Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

December 7, 2010

Israelis and Palestinians: Negotiating History

By David K. Shipler

If you think you know your biblical history, think again. Leading Palestinians have been revising the Old and New Testaments for years, subtracting Jews from ancient Jerusalem even as Jews today assert their Right of Return to the holy city.

This is the centerpiece of a broader revisionism that threatens the peace process, and American, Israeli, and Palestinian negotiators can’t ignore it and hope to make progress. They usually concentrate on the Little Story, but they need to address the Big Story. The Little Story is about drawing borders, swapping acreage, and arranging security between Israel and a Palestinian state. The Big Story is the historical narrative—actually two historical narratives—that produce the deepest yearning and the hardest questions: 1) How will Jerusalem be shared? and 2) Will Jews and Arabs give up their Right of Return to the lands held by their opponents? Once back at the table, negotiators might consider tackling them first, and not putting them aside as they’ve tended to do for nearly two decades of intermittent talks.

[Update: E-mails and minutes of negotiating sessions, published in January 2011 by Al-Jazeera, show that progress was made on both Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees toward the end of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's administration. Under one proposal, Jewish areas of Jerusalem would stay under Israeli jurisdiction, Arab areas would go to the Palestinians, and the Old City with his holy places would be placed under international oversight. The two sides haggled over the numbers of refugees or their descendants who would be allowed to move into Israel proper: Palestinian negotiators proposed 10,000 a year for ten years; Israel wanted only 1,000 a year for five years. Revelations of the concessions sparked severe criticism of the Palestinian Authority, however, and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has abandoned Olmert's offers.]
These are tough issues because they are rooted in clashing versions of history, and history in that part of the world is linked directly to identity. Each side dismisses the other’s historical narrative, casting aspersions on the other’s legitimacy as a people who belong in the tiny slice of territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Israeli Jews do this to the Palestinian Arabs much less than they used to, but Palestinians still vigorously do it to the Jews. Rewriting the past has clear implications for the future. That’s why it provokes furious reactions.

Prominent Palestinians have asserted for years that there were no Jewish temples in Jerusalem. Solomon didn’t build his there, and the Second Temple under Herod (from which Jesus expelled the money-changers) never stood on the manmade plateau that Jews call Mount Moriah or the Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City. Muslims know the place as Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, the third holiest site in Islam with its al-Aqsa mosque. Even after the 1993 Oslo accord that was supposed to constitute mutual recognition, Temple denial was promulgated by Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

The latest amendment to the past was a “study” posted for nine days in November on the Web site of the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Information. It argued that the Western Wall, which is the plateau’s massive retaining wall and the Jews’ most hallowed place of prayer, isn’t really Jewish at all, doesn’t belong to the Jews, and carries no sacred meaning in ancient Jewish tradition. The internal logic is self-justifying: No Jewish temple, so no authentic Jewish connection to the Western Wall.

This is not a new line. In 2001, I heard the same thing from Hassan Barghouti, headmaster of Jerusalem’s leading Islamic training institution, the al-Aqsa School, located on Haram al-Sharif. “When it comes to Jerusalem, Jews have nothing to do with it—nothing,” he told me then. “The Wailing Wall is the wall of al-Aqsa.” The identical point was made by Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, second to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and now chief justice of the Palestinian Islamic courts. “In Jerusalem, there is no such holy place for the Jews,” he told me. “The Temple, which they claim, this claim is not proven . . . The Israeli claim about the Temple and the Western Wall is to achieve political goals. Its aim is to enforce Jewish sovereignty over Jersualem, There is no proof.”

Had the November “study” not been consistent with such statements by influential Palestinians over the years, it might have been written off as a silly rant by a small-minded functionary. But the crank history touches a nerve and reveals the inflamed heart of the conflict. That heart is where diplomacy needs to go.

The weight of the matter was measured in Israel’s sharp response. “Reprehensible and scandalous,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu labeled the assertion, which “calls into serious question [the Palestinian Authority’s] intentions of reaching a peace agreement, the foundations of which are coexistence and mutual recognition,” he warned. His deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, followed up with a detailed refutation in The Jerusalem Post under the title, “Palestinian Revisionism is the Only Obstacle to Peace.” This may have been a little overdrawn (there are other obstacles), but not much, given Israelis’ fears that Palestinian statehood will be used as a stepping stone to their expulsion. A week later, as the “study” remained on the Information Ministry’s site, the State Department jumped in, denouncing the claim as “factually incorrect, insensitive, and highly provocative.” It took two more days for the post to be taken down, but its author, Deputy Information Minister Al-Mutawakil Taha, stuck by his position.

In a more perfect world, the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary might be common ground. Its outcropping of bedrock is taken by Christians and Jews to be the place on which Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, in obedience to God’s command, and is revered by Muslims as the place from which Muhammad left Earth on his night journey to heaven and back. Tradition holds that Muhammad led other prophets in prayer at the site. No mosques existed then, of course, but the bedrock is now contained in the Muslim shrine known as the Dome of the Rock; nearby stands al-Aqsa mosque.

