History and Narrative

FEBRUARY 20, 2017


When we look at the dynamics of conflict, there are a number of important factors which can contribute to the continuation of a conflict, but can also contribute to its resolution and reconciliation between the two sides. Among these factors are History and Narrative. This article will start by trying to define both history and narrative, looking closely at their similarities and differences, and especially how they relate and operate in a conflict situation. The focus will primarily be on narrative, and we will look at some practical examples of how narrative is expressed by Israelis and Palestinians, the challenges they pose, and how these challenges can be overcome.

What is History? What is Narrative?

Traditionally history and narrative have been considered two separate entities, but in reality, they are connected and in many ways cannot be separated from each other. History is the study of the human past, with special emphasis on the written or recorded events (rather than the legends and myths that are a part of earlier, oral traditions). This is because it is thought that recorded events are able to show more accurately what actually happened in the past since there is written evidence. This is connected with another important aspect of history: it strives to be an objective, neutral, and scholarly account of the past. Ideally, nothing should be assumed, as evidence or historical fact must be given to prove something in history, whereas in the oral tradition of storytelling, the very telling of the story itself is evidence that it is true.

This is where history differs from narrative, because narrative, by definition, is concerned with storytelling. There have been numerous definitions of narrative, but put most simply, it is “Someone telling someone else that something happened.” (1) This is the difference: while narrative tells, history has to prove. This is not to say that history does not tell, or that narrative does not prove, but generally speaking this distinction can be made.

Recently, however, this notion of history as a totally objective, unbiased account of what happened in the past with no relation to narrative has been challenged. Many historians, influenced by the poststructuralist critique, have come to understand history differently and have begun to recognize the influence of narrative on history. For some of them, objectivity is impossible, and thus not a desirable goal. All we have are stories and myths. Others have argued that even if absolute objectivity is not possible, it is still worth working towards, and that there is still a difference between history and narrative, although the distinction is not quite as clear as it once appeared.

This debate rages on among historians. However, most have come to the conclusion that balance is needed. While it is true that history is influenced by narrative, and falls short of total objectivity, it is wrong to say that no difference exists between the two. They inform each other, and are informed by each other at the same time. Indeed, there could be no history without narrative, just as there could be no narrative without history. They are separate but intertwined. Imagine history without narrative. It would be made up of statistics and graphs, with no flow or connecting story between the facts. Similarly, it is impossible to imagine narrative without history. There would be no context, it would make no sense, as it would be a story which occurs in a vacuum.

One of the most significant ways in which narrative informs who we are is by influencing our identity. On both the individual and group levels, our identity is to a large extent shaped by the narrative we have been told, and/or the narrative we adopt for ourselves. “[T]here has been a recognition that narrative is central to the representation of identity, in personal memory and self-representation or in collective identity of groups such as religion, nations, race and gender.”(5) This relates directly to conflict, because our identity is intricately linked to our narrative (and history) as a group, which we cannot even relate to the narrative, or truth, of the other side.

For now we will abandon history, and focus on narrative, specifically the narratives of Israelis and Palestinians. Obviously, in the Israeli narrative, the Israelis are the heroes, and in the Palestinian narrative, the Palestinians are the heroes. By examining their different narratives which cover the same events in history, we should be able to gain a better understanding of their identity, and be better situated to challenge them at certain points. Furthermore, once we have looked at these two narratives, we will be able to break them down and draw some principles about narrative in general.

Elements of Narrative

As we can see, both of the narratives above are internally focused, hardly concerned with the other side, and if they are addressed, it is only to show how evil and unreasonable they are. Both of these narratives do contain historically accurate information, but the selectivity and choice of emphasis are anything but objective. Both narratives “morally exclude each other and devalue and dehumanize their enemy’s narrative. If the opponent’s narrative is described at all, it is presented as morally inferior and irrational. The enemy is depicted as faceless, as well as immoral, espousing manipulative arguments.” (7) There are a number of elements that narrative provides, as well as a number of attributes that narratives have. We shall explore these in greater detail, drawing on examples from the Israeli and Palestinian narratives.

