The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life - Robert Trivers (2011)

Chapter 10. False Historical Narratives


False historical narratives are lies we tell one another about our past. The usual goals are self-glorification and self-justification. Not only are we special, so are our actions and those of our ancestors. We do not act immorally, so we owe nothing to anyone. False historical narratives act like self-deceptions at the group level, insofar as many people believe the same falsehood. If a great majority of the population can be raised on the same false narrative, you have a powerful force available to achieve group unity. Of course, leaders can easily exploit this resource by coupling marching orders with the relevant illusion: German people have long been denied their rightful space, so Dass Deutsche Volk muss Lebensraum haben! (German people must have room in which to live!)—neighbors beware. Or the Jewish people have a divine right to Palestine because ancestors living in the general area some two thousand years ago wrote a book about it—non-Jewish occupants and neighbors better beware. Most people are unconscious of the deception that went into constructing the narrative they now accept as true. Nor are they usually aware of the emotional power of such narratives or that these may entrain long-term effects.

There is a deep contradiction within the study of history between ferreting out the truth regarding the past and constructing a false historical narrative about it. As we have seen in this book, we make up false narratives all the time, about our own behavior, about our relationships, about our larger groups. Creating one for one’s larger religion or nation only extends the canvas. Usually a few brave historians in every society try to tell the truth about the past—that the Japanese army ran a vast, forced system of sexual slavery in World War II, that the United States committed wholesale slaughter against Koreans during the Korean War and against Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians in the Vietnam War, that the Turkish government committed genocide against its successful subgroup of Armenians, that the Zionist conquerors of Palestine committed ethnic cleansing against some 700,000 Palestinians, that the United States has waged a long campaign of genocide and murder against American Indians, from the nation’s founding to the murder by proxy of more than a half million in the 1980s alone, not counting before or after, and it has sought through military means to determine the fate of the entire New World for well over a century. But most historians will tell only some version of the conventional, self-aggrandizing story, and most people in the relevant countries will not have heard of (or believed) the factual assertions I just made.

One noteworthy fact is that the younger the recipient of the knowledge, the greater the pressure to tell a false story. So we are apt to tell our children a heroic version of our past and reserve for our university students a more nuanced view. This of course strengthens the bias, since views learned early have special power and not everyone attends college, or studies history if they do. Fortunately, the young often appear naturally to resist parental and adult nonsense, so there is at least some tendency to resist and upgrade. Just the same, there are strong pressures on professional historians to come up with a positive story, in part to undergird what is taught more widely.

Make no mistake about it. People feel strongly about these matters. One person’s false historical narrative is another’s deeply personal group identity—and what right do you have commenting on my identity in the first place? Many Turkish people may well feel that I have slandered their country regarding its Armenian genocide, while I believe I have merely told the truth. The same may be true (though less strongly) for some Japanese people regarding their country’s practice of sexual slavery during World War II. Most Americans could hardly care less. So we wiped out the Amerindians—so what? So we repeatedly waged aggressive war on Mexico and stole nearly half their country. They probably deserved it. And, yes, since then we have fought a staggering series of wars ourselves and by proxies—even recently supporting genocide in such diverse places as Central America, Vietnam, Cambodia, and even East Timor, while blocking international action against it in Rwanda—but so the hell what? Only a left-wing nutcase would dwell on such minor details. Isn’t that what great powers do, and aren’t we the greatest?

Israel is no different from any other country or group in having its own false historical narrative, and Israel’s is especially important because it exacerbates a set of troubled international and intergroup relations. The narrative is also one that is accepted almost wholesale in the United States, the most powerful military nation in the world. As the old joke goes, why doesn’t Israel become the fifty-first state? Because then it would have only two senators. Again, feelings run high. Some regard as anti-Semitic any attack on the behavior of Israel (or its underlying narrative). I regard this as nonsense and follow instead what seem to me to be the best Israeli (and Arab) historians—and their (largely Jewish) American counterparts—in describing a false historical narrative used to expand Israel at a cost to its neighbors by waging regular war on them to seize land and water (with near-constant US support), all in the name of fighting terrorism, while using state terrorism as the chief weapon. The narrative inverts reality: Israel wants only peace with its Arab neighbors (from as early as 1928), who to this very day reject peace at every turn and seek the total destruction of Israel and its Jewish population.

But what are we to do? Yes, feelings run high, but false historical narratives are a critical part of self-deception at the group level, often with horrendous effects on others—if not on those practicing them. To discuss the subject, we need examples. Are we to leave out this important topic because on any given example feelings are easily bruised and controversy aroused? I see no sense in this. A theory of self-deception is not of much use if it can’t be applied to cases of actual human importance. Of course, I am more likely to be personally biased on these topics than on, say, the immunology of self-deception, but for me the risk of appearing foolish, indeed self-deluded, is preferable to the cowardice of not taking a position.

The point of this chapter is to paint a few false historical narratives in enough detail to see clearly some of the lies we tell about our histories, how they were constructed and maintained, and the purposes they may serve. We will also consider the costs. It has famously been said that those who do not know history are destined to repeat it, or as Harry Truman put it: “The only thing new under the sun is the history you do not know.”


The false US narrative can be summarized with a few key facts, their rationalization, and the function of the rationalizations. The key fact is the slaughter and dispossession of an entire people (or set of peoples) to make room for Europeans (and their African slaves), a feat also accomplished by treaties not kept. Too late did Amerindians learn never to sign a treaty with a white man. For the latter, treaties were merely temporary agreements to be abrogated as soon as it was advantageous to do so.

It is fully apt that Christopher Columbus should have been elevated to historical status for discovering the Americas. On the one hand, he did no such thing. There were more than 100 million people awaiting him when he arrived. And ships had also recently arrived from Africa, Polynesia, Phoenicia, and even other European countries. On the other hand, Columbus was unique in that he combined exploration with an explicit plan for subjugating the locals and extracting their wealth and labor. This of course is not what he is celebrated for.

His first visit in 1492 merely allowed him to look around, and this is the one preserved in historical memory. The arrival of his three cute little ships—the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria—connoted a naive, peaceful arrival to “discover” a brand-new land. The second time (in 1493), he arrived more fully prepared: seventeen ships, at least twelve hundred men, cannons, crossbows, guns, cavalry, and attack dogs trained to rend human flesh. Yet this second visit is lost from historical memory entirely. It is the key visit, but no one mentions it.

