In February 2006, Discover Magazine followed Rodolfo Acuña-Soto, a Mexican epidemiologist, along the famous route taken by Hernan Cortes and his band of adventurers during their conquest of Mexico. After completing his doctorate at Harvard, Acuña-Soto had set out to write a detailed historical catalogue of Mexican diseases. His encyclopedia was intended for the shelves of medical doctors and fellow epidemiologists, but instead his work would became a subject of controversy among historians and activists.
While poring over the voluminous historical records, Acuña-Soto noticed a glaring discrepancy between the orthodox narrative of the Conquest and the data he was observing in the documents. The histories described a devastating plague which laid waste to the Mexican population after Cortes’ and his Mexican allies laid siege to the Aztec capital. It had long been taken for granted by historians that the microbial culprit was smallpox, the same villain which had annihilated the population of the West Indies after Columbus’ arrival. Raised on the traditional histories, Acuña-Soto was surprised by what he found in the source material:
The disease called cocolitzli by the Aztecs was described in great detail and had all the markings of a hemorrhagic fever (the category of viral illness to which Ebola belongs) whose origin was in the New World. The disease called zahuatl caused very different symptoms but historians were not trained to sense the distinction, and simply assumed the Aztecs had multiple names for the same illness. The data was right there, but it had taken a microbiologist and epidemiologist to see the obvious.
Acuña-Soto was a man of science, investigating the possibility that an unknown and highly virulent disease might be lurking in modern day Mexico, patiently waiting for the right climatic conditions to make a comeback. He was unprepared for the controversy in which he found himself:
Today, the vast majority of Mexicans are mestizos, that is, of mixed European and native ancestry, and yet the identity of modern Mexico is unquestionably tied to the victims of the Conquest. The Mexican state of Tlaxcala, homeland of Cortes’ primary native collaborators, remains in disrepute to this day, and ‘Tlaxcalan’ is an epithet still in common use but reserved for the lowest betrayers.
Today’s mestizos are the proud remnant of a fallen people, defeated by treachery and oppressed by the grasping Spanish conquistadores. They, like the indigenous Mexica, are the People of the Sun, and their national flag bears an emblem representing the Aztec capital. Mexican national identity was born out of suffering and oppression, and a sense of righteous grievance. The Mexican national anthem (which has got to be the most badass national anthem in world history) calls on the sons of Mexico to spill every last drop of their blood “before your children become unarmed beneath the yoke, their necks in sway.” Just as Aztec creation myths described a founding murder to inaugurate the present world age, so the modern Mexican identity finds its origin in the murder of an idealized image of Mexico’s native cultures by the wicked Spanish. The introduction of smallpox into Mexico is remembered as one of the Spaniards’ most notorious crimes. Resistance to Acuña-Soto’s findings has not come from the epidemiological community, but activists and academics committed to defending an identity born of victimhood and outrage.
Their resistance seems unnecessary. Cortes’ near genocide of the native population is still a fact, and the Spanish were almost certainly the source of two earlier smallpox outbreaks in the Valley of Mexico. Neither native suffering nor European guilt are diminished by the reclassification of two epidemics. After all, the outbreaks in question had burned through Mexico decades after the fall of Tenochtitlan. And yet he found that many Mexicans – almost none of them doctors – were so invested in their identity as children of rape that they were loath to give even an inch of absolution to the Spanish.
When oppression forms the foundation of one’s identity, the oppressor is flattened out into an uncomplicated icon of evil. Nuance and context are dangerous heresies, for they risk humanizing the enemy. As beneficial for psychic health as empathy and compassion might be, they are highly destabilizing for an ego or a society that understands itself as a victim.
Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, knew the importance of an oppositional force against which a people could define themselves. Addressing a British commission on immigration in 1902, he said:
This remark was made six years after Herzl inaugurated the modern Zionist movement with his publication of the pamphlet The Jewish State. His pamphlet reflects Herzl’s understanding of national identity. He was trying to awaken a sense of national identity in the Jews of the Diaspora by confronting them with the shared injustice they had suffered at the hands of Europeans. In each section he returns over and over to list the persecutions and the reasons they were likely to continue. The State of Israel stands as a monument to Herzl’s socio-psychological insight.
By contrast, an earlier Zionist group calling itself BILU had failed in its bid to rally the Jews to remember themselves and return to Jerusalem. Although the BILU manifesto mentions Jews’ European oppressors, it does so on its way to an attempt to kindle the national pride of the Jewish people:
While a few zealous Jews answered the call of BILU to immigrate to Palestine, the majority of these ended up leaving in the following years. The manifesto was written in 1882 after a series of a pogroms in Ukraine, but its tone is aspirational, seeking to found a national identity on the shared glory of a common history. Herzl succeeded where BILU failed because he offered his audience an identity founded on the shared suffering of common persecution. He offered them an enemy. If Zionism was conceived in the pogroms and the Dreyfus Affair; the State of Israel was born of the Holocaust.
The question of Palestinian national identity is rarely asked with honesty, and a truthful answer is rarer still. In broad outline, it is safe enough to say that the concept was bouncing around among Arab intellectuals and political activists before the First World War, but that it did not become a concern of the mostly illiterate population until they began to feel threatened by the Zionists. If Jewish national identity emerged gradually through years of persecution before being given its final shape by the Holocaust, Palestinian national identity coalesced during years of British and Zionist occupation before being hastily completed by al-Nakba.
It is not a coincidence that both parties to the world’s most intractable political and humanitarian disaster nurture national myths that place them at the center of a worldwide conspiracy to humiliate and persecute them. Victimhood is unpleasant, and it’s reasonable to think of it as something one might seek to shed but, as Rodolfo Acuña-Soto discovered, very often people will fight to keep it. This begins to get at the root of why the conflict between Israel and Palestine seems not to admit any possibility of meaningful compromise.
A common criticism by Israelis is that Palestinian militants provoke Israeli attacks with the expectation that Arab civilians will be killed, allowing them to be used to garner sympathy and outrage in the broader world. The debate that usually follows centers on whether Israel is trying to deflect responsibility, or whether Hamas is using human shields, but all of these arguments slide off the surface. It is a mistake to understand the commitment of the Israelis or the Palestinians to their respective narratives of victimization as mere strategies for the achievement of political ends. The two peoples were born in tragedy, and their grievances go to the bone. When the Hamas militant is holding up a little body mangled by an Israeli drone, he is flying his national flag. What do any differences with his irritating Arab neighbor matter when they are both menaced by the monsters who did this? Every martyred child renews the community. But martyrs require killers whose corruption the counterpoint to their own purity. Each is an archetype, and attempts to introduce any ambiguity by humanizing either one will often invite a hostile response. Perfect evil exists only in mythology, and mythologies break down when they are filled with real human beings and historical events.
Attempts at peace are doomed to failure until we grasp the magnitude of what is truly being asked of each party. Israel and Palestine maintain the hull integrity of their national consciences by cultivating a sense of victimhood, without which they would have to reckon with what they have done, and with who they are. What becomes of a mass murderer who comes to his senses and realizes what he has done? What happens to a society whose raison d’etre is weakened by compassion? The likelihood of either is small, for somewhere in the mind’s dark caverns exists the knowledge that such a revelation might lead to a disorderly unraveling. And so it might, in the cases of Israel and Palestine. When we ask them to the table of peace, we must acknowledge the gravity of the sacrifice we call on them to make. We are asking them to give up their demands for justice, to sacrifice their right to be right, and to cancel the mandate of their national identity. We are asking each of them to tear out the heart of their national identity, to smash the lens through which they’ve always known the world. We are asking them all – Israel and Palestine, Jews and Arabs, Isaac and Ishmael – to become martyrs.