I spent the last two weeks in the geographical area of Israel/Palestine learning about its history, culture and politics.
In trying to understand the regional events of the last century, I visited two institutions – the Yitzchak Rabin Centre in Tel Aviv and the the Yassir Arafat Museum in Ramallah.
In modern, interactive from, they both curate the key events and dates chronologically, telling an almost identical story.
The story is of a land sparsely populated by natives from various backgrounds living there peacefully.
One day an ideological movement is born amongst a certain people, which urges them to immigrate to the land in droves and to resettle it.
In the beginning things go well, but when the newcomers try to take control of the land and claim it as their own, things get ugly.
A civil war breaks out, leading to the triumph of the immigrants and the emigration / expulsion of most of the native population.
In the proceeding years wrongs are done by both sides, resulting in the loss of many lives. There are peace-seekers on both sides, but the haters make more noise, and, as they say, the rest is history.
The same story, but different narratives. In both Ramallah and Tel Aviv facts are facts, but their respective interpretations could not be more different to each other.
Whilst the Palestinian version sees the Zionist settlers as foreign, colonialist invaders, the Israeli one sees them as heroic liberators of an ancient homeland.
In Ramallah there are Palestinian liberation fighters and in Tel Aviv there are Palestinian terrorists.
Palestinian liberation fighters and Palestinian terrorists may do the same thing, but the difference is that the former are the good guys, whereas the latter are the bad ones.
So how do we make sense of this? Which narrative is the true one and which one is false?
Or maybe the question is not a good question to begin with.
If they both – to a greater or lesser extent – agree on the facts, i.e. the story, then what they really disagree one is how to make sense of it, i.e the narrative.
So does it really make sense to ask which is the true one? Narratives are interpretations of events that people construct for themselves and different people will come up with different subjective interpretations.
Perhaps both are true! It is true for the Zionist chalutza (pioneer) that she is fighting for the revival of her ancient nation in their ancient homeland and it is also true for the Palestinian liberation fighter that he is resisting the occupation of his native land by foreigners.
So if both narratives are true, how come that they clash?
The narratives start clashing when people take them beyond their legitimate domain – when they start thinking of narratives as objective truths, rather than as constructed and subjective interpretations.
Identity narratives may indeed be based on history, but they are not history, but rather a mythification of it.
‘The Jews used to have a sovereign kingdom in the land’, is historical fact; ‘the land is our national homeland and belongs to us’, is a mythification of that historical fact.
Now, I am by no means invalidating the power of identity narratives. As a passionate Zionist myself, I do believe that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people.
But I also recognise that this is a narrative that I am telling myself and that my friend the Palestinian has a different narrative to tell.
For her Palestine is her homeland and the identity of her people is of Palestinian nationhood.
When I was visiting the Temple Mount, the WAQF representative told me, “This has always been Al-Aqsa and the Jews have renamed it Temple Mount in order to claim it as their own.” – he was denying history.
Later that day, in response to me mentioning my upcoming visit to ‘Palestine’, my Zionist friend told me, “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people. It is an invented identity.” – he was denying narrative and forgetting that his identity is a mythological narrative too.
If we keep in mind the boundaries between history and mythology and are careful not to invalidate each other’s identity narratives, then our discourse can become kinder, more understanding and more compassionate.