Netanyahu, Abbas and the Death of Historical Truth

Israelis and Palestinians are fighting a war of post-modern political fictions, where truth has been mortgaged to collective mobilization.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Netanyahu and Abbas.
Netanyahu and Abbas. Credit: AP

“You can’t handle the truth!”

The courtroom climax of the film "A Few Good Men" could be the new rallying cry of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Colbert-style ‘truthiness’ abounds: Just this week, in a blatant revision of Holocaust history, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opined that wartime mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, and not Adolph Hitler, was responsible for formulating the Final Solution. In another highly publicized act of misinformation (or disinformation), Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbbas condemned Israel for executing terrorist Ahmad Mansara, while the teenager was defying death eating hospital jello in Jerusalem.

These recent cases only follow on months of conspiracy theories on both sides - from right-wing Israelis alleging that the arson-murder of the Dawabsheh family was perpetrated by Palestinians and not Jewish terrorists to insinuations that Israel intends to blow up Al-Aqsa and replace it with a third holy temple. As Hebrew University Professor Hillel Cohen suggested recently, “the way to understand people’s narratives is to add the words ‘I wish that’ before what they sayAt some point, they start believing themselves.”

However, as a fellow historian, I believe that we aren’t in a war of narratives today. Nowadays a feud based on ‘facts’ seems to belong to a distant, irretrievable past, and narratives seem like a relic of a bygone era. No longer does the conflict dwell in the realm of differing interpretations of lived experience, rather it has passed into a new phase, in the words of Eric Hobsbawn and Terance Ranger, of “the invention of tradition.” Israelis and Palestinians are fighting a war of post-modern political fictions, where truth has been mortgaged to collective mobilization.

Sadly, this reality is not new to struggles for indigenous rights and independence. In 1992, the Quiche-Maya activist Rigoberta Menchú won the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign for Indians in Guatemala. In 1999, an inconvenient truth in the form of a revisionist biography by anthropologist David Stoll alleged that Menchú fabricated important details to serve her political agenda and that Western audiences acquiesced in these lies (or at very least, did not attempt to verify her story), ‘romanticizing the guerrilla’ in Guatemala and beyond.

While this case remains contested in historiographic controversy, the Menchú affair brought the debate on the dangers of extreme historical relativism into the public sphere. Moreover, it seemed to confirm that the left - and perhaps also the extreme right - saw fit to sacrifice nuance to the national struggle, evidence for empowerment, technicalities for territory, information for ideology, and veracity for a vision of the future across the globe.

It is a tragic mistake in looking at Israel-Palestine to fight force with fabrication. There is more than enough real terror and tragedy in this region that Israelis and Palestinians do not need the “invention of tradition.” The horrors that have occurred on both sides do not need hasbara theatrics or “Pallywood” scripting. We may have become immune to the disaster of the everyday, the routinization of racism, the triviality of living with terror — but the mundanity and banality of evils and wrongs in Israel/Palestine don’t require special effects.

The Israel-Palestine morass needs empathy and energetic resolution. If the turn towards uber post-modernist thinking has any use at all it would be for Israelis and Palestinians to walk a day in the other’s shoes and to understand their identity, circumstances, and needs. That is unlikely to happen when the post-modernist turn isolates each side ever more in their own self-righteousness. Moreover, as Hillel Cohen asserts, self-fulfilling prophecies have not only political, but moral implications, where acts of violence can be easily overlooked or even justified.

This third intifada poses not only an immediate danger to individuals, but to the possibility of any end to the conflict. While practical solutions to the political problems in Israel/Palestine have been on the table for years, there can never be a claims-ending agreement without a coinciding ‘truth and reconciliation’ process that aims to resolve underlying ideological tensions. If ‘truth’ has simply been replaced by convenient truths, those antiquated ideas historians used to call ‘facts’ and ‘authority’ replaced by stirring manipulations and powerful deceptions, and the past incessantly reinvented to suit contemporary agendas, how can there ever be peace? How can there ever be a final status agreement if the building blocks of a shared history are simply a constantly mutable fiction?

We should keep near the warning by George Orwell in his 1943 essay on the Spanish Civil War: “The truth it is feltbecomes untruth when your enemy utters ithistory being written not in terms of what happened, but of what ought to have happened according to various party linesthe abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully writtenThis prospect frightens me much more than bombs – and after our experiences of the last few years, this is not a frivolous statement.”

Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford. She is the author of the forthcoming City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967 (Harvard University Press). Follow her on Twitter: @SaraHirschhorn1.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism