Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sleep Deprivation and Historical Narratives

Before I start the section on speaker analysis, a few housekeeping notes are in order.  First, we were on an extremely tight schedule during the Israel Diplomatic Fellowship 2009 trip.  This arose from a combination of over-scheduling, difficulty counting off (how hard is it to pay attention and count to 49?  Seriously?), and socializing.  The first two were outside of my control while the last was certainly within my control.  Regardless, everyone on the trip was horrendously sleep deprived.  Thus, I was a bit more irritable than normal so some of my observations may be phrased in harsher terms than I would normally use.  Now that I am slowly catching up on sleep, I'll try to couch things in, ahem, diplomatic language when possible.

More importantly, we did not speak about historical narratives.  I probably repeated this a million times during the trip but the point bears repeating.  The Israelis and Palestinians have entirely different historical narratives and thus disagree about the meanings and implications of events even when they agree on the temporal order and existence of those events.  All of our speakers, with a couple exceptions, spoke with the truthfulness of the Israeli historical narrative as a given.  This wasn't surprising but it was disappointing.  Any program ostensibly aimed at improving "diplomatic" relationships between Arabs and Israelis needs to represent both sides fairly.

Since we lacked any significant alternative to the Israeli narrative, we squandered countless opportunities to discuss difficult issues in a constructive manner.  For example, speakers routinely portrayed the 1948 War, or in Israeli nomenclature, the Independence War, as a war of self-defense against Arab aggression following the failure of the Palestinians to ratify the 1947 UN Partition Plan.  However, before Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon invaded, both Jews and Palestinians engaged in what would now be considered ethnic cleansing, with the Israelis finding more success due to their superior training and armament.  It is possible to view the invasion as Arab intervention to protect the Palestinian population and prevent the Jews from forcing a rejected agreement upon the Palestinians.

Both sides have their merit and an objective observer can readily identify the flaws in each side's logic.  However, it is impossible to address the core claim of the Palestinian national movement without recognizing the historical basis for their rejection of Israel's legitimacy.  In their eyes, Israel's seizure of territory in 1947-48 was illegal since the UN plan was not ratified by both parties.  In Israel's eyes, the UN's passage of the partition plan gave them the legal right to form a state.  The recognition of the legitimacy of the state of Israel by the international community, albeit with a few notable exceptions, further bolsters this claim.  It is fairly obvious that these historical narratives are fundamentally at odds with one another.  Viewing later events through one lens or the other leads one to different positions, with each being entirely reasonable given the assumptions with which one is working.

Many members of the Fellowship stated that they felt like they are better able to advocate on Israel's behalf.  But without understanding the Palestinian historical narrative, to whom can they advocate other than to those who already accept Israel's version of history?  Aren't we supposed to do more than preach to the choir?


  1. Matt! This a great blog and fantastic idea.

    It'd be great to pick your brain to see if you learned about, saw anything or could share your opinions on the extreme environmental stresses in Israel or the territories...water scarcity, agricultural degradation, etc. Something I'm really interested in.

    Hope you're well and travel safe -


  2. I am going to try my best and not comment on the IDF portion of your blog. I think I have conversed with you enough on the subject (and kicking everyone back to Jordan is plan, right?) but I look forward to what you write about for the rest of your stay in Israel and about the WUJS program. Maybe I will do it in the spring :) Hope to see you next week.


  3. Matt, you rock man, love your blog.
    Your views are interesting, although your whining about your sleep deprivation is pathetic...
    What is this whole "ethnic cleansing" you're rambling on about in 1947? which history book is that from? the "palestinian people" (there was no such thing at the time) had been massacering the jews for years (look up the chebron massacre of 1929 AND 1936 where the jewish population was completely eradicated!) - with the british turning a blind eye- much like they still do today. it was classic self defense. all the surounding arab leaders made it a well knows fact that they wanted all the jews in Israel to seriously investigate the possibility of coexistance with the different marine species of the medditerranian sea...
    but hey man, I still love you. when are we gonna get an online bridge game together???
    Shalom Reich

  4. Great comments everyone, I'll try to get to all of this stuff ASAP!

  5. Great discussion. I am interested in how both sides of the discussions/situations will be handled. I have a feeling it will be very one-sided, but that's what usually happens anyways.

    I find it interesting how many parallels there are between Palestinian/Israeli and Native American/Western settlers historical narratives. As a former student/writer of Native American art/culture, I find that once both sides are able to present their situations, reasoning and beliefs in a fair environment, it becomes amazing how multi-faceted stories and situations become. If you take time to see a problem from you opposition's viewpoint, while you might not agree with them, but at least you will have a better understanding of why they are reacting the in the way they are and you might even be able to prevent future friction.

    Historical narratives, presented from both sides, are critical to fully understanding and resolving friction and heated situations.

    Keep up the great writing Matt!