The Struggle between Narrative, Myth, and History

In the chronicles of the human race, we often are witness to great struggles between narratives, myths, and history. Historians devote their lives to emphasizing the meaning of historic values, and which myths and narratives are imbedded in the memory of nations.

Narratives and myths often contradict historical facts, and there is often disagreement surrounding mythic and factual elements of various historic episodes. In recent centuries, with the development of propaganda and advertising systems, these trends do not happen on their own, but are dictated and scheduled to redefine reality. Legends become historic memory, and suddenly marginal events are given a change of direction and presented in a different light in order to restructure human history.

The Soviet Union on one hand and Nazi Germany on the other turned ‘party-line’ information and distortion of information into a science, when they presented partial or whole misrepresentations as historic values in their battle for the present and future image of our world. 

Border disputes and wars over natural resources, which used to be rooted in history, are now supported by narratives and myths, and the war over the truth has long since become a war between one version and another. In the past, the importance of the truth regarding narrative, myth, or history was disregarded, but since the beginning of the twentieth century, territorial demands were found to be based on narratives and myths, bringing about the two bloodiest world wars in all times. Some still have a leading role in modern-day disputes.

The dispute between the State of Israel and its neighbors, the struggle between Islam and the Jewish people returning to their homeland, is a perfect example of the battle between history and the narratives and myths implanted in that struggle. We should remember that the efforts to return the Jewish people are rooted primarily in the 2500-year-old Jewish demand to allow the return of the Jewish people to the land of its ancestors. This nation petitioned the legendary world-leader, Cyrus the Great, king of the largest empire in ancient times  “…who reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over a hundred and seven and twenty provinces”. This proclamation is evidence of Cyrus’ repatriation of the Jewish people following their Babylonian captivity, an act that the Bible – Chronicles, the Book of Ezra, and the Book of Nehemiah – attributes to Cyrus, and is corroborated in other historic texts.

Cyrus’ proclamation, given over 2500 years ago, was not accepted peacefully. The nations that were brought in an attempt to take the place of the ancient Hebrews and seize their lands, as well as neighbors such as Sanballat the Horonite, were violently opposed to the proclamation and to the repatriation of the Jews. However, nothing could stop the return of the Judean diaspora for another 500-years of Jewish rule in the Land of Israel. In 1917, after 2000 years of exile, Lord Balfour, Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, issued the Balfour Declaration, which was ratified by the League of Nations, supporting the establishment of a Jewish national home in its historic homeland.

In 1921, Haj Amin al-Husseini was appointed Mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the Arab population, not because he was a native of the land (he was born in Hijaz in Saudi Arabia), but because of his hatred to the Jewish people and his violent opposition to their repatriation. This was the beginning of the struggle between history and myth, which later on added its own narrative. We should remember and mention that the appointment of the first leader of the Arab population was not merely due to his hatred towards the Jews, but also because of three other important events:

  1. Riots and pogroms against the Jewish population in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Hebron;
  2. The Arab revolt (1936-1939) against the British Empire, which had initiated the Balfour Declaration, including a general strike against the British Mandate in Palestine;
  3. During World War II, al-Husseini collaborated with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, meeting Hitler, Eichmann and Mussolini, about the final solution of Jewish annihilation, including plans for concentration camps in Israel, when the British were driven out by the Nazi troops aided by local Arab representatives. Arab guerilla units were prepared to poison the sources of the YarkonRiver, to poison 250,000 of the 600,000 Jewish inhabitants that lived there.

As part of the fight led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, and with the support of seven Arab nations that surrounded Israel and declared war as soon as the UN voted to accept the Partition Plan, the Arab residents of Israel were asked by their leaders to evacuate their homes in order to allow the Arab armies to eradicate the Zionist enemy.

