Author Archives: Jon Simons

David and Goliath, Part Two

David and Goliath by Titian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (between 1542 and 1544)

From my perspective now, and while remaining thoughtful of and compassionate towards my eleven year-old self, with his sweet smile inherited from his mother and his curly ginger hair brushed as straight as it would go, I would want to push myself further in my analogy of the 1948 war to David and Goliath. It is not that I could expect of my younger self to know what I know now, that the victory in 1948 was not miraculous or righteous. The paramilitary forces of the Yishuv – the pre-state institutions of the Zionist community in Palestine – did relatively well in the civil war against poorly equipped and organized Palestinian and Arab forces from November 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition the British Mandate of Palestine, until May 1948. This was particularly so in the last few months, when the nascent state captured the main Arab and mixed cities on the coastal plane, Jaffa and Haifa, clearing those and other areas of Palestinian residents. There was a tougher spell, lasting twenty eight days, after British rule officially ended in May 1948 and Arab states advanced, but they were not dramatically better armed, numerous or coordinated compared to the newly-formed Israeli Defence Force, which was able to halt their advance. But they could not prevent the fall of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem – surely the most appropriate site for divine intervention. After the first truce, from 11th June to 8th July 1948, Israeli forces counter-attacked, now reinforced by Czech weapons and more recruits. They were mostly successfully except on the Syrian front, in a ten-day campaign followed by another violated truce. In subsequent Israeli campaigns against Egyptian forces in the south and the Arab Liberation Army in the north more territory was seized, and more Palestinians were expelled or fled, creating about 700,000 refugees as well as internally displaced people. The new State of Israel secured control over 78% of Mandatory Palestine, 22% more than it had been allocated in the UN Partition Plan, in a series of armistice agreements with the Arab states. I could not know all of that then because Israeli New Historians had not yet written their rather more sober accounts of the war, based on released Israeli and British archives, in the late nineteen eighties. I followed the debate about the New Historians during my decade living in Israel, mostly based in the academic culture of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where their work was discussed in the cafetaria and in newspaper columns as much as in academic seminars. I also could not know then what I know now because I was a child, still living in a magical universe of divine intervention that made more sense to me than the results of careful archival work. In my world, the narrative of oppression and heroic redemption rang truer than one of successful institution and state-building.

What I could possibly expect of my eleven year-old self was to pay more attention to the story of David and Goliath. Somewhere in my early Jewish education I learned what is written in the First Book of Samuel 8, though whether or not we read it I cannot recall. The elders of Israel asked the prophet Samuel to appoint a king over them, “to judge us like all other nations. … and go out before us, and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:6, 20). God commands Samuel to “hearken to the voice of the people,” not because they are right, but because “they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. They have forsaken me, and served other gods” (1 Samuel 8:7-8). God also tells Samuel to remind the people of what a king will expect from them, taxation, military conscription, and servitude, but they do not care. Another prize I was awarded by the Emmanuel Raffles cheder in December 1972, some months after I wrote the Israel essay, a four-volume history of the Jewish people,  Our People,can serve as a likely approximation to whatever I was told, because the first two volumes basically paraphrase Biblical history.[1]

The message I recall is that although Saul was selected by God through Samuel to be king, his anointment as king speaks to a deeper failing of faith among the Israelites who should not have wished to be like the other nations. Moreover, Saul was not a great example as a king. I have to look back at volume two of Our People to recall the details of Saul’s shortcomings, but one detail that was close to the surface of my memory is that Saul did not follow through on God’s instruction through Samuel to annihilate the Amalekites. He spared their King Agag and allowed their best cattle to be taken as spoils after defeating them in battle.  For this sin, Saul lost Samuel’s support and divine right to be king, which passed to David, still a shepherd boy. Subsequently, David comes into the royal circle as a lyre player and armor bearer for the melancholic Saul, prior to the story of Goliath.

