Catch of the Day: Can Israel Make Room for the “N” Word?

Over at Tablet, Joseph Dana writes an important piece on Israel’s problematic relationship with the Nakba narrative (the expulsion/dislocation of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in what is now Israel) and the imperative of integrating this narrative into Israel’s public discourse. He concludes:

Including the Nakba in Israeli public discourse, newspapers, and textbooks hardly means the unqualified embrace of one version of history over another. But open discussion of competing narratives with reference to the historical record is clearly a precondition for any wider kind of social and political understanding between Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel and between Israelis and Palestinians. Repressive attempts to criminalize narratives of the Nakba—however partial or wrong-headed its opponents may believe those narratives to be—block any possibility of mutual understanding and weaken critical discourse inside Zionist circles and within Israeli society as a whole. The most likely victim of such misguided attempts to shore up Zionism through attacks on free speech and the historical record is Zionism itself.

In his article Dana states that Israel’s educational system began to grapple with the Nakba narrative only as recent as 2009. This is not entirely true. Back in 1964, a novella by the name of ‘Khirbet Khizeh’, a first-person account of an expulsion of an Arab village by the IDF, was inserted into the high school curriculum in Israel. The book was written and published in 1949 by S. Yizhar, who based his story on his own experience. Last I checked, the book still remains as an optional choice for the matriculation exam.

Also, in 1999, during PM Barak’s tenure, the education ministry (under the direction of Yossi Sarid) introduced a textbook called “The 20th Century” written by Eyal Naveh of Tel Aviv University. The textbook, designed for Jewish Israeli ninth-graders, mentioned the Nakba (under the heading “alternative account” of the 1948 events) and asked its readers to step into the shoes of the Palestinians in question. Unfortunately, during the second Intifada the book was removed from the curriculum.

Finally, in their on-going 2009-2010 report on the standards of Israeli textbooks, IMPACT-SE (Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education) concluded that although the term “Nakba” is rarely used in Israeli text-books, the hardships of the Palestinians refugees was frequently mentioned. The study did find a 2001 high-school text book (one out of 23 examined), entitled “The Era of Fear and Hope” (1870-1970), which states:

“Because of the military defeat and the refugee problem, the Arabs refer to the 1948 war, which we call the War of Independence – as “El Nakba,” which in Arabic means: the catastrophe.”

In the same book, the students are also asked:

“The War of Independence is called different names that express a different point of view on the war: The War of Independence […], El Nakba. Explain the meaning of every name. […] Explain the different points of view that led to giving each of these names.”

Having said that, I believe that Dana’s larger point remains valid: Israel has yet to make meaningful efforts to officially integrate the full history – warts and all – of 1948. The longer it waits, the more obstacles its erects, the more difficulty it will encounter in the future.

Of course there are those who argue that integrating emotionally charged and exclusive narratives is unrealistic and even undesirable. For example, in a recent article entitled “Two Narratives for Two People”, published by The Forward, Hussein Ibish writes:

Palestinian and Israeli national narratives both contain elements of the truth but they are tendentious and dismiss crucial and undeniable, but inconvenient, historical facts that are crucial to the other party’s identity. It is impossible, in the foreseeable future, for these narratives to be reconciled. Jewish Israelis will not become Palestinian nationalists, and Palestinians will not become Zionists.

Be that as it may, research done on Israeli collective memory has yielded some surprising results in this regard. In a 2008 study, conducted by Tel-Aviv university’s Rafi Nets-Zehngut and Daniel Bar-Tal, 47% of Jewish-Israelis said they believed that an expulsion of Palestinians (partial or full) had taken place in 1948. In contrast 41% said no expulsion had taken place. Remarkably, 46% of the respondents also said that both Israelis and Palestinians bear equal responsibility for the outbreak and continuation of the conflict.

It seems that despite all obstacles – the seemingly exclusive nature of these narratives, lack of governmental support, a hostile environment of endless conflict – almost a majority of Jewish Israelis subscribe to a critical account of their own foundation myth. That’s pretty incredible and further shows these narratives not to be zero-sum constructs.

However, we should’t be overly sanguine. Bar-Tal reminds us that notwithstanding these findings, many Israeli-Jews still subscribe to a dualistic collective narrative in which Israel is portrayed as a heroic-victim and the Palestinians as villainous-aggressors. Bar-Tal explains that “holding such a Zionist narrative serves as an obstacle to peace since it promotes negative emotions, mistrust, de-legitimization and negative stereotypes of Arabs and Palestinians.” Given Israel’s current ultra-nationalist milieu, including it’s assault on the “N” word, such circumspection shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

No doubt injecting nuance and complexity into a self-serving historical narrative is difficult work. All the more so since the original conflict is still festering. While most accounts of intervention tend to favor a top-down approach (e.g. curriculum reform), we would also benefit from exploring and implementing creative strategies for narrative sharing that are not contingent on the wisdom and courage of the government. Instructive examples abound in countries that have overcome serious inter-group conflicts (e.g. South Africa, Mozambique, Rwanda, Ireland, Germany, USA, Indonesia, etc.) but, as Michael Ende once wrote, that’s another story, and shall be told another time.

*This post was re-published over at +972.

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