Refusing a Single Narrative

Spring is national trauma season in the land between the River and the Sea. The wildflowers that blossom briefly after the Mediterranean winter wilt, and Jews and Palestinians relive their agonizing memories, symbiotically, backs turned to each other.

Their memories negate each other. Nonetheless, they are tellings of the same story. Because there is now an American administration interested in diplomacy, because the public debate in America about Israel and Palestine may be opening up, this small truth bears mention: Deciding that one side's telling is valid, and the other's is false, is not an act of peacemaking. The trauma itself is a strategic fact, as important as topography, borders, and water.

April and May is the the time of year to pay attention, because this is when Israeli and Palestinian holidays are celebrated as national passion plays. The holidays don't just commemorate the historical events that formed each nation. They teach that the sacrifices of the past are constantly being repeated, that all present-day events are re-enactments of primal cataclysms. Examine the holidays, and you understand why we who live here seem trapped by history.

The Israeli cycle, over a week long, is already in full swing. It started on Monday night and Tuesday, when the country marked Holocaust Day. As happens every year, the Holocaust filled the media -- stories of the past, and of current threats. Haaretz ran a front-page report (in Hebrew) on the discovery in Yad Vashem of a letter written by 9-year-old Aharon Barak (who later became the liberal, activist chief justice of Israel's Supreme Court) after surviving the war in Lithuania. In it, he expresses his hope of joining his father's friends in Palestine. The subtext was an article of civil faith: The Jews died in the Holocaust and could only be reborn through independence in their homeland.

At the national ceremony commemorating the Holocaust, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about the Iranian threat, which seemed less obsessive than usual after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at the U.N. racism conference that day. Netanyahu, too, was alluding to a principle of faith, shared almost as widely as the first: The threat of destruction is ever present.

The cycle will continue next Tuesday, with Memorial Day for fallen Israeli soldiers. The radio will play dirges capable of sawing open the hearts of the most cynical. By Wednesday, Independence Day, the message of death and rebirth, of ongoing sacrifice and constant danger, will be complete. If you detect sarcasm in my description, you are mostly mistaken. I can question this way of seeing the world, but I can no more erase its emotional force than I can decide to change the language in which I dream.

The Palestinian commemoration of the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948 comes soon after, on May 15. That's the date on which the British mandate over Palestine ended -- that is, the day on which Palestinians did not achieve independence. Nakba Day therefore marks not only the exodus of 1948 but also the Palestinian's lack of a state and the humiliation of defeat.

Last year, to cover the Nakba commemoration, I joined 100 or so journalists who followed an equal number of Palestinians on a march through neighborhoods of West Jerusalem that were Arab until 1948, and that have been Jewish since. The stations of the pilgrimage were the imposing houses that once belonged to the families of the Palestinian marchers. A Palestinian woman stood in front of one house with a megaphone. "The Nakba, of course, extends until 2008," she declared. "It is also a Nakba in Haifa, Jaffa, the whole of Palestine," she said in present tense, meaning that the dispossession was not history but something happening this moment. If you detect sarcasm in my description, you are again mostly mistaken.

The debate between Israelis and Palestinians -- and more so, in the online screams and screeds of their supporters abroad -- is devoted in no small part to the question of who has the correct version of the past. The answers are inevitably selective. Either the occupation is irrelevant because of terror, or vice versa. Arabs could make peace with a single statement, or Jews could.

In fact, both accounts are incomplete, riddled with gaps and misunderstandings. Where they diverge the most is sometimes where both are correct. It is true, simultaneously, that early Zionists were repatriating themselves to their homeland and that they were foreigners coming to a land already populated overwhelmingly by Arabs. Or a smaller but significant example: At the Khartoum Conference of 1967, Arab leaders did resolve that they would accept "no peace with Israel, no recognition … no negotiations with it." Israelis saw this as a declaration of permanent war. Yet as Israeli historian Yoram Meital found in a revisionist study, the conference resolution also meant that the Arab states would seek to get back only the land they'd lost in the war that June, and not to erase Israel, and that they would pursue indirect diplomacy rather than war. In the Arab world, the conference was understood as a victory of moderates.

