The Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood

A debatable aspect of modern thought is the thesis that the full truth is unknowable and that the interpretation of historical events and present behavior is a "narrative" reflecting the interests of the group that creates it.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the narrative created by the Palestinians and their supporters -- a narrative which is used as the basis of an ideological campaign aimed at condemning the State of Israel and undermining its moral fabric.

The building blocks of this narrative are the "original sin" of the creation of Israel, the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948; the belief in Israeli responsibility for violence and the various wars in the Middle East; the conviction that Israel deliberately created the Palestinian refugee situation by preventing their return to the homeland; and the supposed indignities and injustices done to Palestinians who have become victims of Israeli aggression and colonialism. 

All of the elements in this false narrative have become instrumental in the campaign to challenge the legitimacy of the State of Israel, and even to call for its elimination.  But it is the last point, the concept of Palestinian victimhood, which has fueled international support for the Palestinian cause.  It accounts for the obsessive concentration on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by so many who view it as the world's most important and dangerous encounter, disregarding the millions killed or oppressed in other countries today.

The narrative of victimhood uses myths and symbols as well as a controversial interpretation of events and actions.  Its language at times becomes wildly extreme.  Palestinians are termed the "new Jews" suffering a "new Holocaust."  Jews are the new Nazis.  Excessive rhetoric and idiosyncratic judgments of this kind are rarely, if ever, applied to the truly despotic and authoritarian regimes in the world that commit crimes against humanity and violations of human rights that are not censured.

The narrative denies Jewish historic national identity.  The Palestinians have gone so far in efforts to bolster the argument against Jewish connection to the land as to destroy the archeological evidence of the ancient kingdom of Judea.  Nor do they accept the Western Wall in Jerusalem as a Jewish historic site.            

The formulation of the Palestinian narrative of victimhood is pernicious in a double-sense.  It poisons the attitude to Israel and prevents any kind of accommodation or possible negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians to reach a peaceful settlement of the long conflict.  It also reinforces the Palestinians' rejection to take positive action to help resolve their problems and becomes an excuse for the failure to develop an infrastructure for their own society or to take advantage of opportunities to found a sovereign state of their own -- opportunities going back as far as the Peel Commission of 1937.

Equally important is the fact that Israel is the political canary warning of the presence of poisonous political traits that intimate impending danger to the world, particularly to the United States and Western democracies.  When Western critics concur in the validity of the Palestinian narrative, they take on the stance of moral relativism.  They become appeasers with a mindset that has as its outcome an inability or refusal to defend the West against contemporary threats and the clear and present danger to its culture and way of life.  At its worst, this leads to the view that the West is in decline, that the "war on terror" is unwinnable or should not be fought, or that the West is to be eternally found guilty for its past colonial empires and activity.

The world has been through this before.  Those who ardently accept the Palestinian narrative of victimhood are like the people who willingly believed the Nazi and Stalinist narratives, equally blind to the realities of those horrific totalitarian regimes.  Some of those people were well-meaning, but they were of the kind that Lenin once called "political idiots."

To gain a sense of how events are manipulated to create the Palestinian narrative, it's useful to look at some particular examples.  Rachel Corrie, who worked with the International Solidarity Movement, was accidently killed in Gaza in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer that she was deliberately trying to block.  She quickly became a symbol of heroic defiance against Israel.  The narrative has penetrated the literary, artistic, and theatrical worlds.  In her eight-minute play, "Seven Jewish Children," produced in London in 2009, Caryl Churchill builds the plot around the alleged bad treatment by Israelis of Palestinian babies, evoking the historic blood libel charge against Jews.

The Palestinian narrative has benefited from a fanciful, romantic presentation of the superior virtue of Palestinians, regardless of their actual behavior.  In this fairy tale, the Palestinians are seen as the embodiment of "the wretched of the earth," the phrase used by Franz Fanon to justify the Algerian struggle against France.

By proclaiming their lack of human rights and their victimhood, the Palestinians have been able to enlist political, economic, military, diplomatic, and propaganda support from individuals and groups who are sympathetic to those they see as subjugated.  They have become the main symbol of the oppressed of the world, to the misfortune of Israel. 

Using Jews as scapegoats supposedly responsible for most of the problems of the world is a trope of traditional anti-Semitism.  By tortuous logic, Israel has become the scapegoat for racism, oppression, and colonialism in the contemporary world.  Jewish nationalism is identified as imperialist and racist, while Palestinian nationalism is the nationalism of "the oppressed."   

The Palestinians face real problems, as does Israel.  It is time to state forthrightly that the Palestinian narrative as presently conceived, with its inherent anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, does not lead to equity for the Palestinians or to steps towards peace.  Peace between Israel and the Palestinians can be achieved only when the Palestinians abandon their fallacious narrative and are willing to accept the existence and legitimacy of a Jewish state.

Michael Curtis is a distinguished professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University and the author of the forthcoming book Should Israel Exist?: A sovereign nation under attack by the international community.

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