Dueling Narratives, Shared Histories

In the late 1990’s, when I was coordinating joint Palestinian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli research projects at the Truman Institute for Peace of the Hebrew University and dealing with Palestinian and Jordanian scholars, I noticed a curious thing about our interactions.  We could and did discuss the (comparatively) peaceful present and the hoped-for future that would be even more so, but the past was much more fraught.

When I thought about it, it wasn’t hard to realize why.  You can work on the present and future – or at least then we could – but the past was full of both exploded and unexploded bombs, contrary terms of reference (Nakba/War of Independence is only one example of many), and dark memories that had by then already been honed for more than half a century.  No wonder we avoided it.

As a peacemaker, that bothered me because it was hard to imagine building an edifice of cooperation with bombs in the basement. I thought about it for awhile and then came up with what I called a “Narrative Chart,”  which compared the core stories Israelis and Palestinians told themselves about their shared past.  With a few changes, that chart is what I use at the beginning of every class I teach on the history of the conflict to illustrate the conceptual gap between the sides.  (TTN note: see chart at the end of this blog post).

Two colleagues, one Jewish, one Palestinian, and I also arranged conferences through the Truman Institute on the subject, which resulted in a book called Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue and a series of papers published as “Shared Narratives.”

During that period – which eventually comprised the Second Intifada and my family’s return to the USA – I thought a lot about the utility of narratives, both for the academic process of understanding the past and efforts to end the conflict. Fairly soon I realized creating a master narrative that both sides could live with was unrealistic, and that any attempt to do so would be recognized by neither.

That’s because the essence of a society is embodied in its narrative, and the most potent part is usually its story of steadfast courage and unity in the face of its evil enemy.  In both the Israeli and Palestinian cases, their conflict is a very large part of each side’s story. Very few national narratives are peaceful – and none are when an enemy is still around.

It should be noted that narrative is an aspect of history, but is rarely history itself. Few people except professional historians pay attention to that difference and, when there are variations between them, narrative usually wins. 

For example, most Israelis believe that the Arab armies broadcast appeals to Palestinian Arabs in 1948 to leave their homes so they could more easily slaughter the Jews.  Despite strenuous efforts beginning in the 1960’s, no evidence of such broadcasts can be found, as all serious Israeli historians, both left and right, now know.  But that seems to have made little difference to the popular narrative, the version of events that parents share with their children and politicians tell their constituents on each side’s national day.

Teaching the Narratives

Learning the narrative of the “other” is not, of course, a panacea.  When I introduce it to my classes, usually the Jewish students recognize one side of  the page as truth and the other as propaganda.  The (fewer) Arab students do the same, but focusing on opposite sides of the page. Generally, only the most thoughtful had realized that the other side had a coherent narrative at all.

There have been a few students whose perspectives have really been changed by exposure to the other side’s narrative; interestingly, in thinking back, most were Arab or Muslim.  One student, the grandson of a former Egyptian soldier captured by Israel in 1948, at first argued with me about the justification for Israel’s existence, but the next year insisted on spending a semester in Israel, over his horrified parents’ strenuous objections. 

Then there was the Pakistani-American student who was already interested, but after two courses with me, went on to become National President of J-Street U., and called me out in a J-Street plenary as “the professor who turned me into a Zionist” (not at all my intention). 

Plenty of Jewish students have also thanked me for expanding their understanding of the “situation” beyond what they learned from their families or in day school, and a few went on to study history or conflict resolution.

I’m convinced that learning about the narrative of the “other” can indeed be an important tool for peace, so long as its acceptance is not a precondition for peace.  Two political examples illustrate this. 

During the Second Intifada, a new Israeli demand on the Palestinian Authority appeared and immediately became immensely popular; namely, the Palestinians must recognize Israel’s “right to exist.”  Palestinians have steadfastly resisted it, fueling Israeli suspicions that they are simply waiting for an opportunity to extinguish Israel.  The true reason is different.  For them to recognize Israel’s “right” to exist (a right that no country in fact has) negates their own national narrative.  What have Palestinians been fighting for if Israel has always had a “right” to exist?  The core Palestinian narrative will always lay claim to the whole Land of Palestine, just as the core Israeli Jewish narrative has always claimed the whole Land of Israel.  Reality on the ground need not conform, but the story must remain.

