|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.
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.
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,