In Hispaniola, he and his men immediately demanded food, gold, spun cotton, and access to the local women. Indians were put to work mining gold, raising Spanish food, and even carrying the Spaniards around wherever they went. Minor offenses by Indians were punished by mutilation—an ear, a nose, both hands. Failing to find gold, Columbus started slave capture and transmission on a large scale, returning to Spain with five hundred Indians (almost half dying on the way) and leaving five hundred slaves behind. He launched a reign of sadistic terror: newborns given to dogs as food or smashed against rocks in front of their screaming mothers, twenty thousand killed in Hispaniola alone, with more to come on nearby islands. Mass suicide and regular infanticide were common responses by the Indians to the horrors they were experiencing. To make a long story shorter, a mere twenty-five years later when Columbus and his immediate heirs were done with Hispaniola, its Indian population had been reduced from an estimated five million people to fewer than fifty thousand. This was a story to be repeated in North, Central, and South America except that in the mainland tropics you could never exterminate everyone, especially those living deeper or higher in the forest. Neither the invention of ships nor means of navigation allowed this conquest and holocaust to take place; it was the invention of large guns, which could be attached to sturdy ships and supported by an array of smaller guns and aggressive weapons. It was the invention of high-tech war across the sea that brought about the new wave of colonization and genocide.

The point is that our retrospective re-creation of the “founding of the Americas” minimizes the sordid details of murder, slavery, sexual exploitation, and degradation with which it began. Instead it exalts simple exploration and discovery. Thus do we deny the motives and the reality of the territorial takeover. The benefit is self-glorification and continuation of the same kind of behavior; the cost is much more long-term, depending partly on the reaction of the survivors to this kind of behavior.

The holocaust was repeated up and down the Americas: one part introduced diseases to which the local people had little or no resistance, and one part heartless slaughter—women, children, the elderly, all members of village after village after village put to the sword—in what has been described as the longest-running genocide in the world. No longer in the United States, where Amerindians were long ago wiped out with a few remnants held on “reservations,” but throughout Central and South America the slaughter of indigenous peoples continues apace. In Guatemala the renewed attacks coincided with a US-supported coup in 1953. For the next fifty years, hundreds of thousands of Amerindians were killed in generalized anticommunist warfare. During the great Spanish-imposed holocaust of the 1500s and immediately afterward, local populations were more than decimated (to 5 percent or fewer of their original numbers) due to both introduced diseases and genocidal behavior on a large scale.

An important difference between what became the United States and countries north and south of it is that the pre–United States consisted of prime temperate-zone land, with neither the cold of the Arctic nor the overwhelming biological competition in the tropics, which chiefly comes from antagonistic life forms such as diseases, both human and crop. Thus removal of the original population from this space resulted in huge opportunities for rapid growth of the new powerful European industrial system. Stealing nearly half of Mexico greatly increased the available space.

And the rationale for the genocide? Manifest destiny. Very simple. A religious and racial concept: you were destined by God to do exactly what you did. “Might makes right,” but with a more exalted ring. And the value of the rationale? Keep on doing what you are doing. Today the intellectuals rationalizing American misbehavior along these lines are fond of speaking about “American exceptionalism.” Somehow America is exempt from the usual laws of history and reality. We are the exceptional case and permitted—no, required—to act appropriately. We are the new chosen people of the Bible, as we have seen ourselves now for more than two hundred years (see the following section “Christian Zionism”).

How many of us Americans know that the Founding Fathers we venerate explicitly urged the eradication of Amerindians—genocide—by any means necessary: terror, starvation, inebriation, deliberate infection with smallpox, and outright slaughter?

• President George Washington (stated at the time of open warfare): The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.

• President Thomas Jefferson: This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.

• President Andrew Jackson: They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.

• Chief Justice John Marshall: The tribes of Indians inhabiting the country were savages.... Discovery [of America by Europeans] gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest.

• President William Henry Harrison: Is one of the fairest portions of the globe to remain in a state of nature, the haunt of a few wretched savages, when it seems destined by the Creator to give support to a large population and to be the seat of civilization?

• President Theodore Roosevelt: The settler and pioneer have at bottom, had justice on their side; this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages.

No one seems self-conscious in the slightest about the links between explicit racism, claims of divine design, and calls for “extirpation” of entire peoples—all to the advantage of one’s own people.


Most Americans have no idea how often the United States has gone to war, that is, invaded another country with its troops. For nearby countries, such visits are a regular occurrence. To take but World War I, when the United States was engaged in a major war against Germany and its allies in Europe, it still managed to invade the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Panama, and Mexico (multiple times) while permanently stationing troops in Nicaragua. Surely this is an admirable achievement. The usual rationale was instability threatening Americans and American property, but the actual function was typically to subvert local democracy in favor of American business interests. Presidents were replaced, assemblies dissolved, new and biased constitutions rushed through rigged plebiscites, and so on.

After World War I, in Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Panama, the Monroe Doctrine—the notion that the United States reigns supreme in the New World—was enforced (or, in Cuba’s case, was attempted) through armed invasions, local militias, and internal subversion. Most invasions set the stage for a series of dictators serving US interests: Batista, Trujillo, Duvalier, and Samosa. In Franklin Roosevelt’s famous words (about Samosa), “He maybe a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Of course, such a person is much more useful to you (in the short term) than someone trying to serve his own people’s interests. The long term is another matter. The replacement of Mossadegh, the Iranian nationalist, in 1953 with a puppet, the shah, may have given temporary economic benefit to the United States, but certainly it helped produce a long-term disaster.

The United States invaded Nicaragua thirteen times in the twentieth century before turning the murderous Contras loose on them in the 1980s, when the Nicaraguans finally voted for socialism. The country remains the second-poorest in the Americas, second only to Haiti, another country that has enjoyed frequent US invasions (including a twenty-year occupation). The Brazilian adventure was typical. A US-supported military coup in 1965 overthrew the democratically elected and mildly socialist government, instituting a reign of terror and laying the groundwork for similar events in Argentina and Chile, with combined mortality running into the hundreds of thousands. The US ambassador to Brazil at the time put the matter succinctly, in the best tradition of false historical narratives: The coup was “the most decisive victory for freedom in the mid twentieth century.” The “democratic forces” now in power would “create a greatly improved climate for private investment.” Thus is a false historical narrative maintained and embroidered. We start with the notion that it is our right—nay, our duty—to intervene in the internal affairs of our neighbors because we thereby create freedom, democracy, and (most important) improved investment opportunities for ourselves that we then imagine benefit the Brazilians apace. In fact, it is only now, after the military dictatorships have long withered away, that under a fully democratic (and mildly socialist) government, Brazil is making rapid economic strides in the world, much more so than is the United States.

