The Language of Multiple Narratives

Like all other professionals who engage in counseling, rabbis are trained to know and believe that hearing one side of a story does not tell you all you need to know. Whether it is a marriage that is in trouble or friends who have become estranged from each other, a professional may well ultimately choose to have the parties involved come in together for counseling. But it is rare indeed that said professional would not see the parties individually before dealing with them as a pair.

Exactly what constitutes “objective reality,” such that it exists at all, is notoriously difficult to know. Two parties may look at the same marriage or friendship in crisis and tell a completely different version of what led up to their seeking counseling– and neither one would necessarily be lying. They would simply be telling the story as they see it, and as they feel they have lived it. Trying to make those two parties see the conflict through the eyes of the other is a significant goal of counseling.

At the risk of sounding like a rabbi, if that is true with regard to interpersonal conflicts, al ahat kammah v’kahmmah– how much more so is it true with regard to conflicts between nations and peoples. In international relations, the counseling challenge that I have described is most often referred to as the issue of “multiple narratives.” Side A has its version of the conflict that it believes to be the truth, Side B has its version of the conflict that it believes to be the truth, and the destinies of both peoples and nations hangs in the balance. The degree to which the parties involved in the conflict hold fast to their narrative, and remain totally incapable of either hearing or empathizing with the narrative of the other side, will, in turn, be the degree to which the conflict itself remains unsolvable. Only when the two parties involved can see the conflict through the opposing party’s eyes is there even a chance that mediation can be useful.

There are two recently published works on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that speak directly to this issue of multiple narratives, and they are, to my mind, “must reads” for anyone who loves Israel and cares about how it might ultimately find its way to a better future. The first book, by freelance Israeli journalist Yossi Klein-Halevy, is titled Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who United Jerusalem and Divided a Nation. The second book, by Ha’aretz Correspondent Ari Shavit, is titled My Promised Land. Each makes an invaluable contribution to understanding exactly how complex the issues in the Middle East are.

In Klein-Halevy’s book, a rich and almost lyrical work, we are provided a window both poignant and painful into the deep divisions within Israel about what ought to be the lasting legacy of Israel’s great victory in 1967. The liberation of East Jerusalem by extraordinarily courageous paratroopers in the Six Day War, and, of course, of the Kotel itself (the ancient retaining wall of the Temple), was celebrated by all at the time as a redemptive moment. Existential threat was met by brilliant military success, and Jerusalem was once again a united city.

But where some came to see that redemptive moment as a sign of imminent messianic times, others saw Israel’s territorial gains as having a potentially corrosive impact on Israel’s psyche. The roots of today’s differences over whether or not to give back the West Bank lands conquered in 1967 found their earliest expression within the brigade of paratroopers that actually accomplished the liberation. Therein were born, if you will, the “messianic narrative,” generally associated with the religious settler movement created by a member of that brigade, and the more secular “land for peace” approach, whose roots are also from that brigade. The two narratives are still in deep conflict, and the Palestinians are almost peripheral to their debate.

Ari Shavit’s wonderful book, however, goes straight to the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and frames it as it is probably best and most accurately framed: a situation of competing narratives.

Those of us who support Israel know the fundamentals of our narrative. The land of Israel was promised to our Biblical ancestors as a homeland in perpetuity, with Jerusalem as its capital, and home to the holy Temples. But when the Second Temple was laid waste in 70 CE, an almost 2,000-year exile ensued, ended by the Zionist restoration of Jewish sovereignty in our historic homeland, built out of the ashes of the Holocaust.

We live by that narrative; we eat it, dream it, sleep it, and treasure it. But what Shavit virtually forces us to do is to come to terms with the reality of the “other narrative.” And there is another narrative…

Most of the Arab world still refers to Israel’s Independence Day as the Naqba, the day of catastrophe. Where Israel talks of the waves of immigrants who came to Palestine to work the land and create a homeland from barren swamps, Palestinians maintain that hundreds of thousands of native Palestinians who were already living there were driven into exile by the Zionists. Some left of their own account, but Shavit recounts the forced exile from Lydda as one of many such incidents. What is significant about Shavit is that he is not a self-hating Israeli; quite the opposite. He is a proud citizen of his country, and delights in its remarkable accomplishments. But, he says, there is another narrative, and nothing substantive will be accomplished until both Arabs and Israelis can- if you will- see the world through each other’s eyes.

You might wonder what I write about this. After all, this is, to the educated student of the Middle East, Arab-Israeli conflict 101, as well as Israeli Society 101. What’s new that makes this newsworthy?

The answer is a simple one. In one year, two strikingly honest and beautifully written books have been written and published by two unabashedly proud Israelis, who have managed to share their pride in the realized Zionist dream while at the same time daring to look at the world through the eyes of the other narrative. In years past, they would have simply pretended that it’s just wasn’t there. That’s real progress for our side.

One would hope, of course, that there would be similarly heartening progress on the other side, from proponents of the other narrative. Recent revelations about continued preaching and teaching of hate to Palestinian children are more than disappointing. But there are signs that the best and brightest minds on our side of the divide are thinking more openly and more courageously about “them.” That has to be a good thing

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.