The ‘First Peoples’ of Palestine

In a recent op ed piece for the Australian Financial Review, Nyunggai Warren Mundine has suggested that the Jewish people are the only surviving descendants of the ‘first peoples’ of Palestine, and as such enjoy an exclusive claim to the land of Palestine.

Mundine is an experienced public figure, a former president of the Australian Labor Party, and an Australian indigenous leader. He was writing at least partly in response to recent statements by former ALP Prime Ministers, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd, calling for immediate recognition of the State of Palestine by Australia. As such his comments should be read in the context of an internal ALP debate as well as a growing national debate about the desirability of Australia recognising the State of Palestine. This is all healthy debate in an open society.

Mundine’s AFR article has drawn criticism from a number of angles, including this critique by Bishop George Browning.

Like Bishop Browning, I am appalled at the way Mundine trashes his own legacy as an indigenous human rights activist to support the policies and actions of the government led by Benjamin Natanyahu. There are many ways to support Israel without descending to that political gutter.

In this essay, I want to offer a different perspective on the question of the ‘first peoples’ of Palestine.

Before doing that, I note that even Mundine finds it necessary to speak about the Palestinians as real people living in the land of Palestine and of the desirability of them having their own state. Whether such a Palestine ‘state’ would be anything more than an ethnic homeland designed to exclude Palestinians from full democratic participation in the Israeli political system is another matter, and not one that I plan to address here. However, it does get me wondering whether that is the kind of model Mundine now proposes for the indigenous people of Australia?

At the outset, let me make it very clear that I support the right of the Jewish population within Palestine to create a separate and independent national state rather than live in a bi-national state alongside non-Jewish citizens. I may think such a choice was a mistake, as many Jews around the world did in 1948, but in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the Nazi death camps that was the choice of most Jews inside Palestine and many more who came to join the Zionist project after 1948.

The existence of Israel as a successful and vibrant national society is beyond question, and the achievements of the citizens of Israel—both Jewish and Palestinian—since 1948 are remarkable.

Much remains to be achieved, but that is no criticism of Israel.

Our own record of treating the indigenous peoples of this land—as we benefit from the settler society created by British colonists—should caution us against cheap criticism of the settler society created in Palestine by Jewish colonists. Indeed, our national stories have eerie parallels during these past 200 years, and we may have much to learn from each other: not in tactics for controlling the indigenous people, but in strategies for reconciliation and doing justice.

Here Mundine could be a serious contributor to the task of community building and intra-national reconciliation. Sadly, he has chosen to be a protagonist for colonial oppression of the indigenous majority of  Palestine by settlers of mostly European origins.

Let me now turn to the question of the first peoples of Palestine, and specifically Mundine’s claims  (1) that the Jewish people are the only surviving descendants of those first peoples, and (2) that this gives them an exclusive right to enjoy the land of Palestine today.

This is bad history, bad theology, and bad politics.

Let me address each of these in turn.

Bad History

Like many pro-Israeli activists, Mundine mistakenly accepts the claim that the Jewish people controlled ancient Palestine, whether by conquest or some other social transformation, for a considerable period of time in the ancient world. This historical Jewish national presence was ‘interrupted’ between 70CE and 1948CE, but has now been restored.

So goes the Zionist propaganda. But it is bad history and, as we shall see, bad theology which—when combined—create even worse politics.

The historical account is much  more complex than either the contemporary spin doctors or the ancient authors of the biblical texts would have us believe.

Contemporary historians of the ancient Levant as well as critical biblical scholars have established beyond reasonable debate that the biblical narratives do not reflect historical reality, but rather express the political and national aspirations of a small Jewish community whose elite promoted the Jerusalem temple as the unique place for encounter with YHWH, the national god of ancient Israel.

Even the terms “Israel” and “Jewish” are problematic in the biblical context.

‘Israel’ tends to refer to the larger and more powerful political entity whose capital was located—ironically—in the West Bank. This Israel opposed the religio-political aspirations of the more backward society centered around Jerusalem, and indeed for much of the time the southern kingdom (Judah) was a client state of the northern kingdom. The term ‘Jew” is derived from Judah, and does not include the bulk of the ancient Israelites from the biblical period.

Those ‘Israelites’—a term which can include the people of Judah—emerged in ancient Canaanite society around 1200BCE, at the beginning of the Iron Age in the southern Levant. They shared Palestine with many other ethnic groups, as one would expect given the geopolitical location of Palestine between the great empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Out of this ancient melting pot emerged a distinctive people, who described themselves as ‘Israel’. At first these people are indistinguishable from the non-Israelite population of ancient Palestine on the basis of their archaeological legacy. Over time they develop some distinctive features, including the worship of YHWH to the exclusion of all other gods. Even that, however, is not clearly established until well into the Hellenistic period which is probably also the time period during which the biblical texts common to Jews and Christians took their current form.

