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- Narratives that Kill - the Case of Israel and Palestine
- Ideological Conflict, Philosophy and Dialogue
- International Congress on Medical Ethics, Teheran
- Uprootedness, Narratives and Conflict
- LSE Meeting with Alan Ryan
Simone Weil said that military conquest is nearly always an evil, because it always uproots people. Both Israelis and Palestinians have reason to know this. The foundation of the state of Israel caused many Palestinians to experience uprootedness. But its founding was a response to the long Jewish experience of uprootedness.
Here I am going to talk about “the effects of uprootedness”, using the phrase in a doubly extended sense. On the Israeli side, I will include effects on people who grew up in Israel, but who felt the consequences of things that their parents experienced and felt when they were uprooted. On the Palestinian side I will include not only the effects of living in exile, but also the partial uprootedness of living in an occupied country.
1. BELONGING: SONGS IN A STRANGE LAND.
Many people on both sides have in common that they have been shaped by their own or their parents’ experience of living somewhere without the sense of belonging. This similarity of background is not much emphasised on either side, partly because the dominant narratives of each group are built round their own history of being victims.
But there are parallels. Mourid Barghouti describes how exile caused memories of his homeland to fade, and how he came up against this when he finally returned:
“I have completely forgotten what the road to Deir Ghassanah looks like. I no longer remember the names of the villages on both sides of the twenty-seven kilometres that separate it from Ramallah. Embarrassment taught me to lie. Each time Husam asked me about a house, a landmark, a road, an event, I quickly replied “I know.” The truth is I did not know. I no longer knew. How did I sing for my homeland when I did not know it? Should I be praised or blamed for my songs? Did I lie a little? A lot? Did I lie to myself? To others? What love is it that does not know the beloved? And why were we not able to hold on to the song?
To those of us brought up partly on the Bible, this last question calls up the Psalmist’s poignant Jewish lament in exile:
“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion.
As for our harps, we hanged them up: upon the trees that are therein.
For they that led us away captive required of us then a song, and melody, in our heaviness: Sing us one of the songs of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
2. SECURITY: THE LOSS OF SOMETHING DEEPER.
In Jerusalem in 1948, both Jews and Arabs knew insecurity and fear. Many Jews in Jerusalem were afraid of being uprooted again. Amos Oz remembers rumours of rich Jews being advised to go away or to send their families to safety. “Others told of groups of young Arabs who combed our streets at night, armed with pots of paint and brushes, marking the Jewish houses and allocating them at once.” (A Tale of Love and Darkness, page 320.) There were fears of the Arab Legion, and of the Muslim Brotherhood attacking from fortified positions in the hills round Jerusalem. In the war, many Jewish settlements were captured and razed to the ground by Arab armies, with their inhabitants captured or killed.
Many Arabs were uprooted in 1948. Gharda Karma has childhood memories of her family fleeing Jerusalem, fearing being massacred as people were at Deir Yassin: “The survivors who fled came with stories of mutilation, the rape of young girls and the murder of pregnant women and their babies… Twenty of the men were… paraded in triumph around the streets of the Jewish area of Jerusalem. They were then brought back and shot directly over the quarries… into which their bodies were thrown. The surviving villagers fled in terror, and the empty village was then occupied by Jewish forces. The worst of it was that the gangs who had carried out the killings boasted about what they had done and threatened publicly to do so again. They said it had been a major success in clearing the Arabs out of their towns and villages.” (GHARDA KARMA: In Search of Fatima: a Palestinian Story.)
It is impossible to understand the feelings of many Israelis except against the background of so many of their families having been murdered by the Nazis. David Grossman describes the effect of this on his own generation, too young to have experienced the Nazi era themselves: “My generation, the children of the early 1950’s in Israel, lived in a thick and densely populated silence. In my neighbourhood, people screamed every night from their nightmares. More than once, when we walked into a room where adults were telling stories of the war, the conversation would stop at once.” He remembers the ten minutes on the radio each day when they read names of people searching for relatives lost in Europe. “Every lunch of my childhood was spent listening to the sounds of this quiet lament.”
When the sheltered childhood was broken into by details from the Eichmann trial, there was a sense of loss:
“It was the loss of something deeper, which we did not understand at the time, and which is still being deciphered throughout the course of our lives. Perhaps what we lost was the illusion of our parents’ power to protect us from the terrors of life. Or perhaps we lost our faith in the possibility that we, the Jews, would ever live a complete, secure life. And perhaps, above all, we felt the loss of the natural, childlike faith –faith in man, in his kindness, his compassion.”
(DAVID GROSSMAN: Confronting the Beast.)
3. BEING UPROOTED AND THE DISRUPTION OF IDENTITY.
Being exiled affects the sense of self in different ways at different stages.
