Appreciating differing narratives

Toward Understanding
the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Presentaton Summary
June 2002

Deborah L. Flick, Ph.D.
Collaborative Solutions Group

This paper is based on a talk I gave at the University of Colorado in the summer of 2002. The audience was primarily staff and faculty who are on the front lines in dealing with students and the community when conflicts about the Middle East erupt on campus. As is the case in many other communities and on other campuses, the conflict in the Middle East is played out locally in a variety of ways that unfortunately too often result in increased polarization and tension. It's difficult to know how to respond to complaints from all sides about campus and community goings on when we are unclear about the issues and the stakes as seen by those involved. Hopefully this presentation will help in building understanding and in seeing through the eyes of the other.

* NOTE: Throughout this talk the words narrative, view, perspective, frame-of-reference and story are used interchangeably. All refer to an internally cohesive set of assumptions and beliefs that explicitly and/or implicitly address questions such as: Who are we as a people? Who and what is the enemy? What is our predicament? How did things come to be this way? What are our hopes, fears and aspirations? What are our predictions for the future, “If this…then…”

Introductory Remarks
"An enemy is one whose story we have not heard." -- Gene Knudsen Hoffman

The intention of this presentation is to assist us in beginning to understand what appears to be an intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. I was asked to give this presentation in part because of situations that have arisen on campus as a result of the Middle East conflict and a desire on the part of staff to better understand what is at issue. Hopefully, my remarks can contribute to that understanding by helping us to see more clearly two very different, inextricably intertwined narrativesV. One is a generally held Israeli perspective, which dovetails with that of many American Jews. The other is a widely held Palestinian view.

The focus of my work in relation to the Middle East has been "people to people", rather than "government to government", diplomacy. For the last four years I have been a dialogue consultant and coach to Building Bridges for Peace, an annual camp for Palestinian and Israeli young women. Although the camp is held in the United States, I have traveled to Israel and the West Bank to meet with prospective participants and their families as well as to dialogue with Israeli and Palestinian officials and peace activists.

Additionally, this past March (2002) I was part of a citizen delegation to Lebanon and Syria with the Mid-East Citizen Diplomacy Project. During this trip we met with numerous representatives of NGO's, the United Nations, the Lebanese and Syrian governments and, most importantly, ordinary citizens.

These, and other experiences using dialogue with my clients and in my personal life, have led me to appreciate the power of calmly "listening to the story of the enemy", whoever we perceive that to be. We listen to understand the "other" from within their frame of reference, rather than insisting on filtering their views and experiences through the lens of our own beliefs and biases. By so doing, we begin to understand the other's behavior and aspirations from their standpoint, regardless of whether we agree with them or not. What seemed incomprehensible begins to make sense.

Such effort takes patience and courage, but it does bear fruit. I have experienced and witnessed how deeply understanding the other helps us to acknowledge and connect with our mutual humanity, even as we differ, sometimes strenuously. We become less willing, or less able, to reactively relegate the other to the anonymous status of demon enemy. Polarization is eased and tensions lessened; creative, compassionate responses emerge. Relationships are fundamentally transformed.

It is in this spirit that I offer the following two perspectives, one Palestinian, one Israeli. Of course, these are not the only points of view. There is a diversity of views among Israelis and Palestinians. However, in the current intensity of the conflict, these two narratives generally prevail, polarizing the situation and the arguments surrounding it.

Before going on I want to clarify what this presentation is not. I do not intend to bolster or dampen either side's claims. Nor do I intend to endorse or disclaim moral equivalencies between the experiences and actions of Israelis and Palestinians. Such matters belong to another conversation.

If, as you listen, you find yourself arguing with the points of view expressed in these narratives, I invite you to temporarily set aside your internal debate. As best as you can, step inside the skin of the people whose story is being told. I recognize that making a good faith effort to understand the other, especially if we disagree with them, can feel like we are losing our way. One of the challenges inherent in listening deeply is staying calm in the face of that inevitable discomfort. I firmly believe that if we can suspend judgment and connect with our genuine curiosity about the other, if only for the time it takes to read this overview, if we can try on these two different worldviews equally, we open the door to new insight and understanding.

Finally, to help us orient our minds to our purpose, it might be helpful to consider the following questions as we proceed: Rather than being for one side, how can we be for both sides simultaneously? What would it mean to take a third side, so to speak? If we are outsiders to the conflict, can we embrace the idea that the welfare of both sides is mutually interdependent? If we are insiders to the conflict, what would it take for us to be as concerned about the other's welfare as we are for our own? What would it take for us to see how our wellbeing and their wellbeing are inextricably linked?

