The language of conflict

Jodi Rudoren of the New York Times observed on March 19th that the current Palestinian-Israeli war is “much more a clash of narratives than a tussle over territory”.

It is especially important to highlight that specific point today, for two reasons:

First, Fatah spokespeople and official media organs honored Dalal Mughrabi this week as a model of martyrdom for Palestinian children – an “example of bravery, heroism, sacrifice and courage”. Mughrabi led a massacre of 37 Israeli civilian bus passengers — 12 of them children — on March 11, 1978.

Second, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has made the release of convicted murderers a centerpiece of his negotiating strategy with Israel — and Israel must decide whether it will release yet a fourth batch of criminals in order to keep Abbas at the table — and convince John Kerry that Israel is serious about peace.

That the release of such prisoners could have ever been a precondition to the start of peace negotiations highlights a grave problem that plagues the entire endeavor of the peace process — and that will guarantee its collapse at every critical juncture. The problem inheres in the Arab/Palestinian narratives that underlie and currently drive this conflict. Those narratives are lethal — and I submit that no one suffers more from them than the Palestinians themselves. Moreover, the acceptance of those narratives by Israel, the United States and the journalistic community is potentially suicidal.

Nidra Poller coined the term “lethal narrative,” to describe a formidable weapon that interferes with the rational thinking that is essential to Western civilization. In June 2009, Ms. Poller delivered an essay entitled “Lethal Narratives: Weapon of Mass Destruction in the War Against the West” to the New English Review Symposium May 30th, 2009.

Professor Richard Landes added to the understanding of the term, elaborating on the deadly employment of lethal narratives on his blog The Augean Stables.

A working definition of the term “Lethal Narrative” appears on the BBC Watch.

“A lethal narrative is an unproven, unsubstantiated story which is used – not necessarily by its creator – directly or indirectly to incite against and/or justify or ‘contextualize’ violence against the story’s supposed antagonist.”

The following might add further to our understanding of lethal narratives and the central role they play in perpetuating conflict in general and the Arab/Islamic war against the reestablishment of a Jewish Commonwealth in the Middle East, in particular.

There are essentially two types of lethal narratives: The first blames an individual or a group of people unjustly for an existing phenomenon caused by a third party – and is used to direct the diffuse anger of an injured party onto a particular target. Prime examples of the first type are the Dreyfus affair in the 1890’s, (where the French military, supported by the French political class falsely accused a Jewish artillery officer for the leaking of French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris) and Hitler’s blaming the Jews for Germany’s economic woes in the 1930’s. The second type of lethal narrative is fabricated from whole cloth, specifically to prey on people’s fears and prejudices and exploit them in order to incite specific behavior against a specific party.The great irony of the second variety is that such narratives often project the worst behaviors of the narrative’s author – or the author’s compatriots –onto the party against whom the narrative is directed. Prime examples of this type of lethal narrative are the blood libels from the medieval period, accusing Jews of ritually murdering children, The Protocols of The Elders of Zion – an anti-Semitic forgery purporting to outline a Jewish plan for global domination – and modern day blood libels, like the Al Durah affair, where Israel solders were unjustly accused of murdering Palestinian children in cold blood.

Many lethal narratives commingle both archetypes –and nearly all lethal narratives base their ‘success’ on an appeal to the target audience’s raw emotions as a bar to investigative, critical thought and a goad to ‘avenge’ the alleged wrong. Modern day lethal narratives often employ a pictorial variant of the false document technique (which invents and insets documents that appear to be factual) used by the Protocols of The Elders of Zion. It has been said that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. This has not been lost on the purveyors of modern day blood libels – like the Al Durah narrative – which utilize staged videographic footage specifically for its emotive power. In this context, one recalls the Palestinian frenzied lynch of the Israeli soldiers in Ramallah as “revenge” for the alleged shooting of Muhammad Al Durah two weeks earlier.

A veritable industry has been spawned by the Palestinians aided by journalists partial to the Palestinian agenda and mostly well-meaning but often misinformed non-governmental organizations, to create and promote lethal narratives about Israelis and Jews in general and those Jews living in Judea and Samaria, in particular. Professor Landes, in his expose’s on “Pallywood”, and NGO Monitor’s analysis of The Goldstone Report have documented aspects of this phenomenon. While the travesty of truth and justice created by the promotion and cultivation of lethal narratives has been explored to some degree, the tragedy such narratives entail in the context of the Palestinian Arab –Israeli context remains to be explored and understood much more deeply.

Lethal narratives are essentially cheap weapons of mass destruction. To take the analogy one step further, a lethal narrative is, in effect, an intellectual suicide bomb vest. While lethal narratives are relatively cheap to propagate – the damage they cause can be nearly incalculable. Like a physical weapon of mass destruction, a lethal narrative often brings a great deal of collateral damage in its wake — and it is not terribly particular about its incidental victims. The blowback can be indiscriminate; however — like a physical suicide bomb — a lethal narrative can often be counted upon to kill or cripple its progenitor, as well as harming its intended victim. The harm is not always immediately apparent. Sometimes – like the radiation sickness caused by exposure to a suitcase bomb – the long-term collateral damage caused by lethal narratives is seen only in the fullness of time. However, while radiation has a definite half-life, the effects of a lethal narrative do not necessarily diminish in time; sometimes, in fact, they get worse. The horrible consequences of the lethal narratives cooked up to serve the Palestinian cause now serve as dangerous accelerants, fueling worldwide violence and actually foreclosing progress toward durable solutions to the conflicts convulsing the Middle East. For example, the Al Durah imagery has achieved iconic status. It served as a backdrop to the snuff video produced by Daniel Pearl’s murderers’ and was prominently featured in a Jihadi recruitment video commissioned by Bin-Laden.

