War of narratives. How Israel and Palestine endeavour to impose their worldview

Will the Palestinian story of a desire for peace, of friendship and brotherhood, those noble feelings subjected to unjust oppression, prove stronger than the Jewish story of people who escaped the Holocaust, created and defended a state, and are now trying to catch terrorists who killed their loved ones?

The contents of a newspaper can say a lot about the place where it is published. The English-language newspaper published in Israel, The Jerusalem Post, counts an Archaeology section among its most significant sections, right beside opinion, business, or international news sections. This is unusual, as media typically focus more on news, sports, and possibly culture.

History is a weapon

Of course, considering that the land of Israel is one of the richest excavation regions in the world, where discoveries that ignite the imagination of scientists and astonish ordinary people are continually made, this should not be surprising. However, it may be doubtful that it’s merely about telling stories about how the world’s oldest sandals, found in Spain, were made, or how many bricks made up a tunnel built four thousand years ago near the Megiddo fortress. Archaeology in Israel is a weapon. The deepest legitimization of the right to live in this particular place depends on it.

When Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority, spoke at the UN in May of this year commemorating the so-called Nakba (catastrophe) – the expulsion of his compatriots after the 1948-49 war, which resulted in the establishment of the State of Israel – he also tackled archaeology. “There is no evidence,” he said, “that the hill on which the Al-Aqsa Mosque is located has any connection with the Jews.” He stated that the Al-Buraq Wall and the hill on which the mosque stands belong exclusively to the Islamic community.

Abbas, of course, used Arabic names and referred to Islamic traditions. For us, these places are known as the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. For Jews, regardless of whether they are orthodox or not, such a claim is horrifying. For people raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, it elicits at least a gesture of bewilderment. Here is the world upside down.

Abbas also stated that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Canaanites, meaning their presence in what is now Israel predates the Jews, who even then acted aggressively and expelled the rightful owners from their dwellings.

Abbas’s speech, naturally, provoked angry reactions in Israel. It contradicted a historical narrative that reached back to biblical times and seemed an unshakeable foundation underpinning the Jewish right of return to these lands. Abbas, but certainly not him alone, tried to tell the world that they, the Palestinians, are the hosts here, and the others are newcomers who usurp the ownership of land that has belonged to the Palestinians for millennia, even if nobody called them that back then.

I heard a similar story from a young, passionate man who posted a monologue online about an empathetic Arab family that took in a foreigner who then, under cover of night, murdered its members and took their home as his own.

This suggestively-looking man with dark, sincere, and pain-filled eyes rhetorically asked the viewer how they would feel in such a situation if they were the only surviving member of that family. And what they would do. He paused and stared into the camera, because of course, there could only be one answer to his story. Surely, anyone would fight to their last drop of blood.

Israel is a place where two great narratives collide, subdivided into many threads: the Jewish narrative and the Palestinian narrative. The last attack by Hamas and Israel’s retaliation showed how strongly these narratives resonate worldwide. Something made people from European and American cities march with Palestinian flags just a day after Hamas members cold-bloodedly murdered hundreds of civilians.

In the case of Muslims, it’s probably a community of culture and religion. But this explanation does not work concerning secular people or Christians – so what is it? Something makes other people post Stars of David on their social media profiles while the Israeli army ruthlessly pacifies the Gaza Strip, where thousands of Hamas members and their supporters live alongside thousands of people who do not support them and have no means of protesting, only to die, caught between the fighting sides. It’s impossible that those supporters don’t remember how Abraham bargained with God not to destroy Sodom: “Suppose ten [righteous] should be found there?”
Clash of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian protesters in New York in 2021. Photo by Lev Radin / Zuma Press / Forum
Both groups believe in a Jewish or Palestinian story. These, regardless of momentary emotions, are the prism through which their perception of the world refracts. These stories are present in practically everything. The speeches of politicians and activists are merely their most visible manifestation. Probably also not the most important one, because politicians’ speeches are usually listened to by other politicians or those who would like to become them. The true story is shaped by ruins, excavations, music, tastes, smells, landscapes, plants...

Peace and freedom, idyll and hope

The Palestinian story can be well reconstructed by delving into the reading of a cookbook with the simple title Palestine, published in 2020, also in Poland. It was written by Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, a well-known London restaurateur and chef, who is the business partner of another renowned London chef and cookbook author, Yotam Ottolenghi, a Jew, also born in Jerusalem.

  The mere juxtaposition of these two figures has narrative and political value. Here, a Jew and a Palestinian not only live in friendship but also work together. Their friendship is also manifested by co-creating a cookbook titled Jerusalem, presenting their beloved hometown from a culinary perspective, where the bazaars and customs are more important to them than disputes over who owned the Temple Mount. It is easier for them because both are not religious and the stories from biblical times do not affect them directly, not to mention that both live in London, far from bombs, rockets, and knife attackers.

This friendship is the first and fundamental message of the Palestinian story, resonating very well in the post-religious and post-historical societies of the affluent West, where people cannot comprehend that one could fight over anything, valuing good food and a good mood.

