Opinion | The Arsenal of Memory

By | Oct 18, 2023
A composite image, mostly shades of smokey gray with orange flames in the center right. Dimly visible are burned out carns, a running woman with a bloody nose, some faces of uniformed men, and a collapsing building.

No fabrication or suppression of history is needed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Truths are enough to arm both sides. We are now witnessing additions to the stockpile of weapons in an arsenal of memory that never gets depleted.

Victims do not forget. Nor do their descendants. When the Palestinian movement Hamas invaded Israel from Gaza to execute its monstrously planned slaughters and kidnappings, the date, October 7, was marked indelibly. Going forward, probably for generations, it will remind Israeli Jews of the grievance and rage that scar their long road. And for Palestinian Arabs, Israel’s coming onslaught on Gaza will reload the batteries of hatred—and what they call “resistance.”

The two peoples are imprisoned by history. When they argue for themselves and against the other, the past looms. The pogroms in Eastern Europe. The Holocaust. The scattered violence by local Arabs against Jews who fled to Palestine. The Arab states’ rejection of a Jewish state, and the 1948 war that Jews had to fight to secure Israel’s existence. The Arab-led wars that followed. The Palestinian terrorist attacks and suicide bombings into the heart of daily life.

The Jews from Europe settling on Palestinians’ land. The Jewish forces’ expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from what became Israel during the 1948 war. The harsh Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 war. The humiliating Israeli army checkpoints. The imprisonment of Palestinian teenagers without trial. The nighttime army raids into Palestinians’ homes, the shooting deaths. The influx of Jewish settlements onto West Bank land, where Jewish vigilantes harass, assault and terrorize Palestinian residents.

And on. It is an arms race of memory. Not every one carries equal weight. The Holocaust cannot be balanced by the Israeli bombing of Gaza, which cannot be balanced by a suicide bomber at a café. Yet it’s important to understand that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only a clash of two nationalisms with overlapping claims to territory—it is also a clash of histories, whose wounds resist healing. It is a mismatch of historical narratives, none so acute as the two competing stories of the birth of modern Israel.

This I encountered soon after arriving in Israel for The New York Times in 1979. Yitzhak Rabin, then in the opposition, had written his memoir. His English-language translator, Peretz Kidron, was outraged that a censorship committee had deleted Rabin’s description of how he and Yigal Allon, on the orders of David Ben-Gurion, had forced Arabs from the towns of Lod and Ramle. Kidron gave me the manuscript, and I went to see Rabin to confirm its accuracy.

He said he couldn’t talk about it, because of the censorship ban. But when I asked why he thought it had been deleted, he said that he didn’t know, he was surprised. That was the confirmation. He went on to note wryly that he had given the censors something to do by mentioning Israel’s nuclear weapons, which he knew they would delete.

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At the time, Israeli textbooks did not mention the expulsions. Nor did the Israeli media pick up on the story, even after we ran the banned excerpt in The New York Times. The Israeli version, taught in schools, held that Palestinians were coaxed by their leaders to flee and would return after an Arab victory. But Palestinians knew of the expulsions, which were later documented from declassified Israeli archives by the Israeli historian and journalist Benny Morris in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. He named villages and numbers of Palestinians who were ousted deliberately, and others whose residents fled to avoid the fighting, as civilians always do in war.

They ended up in refugee camps in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan’s West Bank. Three-quarters of a century later, many of their descendants keep alive the impossible dream of returning to long obliterated villages inside Israel proper. Some still keep the keys to their old houses. Demonstrators display posters of an old-fashioned key. A huge key is carved into the entrance of a refugee camp near Ramallah. Community center rooms in another camp near Bethlehem are named after vanished villages.

And so, while Israelis celebrate their independence day each year, Palestinians mark it by mourning the nakba, the “catastrophe.”

To this secular dimension has been added history’s ultimate weapon: religion. Once secondary to the basic Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the religious component was always present, but it has gained influence in recent decades, giving the most extreme positions on both sides a kind of divine imprimatur, a rationale both comprehensive and nonnegotiable.

After the 1967 war, a minority of Jewish settlers who called the captured West Bank of the Jordan River by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria, cited Genesis in claiming the land as deeded to the Jews by God through Abraham. The belief took root in the government under Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

In those early years after 1967, and then while I was reporting there from 1979 to 1984, I never heard a Palestinian utter a doubt that Jewish temples had stood on what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount. Now the site of al-Aqsa mosque, it is a man-made plateau whose retaining wall, the Western Wall, is holy to Jews and a place of Jewish worship.

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But in the early 1990s, a high school student in Ramallah told me categorically that no Jewish temple had ever existed there. She called the story a fabrication by Israelis to lay title to Jerusalem. I noticed that she wore a small cross around her neck. So, summoning my background as a fallen Protestant, I asked whether she thought that the New Testament was wrong in describing Jesus throwing money changers from the Temple. That stopped her; she said that she’d have to think about it.

I don’t know how many Christian and Muslim Palestinians have embraced that Temple denial, but on subsequent reporting trips I heard it more and more widely, until it seemed virtually ubiquitous.

Historical truths are powerful enough. But perhaps this suppression of history is one that is needed, after all, to deny Jews their authenticity in the Holy Land, to remove their belongingness. The denial supports the Palestinian judgment that Jews are aliens, interlopers, colonists, a temporary presence that will also be erased.

If October 7 was conceived as a step toward that end, it will fail. But it has added to the arsenal of memory.

David K. Shipler is a former Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land.

Top image: A composite image of the Lviv pogrom in 1941 in German-occupied Poland (now Ukraine), burned out cars and other wreckage from Hamas’s surprise attack and an image of a high-rise in Gaza City being demolished by Israeli air strikes on October 7, 2023.

3 thoughts on “Opinion | The Arsenal of Memory

  1. CAROLE MESHIL says:

    The Palestinians weren’t forced out in 1948. They left because their leaders told them too. Why haven’t these refugees been absorbed into the country’s they live in , instead of being allowed to become citizens of that country? Why doesn’t any Arab country want them? Is it because they have caused problems wherever they are?

  2. David T. Fox says:

    Dear Carol, your first assertion is refuted by the admission of Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin and later verified by the declassification of these facts by Israel itself, as documented by an Israeli historian and journalist; as stated in the article. I consider myself a Zionist, but I believe in facing uncomfortable truths as a way to understand the present, rather than clinging to “alternative facts” that make me feel better. Your denial of this historical truth is on the same level as the current Temple denial documented in the article above.

  3. Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips says:

    Most of this essay offers a sensitive and powerful balance of traumatic histories. I am saddened that Mr. Shipler chose, at the end, to bypass further discussion of settler violence (beyond the previous brief “Jewish vigilantes harass, assault and terrorize Palestinian residents”) and instead to spend his last five paragraphs on one-sided anecdotes of individual Palestinians denying Jewish history.

    As David T. Fox notes above, Jewish “denial of…historical truth is on the same level as the current Temple denial documented in the article.” This could have been such a powerful teaching resource to share if its concluding paragraphs were not so obviously biased.

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