Israel Must Tell Better Stories to Get the World on Its Side
Life unfolds in stories, and stories form the building-blocks of life. They shape our opinions, influence how we see ourselves and synthesize our worldview. Stories allow us to make parallels with our own lives and form deep emotional kinships with people we’ve never met. They transport us across continents, turn strangers into intimate friends and use emotion to touch upon the universality of the human experience.
Pro-Israel pundits believe that our abundance of facts places us at an advantage; they don’t realize how facts can distract from changing minds and hearts, and they often completely ignore the appeal of storytelling.
Israeli reports focus on the raw numbers and facts, whereas Palestinian reports typically flesh out the stories, building upon the rich Arab tradition of exquisite storytelling.
Termed “hakawati,” Arab storytellers sat in central locations and chanted episodes from the great sagas of Arab lore. They were highly respected, and often believed, no matter how absurd and hyperbolic their stories may have been. This strong tradition of storytelling influenced Palestinian propagandists, who woo journalists and civilians alike with their heart-wrenching stories that zoom in on aspects of their tragedies that appeal to emotion: babies burned alive, mothers savagely murdered as they nursed, Palestinian children firebombed on the beach while playing soccer, unborn children ripped from the womb. They add flourish with plenty of vivid adjectives and hyperbole.
The success of the Palestinian “narrative” in gaining world appeal stems from these gifted Palestinian Internet-hakawati of the modern day.
Israel also has incredible true stories to tell. Surrounded by enemies, this diverse country has survived a handful of defensive wars, two intifadas and constant terrorist attacks. Most Israeli children, especially in northern and southern towns susceptible to rockets from Hamas and Hezbollah, grow up in a constant state of fear, never knowing when the next alarm will sound or if they will be the next victims.
Avi Dorfman, 26, is a terror-attack survivor who sustained severe brain damage in the 2007 attacks on the Zikim base. When describing him, YNet lumped him in with a group of 66 other victims, writing “67 injured, no dead.”
When Avi told me about his injury, how he was informed he would die within the week or emerge with severe mental and physical disabilities, and how he recovered miraculously, I was in awe. I was shocked that no effort had been made to disseminate his story outside of Israel, as it is a perfect example of how Hamas targets innocents who play no part in the conflict. Avi, who served in a non-combat role in the IDF and volunteered upon his recovery, spoke of his other friends who were severely injured. These drastically disrupted, sometimes permanently ruined, lives that are brushed off and aggregated as “67 injured,” are untapped opportunities that can add a great deal of richness to our collective narrative.
This void in our strategy is where Narrative Medicine comes in. Founded at Columbia University by a physician, Dr. Rita Charon, the philosophy has rapidly gained popularity among physicians and academics alike.
The philosophy behind Narrative Medicine emphasizes the importance of patients’ stories in optimizing their care. Allowing patients to tell their stories can help address many taboos and stigmas present in our society that surround certain illnesses and injuries through the humanization of the “suffering other.” This strategy is the same one employed by those who propagate the Palestinian “narrative” to build a visceral empathy and compassion for the Palestinian side, using language to create a kinship so primal and intrinsic that no amount of facts could erase it. In telling our stories, we can achieve the same results.
As a student in the Narrative Medicine Master’s program at Columbia who will be graduating this summer, I have interviewed Israeli terror victims and injured IDF soldiers, in hopes that I can use their injury narratives to humanize the Israeli cause.
Doing so may serve as an antidote to inflammatory Palestinian Authority-funded propagandist organizations and NGOs such as Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem. When I make aliyah this summer, my goal is to spread the field of Narrative Medicine to universities in Israel, so that we, too, can embrace our narrative and humanize our story, thereby allowing others to humanize us in turn. We need to reveal the people behind the numbers. Indeed, Narrative Medicine may be the missing link we’ve been looking for to solve Israel’s age-old reputation problem.
The political views in this article reflect the views of the author, who contributed this piece in her personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Program in Narrative Medicine, or Columbia University, of which she is a part.