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1619, 1948, and the Woke Left’s War on Reality

Origin stories often make the most captivating films and plays – like the account of childhood abuse that drove “The Joker” down the path of evil, or the orphan’s life of loss and poverty that fueled Alexander Hamilton’s boundless ambition. Such stories offer a window into the soul, revealing the core drivers of character and motivations.

The same is true of nations – their origin stories provide riveting histories, yielding powerful insights into national character and motivations. Those histories provide the central frame for a country’s sense of identity, and hence at times they are the subjects of intense disputes.

In recent decades, America and Israel have witnessed especially contentious disputes over their national origin stories. Despite foundings almost two centuries apart, and although having vastly different sizes and demographics, the origins of America and Israel display remarkable thematic parallels: both founded largely by Judeo-Christian migrants fleeing religious persecution; both forging (or rebuilding) a homeland from humble beginnings; both founding liberal market democracies with ever-widening circles of equal inclusion; and both becoming economic and military powerhouses.

And now, both countries face robust attempts to negate their largely positive histories and replace them with highly condemnatory narratives, summed up by the dates 1619 (America) and 1948 (Israel). These alternate narratives have wide support among academics, intellectuals, and activists. Yet in both cases the alternate narratives are at odds with objective facts; they are made to appear plausible only by exaggerating the negatives, ignoring the positives, and stripping away the pertinent context.

Consider America’s alternate “1619” narrative. That year, two British ships carried and sold to Virginia colonists the first African slaves in the lands that later became the United States. Exactly four centuries later the New York Times published its “1619 Project,” which declared its intent “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding . . . placing slavery and [Black history] at the very center of the [American] story . . . .”

Black history is indeed one of the central strands of American history. It is no less than a modern Exodus story, comprising both extraordinary suffering and herculean achievements in the face of powerful – at times horrifically savage – resistance. And not just during slavery, but also through the long night of Jim Crow – and into the final act of fighting to take up the mantle of long-denied freedom.

But the 1619 Project adds to this a far more radical claim, rejecting America’s self-declared 1776 founding – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” – as a lie, and hence a mere “founding mythology.” Instead, the 1619 Project insists, America’s true narrative is that “this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.” The 1619 Project’s first essay opens with the caption, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written.”

Among the chief claims made to support this inverted history is this: the true motive behind the American Revolution was not to win sovereign governance, but rather “to protect the institution of slavery.” This claim has been widely refuted by historians.

Leslie Harris, a historian specializing in African-American history, states outright that “the protection of slavery was not one of the main reasons the 13 Colonies went to war.” In fact, the 1619 Project team asked Harris before publication to fact-check whether preserving slavery really helped drive the revolution. In Harris’s own words: “I vigorously disputed the claim. . . . Despite my advice, the Times published the incorrect statement about the American Revolution anyway.”

Also refuting the claim is Tom Mackaman – no conservative, but rather an avowed socialist – who insightfully asks: “Why was it that the great slaveless majority of colonists supported America’s second-bloodiest war for six long years? Why did thousands of free blacks enlist?” In fact, anti-slavery movements were active in several states at the time, and several abolished slavery after the war.

Another major claim of the 1619 Project is that slavery was a central pillar of the early American economy, the foundation that built much of America’s wealth. Slavery’s profits allegedly “fuel[ed] the Industrial Revolution. . . . [and] made Wall Street a thriving banking, insurance and trading sector and New York City the financial capital of the world.” If true, this means that most of the country’s industrial and financial elite were deeply invested in the maintenance of slavery. But it is not true. Economic historians confirm that the 1619 Project greatly overstates the scale and profits of the slave plantation system. The farming and export of cotton comprised no more than 5% of antebellum GDP. Far from a linchpin of economic growth, “empirical studies . . . have proven . . . [that] areas where plantation slavery existed, have lagged economically behind areas where it did not. . . . Slavery is actually an economic suppressant . . . caus[ing] stagnation in its wake.”

Compounding these errors, the 1619 Project insists that even Abraham Lincoln and the militant abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison were just racists who opposed Black equality – notwithstanding Lincoln’s strenuous efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery, and his advocacy of citizenship and the right to vote for freed slaves (which advocacy motivated his assassins); and notwithstanding Garrison’s post-Civil War condemnation of anti-Black discrimination.

In sum, the 1619 Project’s overstated indictment of America is fundamentally flawed – both in several particular facts, and in its broader effort to displace 1776 as America’s true founding. The New York Times’ own Bret Stephens puts it best:

“The metaphor of 1776 is more powerful than that of 1619 because what makes America most itself isn’t four centuries of racist subjugation. It’s 244 years of effort by Americans — sometimes halting, but often heroic — to live up to our greatest ideal . . . [through] a struggle . . . waged by people of every race and creed . . . [which] continues to inspire millions of people at home and abroad.”

Now consider the alternate narrative of Israel’s 1948 founding – a parallel rewriting of its origin story, alleging ethnic cleansing and gratuitous violence against Palestinian Arabs. This false narrative was popularized across Israel in the 1990s by the so-called “new historians” – Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, and Tom Segev, among others. As aptly summed up by Efraim Karsh, these historians claim:

“that Zionism was . . . an aggressive and expansionist national movement . . . responsible for the Palestinian tragedy [and] the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict . . . [Regarding] the war of 1947-49 . . . they dismiss the notion of a hostile Arab world’s seeking to destroy the Jewish state at birth as but a Zionist myth.”

