Toward A New Era of Nation-States, Part IV: The Ancient Greeks, Jews, & Universal DoctrinesAlgis Avižienis
Part I here, Part II here, Part III here
Internationalism vs. Nationalism
The chief threat to the viability of European nations is the extreme concentration of private wealth, which the globalists have parlayed into political influence on a global level. Fortunately, there are signs that Europeans are beginning to reject globalization. It took decades for this awakening to materialize because the globalists skillfully managed the slow descent of living standards from the booming post-war years to the stagnation of today.
From here on out, however, mass discontent can only get worse, for the process of draining European wealth to sustain Third World industrialization and to feed the super-rich has gained too much momentum. Globalization will lead either to a great political upheaval or the complete derangement of civilized life in Europe. The masses imagine that what is at stake is their material welfare. Important as this issue is, however, it must be positioned within a broader ideological context.
The chief point at issue is whether 700 million Europeans will stand aside and allow a tiny minority to fuse their European identity into a global mass of humanity. Today the chief prize of the struggle for power is not just dominion over Europe or the Western Hemisphere; it is global political monopoly. The real struggle is between two opposed political conceptions — the universal and the particular.
We have already identified the globalists and their auxiliaries, and we have briefly described the levers of their power. But as great as the globalists’ manifested influence is, it pales in comparison to the potential power of hundreds of millions of discontented Europeans, who may yet make use of their latent strength.
For the internationalists, the main task will be to uphold the widespread delusion that universal goals are more progressive and morally superior to national aspirations. The patriots, for their part, will argue that the limited resources of man should define the horizon of his aspirations. We ought to pursue goals that are realistic, and not take on the burden of saving all of mankind.
History provides us with at least two examples of nations that lived according to what we would consider a nationalist outlook on life. The historical experience of the early Greeks and the Jews bolsters the thesis that limited goals are more achievable than universal ambitions.
In the following pages, we will briefly examine the worldview of the ancient Greeks and the religion of the Jewish people. Their ideas came into the world thousands of years ago, but they have great relevance today. Both the ancient Greeks and the Jews were confronted with the threat of assimilation by great, multinational empires, and they met this danger with varying degrees of success. There is much that we can learn from their long experience.
Ancient Greek values contrasted with Christian doctrine and modernity
As Nietzsche so colorfully demonstrated in his The Birth of Tragedy and other works, early Greece flourished under the aegis of values quite contrary to Christian ideals. Nietzsche was an enthusiastic admirer of the invigorating Greek spirit, which in his writings served as the foil to the depressingly servile outlook of the Christian tradition. The Greeks loved this world, sought out its beauty, and managed to extract great quantities of joy from their earthly existence. They celebrated strength, courage, self-reliance, and beauty, while the Christians paid homage to weakness, servility, pity, and suffering.
In the years of their greatest cultural achievements, referred to as the Classical period (510 to 323 BC), the Greek city-states heroically resisted the attempts of empire builders to subjugate them. Despite their minuscule size, the city-states managed their affairs independently for centuries, until stronger regional city-states like Athens, Sparta, and Macedonia started consolidating their regional power, thereby bringing the weaker polities into their orbit.
The ancient Greeks were inveterate provincials, and by “advanced” Western standards, they were irredeemably, politically incorrect. They looked upon those who did not belong to their clans or city-states with suspicion and coined the term barbarian, meaning one who spoke no Greek or someone who was ignorant of Greek culture. It was considered normal that slaves, often captured prisoners of war, should provide menial services to the wealthier members of the community. In their arts and politics, the early Greeks fostered the patriotism of their city-states so that these tiny political units could more effectively mobilize their inhabitants against outside aggression. Sparta gained fame for its inordinate attention to military training, which typically commenced as early as childhood.
Plato’s Republic clearly identified the citizen’s duty to fight, if necessary, for his city-state, and not for universal norms or humanity in general. Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics characterized the city-state as an independent association that stood above the interests of the individual citizen. Aristotle believed that a citizen could best realize his potential as a rational, social and moral being by serving his city-state, and not some universal deity.
We owe so much to the creative spirit of Classical Greece in the fields of philosophy, political thought, natural science, poetry, drama, sculpture, and architecture. What is truly noteworthy is that such insular and tiny polities could have given birth to such a considerable part of the heritage of Western civilization.