Much more recently, George W. Bush said the United States was going to war with Iraq. Congress said they wanted evidence that Iraq was a threat. The CIA provided the evidence. Congress voted to go to war. My guess is that most Americans now remember the sequence as: The CIA provided evidence that Iraq was a threat. Based on this evidence, Bush and Congress decided to go to war. If so, a false historical narrative was born, another aggressive war turned into a defensive one.

One cost of US attachment to international intervention and war is the growth of the military-industrial complex famously warned against by President Dwight Eisenhower fifty years ago—or military-industrial-congressional complex, as he first called it. Its appetite seems insatiable; the United States alone now spends almost as much on warfare (“defense”) as the rest of the world put together. Many of the chief US export industries are military as well: fighter jets, helicopters, rifles, bullets. We arm the world at every level, from criminal gangs in our own hemisphere to entire states throughout the world. The collapse of the Soviet system gave only a temporary respite from these forces, and the United States is now spending relatively more than ever. At the same time, an enormous and very expensive intelligence system is being created.

Note that the Soviets provided a counterweight to rapacious capitalism. With their collapse, the past twenty years have seen intense American wars, an accelerated shift of wealth to the already wealthy (a trend that began a few years earlier), and gross financial thievery by the wealthy and their agents leading to near economic collapse.


A useful part of understanding false historical narratives is seeing what efforts are made to instill them in schools, and we shall try to do this for each of our examples. In the United States, high schools were first required to teach US history around 1900 as part of a nationwide, flag-waving frenzy. Although by logic, one might easily imagine that the function of teaching one’s own history would be to learn and prepare oneself for the future, the nationalistic origin reveals the deeper force that operates in country after country—toward building a positive, patriotic story, one that encourages group cohesion, self-congratulation, and superiority vis-à-vis others, a self-serving false historical narrative available to rationalize every action.

What we have now in the United States is instructive. Several huge books compete for a very large market. The average weight of each book exceeds six pounds and contains more than one thousand pages. This is partly due to pressure to mention every state and president, every event big and small, thus precluding any study of history’s larger patterns and events. To help the teacher get students to read these bloated books, multiple free teaching aids are offered, crisscrossed with organization. One book has 840 “main ideas within the main text,” 310 “skill builders,” and 466 “critical thinking” questions. No system of human thought is known to produce coherent patterns with so many variables. Students have been described as memorizing material for each chapter, only to forget it to free up neurological space for the next chapter.

In short, US history is sliced and diced right out of existence. Main themes and topics are easily lost. One book offered little more than a paragraph on all of slavery. Conflict of any kind, or even suspense, tends to be removed. The story is one in which every problem has been solved or is about to be. The present is almost never used to illuminate the past, and we learn nothing from the past that would help us with the future and very few lessons of any kind. Thus, the study of US history has become an exercise in rote memory and self-glorification, with almost no relevant learning. Not surprisingly, students routinely describe history as the most boring subject in school, easily beating English and chemistry, yet interest in history in other contexts, including general books, museums, and films, remains high.

When I was an undergraduate major in US history at Harvard in the early 1960s, the names of the texts gave away the game: The Genius of American Democracy. You did not need to read the book; the content was right there in the title. The chief problem in American historiography was: Why are we the greatest nation that was ever conceived and the greatest people who ever strode the face of the earth? Competing answers had to do with the value of a receding frontier (a benign metaphor for territorial expansion), of having upper-class Englishmen design the society, of building a country on perpetual immigration, and so on. The key is what was assumed in advance, and of course high school history texts reflect this as well: Triumph of the American NationLand of Promise , The Great Republic. Meta-message—you have a proud heritage, certainly nothing to be ashamed of, look at what the United States has accomplished and just imagine what it will soon do. Be a good citizen; be all you can be.


The pervious sections are not meant to be a representative history of the United States. US history has many virtues, among which is the fact that the US population is reconstituted every generation through a roughly 10 percent admixture by external immigration from throughout the world. Although in its history rules of immigration have favored some groups over others, all have had some opportunity. And with illegal immigration, such opportunities are sometimes greatly enhanced. From a biological standpoint, the resulting outbreeding (insofar as it takes place, as it inevitably must) will tend to be genetically beneficial. The US population is perpetually heterogeneous, about to be infused with 10 percent more genes from around the world. This continual level of in-migration, outbreeding, and cultural diversity is unusual for most countries.

One other feature of US history is highly unusual and largely positive. Its most costly war to itself—700,000 dead out of a population of about 18 million—was the Civil War, a most ironic war in that one side wished to free slaves to whom they were less related than were the slaves’ owners. The owners cared primarily about maintaining these people as their property (rather than, in some cases, their children), so they fought to maintain this right even though this sometimes harmed their own flesh and blood. In short, the Civil War was fought in great part as a moral crusade to end something that was seen as a moral evil. Loss of life was mostly suffered by European Americans and roughly equally on both sides, those fighting for justice and those against it. The later history of African Americans was in some ways more dreadful than under slavery, since not counting as property they could be hanged or “lynched” by the thousands as a form of social control. Nevertheless, the subpopulation had become strong enough by the middle of the twentieth century to begin a political and social movement that led to eventual legal liberation, and with this yoke lifted, the intrinsic benefits of strong outbreeding associated with strong selection has produced a vibrant and powerful subgroup. African Americans are the melting-pot population par excellence in the United States, genetically roughly 25 percent European in origin, 70 percent African, and the remainder Amerindian and Chinese. At the same time, social policies such as the war on drugs amount to a war on lower-class African Americans, greatly increasing incarceration rates, with destructive effects on their communities. So the racist attack continues, but in the long run it can only strengthen the biological power of its target.


In the past ten years, Japan has shown a very interesting retrogressive approach to its own past, in which critical events, sometimes formerly acknowledged, are now denied despite massive evidence to the contrary. With each opposing revelation, the denials are then tailored downward but always with the intent of minimizing official complicity in the historical crimes being assessed.

It is well documented that the Japanese government, mostly via the army, ran a vast, forced system of sexual slavery throughout conquered sections of Asia during World War II in which local women—Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Indonesians, and others—were forced, often at the point of a bayonet, to serve the sexual needs of the invading Japanese soldiers (often more than fifty men per day). They were given the euphemism “comfort women.” The matter was well researched immediately after WWII based partly on interrogation of Japanese prisoners in connection with possible war crimes. Dutch investigators described the forcible seizure of Indonesian women, who were beaten, stripped naked, and then forced to sexually service large numbers of Japanese soldiers every day. Their sufferings were vividly described by some of the women themselves who had long hidden the true facts in shame but spoke out in the early 1990s, when the Japanese government initially refused to acknowledge the crime, much less make any amends. And of course this is one of the benefits of denial: the lack of any need for restitution.

