Thursday, January 04, 2007

Living in denial

Perhaps things are just as bad in the rest of the world, but it seems to me that the Middle East is suffering from an epidemic of denial: denial of the Holocaust, of course, but also lots of less spectacular denials of generally accepted fact*. This phenomenon does not bode well for our happy little region.

The recent Holocaust-denial conference in Teheran, along with British “historian” David Irving’s early release from an Austrian prison, has highlighted some spectacular instances of denial; however, most discussion of the subject has very little to say about why deniers feel the need to challenge the factuality of the Holocaust. After all, few of them seem all that horrified at the prospect that a future holocaust might occur - for example, the nuclear incineration of the State of Israel - so why is it so important to pretend that the Holocaust of the last century didn’t happen?

Our Palestinian neighbors also have their little denial issues. Prominent among them is the refusal of most Palestinian opinion-shapers to admit that today’s Jews have any authentic connection to “Palestine”; according to this narrative, we are merely a bunch of interlopers from Poland who somehow - Invasion of the Tsuris Snatchers? - took over the ideas and claims of the “true” People of Israel. (Of course, in some versions there is no such thing as the People of Israel even in the past; so not only are we fake Jews, we made up the whole Judaism thing in the first place, in order to experience the pleasure of living here and worrying where the next bomb will explode.)

On our own side, many Zionists refuse to accept the existence of the Palestinians as an authentic people. According to this reading of history and sociology, there was never a separate Palestinian-Arab language, culture, or politics (at least until recently - 1964 is a frequently-cited year for the first use of “Palestinian” as a term for a distinct Arab ethnic-national group); and therefore the Palestinians of today are merely a figment of their own imagination. The fact that millions of people today identify themselves as Palestinians, mourn the “calamity” (“naqba” in Arabic) of Israel’s creation, and share common aspirations for the future is irrelevant: Palestinians didn’t exist in the past, and thus it’s obvious that they don’t exist today.

And most recently, our distinguished Knesset Education Committee has rejected Education Minister Yuli Tamir’s plan to include the Green Line - Israel’s pre-1967 de facto border - in maps included in Israeli geography textbooks. (I’ve written about this issue already - see “Lines and Inanity”.) Despite the fact that the Green Line figures in essentially every discussion of an eventual peace settlement with the (imaginary) Palestinians, nobody is supposed to know where the Green Line is; since “it died in 1967”, it’s somehow no longer relevant despite all indications to the contrary.

For the moment, I don’t want to get into the details of any of these denials of reality, or the many others floating around the Middle East. What I find depressing is not any single instance of denial, but rather the fact that denial is so widespread and pervasive. These flights from reality are not, after all, merely harmless fantasies.

All the denials I’ve mentioned are, at base, similar: they represent a refusal to face facts that do not fit in with our desires, and the willingness to ignore facts - or replace them with convenient fictions - in order to preserve our sense of how the world should be. So some of my fellow Zionists deny the existence of the Palestinians, because Israel can hardly be expected to adjust its borders to accommodate an imaginary people; while much of the Arab world denies the national existence of the Jews (at least as an indigenous Middle Eastern ethnic group), since they can hardly be expected to welcome us home (even grudgingly) if this was never our home in the first place.

Holocaust denial is a bit strange, even among flights of fancy. After all, what’s the point? The State of Israel was not created as a response to the Holocaust; the legal and political foundations for the Jewish State were set up between 1916 and 1923, when Adolph Hitler was a corporal in the Kaiser’s army and later a struggling painter in Vienna. (At most, one might say that the Holocaust nudged the process along a bit in the aftermath of World War II; but on the other hand, had the Holocaust not occurred, there would have been many more Jews alive to lobby for the creation of Israel and add to its population.) It would seem that Holocaust denial involves more than one fiction: first, that the Holocaust is the only justification for the existence of the State of Israel; and second, that it never happened or, at best, has been grossly exaggerated.

Reality, of course, is unimpressed by our denials:

  • Whether the Palestinians existed a hundred years ago or not, they exist today, according to any reasonable reading of current events; and, sooner or later, Israel is going to have to reach some form of accommodation with them.
  • The Jews are a genuine, if somewhat odd and annoying, religious/ethnic group; we have a genuine connection to the Land of Israel, which we have maintained faithfully for thousands of years. After all that time, we’re not all going to decide to go somewhere else.
  • The Holocaust happened, and in its course some six million Jews were murdered.
  • Even had the Holocaust not happened, the Jews would be entitled to a national home in Palestine/Israel; so said the League of Nations, which created the legal foundations not only for Israel but for most other countries in the Middle East and many in Eastern Europe.
  • The Green Line is a major fact of Israeli (and Palestinian) life and history; there is no point in hiding it from students as if it had never existed.

Refusing to face up to facts is not healthy - they do not, after all, go away when we turn our backs on them, and the more unpleasant ones have an annoying habit of biting us in the butt when we’re looking the other way. We don’t have to love them, but we do have to live with them. By retreating into fantasy we render ourselves incapable of coping successfully with the real world of today, and abandon all possibility of building a more hospitable future.

*  “Generally accepted fact” is, of course, a bit of a complicated issue - since many true things have been widely disbelieved at times, and many falsities have been “generally accepted” as true. Further, “facts” - even when based upon accurate observation - always reflect some point of view, some limitations in perception. In the immortal words of Stuart Mayper, “No fact is simple.” Nonetheless, the “fact” remains that we can distinguish between “extensional” and “intentional” thinking: The former attempts to ground itself in observations of reality; while the latter begins with a framework of ideas and desires, filtering information based upon what fits comfortably into this framework. “Denial”, then, represents an extreme case of intentional thinking.

