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What came first?  Was it the chicken, or was it the egg?  The answer is not simple. In a single human being, this relies on a balance of two forces, not necessarily opposing however, influential.  What helps us understand the underlying drive of a group of people is the balance between the material and the cultural world.  In the case of the Israelis, it is important to note that placing these people in a particular geographical location, at a particular time in history, commands a balance of many factors.  One factor drives the other.  Our culture grows from our circumstances, our weather, our terrain, our level of education, and our place in history.  Take note of the Israelis of today, although their history and religion are, to many, one and the same.  One can see, that although they have, in the last two thousand years  spent time in many lands, they are still a people whose past is influenced by political and economic events and whose future is tied ultimately to a particular place on Earth,the land of Israel.

To begin with, the Israelis, historically, come from the area we call the Middle East, particularly from an area known as the Levant.  The area on the East Coast of the Mediterranean Sea, now known as Israel, formerly Palestine and was prehistorically known as Canaan.  In a land of low fertile valleys and rocky mountains and where rain is scarce at times, the ancient people settled in areas where their sheep and or cattle would be able to graze and where the people can grow crops of wheat and various vegetables.  With farming and herding of sheep and cattle, the size of various clans grew larger.  The scarcity of land becomes apparent. While telling a tale over the campfire at night, the tribal elders reduce the battle between the shepherd and the farmer for land to the legend of two brothers fighting and one killing the other.

The nomadic peoples settled Canaan and set up trade with each other.  Enjoying the prosperity of the land, certain clans of the area grew to the point where they built permanent settlements like those of Jericho, on the Jordan River according to  “Readings: The Modern Middle East” on page 3.  The founding of the Jericho near the Jordan River accents the dependency on water. The need for water was always a constant issue.  Ancient man, in trying to understand their world, and how it works, would try to petition the god of the sky and the god of the mountains for water for their crops.  Ancient man worshiped many gods.  Their gods were in charge of fertility, rain, and thunder, and they had gods of war, or for protection.  Man’s desire to control the geography influenced man to create a system of supplication to these gods that eventually became ritualistic and became the foundations of religion.

The foundations of man’s understanding of his environment leads one to hypothesize why the water falls from the sky on certain days and not others.  Why does the sound of thunder seem to emanate from the mountains?  Why do the cattle die or why do crops fail.  Who is in charge of these things?  The creation of gods or deities was the answer that ancient people came up with.  The worship of a pantheon of deities is no different for the people of East Coast of the Mediterranean and West of the Jordan River.  However, events outside of religion also have an effect on a group of people.  Crop failures and drought in other lands may also have an effect on your people.  It certainly did for the people of ancient Canaan.  Tribes from surrounding Iraq and Egypt, to name a couple invaded the area frequently.  The passing of traders throughout the area brought materials from other lands, as well as knowledge, ideas and concepts.  The ancient Israelites based their religion on the concept that the pastures are greener over there, that Canaan was the Promised Land, and are the inheritance of the descendants of one man from the Chaldees (page 77),  by the name of Abram.  The scripture that both the Christians and Jews of today refer to are the Torah and the first five books of the Old Testament of the Holy Bible.  These writings describe the creation of the world and the prehistory of the world until a time when Abram and his family came to be the one chosen by a singular deity whose declaration that he must be worshiped above all other gods.  Religions are ideas that are revealed to man by some supernatural means.  In the case of Abram, his revelations come to him directly from the god El, Elohim, YHVH himself.  In obeying this god, Abram curried the favor of the deity, and in doing so, the deity changed his name to Abraham and then promised him that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan forever.

