The two catastrophes

Israelis and Palestinians have both been marked by inconceivable tragedy. For both sides, understanding the other's memories is the first step toward moving beyond the past.

Published December 6, 2004 8:02PM (EST)

In the post-Arafat era, Israelis and Palestinians are struggling once again to find a way to peace. But until each side honestly tries to understand and empathize with the other's catastrophe, it is likely to be a dialogue of the deaf.

One of the most courageous statements ever to come from the pen of a Jewish-Israeli intellectual was made by philosopher and historian Yehuda Elkana more than a decade ago. In an article titled "In Praise of Forgetting," Elkana called upon Israel's political, cultural and educational elite to "forget the Holocaust." "I do not envision today," wrote Elkana, "a more important political and educational task for the leaders of this nation than to mobilize on behalf of life, to devote themselves to building our future and not to occupy themselves from sunrise to sunset with the symbols, the ceremonies, and the 'lessons' of the Holocaust. It is incumbent upon them to uproot the domination of historical 'remembrance' on our lives."

Elkana's declaration received extremely vehement emotional responses. Not only was his recommendation vigorously rejected, but since it was made Israeli society has sunk even deeper into Holocaust rituals.

To be sure, it is questionable whether it is even possible to suppress or forget such a memory. It is also questionable whether it is morally acceptable for Israelis, not only as Jews but also as human beings, to forget, let alone actively erase, the memory of this terrible catastrophe, one of the greatest crimes ever perpetrated. And it can be further asked if it is possible to reconstruct a "Holocaust-free" memory, or at least one where the Holocaust is peripheral.

I do not have the answers to these questions. But Elkana was not demanding that the Holocaust vanish from individual or collective memory. His anger was directed against the manipulative use of the Holocaust by almost all those occupied with it, and the over-orientation of Israeli and diaspora Jews toward the past at the expense of the present and the future.

Jews in general and Israeli Jews in particular draw two contradictory lessons from the Holocaust. One lesson is ethnocentric: Not only is it "incumbent upon us to be strong so as not to be led like sheep to the slaughter," but after what the Gentiles did to us, we also have moral sanction to do almost anything to the Gentiles. This is the attitude that seems to have infuriated Elkana. The other, contradictory lesson is universalist: A people that survived the Holocaust not only has a firm obligation to be ultra-sensitive to all suffering and injustice, but also must itself behave in a humane fashion towards all Others, even at the cost of certain material or political damage.

I lived for many years in a Jerusalem suburb called Mevasseret Zion. This is a new and developing, primarily upper-middle-class Ashkenazi neighborhood. In its previous incarnation it was a failing settlement erected in 1956 and inhabited by "Moroccans" (Jews who emigrated from Morocco to Israel) until developers and contractors came and transformed it into Mevasseret. Within this settlement, a new-immigrants absorption center was established that today serves mainly "Ethiopians." This absorption center arouses fear in some of the new residents of Mevasseret and the envy of young couples descended from the veteran residents.

One of the significant considerations in my choosing Mevasseret Zion was ideological: I did not want to live across the Green Line, Israel's internationally recognized pre-1967 border. I did not want to be a "settler." However, the truth is that I was a settler nonetheless.

Soon after our arrival Palestinian laborers from the villages and the refugee camps in the area came to work in our house and in the surroundings. They did not call the place Mevasseret. For them, even today, the place has remained Qalunya -- its original Arab name. This was not the first time that I had encountered Palestinians from all social classes -- from simple day workers to colleagues, professors in universities -- who sat with me to tell their family's stories, from where and to where they were expelled or fled in 1948 and what happened to each family member in great, often obsessive, detail.

I will confess, more than once I was tempted to pull out a counter-narrative -- to tell my tale and that of my family, of what happened to us in "our" Holocaust. My reasons were mixed. On one hand, I wanted to demonstrate empathy, to say to my partner how much I understood him or her since I too was not a stranger to catastrophe and to being a refugee. On the other hand, my instinct was to present narrative versus opposite narrative, catastrophe versus opposite catastrophe, in order to "balance" the situation and to reach a certain "equilibrium of catastrophes." In the case of Qalunya there might have been even more than that: a certain justification of my personal presence in the place. But in most cases I overcame the impulse and refrained from telling my story.

I refrained from telling a counter-narrative because I felt that al-Naqba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, is incommensurable with the Holocaust, except at one point. Both events left collective and personal traumas on the two nations, and they are living in the shadow of these traumas until today. It is impossible to understand either culture and its behavior without understanding the centrality of these events in their identity and their memory. Thus, I was very happy to read a few years ago an article in this spirit by Edward Said on the Holocaust, an article that was written with Said's characteristic intellectual courage.

