By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

How one-sided historical narratives distort coverage of the Israel-Hamas war

My Northeastern colleague Laurel Leff has written a smart analysis for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz showing how two competing origin stories — one frequently told, one largely ignored — have helped tilt public sentiment toward the Palestinian side in the war between Israel and Hamas. You should be able to read her piece with free registration.

Leff looked at “more than 500 news articles and opinion pieces appearing in the U.S.’s top 50 newspapers in the six weeks after the [Oct. 7] attack that contained various combinations of terms related to the 1948 conflict.” What she found was that though the press frequently cited the Nakba — the “catastrophe” — that sent some 700,000 Palestinians into exile in 1948, references to the Holocaust are lacking, even though Israel was created for the express purpose of providing a Jewish homeland following the devastating genocide that took place at the hands of Nazi Germany.

The purpose of Leff’s analysis is not to argue that the Palestinians don’t have legitimate grievances; rather, she writes that too many people are making moral judgments as to who’s right and who’s wrong without considering the full context. Among the news organizations she cites as falling short are The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press. She writes:

Several reasons account for the Nakba’s eclipsing the Holocaust in post-October 7 American media coverage. The press likely assumes the Holocaust’s role is so baked into public understanding that it doesn’t need to be spelled out. In addition, the 1948 displacement explains events in Gaza in a way Holocaust survivors settling in Israel proper does not. Palestinian activists also seem more determined to propel their 1948 narrative into public consciousness.

Whatever the reasons, the result is a void. A powerful state controlled by Jews emerges out of nowhere and immediately persecutes and displaces Arabs living in its midst. Who the Jews are, why they are there, what they hope to create is never explicated. Into the void flows more noxious accounts, of colonial settlers who migrated to the region only to pillage and exploit, of white supremacists whose sole interest is in subjugating an indigenous population.

I hope you’ll read Laurel’s entire piece. This is a moment that calls for radical understanding. Just as we can’t overlook the reality of the Nakba and the ongoing repression of Palestinians, so, too, we must take into account the reality that 6 million Jews had just been murdered in the Holocaust, and that the world came together to create a Jewish homeland in a place to which they had ancient ties — and where hundreds of thousands of Jews were already living.

These days, the competing claims between Israelis and Palestinians appear to be beyond resolution, and perhaps they are. But we can begin by taking into account the full history, not just part of it.

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  1. Author

    Dan, the “full history” starts well before 1948, and no amount of history telling can justify the indiscriminate bombing, displacement, and killing we are all witnessing. Those are US bombs falling in civilians, US tank shells murdering journalists. Where does it end? How will telling the history one more time close this wound?

    • Dan Kennedy

      Yeah, the full history starts around 1800 BCE. We all know that.

      • Author

        You’re pretty dismissive of anything that challenges your view that Israel is an unalloyed good to the Jewish people and the world. Whereas to many people, it seems very clearly to be a violent ethnostate, that claims to speak for all Jewish people, and disowns those that speak against its violence and discrimination. Americans don’t want to co-sign bombing campaigns against people with literal sticks and knives to defend themselves.

        • Dan Kennedy

          At no time have I ever said that I support Israel’s current attack on Gaza. Nor do I support the Netanyahu government and its refusal to work for peace. But I definitely support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state within secure borders — as well as the Palestinians’ own national aspirations.

          • Author

            I think it’d be fair to ask you to go further than stating your non-support of Israel’s current attack on Gaza, and actually denounce Israel’s attack, just as you’ve demanded peace activists speak out against Hamas. All innocent and helpless people are suffering in the escalating violence. When will there have been enough bombs dropped, buildings destroyed, people killed?

          • T

            Who is actually saying Israel does not have a right to exist? The GOP seem to love that strawman. Yes there are a few extremists but I’m pretty sure most people just don’t want so man innocent Palastinians killed. And we rarely here what happened to them when the state of Israel was created. Hopefully we learn the full story but I’m glad more of the Palestinian story has entered the narrative.