Much like the 1619 Project, the new historians’ indictment of Israel’s origins rests on a plethora of errors. The lead count of their indictment is the false claim that Israel’s founders sought, planned, and conducted a mass expulsion of Arab residents from the lands the U.N. assigned to Israel – a so-called “transfer” plan.

The accusation rests largely on selective quotes by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, from a December 1947 speech wherein he acknowledged the challenges of governing an anticipated 60% Jewish, 40% Arab state. But Ben-Gurion neither called for nor even mentioned “transfer,” “expelling,” or any other such plan vis-à-vis Arab residents. On the contrary, he said in that speech (which his accusers neglect to mention):

“We must think in terms of a state, in terms of independence, in terms of full responsibility for ourselves – and for others. In our state there will be non-Jews as well – and all of them will be equal citizens; equal in everything without any exception; that is: the state will be their state as well.”

In fact, transfer was a British proposal, part of their 1937 “Peel plan” for partitioning Palestine – which idea also received support among some Palestinian leaders. Whereas, in 1947 testimony before the U.N.’s Palestine commission, Ben-Gurion explicitly rejected an updated British plan that included population transfer.

To be clear, during the 1947-1949 war Israeli troops did selectively target and clear the residents of several Arab towns. But the new historians and their acolytes omit or minimize the critically important explanatory context of Israel’s precarious defense. By December 1947 Israel faced a civil war within its designated borders – a war launched by the Palestinian leadership, supported by the Arab League, and explicitly intending “a war of extermination and momentous massacre . . . .”

Simultaneously five Arab countries – Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon – declared their intent to invade and annihilate Israel; their armies stormed Israel’s borders on May 14-15, 1948. By then Arab militias already had blockaded Jerusalem’s 100,000 Jews and surrounded the sole supply road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – ambushing supply convoys, murdering the truck drivers, and seizing the food and water desperately needed by those 100,000 Jews.

Hence as even Benny Morris makes clear in his later history of these events, Israel faced an existential trifecta of civil war, foreign invasion, and Jerusalem’s approaching starvation. Israel’s survival depended on clearing several dozen localities of Arab militias that were massacring Jerusalem’s supply convoys, blocking essential transport links, and holding open the roads of the main invasion routes into Israel.

To also be clear, during the war over 600,000 Palestinian Arabs fled the lands assigned to Israel (while over 800,00 Jews were expelled from neighboring Arab countries). And indeed that was an enormous tragedy.

But the vast majority of those 600,000 Arabs fled in response to Arab propaganda, namely, demands to temporarily flee in order to clear the fields of battle, combined with false claims of Israeli atrocities that caused mass panic and flight. The most notorious of the latter falsehoods involved the clearing of the village of Deir Yassin, overlooking the Tel-Aviv – Jerusalem supply road. Eliezer Tauber’s exhaustive, recently published research – which includes testimonies of Arab residents – has now definitively refuted this widespread lie of an Israeli massacre.

In sum, as with the 1619 Project, the principal falsehoods about Israel are found not in the conventional origin story, but rather in its purported condemnatory replacement. This is especially true today, where false accusations of Israel’s “ethnic cleansing,” “apartheid,” and similar calumnies reflect a virtual consensus across Western media outlets and Middle East Studies centers.

A parallel trend is underway regarding the 1619 Project: its false narrative has been lionized with a Pulitzer Prize, and over 4,500 American schools have now incorporated it into their curricula.

And this is no accident. Across the United States, with California and Massachusetts taking the lead, education bureaucrats, activists, and teaches unions are waging an intensive legislative campaign to incorporate into K-12 curricula, an “ethnic studies” syllabus that emphasizes the denunciatory narratives of both the 1619 Project and the anti-Israel apartheid/ethnic cleansing claims. Under pressure from advocates of so-called “woke” ideology, these false historical narratives are being embraced by an ever-growing share of education leaders, opinion writers, and corporate titans.

Why is this happening? Delineating the causes could easily fill an entire book. But one especially salient observation is provided by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In his discussion of the belief systems that drive jihadist terrorism, Rabbi Sacks drew a distinction between blame cultures and penitential cultures. In response to societal problems, blame cultures ask, “Who did this to me?” – and then seek out and target scapegoats. Penitential cultures ask instead, “Given our problems, what must we do to repair them?”

Although seemingly self-critical, both the 1619 Project and Israel’s revisionist new history actually reflect an inward-directed form of blame culture: Our terrible countries are the cause of the problems we face; expose and tear down their false ideals and histories, and then all will be well. In these factually deficient rejections of their respective national origins, both narratives exhibit a kind of adolescent rage against reality.

This phenomenon is well captured in an observation by Stefan Kanfer, a cogent critic of America’s radical movements from the 1960s, namely: “Behind the pounding, driving beat of the revolution, if you listened closely, you could always hear the hard bang of a spoon against a high chair.”

For far too long, the adults in the room have been silent if not shouted down in this long-running war on reality. In both America and Israel, it is long past time for the adults — and for reality — to make their voices heard.

And those voices should include this bit of wisdom: Our nations’ respective beginnings and founding principles – however imperfectly carried out in the crucible of war and its aftermath – are exactly what inspire, motivate, and guide us to instantiate them more completely over time. For all their flaws, they are precious gifts, not to be torn down. Honor them, teach them, debate them – and where possible, improve them.

 

About the Author
Henry Kopel is a former U.S. federal prosecutor and the author of the book “War on Hate: How to Stop Genocide, Fight Terrorism, and Defend Freedom.” Kopel is a graduate of Brandeis University, Oxford University, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and is an annual guest lecturer on prosecuting hate crimes at the University of Connecticut Law School. He serves on the global advisory board for the Abraham Global Peace Initiative.
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