A long-time friend of mine, Paul Scham, has written a piece on the role of historical narratives in peacemaking in Bitter Lemons, and asked for comment. He was a passionate worker for the success of the Oslo accords, and coordinated Israeli-Palestinian joint academic projects at the Truman Institute of the Hebrew University from 1996 to 2002. With Walid Salem and Benjamin Pogrund he is coeditor of Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue (2005). He is currently an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Historical narratives and peacemaking
by Paul Scham
In the aftermath of the second Lebanese war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict almost seems shoved to the side, at least for many Israelis. Yet it is still a fundamental cause of Middle East instability, and its root causes must be dealt with if there is ever to be peace.
Careful language: “still a fundamental cause of Middle East instability…” Nonetheless, I think that even such circumscribed language as “a” fundamental cause, is profoundly mistaken. If Israel disppeared tomorrow, the fundamental cause of instability would remain — the dysfunctional nature of Arab political culture and the inveterate tendency of the authoritarian rulers of Arab socieites to use scapegoating to distract their masses from the misery they inflict on them. Indeed, I think there would be more rather than less instability: Jordan would be invaded in a minute by either “Palestine” or Syria.
It is usually assumed that agreement on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, difficult as they are, will settle the problem. These issues are well known: borders, settlements, nature of the Palestinian state to be created, security (for both sides), refugees (including the Palestinian claim of “right of return”), Jerusalem and water. All are undeniably important, and of course a comprehensive peace is not possible without dealing with all of them, and perhaps a few others.
However, there is a set of deeper issues involved that also must be dealt with. Both sides are uncomfortable with half of them, and insist on the other half. I call these the “intangible issues”, and for Israelis and Palestinians they are as important as the “tangible issues” listed above–perhaps, in certain respects, more so.
I agree. Indeed, I would argue that the intangibles are the critical issues, and that all of the “well-known issues” are relatively easily resolved once the intangibles have been addressed. I’m not sure Paul and I agree on what the real intangibles are.
These intangible issues are located in the historical narratives of the two sides. Until recently, the rule of Israeli-Palestinian interaction had usually been, as noted by Uri Savir in his history of the Oslo process, “no history”. History was considered too hot to handle. In fact, during the 1990s those of us who dealt with the “other” side, whether as negotiators or in academic or NGO (track II) meetings, found we could generally talk freely about the present and the future, but the past would often cause tempers to explode and thus was shunned.
There was good reason for this, because the historical narratives of both sides portray a peace-loving people attacked and brutalized by another that wants its land. The peace-loving side has tried as best it could to find a workable compromise, but all its efforts have been stymied by the other. Both sides agree on this. They disagree, however, rather strongly, as to which of them is the peace-loving side. Most people on both sides are affronted to the depth of their respective national consciousnesses at the idea that their side has not, with occasional and pardonable lapses, done all it could (and perhaps too much) to solve the conflict.
Paul and I regularly clash on the topic of what I call the “both sides…” reflex. Any time I say something like, “Muslim religious extremism…” or “terrorism and hate teaching…” he responds with “both sides…” Here he’s done a truly remarkable job of phrasing the case in terms of “both sides.” And on one level he’s right: both sides do have narratives that paint themselves as the “good guys” and the other as the “bad guys.” It’s like when people in the MSM claim that they must be doing something right since “both sides” criticize them. The only problem is that just because both sides tell narratives doesn’t mean they are symmetrical, and certainly not equally honest. Similarly with the media, if one side has high tolerance for the criticism and yet feels they’re being unfairly raked over the coals, and the other side has no tolerance for criticism, and complains at the slightest negative coverage, then saying “both sides” are complaining so we’re doing well, is pure self-deception/self-indulgence.
