Palestinians and Israeli Jews are deeply committed to the same tiny
piece of land, from which both generate their identities and
histories. The conflict has resulted in a total separation between
them, and this is expressed through their respective narratives,
rituals and myths, which compress the present into the past and
mobilize the future. If the 1993 Oslo Accords created the hope that
the two peoples were moving out of 100 years of conflict, the
current cycle of violence that began in September 2000 has created
new depths of despair and frustration. The deeper both peoples
descend into the abyss of dehumanization and victimization, the
farther they move from the possibility of mutual acceptance,
healing and hope.
Each side tries to justify its own moral superiority. Palestinians
usually start from the Balfour Declaration in 1917, move through
the British Mandate, the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and the
Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands since 1967 (Farsoun and
Zacharia, 1997). These events appear as one continuous tragedy in
Palestinian minds, and are often blamed on Zionism and its
exclusionary ideology (Said, 1980; Masalha, 1992). Palestinians
living in Israel, in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or in exile,
experience Palestine as real and its Jewish usurpers as
victimizers. Rashid Khalidi writes, "...Israelis, many of them
descended from victims of persecution, pogroms, and concentration
camps, have themselves been mistreating another people" (1997:5).
There is still a deep-felt wish among many Palestinians that the
Jewish State will just "evaporate."
Jews view the return to their ancestral homeland after 2000 years
of exile as a miracle. Many consider it a return of "people without
land to a land without people." They see the Palestinians as an
unexpected and unwelcome interference. They would like to wake up
one day, to find the land empty and their memories freed from this
How can one move out of this mutual exclusivity and into mutual
acceptance of the other after so many years of hatred and
The Catch of Victimhood
We can forgive people in our heads without forgiving them in our
hearts. For the former to become the latter, it must be, in Freud's
phrase, "worked through." Psyche and soma, which have been divided
by trauma, must be reunited again. This means shifting the past out
of the present; replacing psychological simultaneity with linear
sequence; slowly loosening the hold of a grief and an anger whose
power traps us in an unending yesterday. (Ignatieff, 1998:
Michael Ignatieff made these insights, while citing Stephen
Daedalus of Joyce's Ulysses: "History is a nightmare from which I
am trying to awake." He reached the conclusion by looking at
several current ethnic conflicts, in which peacemaking (that is
represented usually by the "heads") and peace building (that is
ordinarily dependent on the "guts") are still far apart. What
mechanisms separate "head" and "heart" or "psyche" and "soma," even
when top-down peacemaking is under way?
The feeling of "being victims" is normally based on solid
individual and collective experiences during protracted violent
conflict. These experiences gain a powerful grip on identity
construction, however, when they are transformed in the collective
memory into myths and transmitted from one generation to the next
through memoirs and family stories, school books (Bar-Tal, 1997)
and national symbolic acts and festivals (Ross, 1999). Today, many
Palestinians are probing the past and present, both to reconstruct
and remember history and to transmit its lessons to future
generations. (Said, 1999; Barghouti, 2003; Shehadeh, 2003).
When one asks Palestinians where they come from, they will promptly
name a village or town they themselves might have never inhabited,
but their grandparents had left, or were forced to leave. Some will
even show rusted keys and torn documents inherited from parents and
grandparents as proof of land or house ownership. The Israeli
Jewish context is still dominated by the myths of "fertilizing the
empty land" and "the few against the many" relating to the 1948
war, preventing them from reaching beyond their own ethnocentric
thinking and feeling the plight of the "other."
Exclusion of the "Other"
Both sides identify themselves as victimized by the other. Rarely,
though, are such long-term conflicts symmetrical. Usually, one can
define one party as the more powerful, trying to coerce, exclude or
de-legitimize the other. Conflicts can be divided according to
their level of asymmetry. The most complex are those in which there
is no agreement on the measures used to decide which is the more
powerful party. Palestinians typically view Israeli Jews as being
more powerful, militarily and economically. Israeli Jews feel
threatened by the demographic immensity of the whole Arab-Muslim
world, relating it to their previous experiences of being a
minority in Europe and Afro-Asia for many generations. They cannot
accept the Palestinian perspective of the current asymmetrical
power division, as it does not relate to their own fears of being
In the Israeli-Palestinian context, the mutual feelings of
victimization are best illustrated by two historical events that
are the cornerstones for the collective memories of the
Palestinians and the Israeli Jews. These are the Holocaust, (Shoah
in Hebrew), and the Catastrophe, (Al-Nakba in Arabic); the exodus
of Palestinians in 1948 and the resultant refugee problem.
