Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, was credited with saying “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”
Our opinions and perspectives are shaped by many things including our backgrounds and biases. When two people look at the same incident at the same time, it is quite possible that they take away very different stories. When two people do not see things first-hand, but hear histories second and third-hand, the narratives of each could appear to describe two different events and worlds.
Yet, those strange worlds can coexist and the parties with alternative truths can get along. The reason is not solely because some events in question are not in direct conflict, but because those events do not define each party.
Many histories remain in the past and do not touch the present. Other narratives reach out from history and impact decisions and views of people in the present. The deepest – and potentially most dangerous – narratives are those that are embedded in a person’s psyche, which can distort history, make people act against their own interests and mar the future.
Arab-Israeli “Neutral” Narratives
There are many narratives that contradict each other in the Middle East. Some are conflicting perspectives and some have alternative facts. Here is just a small sample of events from pivotal moments in 1948, 1967 and 2000 from an Arab perspective, followed by an Israeli view:
- The creation of Israel in 1948 was a “Nakba” (catastrophe) // the founding of the state was a celebration
- During the “Nakba”, 711,000 Palestinian Arabs were expelled by Israeli forces from their homes // Palestinian Arabs were encouraged to leave where they lived by their leaders, as the armies of five neighboring Arab states invaded Israel
- Five Arab armies came into Palestine to defend the Palestinians from Israeli attacks // five Arab armies invaded Israel in an effort to destroy the nascent state
- In 1967, Israel attacked Egypt, Syria and Jordan // Israel preemptively attacked Egypt and Syria after the parties made clear their intentions to attack and destroy Israel; Jordan then attacked Israel and Israel responded in self-defense
- The West Bank has always been Palestinian land and cannot be settled by Israelis // Judea and Samaria (the “West Bank”) were always home to Jews and mandated under international law to be a homeland for Jews in 1922; only under the Jordanian expulsion were Jews barred from the land. International laws related to taking land in a defensive war is not the same as taking land in an offensive war
- In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went to the Al Aqsa Mosque in an attempt to claim control over Islam’s third holiest site, which brought about the Second Intifada // Sharon visited the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site during regular visiting hours; the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat launched the Second Intifada because he was unhappy with the “near-final” peace agreement with Israel
Consider the opposing narratives. Some can reside comfortably in history books, while others actively influence each party’s actions today.
PAST: Some of these points may be found in either an Arab or Israeli history book. Palestinian textbooks may write about forced expulsions from Palestine during the “Nakba”, while Israeli textbooks may write about Palestinian Arabs being encouraged to leave their homes by their leadership while the armies from five supportive Arab countries attacked Israel in an effort to destroy the country and drive the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea. The arguments are not subtle differences of opinions, and each side holds onto their account of history with examples of stories of a family here, a village there, or quotes from Israeli and Palestinian leadership at that time to underscore their version of history.
Arguably, this is something for historians to debate and a thoughtful person would probably conclude that there are elements of truth to both sides. Whether it is 80/20% or 20/80% for the parties is beyond the point of this discussion. The thrust is that their narratives are stories of the past. While Arabs and Israelis will invariably bring up their point of view in a debate, it need not dictate the debates nor compromise the conversations of the future of the region. A “starting point” of the here-and-now can be established to find a solution for the future.
A second example is the conflict between Egypt and Israel. Each side’s view of who was the belligerent party in 1967 did not impede a path forward to a different future leading to a peace treaty.
PAST AND PRESENT: Some splits in narratives run throughout time. The past can consume the present and the versions of history touch daily dialogue.
Many Arabs argue that a state of Palestine has always existed, but has been occupied by various parties including Israelis, Jordanians, Egyptians and British. They carry placards to “Free Palestine” from current Israeli occupation. For their part, Israelis note that Palestine never existed as an independent country. It was never ruled by a local Palestinian Arab government. The parties are in negotiations to potentially “Create Palestine,” while dismissing the Arab narrative as factually incorrect. The competing narratives are in conflict, but needn’t prevent the parties from moving towards a future that is in alignment.
PRESENT: A last example of a “neutral” clash of each side’s take on history is current history. Israelis and Palestinian Arabs argue forcefully about who started the Gaza war in 2014 and which party is responsible for many civilian deaths. Politicians and people will argue their points forcefully and recommend actions to punish the other side and improve their own position. Ultimately, the war and responses will become part of the past. The parties could opt to move forward with plans for a future OR they could use the war as an excuse to undermine a future peace.