Initially, the Japanese government was forced to accept these conclusions as part of a peace treaty signed with the Allied powers in 1951. It was thus more difficult later to deny them, but conservatives (nationalists) do deny the tribunals’ conclusions, calling them “victor’s justice.” They assert that the role of teaching history is not to dwell on the dark and “masochistic” side but to teach history, however false, in which Japanese can feel pride. This is exactly what a false historical narrative is supposed to do: replace a potentially negative personal self-image with a positive one—or, more accurately, a negative image of one’s ancestors with a positive one. Of course, with simple (largely erroneous) genetic assumptions, the two images are the same.

In 1993, the Japanese government finally acknowledged that it had managed the “comfort stations” but still refused to pay compensation. Even this meager step forward was contradicted by a recent prime minister who denied that the military had forcefully recruited the women, saying instead that “employment” had been arranged by “brokers.” A prominent Japanese historian summarized the state of affairs in 2007 by saying that the system obviously was one of sexual slavery but “the movement to openly deny this has grown stronger in the government and elsewhere.” This is only one of several examples of false Japanese historical narratives, including crimes such as the Rape of Nanjing and mistreatment of prisoners of war—not to mention the slaughter of more than twenty million Chinese in the 1930s and 1940s, a fact that has disappeared from world memory except in China and Korea.

Of course, there is an irony here, since the teaching of false history is merely a new source of shame, a new dark history, so there is no redemption but a deepening moral problem. By contrast, the Germans long ago confessed their crimes, with numerous benefits in improved relations with neighbors and others. They can be faulted only for being overly solicitous toward Israel, but this is at least an understandable reaction to their own past crimes. Note again the role of the honest and often courageous historian who tells the truth. In all the cases of false historical narratives, we know they are false because of the work of historians in the societies themselves, often a small minority and often risking their jobs and sometimes their lives.

The Japanese controversies highlight a larger problem in the teaching of history: to what degree is its function, especially in the young, to foster feelings of patriotism (self- and within-group love), and to what extent is its function to provide an objective view of the past, warts and all? Periodically the issue will burst forth in the UK press, for example, with some arguing that patriotism requires that Oliver Cromwell be taught as an exemplar of English manhood at its most manly while others say it would be better to emphasize that he was a warmongering, genocidal murderer who perpetrated huge atrocities on the Irish in the name of God and empire.

Or take an interesting case from within Japan. Okinawa, the southernmost island, was the last annexed into Japan itself (in the late nineteenth century), and there is a long history of derogating the Okinawans within Japan. Even the huge US Army base located (and unwelcome) there is a gift from the larger country. One little problem that recently arose concerns how to teach the end of World War II to Japanese children. The land invasion was aimed at Okinawa first and one-fourth of the civilian population was killed. Japanese imperial troops treated the locals brutally. They were indifferent to their safety, used civilians as shields, and finally, in March 1945, urged them to commit mass suicide before US forces started landing on the main islands. This was said to benefit the Okinawans because they would thereby escape the horrors and humiliations the Americans had in store for them: rape, torture, and murder. The benefit to the imperial Japanese (besides continuing to decimate a Japanese sub-breed regarded as inferior by their overlords) allegedly was to prevent Okinawans from actively helping the advancing Allied forces. This was both a hostile projection and a guilt-ridden one. If Okinawans had not for so long been mistreated, would their loyalties be so easily questioned? Some Okinawans fell in line and committed suicide, some even bashing sisters, brothers, and mothers to death. Others politely declined.

In the most recent twist, the Japanese legislature got reinvolved in 2007 and passed a law that promotes the teaching of patriotism in schools. Shortly thereafter, new textbook guidelines were announced that required the deletion of all references to the role of the Japanese Imperial Army in inducing mass suicides of Okinawans. Demonstrations ensued in Okinawa against this revisionism, which denied the cause of a particularly painful injustice at the hands of their overlords. More than 100,000 people massed in September 2007, the largest rally in Okinawa since its reversion to Japan from the United States in 1972. Two key pieces of evidence were that (1) mass suicides took place only where Japanese army units were stationed, and (2) grenades, which were precious weapons against the invaders, were given instead to the Okinawans to encourage group suicide. Textbook companies then petitioned the government to reverse the regulation, a change soon granted. This is a general (and welcome) feature of the three major “textbook controversies” in Japan. Nationalistic and right-wing forces arguing for a reversion to false historical narratives are often overcome by other forces in the society. Not so in Turkey.


What about Turkey? What is this country’s problem admitting to a historical crime now nearly one hundred years old? I refer, of course, to the mass extermination of nearly the entire Armenian subpopulation. Some of the ancestors of the present inhabitants indubitably launched a brutal campaign of genocide against their relatively successful and middle-class ethnic subgroup, the (Christian) Armenians. About 1.5 million were put to death in the space of a year and a half. In other words, 100,000 Armenians were being murdered every month. This decision was taken at the highest level of the Turkish government, and a key figure was later assassinated for his role. Yet to tell the truth about this monstrous crime now is to risk assassination on the streets or incarceration for “insulting Turkishness.” It is explicitly against the law (article 305 of the Turkish penal code) to ask for “recognition of the Armenian genocide.” As in Japan, official school curricula also ordered teachers (in early 2004) to denounce to their children “the unfounded allegations” of the Armenians, that is, to openly attack the truth. With this kind of historical amnesia and enforced falsehoods, it is perhaps not surprising that the great majority of Turkish people seem offended at the very notion of an Armenian genocide.

As we have seen, the younger the child, the stronger the force to teach lies. It may be fine for university students to learn that one’s country was founded on genocide and that slavery was a horribly degrading arrangement, but surely we should spare our children such negative self-images. Elementary-school students across Turkey were recently forced to watch a film in which Armenians are portrayed as having stabbed their own country in the back during World War I, massacring thousands of (non-Armenian) Turks, cooking their babies alive, and using civilians as firewood. This, of course, is the crudest kind of propaganda, reminiscent of the ancient claim that Jews killed Christian babies to use their blood to bake matzo, yet this new Turkish film is an official product of their Ministry of Education, ordered to be shown to all children.

