“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.

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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.

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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?

Legends of the Ari: Truth and faith

This story has many versions, but the basic outline is generally the same.

There once was a rabbi in Tzfat (Safed) who gave a sermon about the loaves of bread in the tabernacle.  A baker was so inspired by this that he went home and baked additional loaves of Shabbat challah and put them in the Aron Kodesh (the cupboard where the Torah scrolls are kept) as a gift to God.

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A poor man who helped clean the synagogue came to sweep after prayers and stood before the Aron Kodesh and prayed to God for help to feed his family for Shabbat.  He opened the Aron Kodesh and found the bread inside.  It was a miracle!

The next morning when the Aron Kodesh was opened at services, the baker saw that the loaves had been taken and he was overjoyed.  God accepted his gift!

This went on week after week for many years.

Finally, the rabbi saw the baker put the loaves in the Aron Kodesh and shouted at him: “Why are you putting bread in there?”  The baker answered, “I’ve been doing this for many years and God accepts my gift every week.”  “You’re an idiot!  Do you think God eats challah?”  The baker was embarrassed, but they decided to hide and see what happened.

The poor man came to clean and then stood before the Aron Kodesh praying.  He opened it and took the loaves.  The rabbi popped out and said, “Aha!  What are you doing?”  The poor man said, “I’m taking the challah that God has provided for me.”  “You’re an idiot!  Do you think God bakes?”

The Ari heard the story and gave his ruling:  The rabbi was in the wrong.  The two men did what they did with pure and loving faith and the rabbi destroyed it.  He asked the two men to continue the tradition – the baker would provide the bread to honor God and the poor man would accept it with gratitude to God.  The rabbi had been ill at the time of his original sermon, but had been given a reprieve because he had inspired such faith in the two men.  Now that he had broken their faith, his illness was returned to him.

Usually this story is told to inspire faith, to suggest divine intervention, and to reveal the wisdom of the Ari.  I’m going to turn that interpretation sideways to link this story with last week’s post.

We need to have facts and objective truths (the rabbi), otherwise “history” becomes story, legend, or myth (the two men’s narratives of weekly miracles).  External recorded facts (the bread was provided by the baker and taken by the poor man) provide the framework to question or confirm our narratives and this eventually brings us to a deeper and more profound understanding (our paths cross for a reason and we should continue to do good even if the reason is human and not divine).  Then we can truly learn from history and will not be doomed to repeat it.

Why bring up the Ari this week?

This week we celebrated Lag B’Omer.  Most Israelis don’t really know the history of the holiday, but what they do know is that one of the traditions is to light bonfires and celebrate into the night.

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Hundreds of thousands of people travel to Mt. Meron near Tzfat to participate in a huge bonfire at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar.  The Zohar is the primary text for the study of the Kabbalah.  The Ari (the Lion) is the nickname for Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the greatest Kabbalist scholars of all time.

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.