In the chaotic months since September 11, both Osama bin Laden and some spokesmen for the Palestinians have invoked historical exempla — nearly all of them from the Western experience — to prove the righteousness of their various causes. We can dismiss al Qaeda's Goebbels-like gibberish, since few took seriously bin Laden's infantile references to the Reconquista or Crusader kingdoms, or his half-baked Nietzschean pontification about strong and weak horses.
But the Palestinians' history lessons are another matter altogether. They are presented nightly on our newscasts and in our papers as serious paradigms that seek to prove not just the righteousness of their cause, but often a purported natural affinity with the American experience itself. And in an age when (as we were recently told) 57 percent of our graduating seniors are deemed "not proficient" in history, there is some danger that distortions about the past, if repeated enough, can take on the guise of orthodoxy.
In the last six months we have heard constant comparisons with our Founding Fathers — allusions by the more soft-spoken Palestinians to "Washington and Jefferson," by the more the fiery to "Patrick Henry and Tom Paine." A little boilerplate exegesis usually follows, relating the Israelis to the similarly imperialistic and militarily preponderant British, the weak and idealistic Palestinians to American "freedom-fighters" circa 1776.
The analogy is not only false, but offensive as well to the American nation. The Revolutionary War — for all the romance of the Minute Men, Nathanael Greene, and the Swamp Fox's irregulars — was won on the conventional battlefield by a real army. And while there were occasional atrocities on both sides, Americans did not blow up Loyalist American women and children, or dynamite Tory churches — much less have agents in London shooting British schoolgirls in their beds. The Palestinians name streets after murderers, and give bounties to those who butcher women at work and in their sleep; the Continental Congress did not.
Nor was America fighting for an "American Authority" under the dictatorial control of George Washington — himself also a different sort of man than Yasser Arafat, by any set of moral standards, then or now. Let the Palestinians first have a Congress that drafts a real constitution, with real elected officials and a real free press, and then they can invoke Valley Forge. And let us hear that the killers of Hamas and Hezbollah are dying in battle against soldiers — not murdering civilians; and for freedom of expression and regular elections — not virgins, paradise, and cash bounties for their survivors, all in service of an autocratic kleptocracy. If one is to conjure up the American revolutionary experience, there are far more echoes to be found with the creation of Israel. Quickly upon its establishment, it adopted a consensual government, elected its officials, and prepared to defend itself against much stronger enemies — and thus, not surprisingly, like America today, is a beacon of tolerance in a sea of tyranny.
We hear frequently of the "Holocaust" and "genocide" in association with the Israeli incursion into Jenin — especially in the European presses. The very mention of those charged words in reference to fewer than 70 dead in a war zone is blasphemous to the memory of 6 million butchered in a methodical state program of death. Auschwitz alone saw 10,000 gassed on some days.
The Palestinians' historical analogies with the Holocaust and Nazis are completely false in order of magnitude, wicked in their shameless efforts to invoke the Nazis to denigrate Holocaust survivals, and spurious in their equation of industrial murder on a continental scale with the minimal collateral damage of war. The only possible affinity with Nazi atrocity in the Middle East could be a similarity in the technique of liquidation, albeit not of magnitude, of Saddam Hussein's gassing of innocent civilians — or perhaps Nasser's earlier use of such terror weapons against Yemeni villages. Indeed, the only gas masks that have ever been needed in the Middle East were employed by Israelis — against Nasser in 1967, and Saddam Hussein in 1991. Those who are now calling Israelis "Nazis" were a decade ago cheering on their rooftops at the news that guided missiles might be blanketing Israel with deadly toxins.
Mr. Arafat the other day, as is his wont, was presenting to the world television audience one of his periodic and bizarre outbursts, laced with invective, temper tantrums, and broken sentences. Through all his hand-waving it was hard to follow his point; but I think he was trying to equate Jenin with Stalingrad — "Jeningrad," he seemed to be saying. That image is once again preposterous. In some ways Stalingrad was one of the most horrific battles of the 20th century; it was as murderous as Verdun and the Somme, and perhaps unrivaled in the sheer misery — in hunger, cold, disease — experienced by both sides. During the months-long ordeal, there were perhaps a million casualties — 120,000 Germans were captured, only 5,000 of whom were ever repatriated, and then not until the mid 1950s. In turn, Russian total casualties probably exceeded the Germans losses — in all, quite a different scene from the high-fiving Palestinians who emerged from their takeover the Church of the Nativity on their way to hotels abroad. At Stalingrad, there was no quarter given on any side; the idea that a Soviet or German general would have forbidden his pilots from carpet-bombing apartment buildings, or would have sent soldiers into a booby-trapped alley to avoid civilian deaths and collateral damage, is absurd.
If we need the help of history to put the frequent widespread killing in the Middle East into any sort of historical perspective, then the Nazi brutalization of western Russia in summer 1941 has some similarity to what contemporary Arab governments have done in the last three decades — albeit to their own, rather than foreign, peoples: Hama, where 20,000 were said to be slaughtered by Assad; the 5,000-10,000 Kurds who were gassed and bombed by Saddam Hussein; or the many thousands of Palestinians killed by the late King Hussein of Jordan during an insurrection. In 1991 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from Kuwait, as Jews had been from Baghdad and Cairo in 1967.
