestinian families with the last name Canaan.

  • 21 akatha // Aug 25, 2014 at 4:49 am

    The DNA evidence does not support the Israeli claim

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