During the next few weeks, I have a big research paper due – I am writing on how Zionism means different things to Israelis and to Palestinians and how that interferes with having productive conversations. I also have to wrap up editing my parent’ memoir, in which question-by-question recollections of their life have been put together into one cohesive book (well, almost! As I said, I still have to finish editing). Add to the mix a book I began reading, Palestine Posts: An Eye-Witness Account of the Birth of Israel, which is a combination of memoir, family history and historical record. In it, Daniel Chertoff draws from correspondence that belonged to his father, a writer for the Jerusalem Post’s predecessor during the founding of the country, and supplements with information about the period, rooted in research, and his own story about his family.
For me, the three come together in a rather pertinent way.
Narratives. How much of what we understand about the world or how we make decisions about our beliefs or where we decide to put our time and money is tied to narratives?
We know that each person has an individual perspective and that each story is seen from a storyteller’s view. That makes the task of reconciling conflicting narratives that much more difficult. It also means that we weigh other people’s stories against our own experiences and don’t always give enough weight to what others have to say.
Now, my parents’ narratives don’t cancel each other out. They are in sync as they remember their first date or talk about their first home or recall what my brother and I were like when we were young. But they also get details wrong, like the age they or we were when something happened.
Chertoff noted that his father’s recollections later in life about those early periods didn’t always gel with his own correspondence from that period or documented history. And this is because memory is not perfect or even reliable. It can fade over time or play games with us.
We also know that when stories are repeated over and over, when oral histories get passed down, that they too, may codify as true things that were not, be they events or details.
In addition to faded memories, we don’t always acknowledge multiple perspectives. In stories of war, we hear from the victor and not the vanquished. In history books, the ugly may be erased if it doesn’t fit the desired narrative.
When peoples have conflicting narratives that have been committed to memory over time, the challenge is getting each side to recognize what may be hidden, what may not be true.
We cannot always reconstruct what happened in the past. For even when we do, documentation may be one-sided or incomplete. Best we can do is try to piece together what might have happened.
Once memories of historical events are gone, they risk staying buried, unless there are people or institutions dedicated to researching documentation or keeping those memories alive.
The truth is, no matter what the narratives signify, sometimes we need to put them aside – temporarily – and figure out where we want to be and how we get there. Once we focus on our shared goals – those areas in which we do not have conflict – and dedicate ourselves to mapping out a way to reach them, then perhaps we can try to piece together what might have happened and to understand the language we have been using.
As author Yossi Klein-Halevi says in my recent interview with him on Zionism (for my research), perhaps we save that for “the next conversation.”