Contextualizing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Contested Land, Contested Memory

July 19, 2014 at 10:26 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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(Apologies to the regular followers of my blog if you receive this post twice; when I published it the first time, it was mailed out to you but did not appear on my actual blog page, so I am posting it again.)

 

It is my hope that this review essay will shed some light on the current round of seemingly endless hostilities between the State of Israel and various Palestinian groups. The post is longer than usual;  I trust it will reward your perseverance.

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 Contested Land, Contested Memory: Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophe. By Jo Roberts. (Toronto, Ontario: Dundurn, 2013). Paper. 304 pp. $24.99. Kindle, $8.69.

As a member of the post-World War II generation, my Holocaust learning followed a fairly standard trajectory: watching The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959, Holocaust with Meryl Streep in 1978, Lanzmann’s Shoah in 1985. Then, in graduate school, I read that Catholics constituted 60 percent of the Nazi army and that after the war the Vatican used “ratlines” to sneak Nazis to Latin America. I concluded that, as a Catholic, I was not entitled to an opinion about the State of Israel.

I suppose I considered my silence penance for centuries of Christian antisemitism. But as I read Jo Roberts’ stunning new book, Contested Land, Contested Memories, I began to wonder if my motives were entirely virtuous. Perhaps they included naiveté. Or romanticismhow comforting it is to believe that unambiguous good has triumphed over absolute evil! Or maybe it was sloth that underpinned my stance, sloth in the face of an unbelievably complex situation.

As its subtitleIsrael’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophesuggests, Roberts’ book includes the Holocaust frame within which I and millions of others understand contemporary Israel. But it expands that frame to include what the current million-and-a-half Palestinian Israelis, Palestinians in exile and those in the Occupied Territories call the Nakba, the catastrophe that befell them as a result of the 1948 War of Israeli Independence. Included as well are the ghosts of that catastrophewhatever memories remain after Jewish Israeli attempts to eradicate them from national consciousness, as well as the ghosts of that other catastrophe, the destruction of European Jewry. The words Shoah and Nakba both mean catastrophe.

Underlying Roberts’ analysis is a scholarly conversation about collective memory, initiated by the sociologist Emile Durkheim in the late nineteenth century and continued by his student, Maurice Halbwachs. Collective memory is a memory or memories shared by a group that contributes significantly to the group’s identity. Halbwachs expanded the concept with a second notion, that of “instrumental presentism.” In this case, groups not only remember, but their leaders choose which past events should be remembered and which forgotten in order to make the past useful to the needs of the present. By the late twentieth century, scholars such as Peter Novick were applying collective memory directly to the Holocaust, a fitting use since Halbwachs himself died in Buchenwald in 1945.

Initially, Roberts uses collective memory to explore the ways Jewish and Palestinian Israelis have understood 1948. For the Palestinians, the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the subsequent Arab-Israeli war meant the expulsion of most Palestinian Arabs from the new State of Israel; for those who remained, it meant the destruction of their society, their culture, entire villages, the land itself. For Jewish Israelis, on the other hand, 1948 meant that David had triumphed over Goliath, the vastly stronger Arab League.

Because the Palestinian Arabs lost the 1948 war (and several thereafter), Jewish Israelis had the upper hand in the political reconstruction of the collective memory of 1948. In the decades that followed, Israeli textbooks presented the Israeli defense forces as having had nothing to do with the seven hundred thousand plus refugees who poured out of what became the State ofIsrael during and after the war; the Palestinians simply chose to flee. And in those same years, Israel eradicated as many traces of Palestinian culture as they could, bulldozing towns and villages and mosques, constructing high-rises over cemeteries, replacing Arabic geographical names with Hebrew ones.

Yet the Nakba was not the only catastrophe rewritten in the years after 1948. For me, as a Christian, one of the most stunning sections of Contested Land, Contested Memory is Roberts’ narrative of David Ben-Gurion’s using the 1961 Eichmann trial to make the Holocaust the center of a new, unified Israeli identity. Who knew that Zionists, before 1961, stereotyped Holocaust survivors as victims or Nazi collaborators? Who knew that Sabra (socialist) Zionists looked down on Mizrahi (Arab) Jews for their Arabness and their excessive religiousness? Yet after the Eichmann trial, Mizrahis felt more at home in Israel and Zionists and Holocaust survivors came together around the Holocaust as the foundation of the State of Israel. In the 1960s, victimhood became central to Jewish Israeli identity and extermination by Palestinians and other Arabs a constant threat. As the Zionists had argued, Jews are safe only in a Jewish state.

