Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sami Adwan, Dar Bar-On, Eyal Naveh: Side By Side

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I have very strong opinions about Israel. So strong that I make a joke to avoid talking about it: There are two things that make me angry- the Yankees and Israel. (What better way to deflect than to bring up baseball? Pro-tip: none.) The thing is, though, that I made up that joke probably 10 years ago, and that's probably the last time I thought about Israel in any real fashion because really, I do get angry when I think about Israel. And in the United States, if you're anti-Israel, you're probably some kind of anti-Semite, even if, like me, you're Jewish. There's almost nothing more fun than being called an self-hating Jew. (Well, there are some things that are more fun.) The other way that I've avoided talking about Israel is explaining it this way- I've never seen proof that the country can exist in a way that is consistent with my understanding of Judaism, a religion that is inclusive and peaceful.  Side by Side, which presents Israeli and Palestinian versions of the two nations maybe says it better, or at least quotes the Palestinians in 1968 as saying it better: "Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation." (This is part of Article 20 of a charter by the National Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization.) I have to say, when you try to step over or past any defensiveness you might feel, it rings true. In addition to have been raised a Reform Jew, I'm most definitely culturally a Jew, as that plays out culturally in the Bay Area, and probably across the United States. But am not part of any nationality of Jews. My "homeland" is not Israel. I can't trace any ancestors there. But think about Elijah- Jews are taught to practice where they are, in diaspora- Elijah will come to us one day. That myth isn't really about him coming home, it's about him coming, one day, maybe. We think forward to Jerusalem- next year. What would we do if Elijah really did come? What would happen if the Temple were really built? Point is, I'm just not convinced. I know I'm an outlier on this.

On the other hand, there's clearly a narrative that I've been taught that I've internalized about Israel. It's hard for me to separate whether that's an American narrative or a Jewish narrative or a combination of both,  (note: this is not necessarily what I believe, but the narrative that is what I've internalized, and that I suspect the majority of Jewish Americans born after the creation of Israel as a Jewish state have internalized to some degree or another), but the narrative says that Jews deserve a state, are owed a state, that Israel is a birthright, that Palestinians are at fault for the majority of the unrest, etc. Although I don't like this narrative, I'm so busy sticking my head in the sand due to my unease about Israel that I have had a hard time learning anything else. 

I would argue that all of us- Americans, Jews, American Jews- maybe everyone- needs to read 'Side by Side.' The book is a phenomenal, novel attempt at telling the Israeli and Palestinian stories of the Israel-Palestine literally side by side. One the left side of the book (the even pages) is the Israeli narrative, and on the right side (the odd pages) is the Palestinian narrative. Each chapter covers a time span, and the chapters tell roughly the story of the same events that occur at the same time. However, you quickly realize that the stories aren't the same at all. And although the Israeli narrative roughly lines up with the history I've learned- the victor gets to write history, after all- the Palestinian version is nothing we ever hear about. The first inkling that I got that I had internalized the Israeli version of the story was when I realized I was defensive reading the Palestinian story. What right do I have, a person who doesn't even think the state of Israel needs to exist, to be defensive? None, basically. 

The book was written as a text book for high schoolers, so it's very clear and easy to follow. It was written by a group of Palestinian and Israeli teachers over 7 years- the goal was to write "a history text comprising two narratives for events that happened in the lives of the two nations... the two nations proceeded in opposition to the other and even, to some extent, at one another's expense." It is absolutely incredible to see just how true this is, and to see just how differently the same events are interpreted or even which events are seen as important over the same time span. The authors continue: "Using this book, the habitual stance of simply ignoring one another's historical narrative gives way to a process of developing mutual respect and understanding of each side's 'logic,' as a necessary (if not sufficient) step toward developing a better relationship with the 'other' and between the two peoples." The authors aren't expecting everyone to hold hands and make peace because of the text book. But the idea is that this kind of narrative prevents us from demonizing or erasing any portion of history. There is no "one" history for Israel-Palestine. The process of respecting the other narrative in a situation of conflict is itself a kind of mourning, the editors write: "Each time that one side had to relinquish a negative definition of the other, there was a crisis in the group of teachers... usually positive emotions emerge vis-a-vis your own historical account and negative emotions vis-a-vis that of the other." I don't know how to explain it other than to say that this happened to me in this case: reading these two narratives side by side, chapter after chapter was absolutely stunning. You cannot read the narratives without feeling the loss of your own narrative and the sense of tragedy of the situation. It's not the writing, it's the physical act of reading two opposing stories. You can't go home again.