How we write our history shapes how we think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
In early October, the world watched as Hamas attacked Israel, killing and raping civilians, massacring hundreds of attendees at a music festival, and kidnapping over 100 people. The reaction to these events varied considerably. Some were shocked; some thought the attack had long been inevitable; some celebrated what they considered the Palestinian armed resistance to occupation; and others—many others—remained silent, neither condemning this mass loss of innocent life nor advocating for the continuation of the conflict.
Israel’s military response has evoked some even stronger responses, with some claiming “ethnic cleansing” or genocide and others suggesting that the military should bomb Gaza into the Stone Age, or saying that there are no “innocent” civilians on the Gaza Strip. But again, a widespread reaction has been silence. Surely the rushed evacuation of 1.1 million Palestinians in advance of a military invasion should evoke a compassionate, thoughtful response.
These charged responses—and the studied silence of so many—stem from our time of political polarization, our declining ability to navigate painful topics with nuance and compassion, and our fear of being ostracized for our views. Even when mustering the courage to speak out, we are tempted to make witty quips for social media rather than seek a dialogue that can help us to maintain and deepen relationships, even with people with whom we disagree.
Even when mustering the courage to speak out, we are tempted to make witty quips for social media rather than seek a dialogue.
Interfaith organizations and efforts are particularly vulnerable to the vortex of glib words and disjointed narratives. Dr. Eboo Patel, the president of Interfaith America, has noted the extent to which our social infrastructure depends on collaboration across religious traditions: a church that resides within a synagogue in New York, a community center on the South Side of Chicago that is hosted by Muslims but intended as a safe place for all, Lutheran-run hospitals open to all, nondenominational Christian aid organizations, and Jesuit universities across the country, several of which helped pioneer interfaith chaplaincies.
These organizations are emblems of religious pluralism. Though they maintain significant differences in worldviews and practices, they share a desire to serve others and create a more vibrant, inclusive society. But now they face ricochets of pain from the Middle East. Their employees, students and volunteers may have strong feelings about Israel, Gaza and the unfolding war.
Many others face difficult conversations at home and in workplaces. They are encountering angry watercooler conversations, blame-focused political rallies, lost friendships and arguments with family members. How can we keep such pain from upending the good work of so many individuals and communities?
Interfaith organizations and efforts are particularly vulnerable to the vortex of glib words and disjointed narratives.
It starts with hearing and acknowledging different narratives, not of the present but of the past. How we write our history informs our current perspectives, and there is no way for any single narrative to capture truth in its entirety. Only from a place of humility can we respectfully engage with one another—all the while maintaining ethical guardrails to prevent the glorification of civilian deaths or human suffering.
And when it comes to sharing our narratives and personal accounts, timing is everything. Your chosen starting point may determine your story of events, especially when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Are you going back to biblical times, when the Israelites became a tribal offshoot of the Canaanites? Are you starting from when the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (from which the name “Jew” derives) were established? Are you starting from the Assyrian invasion? From the Babylonian conquest and exile of Jews to the diaspora? From the Roman occupation (from whence came the term Palestine) and the expulsion of Jews to the edges of the empire? From the Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, Ottoman or British conquests? Or are you starting from 1948, when the modern State of Israel was established after a vote in the United Nations General Assembly?
If you tell the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict starting from 1948, then the influx of Jewish Holocaust survivors to Israel can more easily be reduced to a kind of colonization, rather than as part of a continual Jewish presence for nearly four millenia. If you start your history in the biblical period, however, it might exclude Muslim rule of the Holy Land during the Umayyad, Abbasid and Ayyubid periods, or the later reign of the Ottoman Empire.
What you choose to include or exclude from your retelling of the region’s history determines your understanding of the more recent Israeli and Palestinian conflict. Even so, there is no way to include every detail, much less to give each event the same weight as another person might. So-called objective history is woven through a process that is as much creatively subjective as it is analytical. Our inherently disparate narratives of the Holy Land give rise to yawning differences in how we understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
What you choose to include or exclude from your retelling of the region’s history determines your understanding of the more recent Israeli and Palestinian conflict.
Do you refer to the War of Independence for Jews in 1948, or do you call it the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”) for Palestinian Arabs who were expelled en masse to territories that at the time belonged to surrounding Arab nations (Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, in particular)? Do you focus on the Six-Day War in 1967, where Israel defended itself against attacks from three surrounding Arab nations (Egypt, Jordan and Syria), then expanded its internationally recognized borders as it considered necessary for national security? Or do you think it was a breach of international law for Israel to retain these territories after the war, resulting in millions of Palestinians living under the edicts of the Israeli military for the subsequent five decades?
Today, people are fighting and dying. A war is raging and may come to reshape the Middle East. So we sit before each other, not as experts, but as students humbly admitting that we may know less than we think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and trying to make sense of a story that exceeds the comprehension of any of us.
Amid the roar of war, it can feel daunting to hear each other’s stories with open minds and open hearts, but that makes the process all the more essential. We can argue historical evidence, but historical narratives go beyond evidence and inference. To paraphrase Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, if we can learn something new, feel less angry and approach ongoing events with greater nuance, it will have been worth our time in dialogue.
If, in the process, we can also safeguard essential interfaith collaboration then the effort will have been well worth it.
Cantor Olivia Brodsky and Rabbi Joshua Stanton are co-clergy at East End Temple in New York City.