Genocide is presumably never pretty, but just so we know what this one looked like, consider the following. The Turkish army might appear in a town and demand all Armenians to the center. Grown men would be removed at once and killed elsewhere. Babies’ and children’s skulls would be cracked on the pavement in front of their shrieking mothers. Attractive young women might be removed for later rape and reproductive use while the others were either killed or set on long marches without food, water, or protection from the elements. Sometimes the Turks would ask for all the children so they could care for them, but this care consisted of piling the children on top of one another and setting them afire. With the ruthless efficiency that genocide often brings, eighty people might be tied together at the neck, one shot dead, and all pushed over a gorge into a river below, the dead one sure to drag down all the others. Detailed accounts were dispatched at the time by diplomats and others. Survivors, even into the 1990s, had vivid memories of the atrocities they witnessed. Remember: three thousand a day were dying. The Turks even devised primitive gas chambers, in which large numbers of Armenians were herded into huge, low-hanging caves and then fires were lit at the entrances to suck the oxygen out of the caves and from their occupants.

What is perhaps more extraordinary than Turkish genocide denial is how governments around the world under pressure from Turkey fail to call genocide, genocide. It becomes instead a wartime “tragedy,” so that on the world stage the country of Turkey can maintain this falsehood. Turkish spokespeople often talk of Armenians starving to death during warfare. They do not mention that the Armenians were driven from their homes and properties and forced into long death marches without food or water. Naturally, if one does not die of dehydration, one dies of starvation. Successive US presidents (including Barack Obama) have promised to use the word “genocide” on the official commemoration date in April only to turn coward when the date arrives. Eight former secretaries of state argued against using the dreaded word in a proposed US congressional statement (which was not passed).

Not only does Turkey threaten consequences for any such honesty, but it also follows through, as when it canceled more than $7 billion worth of military contracts with the French when their Senate passed a law in 2000 acknowledging the Armenian genocide. In 2010, it threatened to expel 200,000 Armenians said to be living in the country illegally in return for low wages. Thus, Turkey offers a false historical narrative to its own people and then insists that everyone else fall in line. Here it has been more successful than with the Japanese, whose rewriting of history is met by immediate hostility from its near neighbors Korea and China.

Even Israel and some Jewish Americans have joined in Armenian holocaust denial, the more surprising because the Jewish holocaust and the Armenian one share many features in common, including the eradication of a commercially successful group of different ethnic/religious persuasion (Armenians/Christians slaughtered by Turkish Muslims, and Jews by European Christians). Hitler consciously patterned his behavior after the Turkish example, including perhaps his gas chambers. “Who,” he is alleged to have said, “still remembers the Armenians?” before launching his all-out assault on Jewish people. Fortunately, people still remember his victims, but Israel joins in denying the Armenian genocide partly because of pressure from Turkey (a close ally) and in part because the Armenian genocide is imagined to detract from the uniqueness of the holocaust. But there is nothing unique about the German holocaust of Jews per se, as events in the same century in the Congo, Turkey, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Sudan have shown. The notion of the holocaust has spurred the growth of an industry designed to extract long-ago costs of this event, which flow not to the camp survivors but to their distant cousins, usually nowhere near the camps, while serving to justify Israel’s frequent attacks on its Arab neighbors.

Yet the Turkish genocide must in principle have had large indirect benefits for the remaining population—and this I believe is the key. The immediate loss of these skilled people puts you at a disadvantage in competing with neighboring groups, but their destruction allows you to occupy niches formerly denied to you because Armenians already occupied these places. The first is temporary, while the second is for keeps. That is, for a while you may do worse against other groups, but you will soon develop to fulfill the functions of those you have destroyed. Failing counter-genocide, your new position is all but secure. A whole series of non-Armenian Turks are benefiting every day from the absence of their former compadres, and this must make admitting to the genocide especially threatening—to the legitimacy of their own positions in society. Almost everyone must have moved up after the removal of the local Armenians, while a large Armenian country now sits next door.


A key original Zionist falsehood was the slogan popularized in the 1880s that the Jewish people needed to settle in Palestine because it was “a land without people for a people without land.” Alas, there were plenty of people in Palestine. Even by 1920, after a wave of Jewish immigration, there were about 80,000 Jews in Palestine and more than 700,000 Arabs. Most of these Jewish people seemed content to live with their Arab neighbors the way they had for generations, but the Zionists had other ideas—a simple colonial project to occupy (“reclaim”) places important in their religion. The Zionist project seems to have been set from the beginning, to entice enough Jewish people to Palestine with support from the colonial power of England and from Jewish people worldwide until they had enough power to seize Israel, which, when they did, involved expelling large numbers of Arabs, destroying or confiscating their property, and refusing them any right to return or compensation of any sort so as to produce a (now) 80 percent homogeneous Jewish state in lands some of their forebears had occupied a few thousand years ago. The Zionists were nothing if not consistent. Maps they drew up in the 1920s of their future state reveal later Israeli behavior remarkably well—they show Israel as including the West Bank and Gaza, as well as southern Lebanon, which Israel did indeed occupy from 1982 until 2000, before Hezbollah finally drove it back out of Lebanon.

The notion of a people without a land occupying a land without people has been reinforced repeatedly since then. Of particular note was a book published in 1984 and widely applauded in the United States, where it was reprinted seven times in its first year alone because, among other things, “it could also affect the history of the future,” which of course is precisely the purpose of such narratives. The brand-new and far-reaching claim of this book (From Time Immemorial) was that there had been a massive—but hitherto undetected—illegal immigration of about 300,000 Arabs into Palestine during the British mandate (1920–1947), attracted by the flowering economy produced by the industrious and intelligent Jewish immigrants. This explained away roughly half the Arab population.

The book argued that the inherent superiority of the Jewish immigrants attracted Arabs in search of economic opportunities, who then illegally occupied space that with any justice should have gone to new Jewish immigrants. In addition—absent a history of Palestinians occupying their own land—there is no current refugee problem or problem of compensation. The Arabs should simply return to where they came from in the first place. Is it any wonder that Zionists in the United States fell over themselves in praise of this pathbreaking and remarkable book, and still do? But in Israel the praise has been somewhat muted, since many know that the author cooked her demographic facts thoroughly to generate her novel results. The book is, in fact, a hoax. All the available evidence shows that a natural increase of about 2.5 percent every year, augmented by minor immigration (about 7 percent in total, primarily legal), explained the Arab population increase. In other words, most Arabs living in Palestine when Israel was formed had been there for their entire lives, as had their ancestors—if not from “time immemorial,” then at least for several centuries.

