Jo Roberts on Jewish trauma, the Nakba, and the olive tree

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One of the most fascinating books I’ve read about the conflict in the last year was Contested Land, Contested Memory: Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophe, an exploration of Israel and its Jewish and Palestinian citizens by the English-Canadian writer Jo Roberts, in which she deploys her training as an anthropologist to explore collective memories in the to communities. “Palestinian citizens of Israel find themselves torn between the past and present, trying at different times to remember or to deny the history that continues to mould their world,” she writes. “The Nakba lives on in them: in their conflicted political ideology, in their second-class citizenship, in their awkward place as a minority in an ethnically conceived state, and in all the ways these play out in their daily lives.” The book shows equal respect for Jewish collective memory, and placed second for the 2014 nonfiction Dayton Literary Peace Prize. I recently sent Roberts a list of questions that she answered by email.

Weiss: You describe the racialization of Israel. What do you mean by this?

Jo Roberts: The most obvious racial divide, of course, is between Israel’s Jews and Palestinians. Since the state’s inception, Palestinian Israelis have very much been second-class citizens (just one example: while 15% of Jewish Israelis live under the poverty line, for the Palestinian Israeli community that figure is over 50%). Until 1966, Palestinian Israelis were held under martial law, their communities isolated from Jewish Israelis and from each other. Education during that time was minimal. This left a huge scar, both in terms of economic development and political organizing. Even after martial law had ended, Arab areas received very little funding. One man told me of growing up on a street in Jaffa that ran with open sewage, not realizing until he first visited Jewish neighborhoods in his early twenties that this was not a normal state of affairs. For many years, a number of Palestinians Arab villages were “unrecognized,” which meant no provision of municipal services: no water, sewage, electricity, roads, or schools. Community leaders faced a grueling, decades-long battle to change that, and while all the villages outside the Negev have now formally been recognized, they still face huge bureaucratic hurdles to any new development. (Thirty-five Bedouin villages in the Negev are still unrecognized, and are harried by the government: the village of al Araqib has been demolished and rebuilt 79 times.)

Nevertheless, as long as Israel saw itself as both a Jewish and a democratic state, there was room for both Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, however unequal their citizenship. (A significant majority of Palestinian Israelis see themselves as citizens of Israel; they have no desire to become part of the Palestinian Authority.) Now, if the right-wing parties have their way and Israel is defined first and foremost as a Jewish state, Palestinian Israelis will be seen even more as the intruding outsider. Already there are plans to remove Arabic as Israel’s second language, to make Palestinian-Israeli MKs swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state, even to pay Palestinian Israelis to leave. All these are ways of excluding Palestinian Israelis from the Israeli polity.

There are other racial stratifications in Israel. As well as the discrimination faced by foreign-national migrant workers, Israel’s Mizrahi Jews – descendants of Jewish communities in predominantly Muslim countries – have also historically experienced inequality. Within what Oren Yiftachel describes as an “ethnocracy,” they have found themselves in an ambivalent position. Mizrahis generally make up the lower economic classes of Jewish Israelis. Many live in development towns, with high unemployment, and vie with Palestinian Israelis for jobs. Close to 50% of Israel’s electorate is Mizrahi, and political groups such as Shas that equate Israeli national identity with being Jewish have often received Mizrahi support. This understanding of what it means to be Israeli offers Mizrahis a place at the table, but sidelines Palestinian Israelis even further.

You suggest Palestinians are open to anti-Semitism. You mention the Protocols, Mein Kampf. Is there any explanation for this vulnerability? Have they confused anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism?