For all who watched the broadcasts of the Hamas attack, this may seem hard to grasp, but the fundamental message in the book about Palestinian cuisine is peace and freedom. Amidst the thicket of fascinating culinary recipes, which are always placed in the natural context of daily life practices, the curious reader encounters stories about how Palestinians live, how they would like to live, and what hinders them in doing so.

For instance, the wall separating the Jewish part and the Palestinian part is described like this: “Israelis call it the security wall because it is supposed to protect them from Palestinian attacks. Palestinians, on the other hand, perceive the wall as a barrier that limits their freedom, prevents the free movement of people, and threatens the land where Palestinian farms stand and olive groves grow.”

It’s impossible not to notice that the threat which caused the wall to be built is of course mentioned, but the restriction of freedom and threat to the idyllically portrayed land seems much more important than it. Who among us will not daydream at the thought of olive groves, and who will not protest against the technocratic and political interference in this idyll embodied by the concrete wall, 12 metres high?

In the section about Nablus, a city that is dominated by sweets, and thus the reader of this book will remember it, the following sentence appears: “However, the city’s past is not easy; it suffered greatly during the second Intifada in 2002 and still struggles with Israeli occupation.”

If someone wanted to derive knowledge only from this book, they would not learn that the second Intifada involved carrying out hundreds of attacks, in which nearly a thousand innocent Jewish victims perished, and nearly three thousand Palestinians died in pacification actions, with the note that a large portion of them certainly were not innocent, as they were involved in the attacks. The victim here is the city, which suffered greatly and still struggles, but after all, one can eat the legendary dessert knafeh there, sip strong coffee, and feel the “caramel aroma of the heated syrup used in bakeries to drench the mild-flavoured curd cheese” wafting through the streets.

Again, the dissonance between the idyllic image of leisurely time spent over sweet pastry and thick coffee, and the ruthlessness of the oppressors is almost sensuously perceptible. A world of freedom and peace: of daily life, hard work, and small joys is set against a world of suffering, violence, and alienation.

Similarly, in the story about the initiative under the banner of Tent of Nations, operating near Bethlehem, which was conceived by a Palestinian family grappling with Israeli bureaucracy wanting to take their land. The family effectively halted this process in court and now conducts administrative proceedings (delayed in every possible way by officials), while simultaneously inviting groups and individual volunteers from the West, who can participate in harvests, help on the farm, or take part in workshops about peace and cooperation.

Their message is: “No one will force us to hate.” There is no talk about who is “forcing” to hate, but one thing is certain: this Palestinian family embodies a peaceful attitude towards the world and their neighbours. Another message, explicitly expressed in the text, is hope. This is the name of the daughter of the farmers described, studying international human rights law.

If someone asked me what this particular fragment has to do with culinary arts, I would not be able to answer. However, it certainly has a lot to do with the image of Palestine that the author and his publishing house would like to implant in readers: a community full of peace and hope.

Prison, persecution, killed children

However, it’s time for a stronger message about the oppression Palestinians face from Israel. It is brought by a passage about fishing, which serves as a pretext to describe the situation in the Gaza Strip. It contains a term that has made a great career in Western minds and literature: “It is one of the most densely populated places in the world. It is often called the largest open-air prison in the world.”

Recently, after the attack by Hamas, it was used by Harvard University professor Stephen Walt, a known representative of the “realist” school of thought on international politics. If both the author of a cookbook and a prominent political scientist from a renowned American university describe something in a similar way, it means that the narrative has been effectively implanted.

Thus, the story of peace, friendship, and hope ends, and the story of persecution begins, which – similarly, as in the cookbook – is carefully separated from facts regarding terrorism. One aspect of this story is quite shocking for a person educated and raised in Europe, and I wonder whether it would not be better for the Palestinians if it remained within the Arabic language and whether translating this message into English might not herald a process of undermining the positive image that – effectively – is shaped in Western minds – conventionally speaking – by all kinds of cookbooks.

It’s about a deeply anti-Semitic message, and not the kind that tries to nuance the description of the situation in Israel by honestly showing the mistakes and brutality of the local security forces, which Jews often take as a sign of anti-Semitism. No, this is about a message that Alfred Rosenberg would not be ashamed of: dark, venomous, dehumanising.

The film, which I will describe now, I watched many times, unable to believe its existence. It was shared by a Twitter account engaged in running a campaign against Israel. Its narrator is an Arab of charming superficiality, with a neatly trimmed black beard, a shapely head, and large, sincerely looking eyes, speaking persuasively, establishing a good connection with the viewer.

He answers the question of why the West supports Israel, which quickly turns into the question of why Western people want Jews to remain on the eternally Palestinian land, in Israel. He addresses the viewer wanting to build an intimate bond with them and convinces them that essentially, this viewer, a European, also hates Jews, just like the narrator.

How do the Jews „sell” their narrative to the world. The Israeli cinematographic policy.

“Fauda”, “Spy” and “Messiah” – that’s an effective promotion of national interests. Poles should learn how to do it at home.