That was the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. The war was initiated by the surrounding Arab nations against the young state that was established following a UN vote. During the war, which was forced on us by Arab countries, thousands of people out of the small population were killed. To be exact, there were 6,000 dead Israelis out of about 650,000. This is a huge number for a young state, and each dead Israeli is evidence of the hatred exhibited by the Arab forces against Israel. This war was the direct continuation of the war waged by the local Arabs and their leaders, who joined up with the enemies of the Jewish people all over the world to implement the “final solution” conceived by the Nazi regime. Their leaders were involved in the solution proposed by the Nazis, and their “literary” contribution was the slogan “to throw the Jews into the sea”. These facts are not narrative, but historical facts that include names of representatives and dates of meetings between the parties, and are documented in all the countries involved with the Holocaust. The leader of the Palestinian Arabs was declared a war criminal at the Nuremburg Trials, and was not brought to justice and punished for his crimes only because he had escaped to Lebanon and hid there for the rest of his life.

In view of the fact of the establishment of the State of Israel, based on the Bible, the Holocaust and international declarations – the Arab nations, which at the time numbered about 400 million people, had to cope with the new reality of a state recognized by the UN, rooted in history and in what was perceived by the world as historic justice.

Following the war, the Arab nations amassed many friends among the Nazis, some of whom found sanctuary in Arab countries, and were enlisted in the war efforts and propaganda against their common enemy – the Jewish state.

The Nazi war machine relied strongly on the Propaganda Ministry headed by Joseph Goebbels, who created the Third Reich’s home front representation, which dealt with defamation of all enemies including the Jews, who were illustrated as enemies of humankind. It is no wonder that at that time, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion became an important asset in the Arab propaganda against Israel. When the Soviet Union openly joined the supporters of the Arab cause, the KGB’s Disinformation Department helped the various Arab countries and ethnic groups to justify their actions, thus starting the war of legitimacy and image between Jewish history and the Arab narrative and myth that were written during the struggle.

Regarding the public assets of Israel, the Arab nation had to supply an explanation for each asset. First came the issue of the Jewish nation’s right to return to its homeland. We should remember that throughout the reign of Jordan in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, Jerusalem did not have a political status. It was a small town with famous mosques that did not fulfill a central role in the general Arab public. On the other hand, in the past, when Jerusalem was conquered by the Crusaders, and in order to validate the Muslim struggle in the war over Jerusalem, when Salah al-Din set out to clear the city, it was given a holy status among the Muslim population. For years, Jerusalem was not mentioned by Muslim leaders. It is not mentioned in the Koran; and in Islamic history – the prophet Mohammed never visited it. The House of Ommaya, which competed with other Saudi leaders, gained control of Jerusalem and tried to use its status as a holy city to Judaism and Christianity, by appropriating parts of Jerusalem’s holiness. To this end, they created the myth that Mohammed’s ascent to heaven was from the TempleMount, and that the location where Mohammed’s horse Al-Buraq was tied – was the Western Wall.

This story was significant during the wars against the Crusaders, but with time, the story faded, and Jerusalem was pushed from the consciousness of the Arab population, which awakened again only when the Jews started to return home. The myth was subsequently recruited by the Arab struggle, to serve as a banner for Muslims that had no idea about Israel and Jerusalem, which had not been part of Islamic discourse prior to the establishment of Israel. Gradually, the attempt to expand the myth about Muslim presence in Jerusalem intensified, and turned from words to actions. For dozens of years, the Muslim Waqf has been trying to wipe out any physical evidence of Jewish presence on the TempleMount, including digs to excavate and grind earth and to conceal the historic facts imbedded in the site.

The myth was also engaged to control the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which, is the site of the first documentation of land purchase in the Land of Israel by Abraham (from Efron the Hittite) for 400 shekels as a burial plot for his wife Sarah. The Muslim myth maintains that the cave was bought by Abraham to bury Hagar and Ishmael, and ignores the historic facts recorded in the Bible. Once again – the myth confronts history, and serves as a basis for the physical struggle over control of this holy site.

Another myth was employed about Rachel’s Tomb on the road to Bethlehem, which has been a significant historic location for thousands of years. For many generations, the Arabs called it “Qoubbeh Râhîl (Dome of Rachel). However, since it is the indicator of “Rachel weeping for her children”, evoking our past and rights to the land, Islam had to invent a new myth; namely, that the place is the burial spot of a sheikh, one of Mohammed’s followers. This is also part of the war waged on the millennia-old written and oral history of this region.