In 1948, the Jews carried out ethnic cleansing. Most of the Arab inhabitants of the territory upon which the Israeli state was constituted were brutally uprooted from their homes, often accompanied by incidents of massacre, rape and looting. As a result of this, the Palestinian collectivity collapsed as a social and political entity and became largely a refugee-camp people and a people of exiles. Nevertheless, even a brutal ethnic cleansing and expulsion cannot be compared with the systematic genocide of the Holocaust. It was a crime unprecedented in scope, a crime against all humanity, and was intended to create in the end a world order in which a group that was constructed as one "race" would rule over all the other "races."

From a third perspective, the introduction of the Holocaust into the discourse and the conflict between us and the Palestinians is insufferable because the Palestinians are not an "involved party" to the Holocaust, except in the way that all humanity is involved in it. Not so the Naqba, which was directly caused as part of the founding story of the Jewish nation-state.

However, the story is even more complex. The place where I live is apparently identified with the biblical city Motza, and it is in fact located next to present-day Motza, another middle-class suburb of Jewish Jerusalem. The emperor Vespasian turned it into a Roman soldier colony named Colonia Amosa, which became a Byzantine settlement called Koloneia, a name that the Arab conquerors adopted almost unchanged when they conquered the land in the 7th century.

I found all of this information on the place I live in a volume written by the veteran Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi. This volume serves as a sort of memorial to the Arab settlements and neighborhoods that were and are no more, following the 1948 war and the colonization of the land by the Jews.

From this book I also learned that before 1948 about 900 Arabs lived in Qalunya, in 156 houses. Tourists and pilgrims described it as a rich village with relatively fancy homes compared to other Arab villages. It had citrus groves and a travelers' inn, the last resting-place before Jerusalem. The village was attacked and conquered by Haganah forces as part of Operation Nachshon, on April 11, 1948. The Israeli historian Benny Morris writes that the Jewish forces remained there for two days to ensure the total destruction of the village, most of whose residents had apparently fled on April 9, following reports of the massacre at the nearby village of Deir Yassin.

Some Jews point to their biblical roots in the Holy Land as giving them a greater right to live there than the Palestinians. But to make that argument one has to go back 2,000 years in time. And in that case why should not the Palestinians go back a mere 57 years? The Zionist demand to restore the situation that allegedly existed 2,000 years ago supports the Palestinian demand that the situation be restored to what it was only a generation ago. This whole strange game of "who preceded whom" is an absurdity.

Actually, the story of the place I live is an allegory of what happened in this entire land before I emigrated to it. Between 700,000 and 800,000 Arabs were uprooted from close to 400 Arab settlements. Most of these settlements were wiped off the face of the earth. A few were resettled by Jewish immigrants and their names Hebraicized. A small number of their inhabitants were killed in battle, or died of starvation and illness. The lion's share of them became refugees and were dispersed throughout the entire region and the world. Some became "internal refugees," meaning those who fled or were driven out of their permanent homes; despite remaining within the boundaries of the state of Israel, they were not permitted to return to their homes. Their property as "present absentees" was confiscated and nationalized.

This ethnic cleansing that was carried out in 1948 should be seen in its historical context, which means that the Jewish perspective must be taken into account. It is inarguable that the results of the war were a great catastrophe for Palestinian society and caused indescribable human suffering for generations, suffering that continues today. But it is necessary to recognize that these results were not predestined. There was a reasonable possibility at that point in time that the Jewish immigrant-settler society would collapse and be destroyed. Both sides regarded the situation as a zero-sum war following which only one of the two communities would survive politically. That at least was the subjective and honest feeling among the Jews, who had just begun to absorb the results of the Holocaust and its meaning. The possibility of another Holocaust in Palestine terrified the Jews, and their military doctrine and activities stood in the shadow of this trauma.

The connection between the Jewish Holocaust and the Arab catastrophe exists also in Palestinian historiography, but the context and its meaning is different. The Palestinian complaint on this is familiar and clear. Not Muslims or Arabs but the Christian West, Europeans and Americans, perpetrated a terrible crime against the Jewish people. Some carried out the extermination; others closed their eyes and did nothing to prevent it. After they committed their crimes against the Jews, they washed their hands of responsibility and made the Arab-Oriental people pay the price by helping to dispossess them of their land, thus compounding one crime with another. It is no wonder, therefore, that many Palestinians and other Arabs feel deep resentment towards the West -- a resentment perhaps especially strong among the most "Westernized" of the Arabs.