A self-confident spirit permeates the arts and politics of the ancient Greeks. The contemporaries of the classical period did not pay much heed to foreign consultants or world fashions when they set about creating their works of art, philosophy, or history, though some foreign artistic influences were creatively absorbed by Greek styles. Greek patterns of culture evolved gradually over centuries through the unbroken transmission of knowledge and skills. Foreign influences complemented, but did not overwhelm, local initiative in the classical period.
The unruly lives of the Greek gods paralleled the competitive existence of the over 1,000 separate city-states. The gods of Ancient Greece continually bumped into each other as they pursued their individual agendas, without bowing down to any one specific, super deity. Sometimes these irreverent gods joined in the intrigues and enterprises of the mortals, thus demonstrating that rulers should not remain too aloof from their subjects.
The early Greeks lived as if everything depended on their own efforts, wits, solidarity, and courage. Perhaps this is the key to their remarkable achievements that successive generations have admired for so long.
Greek architecture bolsters collective identity
Here it would be appropriate to dwell on the remarkable architectural accomplishments of the ancient Greeks, which is a readily visible emanation of their communal pride. The ancient city-states devoted extraordinary attention to the artistic design and construction of public buildings, including theaters, stadiums, city squares, mausoleums, and temples. Although the Greek city-states were ridiculously small by our gargantuan standards, weak in terms of population size and material and technical resources, they nevertheless managed to produce architectural masterpieces that overshadow our artistic accomplishments.
Even the weaker Greek polities, which encompassed merely a few thousand inhabitants, competed with the stronger city-states in building impressive public structures. Athens, one of the largest city-states, numbered only 100,000 free citizens. More than 2,000 years later, this Greek legacy, now reduced to only fragments of its past glory, nevertheless still draws millions of admirers from around the world.
The Parthenon temple, constructed 2 500 years ago in honor of the Athenian deity, is considered to be one of the most outstanding expressions of the Greeks’ aesthetic spirit. This sublime house of worship is notable not only for its monumental dimensions and artistic harmony, but also for its durability, which is to say, its power to withstand the ravages of time.
Building this architectural marvel required a fine artistic sensibility as well as 9 years of hard, physical labor, 20,000 tons of expensive marble, and a monumental expenditure of funds equal to about half of the income of the city-state of Athens. As if this were not enough of a challenge, the Athenians at that time were building a number of other impressive public structures and defensive works for the city.
The Parthenon, like the other monuments which required huge financial sacrifices, was created to impress the viewer with its size, beauty, and durability. Greek public buildings were meant to teach the local inhabitants the priceless value of their collective identity as well as pride and self-confidence in their own abilities.
Modern architecture reflects the anemic state of European identity
Most things in life which have meaning are inseparable from durability. Yet the inhabitants of our unifying world are satisfied with what is functional, cheap, comfortable, safe, and entertaining. The Western world now builds public buildings, commercial and multi-apartment structures that require a minimum of effort to complete.
This is the state of things, even though modern, industrial states have access to incomparably greater material wealth and technological resources than the early Greeks. Nobody expects our functional structures to survive for long. Only God and our individual souls are supposed to be everlasting.
It bothers very few that the structures of the cities in which we spend our lives differ hardly at all from the millions of other buildings which have been assigned a specific portion of the surface of the earth, for we are all equal and unexceptional. God forbid that we should make fools of ourselves by reinventing bicycles. Creativity and important decisions are outside of our areas of responsibility. For this, we have the wisdom of secular, centralized power, exercised by armies of bureaucrats and experts, and the Christian Almighty God in the spiritual realm.
The vast number of modern cities and towns that clutter Lithuania and the Western world, in general, appear standardized and tedious — suggesting that they are products coming off the same assembly line. They all have the same stamp of the provisional, which hints at the insignificance of our existence. Here and there, we may feast our eyes on surviving European old quarters that recall the architectural richness of the past. But the overall impression of our vast urban expanses is one of a hodgepodge of glass, metal, and plastic.
