The coronavirus crisis has now shifted far beyond a health pandemic and its inequitable socioeconomic consequences into a full-blow confrontation with the fundamental structures that have sustained the growing inequalities apparent today. Throughout the world, alongside growing fears of a resurgence of COVID-19 and with it more poverty, discrimination and prejudice, increasing attention is being given to the historical roots of the current turmoil. The destruction of monuments to bygone leaders, the defilement of memorials, the erasure of culture landmarks in film and the arts: all these are but external signifiers of a profound — and urgent — need to confront specific histories, rectify past injustices, and find new ways to build better futures.
Where is Israel in this constantly broadening quest? Has the response in this country gone beyond the immediate and the pragmatic to embrace memory and history as well? With few highly focused exceptions, the answer is a loud no. There are just too many examples of increased incitement, mutual recrimination and intolerance. Without an ability to deal with the past, however, Israel’s fractious society will not be able to face itself. And until it has the courage to confront itself, it will not be capable of handling immediate problems, let alone be able to carve out a more workable and livable destiny.
Israelis have watched with somewhat detached puzzlement as Americans have defaced the memory of the Confederacy and its heroes. They have followed the attacks not only on Robert E. Lee but also on George Washington, while trying — usually unsuccessfully — to understand why “Black Lives Matter” also to whites and to Latinos, to Jews and to Muslims. Many Israelis do not begin to grasp why Winston Churchill is evoking such anger today. They fail to comprehend how the statues of King Leopold II are being toppled in Antwerp and elsewhere. The French assault on past greats — most notably Charles de Gaulle — is for most Israelis a curiosity remote from their own experiences and their daily travails.
This does not mean that the vast majority of Israeli citizens are uninterested in history and how it affects their current situation. To the contrary: most Israelis are heavily preoccupied (if not totally obsessed) with the past. But only with their own version of historical processes and with their own narratives of previous events.
Reams have been written on the Palestinian propensity to idolize their martyrs and to memorialize their terrorist activities, such as Dalal al-Moghrabi — the 19-year-old woman who participated in the 1978 attack that killed 38 Israeli civilians, many of them children. A square was named in her honor in El-Bireh. An ongoing dispute exists over the use of Palestinian tax funds collected by Israel to support the families of perpetrators of violence against innocent Israeli citizens. And every gesture of praise for a Palestinian or Arab fighter is met with immeasurable venom in mainstream as well as right-wing Israeli circles (a memorial erected in the Negev to Egyptian soldiers killed in 1948 after the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace treaty is now in a state of advanced disrepair).
At the same time, these very same groups choose to ignore the pilgrimages to the well-tended grave of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli doctor-turned-terrorist, who mowed down 29 Muslim prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994. They fail to acknowledge that they continue to cultivate a park in Kiryat Arba named after Meir Kahane, the extreme anti-Arab leader of the Kach movement, whose avowed successors in the openly racist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party were legitimized by none other than the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, barely a year ago. They have yet to admit that, for years, they have condoned the activities of the hilltop youth of Yitzhar and their spiritual leaders in the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva, Yitzchak Ginsburgh (author of the infamous tract extolling Baruch Goldstein, Baruch HaGever) and Yitzhak Shapira (who wrote the equally venomous Torat HaMelech).
In these and many more heavily emotive instances, neither Israeli nor Palestinian memory leaves any room for the other. There is little willingness to entertain alternative narratives, let alone attempt to understand them or grapple with their roots. In many respects, the dominant discourse on each side is as dismissive as it is devoid of compassion — a sure sign of the depth of ongoing enmity and mutual distrust. But it is also much more: it is a vivid and painful reminder that neither side has either the courage or the maturity to deal with its own history with critical honesty.
There are, of course, several noteworthy exceptions. As time has progressed, more Israelis have come to internalize some of the most difficult moments of 1948 (the massacre in Dir Yassin, for one) and to take responsibility for the murder of 49 innocent Arab citizens — the majority children — in Kfar Qassem in October 1956. A handful of local memorials have been established in memory of the victims of the “Land Day” riots of 1978 (Sakhnin is one example). Similar sites pay homage to the victims of the 2000 shootings of demonstrators at the height of the turbulence following the collapse of Palestinian-Israeli talks at Camp David (Arabeh). In Shfar’am, a memorial has been built is memory of those indiscriminately killed by an Israeli soldier in this town in 2005. And a few have found a way to remember the 1948 Naqba alongside these other historical markers (discrete monuments of this kind exist in Kfar Kana and Ilaboon).
These sites and associated memories are, however, localized and discrete. They almost consciously skirt the larger questions of Israel’s share in the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 and the systemic discrimination of Arab citizens of Israel since, as epitomized in the disturbances in Jaffa this past week. The few initiatives that have sought to tackle these questions beyond the academy (“Zochrot” is one such undertaking) have been discredited and branded as unpatriotic. The Israeli-Palestinian Joint Memorial Day, sponsored by the Bereaved Families Circle and Combatants for Peace, although also regularly denounced, has nevertheless succeeded in garnering growing support for a braver, patriotic and open, review of the past by both Israelis and Palestinians. Just two months ago over 40,000 participants joined the ceremony virtually. Academics, too, are beginning to seriously look at the past as a means of uncovering discriminatory structures and finding ways to construct a more inclusive society.
The challenge of seriously delving into the past is the first step in learning to take responsibility for its present-day manifestations. This is much more than tearing down monuments or readjusting memories — it is all about coming to terms with oneself, fundamental human values, and the multiple aspirations of all those who make up Israeli society.
Today, Monday, one of the bravest and most honest trailblazers of this approach, Professor Zeev Sternhell, is being laid to rest in Jerusalem. A world renowned political philosopher, one of the foremost scholars of modern fascism and a true Israeli democrat, his uncompromising willingness to face the past and his steadfast commitment to a decent Israel based on the values of equality, social justice and peace, serve as an inspiration for many in meeting this deepest challenge of our time. His legacy is a beacon for all those Israelis who understand that only through a critical review of themselves will they be able to move forward in an embracing, comprehensive, and successful search for a better tomorrow.