Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Truth, Fact and Myth in a Middle East Dialogue

Truth is sometimes a shadowy figure in the world of the Middle East. What truth is for one person, or one group, or one nation, may not necessarily jive with the truth of another person, group, or nation. Facts are equally fungible in this most dangerous of neighborhoods. Alan Dowty, in his book “Israel/Palestine” discusses truth and fact in relation to myth building. As you will see further on, the truths portrayed by those who hate Israel, and the facts that are used to back up the assertions that Israel is the ultimate bad guy, are myths and lies. The myths built up since World War II are big myths indeed, which brings one to reflect on a rather infamous quote; “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it,” by Adolf Hitler.

The myths that endure are those that go like this; ‘Israel exists on lands taken by force from others; indigenous peoples who were thrown off their lands’ – or ‘it is the result of age-old ethnic and religious hatreds and is not soluble until Israel ceases to exist.’ The myth most strongly reinforced, the biggest lie repeated over and over again, is that Israel threw people out of their homes and took over their lands; that Israel exists only because of what they did to the indigenous Palestinians, and to make amends Israel must relinquish ownership of all the land of Palestine.

It is a conflict over land; it is a conflict that pits two people against each other for the same little strip of earth. The myths about the conflict, and the “truths” used to reinforce those myths, have been hammered into generations of Arabs such that they are now the absolute truths, even in the face of clear and compelling historical facts.

This was brought home to me recently when I participated, over the past few months, in what was described to me as a dialogue group focusing on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

It started with about eleven people seated in a circle. The primary facilitator wore a hijab and described herself as a Palestinian. Over the course of the next four sessions, the group dynamic continually changed as several participants either came or didn’t, and new participants suddenly showed up after not being there for the first sessions.

There was the Israeli, who stated a feeling of “shame” at Israel for oppressing Arabs, and the young Jewish student who talked of listening to an Arab friend describe the ‘horrors of the check points.’ There was a young 19 year-old woman who described her visit to Arab towns in the Palestinian Authority territories and the abject poverty and the terrible stories of the residents, including a very graphic rendition of the oppressive tactics by Israeli soldiers. There were also the stories from a young Arab man from Lebanon and another, the husband of the facilitator, outlining the constancy of oppressive activities and governmentally sanctioned crimes against what was described in several ways as “the indigenous Palestinian population.” Several participants offered no personal history with regards to Israel or Palestine, and one fellow was consistent and insistent on bringing the conversation around to some type of common theme. Two other young men, who only showed up for the first sessions, brought with them their truths of living as Muslims in an Islamophobic world.

Sadly, the facilitators and several of the participants held firm in trying to move the group process toward a resolution that was, at least in my mind, a Pro-Palestinian stance. Israel was definitely the bad guy here. Palestine, and the millions of refugees everywhere, was the victim.

It was stated that, time and gain, the human rights of Palestinians were violated by the Zionist invaders. I heard stories about soldiers’ actions at checkpoints, about the hardships of ‘regular’ people living in refugee camps, the horrible conditions in Gaza. Israel was the oppressor, the goliath, the apartheid state viciously oppressing the true and legitimate inhabitants of the land.

The statement was made that, in order for us to move on as a group, it would be good if we could agree that Israel must first apologize for its actions, its horrible past, comparing this idea with what South Africa did in the aftermath of the end of Apartheid. Lots of head nodding all around. Appeared to be a good idea.

Granted, there was a Rabbi who was invited to attend this group, but alas, the Rabbi’s schedule didn’t allow regular participation and the Rabbi missed most of the meetings. The other, secondary facilitator, was Jewish, but this person was very silent and only spoke sparingly, preferring to play the outsider role. Of course, there was me. I was invited, through an intermediary, because he (the one who wanted to participate) was deemed too ‘Pro-Israel’ for this group. That should have been a giveaway to me, but I went ahead and participated anyway.

I expressed my opinions, and started with the statement that I am, and have always been, Pro-Peace in the Middle East, Pro-Israel, and Pro-Palestine. I challenged my dialogue group co-members to agree with me. What I heard was worse than silence. What people said, during their statements, was that they did support a Palestinian state, and they wanted peace. Nothing was stated that expressed a desire to see a peaceful Israel alongside a peaceful Palestine. According to the truths expressed, the two peoples cannot co-exist on the same little strip of land.

