This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Hurricane Sandy has left the Northeast in pieces. The question is how long it will take the region to function again. That’s on the physical level. Everyday life needs can’t wait.
Israel/Palestine is like that, too. A storm has hit Palestine. But this storm has lingered for decades. There’s no hint that the storm is passing. Everyday life needs can’t wait.
Palestine is in pieces. It won’t be put together again, at least as it was. The view of Palestine before the fall is romanticized. Like Eastern European Jewish life before the Holocaust, communities see what they want to see. Nostalgia is part of the storm’s aftermath but it doesn’t go very far. It may even take our eyes off a future that is achievable.
In this way the Nakba functions for Palestinians the way the Holocaust does for Jews. The Nakba is a strategic stronghold for images of dislocation and death. Strategic strongholds are used to draw strength from. They produce images and red lines that cannot be crossed. That is, until they are.
Such strongholds have different kinds of power depending on the situation of the community. Jews have the power of a state and the military. Lacking a state and a military, Palestinians have the power of steadfastness.
The Holocaust is a memory that enables power. The Nakba is a memory that fuels continual struggle. If the situation of Jews and Palestinians were reversed, the ways Jews and Palestinians use memory would be reversed as well.
If we look at the Holocaust and the Nakba and see complete, almost sacred, images, only stalemate lies ahead. But if we look at the Holocaust and the Nakba as pieces of a larger fabric, then the stalemate might be transformed into a movement forward.
If the Holocaust and the Nakba are viewed in new ways, those who used to be partisans – or were assumed to be partisans on different sides – might take another look. They might even switch sides.
If we pick up the pieces of the Holocaust and the Nakba, what do we find? The first thing is that using tragedy as strongholds feels strange and out of place. Sourcing suffering from your own community or from another’s community, even when combined and even for a good end, trivializes that suffering.
Sourcing suffering becomes memory used as a lever of power. When the memory of suffering is used for power over others, the memory vanishes in the power itself. The memory of suffering becomes something else.
What does the memory of suffering that enables power become? It becomes what it is – a lever of power. As a lever of power, memory becomes interchangeable. Anything that functions effectively will do. The real event disappears.
When the memory of suffering becomes a lever of power, strange things begin to happen. Memory is militarized and soon so are you. You begin to contemplate actions that will, in another place and time, become new memories of suffering. In turn, these memories become militarized. The cycle of memory and suffering continues on.
In the process you have changed, too. When you started out you wanted to end suffering. Instead, you have become a conduit for its continuance.
Perhaps the “mutual” of Jews and Palestinian is the refusal to mobilize each other’s suffering – and their memory – for another round. Thus Jews and Palestinians who pick up the pieces of their suffering should refuse to make their memories whole. They should refuse to make a ‘mutual’ memory of suffering sphere in a future Israel/Palestine.
Even those who join forces to reclaim the memory of the suffering, if they succeed, will bequeath another memory to be utilized in the future. At some point, another power, perhaps even the one they support as good and just, will take hold and visit power over another. That, too, will be in the service of memory. The result – a new exile.
Pieces of the Holocaust and the Nakba will remain. They can be gathered into a new configuration with the present life of Jews and Palestinians without being front and center. Creating a new configuration of Jews and Palestinians alive today is complicated enough without history being the primary guide.
Does placing history to the side guarantee the demise of Palestine and the victory of Israel? Without outside intervening powers, that victory is assured with or without history being emphasized.
Palestine is not going to be recreated as it was. No country ever is.
The good news is that Palestine has been continually recreated over the millennia. It can and will happen again. The only question is how this is going to be done, how long it will take and how much suffering will take before it is accomplished
You see, it isn’t about the past suffering of either people. It’s about the suffering of Palestinians now.