Like lots of things that bother us, I gradually stopped paying attention to the sign at the top of my street, though I pass it daily, titled in big yellow letters on fading brown wood: The Occupation of Abu Tor. Perhaps I started paying attention to it again because, since the Yes Planet theater opened up the block, I see moviegoers pausing to read this tribute to the battles of the Six Day War that took place in this neighborhood. I watch them standing there, reading, and, in my mind I read with them, hearing each time, again and again, the words about the conquest, occupation and “cleansing” of Abu Tor.
And each time I feel my stomach churn that this narrative is what greets both Jewish and Palestinian neighbors of Abu Tor on a daily basis. It is a perpetual reminder of the Six Day War and our continuing conflict, like a rhythm whose steady beat you almost stop being conscious of, but is always there in the distant background, directing our steps.
Now I can’t stop seeing the sign and feeling its words bearing down on me each time I pass it.
A week or two ago, as I returned from a morning walk, I came up a side street to the corner opposite the sign. A young man is standing at the corner, waiting, perhaps for a ride. I offer him a polite good morning nod. He has big thick black glasses, a black plastic bag, and an open face. He is Arab, and as I pass, and stare at the sign’s title, I find myself turning back to him and asking him: “Do you speak Hebrew?”
“Yes, I am at Hebrew University,” he told me.
“I live in this neighborhood, and I pass that sign –“ I point “ – every day. Do you see that sign? Have you read it?” He nods. “Can I ask you how it feels for you, as a Palestinian, to read it?”
“We are all the same, Israelis and Palestinians” he says, quickly, almost reflexively. He says it in a way that makes me wonder how often he is asked what “the Palestinians” think, or is asked to represent “The Palestinians” in some debate, put into a one-dimensional box when maybe he wants to just be himself, with whatever combination of personal individual-collective identity that is his.
“I agree,” I tell him, and explain, “I don’t like it that people have to pass that sign every day and see that message.”
“Yes, it’s not good for either the Jews or the Palestinians.”
In the shadow of memory
This sign keeps us frozen, looking backwards, Israelis stuck in the fear that lead us through the 1967 War and then in the moment of victory and all-justifying survival, and Palestinians in the sense of loss and tragedy that followed that war. How can we ever build a reasonable future between our two peoples if we only focus backwards, and never aspire forwards?
And then I got an idea from former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Well, not from him in person, but I happened to come across his recently published book, In the Shadow of Statues.
Landrieu grew up in New Orleans, where his father served as the city’s mayor and took many steps to promote desegregation during the civil rights movement. Subsequently, Mitch Landrieu also served as mayor, and during his tenure he underwent a process that led him to remove the last of the Confederate statues. In his book he shares his personal journey of realizing why this was the right and necessary thing to do.
He remembers learning about the American Civil War as a kid, in that general vague distancing way that school text books often engender, as they march students through a series of events and dates, without the larger significance of the events as they were experienced then, or how they affect us now, ever really sinking in.
And he describes his experience as an adult, driving by Confederate statues, like that of General Beauregard, who led Confederate troops in their ultimately lost war, noticing “in a mentally distant way” sunny sky, leafy trees, confederate leader, heroic soldier, red light, green light, go… and thus he glides on with his day.
Only through conversations with his friends, and famous black Jazz musicians, Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard, did Landrieu understand how different this was from their experience driving by these statue in the city that they had all grown up in and called home.
“Terence’s encounter as a teenager with that Beauregard statue, on the same route I traveled, left a hard feeling in his gut,” Landrieu writes. “To him, it was a monument that denied his humanity; it saluted the war to keep us slaves. He told me, ‘It made me feel less than,’ and left him bearing down to get through the day. Whereas I didn’t feel much beyond the beauty of a statue memorializing a war that ended a century ago, and a vague pride that the monument gave New Orleans a European feel. Terence Blanchard felt the weight of history… Terence got the message promoted by [those who put up the statues]… swallowed it, and he hated it.”
The more Landrieu thought about it, the more he comprehended how their respective experiences walking through the world as a white man or as a black man could be distinctly different. This became an a-ha moment of greater understanding. “That message went right over my head when I was young,” he observes. “I have often heard it said by my elders that you can’t know how a man feels until you walk in his shoes. It has taken me the better part of forty years to find those shoes. This is what I have come to call transformative awareness. We are all capable of it; but we come kicking and screaming to a sudden shift of thinking about the past.”
Over time Landrieu realized: the statue had to come down, and ought to be replaced by something with the kind of message that reflects a vibrant vision for New Orleans with all its rich aspects. This was essential for the well-being of the city and its residents. Which he then set out to do, eventually succeeding.
Respecting memory and constructing our future
My comparison is not between Civil War and the Israeli-Palestinian national struggle, but, rather the role of memory and memorializing in conflict situations.
Landrieu’s story of seeing the situation from the perspective of the other side resonated with me and my growing discomfort with this sign in my neighborhood. Israelis and Palestinians have a complicated history together, fighting over the same land. But an essential step to mutual safety and well-being, is to extract ourselves from a zero-sum narrative, with its perpetual protagonists, fear, fighting and domination.
“Do you have a problem with a memorial to the soldiers of the victorious side?” a friend asked, as I grapple with these questions.
No, I deeply understand the need to commemorate the sacrifices that individuals made for their community’s sake. But, in honoring Israeli Jewish sacrifice and success, this sign grinds a message of domination, loss and inequality into Palestinian consciousness every day. That message, and its specific language of occupation and cleansing, do not play a constructive role on the streets where we are trying to live together. And if there is to be such a sign, can we not find a way that it helps resolve tensions rather than exacerbate them?
One option is to replace the offending text with something else. Not only to replace the most problematic words, such as “occupation” and “cleansing”, but offer a story which both sides can feel honors them, their histories and their hopes for a decent future.
What narrative could both the Jewish and Arab neighbors of Abu Tor agree upon? It is not as simple as finding one truth. Israelis and Palestinians had different experiences of the same events, producing different communal meanings, but also very different realities, rights and opportunities for members of the two communities, which I explored in my second and third articles in this series.
A side-by-side telling might be the most truthful. That would legitimate the perspectives of both sides. But can both communities agree to this and to what would be written, without encountering the staunch opposition reflecting the wider political situation? After all, in allowing for the two versions to stand side by side, each side would be acknowledging that there is another perspective that differs from their own, and, these days, even that can get you treated as a traitor in both our societies.
Another option to consider is to simply take down this in-your-face, we-are-the-conquerors sign. Words can shape reality. Perhaps in this case deeds can help us work towards both better words and better policies.
But how do you go about changing, or taking down, such a sign?