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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2008
Number 68
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Telling Tales

“Israeli and Palestinian Narratives of Conflict: Historys Double Helix, ” edited by Robert Rotberg. Bloomington: Indiana University Press
A review essay by Peter J. Haas

The motivating thesis of the book is set forth in its very first sentences. “Every conflict is justified by a narrative of grievance, accusation and indignity. Conflicts depend on narratives, and in some senses cannot exist without a detailed explanation of how and why the battles began and why one side, and only one side, is in the right.” (Preface, pg vii.) The 11 essays that comprise this book are not, however, about narrative structure of meaning per se, although this is certainly discussed. Rather they all address one specific set of competing narratives, namely, those of the Palestinians and the Israelis. In fact, the narration of this conflict, in its various forms, serves as the paradigmatic example of the thesis. The purpose of the book, then, is not to demonstrate the power of narratives, but rather to get at the structure of the genre “conflict narrative” by using the Palestinian narratives and the Israeli narratives as prime, even defining, examples. The end result of reading the 11 essays that make up this book, and which are implicitly and sometimes explicitly in conversation with each other, is to see that there are in fact different narratives in this conflict, that each is a construct that has its own internal consistency and that both are constructed with the other in mind (hence the double helix imagery). That this assertion has to be argued at all is already an indication of how entrenched we all are in the narratives that construct the conflict and give it its various meanings.

The stage for the dialogue (and sometimes monologue) which follows is set in the opening essay by Robert Rotberg, who also served as editor of the volume. “In Building Legitimacy through Narrative” he argues that both Israeli Jews and Palestinians are peoples who have been, and are still now, constructing their own identities through the medium of grand narratives (my phrase, not his). The essays gathered here, Rotberg tells us, will take us through a series of propositions. The first is that conflict narratives not only define the conflict, but also function as a coping mechanism. The narratives articulate both the legitimacy of the cause and the justification, even glorification, of the sacrifice needed for the struggle to succeed. For the Palestine-Israeli conflict there are two narrative complexes which are both distinct and yet tightly intertwined and interdependent. Second, both sets of narratives are built on the need to create a national identity, a need growing out of a shared experience under British domination and formed in more or less competition with each other. Third, for this conflict to move toward any form of reconciliation, some change in the grand narrative of each side will have to be made; if nothing more than the simple recognition that the other narrative exists, has some legitimacy and needs to be taken seriously. But, forth, any attempt to change the governing narrative will be resisted, even strenuously. Nonetheless, fifth, until such a mutual recognition is achieved no “legitimate” reduction of the conflict can even begin to occur.

In this spirit, the contributors are focused not on delegitimizing one side or the other as much as they are focused on breaking down, or deconstructing, the narratives that each side is putting forward. There are no calls here for the destruction of the State of Israel, for example, or for the artificiality of the term “Palestinian”. The aim, rather, is to step outside the narrative structures which demand these outcomes and discuss the narratives as social constructs, not all-inclusive and true lists of facts. In other worlds, the aim of the book is not so much to get Jews to give up the Israeli narrative as it is to acknowledge the existence of a Palestinian narrative worthy of attention, and not to get Arab readers to give up the Palestinian narrative but rather to acknowledge that there is an Israeli narrative worthy of consideration.

The next essay, “Israel-Jewish Narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” by Daniel Bar-Tal and Gavriel Salomon, spells out in greater detail the function of a “conflict narrative.” They note that among the chief functions of such a narrative is to offer a group a collective memory which justifies its own struggle, stresses its own victimhood, delegitimizes the other side, and presents an argument for unity and steadfastness to carry on the battle. One aspect of such a narrative, the authors argue, is to portray one’s own side as truly interested in peace, while ones opponents are not; and in fact if the other side does make a gesture for peace, this is to be taken as insincere or duplicitous.