By the time of Rome’s crushing defeat of the Jewish rebellion in 70CE, the peoples of Palestine tended to describe themselves as either Greeks, Jews, or Samaritans. These are not racial categories, but ethnic identities largely shaped by culture, including language and legion. Hold that idea in mind since it applies equally after the Islamic invasions in the mid-600s CE.

What happened to these ancient ethnic communities of first-century Palestine during the 600 years between the capture of Jerusalem by Roman forces and the capture of Jerusalem  by the Arab forces?

The simple answer is that most of the people became Christians. A few remained Jewish. A larger minority continued to identity as Samaritans.

Today, Palestine has Jewish communities with ancient roots stretching back hundreds of years (if not longer), as well as a very small Samaritan community (mostly centred in Nablus), a substantial Christian community who also traces its roots back to the first century, and a large Muslim community. All of these people trace their roots in the land back centuries, if not millennia.

DNA analysis confirms this, with the closest match between any groups being the match between Israelis, Palestinians, and Syrians. That, of course, is equally unwelcome news in Jerusalem as it is in Damascus or Ramallah.

What happened in the 7th century was not a colonisation of Palestine by Arabs, but a conquest of Palestine—along with Egypt, North Africa, the Levant, Syria, etc—by Arab forces united by their new Islamic religion. The indigenous people of Palestine were no more eradicated by this conquest, than the indigenous peoples of Egypt or Syria. We might compare this with the British conquest of India, where the indigenous people remained a vast majority that would eventually reassert its independence.

The Arab conquerors formed a ruling elite, but the great mass of the peasants were the local people. In the beginning they were almost entirely Christians, and they were not required to convert to Islam. Some did in the first few decades, and over time almost everyone converted. A significant minority of Christians, representing around 10% of the population, did not convert. Similarly, a very small community of Samaritans continued to maintain their identity and their culture.

What did happen was that the Christian majority in the early decades of the Islamic conquest decided to switch from Aramaic to Arabic, and to adopt the identity of the rulers. Everyone in the Islamic empire found it convenient to claim Arab identity: Palestinian Christians became ‘Arab’ Christians, Palestinian Jews became ‘Arab’ Jews, and so on.

The direct descendants of the ancient people of Palestine are still with us. A small percentage of them are to be found among the Diaspora Jews who retained their Jewish identity, but the vast majority of them are to be found among the Palestinians of various religious communities still living in their ancestral lands. They never left. They are still present in the land of their ancestors. They have adapted to other conquests in the past. and will adapt to this latest conquest by Zionist Jews. They are all one people, but have developed different identities during the last 2,000 years of history.

Bad Theology

Many Jewish Zionists (but not all Jews) and many Christian Evangelicals (but not all Christians) combine the bad history seen in Mundine’s essay with equally bad theology. Indeed, the theology may be worse than the bad history since it shapes how people act and excuses crimes against humanity as religious observance. We have seen too much of that in the Middle East these past few decades.

Many Zionists, whether Jewish or Christian, promote a theology which affirms that God gave the land of Palestine to the descendants of Abraham as an eternal gift for their exclusive enjoyment.

Already the problems with this tribal religion masquerading as biblical theology are very apparent.

  1. History does not support such a self-serving claim by the Hellenistic Jews who created the biblical texts that promote this toxic idea.
  2. The ‘descendants of Abraham’ are not limited to the Diaspora Jews arriving in Palestine between the late 1800s and the present time. All the Palestinians can claim the land under such narrative theology.
  3. Even the Bible preserves a ‘minority report’ that understood the relationship between land, people and covenant very differently.

The Bible suggests that the ancestors of the Israelites were from ‘Ur of the Chaldees’, the area we now call Iraq. In this narrative they mostly settled peacefully among the indigenous people, despite the occasional disagreement over pastoral rights, etc.

There is  no tradition of conquest here. That will come with the exodus traditions and in the great—and very late—nationalistic epic stretching from Joshua to 2 Kings. Here there is no driving out of the indigenous people. No ethnic cleansing. No separate national states with exclusive economic benefits for its people at the expense of those excluded.

Indeed, in Genesis 12:1–3 Abraham and his extended family are led to Palestine by YHWH, who directs them to settle in the land, to live among the indigenous peoples, and to conduct themselves in such a way that the local people will consider themselves blessed to have Abraham and his descendants living with them.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country (eretz) and your kindred and your father’s house to the country (eretz) that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the land (‘adamah) shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:1–3 NRSV modified)

In verse 3, ‘adamah is most often translated as ‘earth’. Imperial theology such as we find dominant in Western Christianity prefers to read this as global evangelisation, but that can hardly have been the intent of the author. In context it can equally be understood as the peoples (families) of the land of Palestine. Abraham and his family now share this land (‘adamah) with the indigenous peoples, to the acknowledged benefit of the first peoples.

