Pitfalls and Promise in National Myths

That internet troll that is the prime minister’s son had his own pearls to give about the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Memorial Day Ceremony that takes place every year on Israel’s Memorial Day. “We have one day in a year to remember our fallen soldiers! And you destroy it with a ‘memorial’ to Palestinian terrorists!” He tweeted. Aside from being something that a Hamas commander might say from the other side, the philosophical principle here is absurd. All our dead are worthy of memory, all your dead are not! Does this include children and other civilians? Of course, sentiments like these are not supposed to be thought through, they are intended to serve as a vehicle for hate, anger and other emotions. Emotions, in turn, are what this time of year is all about.

This is a time of year that always fascinates me, because it says so much about Israeli national myth and the Israeli national consciousness. All the days that celebrate Israel take place in this month. That is, all these days that celebrate the modern state of Israel, separate from Judaism. It has all been meticulously planned like some sort of chess game with our emotions. First comes Pesach, perhaps the greatest story ever told of rags to riches, slavery to freedom, and redemption. Crucially, the land of Israel plays the main character as the savior in this story. Also crucially, each generation is told in the Hagada that they must remember the Pesach story as if they experienced it themselves. After Pesach there come the three national days which all have a role to play as the re-enactment of the Pesach story. First comes Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Memorial Day. Although the real-world Holocaust is an event that was far worse than something that the ancients could have dreamt up, in this interplay of national days it serves the same purpose as the idea of slavery in Egypt.

Then comes Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, which in its own way echoes either the wandering in the desert for 40 years or the various battles that the bible tells us were fought by the ancients for dominion of the Holy Land. And then we have Yom Haatzmaut, Independence Day, which is essentially the same for the ancients and the creation of the state of Israel 1948. That is, milk and honey, the villa in the jungle, the home of the Jews.

It is such a compelling story it can take your breath away. The choreography of the dates is just genius. Not only is it well composed, but for so many Jews alive today, it is true. A state built from the ground up, a democracy no less, as a home for those who had been suffering in exile. Not only in the Holocaust, but in the Middle East as well. My father-in-law, who I sadly never got the chance to meet, was in prison for 14 years in Egypt, some of that time serving hard labor, for Zionist activities in that country. That is, he was in actual slavery in Egypt, that same Egypt, and was eventually brought home to the land of Israel.

Like all the best national myths, however, it is untrue not because anything that it says is untrue, but because of what it leaves out. Thinking like this is like looking at Israel with one eye open. As a European leftist, this is not the story of Israel that I was told. I was told a story of expulsion, racism, occupation and war. The Palestinian national story reads like the second half of a puzzle, filling in all the bits that are left out of the Israel national story. But it is a tricky puzzle, and I honestly find it very difficult to look at both stories at the same time, like that picture where you can see an old woman or a young woman in the same image but never both at the same time. Your eye needs to refocus in order to see it.

When I first came to Israel more than 10 years ago, I attended Yitzak Rabin’s memorial rally. The strongest speaker by far was David Grossman, the intellectual giant who lost his son in Lebanon war, calling out in tears for the government to end the pointless occupation and seek peace. An incredibly gripping but not surprising sentiment. But there was something else that got my attention. He spoke of the state of Israel as a Nes, a miracle. This confused me. A leftist using the language of the national myth as a vehicle for tolerant ideas about justice and equality? Especially about the same state that all the great names of international left-wing intellectuals seem to agree is a pariah state. The instances of the idea of Israel being the last remnant of colonialism are too many to go through, but a highlight of this thought was when Judith Butler said “Understanding Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.”  Butler is not just any academic, she founded a whole new academic line of enquiry, queer theory, which is taught at universities all over the world. So, a world renown feminist icon is willing to accept fundamentalist, women hating movements that closely resemble fascist organizations into the bosom of the international left simply for resisting Israel?

The reason for this is of course that the Palestinian story is also a very compelling one. Al Nakbar, the disaster, created Israel and at the same time it created a whole society holding out, resisting, together against the occupier. It is very strong. Especially if the question of the occupation in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza are not resolved on any level and as long as the Israeli government doesn’t want to resolve it.

What I do think is a shame, if an understandable one, is that the most famous intellectual of the Palestinian people is Edward Said. Said also delivered a new line of intellectual research in his famous book Orientalism. Here he brilliantly holds up a mirror to British colonial writers and intellectuals, exposing their racist worldviews and prejudice, the “orientalist” mindset. He learned this “critical discourse” method from Michael Foucault. This method does its job well and can be used (and is being used) to expose prejudice everywhere. After Said, it is used extensively in Middle Eastern studies. The problem with Said’s point of view is the same problem that we see in the national myths, namely what is missing. In fact, his theories work a little too well together with the Palestinian national myth. It is a bit of a situation like where all you have is a hammer, so all your problems seem like nails. If you can expose the enemy gaze, how useful is that to solve your own problems? In the Arab world we have strongmen politics, corruption, inequality for women and fundamentalism. All these problems are critical for the Palestinians, but they don’t need to solve them if the only problem they need to focus on is the occupation and Israel’s historical war crimes. It’s also a great tool for their leaders, who can say that any of their critics are looking at them with an ”orientalist gaze”.

None of this is to excuse the occupation. I see the occupation as one of the great scams of Israel, where a small number of settlers are running off with the state coffers and using national myth to get the rest of us to hand over the money. In their zealotry they have created a dictatorship in the West Bank where they alone are the masters. Palestinian myth is absolutely right about this. But according to many Palestinians who follow the national myth, the whole of the land is occupied, from the river to the sea, and the only goal worth pursuing is the complete takeover of the land by the Palestinians. This is a regressive idea, promising a future filled with violence, no matter how oppressed the Palestinians are at the moment.

Can we create a national myth for both Israelis and Palestinians? It looks a bit bleak. The challenge is that it is a terrible story. Everybody has suffered, now let’s just understand each other. Yes it was a HaNes and Al Nakbar at the same time. Now I believe in this, but that doesn’t make it a good story. It misses out both redemption and valiant resistance. It is, however, an emotion that people who have been bereaved can understand. The strength needed to understand that your pain is equal to my pain is stronger than the childish concept of us versus them. Which brings me back to Yair Netanyahu, since the reason that he attacks this ceremony is this very fact. The very fact of recognizing each other as human beings rather than the terrorists or occupiers of government propaganda is a threat to the ultra-nationalists on both sides.

Also, the part that I didn’t realize before I heard David Grossman is that national myths are malleable, like putty, you can mold them into anything you want. We need national myths with a broader vision that encompasses all the history, warts and all.

So be proud, be sad, be vindicated. Just lend a thought to the other side of the story. Just try to keep both eyes open.

About the Author
Toby Gisle is 42 years old, and a trained circus performer who now works as an English teacher in Tel Aviv. Although he grew up in London, he is originally from Sweden. His writings have appeared in a few different publications in Sweden.
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