Israeli & Palestinian Narratives: How Academics Shape History
Professor Emeritus Shifra Sagy is a prolific writer of academic papers. Her 2002 paper, entitled “Interpretations of the Past and Expectations for the Future Among Israeli and Palestinian Youth“, has so far been cited by authors of 70 articles, including one published recently that led me to her article. In this work, she and colleagues present a questionnaire they developed for measuring emotional reactions to the narratives of Israelis and Palestinian Arabs.
Their Narratives Questionnaire should be scrapped and redone.
You can see how academics shape history when you read, not only the items included in the tool, but how they devised it. You see how researchers’ biases set up a framework for prejudicing, not only those who answer their questionnaires, but also the students who read their papers and the researchers who later cite them in their own studies. The questionnaire in this article was developed by the three authors of the paper (two Jewish faculty members at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and a faculty member from Bethlehem University in the PA) plus a colleague from Hebron University (in the PA) and an Arab Israeli colleague at Ben Gurion University.
They decided that their narratives questionnaire would include the following events: Balfour Declaration, Holocaust, 1948 War, 1967 War, Intifada, Oslo Accords, Assassination of Rabin. In their study, participants were told how Israelis and Palestinian Arabs generally regard each item and were asked to rate the degree to which they themselves agree with each side.
Explaining use of the questionnaire, the authors write that:
The questionnaire included structured questions that presented adolescents with the mainstream views of the Israeli Zionist and the Palestinian narratives concerning particular historical events in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The mainstream views of the events were formulated by a team of Israeli Jewish and Palestinian researchers, for their respective groups. [emphasis added]
Who decided that the items they selected were mainstream? How much of the general population would agree that they are “mainstream views”? We are never told. Given the language used to explain why the Holocaust is a focal point of Israeli history, I venture to suggest that the views they consider mainstream among Israeli Jews are actually the opinions of the small minority who vote left. For example:
The mentality of a nation under siege, a history of many generations of persecution, and the existential fear that resulted from the extinction of Jews in the Holocaust provided a basis for the moral justification of Israeli acts of violence against the Arab population. [emphasis added]
Re-reading this for the umpteenth time I suddenly laughed at the irony of this statement because “siege” is exactly the excuse leftists give for the Gazan missiles and incendiary kites/balloons raining down on Israeli citizens in the south more days than not and the car rammings and stabbings of Jews in Jerusalem. It was the excuse they gave for the suicide bombs that used to blow up Israeli buses, busy urban intersections and a Passover seder in a hotel: of course the Palestinians stab and ram and bomb Jews! It is because of the occupation. It is because of the siege. Not the “mentality of siege” of which they accuse Jews, but the “reality of siege”; click here to see what the siege in Gaza really looks like.
In any case, that is not what Jews are claiming for themselves. Israeli acts of violence against the Arabs were morally justified after the Holocaust by the outbreak of war in 1948 when the British left the Mandate and neighbouring Arab countries attacked. After all, war is violent. Are the authors suggesting that the Jews should not have defended themselves? If they are referring to Irgun attacks against Arabs in 1938 (before the Holocaust) when the Arabs rose up against both the British and the Jews, then they are implying that the arrival of Jews to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean constituted Israeli violence. And if they are referring to “the occupation” (so-called), well, there is a whole history behind this and the authors should get their stories straight because I am not sure if the Jewish researchers realize that their colleagues in the PA (and many Israeli Arabs) regard Beer Sheva and Haifa as part of the occupied territories.
Moreover, to equate the Holocaust “mentality” with violence against Arabs is certainly NOT a mainstream Jewish Israeli view. Ironically, the work that they cite as support for this view is a book chapter entitled, “Al Nakba”.
Then look at this:
The Palestinians also see themselves as victims of the Holocaust. This feeling is the result of the United Nation’s decision to compensate the Jewish victims of the Nazis by giving them part of the land of Palestine. In addition, the sense of being indirect victims of the Holocaust is facilitated by the perception that the Israelis use “Nazi tactics” and “racist aggression”. [emphasis added]
While I am aware that many Palestinian Arabs regard Israeli actions as “Nazi tactics” and “racist aggression”, it is simply not true to say that the UN decided to compensate the Jews for the Holocaust by giving them part of the land of Palestine. First of all, the “land of Palestine” is a misnomer because it was known as the “Land of Israel” — Eretz Yisrael — as written on coins at the time of the British Mandate of Palestine. Secondly, the UN inherited the League of Nations decision from 1920 to agree that the Jews re-establish their ancient homeland in the Mandate of Palestine and 1920 was well before the Holocaust even began.
But if we are talking about building a questionnaire to reflect peoples’ impressions of history and not what the history actually was, then having the researchers simply make their own list and impose it upon the research participants is not the way it is done in legitimate research.
How Research Tools are Constructed
Generally, researchers who develop this kind of questionnaire do preliminary studies in one of two ways: (1) in this case, asking randomly selected individuals to list what THEY believe were pivotal historical events that forged their own nations/peoples/etc; or (2) making a list of many more items than the number that will eventually be included and asking randomly selected individuals to number these in order from most important to least important. Either method would be replicable and researchers could then debate among themselves which items should be included in the questionnaire in order to make it valid and applicable to other studies. By skipping this step and simply making up their own list, the authors imposed their own views upon those who answered their questionnaire. I doubt they gave their respondants the option of marking any particular item as irrelevant.
The academic article published this year that introduced me to this questionnaire selected a slightly different set of items: the Holocaust, 1948 War, the Palestinian refugees, Yitzhak Rabin assassination, the settlements, and the Intifada. It is not commonly accepted to change a research measurement tool just on a whim, as appears to have been done here. They cite the 2002 article as their source for this questionnaire but do not mention that items differ from the original. This is misleading and just plain wrong.
What Items Should be in the Narratives Questionnaire?
Today it is more common to discuss the Holocaust, not in terms of it being the reason for the establishment of Israel but, rather, the result of there not having been an Israel. Therefore, almost 20 years after the questionnaire was devised, before it is used for another study as it was in the new paper published just this year, it should at least be updated. Additionally, the issue of the Jewish refugees from Arab lands could be recommended for inclusion as part of the Jewish narrative. That is becoming more recognized as part of our story. There may be other issues as well, and there may be those that Palestinian Arabs would suggest as more salient today than the items included in 2002.
But these are my own personal biases. The questionnaire should be redone according to accepted standards as noted above.
The Unfortunate Purpose of the Narratives Questionnaire
The authors make it very clear what their position is:
Our group of researchers believes in coexistence between the two nations, coexistence that is based on mutual recognition of the historical narrative of each side. Our findings lead us to suggest a deeper recognition of the other’s narrative in the educational systems and curriculums of both nations, despite the different levels of development and the asymmetrical power relationship. We still believe that mutual recognition of the legitimacy of the other side’s perspective, and the ability to understand and acknowledge each other’s pain, is necessary to achieve a dialogue between the two peoples.
That sounds good but I wonder if the Palestinian colleagues have made any headway in presenting the Jewish Israeli narrative in their own educational system, whether at the high school or university level.
There are dialogue groups that purport to be based on the principle of listening to each other’s stories. So far this has meant capitulation on the part of the Jews to the “Palestinian” narrative without any reciprocity (see here, for example). I write here about a particularly disturbing academic article studying such groups. It is a problem when research is being published in journals in which the editors are insufficiently knowledgeable about the history/geography of the region written about procluding their ability to assess the potential problems and the biases of the authors of these studies. In this way, biased studies are used as the bases of later research, compounding the impact of the biases over time.
You do not have to agree with the points that I raise, but it is important to debate them. It keeps researchers honest.