The Past: Awakening from History to Story
It is both true and untrue that “my past” is profoundly linked with “my land” and “my family.” The original stability of that narrative triangle has been broken for millions of people who have suffered exile, diaspora and forced migration due to the industrial revolution and the modernization of warfare. For millions of others, less impacted by these factors, the triangle remains, at least in part. And, somewhere in between, there are millions of people in “transition generations.” For them, the “past” is still profoundly linked to “family” and “homeland,” but these allegiances are now evolving and increasingly ambivalent.
Israel and Palestine are both examples of such “transition generation” societies. Sadly, their common experience of ambivalence about the past mostly fuels the conflict between them, rather than providing a shared context for dialogue. For both Jews and Arabs, the narrative of the past is uniquely tragic and grievous. For both, the issue of present identity is impossible to resolve without appeal to the past. Also for both, the past seems painfully and irrevocably lost; “family” and “homeland” evoke trauma and grief, as well as hopes for rebirth, resurrection and redemption.
In a very real sense, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not so much about land as it is about the complex and deeply emotional narratives of the past, and this explains the many efforts to erase and deny the past of the “other side.”
When the past becomes a subject of dialogue, then, it is important not to lose sight of the emotional realities it evokes. An honest telling of the story of the past by an Israeli Jew can never be made to harmonize rationally with an honest telling by a Palestinian Arab. I have often witnessed well-intentioned dialogue crash and burn, as one participant describes her past while another shouts, “No, no! That is just not true!” Unbearable frustration emerges when dialogue partners are confronted with the totally “nonsensical,” “unhistorical,” and “mendacious” declarations of the “other.” The narrative of the “past” recited by the “other” is not just offensive, but appears totally false.
This confusion between “narrative” and “history” is a product of modernism, which vaunted the virtues of scientific history and the notion that “what actually happened” can be objectively known. We now understand that this is an illusion. Still, in our public discourse, and in our efforts to mediate conflict, we all too often resort to an appeal to “what really happened.” “If you will just let me tell you what really happened in the Naqba, you will understand why I am so angry!” “If you had any idea what really happened to us in the Sho’ah, you would not hate us so much!” It is a familiar refrain, and also a fruitless one.
It was almost necessary, I think, for “modern” human experience to be shipwrecked on the rocks of sterile historicity, in order for us to return to the emotional intelligence found in story. By this I mean personal, subjective story, not so-called “facts.” In Israel and Palestine, thankfully, “factual history” has never enjoyed much credibility; stories are preferred. Both Arab and Jewish cultures have their roots in vibrant scriptural traditions, and children of these cultures still trust spiritual descriptions of reality not brought forcefully into alignment with the history books. This innate trust of narrative has its dark side, but it can have redemptive potential in Israel and Palestine, if only we can broaden our listening capacity to include the narrative of the “other.”
In Israel and Palestine today, focus on the war of 1967, on the subsequent Israeli Occupation, on the failed peace process, on the Intifadas, and on current atrocities eclipses everything else. As important as all these are, dialogue will be fruitless as long as it ignores the older, less conscious and more ambivalent hopes, fears and grief of earlier periods. Narratives from 1948 (the “Naqba” for Arabs, the “War of Independence” for Jews) are essential to the discourse. In fact, I would go further, and say that without the narratives of Arab individual and community life in pre-Zionist Palestine, and of the evolution of Jewish individual and community identity in the pre-Holocaust period, any contemporary “account” of the conflict will leave too much unaccounted for.
I do not intend to say that young participants in dialogue should now run to the history books and “learn all about what happened back then.” This is no authentic way to recover the past, and will result only in more confusion and anger, precisely because all the histories that are available to us are deeply alienated from the subjective and personal narratives that we all crave. Narratives of truth can be found only on the lips of real people, and it is there that we must seek them.
We must begin with ourselves. The only story that can be heard by the “other” is the story of my own personal experience, my own loss, my own dreams, my own growth in understanding. And when we have told each other as much as we dare to tell, we must not stop there. Before it is too late, we must find the elders among our peoples who can still speak to us, still give us the gift of their stories. It is remarkable how much love and empathy can emerge within seconds, once the elders have a chance to share their unique insights into what we see simply as “the situation.” In each case, whether we speak with our contemporaries or seek those of an older generation to speak to us, we need to foster a language that will not simply re-ignite our fears and hatreds of each other.
I wonder if there might be a kind of communication that reveals the intimate truths of our “story” without trying merely to repeat “history.” None of the social or political approaches feel authentic to me, but poetry certainly does. And here, again, we are fortunate. The superb quality of the work of poets explicitly addressing the past of both Israel and Palestine more than makes up for the quantity of other sorts of poor writing about this land’s history. In addition to the obvious candidates for poetic inspiration, like Yehuda Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish, there are thankfully other voices to listen for.
In a profound 2011 article entitled “The Unknown Good in our Enemies,” Ingrid Wendt highlights the work of the poetic witness of William Stafford, and the miraculous effect that his poetic insight has on the dialogue between enemies, with the Palestine/Israel matrix as one of the most obvious examples. Poetry can build a bridge across the devastations of the past. In our urgent quest for what is pure and heroic in ourselves, poetry helps us to pause, and to hear the voices of others, who, like us, are opening their hearts. Through the act of poetry, “land” and “family” are redefined, not by the violent exclusion of the other, but by an almost mystical awareness of how deeply we need each other. As William Stafford understood, and as he so beautifully wrote in one of his poems cited by Wendt, it is our own responsibility to awaken to this awareness. It is up to us to speak truthfully to each other, in order to heal ourselves from the nightmares of the past:
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give— yes or no, or maybe— should be clear:
the darkness around us is deep.