Scham: Historical narratives & peacemaking

Scham: Historical narratives & peacemaking

This and accompanying articles on the same subject may be found at I had initially misread this from our friend, Paul Scham. He does not advocate attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable in terms of conflicting historical “narratives.” In the 8th and 9th paragraphs down, he fully explains his position. My understanding of the Geneva Initiative of 2003 is that it “acknowledges” (Scham’s prefered term) without endorsing the Palestinian narrative in its artful handling of the “right of return.”

I find that Jewish and Israeli scholars and activists (although not most Jews) are open to the reality of the Palestinian calamity known as the Nakba; Palestinians and other Arabs are less open to the fact that the repeated Arab recourse to violence, especially against non-combatants, precipitated the Nakba of 1948 and fatally undermined the peace process of the 1990s – both with the wave of terror attacks that resulted in the election of Netanyahu in 1996 and the Al-Aksa Intifada that elected Sharon in 2001. – R. Seliger

In the aftermath of the second Lebanese war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict almost seems shoved to the side, at least for many Israelis. Yet it is still a fundamental cause of Middle East instability, and its root causes must be dealt with if there is ever to be peace.

It is usually assumed that agreement on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, difficult as they are, will settle the problem. These issues are well known: borders, settlements, nature of the Palestinian state to be created, security (for both sides), refugees (including the Palestinian claim of “right of return”), Jerusalem and water. All are undeniably important, and of course a comprehensive peace is not possible without dealing with all of them, and perhaps a few others.

However, there is a set of deeper issues involved that also must be dealt with. Both sides are uncomfortable with half of them, and insist on the other half. I call these the “intangible issues”, and for Israelis and Palestinians they are as important as the “tangible issues” listed above–perhaps, in certain respects, more so.

These intangible issues are located in the historical narratives of the two sides. Until recently, the rule of Israeli-Palestinian interaction had usually been, as noted by Uri Savir in his history of the Oslo process, “no history.” History was considered too hot to handle. In fact, during the 1990s those of us who dealt with the “other” side, whether as negotiators or in academic or NGO (track II) meetings, found we could generally talk freely about the present and
the future, but the past would often cause tempers to explode and thus was shunned.

There was good reason for this, because the historical narratives of both sides portray a peace-loving people attacked and brutalized by another that wants its land. The peace-loving side has tried as best it could to find a workable compromise, but all its efforts have been
stymied by the other. Both sides agree on this. They disagree, however, rather strongly, as to which of them is the peace-loving side. Most people on both sides are affronted to the depth of their respective national consciousness at the idea that their side has not, with occasional and pardonable lapses, done all it could (and perhaps too much) to solve the conflict.

While there is no space here to go into the extensive national narratives themselves, they are particularly important to two vital aspects of the conflict, namely, right of return and Jerusalem. For Palestinians, right of return is inextricably bound up with the central feature of their national narrative, the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948, and the dispersion that followed. Israel’s
refusal to recognize the occurrence of the Nakba except solely as a result of Arab actions, and its consequent unwillingness to accept any responsibility for it or to deal with the claim of the right of return is understood by Palestinians as an implicit, or even explicit, negation of their national existence. (Of course, Israelis are absolutely convinced that such an acceptance would lead to a flood of Palestinian claims for repatriation in Israel, which it would then be obliged to honor.)

While the two are not exactly comparable, the Palestinian refusal to recognize the Jewish historical relationship with Jerusalem, and Yasser Arafat’s claim that the Second Temple did not exist or, if it did, was located in Nablus, is similarly understood as a fundamental unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East.

What is needed is an acknowledgment of the narrative of the other; a gesture of respect that takes it seriously, but does not deal with its historical truth. Not that historical truth is irrelevant or unimportant. But it is the province of historians, while the
historical narrative is the possession of the whole society. (In fact, the work of Israeli and Palestinian professional historians, even apart from that of Israeli “new” or revisionist historians, is much closer to that of the “other” than are the national narratives.)

Acknowledgment of the historical narrative of the other is not, of course, a magic bullet that will make peace possible. However, recognition of elements of the other’s narrative and acceptance that the two sides necessarily have very different–and legitimate–views of the past, can help to lead to joint acceptance of responsibility, which will go a long way toward dealing with the claim of right of return for many Palestinians. This will not be easy, for each side’s conviction that it bears none of the blame is matched only by the other side’s certainty that it bears virtually all of it.

Ultimately, the conflict is not primarily about dunams of land or numbers of returnees; it is about full acceptance of the national legitimacy of the other. Acknowledgment of the other’s narrative is a step in that direction. For example, public discussion of the separation of the “right” of return from the “reality” of return could change some of the dynamics on both sides. Likewise, Palestinian acceptance of the historical and religious importance of the Temple
Mount and the destroyed Temple to the Jewish people need not detract from the significance of the still-standing Haram al-Sharif to Palestinians and other Muslims.

As Israeli negotiator Elyakim Rubinstein said at Camp David in 2000, “the peace process shouldn’t be the arena in which truth is pronounced.” However, acknowledgment of the importance of one’s own historical narrative to the legitimacy of the other side may be
necessary before we can finally settle on the tangible issues.- Published 4/9/2006 (c)

Paul Scham coordinated Israeli-Palestinian joint academic projects at the Truman Institute of the Hebrew University from 1996 to 2002. With Walid Salem and Benjamin Pogrund he is coeditor of “Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue” (2005). He is currently an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.

By | 2006-09-05T13:08:00-04:00 September 5th, 2006|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Krulwich September 5, 2006 at 7:28 pm - Reply

    Even this article didn’t mention the reality that the Palestinians must accept. It’s not the Temple (however important it was), it’s the legitimacy of the modern state of Israel, as formed by UN and British Mandate, as legitimate a national entity as any other in the world. If Israelis don’t even recognize this, how can anything move forward?

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