New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

Living Side by Side with Dignity

June 23, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Julia Chaitin, Politics

Distinguishing Facts and Narratives in the Pursuit of Common Ground

by Julia Chaitin

(Editor’s Note: This week on NCV, as part of a thematic series, we are featuring articles focusing on the Israel-Palestine conflict and attendant issues, hoping to stimulate a dialogue and suggest potential ways forward.)

Recently in Haaretz, Shlomo Avineri wrote an op-ed piece on historical truths and narratives, which I quote here at some length:

“On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. That is truth, not narrative. On December 7, 1941, Japanese planes attacked and destroyed the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. That is truth, not narrative…. In recent debates about the Palestinian ‘Nakba,’ the claim has been made that there are two ‘narratives,’ an Israeli one and a Palestinian one, and we should pay attention to both of them. That, of course, is true: Alongside the Israeli-Zionist claims regarding the Jewish people’s connection to its historic homeland and the Jews’ miserable situation, there are Palestinian claims that regard the Jews as a religious group only and Zionism as an imperialist movement.  But above and beyond these claims is the simple fact … not a ‘narrative’ — that in 1947, the Zionist movement accepted the United Nations partition plan, whereas the Arab side rejected it and went to war against it.”

Avineri continues:

“A decision to go to war has consequences…. The importance of this distinction becomes clear upon perusing the op-ed [from] Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas … in The New York Times. Abbas mentioned the partition decision in his article, but said not one single word about the facts – who accepted it and who rejected it. He merely wrote that, ‘Shortly thereafter, Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs.’

“Nobody, even in German schools, would dream of teaching the German ‘narrative’ regarding World War II, [and] the 1948 war should also not be taught as a battle between narratives … there is a historical truth. And without ignoring the suffering of the other, that is how such sensitive issues must be taught.”

I have mixed feelings about Avineri’s op-ed. I’ll begin with my positive reaction:

As Avineri notes, historical facts relate to the objective event that happened (for example, in the German-Nazi case, they undertook a program of persecution and extermination of the Jewish peoples, even meticulously documenting their own actions), whereas historical narratives relate to the subjective-cultural meaning held by different societies/nations/peoples concerning the historical events.

So for example, Israelis and Palestinians agree that, factually, the First Intifada began in early December 1987. But they/we have different narratives about the reasons that led to the triggering of the uprising and to memories of that uprising. (The Palestinians claim that an Israeli truck purposely ran into and killed Palestinian youths from the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, and that after years of Israeli Occupation, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, leading to a nonviolent uprising, while the Israelis claim that this was a car accident and the Palestinians used it as an excuse to begin violent terror attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians without just cause ).

The distinction that Avineri makes is similar to a distinction that we biographical/narrative researchers make in our work. We look at the facts of a person’s life (e.g., born in 1933, got married in 1950), calling this the “life history.” And we also look at the meaning or significance that these life events appear to have for the individual (e.g., she believes the reason for getting married in 1950 was because she was pregnant and didn’t want to be a single mother), and term this the “life story.”

Biographical researchers believe that we cannot deeply understand the person without knowing his/her life history, the life experiences that s/he had, and we cannot deeply know the person without understanding his/her life story — the significance that these lived experiences had for the individual. Life histories and life stories are inherently intertwined, because we are meaning-making beings. We cannot process “facts” without “meaning;” the lines between the two are easily blurred. And these facts and meanings are a part of our overall emotional-social-political-cultural perspective on life.

And thus my criticism of Avineri’s piece in Haaretz. Avineri tells the Palestinians to be truthful about their part in the 1948 war which led to the Naqba. However, he makes no mention about the need for us Israelis to be equally truthful about our actions in the 1948 war, that, at the very least, exacerbated the Palestinian refugee problem. He makes no mention, for example, of the fact that Israeli military administrative rule (1948-66) restricted the movement of Palestinian citizens of the State, nor does he write about the enactment of the “absentee property” Israeli legislation that prevented displaced Palestinians from later returning to their properties to reclaim their homes. So, to sum up this criticism, facts are indeed important and need to be distinguished from narrative, but if we demand truth from others, then we need to be truthful as well.

And a final word (for now) about 1948 and 2011: 1948 happened 63 years ago. We — Palestinians and Israelis alike — cannot turn back the clock. We cannot undo the many wrongs, killings, harm, and destruction that were committed by the different parties (Jewish-Israelis, Palestinians, Arab states) to that war. However we can, indeed MUST, do everything that we can to bring an end to the Palestinian and Israeli non-acceptance of the other, and to the Israeli Occupation and the siege on Gaza that are still going on today. It is our joint responsibility to find the common ground that will make it possible for us to live side by side with one another in dignity.

1948 is gone, and 2011 is half gone. If we remain rooted in 1948, our two peoples’ dreams of rights and security will never be realized, for these dreams will be doomed to becoming a footnote in dusty historical tomes debating facts and narratives.

Julia Chaitin, Ph.D., is a social psychologist who specializes in peacebuilding. She is a senior lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Sapir College, and a member of Other Voice — a grassroots organization from the Sderot area that seeks a nonviolent end to the Gaza-Israel conflict. More of her work can be found on the blog “If You Will It, It Will Come.”

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