There is the moment of flight, with its sense of being torn up by the roots. Because she was a child when she and her family fled Jerusalem, Gharda Karma was not told what was to happen. This may have intensified the sense of being uprooted:
“No doubt my parents thought they were sparing us pain by keeping our departure secret from us until the very last moment. They also believed we would be away for a short while only and so making a fuss of leaving Jerusalem was unnecessary. But in the event, they turned out to be woefully wrong. We never set eyes on Fatima or our dog or the city we had known ever again. Like a body prematurely buried, unmourned, without coffin or ceremony, our hasty, untidy exit from Jerusalem was no way to have said goodbye to our home, our country and all that we knew and loved.”
(GHARDA KARMA: In Search of Fatima: a Palestinian Story.)
Then there is the time of being asked to sing in a strange land, of the longing to go back to where you belong. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti remembered his brother’s unfulfilled yearning to return:
“Take me to the home of Hajja Umm Isma’il, to houses I have lived in and paths I have trodden. Here you are: treading them again –as Mounif could not, Mounif, who now lies in his grave on the edge of Amman. Being forbidden to return killed him. Three years ago they sent him back from the bridge after a day of waiting. He tried again a few months later and they sent him back a second time. My mother, three years after the event, cannot forget her last moments with him on the bridge. He was desperate to get back to the Palestine that he had left when he was just eighteen years old… His sudden death was the great deafening collapse in the lives of the whole family. He had arrived at this final gate but it had not opened for him.”
(MOURID BARGHOUTI: I Saw Ramallah.)
Then, for some, there is the return, but with a sense of disrupted identity. Unlike his brother, Mourid Barghouti was able to return to his childhood village of Deir Ghassanah. He came back as a famous poet and read his poems to an audience of all ages. Afterwards, he was surrounded by children holding out their pencils and bits of paper torn from their copybooks for him to sign. He says it might have been a moment of pure happiness, but for the thought,
“What does Deir Ghassanah know of you? …What do they know of the things you have been through, the things that have shaped you, your acquaintances, your choices, the good and bad in you throughout the thirty years that you have lived far from them? …You are no longer the child in first year primary they used to see a long time ago, walking across this square on his way to the multiplication tables or the dictation lesson. …You too do not know the times they have been through. Their features that you remember are constant and altered at the same time. Have they not changed also? …They lived their time here and I lived my time there. Can the two times be patched together?”
(MOURID BARGHOUTI: I Saw Ramallah.)
4. SELF-RESPECT: THE HUMILIATIONS OF UPROOTEDNESS.
Being uprooted creates different kinds of humiliation.
There is the humiliation a group feels simply at having been driven out of its land. Mourid Barghouti describes looking across the frontier where he was about to enter Palestine for the first time after years of exile:
“I asked myself, what is so special about it except that we have lost it? It is a land, like any land. We sing for it only so that we may remember the humiliation of having had it taken from us. Our song is not for some sacred thing of the past but for our current self-respect that is violated every day anew by the Occupation.”
MOURID BARGHOUTI: I Saw Ramallah.
Then there are humiliations linked to insecurity. There is having to live as a guest among possibly hostile strangers, who must not be displeased. Amos Oz cites his aunt’s account of what this did to Jews in Poland.
"Jewish children must always behave nicely and politely. The Poles must never be provoked, argued with or irritated: the Jews “must only speak to them quietly, with a smile, so they shouldn’t say we were noisy, and we must always speak to them in good, correct Polish, so they couldn’t say we were defiling their language, but we mustn’t speak in Polish that was too high, so they couldn’t say we had ambitions above our station… You who were born here in Israel can never understand how this constant drip-drip distorts all your feelings, how it corrodes your human dignity like rust. Gradually it makes you as fawning and dishonest and full of tricks as a cat.” (AMOS OZ: A Tale of Love and Darkness.)
Such experiences, unsurprisingly, create a strong desire in people for the security of their own nation-state. Amos Oz remembers his father talking to him in the dark on the night when the United Nations had just voted to set up the state of Israel. His father whispered about being humiliated by other children at his school in Vilna. His own father (Amos Oz’s grandfather) went next day to complain. The bullies attacked him too. They “forced him down on to the paving stones and removed his trousers in the middle of the playground, and the girls laughed and made dirty jokes, saying the Jews were all so-and-sos, while the teachers watched and did nothing, or maybe they were laughing too.” Amos Oz’s father went on: “from now on, from the moment we have our own state, you will never be bullied just because you are a Jew and because Jews are so-and-sos. Not that. Never again. From tonight that’s finished here. For ever.” Amos Oz sleepily reached out to touch his father’s face: “all of a sudden instead of his glasses my fingers met tears.” (AMOS OZ: A Tale of Love and Darkness.)