Greek particularism under attack
During the period preceding the imperial conquests of Alexander III of Macedonia from 336 to 323 BC, the innumerable Greek city-states on the whole managed to preserve their independence — and their creative character. Exceptions were made in the case of military alliances as protection against stronger enemies. From 499 to 449 BC, many of the Greek city-states banded together to successfully resist successive invasions by the multinational Persian Empire. Possibly in response to the overwhelming Persian military pressure, some of the more potent Greek states, such as Athens, Sparta, and Macedonia, started building up their regional power by encroaching on the territories and sovereignty of their weaker Greek neighbors.
The individual Greek city-states of 499 BC faced a dilemma, which is similar to that faced by the separate European nations of our time. In order to protect their independence against the overwhelming power of external actors, both the Greek city-states and the European countries found it imperative to augment their military strength through alliances. Yet the process of alliance building weakens the members’ spirit of self-sufficiency and the range of independent choices.
History also shows that the process of enhancing military strength feeds on itself and often stimulates the desire for even more power. Military prowess is a genie tempting its possessor with the prospect of rapid and dramatic turns of fate. In this regard, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote the following: “War is the father of all, and king of all: some he has made gods, and some men; some slaves and some free.”
Whereas building up the cultural legacy of Ancient Greece required centuries of patient, communal effort, a successful military campaign could in a few short years swallow up an entire foreign empire. Alexander the Great demonstrated the intoxicating — and fatal — attraction of military prowess in his campaigns against the Persian Empire. Initially, the Macedonian conqueror was probably motivated by defensive considerations, given the ongoing threat of further Persian invasions.
But when Alexander saw that his Greek hoplites were superior to the multinational forces of Emperor Darius III, he moved in for the kill and decided to put an end to the Persian Empire once and for all. Although many of his men and officers urged their leader to end his campaign after their victory against Darius and return home, Alexander surrendered to the allure of universal visions. He could not stop, and he drove his reluctant fighters on to ever newer conquests. Egypt fell into Alexander’s orbit, as did Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia beyond Persia. Alexander’s forces even launched an abortive invasion of India, hoping to dominate all of South Asia.
Towards the end of his short career, Alexander the Conqueror began to act as if he were a new Persian Emperor, or a god. He kept augmenting his imperial power by constantly adding new, heterogeneous elements to his new state. In Susa in 324 BC, the Macedonian warlord even organized a mass wedding of his commanders with the daughters of high-ranking Persian notables to underscore his dream of a fusing of Asia with the Greek world.
Historical narratives indicate that Alexander’s bid for world supremacy coincided with the end of the classical period of Ancient Greece. The creative energies of the Greeks were wasted on the battlefields of Asia, and Greece itself entered a long period of decline. Centuries later when the weakened Greek city-states had been incorporated into the expanding Roman Empire, the Greeks still managed to dominate many aspects of Roman culture and learning. Although the Romans were very successful in copying, adapting, and preserving the Greek heritage, they lagged behind the Greeks in their creative capacity. This astounding quality of the Greeks was apparently extinguished for long together with the loss of the independent spirit of the city-states.
If we agree that long-lasting power is of the highest order, then we will grasp that Alexander’s achievements were vaporous. In pursuing personal glory, this empire builder essentially disengaged his person from the true basis of his strength, namely the kindred Greek city-states, and more specifically, their demographic potential. The young conqueror should have turned his energies to consolidating his victories in many ways. If Machiavelli had been a contemporary, he would have counseled the warlord to populate the adjacent Asian territories with Greek colonists.
Instead, Alexander squandered the manpower of Ancient Greece to bolster his personal prestige. After his death at the very young age of 32, his empire was gripped by violent discord that lasted half a century. In the end, the early Greeks could not hold on to their imperial domain.
The Jewish people in their remarkably long history managed to avoid the seductions of uninhibited territorial expansion, although David is celebrated as a successful warrior king. In seeking to expand their power, the Jews very wisely abstained from attempts to assimilate heterogeneous populations. Growth was to come from their internal cohesion, their own demographic potential, and the gradual accumulation of material wealth that could be put at the disposal of common goals. This was not the path to advancement that the Roman Catholic Church prescribed for the Christian faithful.
The Jewish faith provides its followers with better tools for advancement than Christianity
Although the ancient Hebrew religion served as the foundation of the newer Christian faith, it nevertheless differs from Church doctrine in several key respects. The most important difference is that Judaism does not actively seek converts in the way that the Christian denominations attempt to enlist followers from all over the world.
