In Israel, history, especially ancient history, is often bent and manipulated to service competing political agendas. The past few weeks have seen some particularly egregious offenses in talking points put forward by David Friedman, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Linda Sarsour. It’s tempting to overlook these arguments as vacuous distractions, but they speak to the ways many Israelis, Palestinians, and their supporters view the past and the present.

There’s a real, historical Jewish connection to the Land of Israel, especially in Jerusalem. That relationship does not automatically confer rights to specific territory, but it is nevertheless important for Jews in Israel and the diaspora, and understandably so. It is what makes Israel more legitimate than some hypothetical Zionist colony in Uganda. There are certainly anti-Semites committed to obscuring documentary evidence of historical Jewish presence in Israel and the West Bank. But nations are ultimately social constructs. There are some frequently used criteria, such as common language, holidays, customs, religion, and so on, but the boundaries of where and when a nation stops are hazy. Anyone offering conclusive answers is operating with an agenda.

Filling in the gaps requires national mythology. Stories (often of questionable historicity) and symbols can offer cohesion to deeply divided societies.

There’s actually some benefit to a national myth that is not so bound up in the facts. It can adapt to changing circumstances and values without the baggage of certitude. Take, for example, the siege of Masada. The most commonly repeated version, told everywhere from American Jewish summer camps to Israeli public schools and Birthright trips, is a story of underdog Jewish rebels laying down their lives in the face of overwhelming Roman military power. The idea of an embattled redoubt of noble resistance was appealing in Israel’s early years, when Israel’s long borders with Egypt and Jordan were still hostile frontiers.

We know there was a Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire in the late first century. We know there was a battle at the tail end of the conflict at Masada. But the specifics, namely the mass suicide of Jewish rebels and their families, lean almost exclusively on the writings of Flavius Josephus. A historian in his own time, Josephus might better be understood today as an unreliable narrator. That doesn’t mean the story is meaningless. In fact, the liberties Josephus takes with the facts allow future generations to make changes of their own. The zealots who fell at Masada nearly two thousand years ago would have seen little to nothing in common with the socialist, atheistic Israel of the 1950s. But that doesn’t matter, because the story was convenient for Israelis in that time. And after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, when some tour guides became uncomfortable with lionizing religious fundamentalists, Masada turned into a parable about the pitfalls of pious fanaticism. This is a good national myth. The point is to inspire, uplift, or to teach a lesson, and, when necessary, to change the lesson and offer a new one.

National mythology turns rotten is when it is treated as a substitute for the historical record and weaponized to suppress or deny the stories other nations tell. This issue is common to the Ir David project and the polemics of Benjamin Netanyahu and Linda Sarsour.

When David Friedman, Jason Greenblatt, and Lindsay Graham participated in the opening of an ancient road site in Ir David, underneath East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood, they practiced a sort of exclusionary national mythmaking. Ir David is a deeply political enterprise  masquerading as an archaeological initiative. The goal of the site’s operator, the pro-settlement NGO Elad, is not to illuminate history in a scholarly fashion, but to validate Jewish claims and only Jewish claims to Jerusalem. That is why the site Friedman and Greenblatt opened is presented as a Jewish pilgrimage road to the Second Temple. By virtue of the route’s age, it is quite possible that the path was taken by Jews on their way to the Temple in the same way that George Washington likely traversed many small towns in New Jersey during the American Revolution, but it is not so obvious that the road was purpose built for pilgrims, and it was probably not used by them exclusively. This is the failing in Ir David and programs like it, which reach back and attempt to establish an unbroken chain from the modern State of Israel to the Jews of antiquity. The chain was broken, and that is part of the story. The intervening 1,900 years of history cannot be ignored, nor can the needs of Silwan’s current Palestinian residents who have registered concerns about the structural implications of excavations under their homes (with good reason). The insistence on turning the road into a tourist attraction despite Silwan Palestinians’ complaints sharply contrasts with the discretion the Israel Antiquities Authority exercised at other locations where homeowners were allowed to go about their business after archaeological discoveries on private property. David Friedman’s bold assertion that the road site brings “truth and science” to a discussion of Jewish history in Israel overstates Elad’s evidence, positing a mythology that is too unbending to accommodate others.

Benjamin Netanyahu made the latest contribution to this counterproductive debate when he tweeted out an article arguing that the Philistines’ genetic background proves they originated in southern Europe. It is not a massive leap to suggest that Netanyahu is projecting this story onto the modern day Palestinians, especially in the context of the last few weeks’ war over ancient history. To Netanyahu, Palestinians are not from the Middle East and therefore do not belong. This is a dangerous game to play. First of all, arguing that any European ancestry is a disqualifier for national rights in the Levant is bound to produce problems for many Israelis, including Netanyahu. There is also the more serious issue of inserting DNA into a national conflict, a line of reasoning that treads uncomfortably close to race science. Ultimately, this national myth suffers from the same problem as Ambassador Friedman’s “truth and science” quip: it attempts to map scientific evidence onto a thoroughly unscientific construct.

Of course, exclusionary mythmaking is not just an Israeli or Jewish problem. Linda Sarsour recently repeated the unhelpful comment that Jesus Christ was a Palestinian. She was actually responding to another remark claiming biblical figures as black. In a sense, this context makes the Sarsour’s comment more revealing because her response was divorced from an Israeli-Palestinian debate. There was no pressure to disprove an Israeli claim; this is simply what Sarsour thinks. The exchange, and ensuing backlash, calls to mind a scene in Avenue Q in which the characters playfully argue over Jesus’s ethnicity. Read more generously, Sarsour might be seen as identifying a national icon for Palestinians to rally around. But the underlying belief is clear. It is implication by omission; Jesus was either Palestinian as opposed to being Jewish or his Jewishness matters less. Thus, the world’s most well-known Jew has his identity subordinated to another nationality. By proxy, Jewish national aspirations are less legitimate than Palestinian ones. Amid backlash, Sarsour attempted to reverse course, clarifying that Palestinian simply means being born in what is now Palestine and that this does not negate one’s Jewishness, later conceding that Jesus was Jewish. Had this exchange happened in reverse, the controversy would likely have been less severe. But in Sarsour’s original accounting, one identity does seem to have primacy over the other.

Moments like these should give Jews, Palestinians, and others pause to consider the purpose of our own national stories. There’s no need to abandon communal myths altogether, but if they only provide fuel for toxic disputes, they are better left in the past.