At the heart of all societal dissonance and violence are the deeply conflicting notions of imagined history, as believed differently by diverse people. Questions of nativity, such as ‘Israel’ predating ‘Palestine’ (or vice versa), are passionately debated and aggressively disagreed upon. Basically, one land with two irreconcilable claimants—history dating back to the 13th century BC of the Egyptian Merneptah Stele going towards the two sister kingdoms of Israel and Judah—to the Biblical times of ‘Palestina’, all are made towards claims and counterclaims. The actual history may be what it was, but the taught history is what each side internalises—an exercise in selectivity, creativity, or even untruths.
Political stakes, individual emotions, and ensuing violence hinder the more academic and integrative exercise of factually comparative appreciation and reconciliation of different interpretations. The commonality of Abrahamic origins among the competing faiths is seemingly insufficient for meeting grounds. Any individual expression of an opinion on the region automatically runs the binary risk of getting labelled antisemitic or Islamophobic. Nuance, as always warranted by history and better sense, is practically impossible.
The curriculum in the books approved by Misrad Hahinukh (overseeing public education in Israel) and those issued by Palestinian authorities in the Gaza Strip and West Bank have diametrically opposite outlooks towards the Israel-Palestine issue, which gets embedded into the consciousness of individuals on both sides. While elements of the historical content may not be entirely inaccurate, they often lack full facts, underrepresent the other perspective, and present exclusively unilateral deductive narratives. The foundational curriculum doesnot promote reconciliation, appreciation of the ‘other’ perspective, or peace messages and perpetuates animosity.
What is indisputable is over 1200 years of Arab control and the subsequent Zionist movement, which in November 1947 led the United Nations to pass Resolution 181, partitioning the land into ‘Independent Arab and Jewish States’. A precursor to the still-best bet of ‘Two-State Solution’, but now disregarded by both sides amid ongoing conflicts.
The narrative of history as propagated by both sides had particularly hardened with the regime changes in both Tel Aviv and the Gaza Strip. Benjamin Netanyahu had tapped into public concerns and fears following a couple of bombings preceding Israeli elections and managed to oust Shimon Peres’s pacifist dispensation in 1996, marking the beginning of an era of hawkish and ‘muscular’ Israeli politics. Concurrently, the belligerent stridency from the Israeli side led to similar reactions of a more aggressive and militant choice in terms of Palestinian governance—people tired of a perceptibly enfeebled Fattah (who had negotiated the Oslo Peace Accords) and chose to repose faith in the more extremist option, i.e., Hamas, by 2006. The compulsions of wanting to perpetuate the hardline regimes on both sides of the fence led to each side becoming even more committed to rewriting history, which bred intolerance of each other.
Diminishing secularism, disregarding civilizational commonality, and reimagining or rewriting selective history precede mayhem, as is happening now. Unhinged leadership (be it of a sovereign like Israel or a terror group like Hamas) often forgets that the notions of history will always be contested and unagreed upon, given the deep wounds. At least the future can be jointly scripted, which is borne out of a compromise (from all sides) of the past. ‘Two-State Solution’, may not be the ideal choice for all involved, but it could be the most practical one. But by constantly invoking history (that too, selectively), the leadership is only perpetuating hatemongering; that may make great sense from a partisan perspective but hinders societal healing and progress.
There are invaluable lessons for an ancient land of unprecedented diversity like India that are given to its own civilizational prejudices, wounds, and faultlines. Therefore, the wise founders of the Indian Constitution decided to superimpose the idyll of the ‘Idea of India’. The Indian experiment in democracy deliberately chose an inclusive, progressive, and affirmative path that recognised the past but chose to dwell on and define the future more explicitly, i.e., sovereign, secular, socialist, and democratic, even when history may not always have been so. Framing the past in a certain way and allowing history to remain agreed upon (with elements of darkness and disagreements) without allowing it to dominate the national discourse is the key to progress. Intolerant and authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, North Korea, or even Israel that insist on a unilateral version of history beget tension for those in minority within. Some other places that do not obsess over history, such as the Scandinavian countries, or deny its controversial past, like Germany or Japan (for the undeniable excesses of their history), are on more sure ground for the future.
Turkey’s example shows the perils of forsaking foundational moorings for a reimagined ‘glorious history of the past’ as invested by a religio-authoritarian, Recep Erdogan, in sharp contrast to the secular and science-based preference of its founding father, Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan is re-writing history with a religious brush, and many are mesmerised by his ‘insistences of the past’, but the future hasn’t looked bleaker for Turkey ever before.
India and its vibrant democracy, with myriad political parties espousing one community, region, ethnicity, caste, etc., but rarely with a composite ‘national’ issue, are susceptible to reimagining and rewriting history. History is being weaponized with supremacist, xenophobic, or majoritarian throes that can rattle the spirit of the ‘Idea of India’. The tactics of changing names, curriculum, etc. are rooted in amplifying the past over the far more important conversations about the future. Like the ancient Israel-Palestine lands, we too are loaded with the past, both glorious and inglorious; hence, excessive reimagining of history can only be counterproductive and burdensome.
(The writer is former lieutenant governor of Puducherry and Andaman & Nicobar Islands)
(Published 12 November 2023, 18:25 IST)