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The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Toward one history


One of the deplorable byproducts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that has become, in effect, a causative factor, is that Palestinians and Israelis, Arabs and Zionists have learned different histories of the conflict. History happens all the time, including right now. With each event, new versions of history are created. Getting the history right has been a major concern of MidEastWeb. That is why we have created narratives like the Brief history of the Israeli-Palestinian COnflict that attempt to give the whole picture.

A few histories attempt to tell the story from different points of view. If nothing else, it can be a wonderful exercise in dialog for partisans of each side to tell the story from the poiit of view of the other (see for example Jerusalem: Changing Sides in the Middle East). Mark Tessler's text, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, highlights Arab or Palestinian views versus Zionist or Israeli views. More recently, Paul Scham, Walid Salem, and Benjamin Pogrund have written Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue. The book discusses views of history of the two sides including Zionist settlement, the Balfour declaration, the War of Independence and Israeli and Palestinian views on the Holocaust, Jerusalem, and refugees. It is probably a "must read" if you are interested in Israeli-Palestinian history and in peace, but I admit I haven't read it yet.

Israeli-Palestinian Procon is a Web site that gives opposing views on each issue, without critical analysis. It has much to recommend it, but as we shall see, this approach has serious pitfalls.

As reviewed in the Beirut Daily Star recently, an Israeli and a Palestinian, Dan Bar-On and Sami Adwan, have written school texts that give both Palestinian and Israeli narratives. Their work illustrates both the values and the pitfalls of this approach. It is very good for analyzing the propaganda of each side, and for informing each side, as well as outsiders, about the different types of myths believed by each side. It explains why we are angry at each other, and it informs people of the kinds of stories we invent to justify the anger and perpetuate it. It doesn't always tell people what really happened even to a reasonable approximation. For textbooks aimed at students, that is a very bad idea, only slightly better than telling them only one biased side of the story.

This approach seems to assume that the only thing that matters is what people believe about history, rather than the facts of what actually happened. Any historical narrative can include three types of elements - events that really took place, events or statistics about which we are not certain, and total invention. The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been subject to so much political controversy, necessarily contains many elements of the third type. These must not be incorporated as anyone's "narrative." Believe it or not, reality is out there. If you don't believe that reality is out there, don't write history. Write novels or propaganda, tell children about Santa Claus coming down the chimney, Elijah coming into your house on Passover and the tooth fairy, but don't call it "history."

While history may be multifaceted, all the parts of it that happened really happened, and all the myths that were invented didn't happen. It cannot be right to include propaganda, myths and editorializing alongside facts, and offer them all up as equally valid. It can't be proper educational practice to put these unedited narratives into the hands of unsuspecting schoolchildren.

Consider two versions of the same event:

The American version:

Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda movement organized a terrorist action that destroyed the Twin Towers in New York City.

The version believed in some parts of the Middle East:

The Mossad and the FBI destroyed the Twin Towers and blamed it on the Muslims.

Or again:

The version of a certain government:

Communists set fire to the German Reichstag.

The version of the allies:

The Nazi party set fire to the German Reichstag, on the orders of Adolph Hitler.

Are we doing a service to anyone in each case by juxtaposing the two versions as equally valid?

Each set of myths is labeled in the texts as "Palestinian" or "Zionist." Therefore, when Moishe, the Israeli student, reads about the Palestinian narrative that includes the Deir Yassin massacre or Sabra and Shatilla, he will dismiss those facts as "Palestinian propaganda and incitement." When Muhamed, the Palestinian Arab student, reads about the Nazi career of the Palestinian Grand Mufti, Hajj Amin El Husseini or the Kfar Etzion massacre, in the "Zionist" narrative he will dismiss those facts as "Zionist propaganda and myths." Muhamed would not think of internalizing the narrative with the "Zionist" label instead of or in addition to the Palestinian one, any more than he would think of taking the coat that is labeled "Moishe." Moishe wouldn't think of adopting the Palestinian narrative either, because it is not his. If you read, "This is what earth people believe" and "this is what Martians believe," which version will you accept as true?

History should not be a set of myths and superstitious beliefs that shape behavior. It is supposed to be based on a narrative of facts. Most ancient historians seem to have believed that history should be written as a collection of edifying fables, given versimilitude by an admixture of plausible facts. They invented speeches, they invented ancestors and they omitted whatever was inconvenient. It was OK for Thucydides and Titus Livius. Then was then and now is now. Those who write such fables today are generating propaganda, not history, and if they insist on teaching those stories to our children, they are teaching lies.

Consider the following example, given from the texts of Bar-On and Adwan, concerning the Balfour Declaration. Here is the "Zionist" version:

"The Zionist movement was born in the major centers of Jewish population in Europe, and its purpose was to return the Jewish people to its land and put an end to its abnormal situation among the nations of the world. The first time any country expressed support for Zionism was in a letter sent by Lord
Balfour, to help establish a Jewish political entity in the land of Israel."

