Seeing through the fog

It was my pleasure a couple of weeks ago to hear Dr. Ilan Pappé speak at UC Berkeley. At the end of Dr. Pappé’s talk, an audience member commented on the depressing Israeli-Palestinian reality and asked how Dr. Pappé finds the strength to continue his work to end the conflict. Dr. Pappé replied that the thing that gives him the most hope is the amount of energy in Israel that is devoted to national denial of 1948. Israeli denial, he said, gives him hope and is a testament to the fact that most Israelis are good at their core and find their history difficult to swallow. What kind of people would find it tolerable that 660,000 Jews were either active participants in or silent accomplices to the destruction of 400 Palestinian villages and neighborhoods, the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians, the massacre of several thousand civilians? After leaving Dr. Pappé’s talk, the title of Tanya Reinhart’s newest book, “How to end the war of 1948,” kept repeating itself in my head. For the next several days, I woke up with the phrase, “ending the war of 1948.”

The word “Occupation” has become part in parcel of the discourse of peace. Acknowledgement of the existence and persistence of the Israeli Occupation has been a relatively recent phenomenon. Largely, this is due to the persistence of a Palestinian discourse on Occupation and the images of the first Intifada, a revolution of children throwing stones, which entrenched the lexicon of Occupation. In part, the discourse of Occupation is due to the thawing of Israeli society that happened after the Oslo Accords were signed. With the impression that peace was in the air, more Israelis felt safe enough to examine the events and circumstances that led up to the signing of the Oslo Accords. Even Jews who excuse the behavior of the current Israeli regime can be heard saying, “We want the Occupation to end, too. But the Palestinians are responsible for its continuation.”

But, in many ways, the discourse of Occupation exists in Jewish circles because it perpetuates the mystification of history in which “before 1967, the Palestinians were wrong; after 1967, the Jews were wrong.” This simplification of human behavior and experience to “right” and “wrong” uses blame a currency for trade, excusing all of us from examining the deeper reasons for why Israelis and Palestinians made the choices that they did. This formulation makes 1948 invisible, as if al-Nakba – the catastrophe, the expulsion and dispersion of the Palestinian people that began shortly after the UN passed the resolution for partition in December 1947 – never happened. Making al-Nakba invisible means that Israelis and Palestinians come to experience one another with false expectations and perceptions about what is important, indeed central, to the other. This mystification of history that makes al-Nakba invisible also entrenches denial as the primary mode in which Jews engage in their current reality.

1948 was not only a pivotal moment in Palestinian national experience. It was not only a moment in which Palestinians became dispossessed from their lands and lives in their homeland. It was also the beginning of the Palestinian refugee experience, the beginning of the Palestinian diaspora experience, the beginning of unsafety and uncertainty. 1948 is not a finite moment but one that continues to this day. 1948 can be felt in the refugee camps, still standing, that were established to house those who fled their homes in 1948. The impact of 1948 can be felt in the discrimination that Palestinians in Israel experience – the dispossession on their own land, the slow expropriation of their families’ lands by the State of Israel. The impact of 1948 can be felt in the experience of Palestinians under Occupation. 1948 can be felt in the experience of Palestinians living in the Western diaspora, having their experience and histories degraded and invalidated. Each of those experiences is separate and distinct, yet they all flow from a single source – 1948, al-Nakba.

The desire on the part of many Jewish activists to operate under the equation of “before 1967, the Palestinians were wrong; after 1967, the Jews were wrong,” comes, in many cases, from the intention of ending the horrific suffering of those Palestinians living under Israeli Occupation. With the desire to end the immediate suffering of the Palestinian people, many Jews have abandoned 1948, instead perpetuating a mystification of their history. Many Jews contend that the continuation of the Occupation is a price too high to pay for the luxury of national self-examination. In addition, many Jewish activists do not want to deal with the historical reality of al-Nakba as they fear that it would throw into question the right of Jews to live in a Jewish state. If the Arabs in fact did not flee from their homes voluntarily but were expelled forcefully, this would mean that that historic injustice needs to be remedied by allowing the Palestinian people the right to return to their homes or the equivalent thereof in pre-1948 Palestine – a reality that many Jews feel would mark the end of Jewish self-determination by changing the demographics in favor of Palestinians. For many, this would mark the end of the Jewish character of Israel. All in all, many Jews fear examining 1948 because they think that it would endanger the future of their community.

