ISRAEL AND PALESTINE: CONFLICTING NARRATIVES
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771 / September 8, 2010
Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff
Temple B’nai Or, Morristown, NJ
It was a beautiful August day, hot but beautiful, with a cool breeze bearing a slight scent of eucalyptus. Around us in this oasis of sorts were trees and verdant fields unlike any we had seen since leaving Jerusalem earlier in the day. Before us in Israel’s Sachne Nature Preserve was a series of pools in various shades of beautiful blue. Fed by natural springs, this park at the foot of Mt. Gilboa is an Israeli national treasure and popular destination location, especially on a hot summer day like this. The members of our group from Temple seemed to be the only people speaking English, not that it mattered really. There was a smattering of French, but what we heard mostly were Hebrew and Arabic. Swimming, walking, playing, sliding, standing under the waterfalls were Jews and Arabs, and you could not always tell by looking who was who. In this place, this oasis of community, we frolicked in the same cool waters, stood side by side as the waterfall beat refreshingly down on our heads. If there was a common language you share under the waterfall, it is the language of smiles. It was a beautiful sight for the eyes; it was a beautiful Israel, an oasis in the midst of all the heat. I am not sure if there were vines and fig trees under which to sit, but everyone was sitting under their umbrella and on their own blankets and no one seemed to be afraid.
Earlier in Jerusalem, we had a parallel experience. As I had with a number of Temple groups before, I took them to a place dear to my heart, the Alyn Children’s Rehabilitation Hospital. Alyn is a place where Arab and Jewish doctors, nurses, and specialists helping Jewish and Arab patients is an everyday affair. It did not matter where you came from or what you did or did not wear on your head; Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze all received the same loving care.
I think it was Benda Sichel who, when she saw Jews and Arabs were being treated together, asked the simple yet profound question, “Why doesn’t the world know about places like these, places where people get along?” It’s a good question.
Why doesn’t the world know that in certain places in Israel it is possible for Jews and Arabs to live and work and play and heal together? Sure, it is not the everyday norm for most people, these were not Israeli Jews and West Bank Palestinians, and, of course, people getting along is neither sexy nor violent. But it also just might be that such examples of coexistence are rarely recognized because these don’t fit neatly into the narrative.
What narrative? The narrative that says that Jews and Arabs will be forever at odds, unable to live together or even side by side.
What exactly do we mean by narrative, and what does it have to do with anything? A narrative is the story through which people understand themselves, as they retell their past, define their present, and plot their future. Narratives act as a lens that focuses and enlarges a select view of reality and a filter that screens out other views chosen to be ignored. Narratives are often a mixture of fact and fantasy, combining parts of what happened with what you want to have happened. Think of your own narrative, the narratives of your family, how they are shaped by the stories you tell and those you choose to not to tell, since they are not really you as you would like to be seen.
Nations have their own national narratives, foundational narratives that pass along tales of important beginnings and define the character of its people. Think of our old neighbor George Washington and how his narrative, both fact and fiction, shaped what it means to be an American. Each national narrative has its own heroes and villains, its aspirations and sacrifices, its “cruel oppressions,” which is usually “them,” and its “righteous victims,” which is invariably “us.” Nations live for their narratives, and, because of that, too often people die for their narratives and the narratives of others. For one thing about national narratives is that they often have embedded in them narratives of denial. For my narrative to be true, yours cannot be; they are mutually exclusive.
More and more the conflict between Jews and Palestinians is being expressed as competing narratives. Each party looks to the past through the lens of its own experience and filters out the experience of the other. Jewish and Arab national narratives go back to 1947 and 1948, and way before. We, and they, see our narratives as sacrosanct, view the others’ as fabrication. Each side sees the same events through very different eyes and probably always will. This is important to understand now as Israelis and Palestinians again begin another round of direct talks.
