“What’s past is prologue …”

Israel doesn’t do Halloween, so there were no flash sales on every kind of candy and no wild costume parties.  Chanukah donuts are now showing up at bakeries though, which is pretty much like seeing Christmas decorations in September.  It doesn’t feel right.

Instead, this week Israel did what Israel does best, we marked historical occasions.  This week was the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, 100 years since the historic ANZAC battle in Beer Sheva, and 22 years since Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.

balfour

The Balfour Declaration is a one-page letter written by Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild.  The main paragraph says:

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

Since Jews had been coming to settle in the area since the 1880s, the Balfour Declaration was not permission, but was rather an international recognition of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.

Prime Minister Netanyahu went to London for a ceremony, many historians and commentators have written or spoken about the Balfour Declaration, and the Palestinians have demanded an apology and threatened a law suit over the document.  So pretty much just like any other day in Israel.

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Source: By Niv Singer from Tel-Aviv, Israel (Yitzhak Rabin’s Grave) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The commemoration of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination was apparently quite different this year. The theme was national unity with the slogan “We are One Nation.” From the little I read, it seemed that everyone was united in not liking the way the commemoration was planned.  Israel and the Jewish people are quite skilled at remembering, so I think it will be quite a few more years before the heat of emotion cools enough for national consensus about how to commemorate and remember Rabin’s assassination.  It’s not simply remembering the life and work of a national leader, but his assassination represents a tear in the national fabric that has yet to be truly repaired.

Anzac

I’m reminded of my trip to Gallipoli while reading about the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) reenactment of the Battle of Beer Sheva. Descendants of ANZACs come to famous battle sites on pilgrimage to honor their ancestors.  I’m sure that they’ve come before to Beer Sheva, but because this is the 100th anniversary, it’s a much bigger commemoration with a delegation of 100 descendants visiting Israel.  The news stories have made a special point of Aboriginal soldiers making up about a quarter of the fighting force and because it was a cavalry battle, it was their expert horsemanship that helped win it.

Maori War Dance for PM Netanyahu for 100th anniversary ceremony (video)

Holocaust Remembrance Day (24 April 2017) – Yom HaShoah

I’m working from home today.  A few minutes before 10am, I step out onto my rooftop porch.  I pace a bit.  I look at traffic.  I look at the people walking in the street below.  It’s a sunny day with blue skies and a cold breeze.  Waiting in the sun I’m both hot and cold.

The siren begins.  Low at first and then filling the whole valley, echoing in remembrance.  Cars stop and drivers get out of their cars to stand.  Pedestrians stop as if someone pressed the pause button.  Two minutes – one hundred and twenty seconds – standing together we remember.

Holocaust Remembrance Day is a solemn day in Israel:  television stations air holocaust memorials, the radio plays quiet music, schools have special programming, workplaces gather for small memorials, people light candles.  It’s right to remember and there will never be a time when it will be correct to stop having the siren, to drive through the siren, to not stop everything we are doing for two minutes.

Defining Israel exclusively in the shadow of the Holocaust does a huge disservice to all of the positive Zionism that built, and continues to build, the State of Israel.

The Holocaust did not spark the wave of immigrants who built 28 communities in the ancestral homeland from 1882 to 1904.

The Holocaust did not inspire the building of Tel Aviv in 1909 and the establishment of Degania, a small community next to the Sea of Galilee, in 1909.

The Holocaust did not inspire Lord James Balfour in 1917 to write in the Balfour Declaration “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”

It was not the Holocaust that facilitated 800,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries in the 1950s to be relocated and housed in Israel and a million Russian Jews in the 1990s to find their homes in Israel.

It was not the Holocaust that inspired 12 Israelis (so far) to win the Nobel Prize.

It was not the Holocaust that turned Israel into a “Start-Up Nation” with the highest number of startups per capita and second to the US in actual number of startups.

The Holocaust annihilated half of the Jewish population of the planet, but it does not have to be the defining moment of Israel’s history.  We are not victims with no other place to go.  Israel doesn’t exist only so that there will be a sanctuary in case another Holocaust comes. We want to live in our ancestral homeland – to be a free people in our land.  We want to be a nation like other nations.  And if we do it right, perhaps we can even be a light unto the nations.

The image of a phoenix rising from the ashes is beautiful and poetic, but next week when we’ll celebrate the State of Israel’s 69th birthday, we will know that we are so much more.

“Alternative Facts”? Sure, I’ve heard of those!

alt-factsI just liked this headline from The Guardian

When Kellyanne Conway used this phrase this week, my first thought was that if she had any sense she would have said that it was a “different interpretation of facts.”  And then it occurred to me, “Hey, we have plenty of ‘alternative facts’ reported about us in Israel.”

