By Shannon Thomas
Aug 26, 2014
This past month, watching the news has brought me to the brink of tears more often than I would care to admit. Disturbing images plaster the headlines as the renewed escalation of conflict in the Gaza Strip has produced a death toll of over 2,016 Palestinians and 67 Israelis. Amidst appalling pictures of children buried under rubble, families running for bomb shelters, and homes destroyed, reactions full of vitriol seem far more common than those based on empathy.
Scouring the media coverage of the current turmoil in Israel-Palestine, it is not long before one encounters blatant dehumanization, employing all manner of the worst victim-blaming, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic tropes. Hateful rhetoric runs rampant, whether in statements by public officials, social media posts, or chants at protests, underscoring the vicious cycle of this region. Like me, you may have seen the videos of Sderot residents cheering as bombs were dropped on Gaza, or the scenes in France of pro-Palestinian protesters attacking Jewish shops and synagogues while shouting “Gas the Jews.” I am sick to my stomach, but sadly, unsurprised.
The current round of venom and violence is not a new phenomenon, but symptomatic of a long and painful history of conflict. I’m not referring to the fallacious assumption that Israeli-Palestinian animosity dates back to Cain and Abel, but to modern traumas that still afflict the psyches of both people: Ha’Shoah (Hebrew for “catastrophe,” the Holocaust) and al-Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe,” the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948). Both are translated as “The Catastrophe.”
I realize I’m delving into tricky territory in attempting to relate the experiences of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples to each other, so first a word of caution. My purpose is neither to equate these traumatic events in size or scale, nor to compare levels of victimhood. Instead, I want to demonstrate how trauma has played a formative role in shaping the collective memory of, and current divisions in, both these societies.
These traumas have transcended time, and continue to have drastic ramifications today as they live on in generations that were yet to be born in the 1940s. They have become central to the national narratives of both Israelis and Palestinians, creating cultures that are assured of the primacy of their own victimhood. In order to rationalize their moral superiority in claiming their lands, both sides actively deny the other’s suffering. After all, it is easier to justify violence if you are killing a perpetrator rather than another victim.
Collective memories of catastrophe are engrained in the very fiber of Israeli and Palestinian identity. In Israeli society, the Holocaust is widely remembered as the most exceptional and horrific demonstration of inhumanity, the culmination of centuries of persecution, and the justification for the creation of a Jewish state. It is the lens through which Israelis look beyond their borders, with every incoming rocket viewed as a harbinger of a renewed extermination if left unchecked.
For Palestinians, the Nakba is memorialized as the tragic uprooting of over 700,000 people from historic Palestine, the paramount injustice that demands a Right of Return to their former homes, and the force catalyzing resistance in support of a Palestinian state. The Nakba does not represent a one-time event, but is re-lived as an ever-present tragedy in the dispossession, dispersion, and occupation that afflict the lives of Palestinians. Life in Gaza today is indeed a catastrophe.
This remembrance of loss is intertwined with national pride, and reinforced in both societies’ collective consciousness. Palestinian refugee camps stand as constant reminders of displacement and continuing refusals to forfeit the Right of Return to their old homes. Walking through Palestinian neighborhoods, the streets are full of references to emptied or destroyed villages and cities in the names of streets and businesses: Lubya Street and Safad Street in Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus, for example, Al-Sarees Electronics and Aykirmawi Grocery in Amman. These are names kept alive in the hope of national renewal.
Signaling the centrality of the Holocaust in Israeli society, the fledgling state’s Knesset passed the Yad Vashem Law in 1953, establishing both an official holiday (Yom Ha’Shoah) and museum to officially memorialize the Shoah. The Yad Vashem museum is charged with commemoration, documentation, research and education surrounding the Holocaust. In addition to the thousands of personal testimonies from the Shoah, the official establishment gives voice to the Israeli master narrative about the connection between the Shoah and Zionism, which is enshrined in the spatial arrangement of the buildings. As described by a museum tour guide, the edifice is structured so that guests walk through the dark corridors of the Holocaust, towards a light at the end of the tunnel that opens up into a beautiful plateau of Jerusalem. The design of the museum represents the State of Israel as the redemption of the Holocaust, and the safe haven that prevents future atrocities.
What is not clear from the breathtaking view on the balcony of Yad Vashem is the echoing silence of the Palestinian narrative. When museum guests look out over Jerusalem, they also look out onto the obliterated village of Deir Yassin, whose Palestinian inhabitants were massacred during the 1948 War. This tragic irony is not a stand-alone occurrence, since the erasure or denial of counter narratives in this conflict is all too common.
West Jerusalem’s Ya’ar HaKdoshim (Hebrew for “Martyrs’ Forest”), which was established in 1951 to commemorate the death of six million Jews in the Holocaust, was built over the depopulated Palestinian villages of Bayt Mashir and Suba. In similar fashion, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s new Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem is being constructed on top of Mamilla Cemetery, a Muslim burial site. Both the Center and the memorial forest are meant to commemorate a dark history of persecution, and emphasize that “never again” should such atrocities be committed. But perhaps one should ask, never again for whom?
To recognize the Other’s suffering is to recognize the legitimacy of their claims to the land, a step that would undermine the foundations of nationalism. As a result, alternative versions of history are often sidelined or completely overwritten in a process of creating “collective amnesia.”
Some Palestinians are also guilty of this willful act of forgetting, diminishing the tragedy of the Holocaust out of fear that it legitimizes the Jewish state. When Palestinian Authority Undersecretary for Planning and International Communication, Anis Al-Qaq, suggested the Holocaust’s inclusion in the national educational curriculum, his speech aroused a violent backlash. One such response came from Dr. Musa Al-Zu’but, chairman of the Education Committee of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and verged on outright Holocaust denial:
“There will be no such attempt to include the history of the Holocaust in the Palestinian curriculum. … The Holocaust has been exaggerated in order to present the Jews as victims of a great crime, to justify [the claim] that Palestine is necessary as a homeland for them, and to give them the right to demand compensation…. It is better to teach the students about what is happening to our people…We [the Palestinians] have no interest in teaching the Holocaust. If the purpose is to express sympathy, this is useless for us, since we are the ones who suffered as a result.”
Not only does Al-Zu’but’s comment suggest that the Holocaust was blown out of proportion, but also that it was directly to blame for the Nakba and is inimical to the Palestinian cause. He places the two great tragedies in competition with each other, arguing that simultaneous recognition of Jewish suffering is either unwelcome or impossible. With both sides delegitimizing the core values of the other’s narratives - the very existence of the Holocaust and the Nakba - their inability to accept the mutual reality of suffering will act as a hindrance to any lasting peace.
It is clear that if a sustained ceasefire were to be declared today, the physical destruction would take less time to mend than these deep psychological wounds. Generations of Palestinians and Israelis live with the collective memory of their people’s ultimate trauma - a trauma that is repeating itself over and over again in decades of ceaseless conflict. The result? Two populations raised in fear, unable to empathize with those across their borders.
Instead, both sides have done their utmost to vilify their counterparts, allowing them to justify aggression against civilians in the name of targeting the “enemy.” Israeli officials swat away the UN statistic that over 70 percent of the people in Gaza killed in Operation Protective Edge are civilians, blaming Hamas for the casualties and thereby erasing the need for remorse. Statements by Hamas have lauded the capture of an IDF soldier and the murder of Israeli teens Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, making no differentiation between combatants and children.
So long as all those involved in the conflict refuse to look at the harsh and twisted reality of these logics, more people will suffer, more people will die, and more people will continue to come up with excuses for why it’s all okay.