Controlling the Palestinian narrative

The well-documented history is unknown or ignored in many progressive circles whereas the Palestinians’ fictitious narrative is accepted as gospel.

The cover of Rashid Khalidi’s book (photo credit: Courtesy)
The cover of Rashid Khalidi’s book
(photo credit: Courtesy)

In George Orwell’s famous 1949 novel 1984 about a dystopian society, the protagonist, Winston Smith, works in the Records Department at the Ministry of Truth, the agency through which the ruling Party controls history, memory and “truth.” The Party slogan ominously declares, “Who controls the past, controls the future.” 1984 is a warning about the mutability of the past and the dangers of systematic manipulation by denying, distorting, or ignoring essential historical facts. Control of the past, even when history is fabricated, determines what’s taught (or not taught) in our classrooms, drives public opinion, and influences public policy.

This is well understood by the protesters who’ve been calling for the removal of Confederate statues in the US because they were erected not as benign symbols of “Southern heritage,” but as monuments in celebration of white supremacy. They’re demanding that America own up to a past of deep-rooted institutional racism, one that has been largely whitewashed in our high school history courses.

Orwell’s warning is also germane to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Notably, the Palestinians have achieved wide acceptance of their narrative of oppression and victimhood despite its falsifications of history. According to this narrative, Israel is a “colonial-settler state” whose establishment in 1948 was imposed on an unwilling indigenous Palestinian population that was dispossessed of its land and “ethnically cleansed.” The Palestinians’ success is reflected in the sizable portion of both the American Left and Western European public that have fully embraced their narrative. Inaccurate historical accounts advanced by Palestinian propaganda, including misrepresentations of the Zionist movement, are often presented as fact on the pages of major newspapers and from the lecterns of scholars at prestigious universities.

Take, for example, a newly published book by Rashid Khalidi, a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University and one of the most prominent academics of Middle East studies in the US. Speaking on C-SPAN in Washington in February, Khalidi said he wrote The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonial Conquest and Resistance, 1917-2017 for “the American general reader.” The title says it all.

Although Khalidi claims to draw on “a wealth of untapped archival materials,” his book turns out to be just another recitation of the standard Palestinian narrative: Israel was established as a settler colonial state in Palestine with the support of the imperial powers, and the Zionist enterprise necessitated the removal – or at least subjugation – of the “indigenous” Arab population.

Khalidi’s central premise is Zionist (and Western) culpability for all the tragedies that have befallen the Palestinian people. A compelling account—if only it were true. Indeed, it may have been more aptly titled, “The War on a Hundred-Year History of Palestine.”

Nowhere in this book does it mention that the entire Arab world vehemently rejected the 1947 UN partition resolution in favor of a two-state solution for Palestine. The resolution, Khalidi laments, “was just another declaration of war... a blatant violation of the principle of self-determination.” Yet, it was the creation of an independent Arab state in Palestine that every Arab government, backed by the Palestinians, voted against.

Besides, who “declared war” on whom? It was the Palestinians who initiated hostilities on November 30, 1947, the day following the adoption of the partition resolution. Immediately after the Jews proclaimed their new State of Israel a few months later, five Arab armies invaded it in what the secretary-general of the Arab League called “a war of extermination.” Employing classic Orwellian obfuscation, however, Khalidi tells us the Arab armies didn’t invade Israel, they merely “joined the war.”

Of course, Khalidi’s book is only the latest polemic that distorts the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Reading similar works, you won’t learn that Palestine was a sparsely-populated, neglected territory of eroded hills and malaria-infested swamps as was reported by 19th-century visitors to the region, such as Mark Twain.

You’d have no idea that the early Zionists avoided purchasing land in areas where Arab tenant farmers might be displaced, settling for uncultivated tracts. You would miss the fact that a higher standard of living generated by Jews drew large waves of Arab immigrants to Palestine (Arabs subsequently counted as part of the “indigenous” population). Nor would you know that the 1948 Palestinian refugee problem resulted largely from Arabs fleeing their homes – often with the encouragement of Arab leaders – long before they were threatened by the fighting.

Sadly, this well-documented history is unknown or ignored in many progressive circles whereas the Palestinians’ fictitious narrative is accepted as gospel. The latter must therefore be actively confronted and exposed. Otherwise, we may be headed for a future of declining American public support for Israel and rising delegitimization.
The writer is director of community relations and public affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland