Author John Green Presents Fiction About Israel as Fact

The World History Project has produced a series of short videos that utilize animation and incorporate humor with the aim of educating students on a wide variety of subjects relating to world history.  These videos have been distributed through the PBS Digital Studios YouTube network.  In one such video, “Conflict in Israel and Palestine: Crash Course World History,” popular author John Green “tr[ies] to get the facts [on the conflict in Israel and Palestine] across” in less than 13 minutes.  Notwithstanding Green’s stated aim to convey facts to his viewers, a number of Green’s claims more closely resemble a genre of writing at which he excels: fiction.

Green constructs a false binary between theology and land.

Near the beginning of the video, Green states, “let me submit that very little of this conflict between Israel and Palestine over the last several decades has been about, like, theological differences between Islam and Judaism. No one’s arguing about whether the most important prophets descended from Abraham’s son Isaac or his son Ishmael, right? It’s not about whether to fast during Yom Kippur or Ramadan. It’s about land.”  Green, here, suggests viewers should agree with his claim that the “conflict in Israel and Palestine” is not about “theological differences” because neither party is arguing about religious holidays, like Yom Kippur or Ramadan, but rather about land.  However, this view of theology and land as mutually exclusive categories fails to appreciate the extent to which land has been understood in religious terms.

In commenting on the relationship between the land of Israel, the people of Israel, and the G-d of Israel, Jewish theologian and scholar Rabbi Dr. David Novak, Professor and J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, notes that

“the optimal existence of the Jewish people is in a special land of their own.  Thus[,] the Torah teaches that just as G[-]d chose the people Israel to be his special covenanted people, so did G[-]d choose the land of Israel to be the locus of that covenant in the world, that is, the place (maqom) where the covenant is to be lived primarily.  Thus[,] a rabbinic comment compares the chosenness of the people Israel and the chosenness of the land of Israel: ‘G[-]d said to Moses that the land is precious [haviva] to me … and [the people] Israel is precious to me … I shall thus bring Israel who is precious to me into the land that is precious to me.’”[1]

The late scholar Robert Wistrich, who was Professor of European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has observed how Jewish sovereignty over the land of Israel has posed a challenge to radical Islamist theology:

“The emancipation of Jews in Israel/Palestine from Muslim rule by 1948 was a theological-political problem of the first magnitude.  It came to haunt Islamic fundamentalists precisely because of its symbolic importance.  Muhammad’s early victory over the Jews was traditionally seen as a prelude to Islam’s impending world conquests and future ascendancy.  However, repeated Muslim military defeats by Jews after 1948, the fact of Israel’s political independence and its rule over a sizable Muslim population—not to mention the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967—seemed to signal the opposite trend.  It was as if Islamic civilization itself was beginning to unravel.”[2]

Green downplays the role of religion in Israeli-Palestinian conflict with insufficient evidence

Moreover, a number of scholars have observed that religion has played a significant role in the conflict.

For example, the scholar Meir Litvak, Professor at the Department of Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University, observes,

“The religious idiom has always played an important role in the evolution of Palestinian nationalism and in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  In the past, however, it was mostly the nationalist Palestinian elites—the notables during the British Mandate and the Fatah movement since the early 1960s—that employed the Islamic symbols and themes in order to mobilize popular support for the national cause, whose aims were largely political and secular.  Various Arab rulers have also used Islam as an instrument for their policies in the conflict.  The rise of political Islam in the Middle East and particularly within the Palestinian national movement represents a change from past patterns […] [T]his process has led to a new perception of the root causes and essence of the conflict as a war of religion.  In addition, the religious perspective as articulated by Hamas provides a motivation for a new type of struggle and the rejection of opposing approaches and solution.”[3]

Despite Green’s claims to the contrary, religion continues to play an important role in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  As alluded to in the passage above, a major Palestinian terrorist organization (Hamas) dedicated to the destruction of Israel and responsible for murdering numerous Israeli civilians and precipitating multiple conflicts with the State of Israel self-identifies as the Islamic Resistance Movement while openly contradicting Green’s aforementioned claims about theology and land in stating, “The Palestinian cause is not about land and soil, but it is about faith and belief.”