Narrative provides Identity. We have already seen how narrative can be a very powerful tool to reinforce both personal and collective identity. This happens in a number of ways. First, most national or cultural narratives focus exclusively on positive ingroup images, and place all blame for violence and conflict on the other side. Identity also affirms the belief in one’s own victimization, and works to delegitimize the perspective of the opponent. Both Israelis and Palestinians see themselves as the true victims of the conflict, and see the other side as the aggressor. This belief is maintained on both sides by their narratives of the historical past, and is ‘proved’ once again every time the conflict escalates. (8)

Narrative provides Legitimacy. In conflict, legitimacy is one of the most crucial resources. If either side loses their legitimacy, at least in their own eyes, they automatically lose the conflict. This is because each side’s ‘case’ is built on their legitimate claims and grievances, and these have to be grounded in narrative. “History is the reservoir of resentment, the fount of blame. History legitimizes; history thus sanctifies . . . Without an acceptable recourse to the past, gaining legitimacy for rebellion and hostility, plus terror, is impossible. No contemporary cause, however implausible, achieves widespread following without such legitimation.” (9) For both Israelis and Palestinians, the proof of why they are right and the other side is wrong is found in the past just as much (if not more) as it is found in the present.

Narrative provides Functional Truth. Functional truth is a partial truth that serves a purpose first and foremost, such as offering legitimacy, and only serves the truth as a secondary condition. For example, the Israeli and Palestinian narratives both claim to be the definitive truth, but are both one-sided, biased views. However they do serve a purpose: they strengthen the claims and further entrench the victimization of both sides. A functional truth, does not necessarily tell a true history but rather describes a past that is useful for the group to function and even exist. It is a story that is biased, selective, and distorted, that omits certain facts, adds others that did not take place, changes the sequence of events, and purposely reinterprets events that did take place. In short, it is a narrative constructed to fit the current needs of the group. (10)

Narrative provides a Zero-Sum Mentality. Because of the way conflicting narratives are set up, they usually lend themselves to establishing a zero-sum mentality on both sides. This is because the divergent narratives both deal with the same events and the same history, but draw radically different conclusions. Any conclusion different than one’s own is seen as a challenge, and as we have already seen, there is so much depending on the narrative (identity, legitimacy, etc.) that when any of it is challenged, we feel that all of it is challenged. “Palestinians and Jews each believed that acceptance of the other’s identity would negate both their own case and their own identity. Each side believed that if it were to be considered a nation, the other could not be considered one. Acknowledging the other’s nationhood was seen as accepting that group’s right to establish a national state in the contested land, which in turn was believed to weaken one’s own claim for the same land.” (11)

Narrative is Collective. A narrative account is not always collective, but when it concerns the narrative of a people or group it is by definition a collective endeavor, and functions in the same way a personal narrative would function. In fact, the two often become one, as we connect historical events from the distant past to more recent events and to our own personal experiences. Therefore, “the body of a collective historical narrative appears to entail both memories of past events . . . as well as memories of more recent, conflict-related events. These more recent memories, some of them personal memories that intertwine with the collective memory pool, turn into historical memories the longer a conflict lasts. They exert a powerful force in shaping present-day attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors.” (12) Also, as the narrative is collective it serves as a unifying factor. This is how Jewish people from all over the world, who have little in common with each other, are still able to connect to the story of Masada. In the same way, Palestinians from South America to the West Bank are able to relate to the collective memory of the Nakba, whether they actually experienced it or not.