Alongside the struggle over historic values and the holy sites, the Arab nation and local Arab population found it hard to cope with the world’s feelings towards the Jewish people after the horrendous injustice of the Holocaust, which justified its intervention in restoring our national homeland; that is to say, only a homeless nation could have been so cruelly abused and murdered. In conjunction with the historic fact of the Holocaust, which still resonates throughout the world, the Arabs and their supporters engaged a response – the Nakba narrative.

The term was coined by Prof. Constantin Zureiq at the American University of Beirut. Zureiq attributes the Nakba to the downfall of the Arab armies in their war against the Jewish state, and calls it a catastrophe of seven Arab nations that declare war on the Zionists in Israel, and are stopped and defeated. The war was intended to put an end to the Partition Plan and to discredit recognition of a Jewish state, but ended with an abatement agreement that held no advantages or gain for them. Zureiq believed that the term ‘Nakba’ could serve the Arab nation as part of their narrative, as an appropriate response to counter the term ‘Holocaust’, which he thought was used so well by the Jews.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, the term was employed to describe the Arab defeat. It was convenient to combine the Arab catastrophe with the new borders, and thus to suggest that the solution to the Arab problem hinged on those borders. A Palestinian leader, Araf Araf, explained that the Arabs suffered an incomparable calamity – their homeland was taken, they were expelled from their lands, they lost many of their sons, and above all – their honor was deeply compromised. He thus created the issues for which the Arabs must be compensated before any solution to the conflict is discussed; namely, reinstatement of the homeland, repatriation, compensation for the dead, and above all – restoration of their lost honor. The Arab Bureau of Statistics defined the term ‘Nakba’ as part of a manmade military plan, conceived by the large nations, which caused the great tragedy of the Palestinian people. Dr. Ilan Pappé, a historian and political scientist, unquestionably not a fan of Zionism, claims that the term is used in an attempt to counterbalance the moral burden of the Holocaust, and therefore the identical and similar details of both disasters must be examined.

The Nakba lays the disaster of the local Arabs at the feet of the Jews and the nations of the world that supported their right for a homeland; it ignores the rejection of Zionism’s outstretched hand, agreeing even to partition; it overlooks the Arab leadership’s urging of the Arab residents to leave them homes in order to facilitate the Arab attack; it disregards the so-called liberation army made up of seven countries that attacked the State of Israel; it discounts the Fedayeen that attacked and killed Israelis in the 1950s; it discounts the many Arab refusals to conduct peace negotiations with Israel, which were the official policy after the Six-Day War; and it lays the blame for the chaos in the region solely on Israel. 

Since then, despite the fact that by Israel’s initiative former leaders of the PLO have entered the country and a dialog has been started to find a solution to the conflict – the narrative and myth wizards have been working overtime to deal with the historic rights of Israel and the Jewish people. With the help of the considerable political power of Arab countries, the United Islamic Nations, and the nonaligned countries that are now 55% of the world’s nations, the fierce propaganda struggle against the State of Israel is succeeding, and is gaining many victories – not by the power of justice, but by the power of the ‘finger’, namely the majority of votes that support it, and vote in their favor no matter how odd the proposition.

Israel today is fighting a well-oiled and organized alignment that is operating on all fronts to create historic, physical, and legal de-legitimization, using the same methods that have been used by our enemies for generations, and enabled the Holocaust, the repercussions of which we still feel. The struggle of history versus narratives and myths is a difficult Sisyphean, yet inevitable, effort. This is not a discussion of semantics. This tactic has proven itself in the past, and has allowed the greatest crimes of all time to be perpetrated against the Jews and the world. All of us must stand on guard and learn from past experience.

About the Author
Dr David Altman is senior vice-president at the Netanya Academic College and vice-chair of the college's Strategic Dialogue Center