War of words

The construction and re–construction of the historical past has become in the modern age a method by which nation states and their dominant ideologies control knowledge and influence generations through a one–sided viewpoint

War is fought, not only by modern sophisticated weapons but also, most effectively, by ideas. Knowledge has become more powerful than guns and missiles. Therefore, those nations who have despised knowledge are destroyed by knowledge. Powerful groups tend to use knowledge in their favour, especially historical knowledge which is distorted and re-adjusted to strengthen their political position.  We can see how repeatedly historical knowledge is constructed and designed to foster a particular ideology and to further the interest of a particular group.  

Historical myths are also created in order to involve target groups being used for certain goals. Similarly, traditions are invented for political and social domination of selected groups.

The past is constructed again and again in the light of the present. Repeatedly new interpretations make it dynamic and vibrant. One of the patterns of shaping the past has been by the colonial powers. They constructed the past of their colonies  specifically with a view to deny  their capacity to rule: such was the case of India; the British Indian historiography proved that the Indians  were not capable  of understanding state–craft  and the rules of governance. 

Colonial British historiography made out a strong case for justifying that India and Indians, having always been ruled by foreigners. The Indian past was portrayed in such a way that then British rule appeared a blessing for India. Indian historians responded to the challenges thrown up through British historiography  and constructed  their own past with a nationalist approach arguing that  Indian civilisation had reached a zenith in the past. The construction, for nationalist mobilisation, was that it was glorious for political, cultural, social and economic achievements. 

However, it is evident that in the construction of the Indian past, both the colonial as well as the nationalist took extreme points of view; both served the interests of certain groups. It shows that whenever the past is constructed, it serves the interest of a politically–dominant minority  and not the whole of society. That is why it is shaped and re– shaped again and again with changes in the political spectrum.

In another pattern, we see that selective historical facts are manipulated in construction of the past, especially in instances when the land  and countries were occupied by outsiders and the original inhabitants were either decimated or reduced to an insignificant position. The act of elimination of the population is always justified by constructions that suggest ‘they were uncivilised and savage’, and by implication, therefore, had no right to occupy the land. The superior race is thereby given a stamp of legitimacy in possessing their land. Such groups all over the world have justified their claims by arguing that they brought civilisation to the land and made it a cradle of culture. 

Take the case of America where the white settlers accused the so-called ‘red’ Indians as savages and barbarians. Once they were de–humanised thus, it became easy to eliminate them and dispossess them from their land. There was no prick of conscience for the American historians, writing the history of America, who ignored the Indian past and started their history with the advent of Colombus. The use of the word ‘discovery’ implies that it was obscure and lying neglected —  the white settlers brought it to light and subsequently linked it to European civilisation.  

To establish the superiority of the European civilisation, the ancient civilisations of South America were downgraded and their contribution to the human civilisation is, even today, not recognised. This method of construction of the past suited  the white settlers in their political designs to expel the red Indians from their settlements and occupy them  believing, and all along fully justifying these acts. 
A similar pattern has been followed in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Palestine.  The same arguments have been used, that the local people were scattered and had no culture; that the land was empty; that the settlers brought civilisation and linked these lands to western culture which was the most advanced and progressive culture of the world. 

This pattern of construction of the past has been successfully adopted by  Israeli and pro–Israeli historians to justify the occupation of Palestine and depriving the Palestinians of their homeland.

Keith W. Whitelam in The Invention of Ancient Israel (1996), surveys the  historiography of Israel and points out how these historians manipulated the historical facts and after distorting or ignoring the facts which do not fit in their framework, constructed the Israeli past which suits the present state of Israel that also denies the rights of the Palestinians. The existence of Israel, he writes, “has led to the construction of an imagined past, which has monopolised the discourse of Biblical studies, an imagined past  which has come to dominate and deny Palestinian history”. 

In legitimising their existence, the Israelis are not only using history  but also archaeology. Trigger in his book, Approaches to Archaeology (1984), discusses how nations use archaeology in their attempt to construct a past of their liking. He then points out how Israelites are excavating only those sites which help them to strengthen their case of occupying Palestine. The selected archaeological evidence serves their political interest and denies the claim of the Palestinians. The Jewish settlements are justified on the basis that they were ancient Jewish settlements on the same site in the late Bronze and early Iron Age. Thus, the past which is built on archaeological  evidence is used to prove that there is a continuity in Israeli history. 

The attempt is also to prove that the Palestinians have no history and no proof of their existence in the past. The popular image which is created by the new research is that the land of Palestine was barren and deserted, the population was scattered and settled here and there; that they were not capable to use the resources of the land. With the settlement of the Jews, a new civilisation and culture is brought to this land and made it vibrant and full of life.  

