In praise of human variety

Xenophilia opening page remarks


Publications by Guy Ottewell




In the coat of many colors that is the human world, the English (say) or the Finns or the Lapps are patches of red or green or purple, but the Jews, it seems to me, are gold thread shot through everywhere.

They are not a race. They are the people, of very many different appearances, locations, and languages, who think of themselves as Jews, sharing the Jewish tradition. Physically they are more like the people of the many countries in which they live than like each other. They largely have the color, shape, blood-types of the host people. Moroccan and Yemeni Jews look like Arab Moroccans and Yemenis; Falashas of Ethiopia are black-skinned; the Jews who survived until the nineteenth century in China looked like Chinese; European Jews may be blond and blue-eyed (though Europe seems to be where Jews least became physically assimilated). In Israel, to which Jews have gathered from more than seventy countries, they look the most varied: they look, and often act, like English, Germans, Yemenis, South Americans. Naturally so. For Jews not only married into the host peoples, but made converts among them, sometimes en masse. Therefore not only must many of their lines of descent trace back to non-Jews, but for many of them all lines of descent must do so.

Once, far back, there may have been an ethnic unit that had common descent and roughly similar appearance (though, since there are few unmixed ethnic units today—indeed, few units that can be sharply defined at all—there is no real reason to suppose that there was "purity" in earlier times). In the second millennium B.C., tribes speaking Semitic dialects were filtering into Palestine, where there had already been for centuries a mosaic of Semitic-speaking populations. The picture given by linguistic study of inscriptions is that the northwestern Semitic language differentiated into dialects which became Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, and others. (The investigation of this process in Zellig Harris's Development of the Canaanite Dialects makes what is to me one of the most interesting small books in the world.) Palestine was ruled, off and on, by Egypt, and the picture given by the "Amarna letters" (diplomatic documents of around 1350 B.C.) is of provincial governors bothered by shifting alliances and movements of bandits, including people called habiru—a word which may or may not be connectable with `Ibri, "from across the other side; Hebrew". The picture given by the books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua (which preserved old traditions but were edited centuries later) is that there was a clan, the "children of Israel", part of a group of closely related peoples including the Moabites and Ammonites east of the Jordan and the Edomites and Midianites to the south; the clan wandered from Mesopotamia to Syria to Palestine to Egypt and back into Palestine. If this last "exodus" can be connected with Egyptian records at all, it might have been in the times of the pharaoh Ramesses II about 1260 or Merneptah about 1200. I think there are clues that two invasions perhaps at different times, went into the forming of the Israelite people in Palestine: from the south (under Caleb) and from the east (under Joshua).

The previous population will not have been wiped out—that hardly ever happens in such ethnic movements, where usually the incoming conquerors are less numerous than the people among whom they settle. Some of the twelve tribes into which the Israelites were said to be divided were probably of Canaanite origin. (This kind of thing often happens among tribal peoples; twenty of the Navajo clans have non-Navajo origins.) It is an important point: by descent, the population of Palestine was probably more the continuation of the earlier "Canaanite" populations than of the Israelites of the desert.

At times the tribes formed a federation to defend themselves, led by a "Judge"; until the most serious threat, from a more advanced people on the coast, the Philistines, caused them to put themselves under a war-leader, a king. They continued to mingle with other peoples: the king regarded as greatest, David, was the great-grandson of a Moabite woman, Ruth. Briefly under Solomon this state dominated from the Euphrates to the Gulf of Aqaba. It split, not long before 900 B.C., into a southern kingdom, Judah, and a larger northern, Israel. For two centuries they struggled with each other and with others round about, especially the Aramaean kingdom of Damascus, several times almost losing their existence. Yet they produced a monotheistic religion and a literature of stories, laws, hymns, and exhortations by a long series of prophets, towering above the other literatures preserved from the ancient Middle East.

The northern kingdom, Israel, was overrun between about 730 and 720 B.C. by the Assyrian empire of Mesopotamia. The remnant of its population, the Samaritans, survived to modern times as a community of a few hundred people, divided between Nablus (near to their ancient capital Samaria) and Haifa.

That left the smaller southern kingdom, originally only one of the twelve tribes—but from the name of its eponymous ancestor Judah son of Israel, in Hebrew actually Yehdh, come the Hebrew Yehd, Aramaic Yehd, Greek Ioudaios, Latin Judaeus, French Juif. English Jew.

Judah continued semi-independent, until Assyria's successor, the late Babylonian empire of Nebuchadnezzar, crushed it ferociously in 586 B.C. The holy capital, Jerusalem, was destroyed, including its temple. Some of the peasants lingered on, other Judaeans fled to found colonies in Egypt, but many were carried off to captivity "by the waters of Babylon". Under the next empire, that of the Persians, Jews were allowed to trickle back to Jerusalem and, by stages, restored their temple. The community became less a political than a religious one, headed by a high priest.

Alexander the Great of Macedon overthrew the vast Persian empire, coming through Jerusalem in 332 B.C. In the succeeding Hellenistic or Greek-cultured age, the Middle East was divided between the Seleucid dynasty in Syria and the Ptolemies in Egypt, and they took turns controlling the land causeway of Palestine between them. The Ptolemies were relatively tolerant; the Seleucids' demands for conformity to Greek ways culminated in king Antiochus IV, who desecrated Jerusalem and tried to destroy Judaism. This provoked in 167 B.C. a revolt led by the family called Hasmonaeans or Maccabees. They succeeded, against great odds, in saving the Jewish religion and re-creating an (at times) independent and expansionist state.

[To be continued.]