This article was written with Michal Dar-El.
I have been wrestling with the term “narrative” for sometimes, especially when it is used in the context of the Arab Muslim-Israeli conflict. The articles I have written on the subject have stressed time and again the ambiguous and thus unreliable disposition of the term and how it has been used to advance someone’s agenda, political or otherwise.
As it turns out, “narratives” and their use are not a new concept.
Two weeks ago, we read the Torah portion Sh’lach L’cha (Numbers 13:1 – 15:31). It recounts the story of the first set of spies that Moses sends to Eretz Yisrael shortly after the Israelites left Egypt.
The portion starts with G-d commanding and instructing Moses to choose scouts, one from each of the 12 tribes, to scout out the Land and its inhabitants as part of preparing its conquest. He instructs them to gather facts and bring back some of the fruit of the Land. Some of the questions they seek answers for are the following:
“See what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”
After forty days of scouting the Land, the spies return and recount their experiences to Moses and the people:
“We came to the land you sent us to; it doe indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan….The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; we saw the Nephilim there — the Anakites are part of the Nephilim — and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
The above description is an example of what a “narrative” is. As I pointed out in one of my previous articles on the subject, one of the meanings of the word “narrative” is “tale.” To me, that implies something more befitting a bedtime story or legend, one that appeals to one’s fantasy, secret, and perhaps not so secret, wishes and dreams. A narrative can be factual, embellished or a mere figment of one’s imagination. Most importantly, a narrative, when not factual, serves a set agenda.
The manner in which some of the spies describe the Land and the terms they use to do it mirrors their agenda which was their opposition, out of fear or other reasons, to entering and conquering the Land. Initially, they produce facts in the form of fruit that they brought back along and a cluster of grapes so large that it requires two men to carry it with a pole between them. These serve as proof that the Land is good.
Herein rests another facet of the deceitful nature of a “narrative” and the ploy of those that utilize it. A “narrative” usually starts with a fact, with a bit of truth in order to attract the listeners, convince them and gain their trust. According to Rashi, the renowned Torah commentator, a lie that does not start with a pinch of truth will not survive for long.
“: כל דבר שקר שאין אומרים בו קצת אמת בתחלתו, אין מתקיים בסופו: זבת חלב ודבש הוא”
The spies’ non factual “narrative,” however, like any other such “narrative,” can be easily refuted. It soon becomes evident that some of their stories are colored by their interpretation of the reality that they encountered. For instance, they claim that the people there are “powerful” and they live in “fortified cities. Again, according to Rashi, and according to common sense, do powerful people need to live in fortified cities? Powerful people, according to him, should count on their strength and their might and not on walls to defend them.
Another myth and piece of disinformation that those opposed to entering the Land produce is that “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.” This, too, could easily be rebutted. If the Land was indeed that bad then how come those inhabiting it were still around, let alone powerful, thriving and their Land plentiful?
Furthermore, the spies venture to imagine what the dwellers of the Land regard them as: “and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” This is strictly a matter to speculations and interpretations as no facts are proffered to support it. Again, such a misleading and unfounded declaration constitutes a “narrative” and serves to support their recommendation to oppose entering the Land.
In Biblical times, unlike in modern times, “narratives,” as the story of the spies reveals to us, were considered a sin punishable by death. Moses must intercede for the people so that G-d does not punish them nor destroys them.
Unfortunately, nowadays, “narratives,” especially those that pertain to the Arab/Muslim – Israeli conflict run rampant and unchecked, raising whole generations on lies, myths and deliberate misinformation. These include rewriting middle eastern history, denying Jerusalem as the eternal, undivided Capital of Israel, comparing the Jewish state to Apartheid South Africa and many others, all in a effort to serve an agenda aimed at delegitimizing Israel and the Zionist dream and bringing about the total demise of the only Home the Jewish people have ever had.