Reflecting the Other – The Israeli-Palestinian Discourse Reconsidered. An Encounter in Culture,Identity and Perception
Trilateral Minerva Summer School in Cooperation between the Simon Dubnow Institute and the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Centre for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Sponsored by the Minerva Foundation
16–18 September 2005
Report Both Israelis and Palestinians construct their collective identities around catastrophic events that shape the destiny of their respective communities. For the Jews this was the Shoah, for the Palestinians it was the Nakba, their tragic displacement by the establishment of the State of Israel. In light of these catastrophes, Israelis and Palestinians have developed narratives
by which they understand their past; narratives that serve to justify the ideological imperatives that define their political history. For each, their national stories are compelling, self-vindicating, exclusive, and morally self-referential; for each side their stories are pre-eminent; accordingly, they tend to regard those who may question their national narratives as a threat to their political legitimacy and dignity.
With the support of the Minerva Foundation (Munich) and in co-operation with the Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center for German-Jewish Literature and Cultural History (Jerusalem) the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture (Leipzig) organized a trilateral Minerva Summer School from 16 to 18 September 2005 entitled “Reflecting the Other. The Israeli-Palestinian Discourse Reconsidered: An Encounter in Culture, Identity and Perception.” The meeting reflected the need for deepened dialogue on Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Arab perceptions of history. It concentrated on the Holocaust and the Nakba, and their meaning for Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Arab societies, and it was conceived to afford an opportunity for Palestinians and Israeli Jews to understand each other’s stories as they inform their passions, emotions and ideological horizons. The meeting was organized by Susanne Zepp and Omar Kamil of the Simon Dubnow Institute.
In their opening address, Paul Mendes-Flohr and Mohammed Abu Zaid stressed the need for an open dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals. Mendes-Flohr and Abu Zaid explored the process of understanding the “adversary.” Both stressed the importance of the Holocaust for Jewish Israelis and the Nakba for the Arab Palestinians. Evoking this importance does not by any means mean equating these events; rather, it should be conceived as a bridge to be able to recognize the suffering of the Other.
Trying a different approach than Mendes-Flohr and Abu Zaid, in his opening address Dan Diner emphasized the historical perspective. Concentrating on the limits of Israel’s legitimacy in the eyes of others, his remarks were addressed in particular to the Arab participants. In his view, there are three pillars of legitimation for the state of Israel: a religious one, based on a promise by God as recorded in Jewish scripture. A second is the Holocaust. Dan Diner stressed that these two pillars of legitimation have a problematic legitimacy in Arab eyes. The third pillar involves the very fact of Israel’s existence: “Israel has an inalienable right to exist simply because it exists.”
Elaborating this historical perspective, Diner opened the debate on a Palestinian historical narrative. Issam Nassar examined in his presentation the influential thesis of a nation as “imaginative community.” The loss of historical Palestine as a result of the 1948/49 war led to the fusion of the Palestinians into a nation. But at the same time, it was a shock from which the Palestinians, even today, have still not yet recovered. For the Palestinians, the Nakba was the seminal catastrophe. It is precisely this perception which acts to prevent Palestinians from dealing with the other side. For that reason, Nassar believed the workshop contained “a possibility for learning something about the other side” and a chance to begin the process of interiorizing Jewish history and experience.
After these more theoretical papers by Dan Diner and Issam Nassar, Ishai Menuchin, chair of the Israeli peace group Yesh Gvul, presented a more practical subject. From a critical vantage, he showed just how much the Holocaust and the Nakba are manifested in the behavior of Palestinians and Israelis in daily life. He sought to draw a clear line between the “true significance of the two events and their being turned into mythology.”
After the Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Arab view was presented, the discussion continued with a paper by Barbara Hahn. A literary scholar from Germany working in the United States, Ms. Hahn spoke about the Jewish experience of suffering in German history. Of particular interest for the Palestinian participants was her introduction dealing with German-Jewish history from the mid-18th century until after the end of WW II.
A second panel featured three presentations. Rachel Elior discussed the Jewish self-perception of Israeli society today, and had an interesting subsequent discussion with Issam Nassar on the differences and similarities between Israelis and Palestinians in their perception of history. The literary specialist Ahmad Harb concentrated on the perception of history among certain Palestinian authors. He showed in particular how the Nakba had shaped Palestinian literature. It was precisely this aspect which sparked discussion between him and the Israeli journalist Zvi Bar’el, who stated that as a reader fluent in Arabic, he failed to see the Jews fully embodied in modern Palestinian literature.
This discussion formed the point of departure for the presentation by Susanne Enderwitz on Palestinian autobiography. The “land without a people,” which was part of the foundation myth of Israel, contrasts in Palestinian consciousness with the sense of a “people without a land.” Or more precisely: a people that has lost its country step by step and is seeking to regain at least a part of it. She stressed that the struggle between the two peoples was not only being fought with words and weapons, but was also a struggle for memory. Since the Palestinians had been ruled for centuries by foreigners, first for a long period the Ottomans, then the British and the Egyptians, Jordanians and Israelis, they had only few archives. And Israeli policy was, in her analysis, promoting forgetting, as in the giving of place names and in archeology. In that situation, Palestinian autobiography took on an enhanced importance for Palestinian national consciousness.
In the third panel, Samir Awad and Menachem Brinker explored their own personal experiences. For the Palestinian political scientist Awad, “Palestine lost” emerges as a central component in his memory. This memory, which he sees as existentially important for his being as a Palestinian, does not however mean that he questions Israel’s right to exist. He carries the historical Palestine within his heart and thus could imagine, even with an official right of return, living in Palestine today, i.e. in Israeli-controlled territories. The literary specialist Menachem Brinker enriched the conference with his great wealth of knowledge. His contribution on the role of religion in the conflict showed just how much religion is used as a ‘means of struggle’ in order to sharpen the boundary lines between the two peoples.
Of special interest in this panel was the presentation by Alexander Flores on anti-Semitism in the Arab-Islamic context. For Flores, the Palestine conflict is by its very nature a conflict of political interest; in terms of its genesis it has nothing to do with Islam. The perspective of many of those involved in the conflict is influenced by their Islamic faith and its forms of expression, though this changes but little in the dynamics of the conflict. However, in the ideology of political Islam, there has been such a profound mixing of Islamic conceptions with the perception of the conflict that to the extent this spreads, it can alter the conflict, making it even less controllable. But whether this conception gains the upper hand is dependent on the dynamics of the confrontation itself, and it remains at its core a national conflict.
In the final panel, two participants from Ramallah and Jerusalem had the possibility to focus on their own experiences. Julia Matveev, on the staff of the Rosenzweig Center, talked about her perceptions of being Jewish as a Russian immigrant in the Israeli society. The presentation by the Palestinian Najat Effenberg took a similar direction. She urged the need for a new perception of Israeli society beyond the conflict.
The presentation by the Israeli journalist Zvi Bar’el expanded the frame of the discussion. As an expert on the Arab world, and the media landscape in Israel, he spoke about the perception of the Holocaust in the Arab media and underscored the need for deepened Arab-Israeli encounter with both the Holocaust and the Nakba.
In his paper, Omar Kamil spoke about the Arab’s perception of the Holocaust, as well as the direction of the previous discussion. In his view, there was still a culture of denial in Arab society toward the Holocaust. This is a challenge Arab intellectuals must deal with. In order to accomplish that, Arabs should finally liberate themselves from their debilitating self-image as victims. To close the workshop, Dan Diner summarized the main points of the presentations and evaluated the workshop’s success. He thanked the participants for their open and thus sometimes difficult discussion and exchange of views and experience, and urged that the dialogue be continued.
A prosecution of the discussion in cooperation between the Simon Dubnow Institute and the Franz Rosenzweig Research center and the support of the Minerva Foundation is planned.