On occasion various activists have tried to suggest that the Palestinians are like African-American slaves during the Civil War — and that their struggle for freedom should thus echo loudly with the disadvantaged in this country. But the very idea that modern Palestinians, with their cell phones and windbreakers, are in any way similar to those who suffered as chattel slaves is absurd — more so, when the only institutionalized racism in the region, such as equating people with "monkeys" and worse, is coming from the state-run media of the Arab world. Out of politeness, we need not explore the history of the Arab slave trade, which has outlasted the elimination of involuntary servitude in the West.
Then there is the litany of outright untruths voiced daily. Palestinians are self-proclaimedly the "only subjugated people in the world." Wrong — consider Cypriots, Tibetans, the refugees in the Balkans, and the dozens of border disputes and displaced peoples right now in Africa.
The Palestinians claim their land is "occupied." But after every war, battlegrounds and the landscapes of war are considered "disputed" until the victorious power can be assured of a secure settlement, a difficult process often drawn out over many years. Reflect on the long American presence in "occupied Okinawa" or in "occupied Berlin," a situation that went on for decades until Americans could be sure that Germans and Japanese would follow the protocols of the armistice. In that sense, the skies over much of Iraq are right now "occupied," since the United States cannot be sure Saddam Hussein will cease from murdering Kurds and Shiites. Moreover, "being occupied" is often replete with ambiguity: Are the Basques and northern Irish victims of occupation? Are the Falklands occupied? Is Kashmir suffering from occupation? Was the West Bank occupied in 1947? Or in 1956? Or only after 1967 — when the idea of an "occupation" arose after the ethnicity of the "occupiers" changed?
Distortion is offered frequently about the 1967 war, which, we are told "Israel started" — when, in fact, it was hours away from being bombed from all sides. Indeed, the 1967 war is the most curious event in the recent Palestinian repertoire of past hurts, because it can almost never be mentioned without a terrible boomerang effect on the speaker. Every time we hear "We must have a return to 1967 borders," an awful silence almost always follows. Most Americans immediately think, "But wait — for the first three wars, Arabs had the West Bank, and so what were the 1947, 1956, and 1967 conflicts about — if not the destruction of Israel?"
Spokesmen who cannot vote, speak freely on television anywhere in the Arab world, or criticize their governments or religion in the daily newspapers are not credible. And they are currently emboldened in their mistruths by their allies in the Western world who are most firmly entrenched in the universities and the media. The former spread fabrications, but only after they have first been manufactured by the latter.
But then this is a generation in the West that has rejected "facts," the very concept of history, and the importance of war and politics — and instead embraced postmodernism, cultural relativism, and the dogma of moral equivalence. It is no accident that a best-selling book in contemporary France denies that terrorists crashed a jetliner into the Pentagon. For such anti-empiricists — who are sheltered from the audit of the real world, and who believe that history is "asserted" and thus a reflection of "power machinations" and "arbitrary fictions" — the Orwellian history of the Palestinians is not really so Orwellian. The "massacre" at Jenin is simply a "competing discourse" — no more or less valid than the empirical evidence that fewer than 70 have died in a running gun battle. "Terrorism" itself means nothing, but exists as a subjective "construct" — its relative and transitory currency simply predicated on the degree of "power" of the "narrator" of the day.
All essayists at times invoke history to reflect upon the present. And there is often legitimate disagreement among historians as to the validity of particular historical allusions. Nevertheless, there are still generally agreed parameters of historical accuracy that must be respected — and suggesting that suicide bombers are akin to our Founding Fathers, or that Jenin is a Stalingrad, are well outside the plausible and so only bring ridicule to the purveyors of such nonsense.
In general, I think these are troubling times for historians. A great majority of American high-school students are said to be ignorant of the past, taught by educators often without degrees in history. The universities themselves have marginalized history through the inclusion of a variety of trendy therapeutic classes in the General Education curriculum, from popular culture to silly explorations of rock stars, sex acts, and TV commercials.
Classes that once investigated the tragedy of the past now have switched to melodrama — seeking in clumsy fashion to round up victims and oppressors in order to pass post facto judgment from the modern suburb and faculty coffeehouse. And often historians themselves cannot distinguish the trivial (histories of the garter or lawn furniture) from the critical issues of war, politics, and economics. Moreover, recently some of our most prominent academics and literary scholars, in both their histories and memoirs, have plagiarized research, copied the work of others verbatim, made up facts, and misled about their own past — mostly without consequences beyond a few forced and contorted explanations about sloppy research methods, without any confession of intellectual theft.
Into this historical and moral vacuum of the West, where it is asserted that airliners never crashed into buildings, have come the astute Palestinians — and they are merely reaping what we ourselves have first sown.
©2002 - National Review