Judy at Adloyada has come up with yet another great post (and no, I’m not trying to be sycophantic!), on history versus “narratives” in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Although Judy raises a number of excellent points, I don’t fully agree with her blanket dismissal of narratives that are demonstrably false or unverifiable; even when a narrative is not true in the objective sense, it nonetheless remains “true” in a very important sense when a large number of people believe it and aren’t going to be persuaded otherwise. Narratives have a life of their own, and if we dismiss them from our thinking because they are “untrue”, we will fail to understand and deal effectively with those who do believe them. In the Middle East, at least, the false can be very real.
I’ve got a fair bit of historical training under my belt, and as such I would certainly be happier dealing with a single, objectively true and verifiable account of events in our part of the world – especially if everyone else involved would accept the same set of facts! But while we can and should try to correct blatant falsehoods where we can, we also need to understand that our adversaries’ narrative is not going to go away, even if we disprove substantial parts of it. (We also need to apply the same sort of critical historical judgement to our own narrative as we apply to our adversaries’; objectivity cuts both ways!)
In my view, the real goal – for each side! – is not to fight for “our” narrative at the expense of “their” narrative. If we’re ever going to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict, we need to get beyond narratives entirely: Israel needs to allow some acceptable resolution of the Palestinians’ problems even if we inwardly believe that the Palestinians are a “phony” ethnic group; and the Arabs need to accept that Israel is going to remain here as a Jewish state in the Middle East, even if their narrative denies our identity as returning descendants of indigenous inhabitants of the region. In other words, we need to stop arguing about whose version of history is more authentic and which side’s claim to “native peoplehood” is more accurate, and accept that we are all living here, we are all “real” whatever our antecedents, neither side is going to disappear en masse, and we all have real problems that need to be addressed.