Despite Everything, One Truth

The public discourse is again dealing with the basic relativist concept, which assumes 'there is no truth' and so we should make do with the positions proposed by all sides in discussing history.

Following the news that school history textbooks aim at teaching the Israeli narrative alongside the Palestinian narrative ("Israeli textbook under review for giving Palestinian version of 'nakba'" by Or Kashti, Haaretz, September 22) the public discourse is again dealing with the basic relativist concept, which assumes "there is no truth" and so we should make do with the positions proposed by all sides in discussing history.

This concept needs to be rejected, firstly because of the hypocrisy of those circles that believe in it. For some reason, if we take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an example, they propose adopting a relativist approach only when it is likely to undermine the "Zionist narrative" but never when talking about the Palestinian narrative. Thus, for example, I have never heard anyone propose here that the massacre carried out by Baruch Goldstein at the Cave of the Patriarchs on Purim 1994, be taught "with a double vision" - on one side of the page, the "Palestinian narrative" would appear, which talks about the cruel massacre at the doctor's hands of 29 innocent worshipers, and on the other side, the "Jewish narrative," which talks of a well-intentioned man who could not stand the ongoing killing of his comrades so he committed an act of "collective self-defense" on behalf of the settler public.

Incidentally, it would be possible to teach the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in the same vein. On the one hand, there's the "leftist narrative" according to which a peace-seeking prime minister was murdered by a political opponent, and, on the other hand, the "rightist narrative" in which an innocent youth of Yemenite origin named Yigal Amir fell victim to a sophisticated conspiracy of the Shin Bet security forces.

However, even without the hypocrisy of those who support the narratives, that concept should have been rejected out of hand. That is certainly true when talking about the facts. Did the Jews fire the first shot in the War of Independence, or was it perhaps the Arabs? What was the scope of the forces and the ammunition of each of the sides? Were there acts in which the Arabs of Israel were exiled or not? We are permitted to expect the historians to give us clear answers to all these questions.

Indeed, when talking about interpretation, it is neigh inevitable there will be arguments about the causative connection between various facts. But there, too, one must not forgo attempts to be decisive, no matter how difficult or disputed that may be. It is possible to reach a conclusion by gathering together as many facts as possible (documents, interviews and so forth) that can lead us to the "correct" answer (at least for people at that time, since after all that is what writing history is about).

In this way, for example, an answer should be formulated for the question of whether there was an organized plot to expel the Arabs of Israel or not, and if so, whether it stemmed from a desire to see the land free of Arabs or rather was the result of the war that the Arabs forced on us, which gave rise to the feeling it was a zero-sum game - us or them.

Anyone who claims there is no possibility to decide between the narratives must state why he does not propose relinquishing the court system, which likewise has pretensions of making rulings of this kind and even decides peoples' fates as a result. Indeed, it is necessary to have adept professionals for rulings of this kind - whether judges or historians - and that is precisely the reason why a history textbook is supposed to focus only on the positions of professional historians, and not those of "nationalist sides" (which express ideologies rather than research).

It is possible there will be differences of opinion among the historians, just as there are among judges, but a disagreement of this kind is supposed to be based on claims and evidence that all aim at the truth, on the assumption there is such a truth, even if it is not always easy to arrive at it. Just as we will not accept a relativist utterance of "this is my narrative" from judges, and that bases a ruling on ideology or gut feeling, we also cannot accept that from historians.