Asmi Bishara suggested that Arab anti-Semitism “is not the cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but its outcome.” This is borne out by some interesting poll results. The Index of Arab-Jewish Relations in Israel for 2008 reported that “The proportion of Arabs not believing that ‘there was Shoah [sic] in which millions of Jews were murdered by the Nazis’ increased from 28.0% in 2006 to 40.5% in 2008.” (Factors influencing that shift would include Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon, its blockade of Gaza, and the shelving of the Or Commission’s proposals.) The author, Sammy Smooha, commented: “In Arab eyes disbelief in the very happening of the Shoah is not hate of Jews (embedded in the denial of the Shoah in the West) but rather a form of protest. Arabs not believing in the event of Shoah intend to express strong objection to the portrayal of the Jews as the ultimate victim and to the underrating of the Palestinians as a victim.” I’d agree with that. I don’t think anti-Semitism is indigenous to Arab culture. Before the 20th century, Jews living in Arab lands were generally tolerated, at least by the standards of the day. Arab anti-Semitism was largely a response to Zionist migration into Mandate Palestine. Palestinian anti-Semitic images reflect the old tropes of Christian prejudice: the hook-nosed, greedy Jew. It’s interesting that the first Arab translation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was made by Arab Christians, in the 1920s as tensions were beginning to rise between Arab and Jews in Mandate Palestine.

You interviewed Benny Morris. What are the implications of his work and his political position?

Benny Morris’ political trajectory reflects the political shifts within Israel over the last decade or so. He used to be a solid Labour Zionist – he went to jail for refusing to serve in the West Bank. His 1988 book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem detailed the minutiae of how the Nakba unfolded on the ground. It was the foundational work of Israel’s new historiography, which itself was a significant driver behind the 1990s post-Zionist movement within Israel.

But in the early 2000s, after the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process and the suicide bombings in Israel, Morris turned rightward. Many other liberal Israelis did the same.

Learning of ethnic cleansing practiced by the founding fathers of the State can force you to question your allegiance to the founding fathers’ ideals. Or, it can lead you to justify that ethnic cleansing, because that was what the founding fathers deemed necessary at the time. I think this is what has happened for Benny Morris. In a Haaretz interview, he told Ari Shavit: “… maybe he [David Ben-Gurion] should have done a complete job… If he had carried out a full expulsion – rather than a partial one – he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations.”

When I questioned him about this, he told me: “I think the whole Middle East would have been a happier place since ’48 if that had happened. That’s my view. It would have been much less complicated. The fact that we’re still intermixed – and Israel’s conquest and settlement of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip made the intermixing even worse – intermixing is one of the reasons for the continued tension.”

Many Jewish Israelis would agree with that. And, if transfer of Palestinians out of Israel is seen as having a justified historical precedent, there’s a greater risk that it could happen again.

Have Israelis normalized the concept of transfer?

I don’t think it’s likely that Palestinian Israelis would be forcibly transferred out of their country. Ilan Pappe commented to me:

“I think Israelis would use other means before resorting to that one, such as escalating the basic policies toward the Palestinian minority, curbing their rights even more, and in turn there could be an intensified nationalization of the Palestinians, maybe a more active part in the struggle against Israel. … My worry, my big worry, is that nobody rules it out morally or ethically. The whole debate in Israel is on practical terms. So from a practical point of view it seems that the political elite in Israel doesn’t think that it’s feasible now; but that doesn’t mean that they won’t think that way in the future.”

But transfer can be achieved in different ways. Polls of Jewish Israelis in recent years consistently show a widespread antipathy towards Palestinian Israelis. Sizeable majorities now favour Palestinian Israelis being transferred to a future Palestinian state. The most likely way that would happen would be by a land swap, in exchange for larger West Bank settlements becoming part of Israel. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, a significant power in the current government, has campaigned on this platform, and it’s been openly discussed in peace negotiations by Israel, the PA, and the US. Palestinian Israelis living in densely concentrated areas close to the Green Line, such as the Triangle, could wake up and find themselves part of a Palestinian state.

Palestinian Israelis have always been second-class citizens, but the level of antipathy against them in recent years is new. It’s part of the tightening of state boundaries, both physical and ethnic. Israel’s Jewishness is now celebrated as the primary characteristic of the state, even if that trumps its democratic nature. Within that national concept, the presence in Israel of Palestinian Israelis can be seen as both a contradiction and an existential threat.

