The Truth about History

When I was in university many years ago, I studied history.  I didn’t learn a linear collection of facts, I learned feminist history (also known as her-story), varieties of narratives, and that history is complicated.  I was happy to learn history this way and I still believe that it’s valuable and necessary.  The world IS complicated.  Many people have a lot to add to the commonly known facts.  But I think we’ve come to a crisis about history and what is true.

In a short little essay, it’s impossible to deeply explore this idea, so this is no more than a brief consideration about a few things that struck me this week.

I like being in Israel in the springtime and I like the spiritual journey that Israel as a country and as a people takes to get to Independence Day.  It’s no secret that I consider myself a Zionist.  But right around Independence Day there is another commemoration day called Nakba Day.  Nakba is the Arabic word for “catastrophe.”  On May 15, the Palestinian population marks the catastrophe of a Jewish state being created that at the same time created a refugee crisis.

I think people today consider history to be a story that is told about the past.  There are heroes and villains.  It’s not a gigantic leap to suspect that each nation is the hero in its own story.  Even if we accept that not all heroes are perfect and not all villains are totally evil (a common theme in today’s storytelling), we still kind of need to see a cohesive storyline about the events of the past.  We find comfort in cause and effect.  It’s sensible and logical.  Otherwise, it’s all just chaos and nothing matters.  So when we tell ourselves stories about our past, we don’t simply recite facts in chronological order.  We want to be entertained.


Wikipedia says that postmodernism is “typically defined by an attitude of skepticism or distrust toward grand narratives, ideologies, and various tenets of Enlightenment rationality, including the existence of objective reality and absolute truth, as well as notions of rationality, human nature, and progress.”  We are also told that this is where the idea of relativism comes from, which includes the idea that truth is relative, both yours and mine.

So we circle back to Israel.  According to postmodern history, Independence Day and Nakba Day are two equally true truths.  From the point of view of Israel, its narrative is that five Arab armies attacked and Israel fought a war to give birth to the state.  From the Palestinian point of view, they got kicked out of their homes and a new state was created that had no place for them.  Postmodern theory tells us that with these two equally true truths – and the understanding that there may be more equally true truths – here we have a full picture of history.

The problem for me is that without the idea of an objective truth – tangible evidence and a series of provable facts – to balance each narrative against, then what exactly is true about any narrative?  It’s true to you and therefore it’s true to everyone?  I believe there is a place for narrative, but there also has to be a place to measure that narrative against facts and evidence.  Additionally, if two narratives exist in parallel, do they even have to intertwine or can they stand alone and still be true?

Pulling all these thoughts together, I’m led to a spine-chilling fear.  History is a story.  Our narrative is true.  We are heroes in our own stories. Today, we need to tell our stories in 144 characters or less.  So the one with the shortest, most compelling, most entertaining, most memorable slogans wins history?  After all, the most often repeated narrative becomes the first among equally true truths. I hope that this is not what we have come to.

This short essay is not an attempt to debate the truth of the Nakba or the truth of Independence Day.  There are large sections of many libraries doing that without my input.  The point of this essay is to suggest that all of us have a responsibility to remember that there are many voices that add to our understanding of the past and we should rejoice in the complexity of the world, but if we allow that all truth is relative and subjective, then everything and nothing is true.  Somewhere there is a middle ground where we can have all the voices and a measure of truth.

5 thoughts on “The Truth about History

  1. Ilana you have gone to great lengths to make a point that troubles me. you wrote “…According to postmodern history, Independence Day and Nakba Day are two equally true truths. From the point of view of Israel, its narrative is that five Arab armies attacked and Israel fought a war to give birth to the state. From the Palestinian point of view, they got kicked out of their homes and a new state was created that had no place for them. ..” . You are correct in acknowledging that people have different perspectives. The difference is that when there are thousands of people that are first hand witnesses of the Jewish people being attacked in 1947-8 there is no question regarding truth. This truth is called a fact. About people being displaced that is always tragic and has occured and continues to occur as i write this. That is also a fact. When a people conquers physical land they have historically kept that land and rid themselves and or tortured those that they have “conquered ” key word here is “conquered “. As defined by the Oxford dictionary,”C1 to take control or possession of foreign land, or a group of people, by force:”
    Miriam Webster defines conquer as ,”: to take control of (a country, city, etc.) through the use of force
    : to defeat (someone or something) through the use of force
    : to gain control of (a problem or difficulty) through great effort
    I do not even dare to compare your vast knowledge of history with mine…Art History sure, but not World history. Sadly as a product of the NYC school system World History was not a big topic.
    The Jewish citizens of Europe were , and are again becoming displaced. Where are all of these “inconvenient ” souls to go? Refugees are usually a result of inhumane situations.
    Right now the world over is experiencing a population shift . Millions of people have been forced to leave their home countries for destinations unknown. Fact ..yes. Tragic..yes. I believe that it is time to set the record straight. The millions of refugees that are now pushing against reason to carry on and find a place that they can try and make a life for themselves is as you wrote..history. Current events if you will. History repeating itself.
    Throughout history populations have shifted from nation to nation, continent to continent.
    As for the Palestinian dilemma, and it is a dilemma, to keep it simple without all the “historical facts ” that the Jewish people, The name Jewish originating from Judea Samaria are the original dwellers/owners/ the aborigines if you will, of the land that is today Israel as well as territory that the “Palestinians ” now occupy.
    “Israel’s presence in the West Bank is not occupation, the Israeli settlements are legal under international law[.]” — The 2012 Edmund Levy Report
    I agree that all truth is neither simply relative nor can it be subjective .
    Understanding the past and the facts of the past are clearly two seperate things.
    The middle ground is compromise. In order for that to happen all sides in the conversation must agree to reduce their demands for the common good. Fair and balanced as Fox News likes to say. The caveat is that this must be done with all parties sharing the intention of honoring the agreement.
    As we say in Hebrew…this is the “By-Ah”.
    Understanding the past is a great tool to employ when seeking out how to improve the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Unless things have changed a lot on university campuses – I don’t think they have, but I don’t have statistics to back it up – postmodern history is still more or less the way history is taught. That means that universities are raising the next generation to accept that all narratives are true and that all of them are equally weighted, even though none of them are measured against any objective facts.
    Beyond democratic freedom of speech to protest, that’s what allows Nakba narratives to be promoted on campus in Israel and lays them alongside Independence Day narratives.
    I purposefully used the most neutral language for both in this essay, in part to highlight that even language will influence what we believe is true based on how we feel about how it’s presented.
    So when the Nakba is described as “ethnic cleansing” or worse “genocide” perpetrated by a “colonial power.” Those words are not even questioned because that narrative is true to them.
    At the same time, if you talk about the struggle for independence, dedicated Jews were united against a common enemy (Britain, 5 Arab armies), but Jews also fought against Jews (the Saison, the Altalena), something that is often skipped because it’s uncomfortable.
    And the scary part is that those who don’t study history and don’t know or have access to facts, just listen to protest slogans and that’s the new version of history. Small, bite-sized, rhyming, easy to remember.


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