A narrative of denial is unacceptable, regardless of which side it is coming from. We can choose what to remember and what to forget, and what story to tell ourselves.
By Prof. Motti Golani 26.08.10
A debate is raging at Ground Zero. On one side are those who want to use the attack on the World Trade Center to perpetuate the shame of the Muslim world. On the other are those who want to erect a mosque near the site as an opportunity, in their view, to tell a different story - a story that invokes memory, and that will give the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world a chance.
It seems that no one around Ground Zero in the summer of 2010 is really and truly interested in what happened there. Not even a decade has passed since the tragedy, and every side is already talking about it in its own way. Pushed to the fore is an important element that many have not considered: the narrative, the story we tell ourselves in order to arrange the past and the present for the sake of the future.
In this part of the world, it is a narrative as old as our conflict with the Palestinians. Such a narrative makes Israelis no different from the rest of human society, or from the Palestinians, who create their own narrative - which, just like ours, presents them as the ultimate victim. Israelis find it hard to accept this similarity of narratives, which makes it less clear who are the righteous victims here.
And since narratives like to draw a line between victims and justice, a threat to Israel's legitimacy as a sovereign state immediately rises to the surface, whether we want it to or not. Thus does narrative become the subject of debate, both within Israel and outside it. After all, our dispute with the Palestinians is also about narrative, about text, about the way each side chooses to tell itself about its past and present. The two sides are not able or willing to learn about the way the other side sees things.
We should admit to ourselves that we have our own narrative. It should be formulated in a way that as many Israelis as possible can agree on. If I may risk proposing a definition that can serve as a basis for a shared Israeli narrative, it would be a definition whose essence is: The State of Israel has the right to exist in part of the Land of Israel.
Then the part of the Palestinian narrative that is easier to accept should be accepted, and its essence is: The Palestinians have a right to a state of their own in part of Palestine. We'll argue about the rest in negotiations.
This is a narrative assumption that does not need a historic or legal basis, an assumption that accepts the rights of the two national groups to live in freedom in their own countries. Only our own recognition of this narrative, which is Zionist like no other, will enable us to recognize the narrative of the other side without fearing that such recognition will destroy us. There is no reason that those of us who cannot accept the nationalistic Israeli narrative that denies the right of the Palestinians to their own identity, not to mention a state, will accept a similar narrative of denial regarding Israel's existence.
A narrative of denial is unacceptable, regardless of which side it is coming from. This is a sovereign decision that is not enslaved to a historical past. We can choose what to remember and what to forget, and what story to tell ourselves. Such a narrative view does not rule out critical historiography, which must exist in parallel, and is a condition for ending the conflict.
The narrative struggle is very dangerous in the long term. Narrative delegitimization of our sovereign existence, whether its source is Israeli, Arab or international, is more dangerous than the Iranian threat.
The writer teaches in the department of Land of Israel Studies at the University of Haifa.
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