Writing a people’s history of Israel/Palestine

People’s history opens a new understanding of the current situation in the Israeli/Palestine conflict.

Palestinians children play in the al-Sha
The everyday lives and struggles from "ordinary" people opens new understandings of the present moment [AFP]

For well over a century now Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs have struggled for control over the territory of Palestine/Israel.

The contest over land has taken place in the context of an equally important set of struggles over identity, not merely between the two national movements but within them as well.

The dominant Zionist/Israeli and Palestinian identities have long defined themselves through the land and against the other in a unilinear historical progression characterised either by miraculous triumph (the rebirth of Israel out of the ashes of the Holocaust and the subsequent military victories against an array of Arab enemies) or disaster followed by repeated setbacks, with a few small victories in between (1948, 1967, and the two intifadas for Palestinians).

The reality of Palestinian-Jewish interaction in Ottoman, Mandate and then post-1948 Palestine/Israel as well as their diasporas is far more complex.

The everyday lives and struggles, not merely of elites but even more so of the “ordinary” people whose lives are rarely captured by scholars, opens new understandings of the history that produced the present moment, and alternative futures in which the two people might better co-exist with equal freedom, dignity and political, economic and social possibilities.

Inspired by the pioneering work of historian Edmund Burke III, whose volume Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East first brought the lives of every-day peoples in the Middle East to the attention of scholars, students and the general public. I along with UC San Diego sociologist Gershon Shafir edited a new collection of life stories specifically rooted in the conflicted history Palestine/Israel and the myriad communities whose lives have intersected in it during the last 150 years.

Titled Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel, the volume contains two dozen chapters, offering an unprecedented set of biographies of members of the two communities, from slaves to construction workers, journalists to Holocaust survivors, who have called the land home during the late Ottoman, Mandate, post-1948 and contemporary periods.

Here is an interview of three of the contributors to the volume, Bir Zeit philosophy and cultural studies professor Sonia Nimr, Ben Gurion University political scientist Neve Gordon and Palestinian author Ramzy Baroud, about the importance of bringing such stories to the attention of the broader public.

Mar LeVine: Memory and narrative have long been understood to be central to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the power balance between them has always meant that in the West, never mind Israel, the Zionist narrative has been largely dominant while Palestinian memories have been suppressed. How has this dynamic changed, if at all, in the last generation and what impact can the growing presence of Palestinian narratives have both on the larger public debate, but also on the Israeli-self-narrative?

Ramzy Baroud: The Palestinian narrative was long either denied any meaningful access to the media or tainted through the very circles that propped up and sanctified Israel’s image as an oasis of democracy and a pivot of civilisation. In recent years however, things began to change thanks to developments such as the internet and various global civil society movements, although it is yet to reach critical mass or affect a major paradigm shift in public opinion. But these voices have been able to impose a long-neglected story that has been seen mostly through Israeli eyes.

“People, make the history, yet when history is written, it is the voice of officials, politicians at best, or that of the ones who owns the media or have more access to the media.”

– Sonia Nimr

Sonia Nimr: No doubt that the development of public media (the internet etc) has made it possible for the Palestinian narrative to reach wider audience. It’s also enabled more people to understand the realities of Israeli atrocities. On the other hand, the emergence of new historians on both sides has certainly changed public opinion towards the Palestinian question. Historians such as Ilan Pappe, Shlomo Sand, gave a different and more daring narrative from the Israeli side. On the Palestinian side, Salim Tamari, Beshara Doumani, and of course Edward Said and other scholars have also made a difference in understanding the Palestinian narrative.

Neve Gordon: The Nakba, both as a word and as a historical phenomenon, began to surface among Jews in Israel – and to a large extent in the international arena – in the late 1980s following a series of publications by Israel’s “new historians”, such as Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Baruch Kimmerling and Oren Yiftachel. Building on the pioneering work of Palestinian and Arab intellectuals such as Walid Khalidi, Sami Hadawi, Elias Khoury and Edward Said, their work began to disrupt Zionism’s master narrative. Today, the traditional Zionist narrative, about 1948 is no longer dominant in the academic world and is losing its position among lay readers around the globe. The only place where it still holds its ground is in Israel, but even here the tension and fissures are becoming apparent.     
ML: What are the voices on each side that have been most frequently excluded from the internal as well as externally-focused narratives, and how does your own work try to bring them in?

SN: As an oral historian, I think that the voices which are excluded are those of the ordinary people. People, make the history, yet when history is written, it is the voice of officials, politicians at best, or that of the ones who owns the media or have more access to the media. I believe that the most important goal of oral history is to tell the untold story and to give the voice to those who have been excluded or not allowed to voice their narrative. 

