“A nation,” said the French philosopher Ernest Renan, “is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors.” Throughout the ages, the use of myths about the past has been a potent instrument of forging a nation. The Zionist movement is not unique in propagating a simplified and varnished version of the past in the process of nation-building. But it does provide a strikingly successful example of the use of myths for the dual purpose of promoting internal unity and enlisting international sympathy and support for the state of Israel.
The traditional Zionist version of the Arab–Israeli conflict places the responsibility on the Arab side. Israel is portrayed as the innocent victim of unremitting Arab hostility and Arab aggression. In this respect, traditional Zionist accounts of the emergence of Israel form a natural sequel to the history of the Jewish people, with its emphasis on the weakness, vulnerability, and numerical inferiority of the Jews in relation to their adversaries. The American Jewish historian Salo Baron once referred to this as the lachrymose view of Jewish history. This view tends to present Jewish history as a long series of trials and tribulations culminating in the Holocaust.
The War of Independence constituted a glorious contrast to the centuries of powerlessness, persecution, and humiliation. Yet the traditional Zionist narrative of the events surrounding the birth of the state of Israel was still constructed around the notion of the Jews as the victims. This narrative presents the 1948 War as a simple, bipolar, no-holds-barred struggle between a monolithic and malevolent Arab adversary and a tiny, peace-loving Jewish community.