Two Sides of the Coin: Independence and Nakba, 1948: Two Narratives of the 1948 War and Its Outcome
By Motti Golani and Adel Manna. Republic of Letters: the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation Series,
342 pages, $99 (Arabic/English); 334 pages, $99 (Hebrew/English)
The prospect of reconciliation between the Palestinian and Israeli national narratives is sinking ever lower beneath the horizon, because the idea of a national, territorial compromise based on two states for two peoples − a peaceful life, side by side − is disappearing under the new construction taking place each day in the settlements. In the zero-sum game that has replaced peace talks, there is no room for two narratives. Either we are right or they are right. If Hebron is the historic city of our Israelite ancestors, then the Palestinians are orphaned from history. The existence of Israel’s Independence Day cancels out Nakba Day.
There is a certain amount of justice in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people is a refusal to recognize the Zionist narrative. On the other hand, in all his key speeches, from the one he gave at Bar-Ilan University in 2009 to that at the UN General Assembly last September, Netanyahu has neither recognized nor even hinted at the existence of a Palestinian narrative. He speaks about a Palestinian state as a constraint necessitated by political and demographic realities and utters not one word about the historic link of the Palestinian people to their land.
It wasn’t the Israeli right wing that came up with the idea of negating the ties between the Palestinians’ collective political identity and the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Since 1948, the Law of Return and the denial of the rights of others have been at the heart of the Jewish Israeli consensus. Since 1967, all the Zionist parties have supported the use made of an Ottoman-era law declaring land to be owned by the state if it has not been registered by an owner. Israel has applied this law to land in the West Bank and handed it over to Jewish settlers.
The Oslo Accords were meant to remove the narratives of 1948 from the center of the political agenda. The accords were intended to base a solution to the conflict on international law and consensus, anchored by UN resolutions 242 and 338 regarding the 1967 conquest. When PA President Mahmoud Abbas asked the United Nations to admit Palestine as a full member, he sought a state within the pre-1967 borders with an expectation of receiving territory inside the Green Line only as compensation for the settlement blocs beyond those borders where Israel wishes to establish permanent sovereignty. His willingness to forgo demands both for complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and for full implementation of the right of return elicited a campaign of incitement against his Fatah movement by Hamas. The Arab Peace Initiative, nearly 10 years old, granted this effort the stamp of approval of both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The initiative does demand a solution to the refugee problem on the basis of UN Resolution 194, to which Israel has objected, but says it must be part of a larger, just solution, to which Israel must agree.
End to the conflict
In an interview several months ago with journalist Henrique Cymerman, broadcast on Channel 2, Abbas announced that for the Palestinians, an agreement based on the Arab peace plan would spell the end to the conflict. At the same time, the Palestinians have not given up the Nakba narrative − and they should not be expected to. Abbas is not going to tell the world that he doesn’t have the right to return to his parents’ home in Safed or to convey to his children and grandchildren the idea that Palestine was a paradise, and the belief that the establishment of the State of Israel amounted to an expulsion from that paradise.
These claims are sufficient to give Israelis an excuse to keep from paying the political and territorial price of giving up land and removing large numbers of settlers. The refusal of Palestinian citizens of Israel to shelve these memories and dreams serves the Jewish Israeli right wing as a shovel with which to dig the grave of the peaceful coexistence of two peoples and two narratives living together within the borders of the state. Netanyahu phrases it this way: “The conflict is not about 1967, but about 1948.” In this brief, populist description, Netanyahu is alluding to the idea that the Palestinians view Israel’s very existence, not just its presence in the West Bank, as illegitimate.
It is only natural, then, that the refusal of the Jewish majority to recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinian narrative, and the Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish narrative and reluctance to learn about it, feed upon each other. The non-recognition of the historical narrative of the neighboring people makes it difficult to enlist popular support for a political solution that acknowledges that people’s sovereignty over part of this contentious land. In the absence of popular support, an agreement remains out of reach and tensions between occupier and occupied continue to grow. As long as this situation continues, the willingness to recognize the neighboring people’s legitimacy dwindles. This snowball gathers momentum as it rolls toward apartheid. I don’t believe in the solution of one state for two nations, because the Israeli government will not relinquish the idea of the dominance of the Jewish population, even if it becomes a minority.
Over the years, Israeli and Palestinian historians and peace activists have made a number of attempts to shape a narrative agreed to by both sides, a history that would give expression to the suffering the two peoples have caused each other. Not surprisingly, these attempts have come to nothing. The two narratives deal with opposing national and religious ideologies that touch upon the very legitimacy of the life of Jews in Israel and the Palestinians in Palestine. These failed efforts, like the fruitless attempts to reach a final-status solution, feed into the argument that the two-state vision is but a mirage. But these failed efforts have ignored the emotional implications of the asymmetry between the conqueror, who is strong, and the conquered, who is weak.
Effort to bridge
Jewish Israeli historian Motti Golani, a professor of Land of Israel studies at the University of Haifa, and Palestinian Israeli historian Adel Manna, director of the Academic Institute for Arab Teacher Training at Beit Berl and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Institute, have given up on the effort to bridge the emotional and factual chasm separating the 1948 narratives. As indicated by the title of their book, “Two Sides of the Coin: Independence and Nakba, 1948: Two Narratives of the 1948 War and Its Outcome,” they have brought the two histories under one roof, or to be more precise, under three roofs. One is for Israeli readers of Hebrew, the second for Palestinian (and other) readers of Arabic, and the third is in English, for anyone else interested in the conflict and its resolution. Golani and Manna assume that the conflict is based on competing narratives − the story that each people tells to itself − and that these stories must be described in a way that allows each side to accept the narrative of the other. (A similar effort, “Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine,” by Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On and Eyal Naveh, was recently published by the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East and the New Press.)
And so the book, which intertwines the two versions as understood by the two communities, contains the claim that the Holocaust proved the historical significance of the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, since only it was able to offer refuge to Jews attempting to flee Europe before and after the Holocaust. It also argues that the world had to allow the Jews to establish their national home here, so that the survivors would have somewhere to go after World War II. A few pages later, the book says that most supporters of the UN partition plan of November 1947 did not take into consideration the disastrous consequences of the decision for the Palestinians, for whom it says, “it was as if they were facing a global plot by which they would become the victims of the West.”
Golani and Manna share with readers the particular emotional experience involved in writing one text composed of two different, sometimes contradictory stories − stories that have affected the life and education of each of the authors, sometimes, they say, posing a threat to their actual identities. As historians who believe in a critical approach to their work, it wasn’t easy for them to write a book that by its nature is harmonious and simplistic. But they say they waived debate and an insistence on historical precision in favor of an empathetic and multivocal approach.
The approach that assumes that justice for one party rules out the possibility of justice for the other has often led to the negation of the national rights of the other, and sometimes even of the other’s existence as a people, the authors write. This “is a patently suicidal approach for both sides,” they write. “Ongoing attentive listening to the voices coming from without and within teaches that the approach of ‘it’s either us or them’ is not the only one.”
After Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, more than 18 years ago, it seemed self-evident, perhaps even trite, that competing narratives could coexist. Unfortunately, in recent years, as the occupation has become more entrenched, and violence, incitement and mutual delegitimization have increased, the very attempt to create a common text out of competing national narratives may be considered at best unusual or naive, and at worst subversive or even traitorous. At a time when teachers are not allowed to attend human rights demonstrations together with students, it may be assumed that this rare book will not be added to required reading lists in Israeli schools. And that’s a pity.
Akiva Eldar is a senior political columnist for Haaretz.