In addition to knowing more of the back story to David and Goliath, as an eleven year-old I could have paid more attention to the details of the story. The Israelites under Saul and the Philistines were once again at war, but rather than engaging in full battle, the tall, mighty Goliath issued a challenge to individual combat with an Israelite champion to decide which side would vanquish the other. David, still caring for his father’s sheep, arrived at the scene to take provisions to his older brothers. David expressed surprise that no Israelite from among “the armies of the living God” (I Samuel 17:26) has the courage to accept Goliath’s challenge, word of which reaches Saul. Let us leave aside the oddity that Saul does not appear to know who David is when he is brought before him. Let us focus instead on the detail that David does not go out armed only with his slingshot and five stones against the well-armed Goliath for lack of equipment, but rather because when he tries on Saul’s armor and weapons he cannot walk with them. As David tells Goliath, whereas Goliath comes with his weapons, David comes in the name of God, to demonstrate divine might. David is the hero because, unlike Saul, who has not fulfilled the earlier expectation of the elders of Israel to go in front of their armies to fight their battles, he has faith in God. David is thus fit to become king, unlike Saul becomes increasingly jealous of David, even trying to kill him and forcing him to flee. Another element of David’s story which stuck in my mind is that, though he was a great king who built a united kingdom for all the Israelites, he had too much blood on his hands to become the builder of the new temple in Jerusalem.  

As an eleven year-old boy, I might then have been able to see that the story of David and Goliath is more complicated than that of a brave little underdog vanquishing its well-armed and larger enemy. I might have been able, with some prompting, to see that the story is as much about Saul’s unsuitability to be king as it is about David’s faithful, God-fearing bravery.[2] But it would have been too much of a jump for me to consider that the story can be read as an ongoing current of Judaic critique of the sort of power embodied by the modern sovereign nation state, which is what came about in the war of 1948 and is taken to be a fulfilment of the Zionist movement. The Israelites of Saul’s time demonstrated a lack of faith by wanting a king, so they could be like all other nations. State-focused Zionism – which eclipsed cultural Zionism and Zionism willing to have a Jewish homeland in Palestine within a bi-national state – demanded that the Jews to be like all other nations. It regards the power of a state as that which protects Jews from antisemitism both physically and by normalizing Jewish collective life as modern nationhood. Max Weber claims that the state is the “only human Gemeinschaft (community) which lays claim to the monopoly on the legitimated use of physical force. However, this monopoly is limited to a certain geographical area, and in fact this limitation to a particular area is one of the things that defines a state.”[3] The emphasis of the modern state is on secular might wielded in demarcated territory. That is Goliath’s power, not the power of religious faith or of a divinity intervening in human affairs. Yes, the Biblical narrative does proceed to legitimate David’s militaristic nation-building (though it is anachronistic to see a modern nation state in his kingdom). But the united kingdom does not last for long. Division (at first between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah) rather than unity characterizes most of Israelite life in its-post Exodus homeland. I would like to think that even at my early age, with a teacher asking the right questions, I might have been able to see that David’s faithfulness, his rejection of Saul’s armor, indicates an alternative line of Jewish legitimacy to Zionism and militaristic state-building, casting doubt that the latter is the divine destiny I took it to be.

[1] Jacob Isaacs, Our People: History of the Jews, Volume II (Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Inc.: Brooklyn, NY, 1957), pp. 58-60. Unlike The Golden Thread and A Guide to Jewish Knowledge these volumes do not establish continuity from Biblical times to the modern day and the State of Israel, ending their account around 1000 C.E, after the writing of the Talmud and the end of the era of the Gaonim, when the Talmudic seminaries in Babylon closed. I am not sure I read all of this history at the time, but it does offer a model of rich, viable Diaspora Jewish life that is missing in accounts of Jewish history with a Zionist teleology that takes the Jewish State to be the pinnacle of history.

[2] Interestingly, Azmi Bisharah picks up on Saul’s jealousy of David’s military success as an angle for analysis when using the story as an analogy to analyse the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Azmi Bishara (2008) David, Goliath and Saul: repercussions on Israel of the 2006 war, Contemporary Arab Affairs, 1:2, 211-236, DOI: 10.1080/17550910801951755.

[3] Max Weber in Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, translated and edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters (Palgrave Books: London, 2015), p. 136.

David and Goliath

[I am a posting some autobiographical blogs, I hope towards writing a book about how my ideas and beliefs about Israel-Palestine and the conflict have evolved over the years. I might start here.]

