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Time for Jews To Abandon the Old Foundation Myth of Israel?

Israel must abandon its myth of unquestionable benevolence if there's to be any hope for peace.

Pundit Stanley Greenberg got it right when he said that in politics "a narrative is the key to everything."

But some issues, like the Israel-Palestine conflict, seem to resist change as they form a thicket of many narratives, tangled up so badly that progress toward a solution seems all but impossible.

Now President Barack Obama has waded into that thicket, giving the world an implicit pledge that he will somehow make real progress toward a peace settlement. And he's already made a down payment to fulfilling that pledge, provoking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's promise to work toward "two free peoples living side by side," marking a real change in the narrative structure of the situation.

We no longer have to deal with two competing narratives, one about Israel holding on to the Occupied Territories and the other about Israel ending the occupation; the story of the two-state solution has triumphed. So there is no longer an overarching super-narrative about two stories fighting for political dominance in Israel and in the American Jewish community.

This reminds us that in such tangled situations, the many narratives swirling through it are arranged in a (usually implicit) hierarchy. Some are small tales, dealing with only a part of the situation. Some are larger and claim to take in the whole reality. Even among those larger ones, though, some are more basic than others; the upper-story stories (as we might call them) are not convincing, perhaps have no meaning at all, unless one first accepts the more basic lower-story stories.

And if one digs deep enough, down to the foundation, there is a foundational narrative holding up the whole structure and all its component stories. That deepest level narrative is the one we can rightly call the prevailing myth.

Postmodernists may call it the "master narrative" and say it must be abolished or ignored. But ordinary people, who have not read philosophers Jean-Francois Lyotard or Frederic Jameson, don't give up their myths so easily. Nor can even the heaviest barrage of empirical facts tear the myths from people's minds.

A myth is not necessarily a lie or a fiction. It may contain some measure of empirical truth. But that's irrelevant to its power as myth. For those who hold fast to it, the myth determines what can count as truth and what must be rejected as falsehood. It determines what empirical evidence they can see and what they can't see. And it determines what higher-level narratives they will accept or reject.

'You are contemptible, because you have no real self-esteem and no national self-respect'

For the Jewish community, the narratives of accepting and rejecting a two-state solution were rather all-encompassing, and the story of the battle between those two narratives was even more basic. But these still did not get down to the foundational level of myth.

Netanyahu made that clear in the speech that offered his pro forma commitment to a two-state solution. What many took as a sea change in Jewish political life was actually only a small part of the speech.

Look at the whole rhetorical entity, and the message was quite different: Upper-story stories, even seemingly fundamental ones, can come and go, but the foundational myth endures.

After some preliminary praises of peace, Netanyahu got to the heart of his speech, asking the rhetorical question: "Why is peace still so far from us, even though our [Israeli] hands are extended for peace?"

The predictable answer reaffirmed what may be the most basic Israeli myth of all, the myth of innocence and existential threat. Every problem, it turned out, was the fault of others (mainly Arabs) who "refused any Jewish state whatsoever." The speaker offered a long tour of history, all "proving" the truth of his myth -- tautologically, of course, since the facts were only those that the myth permitted.

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