Narrative is Selective. Narrative faces the same problem as history in one important respect: they both have to deal with the problem of selection. In both narrative and history, selection is inevitable because there is no way to record everything that happened. Whereas in history, however, this is typically seen as unfortunate and an obstacle to discovering the whole truth about the past, in narrative, selection is used deliberately in order to glorify one side and vilify the other. While this process is deliberate, it is often unconscious; what is important for one narrative will not be worth mentioning in the other. “The two narratives butt up against each other. They view similar events from different angles. They dispute the relative importance of the events themselves and the selection of the particularly chosen turning points.” (13) No matter how objective we may think we are, our narrative is always colored by who we are. “Selection of details to be told and personas to be characterized, interpretations about motives, establishing the meaning of events within the general context, and even the tone of a narration will always differ.” (14) This is seen clearly by looking at Israeli vs Palestinian views on the war of 1948. While Israelis are quick to point out that Arab nations attacked Israel first, and would not mention the Israeli offensives, Palestinians would usually emphasize the fact that Israel aggressively expelled many Palestinians from their homes, and ignore the fact that Israel was in fact attacked by surrounding Arab nations.

Narrative is Useful for Motivating and Recruiting. The use of collective narrative can also be a very effective tool in motivating people and recruiting others to be on your side in a conflict. This is similar to the functional truth aspect of narrative, but it is more practical. If a narrative can portray its own side as the innocent victim, and the other side as the aggressor, people will be much more willing to vote for a more extreme leader, and commit acts of violence in the name of their people. People will commit acts of injustice in the name of their people that they would never do in their own name, for “It is enough to say ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ —and we already have a ready-made easy conscience.” (15) The narrative is a powerful tool, for it “justifies the outbreak of the conflict and the course of its development. It outlines the reasons for the supreme and existential importance of the conflicting goals, stressing that failure to achieve them may threaten the very existence of the group. It also disregards the goals of the other side, describing them as unjustified and unreasonable.” (16)

Narrative is Resistant to New Information. Whenever a narrative is created, repeated, and handed down over the generations, it grows stronger with the passing of time, and develops resistance to being challenged. The more often it is repeated (and in conflict situations it is retold often) the more it comes to be accepted as truth. Once a narrative is this firmly entrenched, it is very difficult to convince someone who believes in it that they may not be seeing the whole truth. Any new information that may challenge the narrative is automatically rejected and labeled as lies and propaganda. “When members of a society strongly adhere to a narrative, which is typical in a time of intractable conflict, they tend to absorb what fits the content of the narrative and dismiss the information that opposes it.” (17) In this way, narratives not only prevent people from seeing the situation from the perspective of the other side, something essential to reconciliation, but they also help the conflict to continue. “Narratives evolve in times of conflict, and they also contribute to its continuation, which in turn reinforces their validity and prevents their change.”(18) It is a vicious cycle that can only be broken if there is an awareness of the phenomenon of narrative.

Bridging the Gap: Narrative and History in Conflict

It is evident that Israelis and Palestinians, like all participants in conflict, both have their own narrative about the history of the conflict, who is innocent, and who is to blame. However it is not evident what is to be done in the future, especially if reconciliation is the goal. There has been considerable debate among academics on this topic, whether it is best to try and bridge the gap in the two narratives, forming them into a third, joint narrative that will serve as the foundation for reconciliation to be built on for the future, or to accept that the two narratives will never be bridged and to focus on criticism of areas of weakness in both narratives.

Some historians, like Israeli Ilan Pappe, have stressed that it is possible to bridge the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian narrative. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. One is to put a renewed emphasis on social and interdisciplinary history, rather than on political and military history. This would mean elevating firsthand, personal experience and witness accounts which cover other topics to a high and valued position. Stress should also be placed on the political and personal attempts that have been made by Israelis and Palestinians to work and live together in peace. The goal is to “install in their pantheon of heroes and heroines men and women of peace and reconciliation rather than generals and politicians of war and destruction.” (19)

