Ways in which the exposure to multiple narratives contributed to expanded my understanding of the conflict in Israel and Palestine
Reflective essay on my experience with the Olive Tree Initiative
Imagine you intensely study a conflict region and its narratives for a whole year and then you travel to see the situation on ground for yourself. You think that you are well prepared and that you understand why the conflict is what it is. Power imbalances. Corrupt politicians. Contested truths and histories. Legacies from colonial times. Greedy elites. Education systems based on ideologies rather than facts. If not like an expert, you at least feel like a well-educated observer. A student diplomat who knows what she is doing. This is how I imagined myself when I applied for the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI) and pretty much throughout the program up until the point where I landed in Amman. I had this glorious image of OTI and myself only to discover that OTI indeed is an incredible program, however, personally I felt much humbled over the course of the trip through Israel and Palestine.
The question I could not fathom upon my return though was why I felt so humbled and confused. None of what I heard from our speakers was radically new to me. Of course, there was the physical aspect of the trip which surely impacted my emotional engagement with it but that would not explain why even after some weeks of rest I still could not put my experience into words. Nevertheless, I had to find ways not only because I had committed to it academically but also because I had promised to lead presentations and worship on my experience in my church. Additionally, family and friends were eagerly waiting to hear about what they saw as an adventure. For a start, I decided to use experiences that touched me most on a personal level, like the visit to the Mount of Beatitudes and other religious sites, and to otherwise focus on what most speakers asked us to do: tell their stories.
Telling someone else’s story without attaching one’s own bias to it is not as easy as it sounds. I believed that I was a very balanced and neutral story teller, however, I was repeatedly told that I sounded pro-Palestinian. This annoyed me because at no point I sought to take sides in this conflict. I am critical of the politics and dynamics on both sides and I do not believe that this is a black and white situation where Israel is the overwhelming oppressor and Palestine is the helpless victim. I made a point to have a balanced quota of Israeli and Palestinian stories in my talks but still the take away for most was that I am pro-Palestinian. This challenged me on two levels: Firstly, I had to admit to myself that I had created my very own narrative of how I approach the conflict and how I position myself in it. Secondly, I had to find better ways to illustrate why this experience and this conflict were so much more complex than meets the eye.
To evaluate the first bit of the challenge, I went back to my OTI application to remind myself what it that I hoped to get out of the program when I applied for it over a year ago. I wrote:
Having grown up in Germany I was routinely confronted with the history of the Holocaust. For a long time, the foundation of the state of Israel seemed to me like a natural and justifiable consequence of an unprecedented suffering of a nation. I had very little knowledge of the details of the inception of the State of Israel and the consequences it had for the native population of Palestine. It was not until I came to Scotland in 2011, that for the first time I heard personal accounts of life in Gaza and the West Bank. I started wondering how a nation that had suffered the Holocaust could bring so much sorrow to others. Yet, it was also clear to me that using violence and terror as a means of ‘self-defense’ was an utterly misguided way of responding to these sorrows. (Gebauer, 2017)
Looking back, I realised that the narratives of the Israel-Palestine conflict stretch far beyond the Middle East. The narrative that Israel had a right to exist had been with me since High School. I thought that the taboo to think otherwise was based in German history. Germany had committed the greatest crime against humanity, the Holocaust, and now had a historical responsibility to support Israel. Only when I left Germany I realised that this narrative was much more global and that conflating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism was very common everywhere. The question was: why?
In Israel, we met with plenty of Jewish speakers who ranged from secular to religious. It became very clear, that they all had built their identity on being Jewish. They would call themselves Jews, not Israelis. One speaker, peace-activist Ronny Edry pointed out “we are a blood tribe” referring to the tradition of passing on Jewishness through the maternal bloodline. This means that Jewishness is a nationality rather than just a religion (Anderson, 2016; Smith, 2010). The understanding of themselves as a nation provided a ground for demanding a place for a nation-state. As Anderson (2016, p. 3) puts it: “nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time.” While I was aware of the nationalist narrative and its potential power, I was nevertheless surprised how strongly it is bought in to by Jews from all parts of the political spectrum. We did not meet a single Jew who doubted the legitimacy of the State of Israel and only few could imagine themselves as being governed by anything else than a Jewish government. The strength of the narrative of a Jewish nation that needs a Jewish nation-state goes as far as supporting religious-nationalist governments even if voters do not align with them personally. To criticise this approach is to threaten the existence of the Jewish state and thus anti-Semitic. Another speaker, Haviv Rettig Gur summarised this sentiment in saying: “who are you to take a right to tell Israel what to do?” He also described Israel as “the world’s favourite cartoon” where the world projects their own anxieties on the alleged misbehaviours of Israel. To me it seems, Israel has reached a stage where the majority of citizens cannot imagine a different kind of state than the one they have right now. The sense of “we are the Jewish people and we have only this one place in the world where we can live as we chose and be safe” trumps every other consideration – including genuine empathy for the people they share the land with.