Although the idea of a deity giving one particular man an area of land for perpetuity, Abraham’s descendants were displaced from this land many times.  During times of drought, the various descendants of Abraham, now a series of tribes based on his great grandchildren’s families fled to Egypt to escape drought.  Later after several generations, the people found themselves slaves in a land not their own.  Once again, the vision of greener pastures came to mind and they escaped returned to the land they came from.  After settling back into their homeland and conquering the neighboring tribes, the people created two kingdoms.  The kingdoms were known as Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  These two kingdoms although of very similar peoples had developed different beliefs but still claimed descent from the patriarch Abraham.  Outside events, this time political would once again force them from their homeland.  In 597 BCE (page 78). The Babylonians conquered the two kingdoms.  The ruling class and the priests were taken into exile within Babylonia under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar.  Not wanting to lose their national identity, they wrote down the various legends and stories of their people and the various tribes and worked to assimilate each into a somewhat coherent account of who they are and what the future holds for them.  Once again, the peoples focus came upon the land of greener pastures that they once lived.  They would return to their land, and later in the first century CE, the Romans would once again send them into exile, this time for almost two thousand years.  Whether the ancient Israelis were in fact from Ur of the Chaldees, or they were some of the original settlers of the land called Canaan, the people now called Israelis place their identity with a geographical setting.  If not for the political upheavals of Babylonian conquest, the ideological desire of an identity with a place the priest would not have written down that almost forgotten, yet promised place of happiness.

History too plays an enormous influence on a people. Because the people of Judah, and their religious beliefs are so tightly intertwined, and due to the fact that two separate religious belief systems sprung from Judaism, the effects of how those three separate religions interact with each other is of the most importance.  The cultural aspect of Israelis as being people who are perpetually wronged and perpetually wandering throughout the world seeking a home is important as well.  Because the followers of a certain Jew, whose ideas of peace were radical and seemingly opposite to what the people of Judah believed at the time played an important part of how Christians see the Jewish people.  Similar interactions with the followers of the prophet Mohammad of the sixth century CE also influenced how the Muslim treats Jews, not as equals, but of those who the Muslims would tolerate.  Each of these two groups strives to take on the mantel of the chosen people of God.  In doing so, they force a mindset of the Jewish people that seems to rob them of their inheritance, a reason to fight.  After the horrific events of World War II, the people who, throughout the two centuries in exile, through the written word were able to maintain their identity as Jews and as people of Israel.  This event, if anything further strengthens their resolve to hold on to the concept of land and enforces the culture of fighting for what they believe belongs to them.

Once again, we can see that environment shapes the culture of a people.  While the Jewish people lived in Spain, during their time there they learned to speak the Spanish language.  After their expulsion from Spain, The Sephardic Jews settled in the Mediterranean area where they forged a new culture based on their language, their place in the world and generating  different religious traditions based on the Torah (page 83).  One can say the same for the Jews of the Yiddish tradition from the Germanic lands around the Rhine Valley.

The death of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, the horror, and the shared suffering of a people is what drives them to seek shelter in a land where they can feel safe.  Ultimately, from a secular and a more idealist point of view would be that the people of Israel should feel safe in any democratic land in the world today.  However, that does not seem to be the case.  The want and desire to have a particular place in the world to rule and call their own is admirable to a degree.  The practicalities of that desire are even less admirable. The Zionist movement to return to their homeland, at the time made a great deal of sense from the Jewish point of view.  Looked down upon by both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and the rise of Fascism and the rise of National Socialism in Germany were definitely good reasons for the desire to find a homeland.

Finally, on the surface, it may seem that culture and religious beliefs are the driving force that forges the destiny of a people.  Although culture and religion form an overall psychology of a people, it is not the underlying reason for the behavior for the Israeli people. Forged in the prehistoric cradle of civilization at a time in man’s history where humanity’s knowledge had not advanced much further than the wheel, the land shaped their culture.  The ability to create life by farming and domesticating animals shaped their religion.  The political events that drove them from their lands, usually caused by some environmental event such a drought or flood, played a part in other nations conquering them.  Their desire to live in a land occupied by people who have lived there since the time of their last exile, although shaped by an ideology based on a culture and religion, it is the events that have taken place over the last four thousand years ultimately shaped that ideology.  The geographical locations of their exile of the last two thousand years further refined that ideology into what it is today.

Readings: The Modern Middle East by by Michael G. Roskin, James J. Coyle, Roy R. Andersen, Robert F. Seibert, Jon G. Wagner