The trauma of the expulsion and the dispersion, a tragedy perceived as both personal and national, has shaped the Palestinian experience more than any other event. As with the Holocaust, the harnessing of the Naqba for the purpose of building a collective Palestinian identity involved constructive and creative principles alongside destructive and obsessive ones -- such as the cult of individual martyrdom that surrounds suicide bombers. Palestinian literature and poetry also reflect this obsession with memory and a founding loss. The poet Fadwa Tuqan wrote, "In 1948 my father died and Palestine was lost ... these events gave me the ability to write the nationalist poetry that my father always wanted me to write." A collection of the poet Mahmoud Darwish's poems is titled "Unfortunately, It Was Paradise." A popular culture expressed in songs and ballads, poetry and prose, revolves around three central topics: the memory of the Lost Garden from which the Palestinians were expelled; the bitter lamentation over the present, the desire for revenge and restoration; and the description of the future victorious return to the field, the vineyard, the house, the settlement and the homeland.

The further the Palestinians were from Palestine geographically and politically, and the less contact they had with Jews and with Israel, the more intense these mythic principles grew in their consciousness, together with hatred and the aspiration for revenge. Those who were in close, often intimate -- sometimes too intimate -- contact with the concrete "Zionist entity" (mainly the Arabs citizens of the Jewish state) learned to recognize us well, our language, our mores, and the variety and multivocality within us and our culture. The same is true of the relations between Israelis and the laborers and prisoners from the occupied territories following the 1967 war.

Thus, on the one hand, Palestinians have resented Israel and the injustice and hardship that were and are their lot. On the other hand, the Jewish state has inspired among some Palestinians a mixture of appreciation and jealousy of its material and even spiritual culture, and its military power. These Palestinians recognize both the ugly and the attractive faces of Israel. Certainly they recognize Israelis far better than we recognize and value them.

Over time, it has penetrated the Palestinian consciousness that Israel is an inalterable fact of life. Therefore it is preferable to find some modus vivendi with it, even to come to terms with its existence and to arrive at a tolerable arrangement with it. The recognition that an arrangement like this is preferable to the perpetuation of the Palestinian suffering and its bequeathal from generation to generation has been a real revolution in Palestinian political thinking. Thus recently, some of their intellectuals, like our intellectuals of the 1930s, have even begun to dream of a bi-national state.

Despite the last four violent years of the Al-Aqsa intifada, a growing portion of the Palestinians, particularly those who live in the territories conquered by Israel in 1967, are prepared, for lack of choice, to relinquish the dream of Greater Palestine. Despite the injustice in this concession, they are willing to relinquish their family property and part of their national assets, on condition that they get a state and that their own and their people's lives improve.

In exchange, the Palestinians ask simply that even if we do not return the lands and homes that were usurped in 1948, at least we will recognize their catastrophe and their suffering, and that our society and state were founded and built upon the ruins of the Arab society and culture.

The Palestinians do not even expect that we ask for their forgiveness -- just that we recognize the historical facts. In the political and practical realm, they are entitled to expect that we will take direct responsibility as a society and as a state for the rehabilitation of the Palestinian refugee society that we have created. Also, they have every right to demand that we will not force upon them a "subcontractor" regime, like Arafat's Palestinian Authority, that violates all their human and civil rights.

Simply recognizing the Palestinian narrative, their collective memory, and their suffering -- a narrative Israel is part of, just as the Palestinians are part of the Israeli story -- is necessary for the maturation of Israeli society itself. Strength is not only military. Our true strength will emerge when we are able to look self-critically in the mirror -- and when we understand that the more that Palestinian society and people are rehabilitated, the better it will be for us as well, as Jews and as human beings. If the past, with all its burdens, cannot be forgotten either by us or by the Palestinians, at least we must strive to create a common and empathetic narrative of the past, where each of us recognizes the suffering of the other. That open path of memory, trod by both peoples, would bring greater security to Israel, in the long run, than any wall.

This piece was adapted from a keynote speech given at the annual conference of the Israeli Anthropological Association in 1999. It is dedicated to the memory of Edward Said, the bravest intellectual I have ever known.

By Baruch Kimmerling

Baruch Kimmerling is George S. Wise Professor of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of "Politicide: Ariel Sharon's War against the Palestinians" and co-author of "The Palestinian People: A History."

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