Turning History into Hope | James Carroll

New talks haunted by old wounds

Until a mutual understanding of Israeli and Palestinian traumas is reached, peace will be elusive

By James Carroll
September 6, 2010

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THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN peace negotiations resumed in Washington last week. Despite undying skepticism from many quarters, the Obama-sponsored Netanyahu-Abbas initiative deserves support, even while cold-eyed realism spies many obstacles to peace. Israeli suspicions tied especially to Hamas rejectionism, and Palestinian grievances attached to the occupation and settlements must be overcome. Yet, as this series of columns has argued, the conflict has roots in a past that burdens both sides, with matters of history and identity still at issue. Will the past yield to the future? Only if it is confronted.

The deep past covering many centuries has been our subject until now, but perhaps the most difficult item on the negotiators’ agenda involves contradictory understandings of events that occurred within living memory. They are, of course, the Shoah, or Holocaust, and the Nakba, the word Palestinians use for their violent dispossession in the 1948 war. These foundational events still reverberate below the surface of all negotiation.

There is no equivalence — moral or physical — between the two traumas. The Shoah remains unique, an interruption in the flow of world history. But that does not mean the Nakba lacks absolute gravity for Palestinians. When between 600,000 and 750,000 Arabs fled or were forced from their homes by Israelis, and then when they were not allowed to return, Palestinians took the permanent dispossession and impoverishment as a kind of annihilation. Curiously, that the words Shoah and Nakba can each be translated as “catastrophe’’ expresses a mirroring of loss and grief. Palestinian refusal to acknowledge the Jewish state’s legitimacy matches Israel’s refusal to reckon with its role as a primal source of Palestinian suffering, whether through premeditated ethnic cleansing or war-caused ad hoc expulsions never undone. Until these mutual grievances are resolved, there will be no peace between these peoples.

It is commonly said since 1948 that the State of Israel came successfully into existence because of Europe’s guilty conscience, as if the loss of the six million was Israel’s gain. But as a measure of the impact of Hitler’s genocide on Israel, that is a perverse distortion. The Holocaust is the most referred-to public event of modern times and a universal point of reference — even for those who deny it. Yet this familiarity makes it nearly impossible to enter into the facts of what happened with anything more than received, and even manufactured, feeling or understanding. Looked at from the point of view of Israel, what was the Shoah?

First, it was a successive set of desperate arrivals — driven by Hitler. Here is the chronology of Jewish immigration to Israel: In 1931, 4,000; in 1934, 40,000; in 1935, 60,000. By 1939, according to the Israeli historian Tom Segev, there were about 500,000 Jews in Palestine, two-thirds of whom had come in that decade. This was only the beginning. In 1945, a second wave began. That year, 100,000 death-camp survivors made it to Israel. By 1950, there were 350,000 camp survivors in the country, “almost one of every three Israelis,’’ as Segev says.

What does this mean? Every third person a “brand plucked from the fire of Europe,’’ in the phrase of Abraham Joshua Heschel. And since most other Jews had come to Israel in the years immediately before the war, a majority of them had lost family members to the crematoria. To Israeli Jews, that is, the word Holocaust meant nothing like what it means in common parlance today — an event of history, memorialized but from a distance. No, it was a searing personal trauma that defined every aspect of existence. When, in 1948, tens of thousands of displaced Jews found refuge in the abruptly vacant homes of absent Palestinians, the tragedy was compounded, but few of those Jews saw anything but an unexpected chance to live. Israelis would spend decades reckoning with this history, but already in 1948 its first meaning was clear. Because of crimes against Palestinians during the war, the Jewish state is said to have been born in sin, or, perhaps, in tragedy — but mainly it was born in a brute determination not to be obliterated. That fierce esprit has informed Israel’s resolve in every one of the many wars in which the state has since been involved.

“We lost our faith in the possibility that we, the Jews, would ever live a complete, secure life, like all other nations,’’ the Israeli novelist David Grossman writes. “And perhaps above all, we felt the loss of the natural childlike faith — faith in man, in his kindness, in his compassion.’’ Some argue now that Israelis make too much of the epic wound. “The Holocaust is over,’’ as Avraham Burg says in the title of his book, “we must rise from its ashes.’’ A timely truth. But even that insistence makes the point. Ashes remain the ground of Israel. Others argue, similarly, that Israel’s military power means the Jewish state has no true claim to vulnerability, but existential anguish can define national consciousness as much as an arsenal’s throw-weight. Israeli existence is always at issue.

And the Palestinian experience? In those crucial years of early Jewish flight from Hitler, the leader of Palestine was a British-appointed “mufti,’’ or expounder of Islamic law. His name was Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, a member of a notable Jerusalem family. Caught between British colonial pressures and the surge in European Jewish arrival, and needing to forge an expressly Palestinian (as opposed to Pan-Arabic) consciousness, Husayni took a page from the old book of Christian anti-Judaism. He promoted positive Palestinian identity by casting Judaism as a negative foil. That bipolar structure of mind holds. The savage British repression of Palestinian resistance in the late 1930s (noted in an earlier column) turned Husayni into England’s mortal enemy. He rejected the compromise offered in a British White Paper of 1939, an act the Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi calls the “last important decision the Palestinians took by themselves for several decades.’’ Husayni fled from Palestine. Winston Churchill ordered him assassinated, but he made it to Berlin. On the principle of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, he threw in with Hitler, and played Nazi stooge throughout the war — perhaps the single largest factor in the delegitimization of Palestinian claims ever since. Especially once Hitler’s crimes became known, Israeli suspicions of Palestinian attitudes, including calls for Jewish annihilation, were solidified.

Yet the Palestinian position has an inherent logic. No one defines it more clearly than the founding prime minister of Israel did: “Why should the Arabs make peace?’’ David Ben-Gurion asked, according to Israeli historian Benny Morris. “If I was an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural. We have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?’’ If Ben-Gurion were writing today, perhaps he would add, “They also see that the dispossessed hundreds of thousands of 1948 and 1967 have grown to five million people, many of them still-displaced and living in camps to this day. They see Gaza choked by blockade, and life in the West Bank crushed by occupation. They see a pattern of Israeli disregard for promises made in peace negotiations, so why would they come to the table now?’’

Today, the fact is that Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, each with a lifetime of reasons to stay away, have come to the peace table. Not because of soft hearts, but because of the hard realization that the status quo is yet another joint-catastrophe in the making. Having victimized each other, only at the peace table can they bring about a mutual end to victimhood. Having separately been imprisoned by the past, only together can they create a future that is free.

James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe. This is the fifth of six special columns, which will appear every other week. His new book, coming early in 2011, is “Jerusalem, Jerusalem: The Ancient City that Ignited the Modern World.’’

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