germany - Wikipedia - June 17 2011
Women in Berlin’s ruins, c. 1947. The truth is clear: It was Germany that attacked Poland. Photo by Wikipedia
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On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. That is truth, not narrative. On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked and destroyed the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. That is truth, not narrative.

Of course, there are also narratives. For example, the Germans had quite a few complaints against Poland. First, that in the 1919 Versailles Treaty, the victorious Western powers stripped Germany of territories with a large ethnic German population and annexed them to Poland (the "Polish corridor" ), while declaring Danzig, which had been a German city for generations, an international city. Moreover, Nazi Germany accused the Polish government of discriminating against ethnic Germans under its jurisdiction.

Not every claim in the German narrative was baseless, but the factual truth is clear: On September 1, 1939, it was Germany that attacked Poland, not Poland that attacked Germany.

There is also a Japanese narrative: The United States, together with Britain and Holland, imposed an embargo on the export of iron, steel and oil to Japan after the Japanese invasion of China. Japan suggested negotiating over these issues, but the U.S. refused, and Japan considered the embargo an act of aggression that threatened to paralyze its economy.

These were weighty claims, and it's impossible to ignore the fact that the American and British attitude contained a whiff of white racism against the rising "yellow" power in East Asia. But the truth is that on December 7, 1941, it was Japan that attacked the U.S., not the U.S. that attacked Japan.

Why is this important? In recent debates about the Palestinian "Nakba," the claim has been made that there are two "narratives," an Israeli one and a Palestinian one, and we should pay attention to both of them. That, of course, is true: Alongside the Israeli-Zionist claims regarding the Jewish people's connection to its historic homeland and the Jews' miserable situation, there are Palestinian claims that regard the Jews as a religious group only and Zionism as an imperialist movement.

But above and beyond these claims is the simple fact - and it is a fact, not a "narrative" - that in 1947, the Zionist movement accepted the United Nations partition plan, whereas the Arab side rejected it and went to war against it. A decision to go to war has consequences, just as it did in 1939 or 1941.

The importance of this distinction becomes clear upon perusing the op-ed that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently published in The New York Times. Abbas mentioned the partition decision in his article, but said not one single word about the facts - who accepted it and who rejected it. He merely wrote that "Shortly thereafter, Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs."

That is like those Germans who talk about the horrors of the expulsion of 12 million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe after 1945, but fail to mention the Nazi attack on Poland, or the Japanese who talk about Hiroshima, but fail to mention their attack on Pearl Harbor. That is not a "narrative," it is simply not telling the truth. Effects cannot be divorced from causes.

The pain of the other should be understood and respected, and attempts to prevent Palestinians from mentioning the Nakba are foolish and immoral: Nobody prevents the descendants of the German refugees from Eastern Europe from communing with their suffering.

But just as nobody, even in German schools, would dream of teaching the German "narrative" regarding World War II, the 1948 war should also not be taught as a battle between narratives. In the final analysis, there is a historical truth. And without ignoring the suffering of the other, that is how such sensitive issues must be taught.