It is more or less correct as far as it goes, except that children might get the wrong impression that there was a poltiical entity or defined geographical area called "Israel" in 1917. Of course, it doesn't go far enough. It tells half the story. It omits the conflicting promises of the British and the effect of the declaration on the Arabs. It doesn't tell us that many Jews, like Edwin Montagu, were opposed to the declaration and to Zionism, and it omits many other facts. That is the story that Moishe will remember, because the texts told him that it is his story by labeling it "Zionist Narrative." In any case, that is the story he is learning right now. Nothing gained and nothing lost.

Here is the Palestinian Arab version:

"With the rise of nationalism [in Europe], Zionism appeared as a drastic international solution to the Jewish problem, transforming the Jewish religion into a nationalist attachment to a special Jewish homeland and a special Jewish state ... British imperialism found in Zionism a perfect tool to
attaining its own interests ... the Balfour Declaration is a conspicuous example of the British policy of seizing another nation's land and effacing ... a native people's aspirations for national liberation."

This is presumably the version that the Palestinian child will take home. It has his name on it, after all. He probably hears about the same story at home and in the media in any case.

What is a "drastic international solution?" Was it more international than the Ottoman Empire or more drastic than the formation of Arab states out of that empire? The wording can be misconstrued to mean that Zionism was not a movement of Jews, but a scheme of the entire world, or the European countries, to dump their Jews in the land of Israel or Palestine. How do these adjectives, "drastic" and "international," help understanding?

Zionism did not "transform the Jewish religion into a nationalist attachment.' To understand Zionism, for better or worse, Palestinian students have to understand that the Jews called themselves "the Nation of Israel" 2,500 years ago or more. Jewish nationalism was not invented in Vienna or Odessa. The treatment of "British imperialism" in the above is also an example of "edifying history" - editorializing to schoolchildren who are perhaps not old enough to separate opinion from fact. A hundred years ago, the reverse sort of bumf was popular, and the above might read, "example of the selfless British policy of spreading civilization and enlightenment to all the peoples of the world." In fact, the land in question was part of the Ottoman empire, which worked exactly like the British Empire. The land that was seized by the British did not "belong" to any nation at the time. It had belonged to the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Before it belonged to the Ottomans, the land was part of the Mameluke empire, the Crusader empire, the Arab empire and the Roman empire. None of them had any objective claim to moral rectitude. The Arabs were quite happy to take advantage of British imperial ambitions in order to free themselves from the Ottoman Turks, and the Zionists were likewise trying to take a ride on British imperialism.

There may be many truths, but there are also many lies. We do not serve any purpose by giving equal time to lies and half-truths in the name of "balance" or "objectivity" or "dialogue." It is even less constructive to tell schoolchildren "This is your story, that 'version' is the 'story' of the other side." If it really happened, then both Mohamed and Moishe have to know about it. If it is not true, it should not be taught as anybody's version.

There are far too many people engaged in inventing and disseminating myths and biased histories of the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we are to make any progress against propaganda and one-sided renditions of events and history, we must work towards producing a single, unified and agreed-upon version of history, rather than perpetuating the myths and misconceptions. We will need to raise a generation of Israelis and Palestinian who see the whole truth, and accept the whole truth as "their own" narrative.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000398.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 3 comments

In the preliminary phase of a conflict solution, the admission of two contradictory narratives as simultaneously valid, can be acceptable as a way of showing mutual respect (or respect for both sides from a third party). However, the existence of this contradiction must lead inmediately to doubt about both and start to a joint search for truth. Truth must never be understood as the middle point (nontheless as a mere adition) between contradictory narratives. Truth is truth and is independent from opinions. History is a collection of facts that can be imposible to know in detail but that on their time existed with the same level of existence than the present time. As a rule of thumb, reality is normally much more complex than any "narrative", has much less structure and the characters appearing do not have so much control over what is going on. History have an erratic texture, requires more words to be explained so and is more dificult to put in written paper coherently. This and the fact that normally contradicts "narratives", makes dificult its difusion in the mass media even in no-conflict situations.

Posted by Aleph @ 10/25/2005 11:12 PM CST

Articles questioning the "Zionist" narrative are welcome in Israeli newspapers (as well as in a Israeli academic and political settings). It's not at all rare to find articles casting doubt on everything, in, say Haaretz...

But such questioning is neither safe nor wanted in the Palestinian territories, where anyone who questions even the most blatant or agitating propaganda risks his health and life. I think we all know what happens to any Palestinian who is marked as a "collaborator".

Even outside Palestine, in Arab lands (and Iran), such questioning is neither welcome,safe nor, apparently, wanted. Who is interested in showing his independence and fairness by defending Israelis from even the most poisonous incitement? Apparently no one.