On the other side of the conflict, the Palestinians we met with also varied in their level of religiousness. Many Palestinians described themselves as atheist or secular and for the most part they just try to make the best living out of the very challenging situation they are in. When we came to the West Bank first and visited Jenin, I was surprised how normal and vibrant life was. In places that were much more physically affected by the occupation for example due to the separation barrier in Qalqilya or the security measures in place around Jewish settlements in Hebron, there was hopelessness, economic strain, and a permanent sense of being watched but again it was not as I had expected it. Once more, I had my own narrative and prejudice challenged, as clearly Palestinians were not as underdeveloped, uneducated, and helpless as I had imagined them to be. In different areas of the West Bank there were different levels of conservatism, for example in in Jenin women would generally dress very modest while in Bethlehem and Ramallah there would be a mix of fashions as found in many European cities. I was told that 65% of younger Palestinians have higher education and that in many Palestinian universities women were the majority of students. This was not a people who unreservedly supported extremism as a means of resistance; on the contrary, we visited many projects that had non-violent resistance at their heart. This was also a diverse people where Muslims, Christians, and people of no faith equally identified as Palestinian. One of the most surprising things I learned was that the Christian minority has a protected place in the Palestinian Authority who for example ensures that traditionally Christians towns and cities continue to have Christian mayors. A new city development, Rawabi included a Mosque and a Church in close distance to each other. This was not a place dominated by Islamic radicalism, this was a diverse society struggling for normality and just as in many other societies there were radical elements, but they presented a minority. In contrast to the Israelis we met, Palestinians seemed to be more self-aware of their narratives. For example, many of them openly admitted that the Right of Return would be impractical and that most people probably would not want to permanently return to their places of origin. However, they still supported the Right of Return as a matter of principle, as they believe they should be free to decide for themselves if to return or not. Another example were the varied approaches to the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement (BDS). Its value in providing a Palestinian narrative that the world actually listens to was acknowledged by most but not everyone agreed that it was worth suffering economic consequences or that it would lead to Palestinian liberation.
To go back to the questions I raised in my OTI application, I realised that I had a very simplified or even naïve view on the conflict. I assumed that learning about the Holocaust meant to learn about human rights and about the importance of calling out crimes against humanity. I learned that this “narrative of responsibility” that I had grown up with had little to no traction in Israel and that this narrative blurred my view on Palestinians. Ahead of our trip, I highly underestimated and misjudged them. I thought that if Israel is treating Palestinians so harshly by restricting their livelihood to make Israel safe, they must do so after considering the human rights implications carefully and there must be a severe threat from the Palestinian side. My false assumption was that the slogan of “Never Again” that is used every year to commemorate the Holocaust would include all nations in the world. After having seen the situation in the West Bank and after having spoken to all kinds of people in Israel-Palestine I understand better how the Israeli ignorance to the suffering of Palestinians came into being and how it is maintained. I am equally disappointed and scared when I see how powerful the Jewish-nationalist narrative is and how it permeates throughout its people including peace activists. My disappointment over this is maybe the reason why when I talk about Israel-Palestine I sound very critical of Israel and am subsequently perceived as pro-Palestinian.
In regard to the second part of my challenge, the need to better illustrate my experience and the complexity of the conflict, I am still in the early stages of finding better strategies. One allegory I found useful is that of a jigsaw puzzle. Every story I have heard in Israel-Palestine and every place I have visited presents a puzzle piece. So far, thanks to the preparation before the trip, I have been able to put the edge pieces together. For example, I knew the different ways historical events are viewed and I met people who were exactly on script with the broadly known narratives. The knowledge I gathered before my trip works well as a frame of reference. The challenging bit is putting together the other puzzle pieces and to make them fit into one coherent picture. Partially, because some pieces share similarities and are yet unique but also because I am no longer sure what the full picture is. I am still in the process of comprehending some of the narratives I heard and my new understanding of the conflict is still developing. The exposure to the various narratives has first and foremost exposed and changed my own approach to the conflict and I am now in the process of recalibrating my thinking. In my endeavour to make sense of what I heard and saw, I am continuing to challenge myself to talk about my experience and I reach out to people we met to ask further questions. Bit by bit, I am not yet solving the puzzle, but I am getting closer to it.
Anderson, B. (2016) Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.
Gebauer, R. (2017) Application for the Olive Tree Initiative Program, 29 May.
Smith, A.D.Nationalism: Theory, ideology, history 2nd edn. (Key concepts series). Cambridge: Polity.