A couple of weeks ago I was asked to write a short account (ha!) of the ‘Yom Kippur’ war of 1973. It’s an assignment fraught with difficulties, of course. Still, I completed the task to the best of my ability and then showed it to two friends for comment: one Palestinian, the other Israeli. My Israeli friend criticized my account for failing to say enough about the build-up and the threat to Israel and the horror of an Arab attack on one’s holiest day of the year; my Palestinian friend commented that the piece was quite obviously biased towards Israel throughout. Interestingly, each cited different events which they said I had omitted but which were actually clearly there, and in some detail, thus demonstrating our tendency to read what we want or expect to read. I concluded that I had done a fairly decent job since both were dissatisfied in equal measure. The point was, of course, that I had not told their stories.
How do we tell, with justice, a story that is not our own, when there are conflicting histories – not to mention a restrictive word count? The PRIME history project was a brilliant attempt, in which Palestinian and Israeli history teachers each prepared their parallel narratives of the history of the region. There was absolutely no meeting of minds on this:page after page, the narratives confronted each other across a blank dividing column. But at least they were there, together, in the words of those who owned them.
The word ‘myth’ has gone out of fashion and perhaps suffered from often being misused. Nevertheless, I remember the definition from my student days: ‘a myth is a story, which may or which may not be true, which explains something of significance to those who share its ownership’. The point is not the actual historical truth – although in the case of Israeli/Palestinian narratives, there is a heck of a lot of truth, alas – but in the concept of shared ownership. ’Our’ story may be selective, it may beef up our ancestors’ deeds and overlook their sins; it may totally fail to recognize any other perspective.
A case in point is the British ‘myth’ about the WW2 ‘Dambusters’. This is a story with facts (although a few details have suffered in the ‘myth-creation’ process) and in the scheme of things, I have to be glad that it did happen. Except that, for me, the story doesn’t end with the victorious destruction of the dam; alongside the factories swept away that night were families in farmhouses in the path of the water. But the story isn’t concerned with them.
There is not one history of Israel/Palestine; there are many, many stories. There are facts, there are memories, there are nursed grievances. We must tell our stories – they matter, they give us a sense of identity and belonging – and they do often explain a lot. Sometimes people say to me that ‘all they want is for reports to be balanced’. I hate the word ‘balanced’; as if you can trade one atrocity against another. But they don’t even mean that – they really want as much of their story as is vitally important to them to be heard. And it’s so difficult to get it right, without tearing through someone else’s story
Nothing works better in this mess than simply allowing people to tell their own personal stories, or bits of them; for people and their narratives to be ‘recognized’; for the story-tellers to choose the words, using the first person.It’s not always easy to listen to the story of another when you want to shout, ‘but those aren’t the facts!’ However, the skills learned in listening, and the art of trying to hear can go a long way to building relationships, not to mention diffusing difficult situations.
So I want to go further: I would like the Israeli Government to set up a Museum of the Nakba. It’s no good arguing over how many people moved out of their own ‘free will’, how many were killed, how many were driven away by other Arabs etc. etc. The museum I would like to see would have keys, of course, old black and white pictures, names of lost villages, records and memories of a past life. It would have people’s stories in their own words. It would acknowledge Palestinian pain. And what would it do for Israel? It would show that Israel was grown up enough to be ready to acknowledge a range of stories within its history. It wouldn’t be an easy task – and people would probably be hacked off in equal measure (roughly where we came in). But, wow – what a positive step.