I am saddened to learn that some students at my alma mater are advocating on behalf of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate and pressure Israel. I have watched helplessly as other universities have passed similar resolutions. These initiatives have failed to put a dent in Israel’s economy but they have supported a narrative that Israel, and most Jews the world over, perceive as threatening.

I am a historical novelist. History and narrative are the tools of my trade. The mechanisms of their operation fascinate me. But I do not confuse them. History and narrative are not the same thing although one is often mistaken for the other. Their chief difference lies in their objectives. History attempts to approximate truth. Narrative tries to reinforce group identity. Both derive from historical experience. Both, too, seek to persuade, but in different ways. History demonstrates its legitimacy in its use of primary sources, the earliest available records, whether they be written or archeological. Memory, transmitted orally through the generations, is less trusted. Narrative is judged not by its accuracy but by its emotional power. Memory is prized in narrative. Objective truths are rightly seen as incomplete and are little valued or even dismissed.

The Jews of Israel have their narrative, which reinforces their sense of nationhood. In this telling, Israel has always been central to Jewish identity and history and Jews have always resided in Judaism’s Holy Land, whether under Jewish, Roman, Arab, Ottoman or British rule. The Jews who came to Israel from Europe during and after World War II were the victims of European antisemitism. Those who came from the Middle East — a little more than 50 percent of the population — were the victims of Arab intolerance. Still today, Israel is the victim of hatred that results from antisemitism.

The Palestinians, and much of the Islamic world, have their narrative, too. In this version, the Jews who entered Palestine from Europe during the first half of the twentieth century were colonizers. Those Jews who were forced to flee from the Arab world were not victims but potential spies, whose sympathies lay with the enemies of Islam. The Arabs who lived in Palestine were their victims, and many were expelled by force. Today, Israel oppresses its Arab population and wantonly kills Palestinian children. Arab control of Gaza and the West Bank is not complete; Israel still dominates militarily and can arrest and kill citizens in those areas, which are unfairly denied statehood and military powers. When Arabs murder Jews, and even when Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah lob missiles into Israel, these are morally justified acts of despair.

Finally, the Arabs of Israel — as opposed to the Palestinians who live in Gaza and the Palestinian-Authority-controlled areas of the West Bank — have a third narrative. They are an ethnic and religious minority in the Jewish state. Although they contribute powerfully to Israel’s economy, providing a majority of the doctors in the country and a significant percentage of university professors and high-tech engineers, they remain, as a whole, economically and demographically disadvantaged. The cities they control are rife with crime and Israel fails to provide adequate policing in these areas. Many Israeli Arabs also feel they are discriminated against in the legal system and in the workplace. 

As I stated above, divergent narratives powerfully blend emotion and fact. All three of the above-schematized points of view feel entirely “real” to their respective identity groups. In each case, emotionally salient facts are prioritized, while those facts that don’t fit the pattern are deprioritized. This is not the result of malevolence or deliberate distortion; it flows from human nature. 

Thus, BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions effort. I am not worried about its practical effects. Most of the Islamic world has boycotted Israel since its inception. Nevertheless, Israel managed to insert its orange juice into their supermarkets and its technology into their smartphones, cars and medical devices. Nor do I care about the propagandistic power of the BDS movement. It remains marginal in the cultural landscapes of the Americas, Europe and Asia. But if the Yale student body were to vote in favor of BDS, it would succeed in alienating me and other Jewish alumni and students. We would no longer feel that Yale’s culture fairly reflects the diversity of its constituents.

When I was a student at Yale, I learned to take narrative seriously but also to read primary texts and think critically. In the case of Israel and Palestine, this means: learn as much as you can about what happened in the past and what is happening today, from sources on all sides. Listen, too, to the emotions of people on all sides. We are all human beings. All our narratives are important. So is history.

MITCHELL JAMES KAPLAN ’79, is the author of three historical novels, including most recently Rhapsody (Simon & Schuster)