Every year thousands of “political tourists”, most often Christians affiliated with liberal churches in North America and Europe, visit Israel and what they call “Palestine.” The purpose of these visits, in their words, is to “learn about the conflict directly,” since, they contend, their “hometown newspapers only print one side.” Israel's side, that is.
In spite of their claim of being exposed almost exclusively to “one side,” these same tourists are regularly quite adept at reciting a litany of fictions that lend credence to the “other (Palestinian) side.”
They are able to recapitulate an assortment of false notions about the conflict. Some of these notions come in their luggage, as it were; others are acquired on the ground during their visit in Palestinian territories. There is no doubt that the uncritical acceptance of these fabrications strengthens their support of the Palestinian narrative.
Here are ten of the most egregious statements iterated by political tourists concerning the history of the Land of Israel, the City of Jerusalem and the Jewish People, each one followed by its corrective:
FICTION 1: The Palestinians are the descendants of the Canaanites whose land this was before it was invaded and stolen from them by the Israelites.
In fact, Canaanite culture disappeared nearly a thousand years before the Common Era and no population today can in good conscience lay claim to descending from this ancient people.
FICTION 2: Palestine, similar to Egypt and Greece, has been a country for thousands of years.
In fact, Palestine was never a country, or sovereign geo-political entity. This name, taken from “Philistina,” was imposed upon Judea by the Roman King Hadrian in 135 C.E. in an attempt to minimize Jewish identification with the Land of Israel. Since then, until 1948 and the creation of the State of Israel, Palestine has remained a geographic region ruled by a larger nation or empire, analogous to the Appalachian Region of the United States.
FICTION 3: Jesus was a Jew by religion, but he identified as a Palestinian.
In fact, the name “Palestine” was only applied to the area over a hundred years after Jesus’s lifetime. This claim is a complete anachronism.
FICTION 4: Prior to Israel's rebirth in 1948, the Palestinians constituted a large population and developed a flourishing agrarian economy based mainly on the cultivation of olives, grapes and wheat which was destroyed by the Zionist invasion.
In fact, Palestine, for centuries and until the late nineteenth century, stood relatively unpopulated, as testified to by a number of Holy Land pilgrims.
In 1856 traveler Henry Baker Tristram said of Palestine "A few years ago the whole Ghor (Jordan Valley) was in the hands of the fellaheen, and much of it cultivated for corn. Now the whole of it is in the hands of the Bedouin, who eschew all agriculture...The same thing is now going on over the plain of Sharon where....land is going out of cultivation and whole villages rapidly disappeared....Since the year 1838, no less than twenty villages there have thus erased from the map, and the stationary population extirpated."
Of his 1867 visit, Mark Twain writes: “Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. Palestine is desolate and unlovely – Palestine is no more of this workday world.”
Muslims who invaded the area in the 7th century from the desert lands to the east devastated much of the agricultural economy that had existed up until that point. From then until the return of the Jews in the late 19th century, the region was largely a wasteland, whose meager population struggled to survive.
FICTION 5: Jerusalem, the historic capital of Palestine, receives its holy status from the Koran.
In fact, Jerusalem is never mentioned in the Koran. It is alluded to one time. Jerusalem has only served as the capital of Israel, from the reign of King David until the years 70 C.E., and never again until May 1948.
FICTION 6: The majority population in Jerusalem was always Muslim.
In fact, Jews have constituted the largest ethnic group in Jerusalem since 1820. This is proved by research compiled by the media watchdog group, CAMERA.
According to Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, "In the second half of the nineteenth century and at the end of that century, Jews comprised the majority of the population of the Old City ...’ (Jerusalem in the Nineteenth Century).
Martin Gilbert reports that 6,000 Jews resided in Jerusalem in 1838, compared to 5,000 Muslims and 3,000 Christians (Jerusalem: Rebirth of a City).
Encyclopedia Britannica of 1853 ‘assessed the Jewish population of Jerusalem in 1844 at 7,120, making them the biggest single religious group in the city.’ (Terence Prittie, Whose Jerusalem?).
FICTION 7: Palestinian Arabs who have lived here for thousands of years were mostly Muslims.
In fact, following the Bar Kochba Revolt in 132 C.E. the population of “Palestine” (Judea) consisted of three groups: Jews who had survived the decimation and were allowed by the Romans to remain, a growing population of the new Christian religion, and other small religious sects and pagans.