RB: Although the Israeli side has much greater access, some Israeli groups – Israeli rights organisation, civil society groups like Gisha and Ta’ayush or Machsom Watch – are purposely excluded, for their inclusion will directly challenge the well-guarded Israeli narrative. But they are dangerous enough that the Israeli government has in fact sought to criminalise them. When it comes to Palestine, the media scene is even grimmer and the marginalisation more widespread. It seems that Palestinians who are welcomed to serve the role of the “representatives” of their people are those who are perceived as “moderate” while “extremist” and “radical” narratives, if ever allowed access, are selectively infused to merely demonstrate the unviability of the narrative altogether.

Even internally there is much conflict, as Palestinian narratives became much more factional and polarised [recently], especially in the aftermath of the Hamas-Fatah rift in 2007. In this context, much of my writing attempts to uphold a “people history” version of the Palestinian narrative that continually puts focus on disregarded voices that are lost in western media selectiveness and the ongoing factional scuffle.

NG: A people’s history of Israel/Palestine has yet to be written, but over the past decade the voices of activists and dissidents have been centre-staged through a plethora of books, newspaper articles, documentaries and the internet. My work focuses on the structural relations that have helped shape the conflict, but I try to provide a platform for people’s voices through journalistic and other broader writings. But Struggle and Survival in Israel and Palestine is an extremely important contribution to this literature, both in its methodology and in its breadth. 
ML: Even after the latest Gaza war and the positive UN vote to recognise Palestinian “statehood”, the political process remains stalled. Israel continues its settlement project and siege while Hamas and the PA continue struggling for power inside Palestinian society. What role can telling the stories of ordinary people like the ones you’ve written about play in helping either to change consciousness from below or to overcome obstacles to peacemaking that are rooted in the political/diplomatic arenas?

RB: Predominant narratives are misleading, one-sided or utterly polarising.

  Portraits from Sheikh Jarrah – Amal

A narrative that is centred on the stories reflecting history, reality and aspirations of ordinary people will allow for genuine understanding of the real dynamics that drive the conflict. These stories that define whole generations of Palestinians are powerful enough to challenge the ongoing partiality and polarisation.

The fact is Palestinians are neither potential “martyrs” nor potential “terrorists”. They are people who are denied basic human rights, who have been dispossessed from their lands and are grievously mistreated. They have resisted for over six decades, and they will continue to resist until they acquire their fundamental human rights to the last one. This is the core of the Palestinian narrative, yet it is the least told story. A true understanding would require a greater exposure of the extraordinary, collective narrative of the “ordinary people”.

NG: I believe that acts of resistance become meaningful and powerful only if they are made visible through storytelling. The storytelling, in turn, can encourage the citation and repetition of the subversive actions or discursive practices, and this reproduction process can ultimately transform marginalised actions into the norm. This is when petrified historical processes begin to change. As Marx famously wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, people make “their own history, but they do not make it… under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past”. Only by producing a wide array of actions that challenge, resist and defy these oppressive structures can the historical process change. But such actions have to be converted into stories [to have power].
ML: If there is one discovery you’ve made through your own research into the personal histories you relate in the book, or elsewhere, that you think fundamentally changes the general understanding – among Israelis, Palestine and/or outsiders – of the basic nature of the conflict and its histories, what would it be?

RB: On the one hand, it’s crucial to show that ordinary Palestinians are not unique in their ideas, behaviour and actions. Yet I’ve also come to understand how profound is the relationship between personal histories, collective narratives and the right path to a just peace-all in the context of the profound impact of conflict on every aspect of Palestinian life. The matrix of Israeli control runs so deep and goes back decades; there was nothing random, born out of chance or propelled by supposed Palestinian provocations. But if the Israelis have controlled the first part (Plan Dallet, the Allon Plan, Oslo, the Gaza siege), the Palestinians are in charge of the second – their resistance, steadfastness, intifadas, sumoud.

SN: A wider audience is beginning to understand that there is another narrative which tells a different story than the Israeli /Zionist narrative and point of view. It’s important that it is no longer the dominant one.

NG: We must remember that speaking truth to power is a central part of Jewish culture. Indeed, it seems to me that one cannot understand the Biblical prophets in any other way. Hence, all those Jewish dissidents who appear in the book, including people like Hillel Kook and Jonathan Pollack, who might very well reject this categorisation, are following a pronounced, and in my mind, great Jewish tradition. But they are, to be sure, doing it in their own way, being sensitive to the circumstances that shape their present and using the methods and strategies available to them as well as their particular talents.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.