Yesterday’s tragic events–a terrorist in Tel Aviv killed an innocent man and the IDF shot and killed several people trying to breach the Israeli-Syrian border–are the latest results, in part, of the battle between two competing historical narratives: one that commemorates the fifth of Iyyar as a miraculous Day of Independence and another that marks May 15 as a Day of Catastrophe.
Extremists have used those divergent historical narratives as excuses for perpetuating this conflict, and official policies in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority sustain that tactic. In Israel, commemorations of the Nakba are subject to a fine. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
While those two sentences are not analogous, they both speak to each of these governments’ recognizing only one national narrative as legitimate. Despite all of the “peace” talk during these past 20 years, it’s hard to see two nations living side by side if neither can recognize the legitimacy of the other’s founding story. Gideon Levy, making a similar point, writes in Haaretz that Israeli schools should commemorate Nakba Day:
It is possible and necessary to teach our pupils that this glory which is the establishment of Israel also has a dark side. This must be taught so that we can know our history, and so that we can understand the wishes of the Palestinians, even if there is no intention of realizing them. We can call this, “know your enemy,” but to know we must.
Free societies are able to teach even the “dark sides” of their national narratives, because that’s what it means to be a free society. Israeli students should learn about the Nakba just like American students learn about slavery or German students learn about the Holocaust–not because those events are comparable, but conversely because every free country must confront its unique historical demons.
I would add–and Levy implies–that teaching the Nakba would be the first step toward peace. Israelis should take note of the Nakba not to punish themselves but to recognize that there is another people in the land that has legitimate national aspirations. This works only if the Palestinian Authority reciprocates. Israeli recognition of the Nakba must come alongside Palestinian recognition of Jewish national claims to the land. The difference between the two narratives is far from the only reason for this violent conflict, but once each people openly recognizes the validity of the other’s hopes, coexistence becomes possible.
Mutual recognition of the other’s historical narrative involves some revision of the narrative itself. The (perhaps dominant) Nakba narrative that sees the founding of the Jewish state, rather than the Palestinian expulsion, as the catastrophe cannot accommodate Israel. By the same token, the Greater Israel narrative–which envisions a Jewish state in all of the territory from the river to the sea–cannot accommodate Palestine.
When Jewish leaders call on Abbas to recognize the Jewish state, they’re not asking him to recognize Greater Israel. And Israeli schools need not teach the Nakba that leaves no room for Israel. Two states and two peoples can and should exist side by side, each with its hopes, pains and imperfect past.