While there is no space here to go into the extensive national narratives themselves, they are particularly important to two vital aspects of the conflict, namely, right of return and Jerusalem. For Palestinians, right of return is inextricably bound up with the central feature of their national narrative, the Naqba, or catastrophe, of 1948, and the dispersion that followed. Israel’s refusal to recognize the occurrence of the Naqba except solely as a result of Arab actions, and its consequent unwillingness to accept any responsibility for it or to deal with the claim of the right of return is understood by Palestinians as an implicit, or even explicit, negation of their national existence. (Of course, Israelis are absolutely convinced that such an acceptance would lead to a flood of Palestinian claims for repatriation in Israel, which it would then be obliged to honor.)
Thanks for the parenthetical clarification.
I see two major problems here:
1) Israelis, particularly of the negotiating school, have been accepting significant elements of responsibility for the Naqba for decades, and have even affected the school curriculum. Paul has to present the Israeli position as “solely as a result of Arab actions, and its consequent unwillingness to accept any responsibility…” as absolute, and ignore the massive, often stunningly overblown, even dishonest, efforts to self-criticize on the part of the “new historians.” Indeed, there is nothing remotely resembling this kind of self-criticism among the Palestinians who, even as they use the absolutist language in accusing Israel for blaming the Naqba entirely on the Arabs, do very little to examine clearly the ways in which their own leaders and the Arab elites who form their peer group, have contributed to Palestinian suffering.
2) As a history teacher I always object to the use of the passive, which almost always obfuscates agency. Here, the expression “is understood by Palestinians as an implicit, or even explicit, negation of their national existence” operates precisely as a screen that disguises the core of the problem. This particular interpretation — that Israel refuses to acknowledge their contribution to Palestinian suffering — is not a passive phenomenon, the product of a natural view of events. It is a driven ideological position characterized by a demonization of Israel — they are entirely guilty and they deny it all — and a demand that reparations for this sin include the effective destruction of Israel (the parenthetical aside). What’s missing here on the Arab side is the self-criticism that marks the Israeli effort at negotiation. No admission from Palestinian historians that their own leadership tried and continues to try to wipe out Israel. The very formula presented by Paul — Israeli refusal to acknowledge any (read all) responsibility for the Naqba, denies Palestinian statehood — is misleading to the point of dishonesty. The Palestinian refusal to acknowledge any responsibility for the Naqba is part and parcel of their continued desire to deny Israel statehood. The passive employed — “is understood” — masks the intense ideological indoctrination to hatred and annihilationist ideology afoot in Palestinian and Arab culture. To present it as a kind of natural result of Palestinian perspectives rather than a sharpened weapon misleads the reader.
This “clash of narratives” neither can nor should be dealt with in the facile “moral equivalence” that we find here.
While the two are not exactly comparable, the Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish historical relationship with Jerusalem, and Yasser Arafat’s claim that the Second Temple did not exist or, if it did, was located in Nablus, is similarly understood as a fundamental unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
No, the two are not even remotely comparable. The Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish historical relationship to Jerusalem is an act of supreme bad faith. It came, moreover, during the Oslo negotiations, when according to the post-Zionist theory, the extensive self-criticism and willingness to concede on the part of the Israelis would lead to a similar gesture of generosity on the part of the Palestinians (PCP). Instead it led to a new round of irredentism accusations and profound contempt for Israel and its national aspirations (JP). (It also led to Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, which was neither gratuitous nor unprovoked.) Arafat’s remarks are actually part of a revisionist school of historiography, articulated even in American academic circles, that the Palestinians are the descendents of the original Philistines. This kind of argument amounts to a facetious form of supersessionism or “replacement” theology which appeals to the worst in Christian Judeophobia.
(The only connection I can find between current Palestinians and the Philistines is that they both engage in child-sacrifice. But that’s probably not what Paul has in mind.)
What is needed is an acknowledgement of the narrative of the other; a gesture of respect that takes it seriously, but does not deal with its historical truth. Not that historical truth is irrelevant or unimportant. But it is the province of historians, while the historical narrative is the possession of the whole society. (In fact, the work of Israeli and Palestinian professional historians, even apart from that of Israeli “new” or revisionist historians, is much closer to that of the “other” than are the national narratives.)
