I have always been intrigued by the political and historical myths that seem to underlie virtually every human society. What exactly do I mean by myths?
According to one scholar, a myth is “a story of ostensibly historic events or beings crucial to the world view and self-image of a people, a story that, no matter how bizarre it might seem from outside that society or when subjected to rational analysis, appears as essential truth to its believers.”
From a scholarly perspective, myths often provide a rich arena for intellectual work. In my own research, I have spent a considerable amount of time writing about the recycling of one important myth dating from the American war in Vietnam: the so-called “Hue Massacre” of 1968.
But from a humanistic perspective, myths can be extremely frustrating and dangerous. This is certainly true of numerous myths in the United States.
For instance, most Americans are probably familiar with the basic narrative of World War II that has been peddled incessantly in recent years. By now this narrative is close to assuming the status of myth: the “good war” of Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor, Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation and the Stephen Ambrose industry – among other cultural phenomena.
But what happens to this story when one considers the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden, the segregation of the U.S. armed forces, the widespread anti-Semitism of wartime American society, the concentration camps for Japanese-Americans, the U.S. rejection of Jewish refugees and the arguably gratuitous destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Or consider the wars in Indochina. The United States spent decades after World War II backing French efforts to re-colonize Vietnam and Cambodia, refusing to honor the 1954 Geneva accords, propping up a dictatorial regime in Saigon, spraying toxic defoliants over much of the Vietnamese countryside and mercilessly bombing people throughout the region.
In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 – assisted, as one leading scholar observed, by the “U.S. economic and political destabilization” of the country and American support for the ruthless Lon Nol regime. And today in Vietnam – as one major museum in Ho Chi Minh City reminds visitors – “170,000 old people get lonesome as their children or relatives were killed during the war.”
The American coda to its decades of aggression in Indochina was to withhold the $3.25 billion it had promised Vietnam as postwar reconstruction assistance and to impose a punishing embargo for the next two decades. And in a little-known fact, Washington shifted its support in Cambodia to the genocidal Khmer Rouge following Pol Pot’s overthrow by Vietnam in the late 1970s.
But as this reality is too horrible for popular sensibilities, Americans have instead been treated in the years since to Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris fantasies of demonic Asians who continue to victimize an innocent United States. Rather than a savage invasion of a largely peasant society, an article in Newsweek observed as recently as two years ago, the war in Vietnam was in part a “noble crusade” prosecuted by “well-intentioned policymakers in Washington.”
I have given these and other myths much consideration in recent weeks when viewing the dangerous escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the shameful response of countless Israelis and Americans.
It should come as little surprise that Israel, like other nations and peoples, possesses its own national myths, which have been much in evidence since the end of March. Chief among these is the strangely ahistorical conviction that the Arab world has adamantly refused for decades to recognize Israel’s existence and remains determined to destroy it. Like most myths, this one quickly collapses when subjected to critical scrutiny.
Even the most cursory look at the historical record, which is all I can offer in this short space, provides a reasonable indication of the myth’s stark departure from reality.
It must be noted that for well over 20 years there has been an international consensus, accepted by most of the Palestinian and Arab leadership, in favor of a two-state solution for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This consensus was most recently articulated at the Arab League summit in March at which a unanimous resolution was passed affirming the Arab states’ desire to “enter into a peace agreement with Israel and provide security for all the states of the region” following Israel’s acceptance of its basic and long-standing principles. This two-state settlement recognizing Israel’s right to exist has been the basis of numerous offers and documents over the past several decades.
For example, in February 1971 Anwar el-Sadat offered Israel a full peace treaty calling for Israel’s recognition as a secure state within its pre-June 1967 borders. The proposal was flatly rejected by the Israelis; indeed, one prominent Israeli writer, Amos Elon, claimed the Egyptian proposal generated “panic” within Israel, whose government wished to acquire territorial concessions from its 1967 conquest.
In January 1976, the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution supported by Egypt, Syria, Jordan and others that, consistent with the international consensus, called for a two-state solution. Chaim Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations at the time, wrote that the PLO not only backed the proposal but also in fact “prepared” it.