The Oslo Accords were built upon the false conception that the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians didn’t work out and that both parties wanted a divorce, in effect, a separation from one another. The underpinning of that agreement was that separation was the only way to resolve the conflict, and that the source of the conflict was that Israelis and Palestinians hate one another. Perhaps the most famous proponent of this thinking in the Israeli peace movement is Amos Oz, who characterized Israelis and Palestinians as two separate peoples with two separate histories that collided, as if in a car accident. In March of 1998, Oz wrote, “when I see a car accident, I don’t ask who caused the accident, but who is bleeding most heavily; it is they who deserve the most urgent attention.” Oz, like many Israelis and many Jews abroad, want the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people to end, but they fear that becoming intimately involved in the root of that suffering would invalidate their experience, their culture, their aspirations as a community and as individuals. Many Jews feel that staring 1948 in the face would be the end of Jewish self-determination.

The threat is, of course, not staring 1948 in the face; the actual threat is the level of denial that is taking place to prevent our examining 1948. One example of the current denial is the building of the wall that would separate Israel proper from the West Bank. The wall is being built not on the Green Line, the internationally recognized border that separates Israel proper from the West Bank, but actually in the West Bank. With the building of the wall, complete with electrical fences and trenches, Israel will be annexing 10% of the West Bank, seizing Palestinian-owned land, including the Western aquifer system, which provides the West Bank with 51% of its water resources. Leaders of the Israeli Labor party conceived of the wall as a “peace plan,” as peace is a separation between Palestinians and Jews. The wall, an outgrowth of the separation equals peace mentality, institutes denial as the primary mode of engagement with historical causality. Instead of living in a world where one event leads to the next, where human beings behave in a way that makes sense given their personal experience, we begin to live in a world in which events occur at random. In a world with no historical causality, each moment is atomized – it stands alone with no events preceding it, no events following it. We find ourselves involved in a car accident, wrapped up in the moment of collision, rather than asking questions about the events that led up to the collision. Without asking the necessary questions – what is the speed limit here, was this person drinking alcohol, what are the dynamics at this intersection – we cannot prevent other collisions from happening. Though focusing on providing immediate assistance in the aftermath of a collision is a reasonable point of view in that moment of trauma, where physical survival is the only consideration, it is impossible to sustain human life in this condition. The wall draws a curtain around things that are too difficult to bear, sealing Jews from understanding the world in which they live.

The fatal flaw in the Oslo Accords was that it accepted a mystification of history in order for both parties to accept a certain percentage of blame. This mystification of history allowed Israelis to continue with their lives as if in a hallucinatory state, unaware of the reality of Palestinian existence during the Oslo period, from 1993 to 2000. But this hallucination proved disabling, and Israelis and Jews all over were taken aback when the second Intifada began. The Intifada was seen as a nonsensical moment created by nonsensical people. Still in the dense fog of Oslo, most Jews reacted to their confusion and fear by assigning blame, characterizing the Palestinian people as a people motivated by evil at worst and hatred at best. But the assignment of blame for the failure of Oslo and Camp David in 2000 is a reaction of trauma – of a people who are walking a dense fog and being struck by objects that come from nowhere. Palestinians, in this view, are reacting with blind fury rather than with reasonable judgments based upon their experience. This traumatized mentality is given nourishment in an environment in which the media presents the events with none of the background, in which the government perpetuates the discourse of fear and hatred, and in which physical separation from one another prevents the gathering of accurate information.

In order to move forward from the current deadlock, exemplified in the building of the wall, we must move past the concept of peace as separation. Jews must begin to discuss and forge through the work of national self-determination not for moral reasons, not in order to parcel out blame as if it were a currency. Blame is a method of judgment for the purposes of retribution, not for the purposes of resolving conflict. The peace that we build in the wake of the second Intifada must be a sustainable one that moves beyond blame, which moves us out of the traumatized state of denial of 1948, a state in which human life cannot flourish. For Jews, it is crucial that we begin the work of acknowledging and understanding the events of 1948, as it is a moment that, for Palestinians, continues to this day. We must move beyond blame to understand that our world does not consist of events occurring at random but rather of deeper socio-historical forces that shape decision-making for both peoples. To build a movement that will actually achieve what both peoples need and deserve, it must be based upon examining root causes for the conflict, rather than stopping at a superficial analysis and blame-trading. Groups like Ta’ayush ( which means “life in common” in Arabic, are forging ahead in building this reality by defying the artificial boundaries that separate Israelis and Palestinians by working together and writing a common narrative. Groups like Alternative Palestinian Agenda ( are creating discourse that insists that Israeli and Palestinian needs and aspirations are inseparable, that peace is more than a political arrangement but rather a process in which both peoples must engage. These groups and others that have gained renewed strength in the wake of the second Intifada recognize that self-examination is not a luxury but a necessity that has direct influence on the architecture of Israel-Palestine. If we want to end the war of 1948, we have to understand that we’re still fighting it.

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