Arab-Israeli “Toxic” Narratives
The term “Toxic Narrative” is meant to describe the inability of the two sides to ever establish a true peace; it is not intended to suggest that a narrative is inherently evil.
PAST, PRESENT and FUTURE: The best example of competing viewpoints of the past that stretch into the future, is the Balfour Declaration (1917) and its incorporation into the San Remo conference (1920) and then the international law established by the League of Nations in the British Mandate of Palestine (1922). The two sides’ competing opinions impact the ability of the parties to establish peace for the future.
International Law: The Palestinian Arabs argue that the League of Nations had no right to declare a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. They contend such international decision was made without the approval of the local Arab population in Palestine, and as such, the law itself should be null and void. They further argue that the imposition of such mandate was an effort to colonialize Palestine. The Palestinian Arabs took many steps to halt the implementation of that mandate for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…and facilitate Jewish immigration…and close settlement by Jews on the land.” The most significant actions were the riots of 1936-9 which enabled the Arabs to get the British to issue the 1939 “White Paper” which would limit the Jewish population in Palestine to one-third of the country, leaving an Arab majority population and facilitate Arab rule.
The Israeli perspective is that the League of Nations (precursor to the United Nations) made a law specifically recognizing the Jewish right to a national homeland in Palestine. They do not believe that such international law was illegal in 1922, and when the United Nations voted in 1947 to only grant a small portion of the Mandated land as a Jewish State, the Jews were disappointed but voted in favor of the proposal anyway. The Arabs rejected the 1947 proposal, just as they rejected the 1922 Mandate.
Historical Connection: As part of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, the international community recognized the “historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine.” The history of the Jews in the land goes back 3700 years and the Jews were the only people to ever be self-governing in the land. They were also the only people to make Jerusalem its capital, which they did for the third time in 1950.
The history of the Jews has also been challenged by the Palestinian Arabs who continually deny Jewish history in the region and insist that Israelis are attempting to “Judaize” the country, and that Jewish presence in the region is a recent phenomenon. (They have even advanced that Jesus was a Palestinian, not a Jew, even though Arabs did not come to the holy land en masse until the Muslim invasions hundreds of years later).
In short, the two conflicting narratives relate to the RIGHTS of Jews to Reestablish a Jewish majority in the land and be self-governing again.
The Palestinian contention is that the entire Zionist enterprise was illegal from the start: The call for Israel’s creation in 1922 was illegal; the declaration of the state in 1948 was illegal; and the assumption of additional land in 1967 was illegal. They view the entire region as “Arab land” and Jewish presence and rule is illegitimate and directly undermines the Arab rights in the land.
The Roadblock to Peace
The Future: Some argue that despite such widely held opinion by Palestinian Arabs, acting-President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas has stated that he would recognize a state of Israel as part of a peace agreement. As such, the debate of narratives and facts is not truly “toxic” as the Arabs are willing to look past their past.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintains that is not so.
Netanyahu claims that a de facto recognition of Israel as a country that exists today will not prevent a war tomorrow. A de facto peace treaty that does not recognize Israel’s RIGHT to exist is a flimsy veneer. Over time the veneer will come off, and the underlying Palestinian Arab contention that Jews have no rights to live and rule on Arab land will lead to further war and bloodshed. Without a break from the storyline that Jews have no history, no legal authority, nor basic rights to live and pray and be self-governing in Israel, there will never be peace. No amount of land-for-peace swap could resolve an illegal Jewish claim until the entire state of Israel is under Arab rule.
The Palestinians have not been able to accept such a break with their narrative of the rights of Jews in Palestine. They could not accept such vision of Jewish rights in 1922 and have been unable to accept it today, as Abbas has repeatedly stated he will never recognize Israel as a “Jewish State”.
As such, the seemingly innocuous request for Palestinians to recognize Israel as the Jewish State has potentially become a roadblock to final settlement talks. A statement that would have no practical impact (compared to tangible matters such as borders or “right of return”), has touched a key nerve in the Palestinian psyche. They would rather forgo a brighter future than negate their narrative as the sole rightful owners of the land.
People typically speak of the Arab-Israeli conflict and refer to events at important time periods like 1948, 1967 and 2000. While those events helped shape the present, they need not dictate the future. Each side can maintain many narratives without destroying the prospects for peace.
The toxic narrative that prevents peace revolves around the rights of Jews to their historic homeland established in international law in 1922. It is that narrative that must be addressed for the parties to arrive at a long-term peaceful future together. It has been almost a century, and well past time for Arabs to recognize the legal and legitimate rights of Jews to live in the holy land and to be self-governing.
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