Israel learns the Palestinian narrative

On May 28, the annual flag march was held on the streets of Jerusalem on the occasion of Jerusalem Day. Tens of thousands of young Israelis affiliated with religious Zionism celebrated the political union of the city that was “liberated” 47 years ago. 

At the same time, several hundred power-drunk youths paraded through the alleys of the Old City, strutting their domination in front of shuttered windows, calling out racist epithets such as “Mohammed is dead,” “Death to Arabs” and “May your village burn down.” 

These chants were intended for the ears of thousands of Jerusalemites for whom Jerusalem Day signals humiliation, discrimination and alienation. Most Israelis were raised on the notion that Jerusalem is “the capital of the Jewish people for eternity” and were taught that Jerusalem is “the city of King David.” 

According to the Israeli narrative, the Palestinian neighbors, who have lived in the city for generation upon generation, are “Arabs” who have infiltrated the land promised to the Israelites. The growing separation between Israelis and Palestinians over the past two decades has bred a generation that does not know at all “the other” who lives beside him on the same piece of land. 

The Nakba law, which imposes fines on institutions that mark the defeat of the Palestinians in Israel’s War of Independence, actually completely negates the legitimacy of the Palestinian narrative. The obsessive preoccupation with the exclusivity of the Jewish identity in the State of Israel also provides fertile ground for one-dimensional thinking and collective demonization of the neighbor. 

At the root of this introversion is the fear that knowing the other’s narrative will weaken the hold of the self-narrative and the constant vigilance against the next confrontation in the conflict's chain. A study titled “An Encounter with the Suffering of the Other” was conducted in the framework of an annual course taught at the education department of Ben-Gurion University. 

It illustrates a firm link between increasing the level of knowledge and sensitivity to the complexity of the conflict and the exposure to the narrative of the other — and the willingness for reconciliation and development of a sense of responsibility for pushing it forward. 

Not only that, but the study shows that knowing the Palestinian narrative strengthened the legitimacy of the Israeli narrative among the students. 

The study was conducted under the guidance of professor Shifra Sagy, chair of the Martin-Springer Center for Conflict Studies and Negotiation, with the participation of Becky Leshem and doctoral candidate Michael Sternberg, also from Ben-Gurion University, as well as doctoral candidate Boaz Hame’iri from Tel Aviv University’s psychology department. 

The 27 course participants toured the mixed Jewish-Arab cities of Lod and Ramle and heard from their Palestinian guide the story of the Palestinian communities in these towns, most of whose sons and daughters were expelled or fled in the war of 1948. 

On the outskirts of the Dheisheh refugee camp in the West Bank the students listened to the stories of their peers, the grandchildren of those refugees. Many in the group experienced for the first time the tumult of passing through an Israel Defense Forces checkpoint and visited a school in East Jerusalem whose classrooms reminded them of market stalls. 

Professor Mohammed Dajani, who hosted them in his book-laden office at Al-Quds University, was for some of them the first Palestinian in a suit and tie they had ever met. 

At the start of the course, during the year and at the end of the course, the students were presented with a series of historic events, from the points of view of the Jewish-Israeli narrative and of the Palestinian narrative. 

Thus, for example, the Jewish-Israeli narrative regarding the War of Independence was presented as the formative event symbolizing Israel’s ability to survive and be independent. In contrast, the Palestinian narrative that views the 1948 war as a catastrophe (Nakba) was also presented. 

The Balfour Declaration was presented in the Israeli narrative as “the first international diplomatic recognition of the Jews’ right to a state in the Land of Israel,” whereas in the Palestinian narrative the declaration was presented as “an unfair and illegitimate promise by the British to the Jews.” 

The group questionnaire about the narratives was developed by a group of Israeli and Palestinian researchers. Course participants were asked to note to what degree they would be willing to grant legitimacy to each of the contrasting narratives and to what extent they felt empathy toward the narrative of “my group” and that of the other group. 

A comparison of the students’ answers — before the course, during the course and at its end — points to a positive change toward the Palestinian narrative, in terms of empathy and willingness to view it as legitimate as well as a decline in the level of anger. 

Sagy said the study clearly proves that exposure to the suffering of the other significantly increased the willingness for reconciliation and compromise, as well as the level of acknowledgement of human dignity and trust in the other. 

“We also found that the course sharpened the students’ sense of concern about being transformed from a victim to victimizers in the violent conflict,” she said. Sternberg said, “The students understood that it’s not possible that only 'we are good' and 'they are bad,' and that to justify my existence I need to demonize the other and to deny the Nakba.” 

One of the students, Tal Landman, 26, reported that she had not been presented with the Palestinian narrative in the school system or any other framework: 

“It’s my sense that they even concealed it from me.” Landman, who defines herself as leftist, said the tours, the encounters with the Palestinians and hearing their personal stories were her first direct encounter with the neighbors without the mediation of the media. 

“From the moment I felt that I know more about the Palestinian narrative, I could also sense a greater identification with the Palestinian people,” she said. “Knowing their narrative enables one to see the other side as people like you and me, and not as enemies, murderers or terrorists. 

I didn’t feel for a minute that the Palestinian narrative undermines my strong and well-formulated Zionist narrative. It doesn’t cancel out your opinion. It’s not a substitute, it’s just an addition to the overall story. 

“The process I underwent during the course enables me not only to look at the Israelis or at the Palestinians in different ways, it also made me think about my identity, how it was constructed and from where I had drawn it up until now,” she said. 

“I am more than ever certain that the solution, which is based on mutual compromise, can only come if we look at things first of all on the simplest level, only if we understand that on the other side there are people just like you and me.” 

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent.

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