A few weeks ago 4 soldiers were run over by a truck driver on purpose in a targeted attack.  Here’s what the BBC first reported.

bbcScreenshot from my computer

There is actually nothing untrue in this headline.  A truck driver was shot.  It happened in Jerusalem.  There were allegations that he hit people and injured them.  And the Israeli media reported it.

But do you see the problem here?  It’s the arrangement and presentation of the facts.

Does it feel different when you see the headline this way?  Here’s their later post.

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Screenshot from my computer

Still true, but now you understand who the victims are and who the perpetrator is and that it was an attack – not an alleged attack according to others.

I’m an editor.  I work with words for a living and it matters how facts are framed.  For instance:

Four young soldiers murdered in vicious truck ramming attack.

Four killed by truck.

Truck driver runs over four soldiers.

Terrorist shot in his truck after he killed four soldiers.

Truck driver shot after fatal accident kills four.

All of these sentences have the same facts, but you feel differently about each because of how those interpretations are framed.  And yet none of them is a lie.

The most shocking example of different interpretations of facts I’ve heard of was in 2007 when a master’s student won an award for a research thesis that looked into the question of why IDF soldiers don’t rape Palestinian women.  Her conclusion – hold on to your socks – it’s because IDF soldiers are racists and dehumanize Palestinian women so they wouldn’t even want to rape them.  Let me repeat.  She WON AN AWARD for this work and Hebrew University stood behind the decision.  (Here’s an analysis of the paper done by a professor at Haifa University. Here’s a shorter article about it.)

That’s an alternative fact if ever I’ve heard one.

I’m not defending Kellyanne Conway.  I’m not defending journalists who write news stories with their own biases and agendas.  And I’m not defending the academic world.

I’m appealing to you, dear reader, to be aware.  Read multiple news sources.  Read news you don’t agree with (in moderation if you have high blood pressure).  Watch out for fake news.  Analyze and deconstruct what you read and hear.  More than anything else, hold people accountable for the words they use and how they use them.

More on history and truth from my blog:

The truth about history.

How history will remember.

UNESCO rewrites history.

UNESCO Rewrites History

Mom told me a story once about her mother and how she had once been a history teacher in the Soviet Union.  She was helping her students prepare for a big exam and reminding them how a certain general was a “hero of the people.”  During the week of preparations, this general became an “enemy of the people,” so all the questions about him were changed to reflect his new status.  Grandma was disillusioned and changed careers to become an accountant.

That was the Soviet Union then.  This is now.

This week a UNESCO resolution is trying to rewrite history and suggest that Jews and Christians have no connection to the Old City of Jerusalem.  I mentioned the resolution in a blog post in July and discussed very briefly the postmodern idea of “narratives of history” in May.

The main problem (among many others) with the resolution is that it purposely eliminates or minimizes the Jewish names of the holy sites:  Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif is never referred to as the Temple Mount and Buraq Plaza is the name for the “Western Wall Plaza” (quotation marks in original).  Full text is reprinted here.

The “Buraq Plaza” of 1916-1917 – not much of a plaza and not a Muslim site.

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Source

The Office of Foreign Affairs posted this on their Facebook page to highlight the changing of history aspect of the purposeful elimination of names.

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Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu issued a statement that said:

To say Israel has no connection to the Temple Mount is like saying that China has no connection to the Great Wall of China or that Egypt has no connection to the pyramids. With this absurd decision, UNESCO has lost the modicum of legitimacy it had left.

And he followed it up with this tweet.

tweet
In my opinion, the most worrisome thing is the vote.  The resolution was approved in committee 24 for and 6 against, with 26 abstentions.  The countries that stood up to vote against this resolution were: Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States.  I applaud their strength!  I wonder about the countries that abstained.  They chose not to vote yes, but could not bring themselves to vote no.  Abstaining doesn’t mean they get to pretend this resolution didn’t happen.

UNESCO’s Director-General issued a lukewarm statement mentioning that all three monotheistic religions have a connection to the Old City, but did not cancel or condemn the resolution.

In response, Israel’s government has suspended cooperation with UNESCO at this time.  And rightly so.

Being a UNESCO Heritage Site used to be a badge of honor.  But if UNESCO can vote on and pass resolutions that skew and twist history to suit a particular agenda, doesn’t it call into question all of UNESCO’s decisions and resolutions?  Is UNESCO a new totalitarian regime telling us what history is?

