Palestinian denial of Jewish history:
An obstacle to peace and coexistence

Published: 20 January 2011
Briefing Number 275

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Summary:  The denial of Jewish history, and the Jewish peoples’ connection to the land of Israel, is deep-rooted in Palestinian politics and culture. This is a disaster for everyone – Israelis and Palestinians alike. 

This new Beyond Images Briefing contains a graphic recent illustration of this denial, in the form of a Palestinian Authority discussion paper denying the Jewish connection to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  And we feature an insightful analysis of the phenomenon by Saul Singer, Israeli writer and columnist, who places this denial in the context of anti-Israeli media incitement, and the rejection by the Palestinians of practical aspects of a two-state solution.  

Key message:  In the case of Israel, its history is not a subject of academic interest.  Israel’s history is politically critical, and one of the foundations of Israel’s legitimacy.  Outright denial of that history is a denial of Israel’s legitimacy.  And as Saul Singer explains, the Palestinian denial of Jewish history is a major obstacle to peace and coexistence.    

Palestinian Authority publishes ‘research paper’ denying a Jewish connection to the Western Wall in Jerusalem

The Western Wall is the most revered place in Judaism today.  As the sole remnant of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, it has been a focal point for pilgrimage and prayer for Israelis and for Jews from all over the world for millennia.   
On 23 November 2010 the Palestinian Authority published a ‘research paper’ in Arabic on its official website, denying the Jewish connection to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  The paper was written by a senior official in the PA’s Ministry of Information, al-Mutawakel Taha.  Its publication was first reported by the Jerusalem Post later that day.  The ‘research paper’ concluded that the Western Wall was never a Jewish site, but had always belonged to Muslims. 

Protests by Israelis.... from across the political spectrum

Israeli officials protested strongly, calling on the Palestinian leadership to disassociate itself from the paper. 

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called the ‘research paper’ “reprehensible and scandalous” (New York Times, 25 November). 

Left-wing Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin called the paper “a stain on the Palestinian Authority” (quoted in Jerusalem Post, 23 November).  

Left-wing Israeli politician and Knesset Member Einat Wilf stated (quoted in Arab News, 24 November 2010):-

“The Palestinians are stupidly trying again and again to somehow create an alternative reality in which the Jewish people are strangers in this land...”

And the US Government protested too.

On 1 December, the Palestinian Authority removed the report from its website.  But the PA did not comment on its content or disassociate themselves from it.  That Palestinian action prompted the following comment from the Israeli Prime Minister’s office (reported in Jerusalem Post, 1 December 2010):

“It is important for confidence building that the Palestinian Authority publicly prepare people for peace and reconciliation, and that can only be done if Palestinian leaders publicly disassociate themselves from such remarks and condemn all statements that call Israel fundamentally illegitimate....”  

One example of an ongoing phenomenon: the revision of Jewish history   

This episode epitomises one of the biggest challenges in the search for peace: the persistent revision of Jewish history within Palestinian culture and society, notably the Jewish peoples’ connection with Jerusalem.  (See also: Beyond Images Briefing 254, dated 17 April 2010 – ‘Jerusalem: the battle over facts, history and context’) 

This revisionism has been continuing for decades: the Western Wall report was just a particularly blatant, recent example of it.  See Chapter 5 of ‘The Fight for Jerusalem’ by Dore Gold (Regnery Publishing, 2007), for more examples. 

UNESCO’s declaration that Rachel’s Tomb is a mosque
Only weeks previously, UN agency UNESCO had issued a declaration that Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem was actually a mosque.  The Palestinian Authority had lobbied for that declaration to be passed, and had been heavily involved in its preparation.  That UNESCO declaration also constitutes a truly staggering rewrite of Jewish history and Israel’s narrative.

In reality, Rachel’s Tomb has been a foremost Jewish religious site for millennia, and it was even recognised as such by local Muslims and the Ottoman Empire: see Nadav Shragai ‘Rachel’s Tomb, a Jewish holy place, was never a mosque’ (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, No 580, November 2010, at

Saul Singer on the Palestinian denial of Jewish history

What are the implications of these events? And what is the underlying Palestinian mindset which they reflect?

Israeli writer and commentator Saul Singer addressed these questions months before the Western Wall incident, in an article published in the Jerusalem Post (‘Stuck In Their Narrative’, Jerusalem Post – – 27 April 2010).
Singer argues that Palestinian denial of Jewish history is symptomatic of a general refusal to accept Israel, or to develop a culture of coexistence in Palestinian society.      

Here is the full text of Singer’s article:

Saul Singer writes:

The debate over incitement may seem sterile.  Distinctions can be made between naming schools and summer camps after suicide bombers, as Palestinian leaders do, and Israel leaders speaking about Arabs in a disparaging, even violent way.   But these distinctions often sound like debating points with little relevance to the pursuit of peace. [Singer is referring in this paragraph to the internal Israeli debate about whether Palestinian media incitement against Israel is counter-balanced by extreme anti-Arab statements which are sometimes heard within Israel.  The rest of his article demonstrates that incitement is, indeed, much more than just a debating point  – Beyond Images]. 