Two Narratives
"We must keep in touch with the humanity of both sides." --Cornel West, regarding his participation in a pro-Palestinian/pro-Israeli demonstration in San Francisco

As we will see, the particulars of the Palestinian and Israeli perspectives that follow are very different, diametrically opposed in many ways. Nonetheless, in broad terms they also bear similarities. They are two intertwined stories of suffering piled upon more suffering. Tragedy and trauma lie at the core of both national identities. Both are narratives of oppression, victimization and struggle against annihilation. "We have suffered the most," is a conviction held by both. Each claims the moral high ground. Both are stories of people who feel entitled to return to their homeland-the same land-one sees as bequeathed to them by God and the other by history. Overcoming weakness through strength are core themes. Each sees itself as David pitted against the mighty Goliath--Palestinians with no official army struggle against the IDF (Israeli Defense Force), the fourth most powerful army in the world, and Israel's 5 million Jews on a sliver of land surrounded by a hostile sea of 48 million Arabs. Each says the other has trivialized, denied or distorted their pain and rejected their existence as a people with a national identity. For each, the other is a terrorist. Each side sees the other as a modern day embodiment of the Nazis bent on their annihilation. Each sees their own aggression toward the other as self-defense. Neither trusts the other. Each blames the other. Today it seems neither can rely on the other to be a partner for peace, at least not for very long.

Following are eight central issues around which the two narratives pivot. Clearly these are not the only matters of concern. However, given our limited time, they stand out as factors that inform important aspects of both stories. They are:

Each perspective, not surprisingly, locates its own experience in the foreground and relegates that of the other to the background, distorts it, or completely eliminates it from view. Thus, the two points of view often sound as if they are not referring to the same events. Given that, it is important to remember that for our purposes, the question is not who is right and who is wrong. The question is, "How well do we deeply understand these two very different, yet intertwined, narratives?"

The Holocaust
In order to understand the Israeli perspective, one must comprehend the enormity of the tragedy of the Holocaust and its traumatic legacy in both concrete and psychological terms. Failure to viscerally grasp this pivotal event in the history of the Jewish people makes it that much more difficult to fathom the prevailing Israeli outlook and that of Jews in the diaspora as well.

Holocaust, or Shoah in Hebrew, means "catastrophe". From the Jewish perspective, the Holocaust is an unparalleled catastrophe that happened to a unique people who had for centuries suffered the unrivaled persecution of anti-Semitism.

      "What sets the Holocaust apart is not the number of those killed (6 million) but the ideological imperative to wipe out the Jews as a "race," and the obsessive thoroughness with which the genocide was conducted. By the war's (WWII) end, the Nazi's had exterminated 2/3 of Europe's Jewry and about 4/5 of the Jews in the territories the German's occupied.
      The world stood by and did nothing to save the Jews in their hour of darkness. Jewish refugees found the doors closed everywhere and the British in particular did not allow them into Palestine. The Allies did not even bomb the railway leading to Auschwitz."*
The Holocaust is seen not as the only but as the most recent and horrific crest of the perpetual wave of anti-Semitism. This wave unpredictably ebbs and flows, periodically culminating in the mass killing of Jews. Over the millennia from the Romans, to the Crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the Pogroms of 19th Century Russia, Jews have been targeted as scapegoats. Both strategies of assimilation and isolation failed to protect them from the capriciousness of anti-Semitism. The conclusion drawn from this history is that Jews are never safe for long from the threat of persecution.

The trauma of the Holocaust continues to be visited upon younger generations of Jews as all collective tragedies are passed wittingly and unwittingly from one generation to the next. The Jewish cries of "never forget" and "never again" in the wake of the Holocaust mean just that. Within the Palestinian perspective, the Holocaust is viewed in a variety ways. Some see it as largely a hoax. Others consider the Holocaust as an exaggeration, "Six thousand, maybe, but not 6 million." Many consider it as a real but not a one-of-a-kind horror-there have been many genocides, including that of the Palestinian people. Some Palestinians, to make their point, describe their tragedy as a Holocaust. Still others draw a distinction between mass annihilation, the Holocaust, and mass dispossession, the suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of the Israelis. Regardless, the prevailing opinion is that exaggerated or not, the Holocaust is a device unfairly used by Israelis and Jews to deny Palestinians their aspirations for a homeland and to excuse Israeli violence against them. An enduring question among Palestinians is "What happened to the Jews is a European problem. Why should we be punished for Europe's failure?"

