After reading Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People, President Moncef Morzouki of Tunisia asks about the lessons Sand's book might have for other nations and peoples.
Do we, too, have a fabricated history?
There is no doubt about it - the book The Invention of the Jewish People by the Jewish Israeli historian Shlomo Sand, which stirred up great controversy in Israel and was translated into 26 languages in less than a year, came as a pleasant surprise to all its Arab readers, including to the author of these lines.
What this historian, whose hostility towards Zionism cannot be dismissed as mere Anti-Semitism, establishes very clearly is that the Zionist claim to their right to the lands of Palestine is void. He proves, relying on a vast amount of sources – many of them Jewish – that the forceful expulsion of the Jews from Palestine after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans is a myth.... that the preservation of a pure race during years of exile is a myth... that the claim that the ones who returned to conquer Palestine were the grandchildren of those exiled thousands of years earlier is a myth... And even the exodus from Egypt and the Kingdom of David and Salomon, all of these are legends upon legends.
But most importantly, this courageous historian outlines in his book the various methods of fabrication pursued by the Zionist historians of 19th c. Europe as they weaved this legend to which the Palestinians became victims, and which to this day is taught in Israeli schools as absolute and complete truth.
Who would have imagined that Ben Gurion, one of the founders of the State of Israel, would maintain up to the end of the 1920s that the Palestinians were the grandchildren of the Ancient Israelites, and that they would open their arms and hearts to their immigrating brethren. But when the Palestinians held on to their Arabness, Ben Gurion's views changed - and so did the conceptual paradigm, making the Palestinians into foreigners who had conquered the Land of the Fathers and the Grandfathers, and therefore must be expelled.
The question which presents itself after reading this book is whether we are facing a unique phenomenon relating solely to the Jews, or rather a general truth? This might mean that all national histories, which are taught in high schools all across the world, are in fact fabricated from A to Z.
There are reasons to support this theory. Take France for example. Since the end of the 19th c. and throughout the 20th c., in all the schools in the country and in its colonies, millions of children were taught that the French descended directly from the Gauls (the ancient tribe which fought the Roman invasions, and then disappeared as it intermingled with the other conquered people in the great melting pot of the Roman Empire.)
What most people and of course the children don't know is that their delivery from the womb of the Gauls was a political decision made after the war of 1870. The French lost that war to the Germans, and their hatred grew so great that it became forbidden for history books to continue claiming that the French descended from those foreigners their country is named after, which might have implied that they, too, had descended from the Germanic tribes.
The same can be said regarding the history taught to Russian children under Stalin, or to German children under Hitler.
The conclusion, then, is that written history is not necessary a faithful image of the past – if only because it is riddled with holes and is of irregular clarity – but rather it is always given authorization to explain and justify, or even create, a setting which is subjugated to an existing political agenda.
This form of authorization, which Sand explores in depth particularly in the context of Zionism, is the very procedure of rewriting the events – yet its methodology consists of omission, supplementation, exaggeration, plain padding, and at times even intentional lies.
The historian, therefore, is the one who fabricates history. In the best case scenario, he does so with good intentions, for what he doesn't know of the past exceeds what he does. But in the worst case, he does so with the intention to deceive, either following his own convictions or in order to please the ruling administrators which pay his living, and need that the mobs under their rule will hold a specified image of their past.
Even more significant for us Arabs is the question which immediately presents itself - is our own history fabricated as well? And if so, how was it fabricated, and by whom, and for what political or ideological purposes?
Naturally we cannot point an accusing finger towards our entire history based only on cursory comparison with the history of other nations, or on the prejudice that all history is myth and guile.
But there is consistent evidence which legitimates casting some doubt on the old official narratives of our history. There can be no argument about it since this practice evolves and prospers right in front of our eyes.
Take for example contemporary history, taught in every Arab state. In Tunis they call it "The National Movement". The whole narrative is constructed so to mythologize the role of Habib Bourguiba, while obscuring the roles of the other leaders in the battle for the first independence - like Salih bin Yousef, his main competitor (who was assassinated by the "Great Warrior," Bourguiba). France's role in settling the conflict between the two rivals, by resigning its sovereignty to the man who had always been its faithful friend, is passed over in silence. The achievements of the regime are embarrassingly exaggerated, while there is no mention of its various misdoings, the final one being the resignation of the state to the rule of a police dictatorship.
Why aren't we justified in saying that what takes place today is the same as what took place yesterday and before yesterday and in every age, especially since every age differs from every other in all aspects except for one: mankind?
Once more, we are not trying to say that all of our glorious history is forgery as a reaction to the officially stated and popular position, claiming that all of our glorious history is truth.
All we are saying, and we are fully entitled to say so, is that due to the global recognition of the fabricated nature of national histories, and our fear that we are also governed by myths and illusions, we duly demand to scrutinize the most important segments of our history, and to do so by way of a free and responsible conversation, free of intimidation or oppression, so that we can clear this history from the doubt of falsity, or so that we can sort between the true and the false, just as the Muslim jurists did when they struggled to sift through the collection of the hadiths, the sayings attributed to the Prophet, to identify those falsely attributed to him which managed to infiltrate the collection.