Unlike the universal Christian faith, which taught its adherents to serve God and all humanity, Judaism regarded God and the Jewish nation as a unity vis-à-vis the rest of mankind. God was the object of supreme loyalty to the Jewish nation, just as the advancement of the chosen people was the main concern of God. Yahweh and the Jewish people were joined together in pursuit of goals that would benefit the Jewish people. The energies of the Jewish nation were thus focused on a more restricted sphere of activities than those of Christians, namely actions that would strengthen the Jewish people.
The Jewish nation, one of the most successful on earth, is characterized by exclusivity of affiliation and an extraordinarily long and uninterrupted history. The Jewish faith and people have endured 4,000 years, which is twice as long as the Christian religion. Throughout its long history, the Jewish nation has been guided by the Judaic faith, which has provided it with a sense of unity, common purpose, and momentum to overcome a long line of adversaries.
Historically, national communities have sought to establish their own states as a means of unifying their members and thus strengthening their collectivity. A nation absorbed by a larger political entity always runs the risk of losing its identity in the greater whole. Yet the Jewish people was deprived of a state for several millennia, and still managed to live on as a distinct entity. This was long seen as a remarkable achievement likely to endure yet longer.
Israel, a modern state pursuing national goals
But in the late 19th century, Zionists came to the conclusion that the modern industrial world with its unceasing dynamism and mobility would eventually result in the assimilation of their people unless they succeeded in re-establishing a national home. The state of Israel was officially inaugurated in 1948, and since that time it has enjoyed the support of Jews around the world as well as powerful allies such as the US and the EU.
It is notable that the EU backs this project to strengthen the Jewish national community, while within the EU itself the predominantly Christian European states acquiesce in policies that are undermining European national communities. All of the EU countries in process of unification have had negative birth rates for decades, while Israel maintains a healthy surplus of births over deaths. Since 1948, Israel has managed to increase its population size by 800 percent, while European nations gradually age and descend into demographic catastrophe.
Religion as a substitute for the state
During the periods of foreign political dominance, the Hebrews created a substitute for the state, which is Judaism. Having suffered foreign occupation in their ancient homeland and subsequent deportations, this people established a religion capable of preserving a collective spirit and fashioning unifying, long-range goals.
The Hebrews found a solution to the persistent problem of surviving in a state of siege facing numerically superior forces — the invention of their own God, an almighty deity, able to overcome any and all enemies. At the time it was not very important if God existed at all. The crucial thing was to convince the Jews that there was such a divine being, thereby instilling confidence in their own strength. The profound psychological insight in all this was the realization that a person can overcome great adversity if he has confidence in his powers.
The key element in Judaism is the one and only Almighty God. By contrast, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Scandinavians, Teutons, and Balts relied on a congeries of gods who exercised chaotic control over disparate spheres such as fertility, love, peace, and war. Because they were constantly feuding, their worshipers were not always cognizant of which god had the upper hand. Sometimes this lack of unity at the top benefited the lower ranks, whose members could profitably play one leader against another.
In the case of Judaism, there was no doubt. Only one God ruled, and he refused to share his dominion with anyone. Moreover, he demanded unquestioning loyalty among his followers. This concept of an authoritarian deity was carried over to the Christian faith. Can it be that subsequent European emperors, kings, dukes, and later dictators modeled their arbitrary style of governing on the absolutist rule of the Judeo-Christian Almighty? Certainly, absolutist monarchs claimed divine right as the legitimizing foundation of their authority.
If God and his chosen people were to form a harmonious tandem, with both sides sincerely supporting each other, then the Hebrews should harbor no doubts as to the outcome of any of their major undertakings. No opposing force would have a chance against the Almighty. An individual or a nation that trusts in its prospects will be more likely to make the right decisions in pursuit of its objectives than someone who is unsure of his strength.
The importance of ideological work
The Jewish God furnished his chosen people with more than a good measure of self-confidence. The Almighty also provided an unequivocal and permanent purpose in life, namely to serve the God/nation duality. In order to ensure that this goal would not be lost amongst the individual believers’ daily concerns, the religious hierarchs established an educational system for the young and communal rites for the rest that kept the members of the congregations in close and regular contact.