This essay is followed by a lengthy analysis by Dina Porat on the development of the standard Israeli Jewish narrative. Her most interesting point is that the Israeli (or, really, the Zionist) narrative was not originally constructed in opposition to the Arab narrative, which was, as far as it even existed, largely ignored. Rather the Zionist counter-narrative was aimed at European views of the Jews in general, and at the internal Diaspora politics of European Jewish communities more particularly. As Porat points out, the internal struggles among various Zionist factions, and the struggles with anti-Zionist forces within especially East European Jewish society were much more pressing concerns. Even after the riots in the late 1930s, when the existence of an Arab nationalism thrust itself on the consciousness of the Yishuv, relations with the British occupation and concerns about the rise of Fascism in Europe were of much more concern than the local Arabs, who, as Porat pointedly notes, “were not perceived as carriers of consciousness and history (pg. 61).” In short, the construction of the pre-state Zionist narrative had much more to do with Europe than with the Orient. Arabs were simply not relevant in shaping a Zionist narrative of identity.

Porat’s analysis is followed Saleh Abdel Jawad’s discussion of the Arab/Palestinian narratives of the 1948 war. His thesis is that the Arab narratives are much less well-formed than the Zionist/Israeli one for at least three reasons. One is the existence of several Arab narratives, coming out of different national and even class perspectives. Syrians tell a different story of what went wrong in 1948 than do Egyptians, for example; and the rich landowners have different stories than do the peasants. This diversity is compounded by the varying and changing ideologies of the diverse Arab states, whose changing fortunes work against the creation of a single stable Arab counter-narrative. Second is the overarching power of the Israeli narrative. In essence, Abdel Jawad argues, the few Arab historians at work find themselves having to operate within the framework of the Israeli narrative and are having a hard time disentangling themselves from it. Finally, there is the issue of access to sources. Much of Palestinian history was destroyed by the Israelis, and what has survived is often sealed off by various governments (Israeli and Arab) for their own purposes. For example, many of the military-dominated Arab governments are pushing forward narratives that concentrate on the failure of civilian leadership while suppressing evidence pointing to military failures. Abdel Jawad ends by noting that the construction of a coherent history of the 1948 war is important not only in order to present a fuller picture of what “really” happened, but also as a vehicle for Arab healing and internal reconciliation. Through such a history, maybe an acknowledgment of both people’s history can begin to take place, and thereby the first steps toward learning and mutual accommodation.

The least helpful of the essays collected here is Nadim Rouhanas “Zionisms Encounter with the Palestinians.” The essay can roughly be summarized as follows: by determining that the Jewish homeland had to be in Palestine, the Zionist movement was obliged to use force and violence; this force and violence became the cultural basis for the Zionist relationship to the Palestinians; such force and violence provoked the natural reaction among Palestinians of resistance; this has lead to a culture of fear among the Zionists which only leads them to more extreme acts of force and violence; if not stopped, they will eventually repeat the atrocities of 1948; the only hope is for outside international powers to force the Israelis to acknowledge the Palestinian story.

Although the attention to Israeli fear is a useful insight into the consequences of the “feedback loop” of the two conflict narrative traditions, the rest of the essay is little more than a retelling of a version of the Palestinian narrative. There is little scholarly distance here, an observation made explicitly made by Mordechai Bar-On in his essay. In contrast, the larger purpose of Bar-On’s contribution to the volume is to give us a reflective history of Israeli historiography. Bar-Ons essay is helpful in bringing to the surface both the problems of writing a history of the 1948 period, and the changes that have occurred with the rise of the “new historians” in the 1990s. While he has his problems with some of the revisionist histories being produced by Israeli historians, Bar-On clearly thinks that such rethinking is useful overall. Post-Zionism, he notes, has created deep rifts in Israeli society, but in so doing has opened new possibilities for understanding, if not necessarily accepting in its totality, the Palestinian narratives. His hope is that eventually Palestinians will be able to use the Israeli situation as a model for modifying their own historiography in a way that will be more open to what Israeli scholars have to say.

