The Common Good

On Palestinians: Whose Narrative Wins?

Once again last week the pages of the New York Times was graced with an ad published by David Horowitz's Freedom Center, one of those websites you visit and immediately begin to rethink the sanity of published discourse on the Web.

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This time the shock-and-awe title of the ad read: "The Palestinians' Case Against Israel is Based on a Genocidal Lie." Essentially Horowitz reuses the old canards that there is no "Palestine" (the ancient Romans invented it), that the Arabs who live there are not "Palestinians" (since that name was invented in 1964), and that Palestinian suffering is the result of Arab aggression (because they refuse to concede to Israeli "peace" overtures). Genocidal? According to Horowitz, the Palestinian struggle for freedom is in reality a struggle to purge the region of all Jews, "from the river to the sea."

I'm used to this sort of rhetoric. Of course it is extremist and inflammatory. And it builds a narrative that its proponents must think will gain traction if it is only repeated enough. It is very easy to dismantle its bolder points, but it is worrisome how often ads like this are read and believed by the unsuspecting. He proclaims on his website, for example, that "over 1 million Arabs have remarkable freedoms in Israel," but forgets to say that another 3.8 million have miserable lives under a military occupation.

How do you tell the public those things were "left out" of the dominant narrative?

James M. Wall of The Christian Century recently published the alternative narrative entitled "If you build it the [Palestinian] state will come." Here is a sober, carefully constructed outline of the good things that may emerge through the centrist leaders in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps. Here we read about Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery. After reading Horowitz you'd think Fayyad and Avnery are describing a different country.

Two narratives. One hopeful, one paranoid. One that inspires trust, one that incites conflict. One constructive, one angry. The catch is this: Once someone like Horowitz repeats his own narrative long enough, he starts to believe it so thoroughly, he becomes evangelistic with it and cannot bear to hear it reframed. Pray that the James Walls' of the world prevail.

portrait-gary-burgeGary M. Burge, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of numerous books both on the Middle East (Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to "Holy Land" Theology, and Whose Land? Whose Promise?) and the New Testament (Jesus the Middle Eastern Story Teller, The New Testament in Antiquity, and Encounters with Jesus).

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