“When David killed Goliath it was God’s doing. When Israel won the War of Independence, it was God’s doing.” That is how I remember the start of the essay I wrote about Israel in 1972, aged eleven, for which I won the Leon and Bertha Gradel Israel essay prize at King David Junior School in Manchester. My good memory at that age plays an important role in the story of the prize, which I was invited to read out an evening dinner for the school governors. I was terrified by the prospect and rehearsed a lot, carrying the essay around with me in the days leading up to the event. On the afternoon of the dinner, I realized when I arrived home that I had left the single copy of my text at school. When my father came home from work, he took me to the school in the hope of finding the caretaker to let us in, but there was no sign of him. So, I sat down to rewrite the essay, drawing as best I could on memory, filling in the gaps with equally florid prose where there were gaps. I spent the evening stuck as closely as possible to my two peers – both girls – who were also at the dinner, so closely that they went to the toilet to shake me off for a while. Needless to say, I made no mention that I was not reading out the actual prize-winning version when called up to the stage to speak. The following day our class teacher, the inspiring and much-loved Mrs. Abrahams, asked me how the reading had gone. When I told her and the whole class about forgetting the text in my desk, she was prompted to call one of the two local Jewish weekly newspapers [check cutting at Dad’s] , which published the story. We omitted just one detail, which was that my father and I had found an open outside door at the school but my classroom door was locked, my desk frustratingly close to it. There was no need to embarrass the caretaker.

On the left is Osmar Schindler’s 1888 painting “David and Goliath.” On the right is 15-year-old Faris Odeh throwing a rock at an Israeli tank during the Second Intifada. He was killed by the Israelis ten days after this picture was taken. Source: Beirut Today

The opening trope of the essay, of Israel as the David to its aggressive and monstrous Arab, non-Jewish neighbours, indicates how deeply I had absorbed a religiously-framed mythical Zionist narrative about the righteousness of the birth of the State of Israel. According to that narrative, Israel was. like David, relatively small and ill-equipped, the young Jewish underdog bravely standing alone against the might of the states of the Arab League, standing in for the Biblical Phillistines, Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, who invaded the newly-declared state on May 15th 1948. So outnumbered and overwhelmed was Israel that it was miraculous that it not only survived but triumphed over its enemies, just as in the First Book of Samuel David accredits his victory to the living God, not to the “sword and spear.” So, it was not just any sort of Zionism with which I had been inculcated, but a religiously-tinged version that saw the hand of God at work in the creation of the State of Israel, just as in the Biblical stories. There could thus be no question about the justice of Jewish nationalism, any more than of the Israelites victory over the Phillistines, achieved “in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the armies of Israel.” (Book of Samuel 1, 17, 45).

The trope of Israel as David and the Arabs as Goliath is still current and potent. A book published in 2012 that posits Israel as the aggrieved party in the conflict, the victim of outrageous global media bias, uses the trope for its title. A blogger in 2019 similarly targets the “Goliath Arab propaganda machine” and bemoans its efforts to rob Israel of its victim-status as David: “we cannot let the Arab Propaganda machine steal the truth, including our very history and identity, and take Israel from the real David back to the evil Goliath.” Another similarly-titled recent book laments that Israel has lost its David status not only because of the size of the Arab and Muslim Goliath but also because of a new paradigm on the Left, a “race-consciousness in which the struggle of the third world against the West … replaced the older Marxist model of proletariat versus bourgeoisie.” Some people are just sore winners, oblivious to the immense power disparity between Israel and Palestinians. I could say more, but it’s not worth the trouble.

Not that I thought of my childhood essay at the time, but my experience of living in Jerusalem throughout the first intifada thoroughly dispelled the mythology of Israel as the small David and Palestinians as the giant Goliath. The uprising pitched mostly unarmed Palestinians in the Occupied Territories against Israel, the regional military superpower. Frequently, Palestinian youths – the Shabab – throwing stones or using catapults confronted and harried Israeli troops whose commanders were ill-prepared for handling a mass civilian uprising.  Although I had no television at home at the beginning of the intifada, I did not need to see live pictures of slingshots pitched against rifles and armored vehicles to understand that the typical media framing of the conflict had shifted and even been reversed in Israel as well as abroad, even in the USA, as noted by Ella Shohat in 1991. Palestinians became David and Israel Goliath. Perhaps the Palestinians did not have God on their side, as did David, but they certainly had justice on their side as the rebelled against illegitimate and unrelenting military rule.