If this seems a bit abstruse, remember that you didn’t have to read the footnote.


At Thu Jan 04, 05:55:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger lisoosh said...

I've always found the discussion of whether or not the Jews have a connection to the Land of Israel or not to be fairly counterproductive. That was a discussion that belonged 60-90 years ago and continuing it leaves us mired in the past.
Regardless of connections or belongings, Israel is a country that exists NOW. The majority of Israelis were born there, many are third and fourth generation. It has a distinguishable (and growing) culture, language, infrastructure and position in the political world. Focussing on explaining why it should exist is akin to excusing ourselves for existing. The main reason for it's existance is it's population, it can't be dismantled. It would be the same as saying that the US ought to be dismantled because almost all of its inhabitants came from elsewhere and displaced other people. Or England should be dismantled because its inhabitants are the descendants of Normans who invaded from France and displaced the Anglo-Saxon community.
The only difference is time.

As for the existance of Palestinians. Well, as someone noted, 70 years ago there was no Israel and no Israelis. Now there are. Now there are self described Palestinians who belong no where else.

At Thu Jan 04, 06:23:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Good points as usual, Lisoosh. In this post I wasn't dealing with the actual issues involved (such as what Israel's justifications for existence are, and whether Israel needs to be justified); I was just dealing with denial as a phenomenon in its own right.

Of course, part of the Jews-have-no-connection-to-Palestine denial is the assumption that if you could show that the Jews were "fake", the State of Israel would somehow disappear - and, as you point out, Israel has its own reality now whatever we think about the past.

And - as you also point out - the same argument applies to the Palestinians. This is why, IMO, effective peace-making in our area - when and if it actually happens - will have to be reality-based rather than narrative-based. As long as we're arguing about whose narrative is true (or less false), we're basically deciding which set of facts to throw out rather than dealing with all the relevant information available to us.

At Thu Jan 04, 07:58:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger lisoosh said...

Yup, dropping the narrative is paramount.
I agree that that there is a move to "prove" that the Jews are fake in order to remove one of the original reasons for its existance, which IMO is even more reason for us to just drop the whole thing as irrelevant and not bother getting dragged into a whole argument with that nonsense.

At Fri Jan 05, 12:47:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger SnoopyTheGoon said...

As we grow and undergo the education cycle, we accumulate denials, I would say. The ones you list in this (outstanding) post are the larger examples. Our upbringing is training in denials in part.

Start with our (youthful) denial of mortality, our denial of scientific facts (if we are too religious), our denial of possibility that we are all equally human/inhuman, our firm belief that, no matter what our nationality is, we are the best ones, ...

Not to mention my personal denial of the fact that smoking is going to kill me.

At Fri Jan 05, 02:25:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Savtadotty said...

If I deny that I exist, can I still deny that you exist? or not? says who? somebody else who may or may not exist?

Don, you are the reason I don't bother with political blogging: you do it well enough for both of us! I just get myself tangled up in knots, double-binds, and other knitting-unfriendly positions.

At Tue Jan 09, 11:00:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Guy Barry said...

Palestine has been occupied by various different people.The Jews dispossed and were themselves dispossed.Yes they do have a historical link as do others.Who knows if the present situation will last?

At Thu Jan 11, 10:00:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger jzj said...

I'm new to your blog here, and I would presume that I come from the 'other school' of thought, as I'm Lebanese.
I don't think a significant part of the Arab-Israeli conflict has to do with whether Israel has the right to create and run a state within Palestine. Some unrealistic Arabs who are high on the idealogies of Arab Nationalism and Arab resistance to western imperialism may still think that 'they can drive the Jews into the sea'. Obvisouly Israel is here to stay, they have built a modern state and nothing change that, regardless of what foolish parties like Hamas and Hezbollah think. Yet, most of issues that carry on the problem is how to deal with Israel, I don't think there is a problem with recongizing the Israeli state, I think the issue revoles around if Israel would return Arab lands (pre-1967 lines) and allow the creation of a Palestinian State in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jersulelem with a fesible connectivity plan.
That is the root of the problem, not whether or not the Israelis have the right to be here, the Arabs learned that a long time ago...

At Tue Jan 23, 02:48:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Ittay said...

i think your on to something jzj. as long as the palestinians and israelis keep giving each other history lessons there will never be peace. neither side accepts the other's narrative.

At Tue Jan 30, 04:45:00 AM GMT+2, Anonymous Carsten said...

Well, thats pretty great, isnt it:

There are no jews, since the whole judaism thing is made up. Thus all the people calling themselves Jews are somewhat imaginery.

There are no palestinians, because there haven't been any prior to 1964. Thus all the people calling themselves Palestinians are somewhat imaginary.

Would somebody please snip his fingers to wake these people up? The whole matter will be gone in a second then.

At Thu Feb 08, 08:52:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger MrNemo said...

You know there is never going to be peace. This has been going on for far to long to ever end now. Pretty pathetic

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At Thu Jun 04, 10:45:00 AM GMT+3, Blogger evaberlinerin said...

I just think that to deny something is useless because all the other people and here almost the entire world know about Holocaust. It's just a way to disturb people and to make people think and talk about it!!
Jews are real and Israel also whether we want it or not...

Eva from Hauptstadtreisen


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