I would argue that the victim of the Palestinian lethal narrative industry has chiefly been the Palestinian Arabs themselves – especially those residing in Arab countries, who are denied citizenship in those countries and remain locked into an enforced, potentially eternal victimhood that has been preserved at horrible cost to everyone involved. Any leader who makes the slightest gesture to help Palestinian Arabs climb out of this victimhood does so at the risk of his or her very life. (In this context it should be noted that the road to Palestinian Arab leadership is characteristically paved with tales of personal victimhood and is dependent upon the leader’s utter refusal to come to any accommodation that would put an end to alleged grievances.) In this schema, the rights of the other can never be recognized and historical fact must be sacrificed on the altar of nationalism whenever the two appear in conflict. The result is that currently Palestinian leaders are locked into a jingoism that demands that they abdicate any and all responsibility for their own problems in favor of blaming Israel and the Jews for them. The current Palestinian ethos, fired in the crucible of lethal narratives, elevates the destruction of a traditional enemy over any constructive cooperation that might improve the actual physical, spiritual and psychological welfare of Palestinian Arabs. Any positive accommodation with Israel is tarred as “collaboration” and any ‘normalization’ is perforce viewed as negative. The disastrous effects of this modus operandi is highlighted by how the Palestinian leadership has dealt with water issues in Israel. Professor Haim Gvirtzman, a professor of hydrology at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University — a member of the Israel Water Authority who has been a member of the Israeli team for water cooperation with the Palestinian Authority — penned an article published February 24, 2014, telling the truth behind the Palestinian Water Libels and how they have affected the life of Palestinian Arabs.

The Arabs’ strategy of deploying lethal narratives in their conflict with the Jews trying to return to the Jews’ ancestral homeland is hardly of recent vintage. One of the longest running lethal narrative themes purveyed in that conflict is that of the bloodthirsty, massacring Jew. That particular lethal narrative, in its myriad variations, still has traction — despite that during the period when Israel fought off the attacking Arab armies, the number of instances where Jews actually massacred the inhabitants of any Arab village (using the word ‘massacre’ to mean the wanton slaughter of unarmed individuals) are practically non-existent.Those instances of unjustified killing that did take place, while tragic and wrong, remain utter aberrations; the killing was never celebrated by Israeli leadership nor by Israelis as a whole. Nonetheless, that particular narrative in many varieties was spread by the Arab leadership in various contexts and with several motivations – with the ultimate result of creating the Palestinian Arab refugee problem (a unique and artificial phenomenon that has become most potent political weapon the Arabs ever had.) As mentioned above, this refugee status in all its exceptional negativity is actively cultivated and artificially preserved. Indeed, it has been elevated to the practical status of a foundational myth.

In this context, there is a tragic aspect of lethal narratives which deserves special attention. Compare the invented incidents of Jewish massacres during Israel’s War of Independence to the Arab leadership’s declared intentions toward the Jewish civilian population at that time and the chest-thumping pride with which the current Palestinian leadership lionizes the “martyrdom operations” of unrepentant bus-bombers, those who specifically targeted children and celebrate civilian deaths. There is simply nothing comparable to this in the Israeli national culture.– The elevation of murderous criminality to a national ideal and the insistence – as a matter of right – upon raising of children on such ideology is the true tragedy of lethal narratives, for there is no surer way of destroying the next generation.

To find a productive way forward in a quest for Middle East Peace it is absolutely imperative to nip this entire business in the bud. A productive dialogue would begin by admitting the problem and finding novel ways to address it.

Sadly, we have reached an intellectual nadir where demanding that Arab leadership take its rightful accountability for creating this problem might be equated by some with blaming the Jews for the Holocaust. However, the truth must be put forward regardless of how politically incorrect it might seem. The Palestinian refugee problem originated largely with the Arab leadership, which continues to perpetuate it as a weapon against the Jews’ return to their ancestral home. The fact is that Israel’s Declaration of Independence clearly invites the Arabs to stay and provides equals rights for all Israel’s citizens. Is there anything comparable in any constitutive document of any Arab country? Any Moslem country?

While in practice, there may be failures to achieve ideals and practical inequalities in Israel – as there are also regarding the treatment Sephardi Jews and many other citizen groups, we should compare the best of the Jewish leadership and ideals with the best of the Palestinian ideals not the best with the worst in order to get a true picture of what is theoretically possible. The yardstick for measuring the relative merits of the Israeli and Palestinian Arab relationship to the peace process are the ideals that each respectively is fostering in the next generation.

Bottom line: If we are going to find positive ways to end the conflict, the elevation of common murderers and thugs (e.g. who butcher hikers for the crime of being Israeli or dash the brains of babies on rocks) to the status of heroes, role-models and icons must stop. It is utterly counterproductive – and morally depraved – to allow (let alone insist upon) the lionization of such people as a precondition for even talking about peace. Understanding this point is important – not only because of the danger that the phenomenon poses to Israelis and Jews but especially because of the irrevocably corrosive effect it has on Palestinian Arab culture and the next generation of Palestinians, who deserve a much better life than that toward which their current leadership seems hell-bent on leading them.

About the Author
Elihu D Stone practiced law in Boston, Massachusetts and is currently a member of the Israeli Bar; He is involved in the Al Durah Project, an initiative dedicated to understanding and countering the dilemmas and vulnerabilities that face democratic cultures in this age of aggressive asymmetric and cognitive warfare. Elihu has been privileged to serve in leadership roles for a variety of Jewish communal organizations and is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. The writer currently maintains a U.S. life insurance clientele and lives in Efrat, Israel