Tribal religion based on self-serving fictional narratives of the past encourages imperial theology. This is toxic religion. This is bad theology.

Such theology encourages the powerful to oppress and exploit the poor, among whom we most often find the indigenous peoples in a world of empire.

Bad Politics

When a flawed historical narrative is combined with a tribal theology that justifies military force to achieve the ambitions of one ethnic group over other ethnic groups, we have a ‘perfect storm’ of bad history, bad theology, and bad politics.

The prophetic legacy of the Jewish Scriptures, which Christians find embodied in the person of Jesus (himself a Palestinian Jew in a world of empire) and enacted in his mission, calls empire to account and affirms the universal sovereignty of the God revealed in the biblical narratives, as well as in other sacred traditions.

We need a theology that promotes justice, gives hope, and constrains the predilections of the powerful. We need good news. We need Gospel.

We desperately need a political program that engages critically with the best of our historical and biblical scholarship, rather than one that pampers to popular prejudice in order to secure a tainted victory in a dysfunctional electoral system. Sadly, what we see in many Western societies at the moment is a flight from good history and gospel theology into political programs that enrich the few and enslave the many.

Jesus of Nazareth joins with the prophets of ancient Israel in warning us that such systems of oppression and exploitation will fall under the judgment of God. Bad politics will not stand the test of time. In the end, God’s vision for a just society in which all creation finds blessing is not only better theology, but also good politics and that will create a better history.

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  1. WOW!!!!
    I so admire your work Greg!!!!
    Our Macksville Parish was looking for a new priest…position now filled…… you were not here 🙁

  2. I’ve got a question to try to better understand your argument about the ancient demographics of Palestine: Did any of the major military conflicts which swept the region (Assyrian invasions of 732 and 722 BC, Babylonian invasion of 586 BC, Jewish Revolt of AD 70, Bar Kokhba Revolt of AD 132-136, the Samaritan Revolts of 529-531, 556 and 572, the Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602-628 or the Crusades) have any major effect on the demographics of the region?

    1. “Demographics” may be too broad a term, or at least encompass several elements not all of which will have been equally impacted by major conflicts. In any case disease and famine may also have have been major factors impacting on regional demographics.
      As a general rule these conflicts did not involve large scale colonization, ethnic cleansing, or population transfers. At the time they will have caused increased mortality rates among combatants and some civilian classes. Over the longer term some groups, e.g. Jews and Samaritans will have been depleted or expelled, as was also the case for Christians after 640CE. This was not so much population loss as transfer of existing populations between different religious communities (ethnicities).
      Hope these comments address your question.

      1. But even if there were no large population transfers via deportation, each of these conflicts did cause economic collapse due to the devastation of major urban centers. This is visible in the archaeological record. In each case, the result was mass emigration, followed by partial resettlement by other peoples.

  3. Hi again, “CW”.

    First, a postscript for my earlier reply which was typed late at night.

    I forgot to mention that the Jewish population in the Galilee was decimated during the Bar Kochba Revolt (132-35 CE), so that would clearly have had an effect on the demographics. The collation and publication of the Mishnah under the leadership of Rabbi Judah the Prince ca 200CE was a major element of the recovery and reconstruction of Jewish life after that disaster.

    I am not sure that I agree with your claim that each of the military conflicts would have caused economic collapse, nor with your further assumption that such collapse(s) caused mass emigration from (and the partial resettlement of) the supposedly devastated areas. It is also not clear how “large population transfers” differ from “mass emigration” in your paragraph. Such terms are very loose and need definition for a serious conversation.

    Ordinary people (peasants and landless workers) would have had very little opportunity to emigrate unless part of a population transfer planned and implemented by the new ruling elite. There was little incentive for the elite to do this, since the greater economic gain was from the continued presence of the indigenous population working their own lands with a good knowledge of the conditions for success.

    I suggest we are mostly dealing with conquest and not with colonisation.

    Where do see colonisation, for example in the creation Greek cities such as the Decapolis, these tend to begin as settlement of veterans from the Hellenistic and Roman armies. The number of new population not indigenous to the land would have been limited, and I suspect not significant in terms of the demography. I would suggest such cities were very important for the economy, for culture, for religion, and for ongoing imperial cohesion, but not so significant for the population mix.

    Typically, only the ruling elite (less than 2% of the total population) would have been directly affected by such transfers, along with some of their key retainers. The vast majority of the peasants and landless workers (around 80% of the population) would have been largely unaffected by the power dynamics of the rulers and their retainers.