This argument echoes the Nazi concept of the Lebensraum which inspired the Germans to conquer its neighbouring countries on the ground that the Germans were superior and competent to use those resources of the conquered countries which were not used by the local people because of their laziness  and incompetency. 
The inferior races could only live a life of subordinates. Whitelam points out how newly excavated sites are used for present political purposes. For example, the  excavation  of Masada, a Jewish city which was besieged and conquered by the Romans, became a national symbol of the Jewish state. Y. Zerubavel in his article, ‘The death of memory and the memory of death’, declares Masada and the holocaust as historical metaphors” (1994) writes: “We will not exaggerate by saying thanks to the heroism of the Masada fighters – like other links in the nation’s chain of heroism, we stand here today, the soldiers of a young ancient people, surrounded by the ruins of the camp of those  who destroyed us. We stand here, no longer helpless in the face of our enemy’s strength, no longer fighting a desperate war, but solid and confident, knowing that our fate is in our hand, in our spiritual strength, the spirit of Israel, the grandfather revived. We, the descendants of these heroes, stand here today and rebuild the ruins of our people.” He  further  writes: “Masada is no longer the historic mountain near the Dead Sea but a mobile mountain which we carry on our back anywhere we go.”

This pattern of construction of the past has been successfully adopted by  Israeli and pro–Israeli historians to justify the occupation of Palestine and depriving the Palestinians of their homeland.

In their first step to de–construct the history of Palestine, the Israeli historians make attempts to obliterate the name of Palestine and replace it with Israel. It is given different names like Land of the Bible, the Holy Land, Eretz Israel, Canaan, The Promised Land, Ancient Israel–Palestine and Old Testament Palestine. 

The argument is that there was no Palestine in history. M Dothan in his article, ‘Terminology for the archaeology of the biblical periods’ (1984) writes: “Thus for nearly 700 years, the name Palestine was hardly used. Only in the nineteenth century, with the awakening of European religious, historical and political  interests did the Latin name Palestina reappear. We may conclude that the chronologically late and inconsistently used term ‘Palestine’ was apparently never accepted by any local national entity. It therefore can hardly serve as a meaningful term for the archaeology of this country.”

By depriving the people of Palestine of the name of their country, their right to live and claim it as their homeland, the newly constructed Israeli past makes them stateless and homeless. The second important step which is taken to divest them from their historical roots is to make the Bible the major source of ancient history because it favours the Israelis. In this history, Israel replaces Palestine and Israelite history supersedes pre–history  and Canaanite history. 

Commenting on it, Whitelam writes: “In the scholarship of the past  and in the reality of the present, Palestine has become the ‘land of Israel’ and the history of ancient Israel is the only legitimate subject of study. All else is subsumed in providing the background and understanding for the history of ancient Israel which has continuity with the present state and provides the roots and impulse of European civilisation.”

 The third step is to have an alliance and close relationship with European civilisation and culture. As the present Israeli state is getting all moral and material support from Europe and America, it is therefore, argued that  in ancient  history, Israel played the part of  the mediator between  Egyptian/Babylonian and Western culture. It makes the Western past a continuity of the Eastern culture, through Greece and Rome, to the Renaissance and Reformation and the universalisation of European civilisation. Thus Europe is indebted to Israel and in return must help her in keeping the torch of European civilisation burning in the Middle East. 

The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians shows the contrast of both attitudes and thinking.  The Israelis are using all the media — literature, films, history, archaeology, religion, exhibitions of photographs of the holocaust, gas chambers and the life of the Jewish people in the third Reich — in order to strengthen their case of  a separate homeland. 

The voice of the Palestinians is silenced by propagating the case of Jewish miseries and anti–Semitic movements  within the western nations. The Zionist  movement emerging from the soil of Europe inherited it’s intellectual, scientific and technological culture from the Western civilisation. Therefore, when it came in conflict with Arab culture, it found no problem in surmounting it. Because, on the one side there was order, discipline, knowledge and skill,  while the other side had neither skill, nor knowledge, order or discipline.  

The whole scenario  of this conflict  is vividly  depicted  by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in O Jerusalem! (1972). The battle against the Palestinians was won because of the modern knowledge of the Israelis and the ignorance of the Arabs.

Keeping in view the present situation, it is clear that the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular are not responding to the Israeli construction of the past  and the deconstruction of Palestinian history. Therefore, it is evident  that the Palestinians cannot win their battle  unless they build their own system of knowledge and construct their own history. Not by rhetoric but only with knowledge can they win their battle.   

(Excerpted from Pakistani historian Dr. Mubarak Ali’s, History  On Trial, recently published by Fiction House, Lahore, 1999).

Archived from Communalism Combat, October 1999, Anniversary Issue (6th) Year 7  No. 52, Cover Story 10



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