Roberts makes clear that such transference of collective trauma is by no means limited to Israelis. Throughout history traumatized peoples have attempted to reconstruct their identity by obliterating the collective memory of the Other; the Shoah and two millennia of Christian anti-semitism led to the attempted obliteration of the collective memory of the Nakba. But the ghosts of collective trauma refuse to be obliterated; they live on, in this case, in Arab Holocaust denial, guerilla attacks, and suicide bombings. One catastrophe begets another.

Writers besides Roberts have used the discourse of collective memory to understand the transmission of catastrophe. In The Shadow of a Year (2013), a book of particular interest to me as a descendent of Irish Catholic immigrants, John Gibney traces massive misrepresentations of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 for Irish Protestant as well as Irish Catholic political purposes from just after the rebellion to the Northern Ireland Troubles of the last sixty years. Irish Protestant convictions that Catholics had massacred hundreds of thousands of their forebears in 1641 contributed directly to the catastrophe of an Gorta Mór, the GreatPotato Famine of the 1840s. And who knows what shadows—ghosts—of ostensible Irish Catholic barbarism hovered around the May arrest and questioning of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams for a purported political assassination in 1972?

Yet Contested Land, Contested Memory distinguishes itself from other studies of collective memory on several counts. To begin with, Roberts’ fine writing makes the discourse of collective memory accessible in ways that scholarly studies often fail to do. And because the catastrophes that concern her happened fairly recently, Roberts is able to use the memories of actual Palestinian and Jewish Israelis to frame her subject matter. Stories of Jewish Israelis discovering with horror that their home or vacation cottage stands on the site of an obliterated Arab dwelling, or of Palestinians’ attempting, often without success, to return to a beloved village or mosque, bring the ghosts of the Nakba to life.

For Roberts, as the book’s title suggests, the land itself is central to her story. The prolific vines overgrowing an abandoned and deteriorating Arab structure on the book’s cover and spine alert the reader to this from the outset. Narratives of the destruction of towns andvillages (and sometimes the murder of their inhabitants) during the 1948 war are sobering enough, but to read of continuing efforts to remove all traces of Palestinian material culture throughout the more than a half century of Israel’s existence is genuinely shocking.

Equally unforgettable is Roberts’ documentation of the Jewish Israeli remaking of the land itself, not merely the structures on it, in the interest of obliterating Arab traces. After Independence, we learn, Palestine’s traditional rural landscape was transformed into a socialist-modernist one: tens of thousands of olive trees, the signature tree of the Arab-Palestinian culture and the source of its two primary exports, were uprooted, even as whole forests of other trees were planted tomake the land look more European.

In her close attention to the land, Roberts actually expands John Gibney’s historiographic portrait of the shadows of Irish catastrophe. Two decades before the Potato Famine, as they were mapping Ireland, the British Ordnance Survey transliterated the names of geographical locations across Ireland from Gaelic to English, a language many of the Irish did not even speak, never mind read. This is what colonizers do, Roberts observes.

Some of the conclusions Roberts draws in Contested Land, Contested Memory are discouraging. The State of Israel has moved steadily to the right politically since the election of Menachim Begin’s Likud party in the 1970s. The identification of Mizrahi Jews with Likud because of previous discrimination they had suffered and the arrival of a million Jewish Russians in the 1990s has contributed to an increasingly racialized society. In 2012, 70 percent of ultra-Orthodox Israelis, a group whose numbers have exploded in recent years, supported barring Palestinian Israelis from voting, while 71 percent supported their forced “transfer” (explusion) from Israel. Today, more and more, as Roberts observes, “Palestinian Israelis are the intruding stranger in the Jewish homeland,” the Other who maintains the margins of Jewish Israeli identity. Connections with the most recent outbreak of hostilities are obvious.