For many Israelis and Jews alike, Palestinians claiming the word Holocaust to describe their plight is an affront that inflames indignation. From this perspective, the unmitigated horror of Nazi atrocities and genocide against the Jews is minimized. The legitimacy of the state of Israel, whose establishment by the United Nations was motivated by the Holocaust and the refusal of the world to come to the aid of the Jews, is implicated. Furthermore, from the Israeli perspective, when Palestinians refer to their own plight as a Holocaust it implies, whether intended or not, a moral equivalency between what the Nazis did to the Jews and how Israel is behaving toward the Palestinians, something many Israelis and Jews flatly reject. For them, the Holocaust is beyond analogies.

In the Palestinian narrative, 1948 is commemorated as al-Nakba, Arabic for "catastrophe." May 14, 1948 is the day Israel declared herself a state. As the Palestinians see it, for the year leading up to this day and for the months that followed chaos and violence reigned. Israeli troops ordered some Palestinians to leave their land permanently. Palestinian villages and homes were demolished and thousands were killed. Other's left their homes out of fear, trying to escape the bullets flying in their neighborhoods between Jewish and British soldiers. These Palestinians had hoped to return home after the violence abated. But that was not to be. Thus, by one means or another 750,000 Palestinians were rendered homeless and forced into settling in surrounding Arab countries and what was later to become the West Bank and Gaza. They have never been allowed to return. To this day many refugees and their descendents, now numbering about 3.6 million, hold the keys to the houses that were destroyed or taken over by Israelis. Furthermore, the catastrophe continues. Palestinians live in squalid refugee camps in Lebanon, the West Bank, and other Arab countries. With the exception of Jordan, they are not permitted to be citizens of any Arab state. Others are spread throughout the world in the Palestinian diaspora. Israel today occupies much of what Palestinians believed, according to the Oslo agreements, would be their future state, the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian economy and infrastructure is in shambles. People are without food and healthcare. Homes and lives have been destroyed.

In order to grasp the Palestinian view of the conflict, one must comprehend the enormity of al-Nakba, described above, for the Palestinian people. Over 50 years of ongoing dislocation, humiliation, occupation, death, harassment, and insults have left a seething, gaping wound inherited by each successive generation. As a result, Palestinians see themselves as a proud if wounded people struggling to survive and tirelessly fighting the good fight for justice their land.

Israelis view May 14, 1948 as a watershed in their history. After two millennia of exile and in the wake of the ravages of the Holocaust, the Jews finally secured their homeland. The British, who had been in control of Palestine since the end of WWI bailed out in 1947. Compelled by the moral imperative of the Holocaust, the United Nations soon thereafter approved a two-state partition plan. Had the Arab world voted for the plan, a two-state solution, one Israel and one Palestine, would have resulted. According to this perspective, Palestinians would have had their state. But, the Arabs voted against partition. On the day of Israel's birth, the surrounding Arab armies invaded the new state. Israel prevailed in her war of independence over the millions of Arabs she feared were aiming to destroy her, to push her into the Mediterranean Sea. For Israel, it was the good fight, a moral fight against all odds.

From the perspective of many Jews the world over, Israel is a refuge, even if they never set foot on the land of Israel itself. Israel is a powerful symbol, a safe harbor should virulent anti-Semitism rear its head again. Central to the Jewish narrative is a hard lesson born from their history: In a world populated by non-Jews, Jews are never safe from the scourge of anti-Semitism. Assimilation into other nations has never provided real protection in the face of social, political, and economic upheavals for which Jews have been blamed. Memories of the Spanish Inquisition, Medieval Europe and the Crusades, Russian pogroms and Nazi Germany serve as harsh reminders of this lesson. From the Israeli and Jewish vantage point, only a homeland can provide a safe haven from a world that in the final analysis doesn't care one whit about the Jews. Strength and constant vigilance are necessary to preserve the security of the small state surrounded as it is by hostile enemies committed to her destruction.

For Palestinians, Israel is a rogue state, an interloper that confiscated their land and forced them out. Although in recent years reluctant acceptance of Israel has been given in the context of peace agreements, the belief that Israel does not have a legitimate right to exist is still a current running through the Palestinian narrative. Israel is seen as an occupier not only of the West Bank and Gaza but the whole of Palestine. It is seen as a terrorist and expansionist state not satisfied with occupying the larger part of what was original Palestine. Israel wants 100%. And, Palestinians believe Israel wants them out. Out of the country, out of East Jerusalem, out of the West Bank. Those Palestinians who remained in 1948 and are now citizens of Israel (about 20% of the Israeli population) feel themselves to be second class citizens routinely discriminated against despite laws and Israeli claims about being the only democratic nation in the middle east.

