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The True History of Palestinian Literature

One of the great weaknesses in the narrative of Palestinian history is the almost complete absence of genuine Palestinian literature prior to the twentieth century. The Persians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans all have extensive literature. Why is there no Palestinian literature? For a great nation that traces its roots back thousands of years, this is a real anomaly. In fact, if one examines the subject objectively one finds that Palestinian literature is far more extensive than people realize, and rivals even the great traditions of Italy and Greece.

There are six major periods of literary accomplishment in Palestine.

1) The Biblical period in which the Hebrew Bible was written and compiled. This period stretched over many hundreds of years and produced works by many different authors. It is customary to divide this work into three categories, the Torah, or the five books of Moses, the writings, which contain historical narratives concerning the kings of Palestine and other subjects, and the prophetic writings written by authors such as Yirmiyahu, Yechezkel, and Yishayahu. Most of it is written in the indigenous language of Hebrew, with some written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, or in closely related dialects of Hebrew. This is perhaps the most influential literary corpus produced anywhere in the world.

2) The Hellenistic period in which the Mishnah, Toseftah, and other Tannaitic literature was produced. These compositions contain the codification of laws and practices of the indigenous Hebrew and Aramaic speaking population. This period also saw the production of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the apocryphal writings and apocalyptic literature. It also saw a flourishing of literature in Greek, including Josephus’ history and the Gospels, both of which may have been originally written in Aramaic. These too are among the most influential writings produced anywhere.

3) Less well known is the extensive literature of the Amoraitic period in which the Palestinian Talmud, known in Hebrew as the Talmud Yerushalmi, was compiled. It should be prominent in any Palestinian educational curriculum as it contains a wealth of information about indigenous Palestinian customs. This work was written in Tiberias and Caesaria, and completed by the middle of the 5th century, well before the Arab invasion in the 7th century.

4) Another extensive body of Palestinian literature is known as the Piyutim. Well over 2,500 works of highly structured poetry were produced in Palestine between the 4th and the 12th centuries in Hebrew and Aramaic. During the 9th century, the Masoretic text of the Bible was edited in Tiberias.

5) The 16th century was a period of intense literary activity in Palestine, culminating in the production of the Shulchan Aruch, a massive codification of indigenous religious practice. It also saw the writing the celebrated Etz Chaim, the fundamental work of Lurianic Kabbalah composed by Chaim Vidal, the student of the Ari, in the holy city of Zefat.

6) The twentieth century saw another blossming of Palestinian literature, as Palestinian Jews returned from exile and continued the tradition of Palestinian culture in the indigenous language of Hebrew. Authors such as Shai Agnon, Rachel the poet, Nathan Alterman, Chaim Nachman Bialik and many others set the foundations of modern Hebrew Palestinian literature.

We should not omit to mention the Palestinian diaspora in which thousands of commentaries on the Bible, the Mishnah, and the Talmud, were written, as well original works such as the Yad Ramah, the Mishneh Torah, the Zohar, Likutei Amarim, Sipurei Maasiot, Likutei Moharan, Ahavat Zion, and thousands of others. They were written either in Hebrew or in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic deriving from the indigenous literature compiled in the Talmud.

With the partial exception of the Greek Hellenistic writings, which may have originally been composed in Aramaic, all of these literary productions were written in the indigenous languages of Hebrew and Aramaic. There may have been other languages in use in pre-modern Palestine, but nothing that rivals the works I have mentioned.

Why then do the Palestinians have trouble identifying the history of Palestinian literature? It appears that the modern-day Palestinians have lost touch with their own indigenous language, culture and religion. This was the result of the Arab conquest in the 7th century, and subsequent centuries of supremacist oppression of the indigenous population. Indeed, the Arabs conquerors imported a foreign language, culture, and religion to the land, and went so far as to build a mosque on the very site of the indigenous temple, in an unparalleled act of triumphalist religious and racial supremacy. But those days are over, and the indigenous people of Palestine are free to reclaim their own rich indigenous culture.

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.