Generally, both sides mourn their own man-made cataclysm
separately. There is an underlying fear that the acknowledgement of
the tragedy of the "other" will justify their moral superiority and
imply acceptance of their collective rationale. For the
Palestinians, accepting the Jewish pain around the Holocaust means
accepting the moral ground for the creation of the State of Israel.
For the Israeli Jews, accepting the pain of the 1948 Palestinian
refugees means sharing responsibility for their plight and their
right of return.
The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and the ruins of Deir Yassin lie
close together, west of Jerusalem, but are a world apart in the
psyche of Jews and Palestinians. While the former commemorates the
systematic mass extermination of European Jews under the Nazi
occupation prior to and during World War II, the latter is the
village where 254 Palestinians were massacred at the hands of
Jewish extremists in April 1948. It symbolizes Palestinian
dispossession and the struggle for self-determination. Jews and
Palestinians have been steadfast in their different interpretations
of past events and current realities, refusing to participate in
each other's painful memories, and thereby denying each other's
Following two visits to Yad Vashem, Ghassan Abdallah, a Palestinian
activist, wrote: "We were never responsible for the pogroms and
discrimination against Jews in Europe.... So why should
Palestinians pay for the crimes of Europeans against Jews? What
Palestinians and Arabs are up against is modern political Zionism,
with its invasion of our historic land and culture, using false
myths and pretenses." (2002: 43) This is a typical Palestinian
reaction to the pain of the Jewish people, rejecting it as being
invalid from their own perspective. Even while stating a truth
(Palestinians were not responsible for the Jewish plight during the
Holocaust), Abdallah missed the opportunity to empathize with the
deep pain that Jews feel when they come to Yad Vashem. Conversely,
when Yasser Arafat wanted to visit the Holocaust Museum in
Washington, D.C., in 1998, American Jews turned him down,
interpreting his wish as a manipulation of their most sacred
feelings. The history of the two peoples is full of similar missed
There are many instances in which Palestinians have questioned the
validity of the Holocaust, expressing an underlying logic that "the
enemies of our enemies are our friends." At the 1998 Hamburg
meeting of the TRT (To Reflect and Trust) group1, FS (a Palestinian
woman from Gaza) asked on the fourth day of the encounter, "How do
you know there was a Holocaust?" The Jewish participants were
shocked. They felt she was disqualifying the stories of their
parents which they shared earlier. The crisis that arose required
the intervention of a German participant who told FS about his
father's involvement in the atrocities. Only then could she accept
these facts. It became clear she had never learned about the
Holocaust in school or college.
There are also many Israeli-Jewish examples of ethnocentricity
(Steinberg & Bar-On, 2002). In a recent visit of Israeli
(Jewish and Palestinian) and German students at Buchenwald
concentration camp, Jewish students left the camp agitated. They
let their feelings surface by expressing anger toward the
Palestinian students rather than the Germans who participated in
the tour. The Jewish participants perceived the Palestinians'
behavior as "inappropriate." Some of the Jewish students felt that
the Palestinians ignored Jewish suffering in the camp and thus did
not meet Jewish expectations of the experience in this memorial
context. Following the visit, the Palestinian leader wrote that he
felt the Jewish students vented their anger on the Palestinian
students, anger that had nothing to do with them. The Jews could
not express their anger about the Holocaust directly toward the
Germans. He felt this reflected a pattern of displaced Israeli
aggression (Halaby, 1999). In another workshop at Ben Gurion
University, the Jewish and the Palestinian groups convened
separately on the day of Al-Nakba. The Palestinians approached the
Jewish group to invite them to join their memorial ritual, and were
deeply hurt when none of the Jewish participants came to stand with
them for the minute of silence (Bar-On & Kassem, in press).