Israeli national identity, and Jewish identity by extension, is a mixture of both victim and hero. According to the Israeli narrative, Israelis and Jews in the diaspora comprise a small population that has been repeatedly victimized and continues to suffer the slings and arrows of anti-Semitism especially in Europe and the Arab world. Israelis see themselves as necessarily tough and strong, attributes required to protect themselves and their small plot of vulnerable land. Feeling under perpetual threat they are also ever vigilant and feel morally entitled and obligated to defend themselves by whatever means are necessary in the face of ruthless enemies whose fondest wish, according to the Israeli perspective, is that Israel would just disappear. Israelis see themselves a righteous, moral and good people who are reluctant to use force but are left with no other choice in the face of Palestinian violence.

Palestinians also view themselves as a victimized, oppressed people struggling to survive in the face of, to them, incomprehensible Israeli aggression. Palestinians feel further wounded because of the invisibility of their suffering. Their agonizing story is not known and not heard. To them, the world refuses to acknowledge their dire plight or recognize them as a people with their own national identity.

The people of Palestine consider themselves to be a nation distinct from other Arabs. An identity forged and formed first in the aftermath of WWI and then in the crucible of the conflict with the Israelis, they refuse homogenization with the whole of the Arab world. Their identity as Palestinians is inextricably linked to the land of Palestine itself. They are a people who love and long for their land. As they see it, the moral high ground is their domain and their cause just.

For Palestinians the Right of Return to the land of Palestine, al-Awda in Arabic, is a hallowed aspect of the Palestinian narrative. As mentioned earlier, many in the diaspora still hold the keys to homes they left or were driven from in 1948. Refugees in Lebanon, for example, send family and friends residing in East Jerusalem or Israel to search for the remains of destroyed Arab villages in which they once lived. Plastic bags or jars are filled with sacred dirt collected from the remains and sent back to the refugees. Until they can return to the land, some of the land can be returned to them.

A sacred aspect of the Israeli (and Jewish) narrative is the return of the Jews to the land of Israel, in particular Jerusalem. This is the land of the forebears of the Jewish people, the land God bequeathed to the Jews. Dislocated from this land over the millennia beginning with the Babylonian exile, Jewish prayers have since appealed to God for their return to Zion, a biblical name for Jerusalem. Today that appeal is answered in the Israeli Law of Return that says any Jew in the world can immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. In Hebrew this is referred to as making Aliyah, to "go up". To go home to Israel is, by definition, to elevate oneself, and for religious Jews it means getting closer to God.

The Law of Return is a particularly sharp thorn in the side of Palestinians. Many question how it is that people who have never lived in Israel are invited to "return" as citizens and welcomed with social and economic support by the state, while those who actually lived there a mere few decades ago are forbidden to return to their homes. From the Palestinian standpoint, this is confounding and unfair. It is another example of Israeli capriciousness and evidence of their worst fear, that Israel's ultimate aim is to eliminate Palestinians from the land.

Israel in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza
From the Palestinian point of view, Israel is an occupying power that encroaches on what little land they have left by building more and more illegal settlements and bypass roads, taking virtually all of their water, bulldozing homes, destroying olive groves, and engaging in endless humiliation rituals at road blocks. During the current occupation by the Israelis, Palestinians experience little to no self-determination and are at the mercy of what they see as capricious acts of state sponsored terror including arbitrary arrests, beatings, killings, curfews and collective punishment. Virtually all Palestinians living in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza have been touched by such acts. Everyone has a brother, father, mother, husband, wife or child that has been killed, wounded, or died for lack of medical care. Everyone knows a family whose home has been demolished or ancient olive grove uprooted. As a result, these are powerful influences in shaping the Palestinian narrative.

As Palestinians see it, the Israeli occupation is the root cause of the current conflict. Palestinians want Israel to retreat to 1967 borders, which would leave the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza for a Palestinian state. This, they believe, is the way to peace.

Israel's presence in the territories is an issue along which the Israeli narrative splinters. Not all Israelis support the idea of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Nonetheless, the prevailing perspective generally holds that Israel is simply doing what other counties have done since time immemorial when they captured territory in war. The victors move into it in one fashion or another. To require something else of Israel is to impose a double standard and this carries with it suspicions of anti-Semitism, something about which all Jews must be ever vigilant. From the perspective of Israelis and Jews who do support settlements (or neighborhoods), Israel is not occupying the West Bank and Gaza. Rather it is building communities in Judea and Samaria, land originally granted to the Jews by God as stated in the Torah, or Bible.

As for the current military operations in the West Bank and Gaza, the Israeli view is that they are unfortunate but a necessary means of self-defense in the face of unrelenting suicide bombings inside Israel. From this point of view, if the suicide bombings stopped, there could be peace.

