Israel may be the land of the Hebrew Bible, but few expected the leader of Israel’s Arab parties to mark his recent electoral success with a verse from the biblical Psalms.
In the past, Israeli Arab leaders have tended to reject or avoid any embrace of Israel’s Jewish culture. But last month, when the Arab Joint List recommended Blue and White party head Benny Gantz for prime minister of Israel, Joint List leader Ayman Odeh punctuated the decision on Twitter with a quote (in Hebrew) from Psalm 118: “The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.”
Odeh again cited the verse, which Jews recite in their prayers on special occasions throughout the year, in a New York Times op-ed announcing the Arab parties’ endorsement. He also referenced the verse during the Joint List leadership’s meeting with Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president. Rivlin reacted with surprise. He pointed out that the verse had liturgical significance for Jews. Odeh replied, “Yes, it’s from the Psalms.”
Odeh’s invocation of the Hebrew Bible, and the widespread attention it received both inside and outside Israel, attests to the crucial role that Jewish tradition plays as the basis for Israel’s political mythology and identity. Israel officially acknowledged this role last year with its controversial “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” Usually known simply as the nation-state law, it defines the State of Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious, and historical right to self-determination.” The law’s critics have charged that it promotes “Jewish supremacy” and omits any mention of “equality” from its definition of the state’s character. Its defenders counter that such criticisms are overblown, sometimes ignoring the law’s actual text. Israel already has a Basic Law enshrining human dignity and liberty as values of the State of Israel. The purpose of the nation-state law is simply to supply an equivalent statement defining the country’s Jewish character.
While Odeh and his colleagues in the Arab Joint List object to the nation-state law, Odeh’s decision to use the language of the Psalms demonstrates the law’s value. It highlights Jewish tradition’s potential to supply a common, uplifting political vocabulary for all Israelis, which has an important precedent in ancient Jewish history.
Israel’s nation-state law acknowledges that the State of Israel’s unique story should be rooted in the three-thousand-year-old history of the Jewish people. The law’s critics have worried that this makes Israel’s political mythos available only to Jews. But as Odeh’s example shows, Israel’s Jewish character can allow Jewish tradition and literature to serve as a source of inspiration for its entire citizenry. It gives all its inhabitants a stake in Jewish history.
This idea was key the last time the Jewish people held sovereignty in the land. Over two thousand years ago, Israel was ruled by the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty. The Hasmonean kingdom incorporated within its borders a people called the Idumeans, descended from the biblical Edomites. While past historians believed that the Idumeans were brought into the kingdom under duress, even forced to convert, scholars in the last several decades have argued that they joined it voluntarily as natural allies. What became of this distinct group?
Idumeans were active participants in Israel’s politics. By the reign of Herod, who ruled Israel in the first century B.C., the Idumeans had become a fixture of the ruling class. Herod himself was of Idumean heritage. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus described Herod’s politically powerful father, Antipater, as “an Idumean . . . in the front rank of his nation.”
The Idumeans proudly maintained a distinct cultural identity within the Jewish body politic. They identified ethnically as Idumeans, and they continued to employ traditional Idumean names like Qosnathan and Qostobar. Some Idumeans adopted Jewishness as a way of life, but Josephus indicates that adherence to Idumean religion continued throughout Herod’s reign, and possibly beyond. In sum, as historian Martin Goodman explains, “the Idumeans see themselves as close kin to the Jews but as a separate nation.”
Most crucially, Idumeans embraced the Jewish state’s own political mythology. Take, for example, the Jewish revolt against Roman rule, in the first century A.D. During this conflict, the Idumeans were not only among the most committed rebels, but they also expressed their affinity for the cause in terms of Jewish tradition. In particular, they highlighted the importance of defending the Jerusalem Temple. In the words of the Idumean general Simon son of Cathaas, “we Idumaeans will preserve God’s house and fight to defend our common country.” Later Jewish tradition, in turn, fondly remembered the Idumean embrace of Jewish politics. For instance, while rabbinic literature’s opinion on Herod is quite mixed, it speaks highly of King Agrippa, a king of Israel of Idumean descent who reigned shortly thereafter.
The Jewish story is a rich source of political mythology. It has influenced leaders from the Byzantine Empire, to Elizabethan England, to the American founding. Now, it is once again playing a role in the land of its birth. As the Idumean precedent demonstrates, and as Ayman Odeh’s example now highlights, it is especially there that it holds the capacity to inspire Jews and non-Jews alike.
Ari Lamm is the special advisor to the president of Yeshiva University.