Israel’s rightward shift dates, at least in part, to the failure of the Oslo Peace Process, which was a massive blow to Israelis. Israel is a small country, and the waves of suicide bombings during the Second Intifada caused a very real sense of fear and insecurity. This is a people who, only a few decades earlier, experienced a genocidal and partially successful attempt to wipe them out: traumatic collective memory plays a huge role in why Jewish Israelis are so focused on their own identity and on a very insular sense of their own security. It’s complex: certainly the Holocaust has been manipulated by some for political gain, but at the same time, that fear is very genuine. In that climate, the desire to expel the perceived Other becomes more compelling.

Your approach and concerns, while anthropological, also prompt dismal sense on my part that Israel is rooted in expulsion, as the anti-colonialist theorists of the conflict would say. Am I being too reductive or unfair to your book?

Israel was founded on expulsion – so were the US, Canada, and Australia. But I think the situation of Israel is a lot more complicated than that of many settler societies. Palestinian Arabs were expelled by Jews who had effectively been expelled from Europe.

In the 1880s, the first Zionist settlers were fleeing systematic, murderous pogroms in the Russian Empire. Fifty years later, Jewish settlers were fleeing the genocidal anti-Semitism of Nazi-occupied Europe. Two-thirds of European Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and the Allies showed little enthusiasm for sheltering Jewish refugees, during or after the war. The UN’s vote for Partition was not only “Western civilization’s gesture of repentance for the Holocaust,” as David Ben-Gurion called it – it also gave Western nations an out, it meant that they wouldn’t have to absorb large numbers of Jewish refugees.
I would say that Zionism was simultaneously a colonizing settler movement that dispossessed the Palestinians and a liberating movement for persecuted Jews. Edward Said makes a similar point in The Question of Palestine. To focus exclusively on one aspect of historical suffering without acknowledging the other is to miss seeing the full picture.

The acknowlegment of the Nakba seems central to your view of how the conflict will ultimately be resolved. Why do you see it as important? Why is it so difficult for Israel to acknowledge?

Although the history of the Nakba may be something of a wild card in Israeli public discourse, acknowledging it is a precondition to any genuine reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. An acknowledgment of Palestinian suffering would signify a willingness to re-negotiate Israeli collective memory. Without that shift, there will be too little common ground on which to build something new.

After the 1948 War, the founding story of the state that took shape in Jewish Israeli collective memory did not include the disquieting narrative of the Palestinian Arabs and their removal. There were few Israelis who had not lost friends or family members in the Holocaust or the War, or been damaged themselves. Their new state was shelter from that traumatic past and security against a similar future, and there was no room for anything that might threaten that — no space for a story that challenged their sole claim to the land. Or, indeed, for a history of suffering that could destabilize the Jewish experience of trauma by superimposing the unimaginable identity of perpetrator. Destroying the collective memory of the Nakba is thus an aspect of the construction of Israeli national identity.

Commemoration of the past, and especially the traumatic past, is very important to Israelis. Ignoring the traumatic history of Palestinian Israelis, some 20% of the population, in effect downgrades their citizenship. The refusal to acknowledge the Palestinian Catastrophe isn’t simply about not mentioning the Nakba in textbooks; Palestinian Israelis aren’t allowed to commemorate it either. Under the so-called Nakba Law, passed in 2011, organizations face fines if they mark Nakba Day and are not eligible for government funding if they “deny Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state.”

So the tide is flowing the other way in Israel at present. But there have been times when this kind of acknowledgement seemed almost within reach. It was a demand of Palestinian negotiators in the peace talks at Taba in 2001, and Israeli negotiators agreed. But then Ariel Sharon came to power, and things swerved in a very different direction. Both Palestinian and Israeli diplomats have said that Taba was the closest the two sides have ever come to a peace deal.

You speak of the collective memory of Zionism being challenged by Zochrot, with a different ideal. Can the myth change? Can Zochrot win?

Zochrot is a small, predominantly Jewish-Israeli NGO. Their mission is to teach Jewish Israelis about the history of the Nakba: they organize commemorative tours, collect testimonies from Nakba survivors, and have made a map of destroyed villages.
Given the political climate in Israel today, Zochrot and its fellow travelers face a mammoth task. But that climate could change, and if it does, Zochrot’s work, indeed, its very existence, will be a part of that change. I also think it’s vital that groups like Zochrot exist, so that Palestinian Israelis, and Palestinians generally, can see that the Israeli government doesn’t speak for all Israeli Jews.

