The Construction of History in Guy Delisle’s “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City”
“History is written by the victors.” Last summer, this aphorism appeared on national television when Attorney General William Barr responded to a question from CBS’s Catherine Herridge about the dismissing of charges against Michael Flynn by asking, “When history looks back on this decision, how do you think it will be written?” Barr answered his own question with the following, “Well history is written by the winners, so it largely depends on who’s writing the history.” He did say more, claiming that “fair history would say that it was a good decision because it upheld the rule of law. It … upheld the standards of the Department of Justice, and it undid what was an injustice.” In this post, I don’t want to look at the dismissal of charges against Flynn or whether or not Barr’s statement basically said, “We’re the victors and we write the history.” Rather, I just want to look at the phrase in relation to Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City.
Last post, I looked at one section of Delisle’s text where he showed that children do not start out hating one another. Today, I want to look at two sections where he explores the construction of history and how that construction works to either reinforce power or to oppose it. Delisle does this by detailing two two trips he made to Hebron during his family’s residence in Israel. “Breaking the Silence,” Israeli military veterans who break the code of silence and express their concern for what occurs in the occupied territories, led the first tour. For the second tour, an Israeli settler led Delisle and his wife along with group of Jews from New York to Hebron. The differences in each tour highlights the ways that narratives and history serve the purposes of those in power or those being subjugated.
Two important moments stand out in the tour lead by “Breaking the Silence.” The first is when the guide talks about an experience a previous tour group had at the grave site of Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli who murdered twenty-nine Palestinians who gathered to pray that day at the Cave of the Patriarchs. The survivors grabbed him and killed him. His grave is is Hebron and has become a shrine for Jewish extremists. Delisle shows the tour guide, at the front of the bus, as the man says, “Ok, last week, we ran into trouble with settlers. We’re going to cancel the visit the Goldstein’s grave.” Here, Delisle provides a footnote which reads, “Baruch Goldstein, Hebron settler who killed twenty-nine Palestinians in 1994.” With this footnote, Delisle highlights what Goldstein did, illuminating the incident for the reader and underscores the ways that we remember and think about the past.
In the next panel, Delisle depicts what he thinks the incident of the settlers and the tourists at Goldstein’s grave looked like. Here, he shows the settlers on the left, blowing whistles at the tourists. The tourists, on the right, cover the ears. Goldstein’s grave is in the foreground, at the bottom of the panel. Delisle zooms in on part of the inscription and translates it, “Here lies the saint, Dr. Baruch.” This panel, in conjunction with Delisle’s footnote in the previous one, underscores the ways that individuals view and interpret history. For the settlers at the grave, Goldstein has become a martyr to their cause. He validates their illegal settlements. For Delisle and Louise, Goldstein exists as a murderer and terrorist.
In the third panel, Delisle shows him and his travel companion Louise on the bus. He tells her, “Too bad, I’d have liked to see that.” Louise responds, “What? The grave of a murderer?” Delisle wanted to see the settlers with their whistlers, not the grave per se. What stands out here, though, is Louise’s phrasing and use of murderer to describe Goldstein. She calls his actions what they were, murder.
During the tour with the settler, the guide tells the group about the sixty-seven Jewish victims on the 1929 Hebron massacre. At the cemetery, the guide, over the course of three panels, look at the reader as if we are part of the tour group. He says, “Here lie the victims of the 1929 massacre. Sixty-seven Jews, among them babies and children, all savagely killed by Arab terrorists. Mutilated and injured, the survivors of the pogrom were forced to leave the city of Hebron. But forty-five years later, we returned.” At this, he bows his head and offers a prayer.
Delisle follows this with a panel showing the Jewish visitors from New York wiping away tears as they look around, and he follows this with ten panels where he contemplates the two different tours and the stories they tell. He begins with a panel of his head as he thinks, “In all, our guide talks three times about the 1929 massacre and its sixty-seven victims. Not a word about the 1994 massacre committed by Goldstein at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.” Delisle uses the same word, “massacre,” to describe each event. He equates the actions, no matter who committed them, together under the same label, thus highlighting the ways that events become interpreted depending on which side one falls.
Showing visitors walk amongst the graves, Delisle continues to contemplate: “Telling the stories of these massacres in just a few sentences seems like a convenient way to pass off the other side as the embodiment of evil. It’ll always be easier to fight others if you reduce the, to a single word or look at them just one way.” Delisle points out that it becomes easy to vilify individuals if you boil the stories of these events down to a few simple sentences that serve the purpose of the person or group telling it. He says these words as the Jewish tourists walk among the graves of those who died that day. They hear the story, from the tour guide, then become caught up in the narrative.
What the guide leaves out though, as Delisle notes, is the fact that some Jews found refuge in the homes of Arabs. Delisle begins with a panel that the tourists walking past a heavily armed Israeli soldier. He writes, “Whether its with the soldiers from Breaking the Silence of the Hebron settlers, I’m surprised nobody mentions one part of the story of that terrible day in 1929, which seems hardly insignificant to me.” Showing only the graves in the next panel, Delisle quotes Israeli historian Tom Segev, “Over two-thirds of the community found refuge in twenty-eight Arab homes, some of which took in dozens of Jews.” To let this sink in, Delisle’s next panel only shows the graves, no words, no people. This move drives home the point that the story of that day in 1929 cannot be boiled down into a simple summary of few sentences. Much more needs to be told.
Showing the silhouettes of the tour group getting back on the bus, Delisle muses, “It’s probably more expedient for today’s settlers to forget that not so long ago, Jews and Arabs were on good terms in Hebron.” What purpose does the narrative of the 1929 massacre serve for current settlers? It serves to justify their return and their treatment of the Palestinians, who, as Delisle learned from the first tour, cannot walk the streets in the H2 zone. The only people on the streets are the settlers and Israeli soldiers.
It is on this last point that I want to conclude. At the end of each sequence (from the first tour and the second tour that I have discussed), Delisle depicts children and soldiers. During the first tour, we see a young girl walking the street, a smile on her face, as a part of a soldier with a gun stands in the foreground on the right. In the cemetery sequence, he ends it with three panels that show tourists taking pictures with Israeli soldiers. The middle panel depicts a young boy, with a large smile on his face, as he takes a picture with the soldier. Each of these moments points back to the playground where Delisle highlights that one does not come into the world hating, one learns hate. How will these children, one living in Hebron and one hearing the tour guide’s incomplete story of the 1929 massacre, grow up? How will they view those around them? How will the history they learn inform their lives? These are important questions that Delisle gets at in the scenes from two separate tours to the same place.
What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.