Monday, July 30, 2007

History vs. narrative -- Enough with the textbooks, already

Gaby Herman, the chairman of the history department at Hebrew University, wrote a very good op-ed in today's Hebrew Haaretz, which has yet to be translated into English. Maybe it won't be. I may be paranoid, but I have noticed that the English online Haaretz is more to the right of the Hebrew one. Anyway, this is not a left/right issue; this is much deeper than that

Herman was reacting to the news item earlier this week that Israeli Palestinian history textbooks will include references to the Nakbah, and will present the Palestinian version-- or what is called "narrative" -- to 1948, but that the Israeli Jewish textbooks (albeit for a younger age-group) will not.

Herman doesn't like this talk of narrative, Israeli Jewish or Palestinian. He doesn't believe that history and narrative are the same thing -- none of that postmodern crapola for him. His proposal is as follows:

הציגו היסטוריה אחת ויחידה של אירועי 1948, שהיא תוצאה של מחקר מעמיק ומקיף, ושהגיעה להבנה הטובה ביותר האפשרית של אירועי העבר ושל מניעי הנפשות הפועלות על סמך העדויות והמסמכים למיניהם, ותקבלו את המסקנות העולות ממנה. לא ניתן להגיע לאובייקטיוויות מוחלטת בתיאור מאורעות, אך אין זה אומר שיש להרים ידיים ולוותר על כל שאיפה לה.

"Present one and only one history of the events of 1948, which is the result of indepth and comprehensive research, and which gets to the possible understanding of the events of the past, and the motivations of the players according to tesimonies and documents of all sorts -- and accept the results that emerge from them. One cannot receive absolute objectivity in describing the events, but that doesn't allow us to throw up our hands and to give up our desires for it."

I am completely in sympathy with Herman. But it is not so simple. Israelis and Palestinian historians have tried very hard to come up with a one-size fits all history, and they have failed. The problems is not one of competing narratives, but of competing histories. Once one tries to provide explanation -- and what history does not? -- all sorts of issues arise. And performing a balancing act of the histories, rather than respecting both histories, creates a third history. At best one can have a single history with a lot of "he said/she saids."

As I said, Herman is on to something. But in a country where the history of events that occurred (or didn't) two or three thousand years ago is extremly controversial and politically-charged, the idea of writing up 1948 in an agreed-upon and uncontroversial manner is a nice fantasy.

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