The short version of the Palestinian narrative is told more or less like this: Zionism, in the Palestinian narrative, was another example of European colonialism, resulting in the invasion of Arab land by outsiders who displaced the indigenous population by coercion and force. In 1947, the nations of the world, feeling guilty for the Holocaust for which they were not responsible, ganged up against the Palestinians and imposed a division of a land that was rightfully theirs, a division they could not and did not accept. In 1948, the Arab nations and their armies were ineffectual against the better trained and better organized Zionist invaders. The Zionists committed violent atrocities and expelled them from our land. Time and again the more powerful Jews have reined terror down on the weaker Palestinians and made their lives unbearable. The world labels as terrorists those who maintain the armed struggle, but they are really freedom fighters in the struggle for justice for the Palestinians. The Palestinian narrative holds that the true terrorists are the Israelis with their cruel occupation and apartheid wall. Israel is a racist state and a pariah among the nations. The oppressive and illegal occupation must end, and for most, in their hearts of hearts, that means giving back not only the territories captured in 1967, but also the land assigned to and captured by the Zionists in 1948 during the Naqba, the great catastrophe. Yes, perhaps mistakes were made and perhaps opportunities were lost, but we are living in an unjust situation, they say, and the clock has to be turned back to undo what was done to us. Now, the only remedy for many may not be a two state solution but a one-state solution in which Arabs can reclaim the homes they once had in what is now “the Zionist entity.” Their bottom line is this: Palestine is our historic homeland, Jerusalem is our rightful capital, and we Palestinians are the conflict’s righteous victims.
Now, our narrative, meaning the Jewish narrative, is of course radically different: Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, is our legitimate God-given ancient homeland, the land from which we were expelled years ago, the holy land to which we have yearned to return ever since. We Jews are not invaders but returnees. True, the modern Zionist movement was the Jewish version of European nationalism, which, by the way, also spawned Arab nationalism. Yet Zionism represents the rejection of the European Jewish experience. Zionism rejects Jewish homelessness and powerlessness, the consequences of which we have suffered for centuries, culminating in the worst consequence of homelessness and powerlessness, the Holocaust, which we can allow to happen never again. The early pioneers developed land that they legitimately purchased, not stole, and later expansions were due to wars of aggression against us. In the early days under the British, we were willing to join the Arabs in joint governance, but they would have no part of that. Later, we were willing to live with the UN’s partition plan, as imperfect as it was. That would have resulted in a Jewish state side by side a Palestinian state; but the Arabs rejected that and attacked us mercilessly with the armies of seven sovereign Arab states. During our War of Independence, we encouraged the Arabs within our borders to remain, but many of them followed the orders of the Arab armies to step aside so that they could come and sweep us into the sea. Israel has been willing to make peace with its Arab neighbors ever since. It made peace with Egypt and then with Jordan, but when it was willing to give almost everything to the Palestinians, it was still not enough; and they began the second intifada, much more violent than the first. We pulled out of Gaza in ‘05, only to be met with countless missiles and rocket attacks.
We Israelis who are blown up in pizza parlors and at weddings and bar mitzvahs, who live under fear of indiscriminate rocket attack, we are the righteous victims, and those who commit such crimes are terrorists, pure and simple. Yes, mistakes were made, opportunities were lost; but we can’t move the clock backwards. Our bottom line is this: we Jews have returned to our ancient homeland in which Jerusalem has been and will always be our capital. Rather than being a pariah among the nations, Israel, with its advances in science, technology, agriculture, and medicine, has been a blessing to humanity and could be even more so, if only the Palestinians would put down their weapons and give peace a chance.
Now, friends, if you ask which of these narratives is true and which is false, strictly speaking, the answer has to be, neither. Neither is totally true; neither is totally false. History can’t be painted in black and white. Yes, in 1948, it is true that Arabs were encouraged to stay, but it also is true that some were forced to leave their homes. There were a few instances of excessive and shameful violence which were condemned by most Jews but which the Arabs exploited to ratchet up the fear factor and create more refugees. And yes, there was land not assigned to Israel by the partition plan that Israel captured and kept. Of course, had the Arabs been victorious, there would have been no thought of giving back captured Jewish land. Israel did miss some opportunities to talk peace — some genuine, some not.