The denial of Palestinian history is also built into Israel’s school curriculum. As an Israeli historian has pointed out, the land that would become Israel has no history from the destruction of the Second Temple until the onset of Zionist settlement. It is only a religious image surviving from biblical times, the subject of Zionist yearning but (with the exception of the occasional arrival of Crusaders) it has no occupants. The Palestinians first appear during Zionist colonization in the early twentieth century, but then only as external obstacles to the Zionist project. Even the most recent textbooks (which delete some of the overtly racist content of earlier ones) do not have a single map of the land during Zionist colonization that includes all the human settlements, showing only the Jewish ones (and occasional mixed Arab/Jewish ones). There are no Palestinian towns or villages, no people with their own desires, aims, and conflicts. Instead, the Palestinians appear first because of opposition to their de-employment in the late 1920s, but the fate of the banned laborers receives no attention in retrospect (as it did not at the time). Palestinians then reappear only because of their later opposition to Zionist projects, opposition that is portrayed in racist terms.


Once the United Nations agreed to set aside a section of Palestine to form a Jewish state in 1947, the Zionists launched an ostensibly defensive war against surrounding Arab armies. The conflict ended up expanding the size of Israel from the UN-mandated 56 percent of Palestine to 78 percent. Israel’s subsequent history is one of expansion outward and relentless attacks on the hapless, displaced Palestinians and on the nearby Lebanese—all to seize additional land and water and to terrorize the Arabs into submission. The policy continues to this day, with such regular events as the five-week bombing of Lebanon during the summer of 2006 (killing at least 1,300, while Israel lost about 160, mostly soldiers) and the slaughter of another 1,300 Arabs in Gaza in late 2008–early 2009 (Israel losing only 11). By the way, a 100:1 kill ratio is considered a successful war but a 10:1 ratio is a failure, and a 3:1 ratio drives Israel out of seized territory (southern Lebanon in the late 1990s). The United States is also willing to tolerate similarly gross disparities in mortality, with US deaths limited to fighting personnel. When America loses three thousand civilians in one day, the entire world trembles— each dead 9/11 victim has been redeemed now by almost one hundred victims elsewhere.

This is not of course the story Israel told—to its own citizens or to the world at large. In its version, a brave set of souls set about reclaiming their natural birthright, that is, all the land, part of which their distant ancestors may once have occupied. They had a book that the same ancestors were said to have written that gave them the land in perpetuity from the God they worshipped. If this absurd rule were applied generally, it would require the wholesale resettlement of the world’s peoples, with re-resettlement required by extending the time horizon backward. European Americans would be forced to return to their “homeland” in Europe so America could be returned to its rightful owners, the Amerindians, from which it had surely, and very recently, been stolen through wholesale slaughter and lies. But the Jewish Zionist dream resonated with aspects of what can be called Christian Zionism, especially in the United States. This, combined with horror at the recent genocide of six million European Jews, permitted the rule of “right of return” to lands through which one could claim an ancient connection, to be enforced in this particular case. But the reality is that a racialist (and then racist) country was shoehorned into the Middle East, so that Jewish people (half and quarter also) from around the world can immediately claim citizenship to this land but none of those who were so recently expelled could do so. This ethnic definition of Israel could only create pressure for expansion.

One consistent feature of the mythology is that the Zionists have always reached out in peace to their Arab neighbors, wanting only their fair share of the land, but these overtures always have been met by hostility and rejection. “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” in the memorable phrase of Abba Eban. The first happened in 1928, when the British offered an assembly of Arabs and Jews. The Zionists accepted the proposal; the Arabs rejected it and grew restive. Yes, indeed, but the assembly was to be divided 45 percent to the Arabs and 45 percent to the Jews with the controlling 10 percent going to the British, who were already on record as pro-Jewish and were busily promoting Jewish migration (to the Holy Land). But the Arabs were roughly ten times as numerous as the Jews, so they would have been disenfranchising themselves by 90 percent as well as giving up all control. This is typical: a grossly unfair offer is made to the Palestinians, who reject it, and their rejection is described as a rejection of peace.

Again, as the story goes, Israel made a far-reaching compromise in accepting the UN Partition Resolution in November 1947, thereby recognizing Palestinians’ right to their own state—all in the hopes of achieving peace with the Palestinians. But the Palestinians totally rejected partition and decided to launch a war on the new Jewish state, forcing it into a defensive war lest it be killed off before it could even begin. Actually, the war was launched in violation of the UN mandate by the Zionists as part of a tactic in a larger strategy of expansion and dispossession. The main aim was to increase the size of Israel, while preventing the formation of a Palestinian state. The latter was helped by a secret agreement with Abdullah of Transjordan, whose annexation of the territory meant for a Palestinian state was part of his own dreams of territorial expansion.

Although the war of 1947–1948 is often presented in retrospect as Israel barely escaping a new holocaust, the fact is that the Zionists were better armed, organized, prepared, and motivated than the surrounding Arab armies, and everyone knew it. The Arabs almost never launched an attack on Israel itself and did not try to intervene in the ongoing ethnic cleansing, even when they were observing it directly from a safe distance. Their function was to protect their own borders against Zionist encroachment. Israeli policy since then hardly seems to have changed. The country pretends in public to be interested in peace and a fair settlement, but these appear to be delaying tactics to camouflage the exact opposite: complete dispossession of the Palestinians and continual seizure of everything of value, especially land and water.


The original myth asserted that the flight of Arabs before and after the birth of the state of Israel was in response to calls from the surrounding Arab armies and occurred despite strenuous efforts by Jewish leaders to persuade them to stay. This is complete nonsense. An invading army far from home has a serious supply problem, and a receptive local population is exactly what it needs. More to the point, directly after World War II, the Zionists appear to have adopted a secret plan for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, by force of arms, terror, encirclement, starvation, and murder. At no time did they beg the Palestinians to stay behind. When the time came, the expulsion was followed by the deliberate destruction of the deserted villages to prevent the return of the displaced people to their homes and their land. There was an immediate economic incentive for the latter. The cost of settling fresh Jewish arrivals was nearly five times as high if they were settled on land that had not been recently “cleansed.”

Then the Israelis set up the special Minority Unit to prevent the return of the Palestinians, even those merely trying to retrieve their possessions or harvest crops they had planted and their trees bearing fruit. Designated “infiltrators,” they were shot on sight or “successfully shot,” as it was put in official reports. This euphemism is echoed in current Israeli policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders or (much more often) low-level “militants” by specially trained assassination squads, said only to be engaged in “targeted killings” (a policy and terminology recently adopted by the United States). Actually, the policy of assassinating Palestinian leaders started long before Israel was founded, being a Zionist ploy used from the late 1970s onward, a kind of mal-genetics, in which the top end of a society is regularly purged to weaken the group generally.