Expressing some hope that this could indeed happen is the subject of Mark Tessler’s essay, “Narratives and Myths about Arab Intransigence toward Israel” and the following piece by Ilan Pappe on “bridging narratives.” A political scientist, Tessler asks us to reexamine some of the actual data, both in terms of overt policies of Arab states and in terms of public opinion polls. His basic questions are whether or not Arab attitudes toward Israel have shown themselves to be enduring and unchanging, and whether Arab critiques are about the existence of the State of Israel altogether or more about various policies of the government of Israel. His analysis leads to the conclusion that, first, Arab policies and attitudes seem to be malleable, changing according to context; and second, that over time critique has been aimed more at policies of the State rather than to its existence. It is of course important to put these findings into the social context of Palestinian and Arab society, which Tessler does. He notes at the very outset that narratives are based more on attitude and emotion than truth but nonetheless have to be regarded as real, even though they may not be accurate. People, after all, believe them sincerely. His point is not so much to debunk the Israeli narrative or idealize the Arab narrative as it is to note that such narratives are in the end mythic, and insofar as the facts upon which these myth are based are always more complex and nuanced than the narratives allow, these mythic narratives are contingent. Pappe’s approach is to suggest that it is not enough simply to critique the Israeli grand narrative, but one must build a counter narrative, or what he terms a “bridge narrative,” that is, a story that both sides, in this case Palestinian and Israeli historians, would work on together. For this to be accomplished, both sides have to start from where they are and deconstruct their own sides narrative while working towards the other. His essay is thus a call for Israeli historians to begin the process of writing a new narrative, one that takes not only the Palestinian evidence (say, oral testimony) into account, but also looks at the normally forgotten groups, the disposed Arab farmers or the Sephardic Jews, for example. His assumption is that eventually Palestinian/Arab historians will take up the parallel work.

The notion of a “bridging” narrative is taken further in the next essay in which Dan Bar-On and Sami Adwan discuss their attempt to forge just such an artifact in a joint project with Israeli and Palestinian teachers. As it turns out the project resulted not in a single joint or “bridge” narrative but in a series of booklets in which a version of the Israeli narrative, and a version of the Palestinian narrative were printed side-by-side. The essay concludes with a sample that deals with the time of the Balfour Declaration. The project is impressive not only because it happened at all, but because it was conducted during the “Al-Aqsa” intifada with all the physical and psychological barriers for cooperative work that that implies. The end result was not agreement on a common narrative, but a kind of opening among pupils on each side to the narrative (and pain) of the other side. If nothing else, the exercise of producing the first few booklets of the projected series shows that dedicated teachers could, with some success, leave the confines of their own narratives and find some way to accommodate the other. The authors discuss how the project managed to unfold against the immense psychological counterforce of Israeli roadblocks and Palestinian suicide bombers.

The last two essays, one by Nathan J. Brown on the debates surrounding the creation of Palestinian textbooks and the other by Eyal Naveh on debates in the Israeli education system, highlight remarkably similar issues. In each case there is a foundational debate over what the students’ national identity should be, how that identity should be constructed in terms of the larger world, what kind of student the system should produce, and what values are to be taught. Given the competing agendas and needs of the two societies, it should come as no surprise that in both cases the actual textbooks reflect compromises and so project mixed messages. On the Palestinian side, there is a strong attempt to create a Palestinian national identity in a society with deep traditions of other loyalties: family, tribe, religion, Arab and so forth. On the Israeli side, there are competing ethnic and religious identities: secular vs. religious, for example, or Ashkenazic vs. Sephardic vs. Russian vs. indigenous Arab. In both societies, educators and textbook authors had to negotiate difficult and at times mutually exclusive political shoals to produce textbooks that convey something like a coherent message in both form and content.

Maybe what is so useful in these final two contributions is that they illustrate how plastic the “narratives” are that are being conveyed in the classroom. The narrative structures so confidently asserted at the beginning of this volume dissolve in the end into a polyphony of voices views and visions. It may be precisely in this chaos of the middle that openness to something other than mutually exclusive narratives, if not some sort of “bridging” narrative, might one day find a place. In any case, it is refreshing to see at work a variety of scholars who are for the most part able to step out of their socially constructed and comfortable “realities” and reflect on how “conflict narratives” are created and deployed. It is also refreshing to see Israelis and Palestinians who have some hope that the current double helix of mutually-exclusive grand narratives can indeed be overcome. This book is a modest, but powerful, step in moving us in that direction.

Peter J. Haas is the Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies, chairs the Department of Religion at Case Western Reserve University, and is a contributing editor.

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