Book Review 5

Robert Wolfe, a Harvard-trained historian, is no mere nominal Zionist but a fully engaged one: an independent scholar, he’s been living in Netanya since 2001. During this past decade Wolfe has turned out a series of finely argued historical essays that explore facets of Jewish history that he argues have been treated skimpily or tendentiously by mainstream biblical scholars.

“From Habiru to Hebrews,” the opening selection, is pivotal to the author’s larger argument. Wolfe is unapologetically secular. His point of departure about the origins of the Jewish people subverts the traditional biblical narratives dealing with a primal Creator’s relationship to a tribe of patriarchs and matriarchs; instead, it is about the Habiru, a societal underclass who appear on hundreds of cuneiform inscriptions starting the 2nd millennium BCE. Wolfe’s thesis is that these Habiru were composed of “scattered bands of runaway slaves and other fugitives who maintained themselves on the outskirts of settled areas of the regionÖIt was theyÖwho were the founders of the ancient Jewish nation.” Perhaps equally noteworthy is Wolfe’s discussion of King David, the very model of a Jewish leader, who not only had humble beginnings but himself was an outcast and fugitive, at times even a traitor to his own people.

Wolfe would have that groups of Habiru fled from Egypt, coalescing over time into a “warrior elite” that infiltrated into Canaan where they overthrew the existing social order of inhabitants from whom they differed little or not at all ethnically but in higher significant ways ethically. One of the strengths of his version of Jewish origins not as pastoral Bedouin in the mold of biblical patriarchs but as runaway fugitives from Egypt is that it satisfactorily elucidates why Jewish law, at variance with that other nations of the period, considered slavery as an utterly repugnant condition and why Jews are famously exhorted never to forget their origins as slaves. Extending this theme, it also suggestively clarifies why, relative to other ethnicities, so many contemporary Jews (particularly in the Diaspora) seem hard-wired to empathize with society’s underdogs.

In “Jewish Influence,” a subsequent essay, Wolfe exploits to startling effect standard Jewish demographic studies in the Roman period. Historians estimate that the world’s Jewish population at the start of the first century CE was roughly 8 million. As a result of sequential Roman wars against the Jews (66 CE to 136 CE), not alone was conversion to Judaism made a capital offense, not only did the nation of Judah effectively cease to exist, but the Roman onslaught assumed a genocidal character: around 2 million Jews were killed (including virtually the entire “Jewish Christian” community of Jerusalem, thus sealing the development of Christianity in an anti-Semitic directions). This Roman policy of mass murder, Wolfe notes acerbically, is rarely if ever spelled out by historians of antiquity who typically characterize Romans “as ‘tolerant’ in matters of religions but stirred to action by the ‘stubbornness’ of the Jews.” Wolfe argues that over and above congenital Jewish abhorrence of idol worship, it was this ingrained Jewish repugnance to slavery that rendered them indigestible to the Roman social order which was, after all, fundamentally dependent upon a slave economy.

Among other notable essays in this collection is one that painstakingly details the ramifications of the imposition of the Justinian/Gregorian “civil calendar” upon the greater part of the world, one that meanders through over the shifting nexus between Knights Templar, Freemasons, Deists and Jews, and–the final entry–an articulate apologia: “Why I Am A Zionist.” Although traditionally-oriented readers will take exception to many of Wolfe’s assumptions, his clearheaded exposition, if not always convincing, adds to our store of knowledge and is at no point implausible. All in all, the appearance of FROM HABIRU TO HEBREWS seems to me to argue strongly for the utility and worth of the recent surge in indie publishing.

 

Haim Chertok, Author of Israel Bound and Rebound

 

This review appears in the December 2012 issue of Hadassah Magazine.

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