Many of the larger cities were deprived of their Arab populations (“de-Arabized”) very directly. Haifa was a particular horror, right after the massacre of the entire village of Deir Yassin. The orders to the Jewish troops were simple and direct: “Kill any Arabs you encounter: torch all inflammable objects and force doors open with explosives.” On the April 22, 1948, the Arabs were streaming to the market and harbor under orders to evacuate. To make sure everyone got the idea and moved in the right direction, the Zionists then stationed three-inch mortars on the mountain slopes overlooking the market and port. The idea was to force the Arabs into the sea. When the shelling of the market began, the crowds did indeed rush in a panic toward the port, trampling one another to death and, in a desperate attempt to survive, attempting to commandeer all boats, many of which soon were swamped and sank. It is more than some passing irony that the Israelis often claim that the goal of the Arabs is to drive them into the sea, when historically the movement has been entirely in the opposite direction.

It is understandable why a people so recently and completely traumatized could believe that the end of their own safety justified any means. But what about today’s people? Do they really wish to repeat these crimes? The challenge now is to talk about all these events honestly. At no time up until the present has Israel allowed any consideration of a “right to return” or to receive monetary compensation of any sort. Indeed, this has been explicitly ruled out while continuing to assert Israel’s divine right, in principle, to all of Palestine. Jewish people have energetically sought and received compensation for property stolen by Nazis (or, say, their Swiss bankers) some sixty years later, but they fail to acknowledge any contradiction between this policy and the one they have taken when the shoe is on the other foot. They have the right to return to truly ancient land and the right to compensation for gross theft immediately prior to 1946, but Palestinians have no right to return to land stolen from them in 1948, land that they and their ancestors occupied for centuries. Nor do they have any right to compensation. To buttress both arguments, the Palestinians had to be stripped historically of ownership of their own land. This, as we have seen, was achieved both by denying their history and creating false versions of it.


The principles we are describing are universal. Surely if Jews in Palestine practiced deceit and self-deception, then so did the Arabs, and surely if Zionists do it today, anti-Zionists do it as well. There are, however, two important variables that one overlooks at one’s peril: relative power and relative justice. If there is a growing difference in power, with the powerful more prone to self-deception, their unjust behavior requiring cover-up and rationalization, then there will be a positive association between power, injustice inflicted, and degree of self-deception. If you are the victim of injustice, simply telling the truth about it may be your best move. Nakba, or disaster, is the Arab word for what happened in 1948, and it is no accident that some right-wing Israeli politicians echo their worst Turkish counterparts in now insisting that the use of the word itself be made illegal.

Nevertheless, I see several strains of Arab self-deception. Certainly the Palestinians were slow to realize the danger they faced, they were slow to organize in response to it, and, perhaps worst of all, they often put their faith in neighboring Arab countries, whose leaders were too corrupt to act positively, instead often posturing and promising while secretly sabotaging them. King Abdullah of Transjordan was an early example, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt a more recent one. This kind of public posturing continues to this day, with Arab leaders, for example, begging the United States in private to attack Iran while maintaining a public illusion of impartiality.

Under Mubarak, though the Israelis denied vital supplies to those living in Gaza, so did the Egyptians, who shared a border with Gaza but showed scant concern for the welfare of their Arab brethren. Indeed, Egypt long ago sold out to the United States, whose large annual subsidies serve to build up “crony capitalism,” which tends to enrich a favored few at a cost to the larger nation. In addition, Egypt’s plutocrats faced the Muslim Brotherhood, a much more serious and principled set of people than themselves, and these people resembled Hamas too much for the comfort of the then-rulers of Egypt. Better to starve their Arab “brothers” in Gaza. The same pattern is true of much of the Arab world, interests of the people sold out to an elite often based on explicitly anti-Islamist views, in tandem with US and European interests. Sometimes conflict with Israel is also used to rationalize the suppression of one’s own citizens. A forty-nine-year state of emergency in Syria has included every kind of arrest, torture, and murder based on the theory that they are at war with Israel. Yes, Israel still has Syria’s Golan Heights (and is busy “settling” it), and yes, Syria has been very good at arming and supporting the only successful anti-Israel force, Hezbollah of Lebanon. But what does this have to do with suppressing their own people? Why a state of emergency to arm Hezbollah? And what is being done about the Golan Heights?

Perhaps the greatest Palestinian daydream has been the belief that Israel might actually live up to agreements made. In 1994 at Oslo, Palestinians made major concessions in exchange for Israeli promises, which were not kept, and the Palestinians had no leverage to prevent this. Israel continued to settle the occupied territories, install Israeli-only roads, mark off sections of the West Bank as Israeli security zones, and so on, all while pretending not to.


The elephant in the room of Israeli behavior is the United States. No way would Israel act as it does to its neighbors if it did not have the active, massive support of the world’s great superpower. If you have a dispute with your neighbor, and you have a large, ferocious dog behind you, while your neighbor stands alone, you may be tempted to overstate your case. In that sense, Israel has repeatedly acted in a much more aggressive fashion because the United States gave tacit or full support, while underwriting the Israeli military to the tune of more than $1 billion a year. Where does this support come from?

It is usually not appreciated that long before there was the Jewish Zionism of the 1880s, there was something called Christian Zionism. It was alive and well in the United States in 1810 and has been a powerful force ever since. Its roots in Europe go back well into the sixteenth century. The movement has transmuted into various forms, but underlying it is the Bible and a shared story of expansion and ethnic cleansing glorified as God’s will. As the American writer Herman Melville enthused, “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our times; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”

This was a neat trick, stealing the mantle of the chosen people away from the chosen people, and here’s how it worked. The self-proclaimed chosen people were, indeed, the chosen people because they were chosen to give rise to Jesus Christ the Savior (God incarnate). But when Jewish people then rejected Jesus, they became the unchosen people, while those who embraced Jesus became the new chosen people. The new chosen people had an ambivalent relationship with the old chosen ones. On the one hand, the usual out-group derogation and racism (“Christ killers!”) was practiced. On the other hand, the two shared a book. Jewish people had not just given rise to Jesus, whom they rejected, but also to the Old Testament, which the Christians wanted. Common elements of history only deepened this connection—genocide of surrounding peoples celebrated in the Bible, new land being settled, racial superiority, a shared creed based on God’s own word.

In 1891, four hundred people signed a petition and delivered it to the US president, Benjamin Harrison, calling on him to induce the Ottoman Empire to turn Palestine over to the Jews. Most signing the document were not Jewish but included the country’s elite in all realms, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the Speaker of the House, key chairs of committees, a future president, the mayors of major cities, owners and editors of major newspapers, major industrialists, and top Christian clergy of every stripe. This was no plot hatched by a Jewish subgroup. This was US Christianity rising to its full moral heights and anointing Israel the chosen land for the unchosen people. And this ambiguity continued. One advantage for Christians of having Jews return to Israel is that there would be fewer of them nearby.