But just because neither narrative is totally true and neither totally false, that is not to say that they are equally so in my eyes. Were we to balance the two narratives on a scale, comparing the mistakes made and opportunities missed, the acts of violence for the sake of terrorizing civilians, the words of hatred, demonization, and incitement, the denial of the other of its place in this land, the scales would be weighed most heavily in favor of the Israeli narrative. The clock of history can only go one way, and that is forward.
Unfortunately, more and more, the Palestinian narrative is drowning out the Jewish narrative, through its constant repetition, the volume and vehemence in which it is told. And those who tell it present it as if it were totally unbiased, not admitting or knowing that they are choosing the Palestinian narrative, which is anything but objective. We are seeing that in the embrace by many Christians and Church organizations of the Kairos Document, a totally one-sided piece of propaganda in theological clothing created this summer by a small group of Palestinian Christians. Among other things, Kairos claims that Israel’s occupation is the source of all the conflicts in the Middle East and refers to the Torah as a “dead letter,” effectually delegitimizing not just Israel but Judaism.
Of course, in the propaganda war, it does not help that Israel often shoots itself in the foot and provides Palestinians opportunities to spin events according to their narrative, while the Israelis are admittedly not as good or as quick in getting their side of the story told.
We saw an example of that this summer with the flotilla to Gaza, when those who see events through the eyes of the anti-Israel narrative immediately condemned Israel even before any form of investigation, and that includes the UN. By the way, if you would like to take an evenhanded look at what happened, I recommend that you go to YouTube and check out the documentary done this summer by the BBC. The BBC, hardly a pro-Israel news source, created and aired a special report on the incident and what led up to it. And do you know what? Israel comes out largely vindicated. The BBC got past its own narrative to present the facts, and told Israel’s version of events in a comprehensive and compelling way. In that documentary, you hear activists from the ship talking about how their efforts were meant to end the occupation. Of course, they ignore the fact that Israel did that back in 2005, and not knowing or caring, the only Jew occupying Gaza since then has been Gilad Shalit, who has been held by Hamas for five years without even being allowed to be visited by the Red Cross. This empty chair we have had on our bimah is for him.
But regardless of the facts, the Israel-denying narrative persists. And in retelling the story, and asserting that Israel was midwifed by injustice and violence, the narrative not only criticizes Israel, it delegitimizes its very existence. As Motti Golani of Haifa University writes[i], …, our dispute with the Palestinians is also about narrative, [and]…Since narratives like to draw a line between victims and justice, a threat to Israel’s legitimacy as a sovereign state immediately rises to the surface, whether we want it to or not.
To some extent, the anti-Israel boycott and divestment movement in its various expressions and the anathamization of Israeli artists and politicians are part of that delegitimization. As misguided is the movement to delegitimize Israel, it is more of a symbolic threat than a real one, certainly compared to the real threat to Israel and to us all, the nuclearization of Iran. A nuclear Iran presents an existential threat to Israel. Just the idea of a nuclearized Iran takes a toll on the Israeli economy and Israeli spirit. Israel, America, and indeed the nations of the world need to do whatever it takes to prevent that from happening, and there does not seem to be much time left. President Obama, in a conference call with Rabbis yesterday, expressed confidence that the sanctions against Iran will work. He had better be right. By the way, he wishes everyone a Shanah Tovah.
As the direct negotiations proceed between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, we know there will be starts and stops. Each will make statements made for internal political needs, and, I imagine, there will be barrages of unhelpful rhetoric. What would be helpful, even if behind closed doors, would be for each side to put aside its narrative of denial, focusing less on telling their separate stories and more on pursuing their mutual interests.
In the last number of years, many more Jewish Israelis have been able to do that, to affirm at least part of the Arab narrative. Even Mr. Netanyahu has admitted that the Palestinians deserve to have their own homeland. That is a big step from where he used to be, a quantum leap since Golda declared, “There is no such thing as the Palestinian People.”