Other historians, specifically Mordechai Bar-On, have pointed out that bridging the narrative gap is impossible if by bridge we mean reaching a point where both sides agree on what happened. He takes the example of the war in 1948 between the Zionists and the Palestinians as an indicative symbol of this futility. Israeli Jews will not be able to see this war as anything other than the “War of Independence,” which from their perspective, is “not only an accurate designation but also constitutive of the way that they perceive their entire collective existence.” On the other hand, Palestinians view the same events as a catastrophe, which is why they term it “Nakba” (meaning catastrophe in Arabic), which is “an accurate designation of what actually happened to them, as individuals and as a collective.” (20) Bar-On explains that not only is it unreasonable to expect this perception to change through bridging, but it is also undesirable to try and force both narratives to blend into one. He objects to bridging efforts because they lead to, in his opinion, “an attempt to reassert the ‘truth’ of one’s own narrative against the ‘falsehood’ of the other.” This is not to say that historians have no role to play in the work of reconciliation. Indeed, they should seek to challenge the exclusivity of narratives during conflict, but should focus on their own narratives, for “the demand that the opponent’s narrative be revised adds to the strife, not to its resolution. Thus, scholarly confrontations between conflicting narratives can be fruitful only if each side concentrates on self-criticism, not on condemning the other.”21

Can the gap between the Israeli and Palestinian narratives be bridged? Should it be? If so, how can it be done? Unfortunately it is beyond the scope of this curriculum and this course on reconciliation to reach a definitive conclusion to these questions. It is enough to ask them and to participate in the discussions that result from their asking. These are questions that will only be answered in the future, through the process of reconciliation. However there are three steps that can be taken in the meantime, which will aid in working towards reconciliation. The first step “is to know the narratives, the second to reconcile them to the extent that they can really be reconciled or bridged, and the third to help each side to accept, and conceivably to respect, the validity of the competing narrative.” (22)

Bridge the narratives as much as possible. As we have already seen, there are many difficulties that stand in the way of completely bridging the gap between the two opposing narratives. But this cannot and should not keep us from trying to narrow the gap as much as possible. This can be done in a number of ways: by focusing on shared history in the area of social and cultural history, and by constantly challenging our own narrative. This second point is important: we must all work to challenge our own narrative instead of telling the other side how their narrative should be challenged. This endeavor is helped whenever new evidence comes to light, such as the declassification of documents by the Israeli government, or resurfacing of documents from the archives of the Arab states. While the process of bridging the narratives may never be totally complete, we can make considerable progress in narrowing the gap, which will help with the third step.

Accept and respect the other narrative.

Once we have learned each other’s narrative, and we have attempted to bridge the gap between the two narratives, we can begin to try and understand each other’s narrative. This is an essential step towards reconciliation, for while we may never totally agree on the past, if we understand each other’s narratives, we will be able to understand each other better, and develop empathy for each other. We may disagree, but if we know why the other side thinks the way they do, if it makes sense to us based on their narrative, it becomes much more difficult for hate to develop. However, understanding is not enough. We must also accept the other narrative. This does not mean that we must agree with it, but we must accept it as valid, and respect the importance it holds for the other side. As we accept and respect each other’s narratives, we also feel acceptance and respect towards our own narrative, since it is a mutually beneficial process that moves in two directions. In this sense, our identity is affirmed and a way for reconciliation is prepared. This is essential, for “in meeting the other, we do not deny our own reality, but seek to include the reality of the other . . . within our own reality, to integrate the other’s story, point-of-view, fears, joys, and hopes within our own story. In confirming the other’s ‘presence’—or existential reality—we invite him or her to confirm our own.” (23)


In this chapter we have covered a number of things. First, we looked at History and Narrative, how they are similar and different and how they influence and are influenced by conflict. Second, we looked at the Israeli and Palestinian narratives, and then briefly analyzed some of the elements of narrative, especially in narratives of people who are in conflict. This was done in order to understand narratives better, their inner logic and function. Finally, we looked at different approaches to dealing with divergent narratives, and the strategies for reconciling them. This section is important because reconciliation is impossible without taking narrative into account. As we move forward with the process of reconciliation, it is important to keep what we have learned here in mind. We may not agree with each other, but if we understand each other, then we will have more sympathy for each other and be more willing to listen to each other. This is crucial to reconciliation.


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