Any first-year psychology student knows memory is often inaccurate; the memory of the nation as a whole, as Canadian journalist Jo Roberts says, is often much more revealing.
In her new book, Contested Land, Contested Memory: Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophe (Dundurn Press, 2013), Roberts intertwines Israelis’ and Palestinians’ personal narratives with state-sanctioned literature to interpret the ways in which key events in Israeli/Palestinian history are instrumentalized in nationalist mythology. With one-on-one interviews from prominent historians like Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris, as well as supposedly “ordinary” citizens who lived through these events, Roberts provides an engaging introduction to the significance of collective memory in Israeli and Palestinian education, geography, and law. What results is a diverse anthology of the ways these divergent memories affect the current culture and conflict.
While Roberts’ book often talks about the myopia of the Israeli government’s memory, the author herself is to be commended for her own ability to see beyond the usual start and end-date of Israeli/Palestinian chronology. In Roberts’ telling, the Holocaust is not just a point of origin for the necessity of the Zionist project, as many historians imply; rather, she appropriately situates the genocide within the long timeline of European anti-Semitism. She delicately delineates the creation of Zionism as a dialogue with, not solely a response to, these oppressive anti-Semitic ideologies in Europe — a significant scholarly intervention, given what I have found to be a sometimes unsettling European Leftist universalism that sides against Israel in the twenty-first century, all too quickly forgetting Zionism’s roots as a response to their own culture’s racial fantasies.
As a Christian herself, Roberts writes cautiously but compassionately: “Let a couple hundred years pass. Then maybe we can start telling Jews how to be peaceful,” Roberts recounts a Christian colleague telling her. But Roberts steers clear of telling “the Jews” to do anything; instead, she excavates both Jewish Israeli and Palestinian socio-cultural memory to provide a deeper understanding of the political. In the wake of the Presbyterian divestment, Roberts’ and other Christian attempts to support Palestinian human rights while still acknowledging Jewish or Israeli pain seem all the more important.
It is with similar forthrightness that Roberts addresses the Nakba, recognizing the inability of many Israelis, even so-called liberals, to fully acknowledge the ‘catastrophe’ of their state’s founding; to do so, as Roberts shows, cuts to the core of Israeli identity. An especially powerful interviewee is Israeli citizen and now London-based professor Nira Yuval-Davis, who tells of her childhood summers in a town called Tantura, only to meet a Palestinian much later in life through a peace-building organization who had grown up in the town before being expelled in 1948. Forced to reckon with the reality of the violence associated with what had been a paradisiacal childhood home (ironically, many of the Palestinian residents of Tantura ended up in nearby Fureidis, Arabic for “Paradise,” as recounted by another one of Roberts’ interlocutors later in the book), Yuval-Davis finds that her memories, Roberts recounts, were “invaded” and “dispossessed,” much like Tantura itself. It is stories like this, relaying the Israeli forced to look at her own history straight in the mirror, that, in turn, force the Zionist or Jewish reader to face this same history as well.
Filled with similarly simple but powerful anecdotes, Roberts’ book is an excellent introduction for those wishing to gain a basic overview of the general conflict through a cultural lens; trained as an anthropologist rather than a historian, Roberts is not so concerned with historical fact as she is the general perception of history. This approach, I imagine, makes for particularly interesting comparison with other peace and conflict studies. But there is plenty more in-depth information in the book that will also hold the attention of the more knowledgeable reader; Roberts’ description of the centrality of Jaffa to Mandate-era Palestine and its devolution since 1948, for example, is a moving study in the confluence of racist and capitalist gentrification in modern-day Israel. After narrating the horrors that were visited upon Jaffa during the Nakba – including one man’s retelling his grandfather pulling bodies from the Jaffa municipal building, after it was blown up by the Stern Gang – Roberts quotes a telling section of a new high-end real estate development’s website. The real estate project, called Andromeda Hill, describes itself as “the new old Jaffa, a picturesque neighborhood with paved stone alleyways, graceful arches, sparkling fountains and majestic palm trees, in authentic old Jaffa style.” The juxtaposition of the violence in Jaffa in decades past with the modern attempts to capitalize on it needs little explanation.
The only thing lacking was, simply, that which Roberts could not write. Roberts’ subject matter is sensory, in a way that her words didn’t always seem adequate to convey. I wanted to feel the Ottoman-era maps she described; I wanted to listen to her interviewees tell their stories in their own voices; I wanted to see pictures of the once-houses that are now road-side ruins. Perhaps Roberts’ next book will be larger, or perhaps not a book at all – a museum exhibit, I imagine, would suit her subject well. Until then, her own words will have to suffice. Fortunately, those words are still impactful on their own.