There’s an old saying, “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” Ironically, not far from Egypt there is a river of denial flowing through the ancient land of Israel. The denial of a Jewish connection to this land runs deep and wide in the Arab world. Despite copious amounts of historical and archaeological evidence, many Arabs are by and large members of the Flat Earth Society when it comes to believing that Jews have had an enduring presence in this land going back 3,000 years. One can barely dig down a few feet in Israel without finding some artifact testifying to ancient Jewish life here.
That said, there’s another wave of denial, albeit more subtle, that flows among many Jews both in Israel and around the world. It’s the denial of the existence of Palestinians and a Palestinian nation. Memes like this abound in my Facebook feed:
Many on Facebook routinely put “Palestinian” in quotes and use derogatory terms like “Fakistinian.” Some of this is a reaction to an overreach by those among the Palestinians who claim that there was a functioning Palestinian country here in the 19th century and well before — something which is historically inaccurate. The problem arises when these people extrapolate from those inaccuracies to the present in order to aver that even today no Palestinian nation exists.
That the Palestinian nation is not ancient is irrelevant to its existence. Every nation had a beginning, some longer ago than others. The United States, for example, became a nation of Americans during the 18th century. Blogger David Benkof did some of the heavy lifting on this point and the issue in general in his blog post, “Palestinians Exist.” However, I’d like to add a few thoughts to the conversation.
The Jewish nation, according to its own narrative, evolved in ancient Egypt. Every year for thousands of years, at Passover seders around the world, Jews intone the following biblical quote during the reading of the Haggadah:
The Aramean wished to destroy my father; and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation.
Few in number is right. When Jacob went down to Egypt the “Israelites” were merely a family of 70 people. It took a couple of hundred years before that family grew big enough to “become a nation.” As the Palestinian Arabs “became a nation” in Palestine there were over a million of them. While it’s true that hundreds of thousands of Arabs migrated to Israel as the Zionists were building up the land in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is also true that well before the First Aliyah, there were 10 times as many Arabs living in the area then known as Palestine as there were Jews: roughly 250,000 vs. 25,000. Many of these Arabs had lived there for generations.
There are other similarities between the Jewish and Palestinian national narratives. According to the Bible, the Jewish nation formed in Egypt primarily as a result of the segregation and persecution of the burgeoning population of Jacob’s descendants. As a result of the war that ensued after the UN partition declaration, for many reasons, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were exiled from their homes and land. In many cases, they too were segregated and ill-treated as foreign invaders in their new countries. Even worse, much of this was at the hands of fellow Arabs, who cynically used them as pawns in a concerted effort to delegitimize and eradicate the Jewish state.
Additionally, in the wake of the creation of the State of Israel and subsequent displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs, a Palestinian diaspora was created. As with the Jews who were dispersed and exiled after the conquest of ancient Israel, this had the effect of solidifying a sense of nationhood with their fellow Palestinians scattered around the world. Like the Jews, they developed a messianic ethos of return that is being passed down through narratives, some factual and some hyperbolic, to succeeding generations.
There is also the issue of modern statehood. While the Jews have existed as a nation for three millennia and some Jews have always been present in the land of Israel, the mechanism that allows Israel to function as a nation among the other nations of the modern world is the UN resolution of 1947 which created a Jewish state. This does not in any way negate the historical and archaeological evidence I mentioned earlier. Nor does it speak to the theological underpinnings that have energized the Jewish people’s yearning to return to the land their ancestors were exiled from 2,000 years ago. However, while those underpinnings come from the Jewish Bible, that ancient scroll is not a “deed” in any modern, legally accepted meaning of the word. It is world recognized statehood that allows Israel to interact with other nations in commerce, trade, aviation, telecommunications, etc.
It is that same world-recognized resolution that concretized a Palestinian nation, though it would still be some years until they fully absorbed that identity. Neither the Palestinians themselves nor the greater Arab world took advantage of this opportunity. Rather than accept recognition of this fledgling nation, they have since responded largely with war and terror in an effort to undo it. However, this does not negate the sense of nationhood that was forged at that time. Nationhood does not necessarily correlate with being a “good” nation, but it is nationhood nevertheless.
From a more pragmatic vantage point, despite the fact that Palestinian education, society and government actively seek to indoctrinate their people to disbelieve basic facts and history about the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, there still exist many who reject such attempts at brainwashing. There are many decent Palestinians who, proudly seeing themselves as part of a Palestinian nation, think for themselves, reject indoctrination and are able to see the nuance involved in understanding the narratives of both people.
One wonderful and famous example is Nuseir Yassin, the wildly popular video blogger who produces “Nas Daily.” Is the self-satisfaction of dissing the “bad” Palestinians with quotation marks and nasty memes worth denigrating and disenfranchising these good people who should be emboldened and encouraged to become the voices of their nation?
None of this is meant to give the Palestinians a pass on allowing themselves to be led by leaders who continuously resort to terror and violence to gain independence and statehood, often with the explicit goal of doing so by eliminating the Jewish State of Israel. A benevolent and wise leader committed to both acknowledging the Jewish connection to the land and eschewing violence would quickly ensure the fulfillment of the Palestinian dream of statehood and would also win over much of Israel’s Jewish population in supporting them in this endeavor. However, allowing extremists to hijack the narrative and continue down the path of mutual denial does nothing to further understanding and hopes for peace and could, tragically, assure our mutual destruction.