The Jews’ unusual level of solidarity allowed them to cooperate and assist each other in dealing with many threats and challenges in succeeding generations. Each victory strengthened Jewish self-confidence and the sense of unity. This virtuous circle of positive reinforcement was further bolstered by strict, collective discipline.
The wrath of the Old Testament God is well-known in the examples of Adam and Even who were expelled from heaven for disobeying divine commands. And the massive flooding unleashed on mankind for a host of sinful actions is also recorded in countless books and sermons read by the Catholic priests. The destruction visited upon man was drastic; only the devout Noah and his family were spared. The essential point is not whether Noah and the flood were real. What is important is that the example of Noah posited certain standards of behavior whose violation the Hebrews learned would be accompanied by dire consequences.
Economic power instead of territorial expansion
The Jewish millennial relationship with Yahweh taught the chosen people valuable lessons about the nature of power and its advantages. Aside from the power that would flow from communal solidarity, the Hebrews also grasped the significance of accumulated material wealth. Werner Sombart, the 20th-century German economist and sociologist, wrote The Jews and Modern Capitalism, in which he identified the specific qualities of Judaism that accounted for Jewish economic success. Sombart described the role played by Jewish merchants and bankers in the creation of the capitalist system as a vital one. The fact that in the post-Medieval period Jewish money changers and traders were scattered about the world did not hinder their cooperation. Rather, their communal solidarity turned this circumstance to their advantage by developing international trade among them.
The Jewish ethic encouraged the pursuit of earthly goods, but even here individual wealth was not meant to serve only its individual possessor. A fixed portion had to be turned over for the benefit of the community.
By contrast, early Christianity maintained a skeptical attitude to earthly riches. Jesus Christ declared that the rich will face more obstacles on the road to heaven than the poor, thereby emphasizing that excessive interest in worldly goods would distract believers from the vastly more important afterlife. Hence, enterprising Christians did not receive the strong approval of their religious communities in the same way that the Hebrews provided mutual support in their pursuit of economic objectives.
Perhaps this legacy is the reason why the Lithuanian upper classes of today are reluctant to share their wealth with society and ungrudgingly support charity or cultural initiatives. Christian skepticism of material riches reinforces the jealousy of the less affluent towards the high and mighty. Resentment by the poor finds an echo in the upper classes’ detached attitudes towards the disadvantaged.
As indicated previously, it is not unusual when a powerful means to the attainment of something desirable eventually becomes the goal itself. Therefore it is likely that the Jewish people, who benefited from the Almighty’s guidance for millennia, shared his appreciation of the power that comes from a close-knit community.
Meanwhile, Europeans who were subjected to a millennium of New Testament teachings about love for all of mankind, toleration, humility, and quiescence in the face of political oppression, have become a confused mass of individualists incapable of formulating or implementing long-term national goals. Instead of strengthening their demographic potential and national solidarity, they are addicted to entertainment and sensual pleasures, dreaming of personal riches that would finance vacation or retirement homes in some warm-weather paradise or new tourist destinations to exotic lands — all far away from home.
If centuries ago Lithuanians would have acquired a religion similar to Judaism, it is entirely possible that their country would not have become the perennial victim of stronger neighbors. They would not have submitted so passively to feudalism, which reduced them to the status of impoverished objects of exploitation of the aristocratic classes. Fortified by a proud collective ethic, Lithuania would, like Israel, have grown ever more powerful instead of exporting hundreds of thousands of its working-age people to other countries. The Christian religion did not encourage national consolidation in the way that Judaism taught its adherents to be loyal Jews. Instead, Catholicism urged the faithful to serve all of humanity and seek union in ever-larger political entities.
Thus Lithuanians and other Europeans did not learn to sufficiently appreciate the value of their collective identity. That is why European aristocrats became accustomed to looking on their compatriots as mere tools to achieve personal or dynastic power and glory.
Ordinary Lithuanians patiently bore the feudal yoke and accumulated riches for their masters, who were thereby strengthened in their conviction that they were superior to the working peasants. Similarly, the oligarchs of today do not regard the nation as a transcendent value or the Lithuanian people as allies in the competitive struggle with other peoples. On the contrary, they aspire to extract as much work from their employees as is humanly tolerable, treating the latter as though they were medieval serfs.
