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Odysseus the Zionist

Odysseus at Home

Contemporary political advocacy is marred by the fact that advocates can appeal to different and conflicting principles in promoting their campaigns. For example, sovereignty can be claimed on the basis of indigenous status, or, to the contrary, on the basis of the rights of conquest. It is rare that a nation can make both of these conflicting claims. But it is not impossible.

The story of Odysseus offers an insight into how such a claim might be possible. Odysseus is the original owner of his property in Ithaca, but he has been in exile for many years, and in the meantime interlopers have taken control of his property. In a better world, he would simply show up, announce his arrival, and his wife’s suitors, after expressing their joy to see him, would restore his property and leave his wife alone. But it does not always work that way. As Jews discovered after WWII, those who had confiscated their property made every effort to avoid returning it. Odysseus must try a different path.

It is often said that Odysseus enters his house disguised as a beggar. In fact, he is a genuine beggar. He has no property, little clothing, and no political power. Before he enters his house he makes a few contacts with potential allies, primarily Eumaeus the swine-keeper and Telemachus, Odysseus’ son. Although he has a just cause, in the end it is up to him and his few closest allies to win back his property by force of arms.

You might think that Odysseus, as the challenger of the status quo, would be the first to use violence. Not so. Odysseus comes as an unarmed civilian seeking shelter in his former home. The guests in his house treat him contemptuously, abusing him verbally and throwing a chair at him when he asks for food. So too in the case of Israel. The Jews did not return to Palestine with an army. They came as civilians, bought land, and sought to work the land in peace. It was the Arabs who took arms against the returnees, seeing them as a threat to their supremacy.

I would like to focus on the contest with the bow. Penelope, somehow sensing that her husband is around, finally agrees to marry the man who can string her husband’s bow and shoot it through a line of axe-heads. This contest reflects a common folk-lore theme in which the woman will marry the man who succeeds in accomplishing an almost impossible task, set either by herself or by her father. Odysseus succeeds in the task, thus winning the right to marry Penelope.

But in this unusual version of the story, Odysseus has a second claim to marrying Penelope: he is already her husband! He proves that in a number of ways: by the scar on his leg, a proof of personal identity, and by his knowledge of the physical arrangement of his bedroom, a proof of connection to the place and an affirmation of his abiding love for his home and his wife. Because he is the one who built the bedroom, and because Penelope has let no one else into it over the years, this test proves both that he is Odysseus and that Penelope has remained faithful to him: if anyone else had seen her bedroom, the test would not identify her husband. So Penelope is not only testing her husband, by making this the test she is also proving her fidelity.

This story presents a wonderful image of the return of the Jewish people from exile. Israel was always their homeland, but it was not enough to simply announce their return and receive restitution. They did not have allies as devoted as Eumaeus and Telemachus, but they had crucial support from America and Czechoslovakia, from progressive sympathizers around the world, and some had a modicum of military experience from the second world war. After fighting a war of survival, but without killing the interlopers, the Jews were able to identify the signs of their previous life here: the Masada ruins, Caesaria and Herodion, the tomb of Rachel, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and of course the site of the holy Temple. Parallel to the scar of Odysseus, DNA tests have repeatedly demonstrated that even European and American Jews are indeed the descendants of the ancient Jews of Israel.

No analogy is perfect, but one may wonder if there is an analogy to Penelope, the faithful wife who is aggressively courted by other men in her husband’s absence? A parallel may be found in the divine presence, the Shechina, destined to dwell again on the site of the renewed Temple. While the Jews were in exile, their cousins, the Arabs, had adopted a monotheistic religion based on Judaism, but then in an act of unrivaled religious and racial triumphalism, not to say appropriation, built a mosque exactly on the site of the Jewish Temple, as if to say “You will never get your wife back again.”

To this extent, the behavior of the Arab Muslims is more disrespectful than that of the suitors. They have not only occupied our holiest site, they have treated it not as their wife but as their concubine. In Islam a man is permitted many wives, and Muslims commonly claim that Jerusalem is their “third” most holy site. There are many conquered cities that tie for third place in Islamic thought, a virtual harem. And in order to make it clear that Jerusalem is not their honored wife, Muslims regularly turn their back-sides to the holy of holies when praying on the Temple Mount, and they turn their faces, as do Muslims everywhere, to their own indigenous holy site in Mecca.

Odysseus was not a Zionist per se, but his story sheds a light on the nature of Zionism. As with the return of Odysseus, the Jewish state is justified both by right of original possession and by right of conquest. There are no grounds at all for denying the Jews the right a state in their homeland, which is why denial of reality has become the main weapon in the anti-Israel narrative. All people are entitled to live in freedom and self-determination somewhere in the world, but the rights of the Jewish state have passed a test of fire more more exacting than most.

About the Author
The author is a professor in the department of Classical Studies at Bar Ilan University. He is the President of the International Society for Socratic Studies, and the Founder of the Classical Forum for Contemporary Issues. The father of eight beautiful children, he lives in Efrat with their beautiful mother.
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