Green laments that “portraying the conflict as […] religious makes it feel intractable in a way that, frankly, it isn’t.”  Green dislikes the feeling of intractability that he believes is fostered by portraying the conflict as religious, but disliking this feeling of intractability does not reduce or eliminate the role religion continues to play in the conflict.  In fact, by ignoring the religious motivations of important actors in the conflict, like Hamas, one arguably makes the conflict that much more intractable by obscuring the very factors that need to be addressed in order to resolve the conflict.

Green omits important historical context for understanding the origins of Zionism.

Given that Green indicates at the outset of the video that his analysis of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis “follow[s] the lead of historians like James Gelvin,” it is perhaps not surprising that Green’s analysis, like Gelvin’s, includes omissions of historical context and inaccuracies.  Green contends that Theodor Herzl, living in a “hyper-nationalistic” milieu, “became convinced that the Jewish people needed to leave Europe and settle their own state.”  This explanation for Herzl’s motivation fails to account for the expectation of Jewish return to the land of Israel found in biblical and rabbinic texts as well as Jewish liturgical practices, all of which long predate the rise of modern nationalism.  Moreover, Green omits the fact that factors beyond nationalism contributed to Herzl’s belief in the need for Jews to have a state of their own.  For example, the scholar Anita Shapira, Professor Emerita of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, has noted how resentment toward Jews, or antisemitism, not simply nationalist ideas, contributed to Herzl’s belief in the necessity of a state for Jews.[4]

Green mischaracterizes Jewish acquisition of land in British Mandate Palestine.

Green claims that between 1920 and 1939, “the growing Jewish population focused on purchasing land from absentee non-Palestinian Arab landowners and then evicting Palestinian farmers who were living and working there,” leaving viewers with the impression that Jews purchasing land evinced little concern for others living there.  However, this picture Green paints could not be further from the truth.  As the scholar Mitchell Bard points out,

“Jews actually went out of their way to avoid purchasing land in areas where Arabs might be displaced.  They sought land that was largely uncultivated, swampy, cheap, and—most important—without tenants.  In 1920, Labor Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion expressed his concern about the Arab fellahin, whom he viewed as ‘the most important asset of the native population.’  Ben-Gurion said[,] ‘under no circumstances must we touch land belonging to fellahs or worked by them.’  He advocated helping liberate them from their oppressors.  ‘Only if a fellah leaves his place of settlement,’ Ben-Gurion added, ‘should we offer to buy his land, at an appropriate price.’”[5]

Green engages in victim-blaming in terms of Arab hostility to Jewish land purchases.

Commenting on Jews purchasing land in British Mandate Palestine, Green claims, “By controlling both the land and the labor, they hoped to establish a more secure community within Palestine, but of course, these practices heightened tensions between Jewish people and Arab Palestinians during the 1920s and the 1930s.”  By suggesting that Jewish attempts “to establish a more secure community within Palestine” would “of course” lead to “heightened tensions,” Green effectively blames Jews for the tensions between the two communities and suggests that such tensions were an inevitable outcome of Jewish activities.  However, such tensions were not inevitable nor can they be blamed primarily on Jews.  Indeed, as Bard notes,

“The Peel Commission’s report [to investigate an outbreak of Arab attacks against Jews instigated by local Palestinian leaders] found that Arab complaints about Jewish land acquisition were baseless […] The report concluded that the presence of Jews in Palestine, along with the work of the British administration, had resulted in higher wages, an improved standard of living, and ample employment opportunities.”[6]

The “heightened tensions” to which Green refers, thus, do not appear to have been caused by Jews themselves, who suffered the brunt of violent attacks from Arabs; rather, the Peel Commission’s report observed many positive consequences that Jews brought to the region by virtue of their presence and activities.

Green fails to mention the Holocaust.

Green asserts, “The Zionists were angry at Britain for limiting Jewish immigration at a time when Jews particularly needed to leave Europe, and the Arab Palestinians were unhappy about the prospect of waiting ten years for a state.”  Left out of Green’s account here and throughout the video is any mention of antisemitism or the Holocaust.  Green leaves viewers to wonder about why Jews sought to escape Europe.  The scholar Barry Rubin helpfully fills this lacuna, asserting, “[A]fter the Nazis took power in Germany, when far more Jews were seeking a safe haven, British policy limited immigration, most notably in the 1939 White Paper with which Britain sought to gain political favor in the Arab world.  This last restriction was indirectly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews trapped in Nazi-ruled Europe.”[7]

Green omits Palestinian collaboration with Hitler during World War II.

