A tale of two narratives

An approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace based on an appreciation for how differently we experience our conflict.

An Israeli rocket is fired into the northern Gaza Strip July 17 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli rocket is fired into the northern Gaza Strip July 17 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ancient Hebrew wisdom teaches that a person’s perception of reality greatly impacts how he experiences that reality. More than sharing an objective truth, we all actually live in our own unique understanding of that truth.
Two people can experience the same event differently based on how each more generally relates to various other factors. In his essay “D’at Elokim,” Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook teaches that everything we encounter is actually relative and subjective to us. This isn’t to say that there is no objective truth. There is. But that objective truth is so great and all-encompassing that it actually includes within it our smaller subjective perceptions.
In most conflicts, each party is certain he is right and the other wrong. And in the reality he lives in, this is genuinely the case. But in order to solve a conflict like ours, it is necessary to step into the reality of the “other”– to see the world and events from his subjective perspective so that we can reconcile his reality with our own and merge these opposing versions of events into a bigger holistic truth inclusive enough to encompass both ostensibly rival truths.
These subjective perceptions of reality constitute unique “movies” in which we are each the protagonist. And any genuine approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace requires us to recognize the completely separate broader movies our two peoples each collectively live in. Both have experienced the past hundred years very differently and the major obstacle to attaining peace has almost nothing to do with territory but rather the inability on both sides to acknowledge, understand or accept the narrative of the “other” without defensively feeling our own narratives threatened.
I define the term “narrative” here as a version of reality – a story told about a chain of events that organizes facts while being influenced by ideology. The same chain of events can be organized into many narratives, especially if influenced by different ideologies.
The separate movies we live in very much impact how we relate to history, to ourselves and to each other in this country. Both sides tend to approach the conflict as a zero-sum game where there can only be one winner. And the conflict continues to rage partially because many of us are so trapped within our narrow paradigms that we refuse to acknowledge how things may look from different perspectives.
Advocates on both sides often cite hard facts to support their positions.
And while these facts might be true, they are not the only facts. And how we select, connect, contextualize and understand them is very much determined by the movies we live in.
IN THE interest of full disclosure I should state that I am an Israeli living in the occupied/disputed/liberated (depending on your movie) territories. I completely subscribe to the narrative of Jewish peoplehood – knowing exactly which ancient Hebrew tribe and sub-tribe I descend from – and I self-identify as Semitic and fully indigenous to the Middle East. I openly admit to living in the movie of Jewish history. The protagonist of my story is the collective Jewish people. The antagonists are actually not the Palestinians but rather anyone standing in the way of my people’s historic aspirations. I honestly don’t feel myself motivated by Jewish suffering so much as by what the Children of Israel have collectively aspired to for thousands of years.
So while many Zionists often relate to the Jewish people as an object with a problem (anti-Semitism, assimilation, persecution, etc.), I relate to my people as a subject with desires. And I’m proud to live a life very much inspired by those desires and dedicated to their realization.
But while I relate to the Jewish narrative as unequivocally true, I am open to the idea that it is not the entire truth and that another people has experienced the past century within a radically different context. I recognize the Palestinian movie to not only be valid but also necessary for people in my movie to understand in order for us to achieve peace and advance Jewish history.
The events of 1948, for example, are understood and experienced very differently in our respective narratives. In the Palestinian movie the “Nakba,” or catastrophe, is not merely a propaganda tool but actually something very real and painful we need to acknowledge and come to terms with.
Israelis and Palestinians are actually both victims of our conflict (in very different ways). And we often both feel victimized by the same policies and blame the “other” for our plight. The Oslo Accords, for instance, are viewed by many Palestinians as a Zionist plot against them, while many Jews see those accords as a PLO scam to destroy the State of Israel. And the truth is that Oslo and its derivatives have been disastrous for both peoples, having only served to drive our populations further apart while impeding a genuine peace process that would bring each side to appreciate the narrative of the “other” while simultaneously being able to remain true to its own.
As alternative peace activists, my colleagues and I facilitate dialogue sessions for Palestinians and Jews living east of the “Green Line” that help participants transcend their competing generic narratives and create the crucial space for each of our collections of facts to become part of a larger truth.
A meaningful dialogue requires that we respect each other’s story and our self-definitions within those stories.
My Palestinian counterparts do not need to accept my narrative as the sole objective truth but they do need to understand this to be the movie I’m living in. We can debate, for example, whether Jews living across the “Green Line” are natives or colonialists, but it must at least be understood that the overwhelming majority of Jews living in these territories so deeply take our own indigeneity here for granted that we have trouble understanding how anyone could even accuse us of being colonialists.
I’ve often seen Palestinian activists struggle with this point because the notion of Jews being indigenous to the country – actually being a Semitic people with deep historic roots here – threatens a Palestinian narrative constructed on the depiction of Israelis as settler colonialists.
It is also regrettably difficult for most Israelis (on both sides of the “Green Line”) to recognize the truth in the Palestinian movie and to understand that regardless of whether Jews are natives or colonialists – or whether Israel’s presence in the territories legally constitutes an occupation of foreign land, the Palestinians are experiencing a repressive occupation perpetrated by people they perceive to be European invaders to their country. And like many Palestinians who seem to feel threatened by the notion of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish indigeneity to this land, many Israelis feel threatened by the notion of a Palestinian people or the legitimacy of its grievances.
This also illustrates the way different meanings are ascribed to some of the same words in each movie. The average Israeli might be offended by a term like “occupation” because he hears it as implying Jews have no rights or connection to the cradle of Jewish civilization. But Palestinians are very much living under what they define as “occupation” and Israelis need to realize that in the Palestinian movie this word has little to do with whether or not Jews can live in – or even possess sovereignty over – the territories won in 1967.
There is so much blame and pain powering this conflict. And acknowledging the narrative of the “other” often feels like betraying our own. But if we can learn to see the greater movie comprising both our smaller movies and define the core aspirations and grievances of each side, we can begin to chart a course that allows both peoples to be protagonists in a single story that successfully transcends the dualistic “Arab versus Jew” paradigm and enables us all to experience the fulfillment of our deepest yearnings.
The author is an alternative peace activist and frequent lecturer on the subjects of history, identity politics and the Middle East Conflict.