Bombings by Palestinians
From the Israeli point of view, suicide bombings and other acts of violence inside Israel are a fundamental cause of the current conflict. These attacks on innocent civilians are immoral and tear at the fabric of Israeli society. They have increased at an alarming rate since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993. The bombings and the carnage have touched every citizen in Israel. Everyone has a loved one who was killed or seriously injured, or knows someone who does. Everyone feels the terror of anticipating the next explosion and its bloody aftermath. What this tells the Israelis is that the Palestinians have no desire for peace and are bent on wearing Israel down with a war of attrition. Overrunning Israel, pushing her into the sea, is seen as the ultimate aim. To this the Israeli reply is "never."

For Palestinians suicide bombers are freedom fighters. They are martyrs avenging murders and assassinations committed primarily by the IDF. As Palestinians see it they are fighting for their homeland, for justice, against a mighty army with the only means they have available. Although Palestinians are divided on the morality and efficacy of such bombings, generally the motivation for the attacks is understood as the inevitable result of hopelessness about the future and, the feeling that there is nothing left to lose. They cite the endless round of humiliations including: houses being bulldozed; confinement to homes due to curfews that last for weeks on end; family and friends being killed or dying from lack of necessary medical care; their infrastructure reduced to rubble; an economy torn to shreds; relentless harassment by soldiers; and, everyday life irrevocably disrupted, among other injustices. "What is left to do?"

Perceptions of the Other
Perhaps not surprisingly there are stunning similarities in the perceptions each has of the other. Neither side has seen the other as a people with a national identity and a rightful claim to a state. From the traditional Israeli perspective, there are no Palestinians, only Arabs who lived in the British Mandate, part of which became Israel. "Was there ever an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state?" asked Golda Meir. As for the Palestinians, Jews are a religious group, another People of the Book, along with Muslims and Christians. They are not a nation. The original PLO charter states: "Jews do not constitute a single nation with an identity of its own."

Both groups see the other as treacherous and mad, equating them with the consummate evil of the 20th century, the Nazis. In the eyes of the Israelis, their readiness to recruit youths to be human bombs, the wanton killing of innocents, and rampant anti-Semitism throughout the Arab world has turned Palestinians into a modern day embodiment of the Nazis. For Palestinians, confinement in wretched refugee camps and a daily diet of terror, humiliation, and occupation has led them to see the Israelis as contemporary Nazis tormenting them as the earlier Nazis did their victims.

Within the contexts of both sides' current views, neither sees humanity in the other. Neither sees the other as a partner for peace. Each believes the other only understands force and violence. Anything less would be perceived as a weakness to exploit. Each holds the view that the ultimate aim of the other is to destroy their enemy. Palestinians, and the rest of the Arab world, would, if they could, push Israel into the sea. Likewise, Israel would, if it could, run the Palestinians out of Israel and the West Bank.

Neither is convinced the other wants peace. Each cites instances of the other destroying peace overtures with violent attacks. Each blames the other for the perpetuation of the endless circle of violence.

Of course, these are not the only perspectives among Palestinians and Israelis. There are non-violent peace activists on both sides, even though we may not hear much about them. There are also strenuous debates within Israel among intellectuals, scholars, writers and artists about revisiting the perceived view of Israeli history. Civil servants from both sides have not stopped talking with each other since Oslo. There are many efforts to bring ordinary Palestinian and Israeli citizens together to break down barriers of distrust and demonized stereotypes and to build bridges for peace.

Nonetheless, in the current climate, the perspectives presented here seem to be holding sway. Although we might not agree with some or all of the two narratives, if we stretch to comprehend the internal logic of each, we can begin to see through the eyes of each side.

To the extent we can understand, even empathize with, the suffering, fears, and hopes and dreams of both Palestinians and Israelis we can move beyond blaming and demonizing the other, whoever we perceive that to be, to humanizing both sides. Connecting with the humanity inherent in both peoples, in my opinion, is essential to building peace both here and in the Middle East.

About the Author
Dr. Deborah Flick is the author of the award-winning book, From Debate to Dialogue: Using the Understanding Process To Transform Our Conversations and numerous other articles. She is an internationally recognized expert in dialogue and cultural diversity and has over twenty years of experience as a university instructor, seminar facilitator, and consultant and trainer to colleges and universities, non-profits, non-government organizations, federal and local governments, corporations, and unions. She is the president of Collaborative Solutions Group and lives in Boulder, Colorado, USA.

Deborah L. Flick, Ph.D.
Collaborative Solutions Group
   Making a world of difference through dialogue
663 Sky Trail Road, Boulder, CO 80302
Tel: 303-443-5677 -- Fax: 303-545-2611

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