Green does briefly mention World War II, but only to misleadingly underscore how this time period “was actually quite a peaceful time in Palestine.”  This statement by Green completely elides the warm relationship and collaboration between Palestinian leader Hajj Amin al-Husaini and Adolf Hitler.  In a meeting with Hitler,

“[Al-Husaini] thanked the German dictator for long supporting the Palestinian Arab cause.  The Arabs, he asserted, were Germany’s natural friends, believed it would win the war, and were ready to help.  Al-Husaini explained his plan to Hitler.  He would recruit an Arab Legion to fight for the Axis; Arab fighters would sabotage Allied facilities while Arab and Muslim leaders would foment revolts to tie up Allied troops and add territory and resources for the Axis […] When the day of Germany victory came, [Hitler told al-Husaini] Germany would announce the Arabs’ liberation.  The grand mufti would become leader of most Arabs.  All Jews in the Middle East would be killed.  When al-Husaini asked for a written agreement, Hitler replied that he had just given him his personal promise and that should be sufficient.”[8]

In other words, if the Nazis were to have been victorious against the Allies, the level of Nazi-supported Arab genocidal violence against Jews might have been quite significant.  To sanitize this period of time in Palestine by claiming it was “peaceful” is to overlook the collaborative efforts between Palestinian and Nazi leadership during this period.

Green excuses Arab rejection of the Jewish state.

Green asserts that, “in November of 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into separate Palestinian and Jewish states. The Partition Plan called for two states roughly equal in size, but the borders looked like a jigsaw puzzle. I mean, you do not look at this map and think, ‘Yeah, that’s going to work.’”  The fact of the matter is that members who voted in favor of the United Nations partition plan and Jews in the land who accepted the plan thought the plan could work even though, as Bard points out, “The Jews of Palestine were not satisfied with the small territory allotted to them by the Commission, nor were they happy that Jerusalem was severed from the Jewish State.”[9]  It was, thus, not so much a matter of the geographic dimensions of the partition of Palestine being unworkable as Arabs being “unwilling to accept a Jewish state in Palestine”[10] in any form.

Green fails to identify the causes of wars against Israel.

Green asserts that “soon after the [partition] plan was announced, the cleverly named 1948 Arab-Israeli War broke out, with Israel on the one side and the Palestinians and many Arab states on the other,” failing to note that this war resulted, as was mentioned above, from Arab “unwillingness to accept a Jewish state in Palestine.”[11]  Similarly, Green fails to attribute the causes of the 1967 Six-Day War to Israel’s enemies, using inaccurate even-handed-sounding language in stating, “Over the next 18 years, nothing changed territorially, and then, in 1967, Israel and several Arab states went to war again.”  However, as Rubin notes,

“The high level of tension and competition among Arab regimes to prove their militant opposition to Israel led to a major crisis in 1967.  The Soviets, to make the Arabs feel that they needed Moscow’s help, falsely charged that Israel was about to attack Syria.  Meanwhile, Nasser, insisting on his eagerness to confront Israel, allied Egypt with Syria and Jordan and then demanded that the UN force patrolling the Sinai since the 1956 war be removed.  The United Nations immediately complied, making possible an Egyptian advance to Israel’s border.  Nasser also imposed a total blockade on Israeli shipping at the Straits of Tiran, regardless of the U.S. promise in 1956 that it would ensure Israeli passage through the straits and also of Israel’s assertion that such a step would be a cause for war.”[12]

