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Israel and Gaza – the Battle of Futile Simplicities

July 23, 2014

There are times when I wish that my graphical talents extended beyond crude PowerPoint diagrams and stick people.

Like so many repelled by acts of inhumanity on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I’ve been reading column acres about the Gaza stand-off over the past two weeks. Much of it is in the form of propaganda, received wisdom and formulaic condemnations. For me, the most futile debate is about who is entitled to the land. Not futile because the suffering of those dispossessed and oppressed over the past 100 years is irrelevant – of course it’s not. But it’s when territorial claims are represented as God-given, or even backed up by treaty or ancient right that I get exasperated.

Perhaps it’s all very simple. The most recent land-grab becomes a legitimate right after a few decades. And the most recent act of aggression condemns the aggressor until the other side trumps it with something worse, after which the original aggressor becomes the oppressed. And so it goes over centuries and ultimately millennia.

Now if I had the graphical skills I crave, this is what I would do.

I would take a region that has been in conflict for as long as anyone can remember- Israel/Palestine in this case – and create an animated timeline overlaid on a map of the area. I would track ethnic migrations, conquests, disaporas, and population breakdowns and numerical estimates for as long as we have historical and archaeological records to back them up. You would see arrows for incoming Cretans, Samaritans, Jews, Arabs, Hittites, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Franks and every other group that migrated to, colonised and occupied the land for any length of time. Then there would be other arrows to indicate emigration – Jews to Babylon, to Andalusia, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa and India for example. You would also be able to select a second view by religious faith. Again population numbers, but this time divided out between Christian sects, Muslim sects and the various branches of Judaism.


The kind of map you can see above is the classic way of showing immigration and movements of people. Its static, has no jump-off points and lacks the critical elements of time and numbers.

If you were able to track the comings and goings over all of recorded history of so many peoples, faiths and civilisations in an easily-grasped animated graphic, perhaps all but the most narrow-minded fanatics would be persuaded of how pointless it is to use history – or divine right for that matter – to justify the rights and wrongs of the present.

You could use the same technique in just about every region of the world. Ukraine for example, whose history in terms of conquest, forced migrations and ethnic cleansing is far more complex than most casual observers will realise. France – a battle-ground since the days when it was occupied by ever-shifting Gallic tribes. Britain – a melange of Celts, Gauls, Romans, Saxons, Vikings, Normans and now immigrants from Africa, the Asian subcontinent, the Caribbean and all parts of continental Europe. America, from the arrival of the Paleoindians from across the Bering Straights to the multi-ethnic mix resulting from four centuries of European immigration.

When looked at against a moving tableau of time, what appears to a contemporary witness to be a rock of ages turns out to be nothing but a pebble on a sea-swept beach. Which goes to show that history explains, and sometimes predicts, but should never be used to justify.

Sadly, relatively few people have the time, the inclination or the interest to read history in any depth. These days most of us rely on what we read on the web or watch on TV. And the more simplistic, the more we prefer it. Which is why we’re so susceptible to those peddling religious and political agendas – simplicity is easy, but complexity is difficult. It muddies the waters. Yet we pay our taxes and vote for politicians who best explain themselves in words of one syllable, and then proceed to spend our money without feeling the need to justify themselves, 0r, if called upon to do so, respond again in simple terms that mask the real underlying complexity.

What we now need is a way of conveying complexity to a generation addicted to the easily digestible overview. So here’s a project for a budding historian, and perhaps a digital media artist as well: create an animated template into which historians can populate data and trends over sustained periods in a clear and compelling  way. Or maybe a group collaboration involving historians, archaeologists and graphic designers. It’s certainly something to which I’d be happy to contribute.

If anyone is aware of such a project that’s currently underway, I’d be very interested to hear from them.


  1. Hi, I’ve been reading your blog from the shadows of email subscribers for some time. As a non-historian I appreciate people writing sensible posts about this conflict or any other matter, it is difficult to make up your mind only with news reports and superficial discussions.

    Now I emerge because I think that would be a very interesting project too, a well designed visualization of facts can be very compelling (eg. Gapminder).

    You might be interested in checking out The Programming Historian and its contributors maybe they know some people working on similar things as the one you propose.


    • Many thanks for your comment. I will certainly follow up on your suggestion. S

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