Palestinian incitement, however, is much more important than it looks.  It affects two levels – creating a climate of violence and preventing fundamental movement towards peace.  Incitement is not just a barometer that can predict inclement weather ahead, but a significant factor in seeding storm clouds.

The evolving climate for peace among Israelis

To see this, we must compare the climates for peace on each side. Israel, over the years, has gone through a sea change.  As late as 1990, the consensus believed that an independent Palestinian state was an existential threat. Even the Labour party would not speak of it openly.  Outgoing US secretary of state George Shultz reflected this consensus when he predicted in 1988 that there would never be a Palestinian state because this would be too great a threat to Israel.

The 1993 Oslo accords set in motion a process that, by 2005, had turned the consensus on its head.   Even the right’s iconic champion, Ariel Sharon, essentially said that a Palestinian state, far from being a threat, had become necessary to preserve the state’s democratic and Jewish character (see Beyond Images Briefing 127, 11 January 2005  – Ariel Sharon, the disengagement plan, and the Palestinians). 

More importantly, Sharon risked tearing the nation apart by putting a down payment on this vision in the form of the total evacuation in 2005 of Jewish settlements, IDF troops and even graves from Gaza (see Beyond Images Briefing 153, dated 10 August 2005 – Orange! Opposition in Israel to disengagement).

Opponents of a two-state solution certainly exist and retain some political strength in Israel, but they are almost as marginal now as the peace movement in Israel was in 1990.  Then, no major Israeli politician could endorse a Palestinian state; now no serious leader can abstain from endorsing one.

By comparison, the Palestinians have not ‘crossed the Rubicon’ and accepted Israel

What has happened on the Palestinian side during the same period? At first it might seem that Palestinian support for a two-state solution is a given.  On a closer examination, however, it is hard to compare the Israeli and Palestinian climates because it is so hard to find a real Palestinian peace movement.

What would such a movement look like? Just as the Israeli embrace of a two-state solution was all about accepting a Palestinian state, the comparable Palestinian rubicon is acceptance of Israel.  A Palestinian peace movement would therefore argue, at least, for the practical need to accept Israel.  In concrete terms, such acceptance would mean abandoning the ‘right of return’ to Israel, which is a backdoor negation of Israeli statehood, much as part of the settlement movement was designed to negate a Palestinian state.

As it turns out, there is an advocate of giving up the right of return in the name of peace: Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Kuds university.  It takes extreme intellectual, moral and physical courage for Nusseibeh to take this position, not unlike those Israelis who advocated Palestinian statehood when doing so bordered on treason [We think this is a slight exaggeration – even during the 1970s, while advocating statehood was unpopular, it was not treated like ‘treason’ inside Israel – Beyond Images].  But unlike in Israel, where the two-state paradigm has become mainstream, among Palestinians Nusseibeh remains an extreme exception, essentially a lone voice.

[For more see Beyond Images Briefing 227, dated 25 December 2008 – “Moderate Palestinian leaders believe in a two-state solution....”]

Incitement is a symptom of the denial of Jewish history

This is the context in which the incitement debate must be considered.  The problem is not just the glorification of terrorism.  It is the denial of Jewish peoplehood, of Jewish history and of any Jewish connection to any part of Israel [our emphasis – Beyond Images].  At the 2000 Camp David summit president Bill Clinton was shocked that Yasser Arafat baldly denied that there ever was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem.  Yet to this day no Palestinian politician, including those in the ‘peace camp’, can publicly say otherwise.

Some might note that Israelis, including those who back a two-state paradigm, only perfunctorily accept the notions of a Palestinian people or their right to a state.  But there is a big difference.  The Palestinian narrative is that the Jews stole their land, so accepting such a theft would be dishonourable and a terrible defeat.  Israelis, by contrast, danced in the streets when the UN partition resolution [creating two states] was announced in 1947, and have come round again to see Palestinian statehood as a conduit to securing the Zionist dream.

The Palestinian equivalent of the Zionist dream remains stuck deep in a narrative of Israel’s destruction.  The first sign of change will be when Palestinians start ending their denial of the facts of history.  Palestinians do not have to become Zionists, but they do have to start openly convincing themselves that they are not capitulating to thievery but rather compromising with a legitimate competing claim to sovereignty.  Stopping incitement is a critical first step in a long process that has barely begun.   

Some related Beyond Images Briefings

Beyond the ‘naqba’ mindset: What a real change in Palestinian attitudes would look like.... by Shlomo Avineri (Beyond Images Briefing 276, 20 January 2011)
Palestinian incitement against Israel: the goals of Palestinian Media Watch, and why this matters to peace (Beyond Images Briefing 270, 9 October 2010)

Jerusalem: the battle over facts, history and context (Beyond Images Briefing 254, 17 April 2010)

The roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the ongoing Arab denial of Israel’s legitimacy (Beyond Images Briefing 249, 10 December 2009)
Peace with Israel as ‘capitulation’ – the root cause of the conflict
(Beyond Images Briefing 190, 28 February 2007)

Five foundations of Israel’s right to exist
(Beyond Images Briefing 167,  12 February 2006)