    The major example of imperial policy for population transfers is the Assyrian Empire, which was relatively short-lived and whose population transfers may have been exaggerated. In any case, the logic of the policy was that people transferred out were balanced by people transferred into the same territory.

    Further, military conflict did not always result in economic collapse, although that could be the case. Some sites provide evidence of immediate rebuilding (= economic investment) by the new rulers, while others were left abandoned as they did not have the same strategic significance to the new rulers.

    We have evidence of major economic collapse in the late 2nd millennium BCE, but I think we have no comparable widespread economic and social collapse in the middle of the 1st millennium BCE.

    My guess is that the net impact on the total population numbers, the cultural diversity of that population and the economic dynamics was not dramatic over the course of two or three generations, For example, Jerusalem was in decline briefly after 586BCE, but began to recover 40+ years later and enjoyed substantial Persian investment in the time of Ezra. Over the course of, say, 250 years, what would the net variation across all these indicators have been?

    Such questions are not my primary focus, but I am sure there are scholars working on those models.

    I was making the point that the segment of the population of ancient Palestine that identified as “Israel” (or even as “Judah”) was far smaller than the biblical narrative suggests, had a far more limited control of Palestine, and has far more continuity with non-Jewish population of Ottoman Palestine than some people would assume.

    If the demographics (still a notoriously ambiguous term in this context) were even more volatile, which is what I think you are suggesting, then the Hebrew/Israelite/Jewish element in the population of ancient Palestine will have been even smaller than I was proposing.

    An interesting discussion, and I thank you for your comments.


    1. I think the archaeological site survey data says otherwise. Judah’s population declined by 70% after 586, it would not recover to pre-586 levels until the Hellenistic period. Jerusalem was the largest settlement in Persian Yehud and it was tiny during this period and confined to the City of David + the Temple Mount. (see Oded Lipschits, “Demographic Changes in Judah between the Seventh and the Fifth Centuries B.C.E.,” 323-376 in Judah and the Judeans in the Neo-Babylonian Period; also Avraham Faust, Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period: The Archaeology of Desolation and Charles Carter, The Emergence of Yehud in the Persian Period).

      I differentiate emigration from population transfer in that the latter is forced by a ruling power, while the former happens from the ground up in response to unfavorable conditions. I agree that forced population transfers were relatively small and focused on urbanized elites. However, their removal destabilizes the entire social and economic system: The model which views the vast majority of the population as subsistence farmers tied to the land and never moving, just changing cultures, languages and religions with the times I think vastly underestimates the level of economic integration found even in the Iron II period. Farms were not self-sufficient, self-contained entities. They specialized, and were integrated into the local and regional economy. When that collapsed so did they.

  4. Thanks for the references concerning the demographics of Judah after its conquest by Nebuchadnezzar. I am glad to have those, but note they all refer to one small kingdom (Judah) with a relatively small population base over a long period of time. I would be hesitant to extrapolate from that data to the wider Middle East.

    In support of your argument, let me add that we have a similar pattern of abandonment at Bethsaida during the Persian period and then substantial revival in the Hellenistic period. In our case this is presumably due to the site having no strategic significance within the new Persian imperial landscape.

    It remains unclear to me how any of this is relevant to the essay I published.

    As mentioned towards the end of my last reply, higher rates of demographic change would only serve to increase the central argument of my essay about the limited scale of “Jewish” (sic) presence in Palestine in antiquity and the status of contemporary Palestinians, irrespective of their religion, being the descendants of the ‘first peoples’ of that land.

    Best wishes, GJ

    1. Surely the issue is not whether a few Jews camped in Palestine thousands of years ago, nor even the fact that European Zionists, supposedly in the name of Judaism, invaded and colonised Palestine in 1947, but the fact that, unlike every other nation founded through recent colonisation – all nations exist because of colonisation through millennia – Israel has refused to give full and equal rights to the native people of the land it stole and colonised and has instead set up a murderous military occupation and apartheid State.

      And the reason for this is that Zionism is a bigoted political movement, which draws on a fairly unpleasant aspect of Judaism: the belief that only Jews have a soul and all non-Jews are inferior, if not subhuman and exist only to serve Jews. Ergo, non-Jews in Palestine cannot have human and civil rights because they would be a majority over the superior Jews. It beats me how anyone of conscience can support such bigotry.

  5. What is never explained is why, if Jews constitute a people and are accorded attendant rights, then why do not all religions constitute a people with the same rights?

    If Judaism has these rights then so too must Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, all religions, any religions.

    If Jews had a right to set up a State where their religion began then that would be a part of Iraq and the Christians would have rights to Palestine.

    Judaism did not begin in Palestine. Hebrews wandered in and set up camp there for a bit. They were colonists in Palestine thousands of years ago as they are today.

    But, the salient point remains, why would only one religion be accorded such rights?

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