Perhaps things are just as bad in the rest of the world, but it seems to me that the Middle East is suffering from an epidemic of denial: denial of the Holocaust, of course, but also lots of less spectacular denials of generally accepted fact*. This phenomenon does not bode well for our happy little region.
The recent Holocaust-denial conference in Teheran, along with British “historian” David Irving’s early release from an Austrian prison, has highlighted some spectacular instances of denial; however, most discussion of the subject has very little to say about why deniers feel the need to challenge the factuality of the Holocaust. After all, few of them seem all that horrified at the prospect that a future holocaust might occur – for example, the nuclear incineration of the State of Israel – so why is it so important to pretend that the Holocaust of the last century didn’t happen?
Our Palestinian neighbors also have their little denial issues. Prominent among them is the refusal of most Palestinian opinion-shapers to admit that today’s Jews have any authentic connection to “Palestine”; according to this narrative, we are merely a bunch of interlopers from Poland who somehow – Invasion of the Tsuris Snatchers? – took over the ideas and claims of the “true” People of Israel. (Of course, in some versions there is no such thing as the People of Israel even in the past; so not only are we fake Jews, we made up the whole Judaism thing in the first place, in order to experience the pleasure of living here and worrying where the next bomb will explode.)
On our own side, many Zionists refuse to accept the existence of the Palestinians as an authentic people. According to this reading of history and sociology, there was never a separate Palestinian-Arab language, culture, or politics (at least until recently – 1964 is a frequently-cited year for the first use of “Palestinian” as a term for a distinct Arab ethnic-national group); and therefore the Palestinians of today are merely a figment of their own imagination. The fact that millions of people today identify themselves as Palestinians, mourn the “calamity” (“naqba” in Arabic) of Israel’s creation, and share common aspirations for the future is irrelevant: Palestinians didn’t exist in the past, and thus it’s obvious that they don’t exist today.
And most recently, our distinguished Knesset Education Committee has rejected Education Minister Yuli Tamir’s plan to include the Green Line – Israel’s pre-1967 de facto border – in maps included in Israeli geography textbooks. (I’ve written about this issue already – see “Lines and Inanity”.) Despite the fact that the Green Line figures in essentially every discussion of an eventual peace settlement with the (imaginary) Palestinians, nobody is supposed to know where the Green Line is; since “it died in 1967”, it’s somehow no longer relevant despite all indications to the contrary.
For the moment, I don’t want to get into the details of any of these denials of reality, or the many others floating around the Middle East. What I find depressing is not any single instance of denial, but rather the fact that denial is so widespread and pervasive. These flights from reality are not, after all, merely harmless fantasies.
All the denials I’ve mentioned are, at base, similar: they represent a refusal to face facts that do not fit in with our desires, and the willingness to ignore facts – or replace them with convenient fictions – in order to preserve our sense of how the world should be. So some of my fellow Zionists deny the existence of the Palestinians, because Israel can hardly be expected to adjust its borders to accommodate an imaginary people; while much of the Arab world denies the national existence of the Jews (at least as an indigenous Middle Eastern ethnic group), since they can hardly be expected to welcome us home (even grudgingly) if this was never our home in the first place.
Holocaust denial is a bit strange, even among flights of fancy. After all, what’s the point? The State of Israel was not created as a response to the Holocaust; the legal and political foundations for the Jewish State were set up between 1916 and 1923, when Adolph Hitler was a corporal in the Kaiser’s army and later a struggling painter in Vienna. (At most, one might say that the Holocaust nudged the process along a bit in the aftermath of World War II; but on the other hand, had the Holocaust not occurred, there would have been many more Jews alive to lobby for the creation of Israel and add to its population.) It would seem that Holocaust denial involves more than one fiction: first, that the Holocaust is the only justification for the existence of the State of Israel; and second, that it never happened or, at best, has been grossly exaggerated.
Reality, of course, is unimpressed by our denials:
Whether the Palestinians existed a hundred years ago or not, they exist today, according to any reasonable reading of current events; and, sooner or later, Israel is going to have to reach some form of accommodation with them.
- The Jews are a genuine, if somewhat odd and annoying, religious/ethnic group; we have a genuine connection to the Land of Israel, which we have maintained faithfully for thousands of years. After all that time, we’re not all going to decide to go somewhere else.
- The Holocaust happened, and in its course some six million Jews were murdered.
- Even had the Holocaust not happened, the Jews would be entitled to a national home in Palestine/Israel; so said the League of Nations, which created the legal foundations not only for Israel but for most other countries in the Middle East and many in Eastern Europe.
- The Green Line is a major fact of Israeli (and Palestinian) life and history; there is no point in hiding it from students as if it had never existed.
Refusing to face up to facts is not healthy – they do not, after all, go away when we turn our backs on them, and the more unpleasant ones have an annoying habit of biting us in the butt when we’re looking the other way. We don’t have to love them, but we do have to live with them. By retreating into fantasy we render ourselves incapable of coping successfully with the real world of today, and abandon all possibility of building a more hospitable future.
* “Generally accepted fact” is, of course, a bit of a complicated issue – since many true things have been widely disbelieved at times, and many falsities have been “generally accepted” as true. Further, “facts” – even when based upon accurate observation – always reflect some point of view, some limitations in perception. In the immortal words of Stuart Mayper, “No fact is simple.” Nonetheless, the “fact” remains that we can distinguish between “extensional” and “intentional” thinking: The former attempts to ground itself in observations of reality; while the latter begins with a framework of ideas and desires, filtering information based upon what fits comfortably into this framework. “Denial”, then, represents an extreme case of intentional thinking.
If this seems a bit abstruse, remember that you didn’t have to read the footnote.