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January 3, 2016 7:24 am

Israel Must Tell Better Stories to Get the World on Its Side

avatar by Alexandra Markus

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CCTV footage in Jerusalem shows stabbing attack, police subduing teenage assailants. Photo: Screenshot

CCTV footage in Jerusalem shows stabbing attack, police subduing teenage assailants. Photo: Screenshot

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.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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  • Jeff

    Many commentators raised anti-semitism as a rationale for the failure of Israel to win world support. I want to address that as an American Christian. No literate, modern Christian views Jews as Christ-killers or religious enemies. If anything, Jews have a privileged position for modern Christians as founders of the moral code that we follow. Go to Sunday school or open any Christian book of religious stories for children and 90% are from the Old Testament, portraying Moses, David, Samson, etc. as heroes who should be respected and emulated. This is the earliest training any Christian child receives and forms a deeply embedded positive attitude toward Jews. Any anti-semitism based on Christ-killing, child sacrifice or world domination myths are confined to a tiny minority of fringe Christians. Images of “Jesus at the checkpoint” are not appealing to some innate animus toward Jews, they are simply giving personhood and a known face to the abstract Palestinian, and perhaps offsetting the inherent bias toward Jews and against Muslims/Palestinians that most American Christians have.

  • Vern

    Find a story to compete with the blockbuster “the Jews killed Christ, rejected their Messiah, and are enemies of the humankind” and you may have something. Because this is the story that has allowed the Palestinian “hakawati” to take hold: Westerners identify with Palestinians oppressed by Jews. Suspect it is actually this “backstory” that explains why Hindus/Buddhists don’t overly have their knickers in a knot over Israel for all the “hakawati” out there. Or why Palestinians oppressed by other Muslims can’t seem to get a good “hakawati” going.

    • Alexandra Markus

      The Hindus aren’t fighting Arabs. Hakawati is an Arab, not Muslim, tradition.

      • Vern

        I think your heart is in the right place, and I do agree that stories rule. But regardless the provenance of this tradition, if you don’t think “Christ at the checkpoint” and “Jesus was a Palestinian” point to something deeper going on in the West, than IMHO you don’t see the full picture and may meet frustration. Who will disseminate these stories anyway? CNN? They don’t even report stabbings of Jews. Besides, there already exists the great Zionist story “Exodus”: now it’s labeled Zio-Nazi propaganda. How about Holocaust education? That too was supposed to “get the world on its side” – but now it’s an “industry” to shake down goyim.

        I know anti-Semitism is an ugly thing to get your mind around, but look at the evidence.

        Personally, I would sooner see Arabs imitate Israelis….if only insofar as how they treat their *own* people: bomb shelters in Gaza, elections in the PA…

        Peace 🙂

      • Mon T. Rex

        I would agree with the point that modern antisemitism in the US and Canada is not driven by religion. Among historically marginalized groups (African Americans, blue collar and rural workers) the myth of the Jews caring only about money (possibly based on anecdotal experiences) and controlling the world via finances appears to resonate well. Among young (and sometimes not so young) Social Justice advocates – the campus & green crowd – what seems to play best is the narrative of “Jews have been complaining about the Holocaust since before I was born, and then they went and started committing similar atrocities against the Palestinians.”

  • Ava Alexander

    Jews are actually the best storytellers in the world, bar none. I’m talking about Hollywood. But Jews have a tendency to take their own experiences and, perhaps all too cognizant that the world will not really sympathize with a Jew, pretend that they happened to someone else, an Italian family perhaps, or another ethnic type, African, Arab, anyone but the Jew himself. He wants to make it universal. Thus the Jewish stories with the most universal appeal are ‘farmed out’ as Jews wait for thanks from those other ethnic communities for understanding their plights, thanks that never come. Instead marginalization and murder comes, and continues for the Jew, especially the ones most identifiable as Jews, the ones in Israel.
    Israel needs to develop its own Hollywood, and not be shy to tell the stories of the Jews. This is a good start! Good luck!

  • I thought that in the 21st Century “intelligent” educated unbiased people could figure out the difference between cheap false propaganda to honest facts and truthful reports.

    • You’ve clearly overestimated the intelligence of the masses, and underestimated the tendency for even the most intelligent to be swayed by emotion.

      • I’m not sure if you are aware or not Alexandra, but Israel as a country is assisting so many 3rd world countries with agricultural projects and training, medical assistance, crisis assistance including Turkey, Haiti, Nepal and many African countries.
        Israel is also giving medical help to the Arabs in Gaza, Judea and Samaria and even to wounded people in Syria and Jordan.
        Do you read any of this on the international western media?
        Do you know that Arabs from Gaza and Judea and Samaria who received medical treatment in Israel came back later to commit homicidal terror attacks on the same hospital that treated them or on innocent Israeli citizens?
        Have you read this information on Western Media? Not likely.
        Do you think that Western readers or viewers in Europe or USA get any positive information about Israel? I doubt it.