How History will remember

There’s a theory that the same amount of bad things are happening in the world as there ever were, but now that we live in a global village and the media coverage is instantaneous, we simply hear about it sooner and more often.  I’m not sure that is true, but I do wish that we would demand that the media stop functioning on a 24-hour news cycle that drops stories as soon as something bloodier comes along.  The terror attack in Nice is today’s top story, but how quickly will we move to the next thing?  France plans to mourn for 3 days.  Will we?  Or will something else catch our attention?

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Headline scanning means that we’ll only catch the big stories and so seemingly little stories get swept aside.  I imagine that very few people know that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, this week.

Istanbul
I am not an expert on the workings of UNESCO and this is not meant to be deep research.  I just want to point out a few facts and try to put them into context.  I’ve provided links at the end of the post.

UNESCO – United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization – was on the news radar in Israel in April because of a draft resolution that subtly denied Jewish connections to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall.  The headlines were pretty bold, but when I went to the document itself (which no news site linked to) it refers to Israel as “Israel, the Occupying Power,” does not once use the term “Temple Mount” but only “Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif,” and mentions the “Buraq Plaza ‘Western Wall Plaza’.”  This draft didn’t pass – of 58 votes, 33 were for, 17 abstentions, 6 against (the other 2 were not in attendance).  Another draft related to the Old City and its Walls uses the same terminology, except refers to “Buraq Plaza (Western Wall Plaza).”

At the conference this week the item was pulled off the agenda at the last minute because of the uncertainty of the votes and it’s pretty unlikely that the resolutions will pass.  So, no big deal, right? Well, I’m not so sure about that.

The present is the future’s past

As a historian, I’m thinking about researchers going through documents at some unspecified time in the future.  Let’s say, at least 150 years from now.  UNESCO doesn’t decide what history is, but as the arbiter of World Heritage Sites and a name that suggests global neutrality, how will historians see these documents in the future?

First of all, if you go through the documents, you will find references to Jerusalem in the “Arab States” section of the agenda.  Other geographical designations are Europe and North America, Latin America and Caribbean, Africa, Asia and Pacific.

Screenshot agenda
As an academic editor, I know that quotation marks are used for quotations, of course, but they are also used as a substitute for the words so-called, which suggest a distance from the term.  Above, I’m using quotation marks because I’m quoting the text.  Within the resolution, the only reason to use quotation marks (also known as scare quotes, I don’t know why) is to say the so-called Western Wall Plaza.  If you say the words so-called in front of anything, your voice naturally picks up a sarcastic tone.  It’s even more sarcastic if you make air quotes with your fingers.  So here we have a UNESCO draft resolution that gives Arabic names with capital letters, but Jewish names with quotation marks or in parentheses.

How we got from there to here

There may be those that say, “Well, you know, that big golden dome is up there now and possession is 9/10ths of the law.”  Since the Jordanian Waqf administers the site and forbids Jews to pray there, I think that point is moot.  Even subtly rejecting any Jewish connection is simply changing history.  Before Islam, there were two Jewish Temples that stood on that site.  Without the Temple, Jesus would have had no place to overturn the tables and attack the money lenders.  Titus’ Arch in Rome would have no story to tell.  Millions of Jews coming to Israel to visit a bunch of stones, a retaining wall actually, would also seem a bit weird if they lack a connection.

The point I want to make is that it matters now and today how we respond.  US Jews were very happy to have a mixed-gender prayer site created at the Western Wall, but in the big picture isn’t it a more important issue if UNESCO votes to effectively erase the Jewish connection to any part of the area?  Can UNESCO be allowed to vote on the narrative of history? If we decide to lay out narratives next to each other, we can say that there is indeed a Muslim connection to the site (third holiest site), but we must say that there is a Jewish (most important site) and Christian (Jesus’ final days) connection to the site.

What will our researcher find 150 years in the future when looking through the UNESCO documents? I hope she finds a multi-colored patchwork of truth and not obvious propaganda.

Epilogue:  The UNESCO response to Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) bombing parts of Palmyra, a World Heritage Site in Syria, was that the head of UNESCO did declare the acts war crimes, but after UNESCO experts went in, their preliminary finding was that it wasn’t as bad as they thought.  A language comparison of the two resolutions is enlightening.  Daesh is just Daesh, not an Occupying Power or anything else.  Their actions are condemned, but Israel’s actions are strongly condemned, firmly deplored, deeply decried, and disapproved.

Draft resolution on the Al-Haram Al-Sharif and its surroundings.

Decision on Jerusalem and its Walls from 2015.

Report on the vote in April.

Possible revision to the drafts.

An in-depth review of the issue.

Draft resolution on Palmyra.

Press release on Palmyra.

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.

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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.