Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Symbolic Issues Matter. But Should They?


In an article at 972, we are told that, for Israelis, acknowledging the Nakba deeply threatens their own national identity. And we are told, parenthetically, that acknowledging Israel as a "Jewish State", deeply threatens Palestinian identity.

The article, is based on a study by Daniel Bar-Tal of Tel Aviv University’s School of Education. Bar-Tal is an internationally regarded expert in political psychology. The study emphasizes that a large percentage of the Israeli Jewish population agrees that Israel at least partly caused the Palestinian refugee problem. But they are not willing to go the next step, and  take responsibility in the context of the ongoing conflict and efforts to end it.

The article ends with this:
... This is one of the vital challenges of the day, that the Nakba (and perhaps the “Jewish state” definition, for Palestinians) symbolizes for all parties in the conflict: can each side acknowledge the most sensitive and frightening aspects of the other party’s identity without losing its own, and then lashing out violently to protect it?
One may decry the fact that people are so hung up on "winning" the symbolic/narrative issues, but the fact that this is true, for far too many people, was driven home to me by a recent experience.

I went to hear a talk by Yossi Alpher - formerly of Bitter Lemons, and certainly considered firmly in the "peace camp". He was adamantly against Israel acknowledging the Palestinian "Right of Return", even if that was practically limited to 50-100,000 individuals returning to the State of Israel. He thought Palestinian insistence on this was a deal breaker for the two state solution. He thought Israel is correct to reject such a formulation.

When I pressed him on why it mattered, if in fact the number of returnees to Israel could be limited to 50-100,000, he said,

"Because then we would be admitting that Israel was born in sin. I don't believe that. If we agree to the 'Right of Return' the Palestinians will teach their children that Israel is the product of illegitimate theft, and if we object, they will say 'You already admitted to that when you agreed to the Right of Return.' ".

I was stunned that a peacenik who is so into practicality and real-politics would be so adamant about a completely symbolic issue.He was not willing to have two narratives co-exist, and he didn't believe the Palestinians were either.

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