The proof to the existence of such shady regions are the convulsions and spasms which overtake the political authorities – and the intellectual masses which forcefully or by automated reflex went into exile, cast there by this fabricated history – in their efforts to prevent any serious research into the matter.
These spastic reactions speak louder than confession, since in what requires defending there is something suspicious, while truth imposes itself by itself, and has no need for violence.
Some fields that should be re-examined with fresh, unprejudiced eyes:
1. Was the Jahiliyyah, the pre-Islamic era, truly a period marked by complete intellectual and spiritual darkness, as the official version of the glorious history claims? How do the official historians account for the existence of sophisticated Arab civilizations, like the Nabataeans in the north and the Yemenites in the south, established centuries before the arrival of Islam? How can this age be called the Jahiliyyah – the age of ignorance – when it is the age which opened the Arabs to, and immersed them in, the cultures surrounding them, and furthermore, gave birth to the new religion?
Last but not least, how much do we know of reformist movements which preceded Islam? We have an inkling of their existence because of figures such as Sa'sa bin Naji bin A'ql, who put an end to the practice of sacrificing women by burying them alive 60 years before the arrival of Islam, or because of the dealings of Jewish, Christian and monotheist Arabs who rejected pagan practices.
2. Was the appearance of Islam truly that switch flicked by history, which instantly turned the darkness in which the Arabs were living into glaring light? Or was the darkness not as murky as it was described, and the light not as bright as it was said to be, and the transformation into the better society was in fact slow, gradual, difficult and relative, and to this day still remains incomplete?
3. Was the age of Arab conquests indeed a utopia as it is described in the official history books? And was it really a glorious conquest or rather an invasion of the kind practiced by all the nations? And what are the implications of the fact that some of the leaders among the conquerors or the invaders tried to prevent the spread of Islam as long as the jizya profits, the tax on non-Muslims, came pouring in? The conquerors' alacrity in overcoming the very principles they stand to defend is one of the basic laws of history.
4. Until when will we continue teaching our children that the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates held slaves and concubines and that they would castrate the men, without calling their attention to the monstrosity of this history? Did we ever think of apologizing for our own long historical engagement with slavery?
5. According to what objective indicators, such as the level and the spread of health, education, freedom and equality among men and women, can we continue endorsing the idea that past was greater than the present? Is military superiority the only indicator to a nation's strength? And supposing we do agree that the glorious past was also and especially a period of cultural prosperity, how did this great flow dry up? To what extent can the sheikhs and the jurists be held responsible, they who forcefully took over a significant portion of the cultural space and the scientific thought, leading to the cultural dearth which overtook us less than two centuries after the beginning of our great campaign?
Naturally these are only titles of theoretical and sociological problems which for too long were left in darkness. The nationalist upstart, followed by the Muslim one, both played significant roles in their deposition far in the depths of consciousness, as they considered discussing them a danger to the nation's unity and strength. But the opposite is true.
The fact is that nations cannot boldly face the truth of their histories before three conditions are established:
- Courageous historians like Shlomo Sand, who do not fear breaking the most prohibitive taboos, dare to enter forbidden areas and open them to the light of reason.
- A democratic regime which doesn't silence any voice, nor casts its members to be trampled under the hooves of the horses of hallucination or spite.
- A mature view and sufficient self assurance, which would allow one to face the shadowed areas of his past without losing his self respect and dignity, or his ability to imagine and work for a better future.
Unfortunately we are still exceedingly far from fulfilling these conditions, and therefore we shall continue living under the shadow of an embellished and synthetic history. Pungent attacks on the part of the haters of our nation, be they from within or from without, will not help us free ourselves from it.
Yet it is only a question of time, and sooner or later we will reach the stage when progress will naturally be made.
From now on we should open our hearts and minds to Arab and Muslim historians that are devoted to our people, that acknowledge and hold on to this connection. They are the ones who understand that freeing our nation from illusions and misconceptions is by no means an undertaking which belittles our fathers and ancestors or dishonors them. Rather it is to uncover the actual areas of weakness in our history alongside the true areas of strength; so history will be teacher rather than deceiver, vibrant rather than lethargic, pointing the way forward rather than placing us in a vicious, endless circle.
It was said about war that it is too dangerous to be left to soldiers. The same could be said of history - it is too important to be left in the hands of historians, even of the new and critical kind. Scholars of language and philosophy, writers, journalists and researchers of all specializations and fields, this call extends to them, to dismantle the stereotypical image of our history and uncover what is hidden behind it.
This inquiry may be painful, but we cannot avoid it forever. We cannot construct a healthy reality if we continue to wander blindly among illusions, which were created by deception in the worst case, or for the cheapest form of consolation in the best one. We cannot conquer the future while the past is holding us back.