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He says that Europe always hated Jews because they supposedly killed Christian children to use their blood in the baking of matzah, that Europeans could not stand the smell and presence of Jews, so they eventually murdered 6 million of them, and expelled the rest to the Middle East, to pass this problem onto the Arab world. And now, when the Palestinians are trying to get rid of the intruders, the West looks at it with disapproval because they do not want “them” to return. The clip ends with a long, suggestive look.

Twitter’s rules are relentless; moments later, another video appears, this time with a young and beautiful American woman, who talks about how Israelis kill Palestinian children. By the way, she says that reports that Hamas fighters killed participants of a music festival in the desert are fabricated. I stop watching, as I had previously seen photos from that massacre and every consumer of propaganda has their endurance.

Then I remember that in the Hamas charter from 1988, it was stated that Jews had started World War II in order to profit from weapons sales, and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are treated there as a historical source. The contemporary video simply draws from the legacy of the group governing Gaza.

It remains a question whether its creators and sponsors (the film is professionally made) made a mistake by translating it into English, or whether they simply decided that it’s time to appeal to niche groups in Europe, or perhaps to stimulate their development, because the old continent is already ready to embrace ideas that once functioned so well.

Historical land and citizens’ determination

What is the Jewish story about Israel? There are many. The first one is contained in the song Hatikva, adopted as the anthem of Israel, and created at the end of the 19th century: “The Jewish heart beats lively, the eye turns eastward, and continues to return to Zion.” Long before Herzl, there was a longing for their own country, and the historical land of Israel was the only appropriate place for it.

Famous is the dialogue of later first President of Israel Chaim Weizman with the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, when asked why Israel and Jerusalem should be the place that Jews will settle, Weizman replied that “Jerusalem was ours when London was a marsh.”

After the Holocaust, the argument that a nation that was meant to vanish from the face of the Earth should have a place to live spoke with great force. However, this argument alone would not have been sufficient to create a state, if not for the military strength and determination of people fighting against the numerically superior Arab neighbours. Then, in 1948, it turned out that the Jews, who had previously been considered unfit for armed combat, were well-organised and determined. The same was proven in the subsequent wars.

Thus, the Jewish story is, on one hand, a tale of the Holocaust and unimaginable suffering, and on the other hand, a tale that the Holocaust did not succeed because the brethren of the murdered were able to defend their statehood with arms, and the very fact that they exist, live, is evidence of their triumph.

Such a sentiment appears not only within Israel itself. Polish performer Katarzyna Kozyra created a film about giving birth to a child, which, in her narrative, is a continuation of the lives of her family members who were murdered in the Holocaust. She gives birth to her child in Berlin, and the fact that new life emerges in the place from which fascism originated is proof of the victory of those who were meant to be erased from the book of life.

Civilization, democracy, and normalcy

Israel’s military successes garnered respect worldwide, and the efficiency of its special services was legendary. Moreover, the dent in this legend, when the preparations for Hamas’ attack on the morning of October 7th were not detected, is perhaps one of the most painful flaws in this narrative, which places efficiency, professionalism, and the ideological drive of the military in the foreground.

However, the story of Jews who, having come to the Promised Land, were able to build a civilization there that surpassed, in organisational and technological terms, what their Arab neighbours could achieve – and, not insignificantly, were able to maintain a functioning democracy – remains a strong accent in the image of Israel in the eyes of Western societies.

This operates parallelly with the image of Israel as a normal Western country, where everyone speaks English well, parties in nightclubs, drinks wine, and is concerned about the impending climate catastrophe. A country with good communication, decent roads, at first glance not different from Western European countries or the United States. Except perhaps for the omnipresent young people in uniforms carelessly carrying assault rifles...

Paradoxically, this image of a modern and technocratic Western country may now, in this conflict, turn against Israel, because after the initial shock, when everyone except pro-Palestinian propagandists watched with horror reports of hundreds of innocent victims and sympathized with their families, the time came when the ruthless military machine began to pacify the Gaza Strip.

The image

From the Palestinian narrative’s perspective, nothing should be done now but wait for the media to show more footage from drones hovering over destroyed buildings.

There will be many of these images. To them will be added reports of civilian casualties, also among children, which is inevitable when conducting a military operation on such a scale in a densely populated area. The viewers will not care that people sitting on the ruins of houses may have voted for Hamas in the past, and in recent days may have taken to the streets to celebrate the death of Israelis. They will also not care that Hamas places its war material stores or shelters near schools or hospitals, or even in their basements.

The image will work. Rubble, crying children, despair of adults. The Palestinian narrative about the desire for peace, about friendship and brotherhood, which noble feelings are subjected to unjust oppression may prove to be stronger than the story of people who escaped the Holocaust, created and defended the state, and are now trying to catch terrorists who killed their loved ones.

Only the victory of this narrative will not lead to peace – which neither Western politicians nor the public, which will slowly be drawn to the Palestinian side in the coming weeks, will want to remember.

– Robert Bogdański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: Solidarity demonstrations with Palestine and Israel on 11 October 2023, in Warsaw in front of the Copernicus monument. Photo by Damian Lemanski / Forum
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