In “Contested Land, Contested Memory,” Canadian writer Jo Roberts argues that Israelis and Palestinians must acknowledge each other’s suffering for reconciliation to have a chance.
In the 1970s, I studied for two years at the Jerusalem Experimental High School, in a setting so picturesque that it was nearly impossible to concentrate on school work. The school was housed in an old Arab building on a slope behind the gas stations at the entrance to the city. At the time, the suburb of Ramot was still being constructed on the far hills. Modern highways had yet to cut through the deep valley.
The surreal beauty seen from the school included the abandoned stone houses of the village of Lifta. When walking to and from school, and when escaping from classes, my classmates and I would sit on the remnants of walls, hide in the shelled out remains, and some of us actually camped out in the former homes of the village. Little thought was given to the residents who had fled in 1948, to what their lives were like, or whether they had been dealt an unjust hand in the war that established the State of Israel.
Thinking back, the plight of the Lifta villagers was completely invisible to us. Even today, those abandoned homes can still seen below the entrance to Jerusalem as development plans for the area have stalled. But elsewhere in Israel, the remnants of pre-1948 Palestinian existence have been plowed over, planted over, and replaced by Jewish Israeli communities and forests.
Earlier this month, Israel celebrated its Independence Day, marking 66 years since its establishment as a state. At the same time, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs held Nakba Day rallies and protests, signaling the same amount of time since their ‘catastrophe’. Israeli politicians are eager to enact laws forbidding Nakba activities and education, questioning how something as joyous as Israel’s independence can be considered a catastrophic occurrence by some of the country’s citizens.
The two stories of 1948
There are two narratives, two understandings about what happened in 1948, Jo Roberts suggests in her book Contested Land, Contested Memory (Dundurn, 2013). Neither of these narratives is exclusive, or rules out the legitimacy of the other version.
The events of 1948 can be seen in two ways, she writes. “For Israelis, the 1948 War centered around the experience of their ‘David vs. Goliath’ victory against Arab invaders… The displaced Palestinian Arabs didn’t have a place in that story. If anything, what was remembered was that they ran away.”
“Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians left Israel during the war. This is stark historical fact. But within Israel, the telling of how and why this happened is contested.”
Roberts interviewed Israelis and Israeli Arabs to hear how they related to the events of 1948, and how memories of the war and what followed continue to affect their lives today. (Palestinians living in the West Bank/Gaza were not included in the scope of this book). On the one hand, the author focuses on the long-term effects of the Holocaust for Jews and how it influenced their desperate need for an independent Jewish homeland. In parallel, the author writes of Arabs who lost their homes in villages whose very existence would subsequently disappear from the map. For them, the Nakba is not a historical event as much as an ongoing process.
Shoah, the Hebrew word for Holocaust, actually means ‘catastrophe’, which is the same as the translation for the Arabic word Nakba. “Both Israelis and Palestinians understand their national identities through the collective remembering of a traumatic past,” Roberts writes.
Acknowledgement of another’s pain
In order to understand the other side, the first step in reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians must be to hear the other’s story of suffering, she contends.
The Taba peace negotiations conducted in January 2001 were the closest the sides ever got to reaching an agreement. According to Yossi Beilin, Israeli Minister of Justice and leading negotiator at the time, “The wisdom of Taba was that we could refer to the two narratives in the evolving Palestinian refugee problem, without accepting either of them. The mere fact that we could refer to them and respect both narratives was enough to satisfy both sides that their story is not being ignored.”
Roberts presents her tendentious reading of the events of 1948, stating repeatedly “how vital an element in reconciliation and healing is the acknowledgement of another’s pain.”
“It is part of our human nature, this need to be heard, to have a witness to the testimony of our suffering; and this is as true communally as it is for the individual,” Roberts writes.
History is written by the victors, and this book will be difficult reading for Israelis unwilling to acknowledge that the 1948 victory resulted in substantial losses in property and identity for the Palestinians. Israel is today strong enough and secure enough to accept responsibility for what happened, the author contends. “Only when a nation is well established, its survival assured, and its identity secure, can it afford different voices the space to present other narratives,” she writes.
Trained in her native England as a lawyer and anthropologist, Jo Roberts is now a freelance writer who lives in Toronto, Canada. She previously was managing editor of the New York Catholic Worker newspaper. Her reportage from Israel and from the West Bank has appeared in Embassy, Canada’s foreign policy weekly.