        We can write, publish or film so many positive issues about Israel but no western media will bring it to their public. This is the situation we face today but in God we Trust.
        Europe or should I say Eurabia after the invasion of Islam, will wake up one day and will or will not recognise the follies of their politicians.

  • J. Joel Farber

    Brilliant idea! Here’s to your great success in your Aliyah and your storytelling.

    • Thank you so much! I hope I can find a job that can make use of these skills and aspirations.

  • Paul Winter

    Yes, the story telling can be improved, but that is only a small part of what needs to be done to improve Israel’s image.

    First and foremost, journalists who fail to report events correctly and in their context and “balance” verifiable details with biased comments, those who regard their role not as conveyors of facts, but as advocates for a party in a situation should be expelled if they are foreign and, if Israelis, have their reports censored. Truth exists and must be told, no matter how embarrassing it is to a state, but lies must be stopped. Free societies depend on information and lies and distortions undermine democracy; the freedom of the press takes second place to the right of people to be informed.

    Secondly, Israel must stop acting as though all accusations against it are valid until disproved. Spokespersons need to say , where the accusation is from a hostile source and nothing is known about it, that it is probably false, but it will be investigated by the state which values its probity, unlike it lying opponents.

  • Yoel Nitzarim

    תביא איתה על עלייתה! חייהם של בני אדם מבוססים בסיפורים . אלי ויזל , המורה שלי וסיפורי אב , לימד את מיליוני אנשים שאסור לנו להיות אדיש דרך סיפוריו של כה רב מה חכמים ישראל שלנו , דמויותיוה להתגבר עם טרגדיה וצריך להתמודד עם נסיבות הרסניות בחייהם , והכי חשוב , את הסיפור האמיתי של ילד הקטן שנולד בסיגט , הונגריה , שאיבד כל כך הרבה את יקיריהם בשואה ואיכשהו במקרה שרד ושיתף בסיפורו כעד ושליח של ממלכת זיכרון של יהודי עָבָר. יש לנו שליחים רבים כאן בארץ, עדים רבים , מספרי סיפורים רבים . עלינו להקשיב להם . עלינו לספר את הסיפורים שלהם .
    As a long-time educator of language, I could not agree with Alexandra more. What a gift and treasure she will bring with her upon her aliyah! Human beings’ lives are comprised of stories. Elie Wiesel, my mentor and a master storyteller, has taught millions of people that we must never be indifferent through his tales of so many of our Jewish sages, his characters who are overcome with tragedy and need to cope with devastating circumstances in their lives, and, most important, the true story of that little boy born in Sighet, Hungary, who lost so many loved ones in the Shoah and somehow by chance survived and shared his story as a witness and a messenger of the Kingdom of Memory of the Jewish past. We have many messengers here, many witnesses, many storytellers. We must listen to them. We must tell their stories.

    • Are you in narrative medicine? Because you’re spot on! You’re even using the proper jargon 🙂

      I am hoping I will be able to do just that to help create a better future for Israel and perhaps help humanize the Jewish and Israeli people for the rest of the world without selling ourselves short.

    • ותודה רבה! אני מתרגשת להתחיל 🙂

  • Ephraim


  • Unfortunately, Israel will not get the world on its side by better story telling. The best Israel can do is courageously protect the homeland, outfox the Jew-haters, and vigorously defend Israel at the UN.

    • Howard Brown

      Marc Handelsman is right on target. The article is a fine idea but there is no easy answer to the problematic role assigned by G-d to the Jewish people — at least until the Messiah finally appears. Our legacy is to fight for survival as witnesses to G-d’s greatness. More power to the writer’s concept if it helps in the fight.

  • stevenl

    For the West, Judeophobia is far greater than the fear of Islamism. Antisemitism is overwhelming and is deeply ingrained into “the soul and the genes” of the Christians and post-Christians people (i.e.: seculars).
    Antisemitism is an expression of the dehumanization of the Jew by the antisemite.

  • AF From Toronto

    A good start would be stories about positives – help to the 21% Arab citizen minority. Netanyahu’s office has had a section to help the Arab sector for 6 years, with support approaching US$1.5 billion. Just last week this has been renewed and expanded, to some US$1.4 billion each year for 5 years.

    The informstion is available, but gets little play. It is said that Netanyahu’s office doesn’t want to play this up, maybe because it counters the racist politics put out by Netanyahu and the Israeli electorate would become confused. Yet for foreign consumption, in Europe and the Americas, this would add such a positive view. Nobody seems to care about stories of people getting along.