Sunday, November 21, 2004

Israel and the Palestinians: Sanitizing History

I am going to write a series of posts about a very touchy topic: the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I know this topic is a real political lightning-rod that tends to inflame emotions on both sides of the argument, and I'm sure some of you are wondering if I'm crazy for even bringing the topic up. However, it is an important topic to discuss: this long-smoldering conflict is the true root of much of the instability and violence we currently have in the Middle East and beyond. If we ever find a permanent solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it will likely herald the arrival of a new era of world peace.

One real problem with having a sane discussion with people about the Israeli/Palestinian dispute is that the news and history we read about the conflict tends to be filtered through the viewpoint of the person telling it. If you talk to an Israeli, you will hear horror stories about Palestinian terrorists blowing up buses, sending suicide bombers into crowded restaurants, and killing innocent people, and if you talk to an Arab, you will hear horror stories about the Israeli army knocking down houses, shooting missiles and tank rounds at crowds of people, and killing innocent people. Who is right? Both of them: everyone loses something in a war, but nobody likes to talk about the atrocities committed by their own side. And, in this war, neither side is innocent.

I grew up in Canada, and while I was a child the only context I ever heard the word "Palestinian" used was in conjunction with the word "terrorist". I heard horrific news stories about Palestinian terrorists murdering passengers on the Achile Lauro cruise ship, blowing up airplanes, and murdering innocent people. Is all of this news valid - yes, absolutely. But, it's not the only side to the story.

The side I never heard growing up was about the Palestinian people the same age as me who had never known life outside of a refugee camp. People who grew up with little hope of having a successful career, or raising their family in peace and stability, because of the unrelenting grip of the Israeli army and the inconclusiveness around their citizenship. I also never heard about the Jewish terrorists forcing Palestinians out of their homes in the years before the formation of Israel. If you talk to an Arab, he will tell you all about this, but he will be less aware of the murderous acts committed by terrorists representing the Palestinian cause.

There is a real dichotomy between the news presented by the mainstream media here in America and that presented in the Middle East. Likewise, another dichotomy exists in the history lessons taught to children in school - teachers teach only one side to this issue, not both. A child can easily grow up learning only one viewpoint, and grow up into an adult understanding and advocating only that one viewpoint. The news media and history books grandly emphasize the good points, and gloss over the bad points based on whatever side of the argument their author is on. This dichotomy is the result of pure economics: the news media are in the business of selling newspapers, and presenting unpopular viewpoints is a good way to lose sales. Likewise history books that present unpopular viewpoints are not likely to be purchased by school officials for fear of alienating voters. The easy solution for publishers is to "tow the party line" and to present only popular viewpoints; sanitizing history and wiping clean the collective memory of society in the process.

This sanitizing of history that is being done on both sides of this dispute does neither side any good. It only serves to prolong the conflict by producing a generation of extremists with an impaired understanding of the other side's viewpoints.

To reach a permanent solution to this conflict, people on both sides of the dispute need to gain a deeper understanding of the other side's background and viewpoints. The Internet is a great enabler of this: anyone in the world can publish their thoughts and opinions, just as I publish this blog. By surfing the Internet, it is very easy to find viewpoints on all sides of an argument and to form an educated opinion of one's own. I hope that as the Internet continues to develop and more people around the world gain access to it, it will help people to gain a real understanding of the cultures in the world around them, and will help to solve disputes like the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.