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In Israel/Palestine, Beware the Weaponization of History

Ron Skolnik
January 18, 2018

by Ron Skolnik


I WISH Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and the Israeli and Palestinian people they represent, would live more in the present, and less in the past. I wish they focused more on problem-solving for the human beings inhaling and exhaling today, and less on proving to the world the righteousness or aboriginality of their ancestors, and the historical justice of their cause.

The latest, but not necessarily the most egregious, example of misdirected temporal energies were the remarks made in the past week by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In a speech to the PLO’s Central Committee, ostensibly delivered in response to Donald Trump’s recent moves to take “Jerusalem . . . off the table” and favor Israel’s claims to the city, Abbas decided to stray from the here-and-now to blast the origins of Zionism, going so far as to dispute the Jews’ historical and emotional connection to the Land of Israel: “Israel is a [European] colonialist venture which is unconnected to Jews,” he proclaimed,

they were exploited in order to facilitate this project, using terms such as the Promised Land. The Jews didn’t want to come to Palestine even after what they went through in Europe, with pogroms and even after the Holocaust. They didn’t want to come but Herzl said that anti-Semitism served the purposes of Zionism.”

Days later, in a follow-up speech at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Abbas delved even further back in time, telling his listeners that the Palestinians claim antecedence to the Jews in the region: “We’ve been here for 5,000 years, from the days of the Canaanites who built Jerusalem. We are the Canaanites.” (For a more scientific and less politically charged treatment of the Canaanite ancestry issue, click here.)

It’s a shame, really, because Abbas’ remarks made easy fodder for the rightwing politicians that dominate Israel and the rightwing press that carries their water. After all, even left Zionists found it hard to defend a speech that could reasonably be interpreted as saying that most Jewish Israelis had no fundamental right to be in the country. And Abbas’ insistence on “winning” the historical debate also diverted attention from his continuing moderation when it comes to the actual solutions he represents.

Declaring his ongoing adherence to two-state model (“Our position is that we want a state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital and a resolution of all key issues”), Abbas’ recent speeches have included the following welcome reaffirmations:

  • Recognition of Israel within the 1967 lines
  • Willingness to carry out land swaps that would allow Israel to incorporate most of the settlement population
  • Condemnation of armed struggle and insistence on nonviolent resistance
  • Negotiations for peace (albeit with international, rather than American, mediation now that Trump has made a mockery of the “honest broker” role)
  • Continued Palestinian meetings with Israeli peace groups -- a rejection of the “anti-normalization” strategy promoted by some Palestinians

When it came to looking toward the future, Abbas’ vision proved to be much rosier: “Not all Israelis are alike,” he noted at one point. “There are those who support peace and those who oppose it. We must continue these meetings [with Israeli peace activists] ... When there will be peace and there will be an Israel and a Palestine, we’ll need to coexist. So we’re already speaking with each other now, regardless of whether Netanyahu rejects peace or not.”


BUT ABBAS and the Palestinians are far from alone when it comes to the battle over history. Take, for example, the superhistorical language used by Israel to justify the Jewish claim to all of Jerusalem: the “united, eternal capital of Israel” (emphasis added). Since eternality implies the absence of beginning or end, the essence of Israel’s argument is that the Jews not only predate any other claimants to the city, they predate history itself.

Then there is the longstanding “Zionist myth,” as historian Yehoshua Porath once put it, that delegitimizes the authenticity of Palestinian claims by categorizing the Palestinians largely as recent migrants to the area who were attracted by the modernization brought by early Jewish settlement. Amongst the adherents to this belief is none other than Israel’s Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who wrote as follows regarding the early 20th century in his book, A Durable Peace: Israel and Its Place Among the Nations:

When intelligent and humanitarian men such as Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George considered this wasteland of Palestine, they understood that its miniscule Arab presence, making use of virtually none of the available land for the people’s own meager needs, could hardly be considered a serious counter to the claim of millions of Jews the world over to a state of their own.”

These are but a few examples. Israelis and Palestinians squabble over the legitimacy of the 1947 UN partition resolution, the process that preceded it, and their actions in its wake. Yasser Arafat dismissed the historical existence of a Jewish temple on Har HaBayit, the Temple Mount. Jewish Israelis often dismiss the Muslim connection to Jerusalem as less meaningful than that of the Jews. Abbas is now demanding an official apology from Great Britain over its 1917 Balfour Declaration. Two years ago, Netanyahu blamed the Holocaust on the Palestinian leadership, arguing that Haj Amin al-Husseini, in 1941, had convinced Hitler to exterminate the Jews rather than expel them.

None of this is to say that the historical record is irrelevant. Far from it. Our understanding of history forms the scaffolding for how we perceive current events, so the accuracy of the historical record must be maintained and abuses of history not tolerated. But we must also make sure to reject the instrumentalization of history and the weaponization of the past, which end up prolonging the suffering of those living today and tomorrow.


A MORE FUNDAMENTAL question, of course, is why Palestinians and Jewish Israelis have such a strong propensity for looking backward, not forward? Perhaps the reason lies in each side’s stubborn unreadiness to let go of a primal nationalist fantasy: To possess the entire land without being encumbered or threatened by the presence of another tribe.

Since the commencement of the peace process, it has become taboo to utter such sentiments publicly (those that do are branded as extremists), but perhaps more people than we realize on both sides continue to harbor these longings. If so, might the preoccupation with history be a way to give vent to such latent desires? Is this a type of wish fulfillment in which removing the other side from the historical record or voiding the historical justice of its claims functions as an acceptable stand-in for getting rid of the other side in practice?

Whatever the underpinnings, I was heartened to recently come across a healthier, more pacific approach to history offered by Avi Buskila, the director of Israel’s Peace Now movement who has entered the race for the post of Meretz party chair. Announcing his candidacy via Facebook, Buskila explains that his version of Zionism is the antithesis of the Zionism propounded by the Israeli right. It “isn’t nationalistic, racist and violent . . . isn’t fanatical, faith-based, messianic.” And when it comes to history, Buskila’s Zionism is one that,

acknowledges the errors of the past and learns from them, that remembers history well, but doesn’t seek to rewrite it and doesn’t wallow in it. It learns from history and gains strength from it. It is a Zionism that . . . neither victimizes nor plays the victim and doesn’t make one nation superior to another.”

One day, Israel and Palestine might establish a variant on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Such a body would be run by professional historians, not politicians, and could air the mutual historical grievances held by the two sides and perhaps even begin the process of reconciling them. To get to that stage, however, Israeli and Palestinian leaders will need to cease imagining themselves as the glorious vindicators of an ancestral legacy and redouble their focus on the work of problem-solving, however mundane and filled with compromise that may be.


Ron Skolnik is associate editor of Jewish Currents. Follow him on Twitter at @Ron_Skolnik.