Islam is not full of miracles, and this one, the night journey, invites the most outspoken Muslim leaders to lay exclusive claim to the place. Yet the opposite conclusion is drawn by one respected Palestinian philosopher, Sari Nusseibeh, who thinks the legend actually confirms the existence there of the Jewish Temple.
“It is beyond doubt that the actual physical spot in question couldn’t have first acquired its holiness or sanctity from Muhammad’s visit,” he wrote in 2009. “Rather, Muhammad’s visit must have been made because of the spot’s already-existing sanctity.” some years earlier, he had given me a more specific “controversial explanation” of the basis for Islam’s attachment to Jerusalem: God could descend to any place on earth, he said, but a person could be raised to God from only the holiest place, and that was marked by the Jewish Temple. Otherwise, why not lift Muhammad up from Mecca? Why in the tradition did he have to pass through Jerusalem? “From the Muslims’ point of view, the gateway to God is Jerusalem,” Nusseibeh explained. “I believe that when the [al-Aqsa] mosque was built in the first place, it was built as a recreation of the Temple.” Indeed, he noted, until Zionism, Muslim writings included references to the Temple there. “The Jews are part of our history as Muslims,” he declared, “and it’s stupid to deny it.” Denying Judaism’s place, he believed, was to deny part of Islam.

Despite Nusseibeh’s standing built on centuries of family history in Jerusalem, he is isolated in his views, and severely criticized by fellow Palestinian Muslims for his tolerance. Purely religious disagreements can coexist, especially when they don’t overlap on sacred sites, but this one has temporal implications more political and sociological than theological. Temple denial, which is reportedly taught in some Palestinian classrooms, reminds Jews that even in the place most intricately entwined with ancient Jewish roots, they are portrayed as alien. If Palestinians want to erase Jewish history, why wouldn’t they try to erase the Jewish state itself?

Diplomats have trouble with this existential dimension of the conflict, which can’t be spread out smoothly on a bargaining table and seems too psychological to trace on maps and write into legal language. Yet the issues of legitimacy and respect are more than touchy-feely questions. They involve the central problem of whether the two peoples can respect each other’s legitimacy on this sliver of land.

It’s hard to see how they will get there without honoring each other’s history and abandoning some of their own historical desires. First, they’ll have to decide how to share Jerusalem, for which the Palestinians will need support from the larger Muslim world. Palestinians don’t make this easier with tracts denying Jewish connections to the holy city, and Israelis erect obstacles on the ground by evicting Arab residents and expanding Jewish neighborhoods. No peace plan can survive without a Jerusalem compromise.

Second, each side will have to drop its coveted Right of Return: Israeli Jews cannot keep returning to the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) by building suburban apartment blocs that go under the misnomer “settlements.” They close off options, leaving less and less territory available for a Palestinian state. For their part, Palestinians cannot keep agitating to return to vanished Arab villages inside what is now Israel, depopulated during the Jewish state’s 1948 war of independence. When they brandish keys to their old houses during demonstrations, or teach their children to yearn for places long gone, Palestinians fuel Israelis’ anxieties about the ultimate agenda.

All Arabs who left their homes in 1948 were deliberately expelled, according to the Palestinian argument. No Arabs were expelled at all but left only because Arab leaders told them to, Israel claimed for decades. In 1979 Israeli censors barred even Yitzhak Rabin from describing in a memoir his prominent role in removing Arab civilians from Lod and Ramle, two towns near Tel Aviv. He was silenced on this telling piece of history despite his stature as former prime minister, defense minister, and commander of the Harel Brigade in 1948. It was on this point that I first met him. I went to his small office armed with the deleted account, given to me by his translator.

Initially he hesitated to discuss it, then expressed surprise that it had been censored, said he didn’t know why, and added wryly that he had deliberately given the censors something else to do by including material about Israel’s nuclear weapons.

Later, a version closer to the truth found its way into Israel’s textbooks and documentary films as the classification of Israeli archives expired, revealing that some Arabs had indeed been expelled, while others had simply fled the fighting to safety, as civilians do in every war. Still others—including an old woman I met in a refugee camp in Lebanon—may have been told to leave by Arab leaders planning on a quick victory and return. Reality is so messy, and it satisfies neither side. The Palestinians tend to ignore the complexities, and the Israelis squabble over them. With every new edition of a textbook used in Israeli schools, tussles erupt in the Education Ministry—the latest whether the texts should expose the tender minds of Israeli students to the Arabs’ term for Israel’s creation, al-Nakhba (the Catastrophe).

Considering how long the United States took to acknowledge the suffering imposed on Native Americans, Israel has moved quickly, and without the enduring sense of security usually required for a confident look backwards.

It’s too bad that peace negotiators can’t dictate the portrayal of history. What they can do once they get back to the table is put the toughest historical disputes—Jerusalem, the Right of Return—at the top of the agenda, which is where they belong. They might bear in mind the joke told by Russians under communism:

Question: What is the definition of a Soviet historian?
Answer: A person who can predict the past.

David K. Shipler was Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times from 1979 to 1984. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land.


  1. I apologize for commenting on such an old post, but. I'm an academic librarian hoping for an eventual DVD edition of the film 'Arab and Jew : Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land'. Is this never ever happening on account of rights wrinkles? Or because you feel the content is outdated and besides, you've moved on? Or might it actually come about? If I may be given cause to hope, then hope I shall. Otherwise, closure is also acceptable.

    Thank you, by the way, for *today's* blog-post, which I shall variously share. Still giggling and drying my eyes.

    1. Thanks for your interest, but tche film was released and sold by PBS Video on VHS tape only, and it would be up to PBS to reissue it in DVD format. I checked with the producer, and we know of no such plans. I don't think PBS is even selling tapes any longer, although you could contact them to see. Or, since many libraries ordered them at the time, perhaps you can find a copy that way. If not, please email me at dkship2@comcast.net, and if you have a tape player from which you can make a DVD, I can get a tape to you.

      The second film, with a different subtitle, Arab and Jew: Return to the Promised Land, is available on DVD through PBS Video.


      David Shipler