Unraveling the Construction of Racial Identity in the Middle East

How does one go about constructing a racial identity? We typically frame Racial Identity as an American-centric, or more broadly, a Eurocentric discussion. The US constructs racial identity through ethnic backgrounds, but populations such as the nations that make up the Middle East are not often used as case studies in the “how-real-is-race” conversation because the exact point at which it diverges from religious identity theory, remains largely unexplored. If race is indeed a construct, there must be an architect responsible for creating the standards by which a group is assigned a cohesive racial identity. The process is as follows: 

  1. construction of a standard by which people will be evaluated
  2.  by prescription of an innate difference 
  3. categorization based on said difference into higher and lower groups. 

This raises new questions: How have Jews and Palestinians either constructed or been prescribed their respective racial grouping? What were the bricks and mortar of each group’s respective race? In short, their biblical lineage. Biblical Genealogies designated people into categories based on their assumed relation to a figure present in scripture. This process of assigning identity follows all guidelines for the creation of racial identity, and inversely the creation of a highly dangerous racial hierarchy. 

The Role of Biblical Genealogies in Establishing Middle Eastern Racial Identification in Antiquity

A paper by Mark Mcentire and Wongi Park, both professors of theology, discusses the notion that ethnicity is defined by the social organization of a population which can be the basis for interpreting the coexistence of Israelites and Canaanites (respectively: the descendants of Canaan and Aram in Genesis). According to the genealogy in Gen 10, Canaan and Aram have the same grandfather, Noah, yet they are of different tribes and live on different continents, meaning they have distinct genealogies. The lack of clarity about Canaan in Genesis likely prompted additional explanation of the genealogical tradition in the book of Jubilees, which is where the two storylines diverge. On one hand, in Genesis, after the flood, Noah reapportions the earth equally for each of his sons. However, in the Jubilees version, Canaan instead takes the land it renames it Lebanon. Since the basis for ethnic identification in different versions of the Bible is not explicit, most ethnic identifications in Israel are defined differently by different groups. This causes the larger concept of ethnicity to move between the poles of ethnic fission and fusion, essentially splitting and combining certain racial standards to cement the label “Israelite” and maintain the specificity of the Israelite identity. Continuously changing the criteria for racial identity, in addition to defining genealogy and ethnicity as interchangeable allowed for discrimination against Canaanites and fulfilled the construction, prescription, and categorization standards of racial identity, implying that biblical genealogies were equivalent to race in ancient Israel and could be weaponized as such. The boundaries that were superimposed upon the Canaanites as a result of the biblical genealogies are then proliferated by the emotional and psychological damage that results from being classed as “lesser” segmentary ethnicity. This again brings up the three criteria for the creation of a group identity mentioned in the introduction, as the Canaanites are reduced and categorized according to one tenet of each of their identities.  

Significance of Biblical Genealogies in Middle Eastern Racial Lineage

It is important to understand how genealogies feed into narrative kinship and how they eventually become standardized racial identity. The lack of stability in ancient Israelite society meant that kinship and order were hugely sought after, to the point where genealogies were used in legal, familial, and colloquial contexts to group people together and maintain some level of structure Genealogies were used to ascribe occupations and social standing to certain families which is likely what led to the discrimination and formation of racial standards that disadvantaged particular kinship groups, despite its original intent to preserve justice and uniform standards of lawful behavior. For example, the Jewish genealogy is split into twelve segmentary lines of ancestry based on tribal affiliations in Israel. These divisions by biblical ancestry also led to a re-formation of the Jewish identity, cementing a monolithic understanding of Jewish Identity and Ethnicity which excluded many remote non-European Jewish communities in places like Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea, however, because most genealogical interpretation has the goal of excluding these “unfit” populations to maintain the specificity of the Israelite racial identity. 

Examining the Credibility of Biblical Genealogies in Establishing Racial Identity (and the Quran’s Counterarguments)

Much of the difficulty and confusion of tracing biblical genealogies is also due to the almost 300 figures in Genesis Chron 1-9 that all have individual lineages. Additionally, all children of biblical figures are not always recorded in the Hebrew texts, and women are often omitted. Figures like Shem and Seth, who are completely independent and largely unrelated, often have their genealogies swapped in Genesis 5 because of mistranslation. Core figures within separate Abrahamic faiths like Ishmael and Isaac, the fathers of Islam and Judaism respectively, have the same father and therefore similar inheritances, which results in much contention for the same birthrights by their descendants. Since each faith adheres to its theological framework and methods of inheritance distribution, this further muddies the waters of mapping land inheritance through scripture. For example, though the Old Testament seems to promise certain land, the 17th chapter of the Quran insists that there are several technicalities in these claims and that it isn’t clear who the land belongs to. The Zionist occupation of Palestine also does not correlate with many central passages in the Quran, particularly Al-Isra, which warns against subjugating Muslims on Palestinian soil. 

Rethinking Racial Identity: Biblical Insights into Geo-Political Conflicts

Race is not real. This is by no means pervasive in academic or casual discussions but we still must make an effort to understand racial identity construction beyond an American context. In analyzing biblical recordings of the Canaanite and Israelite genealogies and their use as racial identifiers in the present geo-political arena, we can come to understand the age-old practice of classing a group of people as less deserving of basic human rights. Racial superiority constructed using religious imperatives is not unique to the Palestinian conflict and it is our responsibility to recognize it as it reappears in future human rights conflicts.