Israel and Palestine without absolutes
No one has a monopoly on pain and trauma. There was the Holocaust, there was the Nakba, and we are not competing over who suffered more
By Avraham Burg and Ghaida Rinawie ZoabiWe are two. Partners who are still unequal. Similar and different. One, a man from the majority society that has it all, the other a woman from a minority that was left with almost nothing. And yet we are together, for the sake of a humane, just and fair future, for us and our children.
I am an Arab, an Israeli-born Palestinian. My family on all sides has lived here for centuries. We lost nearly everything in 1948, and once again we have much to impart to our children. I am a secular Muslim who is concerned for her children and the circumstances of our lives. I am the curator of the memories of my parents and grandparents, I do not forget but I do not live only in the past. These days I can find no refuge. There is less and less room for my secularism in the storms raging in the Arab states. As an Arab, the proud daughter of a sad minority, I am rebuffed by the patronizing Jewish Israeli women, As a Muslim, the near West does not exactly welcome me.
I am an Israeli-born Jew, eight generations in Israel on my mother’s side and the first on my father’s. I was raised in privilege: an Ashkenazi male from the religious-Zionist aristocracy and the elect of the Labor movement. When I was in the comfortable center of the indolent Israeli mainstream, I gave up on myself. And now, when I refuse to be defined by tribalism, genetics, Jewish ethnicity or religious narrow-mindedness, I am left with barely a clod of earth to stand on.
We are two, we are tens of thousands. We are equal above all, despite the inequality, and only after that all the rest. We know that when the world and man were created, there were no religions and no institutions of power and exclusion; there were no borders, and discrimination had yet to be created. It was called the Garden of Eden, and that is where we want to go.
I understand that if I am held captive within rigid definitions, I will have to give up parts of myself, to become absolute and one-dimensional and to fight my partner. But I am committed to something the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once said: “If there is no stranger in my identity, I don’t recognize myself. I can be defined only through the dialectical relationship between myself and the other. If I were alone, without my fellow man, what would I understand? I would be filled with myself, my entire truth ...” Every day, I give thanks anew for the very existence of my Jewish partner, because if not for him I would walk alone with a sense of merciless supreme justice.
The teaching of Hillel is my identity: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others” and “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” and its elaboration by Martin Buber: Heaven forbid that we do to others what has been done to us. We need to view ourselves as if we were in the position of the other, the stranger, and relate to his soul as if it were our own. “I must confess,” Buber wrote, “that I am horrified at how little we know the Arabs.” Every day, I am grateful to my Palestinian partner, because otherwise, my democratic and humane senses would have been long extinguished.
We understand that continuing to live, separately and together, requires us to stubbornly preserve certain things, and there are things that are essential to give up, for the sake of something far better. First and foremost, we forgo exclusivity. None of us has a monopoly on pain and trauma. There was a Holocaust and there was a Nakba, which the Palestinians suffered with the creation of Israel, and we are not competing over who suffered more. Each of us has areas of suffering and memory. We show respect and are with one another in their suffering and do not deny anything.
We have no need for a monopoly on our presence. There is room in this tortured land for all of us, sometimes together and sometimes apart. I as a Palestinian forgo Palestine for us alone. And I as a Jewish Israeli forgo the Land of Israel for the Jewish people alone. Our peace is a puzzle of sorts, a peace of completion. My portion and your portion create a whole that is bigger than its parts. We cannot make peace only with ourselves. Peace is made with what is dissonant, harnessing the different tones into a new harmony. It’s the violin and the oud, the mawwal and the octave, Umm Kulthum and Chava Alberstein.
I, a Palestinian, am prepared to rip apart some of the seams between myself and the Arab space around me to reconnect to the long history of Jewish and Arab coexistence. I will be the bridge between the new-old Jewish seedling and all of those who were not privileged to live with it and in its vicinity.
And I, a Jew, commit to forgo portions of the Israeli character; the Ashkenazi-European colonialist condescension. I must open up to the Arab components of my identity, to the Arab Jews and the Jewish heritage from the Islamic states, who will build us bridges, cultural space and enrich the conversation. I will never forget my late mother’s Palestinian wet nurse and Umm Shaker, who saved her life in Hebron. My young grandchildren already chatter away in Arabic. It is clear to me that my absolute monopoly over land and power, resources and the identities and freedoms in the space between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River preclude me from a much richer partnership. It’s strange, but reducing my Jewish self can open me to closed worlds.
And I, a Palestinian Arab, have to understand the split in Jewish emotions. Inside the borders of “their” Israel, they are a majority that is brutally trampling me, whereas in my space I am the majority and they are the tiny minority, which is why they are so frightened and aggressive. Strangely it turns out that I am actually the one who can calm them.
We don’t deny our parents’ different and violent past and our own. We don’t for a minute forget the injustice and folly. And we will not give up on our children’s future, both separate and shared. Together, we promise to turn away from the bad and to do good, to each fight fanaticism in his and her own camp and to together create a third group, of the many thousands who are loyal to faith in the daring human spirit. We are a group that forgoes the absolute and the limited in favor of understanding, life and peace that are unending.
(mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Autoren; zuerst erschienen in Haaretz, 12. Mai)