Conflicting Mythologies

For many Jews, the founding of Israel in 1948 was heralded as the fulfillment of Zionist aspirations for national independence. Palestinians cursed 1948 as “the disaster.”

Perhaps given the contending national myths of each community, such diametrically opposite attitudes toward the founding of Israel were inevitable.

We can group those conflicting attitudes under three headings: the memory and perpetuation of trauma that each finds in their relationships with the other; the related demonization of the collective other; and the way in which each side engages in exclusive self-definition by virtue of differentiation and rejection of the other side.

Memories and the Perpetuation of Trauma

Despite colonization and oppression by others—Turks, British, and French—Palestinians regard the Israelis as their primary victimizers.

The 1948 massacre at the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, or the 1982 killings in the Lebanese refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla, or the ongoing suppression of Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip confirm for Palestinians that Zionists are usurpers who, with the aid of Western (and particularly U.S.) funding and designs, have taken Palestine by force, displaced the indigenous people, and conducted step-by-step expansion to this day.

The memory of the Holocaust, in which six million European Jews were murdered, continues to resonate for most Israeli Jews and each act of violence against Israelis plays on that memory. Arab rejectionism and Palestinian militancy against Israel over the years are viewed by Israelis (many of whom do not, for the most part, distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism) as new attempts at Jewish genocide.

Demonization of the Other

When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem in 1977, he said that some walls separating Israelis and Arabs had begun to fall, with many Arabs accepting that Israel was there to stay and Israel, particularly following the 1973 war, acknowledging that military might alone would not ensure its survival. “Yet, there remains another wall,” said Sadat in a speech in the Israeli Knesset:

This wall constitutes a psychological barrier between us, a barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection; a barrier of fear, of deception, a barrier of hallucination without any action, deed or decision. A barrier of distorted and eroded interpretation of every event and statement. It is this psychological barrier that I have described in official statements as constituting 70 percent of the whole problem.

Although these comments were made about the Israeli-Arab conflict in general, they are equally applicable to the Israeli-Palestinian context as well. In other words, each community not only sees its own devil in the other side but, in such a vision, a certain reality has been created along those lines.

Each side seems to rely on this enemy image as part of its own self-definition. Having an enemy allows each community to project onto the other those parts of themselves that they would rather not “own”— aggression, selfishness, and ill temper.

Projection bolsters a people’s collective self-esteem while fixing the rejection of the other group. Finding a way out of the conflict, therefore, is not simply a matter of negotiating but of redefining oneself in relationship to that other.

Exclusive Self-Definition

As they built their own nation, Israelis disregarded or resisted the emerging aspirations of Arabs.

Simultaneously, in expressing their own emerging nationalism, Arabs articulated themselves in opposition to the West and the early Zionists that came from there (after the establishment of Israel, its mostly western population doubled in size with Jews flowing in from the Arab world where they were largely rejected as complicit with Zionism).

In order for Israelis to see their national project as legitimate, they rejected legitimacy of those same aspirations on the part of Palestinians. Since the start of the Zionist effort, and more intensively since 1948, Palestinians have felt the same way about Israel.

As the 20th century wore on, Zionists came to believe that their survival and safety would be guaranteed best, or perhaps only, to the extent that the Palestinian national movement was not viewed as legitimate by the world, and the Palestinians were not accepted as partners for peace in the region.

The Palestinian and Israeli claims, many Zionists came to believe, were mutually exclusive and zero-sum, and thus armed and existential battle was necessary: “We fight, therefore we are!” exclaimed Menachem Begin in 1972.

Likewise, most of the early Palestinian nationalists opposed Jewish nationalism, viewing it as imported Western imperialism. Indeed, it was partly this opposition—that is, self in contrast and opposition to others—that helped define and advance Palestinian nationalism.

Later, Palestinian nationalism became articulated and enlivened in its expression of self through armed opposition to Israel via the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). In this sense, Palestinians and the Arab groups who have supported them aren’t merely fighting Israelis or Israeli policies, but Israel itself.

A New Way Out: The Meshing of Stories

While each side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will root it in decades, centuries, or even millennia of history, it is mostly a creation of the nationalism that swept the globe in the 20th century. It stands alongside other tragic examples of national/communal conflicts so prevalent over the past hundred years.

I have suggested here that the stalemate has stemmed in part from failure to see the conflict as one of clashing narratives and competing mythologies in addition to one of territories, boundaries, and security arrangements.

In deep conflicts like this one, the parties’ stories clash with alarming noise. And that noise reverberates to higher and higher levels as the vicious cycle of violence unfolds.

The trained eye and the open heart, however, can witness another dynamic running between the stories of parties who have suffered and inflicted such pain.

It is a meshing, a merging of underlying hopes, fears, and motivations that may provide some hope for a new way out, a new path to peace. This meshing of stories might lay the foundation for constructive cooperation to emerge out of years of deep conflict.

A more empathetic perspective would enable each side to better appreciate the perspectives, experiences, and needs of the other. It might also help clarify how much each side shares in common.

There is probably no issue that expresses the zero-sum nature of the conflict more than the competing claims over the land itself. For so many years, both Jews and Palestinians have expressed their love of the land of Palestine/Israel as integral to the dreams, memories, and myths of their people.

In a pastoral description written by an Arab in the 10th century, Palestine (Filastin) is seen as a treasure. For the Jews, the land of Israel has meant escape from bitter persecution and the renewal of a tired people. There is common ground here.

If each party is so committed to the same land, which symbolically and practically represents control of its own destiny, dignity, and expression of its own distinctive identity, refuge from a tragic past, and predictability in a safe future. And if neither can annihilate the other—as they seem to begin to understand—then each side may gain a new sense of analytic empathy.

The concept of analytic empathy, to be distinguished from emotional empathy, is used to summarize constructive insight that may be gained by parties about their adversaries’ motivations in a conflict. It is insight that just as one’s own side must have its needs fulfilled and will not cease pursuing those needs despite external resistance, so the other side too will not rest until it achieves such needs.

Thus a hardheaded realism about the necessity of cooperation for the fulfillment of each side’s respective needs, not at the expense of the other, but rather achieved in part through gains for them as well, for the sake of self, may evolve.

Based on such realism, parties may begin to seek solutions developed to address the concrete interests and underlying needs of each side—cooperatively.