So on one side there is debate and a contingent who attempts fairness - and on the other, only competition to see who can prove his piety by denouncing Zionists (or among the less westernized, by exclaiming frank enmity toward Jews). And no one dares argue.

One can not have peace until BOTH sides want it, because as long as one side fights and kills, peace is impossible.

And on the Palestinian/Arab/Muslim side, only diplomats dare say the word "peace" and diplomats can only say the word because everyone knows that their job description is to be (occasionally polite) liars.

Until there are enough people on the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim side who care enough about peace with Israel to stand up and argue with the liars, to denounce them, to risk themselves in order to have the freedom to display their consciences publicly there will be no actual support for peace, no actual pressure for peace, no political will for peace and no discourse that defuses hatred instead of creating hatred.

Currently there is no sign that this lack of freedom of conscience is chaffing on Muslims. That is the shame.

I can't decide which is the primary problem, that Muslims don't have the freedom to stand up for tolerance and peace, or that Muslim don't WANT the freedom to stand up for tolerance and peace.

Joshua Scholar

Posted by Joshua Scholar @ 11/19/2005 11:16 AM CST

Dear Josh,

It took a bit of doing to put your emailed comment into the Web Log, which does not accept comments to archived posts. However, the history of the conflict is near and dear to me. It was important to me to deal with this comment, which is a typical reaction of so-called scholars who don't bother to read very deeply in the Palestinian and Arab journals. You have touched on three topics, of which two are not really the subject of the article: Peace, anti-Zionism and history. This article was only about historical narratives.

Peace - You have confused between narratives of the history and pronouncements about "peace." I don't understand why, because nothing in this narrative mentioned the question of peace, except as it is related to adopting a common narrative. Overall, there is not a great difference in hypocrisy between the sides. "Our" Zionist definition of "peace" includes Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. Shamir, Begin and until recently Sharon, all repeated the mantra that no nation wants peace more than the Jewish people, yet all tried to perpetuate the occupation, which is incompatible with peace. This is not only the definition of peace offered by Palestinians, it is a definition accepted by a wide sector of the Israeli populace. There is no shortage of hypocrisy about peace on both sides.

Zionism and criticisms of fundamental ideology - You have also confused criticisms of Zionism as an ideology, with acceptance of historical facts as they are. One can be a Zionist as I am, and as Benny Morris is apparently, and still accept the fact that some Zionists did inexcusable things in Deir Yassin and Emaus and other places, and that the great settlement binge that Israel embarked on after the 1967 war is a fiasco. Understanding all this makes it easier to understand how the animosity is perpetuated. One can be a Palestinian patriot and still accept that the Grand Mufti, Haj Amin El-Husseini, was a Nazi collaborator.

History - Walid Salem is one of the people who worked on the "Shared Histories" book. In this Web Log, he published a letter that is critical of Arab history and Arab treatment of Jews. You can find it at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000402.htm. He is certainly not the only Palestinian who has criticized the Arab and Palestinian narrative and societies. You can find articles by Mohamed Mosaad and Tarek Heggy in MidEastWeb and elsewhere that do the same, and you can find more such articles that are written in Arabic and translated by MEMRI, as well as articles in Elaph and Middle East Trasnparent among other places. The fact that you have studiously ignored all these materials is symptomatic of the problem of two narratives. In your narrative, these people do not exist, but in reality, they do. Your letter shows that you need to adapt your image of reality to the facts.

To be sure, Zionist critiques of Israel and Israeli critiques of Zionism are more plentiful than Arab or Palestinian critiques of their own society and history. There are several reasons for this. Western democracy has a tradition of divisiveness and opposition parties, while Islamic and Arab societies have a tradition of decision by consensus. Palestinians and Arabs often live in repressive regimes. Those who do not, often speak out. You cannot say that Fuad Ajami has not been critical of the Arabs or that Ray Hanania and Edward Said were not critical of the Palestinians, though you may not agree with all their particular criticisms. They can be critical because they live or lived in the USA. The third reason is that Israel feels relatively secure. The 6-day war made that difference. Prior to 1967 there was little questioning of the "official" history, although everyone understood that it is wrong. So called "Post-Zionist" or "new historian" criticism of Israel did not come into existence until after 1967. It was not until 1972 that Meir Pail's account of the Deir Yassin massacre was published in Yedioth Ahronot. It wasn't until the 1980s that Simha Flapan and Benny Morris published their critical histories. Look at the pages of Ha'aretz prior to, and just following the 6-day war, and you will see a very interesting change. Ha'aretz was always critical, but before June, 1967 it criticized the government for not being hawkish enough.


Ami Isseroff

Posted by Ami Isseroff @ 11/19/2005 11:58 AM CST

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