The Middle East: where one catastrophe begets another

An ultra-Orthodox Jew watches Palestinians protest in the old abandoned Arab village of Lifta, near Jerusalem, May 16 to mark Nakba Day. Lifta’s villagers fled during the 1948 War of Israeli Independence. (EPA/Abir Sultan)

By Jo Roberts
Published by Dundurn, $24.99

As I finished writing this review, the fighting between Israel and Hamas had raged for 23 days and seemed to be growing worse. Thus far, almost 2,000 Palestinian casualties -- most of them civilian -- and almost 70 Israeli casualties have been reported. The Israel Defense Forces had shifted from air strikes to far less accurate naval bombardment and tank fire, and even U.N. shelters in Gaza were under attack. Pope Francis' May visit to Israel and Palestine and his June hosting of a "prayer summit" in Rome with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas began to feel like memories of some lost childhood.

Yet had it not been for Jo Roberts' stunning new book, Contested Land, Contested Memory, I might have paid far less attention to these events than I have. Because of what I learned in graduate school about the Shoah (the Holocaust), the high percentage of Catholics in the Nazi army, and the "ratlines" by which the Vatican helped Nazis to escape Europe after World War II, among other things, I concluded that as a Catholic I was not entitled to an opinion about the state of Israel. Reading Roberts has forced me to rethink that conclusion.

As suggested by the word "catastrophe" in its subtitle, Contested Land, Contested Memory includes the Holocaust frame within which I and millions of others understand contemporary Israel. But it expands that frame to include what the current 5.5 million to 6 million Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories call the Nakba, the disaster that befell them during and after the 1948 War of Israeli Independence. Also included are the ghosts of those events -- the memories that survived Jewish Israeli attempts to eradicate them -- and the ghosts of that other horror, the destruction of European Jewry. Shoah and Nakba both mean catastrophe.

Underlying Roberts' analysis is "collective memory," a process by which groups construct their identity by remembering -- or not remembering -- certain events. Roberts uses the concept to explore the ways in which Palestinian and Jewish Israelis have come to understand the Israeli Declaration of Independence of 1948 and the subsequent Arab-Israeli War. For Palestinians, these events mean the expulsion of most Arabs from the new state of Israel and the near destruction of the culture and society of those who remained. But for many Jewish Israelis, 1948 means that David had once again justly triumphed over Goliath, as embodied in the vastly stronger Arab League.

Over the past six decades, Jewish Israelis have virtually dominated the reconstruction of the collective memory of 1948. Textbooks present the Israeli Defense Forces as utterly innocent of the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of refugees during and after the War of Independence; ostensibly, the Palestinians simply fled of their own volition. To support this interpretation, Jewish Israelis over the years have likewise eradicated as many traces of Palestinian culture as possible, bulldozing towns, villages and cemeteries, even replacing Arabic geographical names with Hebrew ones.

Yet the Nakba was not the only catastrophe rewritten in the years after 1948. After World War II, prewar Jewish settlers were alienated from more recently arrived Holocaust survivors. But Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion used the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann to make the Holocaust the center of a new, unified Israeli identity. Within this identity, Palestinian Israelis replaced Nazis as the threat to Jewish survival.

Roberts makes clear that throughout history traumatized peoples have attempted to reconstruct their identity by obliterating the collective memory of some other. Christians, persecuted in the first century by Jews, used nearly two millennia of anti-Semitism to build their identity against the Jewish other. This culminated in the Holocaust, after which the Jewish othering of Arab Palestinians resulted in the Nakba. But the ghosts of collective trauma refuse to be obliterated. They live on, in this case, in Arab Holocaust denial, guerilla attacks and suicide bombings. One catastrophe begets another.

Writers have used collective memory to explore the history of groups besides Israelis and Palestinians, but Contested Land, Contested Memory distinguishes itself on several counts. First, Roberts' fine writing makes the discourse of collective memory more accessible than many other books do. And because the catastrophes that concern her happened fairly recently, Roberts is able to use the memories of actual Palestinian and Jewish Israelis to frame her subject matter.

The central place of the land in Roberts' study is also noteworthy. Narratives of the destruction of towns and villages (and sometimes the murder of their inhabitants) during the 1948 war are sobering enough. But the remaking of the land itself, not merely the structures on it, in the interest of obliterating Arab traces, as Roberts documents it, is truly shocking.

We learn, for example, that Palestine's traditional rural landscape was intentionally transformed in the decades after 1948 into a socialist-modernist one: Tens of thousands of olive trees, a central figure of Arab-Palestinian culture and the source of its two primary exports, soap and oil, were uprooted. Whole forests of other trees were then planted to make the land look more European.

Some of the conclusions Roberts draws are discouraging. The state of Israel has moved steadily to the right politically since the election of Menachem Begin's Likud Party in the 1970s. The identification of Mizrahi (Arab) Jews with Likud because of discrimination they suffered under previously dominant Israeli political parties, as well as the arrival of a million Jewish Russians in the 1990s, has contributed to an increasingly racialized society.

In 2012, 70 percent of ultra-Orthodox Israelis, a group whose numbers have exploded in recent years, supported barring Palestinian Israelis from voting, while 71 percent supported their forced "transfer" (expulsion) from Israel.

Today, more and more, as Roberts observes, "Palestinian Israelis are the intruding stranger in the Jewish homeland," the other who maintains the margins of Jewish Israeli identity.

Nonetheless, Roberts finds reason for hope. Already in the 1980s, Jewish Israeli scholars known as "the new historians" had begun heroically documenting the other origin of the state of Israel, the Nakba. Since then, groups such as the Jewish Israeli nongovernmental organization Zochrot (Hebrew for "remembering") have formed to bring forward the hidden history of the Nakba. For Zochrot, a major effort is leading Jewish Israelis on tours of towns, villages and urban neighborhoods inhabited by Arabs 60 years ago.

Scholars and journalists also continue to write about these unacknowledged ghosts. For Roberts, the efforts allow "for a glimmer of hope, the potential for ... 'multiple narratives with multiple beginnings' to tell the history of this land." Reconciliation will be possible only when the ghosts of both catastrophes are acknowledged, and a new history is constructed out of them.

[Marian Ronan is research professor of Catholic studies at New York Theological Seminary. Her latest book is Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and the Nuns.]

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