The second example pertains to what is currently taking place on the Israeli left, decimated in the election of 2022. Many on the left have always yearned for an Arab-Jewish party based on the principle of equality between Arabs and Jews.  However, there is an immense chasm they are unable to bridge, called variously “Zionism” or “Israel as a Jewish state.”  Few Israeli Jews, even committed leftists, are willing to contemplate stripping Israel of its official Jewish character, much as they may genuinely desire equality for all citizens. And comparatively few Palestinians are willing to ideologically go to bat for a party that proclaims itself “Zionist.”  

Call it narrative or ideology: it is the story each side tells itself, that it is unwilling to let go. The irony is that, in this instance at least, the practical steps needed to establish  Arab-Jewish equality are not the problem.  Rather, explaining those steps to themselves, their children, and, perhaps hardest of all, their ancestors who died in the struggle, is, currently at least, an insuperable obstacle.

Narratives are what I call “political facts.”  They may or may not represent historical facts, but are stories that people in their thousands, or more, are willing to die to protect.  Today, the most vivid example is the Russia-Ukraine War. Ukrainian nationalism was still shaky in 2014, but by 2022 it was strong enough to fend off the Russian army and win the admiration of the Western world.  There is, of course, a parallel Russian narrative, but it seems to be fully embraced by only one man.  Unfortunately, that man is Vladimir Putin and, so far, he has been able to bend the whole country to his particular version of history – or fantasy.

Israeli and Palestinian Traditional Narratives of Their History:

Different Understandings of the Past Stalemating the Present

a) The legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise of returning Jews to Eretz Yisrael is based on Jewish descent from the ancient Israelites. The Jewish People has inherited their right to the land, religiously, legally, and historically. Jews have always looked and prayed toward Zion (Jerusalem), never relinquished their relationship to the land, and have always maintained a presence since ancient times, despite expulsions. Jews were treated as foreigners and persecuted wherever they were during their long Exile.a) Judaism is a religion of revelation, like Christianity, and has no inherent tie to a particular land. Jews are not a nation but rather a community of believers. In any case, any Israelite presence was a short period in the long history of Palestine. Ultimately, religious myths, without presence and possession, are incapable of creating an ownership right. Palestinians are in fact, descendants of all previous inhabitants, including Israelites. Those Jews living in Palestine and the Muslim world before 1882 were well treated by Muslim neighbors and rulers.
b) Zionism was an authentic response to the persecution of Jews over millennia around the world. Jews did not come as colonizers, but rather as pioneers and redeemers of the land, and did not intend to disrupt the lives of the current inhabitants of the Land of Israel. All land for Jewish settlement was legally bought and paid for, often at inflated prices.b) Zionism was a European colonialist enterprise like many in the late 19th century and was a European ideology superimposed on the Middle East. Moreover, it is an ideology of expansion directed towards robbing Arabs of their ancestral land. Arabs were systematically expelled by Zionist settlers from the beginning.
c) The Arabs of Palestine were not a national group and never had been. They were largely undifferentiated from the inhabitants of much of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, with no authentic tie to the Land of Israel. Many only came for economic opportunity after the Zionist movement began to make the land fruitful and the economy thrive. In all the years of Arab and Muslim control from the 7th century, Palestine was never a separate state and Jerusalem was never a capital.c) The ancestors of today’s Palestinians (Canaanites, Jebusites, and others mentioned in the Bible) were there before the Israelites, as shown by both biblical and archaeological evidence. Palestinians have lived continuously in the land since then. Certainly by the 1920s and likely much earlier, there was a Palestinian identity and nationality that differed fundamentally from other Levantine Arab peoples.
d) Zionist diplomacy legitimately sought a Great Power patron since Herzl, and found one in Great Britain. True, Britain had its own imperial agenda, but this does not detract from the righteousness of the Zionist cause. The Balfour Declaration was ratified by the League of Nations, constituting a statement of international law approving a Jewish homeland in Palestine.d) The British foisted Zionism on the Palestinians beginning with the Balfour Declaration as part of their imperial strategy, with no right whatsoever in international law, and this was illegally ratified by the League of Nations. ”He who did not own gave a promise to those who did not deserve.” Zionists worked hand in glove with Britain to subjugate the Palestinian people.
e) The riots of 1920, 1929 and 1936 were instigated by unscrupulous Arab leaders for their own nefarious purposes, particularly the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al Husseini. The “Palestinian” population had increased rapidly through immigration of Arabs who were attracted by Zionist economic successes, and the Arab population’s living standards rose rapidly during this period. The British frequently stood aside when Arabs murdered Jews.e) All the disturbances were justified and spontaneous revolts by the Palestinian people against the British/Zionist alliance and increasing immigration. The increasing Jewish immigration, facilitated by the British, created the resentment that led to the revolts. The British backed the Zionists, who were responsible for and had provoked the disturbances, and punished Palestinians harshly and illegitimately.
f) The British, who had been initially supportive of the Zionist enterprise through the Balfour Declaration and the early mandate, began to backtrack early, as reflected in the splitting off of Transjordan in 1922, the Passfield White Paper of 1930, and many other incidents. They definitively repudiated the Balfour Declaration with the White Paper of 1939, and were unabashedly pro-Arab after that point.f) The British were always pro-Zionist, except when occasionally forced otherwise by Arab pressure. They conspired with the Zionists to destroy Palestinian leadership in the 1936-39 revolt, thus making it impossible for Palestinians to prepare for the coming war with the Zionists. The White Paper of 1939 had no effect as it was not enforced. The British deliberately trained Zionist soldiers during the 1936-39 revolt and World War II.
g) The Zionist movement accepted the UN partition resolution of 1947 in good faith. War was forced on the Yishuv (Jewish national community) by the Arabs. In self-defense, the Haganah (later the Israeli Army) took over more land than had been allotted in the Partition Resolution and was justified in holding it, as it would have inevitably become a base for attacks on Israel.g) The UN partition resolution of 1947 was illegitimate, as the UN had no right to give away the homeland of the Palestinians. The Palestinians cannot be blamed for trying to hold on to what was rightfully theirs. Compromise was out of the question. The Jewish leadership never genuinely accepted the idea of partition; in any case, expulsion (transfer) was always the plan.
h) The Yishuv was numerically vastly inferior to the combined Arab population; it bordered on a miracle that Israeli survived the war (“the few against the many”). The War of Independence was fought primarily against the Arab armies from 5 states. Jews realized they would be massacred if they lost, and fought with absolute determination to prevent another Holocaust. Arab atrocities proved they had no other choice.h) The Jews had planned for the war, had organized politically and militarily, had strong support abroad and were in a much more favorable position when war came. Their armed forces outnumbered all the Arab armies. Palestinians had no infrastructure or military training, and were attacked and massacred repeatedly by Jewish gangs. Arab “aid” consisted primarily of attempted land grabs by other Arab countries of Palestinian land.
i) The Palestinians were not expelled. They fled, in most cases, because they were ordered and cajoled by their leaders and the Arab states, in order to make room for conquering Arab armies. In many cases Jewish officials pleaded with the refugees to stay. The Israeli decision to prevent refugees from returning was justified, as otherwise Israel would be destroyed by a hostile Arab internal majority. Ultimately, the responsibility and blame rests with the Arab leadership for rejecting the partition resolution.i) Beginning soon after the adoption of the partition resolution in November 1947 the Zionists began to expel Palestinians from their homes, almost certainly according to a plan (Plan Dalet). Deir Yasin was a planned massacre that succeeded in stampeding Palestinians to leave. The Nakba (Catastrophe) was planned and carried out as ethnic cleansing, reminiscent of the Holocaust. The Zionists recognized that a Jewish state could not exist until most Arabs were expelled, and history proves this was the plan that was carried out.
j) The refugee issue was artificially kept alive by the Arab states, which deliberately used the refugees as pawns against Israel and forced them into refugee (concentration) camps. The real reason for the continuation of the conflict is the refusal of the Arab states to recognize Israeli’s existence. Israel has repeatedly offered peace, but not at the price of its own destruction, which has been the Arab goal since 1948. The “Right of Return” is a measure invented in order to destroy Israel as a Jewish state, and will never be accepted.j) The Palestinian people have never ceased to protest against the illegality and immorality of their expulsion, and Palestinians continue to identify themselves as belonging to their real homes in Palestine. The Arab states have repeatedly betrayed the Palestinians and only grudgingly gave them space in refugee camps. There can never be a settlement without Israel recognizing its guilt and providing appropriate redress, including the right of all Palestinians to return to their homes enshrined in Resolution 194. Palestinians in other Arab countries are as much in exile as anywhere else.

Revised and excerpted from “Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue”, edited by Paul Scham, Walid Salem and Benjamin Pogrund.  Available on Amazon.   This version © 2009 by Paul Scham