In 1977 Egypt, Syria and Jordan, according to The New York Times, “informed the United States they would sign peace treaties with Israel as part of an overall Middle East settlement;” indeed, the PLO authorized the attendance of Palestinian delegates at a proposed Arab-Israeli peace conference. The Israeli response was unambiguous: Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli Prime Minister, asserted “that the only place the Israelis could meet the Palestinian guerrillas was on the field of battle.”
In November 1978, Yasir Arafat issued a statement indicating “(t)he PLOwill accept an independent Palestinian state consisting of the West Bank and Gaza, with connecting corridor, and in that circumstance will renounce any and all violent means to enlarge the territory of that state.” In the same statement Arafat promised “(w)e will give de facto recognition to the state of Israel.” The announcement fell on deaf ears.
In April 1981, the PLO National Council unanimously passed a resolution endorsing a proposal that called for the establishment of a Palestinian state while noting “(i)t is essential to ensure the security and sovereignty of all states of the region including those of Israel.” Following this endorsement, Issam Sartawi of the PLO National Council announced at a Paris press conference in July 1982 that “(f)rom this it follows that the PLO has formally conceded to Israel, in the most unequivocal manner, the right to exist on a reciprocal basis.”
The move was rejected by Israel, which that same year also rejected a peace proposal from Saudi Arabia; Chaim Herzog claimed, again, that the PLO – which we are repeatedly told rejects Israel’s right to exist – was the “real author” of the Saudi plan. The list goes on, and continues to the present, as demonstrated in the recent Arab League resolution.
Another myth – this one also the result of a concerted Israeli and American propaganda campaign and the notorious ineptitude of Yasir Arafat in countering it – has become particularly well-entrenched in both the United States and Israel. It surfaced yesterday in the Star Tribune’s coverage of Ehud Barak’s visit to the Twin Cities.
In a rare acknowledgment of this myth’s dubiousness, The New York Times summarized it in an investigative report as “a potent, simplistic narrative” in which Barak “offered Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David” in autumn 2000, but “Arafat turned it down and then ‘pushed the button’ and chose the path of violence.”
With the rejectionist Palestinians having yet again turned away from the offer of peaceful coexistence with Israel, the myth
continues, the Sharon government has been forced in recent weeks to defend the Israeli people against unprovoked Palestinian terror.
Reality is, again as usual, quite different. Rather than offering Palestinians “the moon” – one often sees references to Barak’s government allegedly agreeing to withdraw from “96 percent” of the Occupied Territories – Israel actually proposed a withdrawal of closer to 46 percent.
As British journalist Robert Fisk noted, “Left out of the equation was Arab east Jerusalem – illegally annexed by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War – the huge belt of Jewish settlements, including Male Adumim, around the city, and a 10-mile wide military buffer zone around the Palestinian territories.”
Of crucial importance, Israel also refused to meaningfully address the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes, and it obligated the Palestinians to lease back to Israel the settlements for 25 years.
So long as these myths persist, the hope for a just settlement to the ongoing conflict seems remote. Truth is, indeed, a necessary precondition for reconciliation.
Tragically, while the denial continues, so does Israeli aggression. In a largely overlooked press release last week, Amnesty International summarized its “preliminary findings” in examining the Israeli atrocities in the Occupied Territories in March and April. The organization has received “credible evidence” Israeli forces were responsible for “war crimes,” it announced.
Similarly, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing Israel of “serious violations” of international humanitarian law from late 2001 to just several weeks ago, including at least one incident it designated a “war crime.” The H.R.W. researchers concluded, as one wire service report phrased it, “the army regularly ignores international conventions by placing the li[ves] of civilians in jeopardyé.” According to the organization’s lead investigator, these actions are believed to have occurred “in more or less every raid conducted by the Israeli army on the West Bank.”
In a morally bizarre and illogical formulation, this Israeli perpetration of “war crimes” has somehow been interpreted by some apologists for Israeli terror as a demonstration of the country’s commitment to limiting civilian casualties.
Such mythmaking is dangerous – not only for Palestinians and Israelis, but also for the security of much of the world. For while myths themselves might not kill, those who subscribe to them have adequately demonstrated their willingness to do so.