Both sides can also be wrong: The 2001 Mitchell Commission report rejected both Israeli and Palestinian claims about how the Second Intifada broke out the previous September. "We have no basis on which to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the PA [Palestinian Authority] to initiate a campaign of violence at the first opportunity; or to conclude that there was a deliberate plan by the GOI [government of Israel] to respond with lethal force," said the panel. George Mitchell, head of the panel and now Barack Obama's envoy for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, knows how much louder the myths are than his calm conclusions.

The best of scholarly study will continue to challenge both narratives. If given centuries, it will probably not soften the pain, will not dissolve the axis of sorrow to which Jews and Palestinians belong.

Jewish memory says that the world wants Jews dead. Palestinians can argue, correctly, that Jews brought this memory with them, and devote a great deal of educational resources to passing it on. Nonetheless, Arabs inside and outside of Palestine rejected partition in 1948 and tried to crush the nascent Jewish state. A week before the Arab armies invaded, Arab League Secretary General Abd al-Rahman Azzam described the goal as "We will sweep the Jews into the sea." This was bravado, but the failed invasion confirmed Jewish anxieties (especially when one Jew out of 100 in the new country died in the war).

For the traumatized, time stand stills, and every new incident confirms the danger. Writing about the second intifada, Israeli historian and dove-turned-hawk Benny Morris argued, "Each suicide bomber seemed to be a microcosm of what Palestine's Arabs had in mind for Israel as a whole." This is poor political analysis: Tactics can express fury and miscalculation as easily as strategic goals, and the bombers did not have a mandate from every Palestinian. But it is a succinct summary of how a very large portion of Israeli Jews responded to the second intifada.

Palestinian memory says that the Jews dispossessed them, shattered their existence as a community, and denied them freedom. The actual history of 1948 is more complex than that, in ways that refuse to be put in one paragraph. The fact that Palestinians were unable to create a state in the West Bank and Gaza -- the parts of Palestine that Israel did not conquer in 1948 -- has to do with the intrigues and territorial hunger of Arab states. But the story of the Nakba isn't academic for Palestinians. It is "the past still at work within the present," as Palestinian scholar Lena Jayusi wrote in the 2007 anthology, Nakba: Palestine, Memory and the Claims of Memory. "This tale," she says, is "spoken in the first person plural, the communal voice." The catastrophe is understood as a "dispossession still worked and planned for, still an active agenda" on Israel's part. Every Israeli action will prove this. Trauma does not allow for shades of gray, or for recognition of the other side's fear.

All this matters because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a civil suit. It will not be resolved by a judgment of responsibility and assigning damages. Nor is it parallel to the Algerian or Indian struggle for independence: The occupying power will not pack up and disappear across the sea. Unless one countenances ethnic cleansing, any solution -- one-state, two-state, confederation, federation -- requires Israelis and Palestinians to live next to each other afterward. It requires not just a contract but a measure of reconciliation.

Borders, settlements, the control of holy places and the future of refugees matter as practical matters but as much more than that. They stand for recognizing old hurt. Israelis fear any recognition of the Palestinian right of return, even if the actual number of refugees who enter Israel is tiny. Yet Palestinians see the Israeli refusal as negation of their past. Palestinians do not want to acknowledge a Jewish connection to the Temple Mount, Haram al-Sharif, for fear of losing the holy site. For Israelis, that refusal translates as a denial of any Jewish connection to the land, which in turn means that the conflict is still open. Concessions on these symbolic issues and more must be part of an agreement. They will be the hardest to reach, and cannot be demanded as preconditions.

I would guess that George Mitchell, who negotiated peace in memory-cursed Northern Ireland, understands this need, as does Barack Obama, who knows something of overcoming history. I don't presume they've yet figured out a way to finesse the problem. But for anyone who wants to resolve this conflict, the necessary condition is putting memory in past tense. It is ending the season of trauma.

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