History as Propaganda

I want terribly to engage the history of this place, to relive the ancient history of the Jewish people and fall in love with their customs and culture. The history of the Jews is my history, not just any history but the history of our salvation and the history of God’s own work. I want to join them in their reverence for this holy city of Jerusalem. But they condemn themselves with their refusal to admit their own complicity in a terrible violence; they place themselves once again in danger of God’s judgment.

Today, we traveled into Jerusalem to visit “King David’s Tower,” the base of which was built by Herod the Great himself; and to see the Burnt House Museum, which showcases the archaeological remains of a priest’s house burned in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The walk through the Burnt House begins with a video dramatization centered around the family that would have occupied this house leading up to the burning of the Temple, demonstrating along the way the tensions that existed within Judaism at the time. But it was not only a re-telling of this history–how could it be? The entire presentation was framed by current events, and the story was told in a way so as to directly legitimate the Jewish control of Jerusalem.

The presentation began with an explanation of how the burnt house came to be discovered: through a dig that began after the “liberation” of the west wall in 1967. Liberation from whom or why was not mentioned; the screen only showed video footage of Jewish soldiers falling in front of the west wall and kissing it. The presentation cut to the past, and a young man began telling the story of the ruins–a young man, as it turns out, who was the zealot son of the priest who lived in this house. I gradually became aware of a cloth that was sitting on top of the chair where he sat: a white cloth, with several blue stripes–the colors of the Israeli flag. As I watched, I realized these colors were ubiquitous, on shawls and bags and those long scarves that orthodox Jews wear around their necks (the name of which escapes me). The moral thrust of the story was that only in unity can the Jews hope to resist invading forces, condemning the division between priest and zealot that existed in the characters of the father and his son. After finishing the story of his home’s destruction, the son is reflecting on what’s happened. “I don’t know why,” he says, “but I feel we will come back here one day.” He could sense that one day there would again be children playing in the streets. The presentation concluded, then, with a quote from the Hebrew Scriptures about the restoration of Jerusalem and the Jews’ return from exile. Jerusalem would again belong to the Jews.

In another room of ruins, a sign did give more information about the war of ’67. The Jews had been banished from Jerusalem in AD 70 (did it mention the more complete expulsion of AD 135?), only to return in the 14th century. Suddenly, then, in 1948, the Arab League attacked Jerusalem and razed the Jewish Quarter. It was only in 1967 that Israel was able to reclaim the west wall and restore peace for the Jews to Jerusalem. Obviously, a few important things are missing from this account: that the war in 1947–48 was not sudden but a response by the Arab nations to the new land claim staked by the Jewish people, for example, and that 1967 was not simply about “liberation” but involved a colossal attempt at expansion, with Israel not only taking control of the west wall but also occupying the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights.

It was especially difficult for me after seeing these things to pay any attention to the history of Jerusalem. This ancient site of a terrible tragedy had been transformed into Israeli propaganda. Every tourist that walks through this place–the innocent tourist who does not know the history of the conflict–receives an unexpected lesson in Israeli ideology. It is subtle, brilliant propaganda to be sure. No one would think they were being trained to read history in a very tendentious way if they did not know what was missing from the stories or what aim was originally sought by the prophetic texts of restoration. What is a long history of oppression and disaster–for Palestinians as much as Jews–was reduced to a simple story of violent exile and liberatory return; what is God’s promise of hope for restoration based on obedience and worship was reduced to an emotional tool for political re-establishment.

It is a terrible thing to see such a tragic history being used for so much violence.

Comments (5)

  1. Nathan Myers

    This is definitely an insightful exposition on your part of the reality that all history is subjective…this sort of propoganda is engaged in by every sovereign nation-state in the world.

    It’d be fun to compare the history books of a certain time period (say, World War II) from the Axis Powers and Allied Powers and compare their different readings according to their cultural lenses.

    On a larger scale, after recognizing this, it seems clear to me that Christians are called to go beyond this awareness to place trust in God’s accounting and boundary-making in human history above all others. It immediately subverts the human agenda to God’s, and allows us to look beyond the ideological agendas, say, of the Israelis, love them, and hold them to a higher standard. Clearly there can’t be true peace there if violence continues on the surface level and propogandist rhetoric continues underneath; so we refuse to acknowledge their position as a helpful one and seek a way forward.

    This is by no means solely an Israeli problem, though this situation reveals their bias

  2. Brian Hamilton

    You’re right, Nate, that this says something about the ‘propagandist’ or at least subjective nature of re-telling history–that every re-telling is aimed at something. But I think something more insidious is going on here in Israel, which is the deliberate use of history as a form of propaganda. Every story, almost without fail, is told in a way that circles back to Israel’s national legitimation, even when the issue would seem quite peripheral. An ancient fortress where the Jews last held out against Roman destruction becomes the image of an embattled Israeli state, swarmed from every side; Israel unapologetically steals one of the oldest biblical manuscripts from Syria, and the museum exhibit cites a verse that talks about the Torah in Jerusalem as having been fulfilled; a dramatic movie about the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, at its most heart-wringing moment, announces the hope of returning to their ancient Jewish homeland. This is not merely bias, if by that we just mean the inevitably subjective take on things we all have. This is ‘history’ made part of a public relation campaign that covers up monstrous inhumanities and skews the story beyond what would even be recognizable to any Arab nation. It’s propaganda.

    That said, I think you’re right about the necessity of subverting every story in favor of God’s story. That story will and must hold them to a higher standard; it will also place them in judgment, since God’s story will always include the suffering of innocents at their hands.

  3. natedmyers


    Wow, that’s incredible/disgusting stuff! I hadn’t been aware of the specifics of their re-telling before…thanks for the info.