Unfortunately, I have yet to read where any Palestinians of note have been able to affirm even part of the Jewish narrative. That is no surprise. The Palestinian narrative is so filled with pain and a sense of righteous victimhood, so colored by the conviction that the Middle East is Dar Islam, the realm of Islam, so bolstered by the surrounding Arab regimes in whose interest it is to keep the Palestinian wounds open, that they are unable to take a critical look at what really happened as many Israelis have done. To admit to the right of Jews to part of that land is more than impossible; it is a denial of their own existence. The vast majority of Palestinians will never accept our Zionist narrative, will never admit that the Jews have a right to our homeland there, and if we insist that they do, there will never be peace. But as long as Israel can have secure borders, they can live without that recognition.
In his new book, The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories, Neil Caplan quotes Natasha Gill, historian and conflict resolution expert, who wrote “’in the marketplace of negotiation’ an insistence on ‘rights, recognition and reconciliation’ yields no results and has become a ‘tool of intransigence…’ peace[is] necessarily built on interests and on compromise,[ii] not on demands that each side see the world through the eyes of the other.”
But ultimately, if Israel and the Palestinians want to shape a new future, they will need to find a new narrative that supports it, need to refocus the lens, need to reset the filters. In this regard, Mr. Golani suggests that Israel boil its own narrative down to the most essential affirmation, which would be simply, “The State of Israel has the right to exist in part of the Land of Israel.” That would make it easier to accept an essential Palestinian narrative that would say, “The Palestinians have a right to a state of their own in part of Palestine.” “We’ll argue about the rest in negotiations,” he says. “This,” he claims, “is a sovereign decision that is not enslaved to a historical past. We can choose what to remember and what to forget, and what story to tell ourselves; Only our own recognition of this narrative… will enable us to recognize the narrative of the other side without fearing that such recognition will destroy us.”
This approach neither focuses on the past nor filters out the past; it transcends the past and says that there are two national groups who have a right to live in freedom in their own countries, each getting a part of this twice-promised land. Maintaining narratives of denial ultimately deny the possibility of peace. Our narratives no longer have to be either/or, but both/and.
As face-to-face negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians began last week, each committed, at least in words, to find a just and secure resolution between these two nations. Do they have the ability and willingness to do so? I’m not sure, but still, the Jew lives with hope. Past negotiations have pretty much painted a picture of what a peaceful settlement would look like. It is just going to take a lot of work to get back there, and there will be nay-sayers on both sides who will do their best to prevent peace from breaking out.
Our job, I believe, is to support the process, however long it takes, to continue to be there for Israel, to educate ourselves to our narrative and beyond, and to speak truth in the face of distortion. I encourage you to visit Israel and buy Israeli products, not because Israel’s economy needs saving, but as a concretization of our connection and commitment. Right now, when there are so many voices out there ready to be critical of Israel at every juncture, Israel needs our support. That is why I was one of the first to sign on to a new group called Rabbis for Israel –– Centrist Advocates for Realistic Peace, created by our friend, Rabbi Mickey Boyden. While we are not uncritical of Israel, we strongly affirms Israel’s right to defend itself from Palestinian violence. If you would like to read the statement and, if you agree, sign on, you can go to www.weareforisrael.org. You don’t even have to be a rabbi!
Speaking realistically then, I have to admit that the beautiful Nature Preserve where Arab and Jews frolicked in the same place may be no more than an oasis in the desert, a refreshing but isolated place where the world is as it should be but generally isn’t. I think we are still very far off from Israeli Jews and Palestinians dwelling, each under her vine and under his fig tree, free from all fear, happy with compromises others have made on their behalf. The road to peace has been long and torturous and has led to great disappointment. Perhaps if we can see the old problems in different terms, and can find narratives that affirm, not deny, we may inch our way closer to a world with more peace, more justice, and more security than we have had up until now.
And, dear ones, as we ourselves begin this new year, I pray that each of us will take this time to critically reexamine our own narratives, the directions and definitions from the past that propel and motivate us, so that old mistakes and patterns need not be repeated, so that we can break away from the confines of either/or and live in the mode of both/and, so that we, our families, community, country, and people can come to new and better understandings of who we are and who we together can and must become.
I pray that this new year of 5771 will bring peace to Israel, peace to the world, and peace to our hearts, and let us say, Amen.
[i] Haaretz.com 26.08.10
[ii] Quoted in Caplan, Neil, The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories, 2010, p. 30.