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Negotiating away memories

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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.

It isn’t normal that the beginning of another round of talks by Israel and the Palestinians is a slow news day.  But, then, since everyone whose opinion is solicited thinks the talks aren’t going anywhere, there isn’t much to report. Even the talking heads have little to say.  People aren’t paying attention.  Perhaps that’s the aim of this failed Oslo restart.

You have to give the Palestinian Authority credit for parting with any leverage it might have in its human rights bank.  By agreeing to an extensive start-up period – that is before the real talks begin – the Palestinians forfeit their UN and international criminal court arenas.  What do they get in return?  A gradual prisoner release program and promises of badly needed economic aid.  More importantly, they also get increased settler activity and further consolidation of the Israeli occupation.

All of this is obvious and stated in various venues, including an excellent interview yesterday here with Josh Ruebner, National Advocacy Director for the US campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. What isn’t being talked much is what a final settlement under the current terms presented would mean to Palestinians.  What isn’t being talked about at all is what a final settlement under the current terms would mean to Jews.

Both Palestinians and Jews are dispersed geographically. As many or more Palestinians and Jews live outside Israel/Palestine as live within it.   Both populations lay claim to a history which is involved in and is more than the present configuration of Israel/Palestine.  While we can argue whether the governmental authorities of either side represent the people within the borders of Israel/Palestine, at the negotiating table who represents Palestinians and Jews who live outside those borders?

Though it may seem farfetched to some, in the case of Israel/Palestine any final agreement is a referendum on Palestinian and Jewish history for Jews and Palestinians within and outside of the land.  Not only will it set the course for the future of both peoples, it will also lay the groundwork for how Palestinians and Jews view, recite and remember their history.  That’s why in relation to the history of Israel, Tzipi Livni, Israel’s lead negotiator, demands that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and that in any final agreement Palestinians drop the Nakba from their vocabulary.  She wants to button up Jewish and Palestinian history once and for all by wiping clean the slate of Israeli and Jewish history. 

But, then, in the revolutionary inclusion of Jews in America after the Holocaust and the creation of Israel as a Jewish state after the Holocaust, have Jews agreed to drop the Holocaust from our list of grievances?  Just the opposite.  As Jewish inclusion and empowerment has grown our Holocaust grievance has grown with it.  Why we would we expect it to be otherwise with Palestinians.

Yet there is a fundamental difference here.  Not only is there a demand that Palestinians give up the origins of their dispersion, they are to do so in a diminished and unempowered predicament. The demand is that Palestinians relinquish their right to speak about the Nakba without inclusion, without a real state and without a military. 

I assume that in whatever is left of Palestine, any final agreement would prohibit Palestinians from erecting a memorial to the Nakba.  Would this extend to the Palestinian Diaspora as well?

The Jewish community supports laws in Europe and Canada against Holocaust denial.  In America, the Jewish community hunts Holocaust deniers.  Would it support laws criminalizing remembrance of the Nakba?  Would that criminalization include Jews of Conscience remembering the Nakba as a referendum on Jewish history?

All of this referendum talk on Jewish and Palestinian history might seem beyond the point as the Washington preliminaries shift to the Middle East in the upcoming weeks.  However, if Jews and Palestinians think only about the immediate situation, as dire as it is, we become frozen in a pragmatics that buries any possibility of rescuing a future from the ashes of the past and present.

Remembrance is for after – as Jews know well.   The present peace effort may be a disguised attempt to make sure that Jews and Palestinians forget the Nakba as integral to both our histories and thus lose the ability to forge a common future together. 

After is a claim on the perpetrators and victims of ethnic cleansing, displacement and atrocity.  Only when memory becomes actualized in justice can a future worth bequeathing to our children be born.

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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5 Responses

  1. Hostage on July 30, 2013, 5:22 pm

    By agreeing to an extensive start-up period – that is before the real talks begin – the Palestinians forfeit their UN and international criminal court arenas.

    The existing state of US law requires defunding of any UN organ which extends rights reserved for a member state to Palestine. The only organ which can extend rights reserved for non-member states is the General Assembly, and it already upgraded Palestine to that status last year.

    After the US cutoff funding to UNESCO, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that any other agency or organ is going to vote to extend Palestine the rights reserved for a member state without obtaining US consent in advance.

    The ICC recently appointed a 3 Judge panel to review the requirements to start an investigation of the attack on the aid flotilla in response to the Comoros referral. There are still plenty of legal scholars who are pressing the Prosecutor to take action under the auspices of the existing Palestinian Article 12(3) non-member declaration. There is no question that it applies to any crimes committed in the occupied territory since the UN General Assembly vote. There is no requirement for a victim state to become a party to the Rome Statute in order for the Court to exercise its jurisdiction.

  2. James Canning on July 30, 2013, 6:51 pm

    Israel is not so much interested in “consolidating the occupation”, as it is in convincing public opinion that the presence of lots of Jews means borders must be changed. Rubbish, in my view.

  3. Citizen on July 31, 2013, 7:50 am

    No reference to the Nakba in any negotiated settlement agreement. Nakba denial as part of any peace settlement. Imagine that. Wouldn’t you love to shove a mike in front of Kerry while he’s sitting on a bench for a few moments respite from meetings, and pepper him with question’s about that just as Helen Thomas was accosted and peppered with questions by that rabbi?

  4. alan on August 1, 2013, 11:53 am

    Marc, are you seriously suggesting some sort of status equivalence between ‘Jews’ living outside of ‘Israel’ (by choice) and ‘Palestinians’ (btw shouldn’t that be ‘Christians’ and ‘Muslims’?) forced to live outside of the OPT/Israel?

    I’m very puzzled; your posts usually make perfect sense to me.

  5. James Canning on August 3, 2013, 2:26 pm

    Are Jews living in Palestine in effect living “outside Israel”, by choice? Even if they do not recognise this fact?

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