Islam was founded in 610 CE and only reached Jerusalem, or the Roman “Aelia Capitolina,” with the Muslim westward conquest in 638 CE
FICTION 8: The Jewish temples, the First Temple built by Solomon and the Second Temple built following the Jews return from Babylon, never existed.
In fact, the remains of both temples, along with a plethora of period artifacts have been uncovered in Jerusalem and continue to be excavated under the Israel Antiquities Authority.
FICTION 9: The Western wall bordering Herod’s temple compound, now considered the holiest existing structure in Judaism, is a section of an Islamic mosque.
In fact, the Western Wall was originally erected as a retaining wall by Herod the Great. It was part of his expansion of the Second Jewish Temple compound. This construction took place over half a millennium before the founding of Islam.
FICTION 10: The Muslims who ruled Palestine treated the Jewish minority beneficently and the two religious populations lived side-by-side in harmony until the rise of political Zionism.
In fact, under Islamic rule Jews had the status of dhimmi. Dhimmi was the name applied by the Arab-Muslim conquerors to indigenous non-Muslim populations who surrendered to Muslim domination. Contrary to its meaning, “protected,” dhimmi populations were, by definition, second class citizens and suffered from numerous forms of prejudice and limited human rights.
ALTHOUGH NONE OF THESE LIES HAS A HISTORICAL BASIS, they tend to sound plausible to those with an average Western college education. How is this so? In this case, as in the case of many social phenomena, there is more than one causal factor. Here are three.
THE FIRST CAUSE is explained by the doyen [prominent and respected teacher] of Middle-Eastern History, Professor Bernard Lewis, who laments that “American (liberal arts) students are no longer required to do history, not even general history. They do ‘social studies.’”
There is therefore little reason to assume that most overseas visitors have a grasp of historical developments over the last century leading to the current conflict. How much more so regarding the events of five-hundred, a thousand and two thousand years ago?
The majority of political tourists are unfamiliar with the antiquity of the region. It is understandable that they are receptive to the first statements they encounter offering a plausible history and an accounting of the present. If their primary interlocutors present the Palestinian viewpoint, it is that contrived version of history that becomes their filter for all subsequent information.
A SECOND CAUSE is revealed by Stephanie Gutmann, Hillel Halkin, and Matti Friedman. All three are respected journalists and authors who have spent a long time observing and writing about Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. Each makes a strong case for the influence of Western mainstream media on current perceptions and beliefs about the conflict. Their evidence comes from their personal interaction in the field with other Western journalists as well as their analyses of thousands of news stories filed over the years.
Contrary to the contention of virtually all political tourist groups, the fact of the matter is that Western media are complicit in favoring the Palestinian narrative. They do so “between the lines” when reporting on news events, and at times even more openly.
Inevitably, irrespective of specifics, coverage of this conflict is framed as “the oppressed Palestinians versus the oppressor Israel.” With time, this biased reporting has led to a pervasively negative image of the Jewish state. It has engendered an atmosphere in which many people unquestioningly accept Palestinian contentions whether these are about the past or with regard to current events. In other words, “If a Palestinian tells me that his family had lived continuously in the same village for over a thousand years until the Zionists came and expelled them, there is no reason to doubt him.”
A THIRD CAUSE that cannot be ignored is latent anti-Semitism.
Many Christians subscribe to a “supersessionist” or “replacement” version of biblical history. According to this narrative, perfidious Jews forfeited their special relationship with God and lost their right as a nation to the Land of Israel. As punishment, and as proof of their iniquity, they were brutally defeated and expelled by the Romans and replaced by others. The Land is no longer theirs. The fictional Palestinian version of history fits neatly with this doctrine.
Ignorance, bias and theological animus cooperate to lend credibility to a completely bogus version of history. All of the 10 fictions above are easily refuted by basic history textbooks.
But political tourists are often so emotionally wedded to the Palestinian narrative they willingly accept these falsehoods as truths, never testing their veracity. When those falsehoods are clearly refuted, the reaction is often an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. A common salve is the rationalization that facts are subject to interpretation, are they not?
The answer is an emphatic no. In context, facts are a faithful witness to the truth. And regardless the discomfort, interpretation is always subject to the truth.