Nonetheless, Roberts finds reason for hope. Already in the 1980s, Jewish Israeli scholars known as “the New Historians” had begun heroically documenting the other origin of the State of Israel, the Nakba. Since then, groups such as the Jewish Israeli NGO Zochrot (Hebrew for “remembering”) have formed to bring forward the hidden history of the Nakba. For Zochrot, a major effort is leading Jewish Israelis on tours of villages and urban neighborhoods that had Arab populations sixty years ago. Scholars and journalists also continue to write about these unacknowledged ghosts. For Roberts, the very nature of these efforts “allows for a glimmer of hope, the potential for…’multiple narratives with multiple beginnings’ to tell the history of this land.” Reconciliation is possible only when the ghosts of both catastrophes are acknowledged and a new history constructed from them.

 

Two events occurred as I was reading Contested Land, Contested Memory. One was the visit of Pope Francis to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Israel. The pope’s decision to go from Jordan straight to Bethlehem, his references to the “State of Palestine,” and his unscheduled stop at the barrier between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, while making him unpopular with some, hint at a shift in the global view of Israel and Palestine. A reference to “competing narratives” in a New York Times article about the pope’s visit also suggests that long-buried memories are resurfacing.

But even as Pope Francis was visiting Israel, the 9/11 Museum opened at the World Trade Center Site in Lower Manhattan. Certain aspects of the museum are contentiousthe presence of a gift shop, and the location of the remains of unidentified victims below ground, for example. But overall, the museum stands as the representation of yet another unambiguous narrative, the barbaric terrorist attack on innocent Americans of September 11, 2001.

Yet perhaps because of my reading of Roberts, it came to me that I had virtually no knowledge of why the terrorists had attacked the Twin Towers. When I asked others about this, nobody knew. They were just terrorists, my friends replied; it’s what terrorists do.

But with a little effort, I learned that al-Qaeda had, indeed, stated its reasons for the attack. Already in 1998, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri had issued a fatwa to “kill the Americans and their allies…in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque (the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) and the holy mosque (in Mecca) from their grip…” And in a 2002 letter, bin Laden described the U.S. support of Israel as the motivation for 9/11. Later he claimed that the idea of destroying the towers had first occurred to him when he witnessed Israel’s bombardment of high-rise apartment buildings during the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war.

The mass killing of civilians can never be justified, and other motives besides the ones mentioned here doubtless contributed to the 9/11 attack. But as Jo Roberts articulates powerfully in Contested Land, Contested Memory, catastrophe begets catastrophe. Only when communities face their ghosts and reconcile with one another can they prevent the next catastrophe, the one that is otherwise surely on its way.

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8 Comments »

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  1. Well done, Marian! You are alerting your readers to an important book, and giving us all some powerful points and concepts to think about.

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    • Thanks for this positive response, Rosemary. I can only hope that many people will read this important book.

      Marian

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  2. Yes, thank you, Marian, for this review of a book with which I wasn’t familiar. Sounds very worth a read. At the same time, I must say that I knew much of what you wrote, and I know there are many other groups than the one mentioned where Israelis and Palestinians stand together for Palestinian rights. A major cause of American collective ignorance is the unconditional support of our politicians and media for Israel. What must be done and I believe is happening slowly is the education of Americans to the truth which Roberts’ book helps provide.

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  3. Thank you, Marian, for this review. I read it following Jackie’s report on a massive demonstration she was participating in. Lenie Schaareman..

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  4. Thank you Marian, and thanks for bringing it to our attention. I also like Rabbi Michael Lerner’s (of Tikun Magazine) book on Healing Israel/Palestine.

    and the role of collective memory is strong and lasting, Another example, closer to (my) home: my cousin (who lives in South Carolina) and my brother (who lives in Michigan) are currently at odds over the Civil War service of our collective great-great grandfather, who marched with Sherman to the sea.

    And — having gone to visit the top of the world trade center, and seen the museum there devoted to American Exceptionalism and Hegemony (my title, not theirs) it was totally understandable why the towers would be a target. We need to see ourselves as others see us.

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  5. Excellent commentary, Marian – thank you for sharing this and for your comments about the 9/11 memorial.
    Carol Skyrm

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  6. Thank you, Marian. I kept “trying” to get to reading your excellent synopsis and just got to it, in part delayed by the heartbreak and worry of it all, and even more these past weeks. I appreciate the application of looking through the lens of trauma both individual and collective and also at the impact and purpose of erasure. Pam Cobey

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  7. We need to do some healing with Native Americans, too, this is great. I don’t usually like to read nonfiction, but the ones you recommend always peak my interest! Thank you!

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