    Back on the wider scale, you suggested the Israeli are engaging in something insidious, the “deliberate use of history as a form of propaganda.” Again, I don’t think that’s unique at all.

    In the American public education system, history books are only approved that paint the best possible light in nearly every situation on
    America…I’m sure other countries do the same thing. Can you imagine the People’s History of the United States in a public classroom? I think not.

    That being said, I think most people around this place (YAR) would agree with our position; that peace cannot be achieved without holding Israel to a higher standard…an agreement based on a Biblically defined understanding of love. We would not be truly loving if we did not address their actions that we consider divisive and destructive.

    Yet many who would affirm this stance towards Israel’s policies would reject this position on a variety of “personal” issues because love, relationally displayed (as they define it), should show no inequity in “rights” or “power”. In other words, establishing that one believes the other is involved in a destructive action is, inescapably, just one more flavor of paternalism.

    It’s interesting that this disjuncture exists between personal relationships and actions of states (and, dare I say, the institution of the church?) in the thought of some.

    I say all this because it should be obvious to all of us that we have positions on issues that we feel are intensely important. I completely agree with you here on the Israel propaganda issue…we should have expectations for them to rise out of their actions and rhetoric for the sake of peace.
    But is there something inherently different about relationships that changes this dynamic of taking a clear position that another’s actions are unhealthy? I think not, and so I believe that in order to truly love one another, we must have expectations for one another as God has for us. Now, how we carry ourselves in those relationships mean the world to show whether we truly are loving or not, but that doesn’t deny that we have to, HAVE TO find someplace to stand or we’re rootless, subject to the whim of various cultural pressures to knuckle under to their reading of history.

  4. Brian Hamilton

    Nate, thanks for the example of American US history textbooks. Every country, especially the more powerful, tells its history in a way that makes its atrocities invisible. The fervor surrounding this form of propaganda here in Israel is astonishing though, and even Israeli press officials here and in the States have admitted that the PR campaign being waged, which has history (and now ‘terrorism’) as its focal point, is an integral part to their continual struggle against the surrounding nations and peoples.

    A note: I don’t think anyone around here would be unwilling to condemn Israel or any other society for human rights abuses, the forcible seizure of land, or any other dimension of colonialism. On the contrary, the recognition of equal human rights and dignity seems to be the quintessential aspect of justice to which every community must be held accountable. On no one’s terms does it involve any paternalism to protest these kinds of injustices, since ‘paternalism’ (as its usually used around here) mainly involves a dismissal of some other group’s basic rights (life, freedom, happiness). Admittedly, I don’t understand either how this perspective, which really just sounds like a re-statement of American democratic ideals, could be pre-theological or pre-moral as is sometimes argued here. And once it’s admitted that the current undestanding and priority of ‘equality’ is theological in a certain way, rooted in certain prior assumptions that can be disputed, I don’t understand how holding everyone accountable to this standard is not ‘paternalistic’ on their own terms.

    Yet one should understand what’s being said. Paternalism requires power and a commitment against the rights of the one being confronted. Protest against the abuses of the powerful, launched from the place of the powerless: this is not paternalism but a continuous cry of insistence on the (higher) standard of justice. Against Israel, such protest is not launched with military might or with the aim of denying the dignity of the Israelis, but by standing in solidarity with the people of Palestine and working for justice with them and on their behalf. (Please, others, correct me if I’m misunderstanding.)

  5. carl

    I also appreciate you bringing American history textbooks into the conversation, Nate. Israel certainly makes heavy use of historical propaganda, as does the United States or any other powerful country. Although I vehemently disagree with Israel’s colonialist policies, as I do with the United States’, I doubt that Israeli propaganda is exceptionally extreme or pervasive. It is quite likely to be more apparent to an American than American propaganda, particularly on a “gut reaction” level, simply because we view it from an outsider’s perspective, rather than having internalized it throughout childhood. American propaganda is no less “an integral part of [our] continuing struggle” to maintain a dominant position in the world.

    Brian, I’m always interested in conversation about the roots of moral values. I’m curious where you saw someone arguing for a particular value as “pre-moral” or “pre-theological.” I’m not clear how that’s even coherent. Every moral stance is moral and theological and based on certain prior assumptions / core values. This seems self-evident.

    Equating justice with ‘equality’ and dismissing it as nothing more than “a restatement of American democratic ideals” gives the American founders far too much credit for originality. There is a specific language of “rights” in the Western context that grew out of Enlightenment rationalism. The American founders’ ideas were also heavily influenced by the polity of the Iroquois Confederacy, which we can safely assume was not rooted in European Enlightenment thought. Would you really argue that nowhere else in the history of the world have people believed that it is better if they have enough food to eat, land to live on, freedom from captivity, etc. and perceived that if they prefer this, others likely do as well? Were Micah and Amos and Jesus also (rather anachronistically) “restating the ideals of American democracy” when they proclaimed liberation for the captives and justice for the oppressed?

    I’m happy to admit to a multitude of moral influences in my beliefs, and I think it’s naive for anyone to claim a moral sense unrelated to the culture in which they live or unaffected by their lived experience as a human being in a particular social location. Personally, though I have nothing against “equality,” it’s too abstract and pretentiously “objective” for me to name as a core foundational value. I would sooner go for “love my neighbor as I love myself” (with ‘neighbor’ defined broadly as Jesus defined it) along with a clear sense of awareness of how my life and actions impact others, not only interpersonally but through the interconnectedness of human social institutions and of all life. I try not to approach “justice” issues from an abstract faux objective moral stance, but from as clear an understanding as I can develop about how I am already personally connected to the situation, and thus what my existing responsibility might be to love my neighbor as myself.

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