Green mischaracterizes disputed territory as “Palestinian” and misrepresents law

Green claims that “the Israeli government began to establish Jewish settlements in what had been Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. There are now over 350,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and over 200,000 in East Jerusalem, and these settlements are illegal, according to international law, but Israel counters by saying that they aren’t really illegal because Palestine isn’t really a state.”  Green’s identification of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip as “Palestinian” is inaccurate.  It would be more accurate to characterize the West Bank and East Jerusalem as “disputed territories.”  As Bard explains, “In the case of the West Bank [and East Jerusalem], there was no legitimate sovereign because the territory had been illegally occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967,”[13] so the land has never belonged to Palestinians.  Also, Green unqualifiedly claims these “settlements are illegal,” yet as Nicholas D. Kristof correctly stated in the New York Times, “many international legal scholars suggest that Israel’s occupation of the territories is not itself illegal.”  In fact, legal scholar George P. Fletcher, the Cardozo Professor of Jurisprudence at Columbia University School of Law, has similarly written in the New York Times that “it is not illegal for victorious powers to occupy hostile territory seized in the course of war until they are able to negotiate a successful peace treaty with their former enemies.”  These “settlements” might, therefore, be legal.

Green inaccurately describes the origins of the first and second intifadas.

Green states, “By the late 1980s, Palestinians launched the first intifada, which literally means ‘shaking off.’ And this began with, like, boycotts of Israeli products and services and refusing to pay Israeli taxes, but when the Israeli armed forces cracked down on protesters, violence ensued.”  Green’s description here leaves viewers with the impression that Palestinians engaged in legitimate protests were illegitimately attacked by Israeli authorities.  However, as Rubin makes clear, the beginning of the first intifada involved the propagation of misinformation about an accidental vehicular collision, not an illegitimate Israeli military crackdown on protesters.[14]

Similarly, Green inaccurately describes the beginning of the second intifada in the following words,

“[T]he Clinton talks failed; Ehud Barak’s government was undermined, and then, in September of 2000, prime minister candidate Ariel Sharon led a group of 1,000 armed guards to the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. To Muslims, this is known as the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and it’s the third-holiest site in Islam, behind only the Kaaba in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. And it’s the holiest site in Judaism, so in short, it’s a pretty touchy place to march to with 1,000 armed guards.”

Green’s claim that Ariel Sharon traveling with armed guards to the Temple Mount precipitated the second intifada is inaccurate.  As Rubin notes,

“The September 28, 2000, one-hour visit of Likud leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif compound in Jerusalem’s Old City provided both pretext and occasion for starting the uprising.  Barghouti’s Tanzim group in Fatah led the uprising with Arafat’s support.  Arafat chaired coordinating meetings, which included Hamas.  Barghouti later explained, ‘I knew that the end of September was the last period’ before the uprising could occur, ‘but when Sharon reached the al-Aqsa Mosque, this was the most appropriate moment for the outbreak of the intifada.’”[15]

Thus, plans for an intifada had already been underway before Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount.

Conclusion

As is evident from the above analysis, Green makes a number of errors of commission and omission in the brief video “Conflict in Israel and Palestine.”

  • Green misconstrues relationship between theology and land
  • Green deemphasizes religion’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
  • Green omits important historical context relating to Jewish history and Israel.
  • Green’s descriptions of episodes in Israel’s history include inaccuracies.
  • Green offers apologetics for Arab intransigence.
  • Green mischaracterizes territory as “Palestinian” and misrepresents law

The video, thus, fails to provide students with an accurate understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.

[1] David Novak, Zionism and Judaism: A New Theory, Cambridge University Press, pp. 139-140

[2] Robert S. Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, Random House, p. 48

[3] Meir Litvak, Middle Eastern Studies, “The Islamization of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: The Case of Hamas,” January 1998, pp. 148-163

[4] Anita Shapira, Israel: A History, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p. 17

[5] Mitchell Bard, Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, p. 19

[6] Bard, Myths and Facts, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, pp. 19-20

[7] Barry Rubin, Israel: An Introduction, Yale University Press, p. 19

[8] Barry Rubin & Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Yale University Press, p. 7

[9] Bard, Myths and Facts, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, p. 27

[10] Bard, Myths and Facts, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, p. 33

[11] Bard, Myths and Facts, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, p. 33

[12] Rubin, Israel, Yale University Press, pp. 30-31

[13] Bard, Myths and Facts, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, p. 82

[14] Rubin, Israel, Yale University Press, pp. 44

[15] Rubin, Israel, Yale University Press, pp. 57