When fact is narrative and narrative is fact

There’s a surprisingly simplistic and confused article by Shlomo Avineri in today’s Ha’aretz. I’ve never been a big fan of Avineri’s middle-of-the-road politics, but I always thought him to be smart. Not any more.

I assume it’s the ravages of age – and far be it for an old fart like me to hold that against anyone. Avineri was a professor at the Hebrew U when I was a student there (or was that the period he was DG of the Foreign Ministry?) My fucking memory is shot. Either way, the dude has got to be pretty ancient.  But that doesn’t excuse his writing crap.

The gist of Avineri’s thesis is that there are historical facts and there are narratives. The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 is fact, he says, while the transfer of German land to Poland by Versailles, the internationalization of Danzig and so on – i.e. the events that preceded that historical fact and which the Germans regarded as justification – are narrative.

Likewise, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 is fact, according to Avineri, while the embargo on steel and oil that preceded it, imposed by the US, Britain and Holland, is Japanese narrative.

The point that Avineri is making is not purely theoretical, of course. The title of his article is “The truth should be taught about the 1948 war,” and the telling point, following the German and Japanese examples, is that “in 1947, the Zionist movement accepted the United Nations partition plan, whereas the Arab side rejected it and went to war against it.”

There is a third leg to Avineri’s stool: post facto grievances. The Germans, he says, complain about the post-1945 expulsions without mentioning that it was Germany that went to war against Poland. Likewise, the Japanese complain about Hiroshima, without mentioning the attack on Pearl Harbor. And, of course – the killer point – the Palestinians bitch about the nakba, without remembering that they themselves rejected the two-state solution in 1947.

The eminent professor rejects such historical amnesia. “That is not a ‘narrative,’ it is simply not telling the truth,” he writes. “Effects cannot be divorced from causes.”

It seems pretty straightforward; Avineri is on safe ground with his German and Japanese analogies. But what about situations that are a little less simple?

The discerning reader will notice that Avineri didn’t mention the Israeli attack on Egypt and Syria in June 1967. His memory is probably as shot as mine is. So, let me pose the question: in 1967, was the Israeli attack the historical fact, while the closure of the canal to shipping that preceded it is simply the Israeli narrative? Somehow, I doubt whether that is what Avineri had in mind.

And even his example of the 1947 partition plan has its complications. Historical documentation has come to light in recent years, including letters Ben Gurion sent to his son,  indicating that the Zionist acceptance of partition was more tactical than strategic; that the leadership of the incipient Jewish state never intended to actually honor partition but thought it tactically necessary to accept the UN plan.

Does the Avineri approach hold that only the act is fact and not the plans or the intentions underlying the act? Even the law recognizes that conspiracy in the absence of the act itself is a crime. But not Professor Avineri, apparently.

And who is to judge which fact is THE fact. In the early Forties, the Japanese regarded the oil embargo as a critical threat to their national existence; as the casus belli. And, lest we forget, the Israeli position is that THE fact in pre-war 1967 was the closure of the canal to Israeli shipping and other acts that Israeli regarded as provocative. The subsequent Israeli attack was merely a preemptive reaction.

So, the fact in 1939 and 1941 – the actual attack – is not the fact in 1967, when it’s Israelis doing the attacking. Unless, of course, Avineri, in his ripe old age, is coming out against the national consensus.

That would be nice, but somehow I doubt that it’s the case. So what we’re left with is the fact (not the narrative) that Avineri’s article is simplistic nonsense.