Harry Truman worked tirelessly after World War II against both his own State Department and Great Britain (the colonial power that had created the mess in the first place) to establish the country of Israel. He was a biblical literalist and a Christian Zionist. He also noted that there were almost no Arab voters (nor rich ones) in the United States. The Old Testament said Jews belonged in Israel. That and being appalled at the Jewish holocaust and the postwar treatment of European Jews was enough to get him on board, contrary to the UN’s plan. Israel circumvented the latter by at once declaring itself a state, going to war, and then using ethnic cleansing to achieve a largely homogeneous state, itself more than 50 percent larger than the one the UN envisioned.

In what must count as one of the more bizarre recent scenes from US Christian Zionism, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in April and May 2003 fed President Bush a daily set of intelligence briefings on the Iraq war whose covers juxtaposed dramatic wartime scenes—a US tank rumbling through the desert—with exhortations from the Old Testament: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Or along with a picture of Saddam Hussein striking a dictatorial pose: “It is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” Some in the Pentagon were conscious that if these covers were to become public, Muslims (among others) might well interpret this as evidence of yet another Crusade against them backed by biblical prophecy. Rumsfeld appeared intent on manipulating Bush, who was known to frequently quote the Bible (unlike Rumsfeld).


The naive reader should be aware that in criticizing Israel for its racist and/or unjust policies toward Arabs, you at once risk being called an anti-Semite, that is, someone who has a (racial) bias against Jewish people (or, if Jewish, a “self-hating Jew”). The term has now been so degraded by its frequent use in defense of injustice that its actual meaning is inverted—it is now usually a racist term used by those who support racist policies against those who do not. Or, better put, “an anti-Semite” used to mean someone who hates Jews; now it means anyone Jews hate—a simple case of denial and projection.

It takes more than showing that a person speaks out against Jewish-perpetrated injustice to show that he or she is anti-Jewish. Perhaps he or she is merely anti-injustice. But the anti-anti-Semites have an answer for this. Why are you picking on us? Are there not worse people in the world? According to this view, you must rank the world’s injustices from biggest to smallest, then criticize everybody above Israel before you are permitted to criticize Israel itself. When you have finally reached Israel, though, a new rule is imposed: balance. If you concentrate only on Israel’s manifest injustices—let us say its regular attacks on its northern neighbor, Lebanon (1976, 1982, 1996, and 2006) or its remorseless theft of Palestinian land, water, indeed life itself, all based on terror and subjugation—you are being unbalanced. For every Israeli transgression, you must show a parallel Palestinian one to demonstrate lack of bias. But this is of course impossible (given reality). The best you can come up with are suicide attacks and some poorly guided missiles that claim fewer than one-thirtieth of those being killed by the Israelis during the same time period. So much for balance. Finally, should you come up with an argument that is strong in logic and content, you are said to make “tendentious” statements against Israel. This is a possible case of a malphemism treadmill (see Chapter 8).

Many first-class minds in mathematics, the sciences, and many other intellectual pursuits are Jewish (or partly Jewish). But this intellectuality can have a downside. Greater intellectual talent may be associated with more deception and self-deception (see Chapters 2 and 4). Where Israeli misbehavior is concerned, this has the unfortunate effect that an enormous amount of blather in defense of the indefensible pours out from every corner. This ranges from the truly rabid and racist—with full bells and whistles—to much more subtle arguments in which small, key errors are well concealed. UN Resolution 242 calls for Israeli withdrawal from lands occupied in the 1967 war—but not “the” lands. Even though “the” appears in the French version of the resolution and there is no mistaking the UN’s intent, this missing article is used to assert that the UN deliberately called for Israeli withdrawal from some but not all of its occupied land. And because the UN never specified which land should be relinquished, any withdrawal would satisfy the UN—a few square meters if put to the test. Or take another piece of sophistry. Israel declares that it is necessary for its neighbors to acknowledge Israel’s “right to exist” before diplomatic relations can be sought, but nowhere else in the world is this a prerequisite. You recognize that a government exists and you set up diplomatic relations—nowhere do you assert that the government has a right to exist. In addition, Israel is unusual in failing to define its own borders, so recognizing its right to exist may have hidden implications regarding future ownership of land. To take but one example, Israel has taken care to build about 85 percent of its security wall outside of Israel, creating new borders and a larger country by fiat.

Thus, on the subject of Israel, a vast wave of biased argumentation washes over people who have not had (or taken) the chance to study the matter carefully. The key is a fundamental inversion of reality: The Palestinians are not displaced people, driven from their homes and their land and persecuted ever since. They (and Arabs more generally) are terrorists—virulent anti-Semites—against whom all is permitted. What looks like Israeli terrorism and relentless theft of land and water is really just a proactive campaign to prevent another holocaust (apparently by inciting the very feelings that would invite one).

The truth about Israel’s theft of Arab land and water since 1967 via “settlements” was well put by a pair of Israeli historians:

Deception, shame, concealment, denial, and repression have characterized the state’s behavior with respect to the flow of funds to the settlements. It can be said that this has been an act of duplicity in which all of the Israeli governments since 1967 have been partner. This massive self-deception still awaits the research that will reveal its full magnitude.

As is so often true, what can be said in Israel is usually more honest and detailed about Israel than what can be said on the same subject in the United States.


False historical narratives are important because every country has one, they are often fiercely defended (and regularly upgraded), and they provide a strong underlying system of logic (easily biased) for interpreting social and historical trends and truth. In short, they are available to justify all action—contemplated, under way, or accomplished. Deception is often involved in their construction. That is, people consciously lie to create them, but once created, false historical narratives act as self-deceptions at the group level. Most people are unconscious of the deception that went into constructing the narrative they take to be true.

A true historical narrative might force us to make reparations for past crimes and to confront more directly their continuing effects. A false one permits us to continue a policy of denial, counterattack, and expansion at the expense of others. Why do we continue to attack our Arab neighbors? Well, because they have long harbored racist animosity toward our Bible-ordained project. Why are we attacking Iraq? Because it is part of our divine mission, our “American exceptionalism” that requires us to interfere and sacrifice for the good of the world.

Inevitably, false historical narratives will have their deepest connection with religion: Where did we come from and with what aim? To that subject we shall return, but first we consider self-deception and war, to which false historical narratives make their own contribution.