Facts were not a major player in this group. Preferred truths were, especially those that were slanted toward the demonization of Zionism and Israel.

Facts and personal truths collide. If there is no one there to point out the absurdity of some ‘personal’ truths, so they remain, and are reinforced by the head nodding and/or the passivity of the rest of the group. Repeat the lie long enough, and the people will believe it.

It was time for me to go. This was not dialogue. It was Israel bashing.

I am willing to accept that sovereign nations do things that they shouldn’t. America has done some pretty awful things. So has most of the rest of the world’s sovereign nations. Yet, they remain sovereign, safe in their lands. Only Israel is attacked for not being perfect. I do not agree with every policy and action taken by the Israeli government. But the fact that Israel exists at all (or their hope for its destruction) is exactly what is behind the “truths” intoned by those who refuse to utter the phrase “Pro-Israel.”

What is truth? What is fact? What is myth?

The nakba referred to in my previous posting refers to the Arab world’s commemoration of the May 15, 1948 declaration of Israeli statehood. Nakba means catastrophe. I will entertain the notion that some may believe that establishing Israel was catastrophic for some people. I would imagine that some believe establishing the USA on July 4, 1776 was catastrophic (Britain or native peoples); or that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was catastrophic for freedom.

In the same vein, shouldn’t those same people who cry nakba every May 15th also cry nakba when they remember or think about how dozens of Arab leaders called upon Arab residents from all over Palestine in 1948 to leave their homes "for a short time" just until the Arab armies will have wiped out all the Jews?

Wasn’t it a nakba when, upon receiving hundreds of thousands of refugees, Lebanon, or Syria, or Egypt, chose instead to stuff them into horrid camps, not allowing them to even become citizens of their host country? My denial of the definition of a nakba is based on a much broader understanding of the situation, instead of the narrowly defined nakba involving the establishment of the State of Israel. Wasn't it also a nakba that the Arab world chose to say no to a state when the Jews of Palestine said yes? I would like to hear my dialogue co-members accept these truths, because they are rooted in historical fact.

But the fact remains; the UN authorized Israel’s existence on November 29, 1947; it also authorized an Arab state (Palestine) alongside a Jewish one (Israel) in the same vote. The Arab state would have been 99% Arab, and the Jewish state would have been 55% Jewish (the other 45% would be Arab). The fact also remains that the Jewish population of Palestine immediately said yes, and the Arab population immediately said no.

The fact is that on May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was established under the UN partition plan’s agreement, and by May 17th, Israel was formally recognized as an independent nation. A fact that is completely overlooked is that, also on May 14, 1948, the Arab League (which was comprised of most of the Arab world) along with Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon attacked Israel and all parties entered into a state of war; the Arab world looking to destroy the Jews and Israel fighting for its existence, one that had just been accepted by most of the rest of the world.

What is truth? What is fact? What is myth? Nazi Germany used lies and myths to move a nation toward hate. Now the Arab world, to a very large extent, uses myths and lies to keep hate alive. In 2002, Egypt’s national school system aired a program that presented the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a proven piece of fiction created to foster anti-Semitism) to schoolchildren as fact. Hamas in Gaza uses excerpts from this fiction in its official anti-Israel diatribes. Hamas paraphrases and hides, but the intent is clear; indoctrinate its citizens against Jews.

The dialogue group used the same methods to establish their side’s truth, which is not based on facts, but will become so as they repeat it over and over in the absence of the fact checker and the myth buster.

Neal Elyakin, Ann Arbor

December 22, 2009


Hannan said...

Great blog. Agreed with your approach and assessments.

Yes, I am a Zionist which unlike other "liberation movements" in the middle east over the past 100 years, has succeeded in establishing a viable and vibrant democracy where 6 million Jews and 1.4 million Palestinian Arabs share the only democracy in the region. The lies and misrepresentations have done nothing to improve the lives of Palestinians, to the contrary, they have made the dream of a democratic and free Palestinian state even less viable.

David said...

I believe the original use of the term nakba by the Arab world was used in reference to the failure of the Arab armies to defeat the Jews in 1948. That was the catastrophe and was a much more honest use of the term. It was only in the 1960s when the meaning of the term changed after appearing in Palestinian poetry.

Anonymous said...

What happened to the agreement to not share the discussions of the group with others?