Sally Abrams
Here's How I See It

I’m growing weary of the word “narrative”

There was a time when “narrative” meant a story, often a personal story, that stood alongside the facts. A narrative was an accounting, a retelling,  infused with memory, pain, insight, truthfulness, forgetfulness.

A narrative added the essential human dimension to historical events. It attached a face and a name to the facts, but was not meant to replace them.

The lines between narrative and fact are blurring and this is not a good trend. Facts can be readily checked and verified. It can feel awkward, uncomfortable, even impolite to question the accuracy of someones narrative.

However, when a narrative is filled with grievous errors, it must be corrected. A standard bit of anti-Israel narrative is to peddle the belief that the Jewish state was an idea cooked up in 1945, once the horrors of the Holocaust became clear.

This narrative denies the historical connection of Jews to the land of Israel that goes back over three thousand years. It erases the concept of the Jews as a people, among the worlds most ancient peoples, whose history, language, faith, and culture are rooted in this land.

It ignores the longing of the exiled Jewish people expressed in the Psalms, the hope of “next year in Jerusalem” that concludes the Passover seder, the fact that Jews worldwide pray facing Jerusalem.

This anti-Israel narrative is constructed with a careful omission of the above facts. If you can persuade people that Israel is nothing more than restitution for Nazi crimes in World War II, it won’t be hard to plant the idea that the Palestinians are paying the price for the Shoah.

The Shoah, which we commemorate this week, showed the world what happened to the Jews when they lacked self-determination. It certainly made people more sympathetic to the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state.

But Israel’s declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948 was the fulfillment of a very old idea, the two thousand year old dream of an exiled people to return to their ancient homeland.

Acknowledging that fact in no way denies that Palestinians also dream of a homeland of their own, and that two states for two peoples must remain our goal.

If people of good will don’t know the history, or have simply heard a narrative linking the Shoah and Israel enough times, they too will connect them in one seamless move. This error has become all too common and it cuts across political lines. We heard this linkage in President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo as well as in a recent speech by Senator Marco Rubio.

The rise we are seeing in Israel hatred is fueled by a shift to narrative over facts. Witness the growth of “Israel Apartheid Week” programs at campuses across the globe. The apartheid narrative speaks to students deepest beliefs about justice and human rights. That this narrative collapses with even the most minimal scrutiny does not matter. Narratives are not meant to be scrutinized. “You have your narrative and I have mine.”

These were the actual words spoken by an anti-Israel activist last week in New York.

Phyllis Chesler reported on protesters from the BDS National Committee and other anti-Zionist groups who turned up to demonstrate against the performance of Israeli music superstar Idan Raichel a few days ago in New York City.

The irony of protesting against a musician whose entire brand is based on a multi-ethnic, multi-language musical style seemed to sail right over the heads of the protesters. Raichels band features black Ethiopian Jewish singers who made aliyah to Israel. His signature sound is a constantly evolving mix that fuses Hebrew text with Ethiopian, African, and Arabic music, rhythms and instruments. The music flows seamlessly from Hebrew to Arabic to Amharic and beyond.

So why would anti-Israel protesters demonstrate against a musician whose work is a testament to multicultural diversity?

Writes Chesler: “I asked for a brochure. It read: “What kind of musician is an ambassador for apartheid? Serenades soldiers who destroy homes, lives, and land? Feels happy with a state characterized by racism, violence, and land theft?”

And when one of the protesters was challenged on these assertions, this was her reply:

“We have our narratives and you have your narrative.”

A generation ago, four-term Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) recognized this dangerous trend. He said “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Such wisdom is desperately needed today.

About the Author
Sally Abrams is Director of Judaism and Israel Education at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. She has taught thousands about Israel and/or Judaism in churches, classrooms, civic groups, and Jewish communal settings.
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