Conflicting Narratives in Israel-Palestine: Examining the problems that arise when two absolutist narratives reject the validity of one another
Societies use collective narratives as a way to solidify a group’s identity and form cohesion amongst its members. They may be used to preserve customs and traditions or more sinisterly may be manipulated to achieve a certain political goal. Many collective narratives dangerously include fear or hatred of the “other” with patent blame on the out-group for the in-group’s woes built in. Such narratives have plagued the world for centuries and have catalyzed countless conflicts. Nowhere in my travels have I witnessed collective narratives employed so much in such a conflicting manner than I have here in Israel-Palestine.
Two inextricably linked yet completely opposing narratives prevail: that of Zionist Jews/Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. In their most mainstream and simplistic versions, Jewish Israelis view Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as their historic homeland that they have an obvious claim to, while many Palestinians view them as invaders and intruders on Arab lands. While these narratives are undoubtedly connected, they take completely different positions on almost every issue. The year 1948 for example represents Israel’s Independence Day to Jews but the Nakba, or catastrophe, to the Palestinians; while one group felt they had finally completed their destiny and reestablished the Jewish homeland, one felt extreme sadness as they saw their homeland stripped away from them.
The power of narratives was no clearer to me than when we visited the Jalazone refugee camp adjacent to the city of Ramallah, the West Bank’s most important economic center. While we were only around 30 miles outside of Tel Aviv where we had been no more than two hours before, I felt as if I was worlds away. As we walked the trash-lined poorly paved streets I noticed rows of posters of shuhada’, or martyrs, and graffiti commemorating their deaths as well as reminding the people what had been lost in 1948. As we continued slowly through the camp, children crowded around us smiling and excited to see people from the United States. Inside the camp’s administrative office, we sat and talked with several of the camp’s officials, and the narratives they shared with us largely reflected what I had witnessed just outside. They recounted how they and their families had been forced out of their homes in what is now Israel proper. They described a nearby Jewish settlement as “extremist” as the settlers harassed the children of the camp on their way to school. In the mindset of the people in this camp, the settlers’ only desire was to snatch more and more Palestinian land that would later be absorbed by Israel. Naturally, the issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their homes was a top priority for the people in the camp; after all, if Jews could return to a land when their ancestors may not have lived there for thousands of years, why then could Palestinians who were forced out or their children not be afforded that same right?
Here lies one of the main issues around which the two narratives collide and are seemingly irreconcilable. In previous meetings and discussions with Jews on the trip, I learned that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis view a demographic Jewish majority as essential to the state of Israel. For many, Israel is and must continue to be a Jewish state, which directly negates the idea of a Palestinian right of return. To my surprise, many of the people on the trip who had spent considerable amounts of time in Israel had never set foot in a refugee camp. This further solidified my notion of the importance of narratives; while I know that they had not intentionally avoided visiting refugee camps or even major Palestinian cities, the fact that it was not on their radar might suggest a blindness, ignorance or certain lack of recognition for the other’s narrative. This unwillingness to acknowledge the other side was explicitly expressed by some in the refugee camp as well. To them, the Jewish claim to the land was bogus or flimsy at best. While the camp officials were ready to accept a two state solution with a Jewish state and Palestinian state side by side, it was obvious to me that this was a melancholy acceptance of reality rather than a sincere embrace of a way to move forward.
In all honesty, this experience at the refugee camp was quite depressing. Hearing such different stories and conflicting claims made me wonder how we could ever get people past the mental block to make peace. Two things began to bring my spirits back up and offered slivers of hope: one was a visit with a representative from One State Two Homelands, which advocates for a single binational state in which Jews and Palestinians have full equal rights. The second was a talk among our group about the idea of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation rather than absolute justice, which rarely works out in the world and whose pursuit has only delayed resolution. If we can somehow bring people together and bring about true reconciliation, then maybe one day a one-state solution, which currently sounds like a fantasy, could become reality.
By: Michael Momayezi