You seem to suggest that Jewish Israelis aren’t keen on olive trees?

The olive tree has a Biblical heritage, but for 20th century Jewish inhabitants of Mandate Palestine it was strongly associated with Palestinian Arabs. Olive trees were central to the economy of Arab Palestine; they were the source of its chief exports, soap and oil. In the early years of the Israeli state, uprooting olive groves was a practical tactic, to discourage the refugees from returning, and was also driven by more intangible fears: the olive “signified the ‘otherness’ of the Arab: the alien, the enemy,” to quote Arnon Golan. Forests of the more familiar European pine were often planted in their stead. Also at work were the forces of modernity; the European agricultural practices embraced by the Yishuv overthrew the whole traditional pattern of land use, and the landscape that it had formed.

You seem hopeful at times that the two narratives of Israel’s creation can be reconciled and a larger sense of national identity can be created. Does this mean that Jews must give up the idea of self-determination, and Palestinians too, for a common idea of Israeli-Palestinian mutual interest?

Whether peace comes through two states or one, both peoples will inhabit a common landscape. They live side by side in a small piece of territory, with no obvious natural internal boundaries, and share a profound attachment to that land. They are geographically interlinked – they share the same aquifer, the same coastline. Without a very great deal of violence, and mass expulsion, neither can permanently dominate the other. I don’t see a viable future for Israelis or Palestinians that doesn’t involve some kind of reworking of collective memory for each people, one that allows for – not a common narrative, but a space that can hold both people’s histories, that gives room for both peoples to live in the land. As one of the people I interviewed said to me: “I was born here, he was born here. I have no place to go, he has no place to go. We have to make good plans for the future, together.” That may sound utopian; the chances of it happening in the current political climate are slim. But, really, the alternatives are dire.

The divide between sides has gotten worse since your book was published, no? Does that make you despair? Every time I go out there, I feel grim. This can only end with violence. Do you share my bleak vision?

If things continue on their current trajectory, I think the future could be grim. I do find sparks of hope in the Jewish-Israeli voices speaking out against the currents of ethnic nationalism that threaten to overwhelm their society. My hope is that at some point a majority of Israelis will realize that walls and settlement expansion and tightening the boundaries of citizenship don’t provide the security of a durable peace.

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I see that some people here recommend the elimination of the PA. I wonder if that would return things to the situation she describes. I doubt that our President and Congress would object: “Until 1966, Palestinian Israelis were held under martial law, their communities isolated from Jewish Israelis and from each other. Education during that time was minimal. This left a huge scar, both in terms of economic development and political organizing. Even after martial… Read more »

Jewish trauma has been top dog and untreated for SO long but Muslim trauma is rising up fast and who has the right to deny Muslims their trauma ?
It looks like a real clusterfuck to be honest.

I was reading Freedland yesterday – those people did nothing to move Israel and Zionism to a more sustainable footing.

” Arab anti-Semitism was largely a response to Zionist migration into Mandate Palestine – ”

Obviously agree.

For the rest of it….there needs to be an expiration date for Jewish trauma. The world needs a law giving all victims perhaps one generation or maybe 50 years of recognized victim hood and then its officially over for any political status purposes.

Ultimately, given the dense intermixture and interdependence of the two peoples in a single territory, I don’t see how they can manage without a common narrative. Certainly a single democratic secular nation would require such a narrative in order to avoid the Lebanese scenario. Allowing space for two narratives is a step toward their integration into a single narrative. Ilan Pappe has made a first attempt at combining the narratives in his History of Palestine.… Read more »

On the topic of Arab antiSemitism raised in the interview, here’s my theory regarding the big “what if?”. what if there had been no zionism what would have been the state of relations between the Arabs and the Jews. and i think it would be fair to say that it would be far better than the state given zionism’s existence, but it wouldn’t be so great. the history of the christian communities in arab countries… Read more »