I don’t understand this at all. I may have missed something, but what I saw in 2000 was that, in response to the exceptional Israeli effort at showing “respect” for the Palestinian narrative, despite how dishonest, hate-mongering and self-indulgent it has and continues to be, the Palestinians showed vicious contempt for the Israeli narrative. As for the distinction between historians (who assess evidence and deal in what is accurate or not) and the “whole society” which has its “narratives”, I think that is a catastrophic division. The whole point of the exercise of history is to inform, educate, and even challenge the larger public to deal with reality, to reach levels of self-criticism and maturity that permit a society to learn from its past. And that is precisely what has not yet happened among Palestinians and Arabs who still live in the dream palace, with all the catastrophic results for that culture that one might expect, especially in matters of education.
Acknowledgement of the historical narrative of the other is not, of course, a magic bullet that will make peace possible. However, recognition of elements of the other’s narrative and acceptance that the two sides necessarily have very different–and legitimate–views of the past, can help to lead to joint acceptance of responsibility, which will go a long way toward dealing with the claim of right of return for many Palestinians. This will not be easy, for each side’s conviction that it bears none of the blame is matched only by the other side’s certainty that it bears virtually all of it.
There you go again Paul. The nice symmetrical language of “both sides.” No. The Israelis tried very hard to admit a significant measure of guilt. They even invented massacres they had committed just so they could confess — much like the patients in the asylum confessing wildly to anything in Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And they did this exceptional, historically unprecendented public self-criticism precisely in the hopes of achieving what you are still recommending. And in exchange they got dismissed, then blind-sided with a vicious blood libel that set of a genocidal war. You, like George Soros, like so many other people who cannot learn from history, are still repeating your failed solutions as prescriptions for the future. How about a little self-criticism here? No one reading your text would know that what you are recommending has already been tried… with disastrous results.
Ultimately, the conflict is not primarily about dunams of land or numbers of returnees; it is about full acceptance of the national legitimacy of the other. Acknowledgement of the other’s narrative is a step in that direction. For example, public discussion of the separation of the “right” of return from the “reality” of return could change some of the dynamics on both sides. Likewise, Palestinian acceptance of the historical and religious importance of the Temple Mount and the destroyed Temple to the Jewish people need not detract from the significance of the still-standing Haram al-Sharif to Palestinians and other Muslims.
This touches on the problem at the most superficial level imaginable. It fails to understand the radically different relationship that the Jews and Israelis have to history — some of the most sophisiticated and self-critical in the history of historiography — and that of the Palestinians and Arabs — some of the crudest, self-indulgent, propagandistic and doctrinaire in the history of historiography. What lies beneath these narratives, what makes the Palestinians and Arabs incapable of responding to the Israelis gestures in kind, is the matter of honor and shame. If you don’t address that, all your “let’s acknowledge each other’s legitimacy” talk is bandaids on a gaping, suppurating wound.
As Israeli negotiator Elyakim Rubinstein said at Camp David in 2000, “the peace process shouldn’t be the arena in which truth is pronounced.” However, acknowledgement of the importance of one’s own historical narrative to the legitimacy of the other side may be necessary before we can finally settle on the tangible issues.
Ending on a pious and flat note. If your enemy has developed a lethal historical narrative aimed at delegitimating you as preparation to your annihilation, then acknowledging it can be an act of suicide. Paul, you come perilously close to illustrating the catastrophic “post-modern” relativism that all narratives deserve recognition, all narratives are equal. They are not. Objectivity may not exist, may not be possible. But that does not mean honesty and dishonesty do not exist, and are not possible. The core of this problem can, if we want to focus on narratives as cause, be reduced to one terrifying, irreducible issue: the Dream Palace of the Arabs and the particularly vicious lethal narratives with which they adorn those walls.
I know it’s not politically correct, and it won’t sell well in the “dialogue” groups to which you address your prodigious and open-hearted efforts. But sometimes, the truth hurts, and the immense effort to spare the Palestinians the wounds to their immensely delicate narcissistic ego end up hurting everyone — the Palestinians above all — much more.