The post-Soviet oligarchs consider misappropriating financial assets or abusing the privatization process as normal business practices. The damage they cause to their national communities does not upset them in the least. Their homeland is the global economy. But is one to think that the object of globalization is the rehabilitation of feudalism?
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Thank you so much for this: I’ve really enjoyed this series and it helps put the most important historical and philosophic issues in perspective for me. (And the writing is superb!). In particular, after this essay, I’m left with the question as to the origin of the “allure of universal visions” that you speak of in connection to Alexander. I see three possibilities (or two, if the first two are essentially the same): 1) Universalism in both theory and practice presupposes, and springs from — or is necessarily informed — Greek philosophic thought, which is “universalist” throughout. (Alexander was the student of Aristotle. And yes, Aristotle’s [and Plato’s] best city was small and confined, but his god, like all of the “gods of the philosophers” — to use Pascal’s phrase — was the one god of the cosmos — and that’s what made philosophy eligible for employment as the handmaiden of Christian theology.) 2) The drive to the universal in both theory and practice has its basis in the (necessarily “universal”) nature of man. On this view, the (paradoxically also natural) attachment to one’s own, the “particular,” will succumb to the natural drive to the universal-imperial (see Thucydides, Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, Machiavelli on the unlimited “natural and ordinary” desire to “acquire,” or Nietzsche’s will to power (which impels Yaweh to “go wandering,” i.e., transforms him from a Volksgott of Israel into a cosmopolitan.) Or, 3) is this very “universalist” orientation towards “nature” — what is ostensibly always and everywhere — in fact the product or consequence of a specific, particular, dispensation or understanding of “Being” that occurs with the thinkers of a specific time and place: ancient Greece. In this case, the root of globalization would lie — not with the Jews’ invention of that cosmopolitan, all-powerful god, but in Plato or Parmenides. I think this third position is Heidegger’s, if I’m not mistaken.
Sorry about the unduly long comment. I only meant to raise the question: what is the origin of this allure of universal visions?
I will delve into “the allure of the universal” in possibly the sixth or seventh instalment of this series, and, I have to admit, that I do not yet fully know the answer. One advantage of writing is that it forces us to think clearly. As I will continue to write this series, I hope that the answer will come to me in a clear and focused form.
But I have given some thought about this key issue that you raise. Much of the upcoming narrative will deal with Nietzsche’s Will to Power. The basic instinct to seek and augment power is inherent in all living things, and all living species have different modes of transforming this instinct into a manifested impact on their environment. In the case of man, the human brain transforms the basic instinct into innumerable apparent pathways of action. Many of these apparent possibilities, however, may lead to nowhere. As regards Alexander, the basic instinct of seeking and augmenting power may have been interpreted in his mind as the command to increase his personal prestige to infinity. But his personal prestige and the long-term welfare of his people, the Greeks, did not mesh. Alexander exhausted his nation and introduced too many heterogenous elements into Greek life. Hence, the problem is to restrict, compress and channel energy into ways that ensure the highest degree of lasting power for the individual and his people, which form a unity. The Jews were more successful in this than the Ancient Greeks.
If centuries ago Lithuanians would have acquired a religion similar to Judaism, it is entirely possible that their country would not have become the perennial victim of stronger neighbors.
But better you would stay by Perkunas and save your national faith.
Christianity put an end to Lithuania’s pagan religion. I could see the attraction of cultivating pagan practices. But the problem is that the pagans in this case left no literature as a guide for the future. The Jews, by contrast, have inherited thousands of pages of instructions and guidance. We have to rely on our reason to chart our actions into the future.
I’d say that your main mistake was adopting catholicism instead of orthodox Christianity. Lithuania was already a quite powerful state with an early-imperial potential and geopolitically pointed eastwards. Aligning with the byzantine legacy and mainatining a bulwark against western encroachment would’ve been a more reliable way to secure independence from the Polish Crown in the future (by avoiding the union and political assimilation).
The elite of Khazar Khanate (Hazar Kağanlığı) has adopted Judaism (of course the majority of Hazars stayed by Tengrism), but this has not helped them and the state has become a victim of strong neighbors. The Qaraylar (Karaims) are only the small rest of that powerful and rich country and its people.
It’s more like 3,000 years. There was no Judaism or Hebrews before 1,200 BC. It’s highly doubtful that a Heeb David and Jerusalem predate 900BC.
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