Transcending our narratives

Those genuinely interested in solving this conflict need to transcend the futile battle between two competing stories and begin constructing a larger narrative.

Slain Israeli Prime Minister Rabin with former US President Bill Clinton and former PLO President Yasser Arafat after signing the Oslo Accords at the White House on September 13, 1993.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Slain Israeli Prime Minister Rabin with former US President Bill Clinton and former PLO President Yasser Arafat after signing the Oslo Accords at the White House on September 13, 1993.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I remember a discussion at UC Berkeley back in 2008 with a member of the Students for Justice in Palestine. We were arguing about the 1948 War and I referenced the fact that the Trans-Jordanian and Egyptian militaries were armed, trained and led by British officers. She responded with genuine confusion as to why I would bring Egypt into a conversation about 1948. Her ignorance at Egypt’s participation in that war instantly undermined any credibility she previously had. That she didn’t know a fact Israelis consider so basic and fundamental to the conflict reinforced my conviction regarding how objectively wrong her position was.
But after further reflection, I realized that this phenomenon also characterizes the pro-Israel camp – the vast majority of Israel advocates have absolutely no clue or interest in how many Palestinian villages were destroyed in ‘48 (the central piece of information according to the SJP student). And I suddenly understood that it’s not about one side being right and the other wrong but rather about how differently we each see and experience the past hundred years. Some facts are simply more relevant to one narrative than to the other.
Israelis, Palestinians and our respective supporters in this conflict have for decades been plagued by the inability to transcend the narrow narratives we live in. By “narrative” I mean 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 narratives in which we live very much inform how we relate to history, to ourselves and to each other in this country.
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 might look from different perspectives. Advocates on both sides often cite hard facts to support their positions. And while these facts are often technically true, they are not the only facts. And how we select, connect, contextualize and understand them is very much determined by the narratives we subscribe to.
The facts we respectively view as central to our narratives are rarely the same. While Israelis and Palestinians are both essentially honest about ourselves, our experiences and our own identities, we have a dangerous habit of superimposing identities, ideologies and motivational forces on the Other in order to conveniently fit that Other neatly into the role of our own story’s antagonist.
In the course of my work facilitating dialogue sessions in the territories, I’ve come to see the refusal to engage the Other’s narrative as probably the greatest obstacle to progress in achieving peace (especially among our respective supporters abroad). Each side feels so threatened by the story of the Other that we have reached the point where we are experiencing two completely different conflicts.
We superimpose identities on one another that are for the most part radically different from how we each view ourselves. And we engage in counterproductive methods of struggle that rarely achieve their desired effect.
Israelis and our supporters too often dismiss Palestinian grievances as sinister propaganda aimed at legitimizing efforts to destroy us. Rarely do we pause to consider that Palestinians might really be living under painfully unjust and unequal conditions that Israel could actually stand to benefit from alleviating. We instead deny their pain as lies and fortify the structures that oppress them, convincing ourselves that these structures are necessary for our defense.
But if we were to actually listen to what Palestinians say, we would discover that the occupation they seek to end is not necessarily the Jewish presence in the territories but rather the military bureaucracy controlling nearly every aspect of their lives while monopolizing resources and giving them absolutely no ability to influence the system that rules them. If we listened with open ears we would understand that they really do view us as foreign invaders here and that any movement toward peace necessitates changing the role we play in their story. The policies we employ in trying to protect ourselves – checkpoints, walls, restrictions on freedom of movement, etc. – very much resemble the policies one would expect from a colonial power and only reinforce the erroneous view that Jews are foreigners here.
But the claim that Zionists are mere European invaders who’ve constructed an artificial national identity out of a shared religion in order to colonize Palestine leads many Palestinians and their supporters to utilize tactics that can only succeed against a colonial power. Palestinian militants specifically fight Israel as if we were the French in Algeria or Americans in Afghanistan. By making the price of occupation more expensive than the benefits of exploitation, the assumption is that the occupier will eventually leave.
This was actually the anti-colonial tactic used by the Jewish underground against British rule in the 1940s. The Fighters for the Freedom of Israel specifically identified Britain’s economic interests in Palestine – such as the Haifa oil refinery – and strategically targeted those interests while undermining British prestige and terrorizing occupation forces throughout the country. Britain ultimately saw Palestine as not worth the trouble and officially stated, upon leaving the country, that the decision was based on an inability to combat Jewish terrorism.
The problem with this tactic when employed by Palestinians against Israel, however, is that Israelis don’t relate to this country or even the West Bank as some foreign territory we exploit for material benefit but rather as the homeland our people struggled to return to for thousands of years. Some of us would go so far as to relate to this land as our “national soul mate.” And even those who try disputing our roots and connection to this territory must accept the sociological reality that we fully self-identify as indigenous here. So when confronted with the tactics that would make an actual colonial power retreat, Israel responds with the ferocity of a native people in possession of superior weaponry feeling its survival threatened.
Another important example is the wave of divestment campaigns targeting Israel abroad. Boycott as a means of struggle is based on the fantasy of Israel as we exist in the Palestinian narrative and seems to completely ignore the social and political dynamics of Israeli society. Assuming for a moment that boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) could destabilize the government of Israel to the point of collapse, what do BDS supporters expect to fill the power vacuum? The general trend – especially in the Middle East – seems to be that when a government falls, either the military or the most ideologically driven sector of the population takes control.
The majority of IDF combat officers today are already coming from the national-religious community and share the same basic values, vision for the country and political objectives as most Jews living east of the Green Line.
Those West Bank “Judeans” also happen to have the highest percentage of legal civilian weapons and arguably more ideological conviction and self-sacrifice for their beliefs than any other sector in the country (and possibly the second highest birthrate just behind the ultra-Orthodox).
Although not socially or politically homogeneous, the strongest common conviction this group shares is that “we were unjustly displaced from our land, we somehow managed to return home against all odds and now people are trying to displace us once again.” These are the Jews who would most likely assume leadership in a situation of crisis and even many of their political opponents within Israeli society would likely rally behind them if Israel’s situation became desperate enough. And while I would personally have no objections to this group taking power, I doubt it to be what BDS proponents are trying to achieve.
Those genuinely interested in solving this conflict need to transcend the futile battle between two competing stories and begin constructing a larger narrative inclusive enough to encompass both ostensibly rival narratives. That means accepting what each side has to say about itself while rejecting the identities and motivations we superimpose on one another.
It means no longer behaving in ways that cast us as antagonists in the other’s experience and moving forward together as co-protagonists in a larger story that recognizes and seeks to satisfy the grievances and aspirations of both peoples.
The author is an alternative peace activist and frequent lecturer on the subjects of history, identity politics and the Middle East Conflict.