This was later addressed and worked through in joint group
Beyond Victimhood: A New Beginning
Only recently have some Israeli Jewish and Palestinian
intellectuals found the courage to bridge this gap. On the Israeli
Jewish side, for example, Ilan Gur-Zeev and Ilan Pappé have
called for the Holocaust and Al-Nakba to be examined within a
mutual context (2003). Their argument does not claim equivalence
between the two events but rather highlights the thread that ties
them to the collective psyche of both people. Hence, they raise the
serious need for each side to recognize the pain, morality and
legitimacy of the other's narrative, without raising any issue of
moral superiority. Benny Morris's historical research (1999), while
not always critical or objective (Finkelstein, 2001: 51-87),
established a new Jewish understanding of the Israeli government
and military command role in the expulsion of Palestinians during
the 1948 war.
On the Palestinian side, Azmi Bishara (1996), Edward W. Said
(1997), and Father Naim S. Ateek (2001) connected Palestinian
acknowledgement of the Holocaust to Israeli Jewish recognition of
the Palestinian Catastrophe and dispossession. "In order for the
victim to forgive," Bishara (1992:6) argued, "he must be recognized
as a victim. That is the difference between a historic compromise
and a cease-fire." In examining the foundations for peace, Ateek
(2001: 168-169) urges Palestinians to develop a new attitude toward
the Holocaust. He explains, "We must understand the importance and
significance of the Holocaust to the Jews, while insisting that the
Jews understand the importance and significance of the tragedy of
Palestine for the Palestinians." Hazem Saghiyeh and Saleh Bashir go
further by suggesting in Al-Hayat (2000) that "the Arabs will not
gain anything by ignoring or denying the Holocaust. Continuing such
denial, paradoxically, can even be facilitative for Israel."
Recently, Arab-Israeli pupils have joined Jewish schoolmates on
trips to Poland. In this spirit, Father Emil Shoufani and his
Jewish partner Ruth Bar-Shalev introduced the From Memory to Peace
initiative, to "establish a better understanding for the pain the
Jews suffered in Europe during World War II and how it affects them
until this day" (Lavy, 2003). Ester Golan, a Jewish participant who
lost her parents in the Holocaust and journeyed with Father
Shoufani and 250 others to Auschwitz-Birkenau, views the initiative
as "a way of healing old wounds." In her journal, she writes: "Let
us stay on the 'Connecting Path' and live for a better future for
us all. As Father Shoufani repeatedly said: 'We have to grow from
within.' We all grew. We all changed, each in his or her own way.
That is what it is all about."2 However, the Israeli Jewish public
still has great difficulty finding ways to participate, even
symbolically, in the Palestinian commemoration of Al-Nakba.
Our duty is to question past mistakes and end the cycle of violence
by changing attitudes from "who desires peace, prepare for war" to
"who desires peace, prepare for peace." Our mission is to
acknowledge the pain and suffering of the "other" as part of the
process of conciliation that will take place between the two
peoples once the Palestinian state is established and mutual
violent acts end. This is part of our moral obligation toward each
other. Dialogue between Israeli Jews and Palestinians must include
an inward look into one's own culture and society and an outward
look into the "other's" culture and society (Sarsar, 2002b). If
dialogue is to be a sustainable, ongoing process, each national
community must acknowledge and respect the other's pain, whether it
was party to its creation or not. Such an inclusive act of
communication and faith will prepare the way for working through
the past and building peace. Our future and the future of our
children and grandchildren, depend on it.
1. The TRT group was originally composed of descendants of
Holocaust survivors and descendants of Nazi perpetrators (Bar-On,
1995). In 1998 practitioners from current conflicts (South Africa,
Northern Ireland and Palestinians and Israelis) joined the group to
test the possibility that the story telling method the group
developed could also be used in these conflicts (Bar-On,
2. Excerpted from Golan's personal account of the journey, e-mailed
to Saliba Sarsar in August 2003.
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