        • Adam Smith

          Author, I think the correct term here is democide.

  2. Judy Kaplan

    This is an irresponsible overstatement: “Into the void flows more noxious accounts, of colonial settlers who migrated to the region only to pillage and exploit, of white supremacists whose sole interest is in subjugating an indigenous population.”

    I don’t think anyone is saying or even implying this. Sole interest? Come on.

  3. NahantJim Walsh

    Current focus on the Nabka is in response to the widely circulated myth that described the founding of Israel as “A land without a people for a people without a land.” A sense of Palestinians as equal human beings, deserving of equal human rights, on a land they have occupied for centuries, had been erased from accounts in the Middle East until recently.

    The full story may start in 1800BC for some but a more relevant understanding starts with the British Empire and its dissolution. It has been detailed in “Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire” by Caroline Elkins.

    In the film “Michael Collins” there is a scene where armored cars drive onto the field in a Gaelic football match and open fire on spectators, killing male and female, adult and child, indiscriminately, as a reprisal for the IRA targeting a group of undercover British intelligence agents working and living in Dublin. The Brits thought indiscriminate murder would teach the Irish a lesson. It did not. The resistance continued. A few weeks later the Brits burned down the center of Cork. Massive, indiscriminate killing of civilians was a standard practice throughout the Empire. The Brits thought indiscriminate murder and massive destruction would teach the Irish a lesson. Resistance would cease. It did not. Resistance continued.

    Post WWII the British international system was falling apart all over the world, including Palestine. The Jewish resistance organization, the Irgun, bombed a hotel in Jerusalem, and violence continued until, finally, a Jewish state was established in 1948.

    My main point is that some narratives are more common in some places than others. Winston Churchill is a hero in 1939 but, in Ireland and the Middle East his participation in repression of both Arabs and Jews is much more complicated.

    In our current world, the world of the 21st century, competing narratives and understandings are more common than they once were.

    It is to our benefit for us to become aware of the Nabka now rather than only, “A land without a people for a people without a land.” One is more factual the other mythical.

  4. T

    You are one of my favorites Dan but it seems crazy that you are emphasizing the supposed one-sided narrative in favor of the Palastinians now without acknowledging the extremely one-sided narrative in favor of the Israelis as long as I have been alive. They narrative would not have changed had they not bombed hospitals and civilians non-stop. Meanwhile the Sunday news on ABC was basically produced by the IDF propaganda team. I reads like you are buying into the GOP narrative.

  5. Adam Smith

    I can’t seem to be able to read the story without a paid subscription. I do think these two points you make are worth highlighting, “The press likely assumes the Holocaust’s role is so baked into public understanding that it doesn’t need to be spelled out. In addition, the 1948 displacement explains events in Gaza in a way Holocaust survivors settling in Israel proper does not.”

  6. Stephen Walker

    Good post and comments. One other elephant in the room is that Israel has nuclear weapons and usually unwavering support of the US military with aid. This is a constant implicit threat to other nations in the region.

    Also, Isreal.continues to destroy homes and displace people from West Bank, even people with proof of land ownership. Despite the Holocaust, I have a difficult time supporting the idea that someone of a particular religion is entitled to live in a place at the expulsion of all others. That is simply as fascist as Trump’s Muslim.ban.

  7. Robert Gardner

    Funny how bombing and killing 20,000 civilians including 60 or 70 journalists can “distort the narrative.” In fact the narrative has been distorted against Palestinians for decades. As Dan well knows, journalists have been targeted and their careers diminished or destroyed if they are deemed not to be sufficiently pro-Israel.

  8. Stephen Walker

    Hayes has some of the best and most ethical coverage out there. Worthy of an Emmy if not Pulitzer. Here he mentions dead and injured journalists.

    Bernie Sanders also spoke on the floor of the Senate today about the need for major changes in what is happening under IDF attacks.

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