JERUSALEM: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like every conflict between ethnic or national groups, is rooted in national and religious narratives. Cases in point are Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Kosovo and more. Each side in the conflict uses a variety of justifications — historical, religious and moral, in order to dictate their terms and place themselves in a superior position vis- à-vis the other.
Each party’s justifications stem from a one-dimensional perception of the conflict as a zero-sum struggle between two collective groups. Thus in the Jewish narrative, the land under dispute is the Biblical Promised Land, now cast as the Greater Land of Israel including the West Bank and a united Jerusalem, whereas in the Palestinian narrative the land under dispute, or most of it, belongs to the Palestinian people who lived and thrived on it in freedom and dignity up until 1948.
In order to bring about a transformation that could yield a solution to the conflict, we must free our mindsets from the prison of a narrow collective narrative and create a new framework that would be expansive enough to contain the narratives of both national groups who share this land.
In the past few years, scholars have described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an “intractable conflict” by which they mean that it is unusually complex and long-lasting, characterized by violence, and very difficult to resolve. Defining the conflict in such terms is rooted in the view that the power of collective narratives compounded by the long lasting nature of this conflict have given rise to powerful psychological-social forces which make this conflict so difficult to resolve.
Of course, the centrality of the religious forces and narratives in the Israeli Palestinian conflict makes it even more complicated. The two sides confront each other over the legitimacy of their religious historical-geographical narratives as they relate to the sacred sites, particularly those with great historical and religious significance such as Jerusalem. Therefore, “historical Palestine” in the Palestinian narrative and “Greater Israel” in the Jewish narrative are locked in a perpetual clash. In times when no solution appears on the horizon, the conflict becomes a collision path between the narratives.
The key to solving the conflict will be found if, among other things, both sides can move away from their strong attachment to their collective narratives and the public sphere and give a greater importance to the private sphere.
Letting go of aspects of the collective narrative does not mean abandoning one’s positions, but rather, neutralizing its overwhelming influence and dominance over the conflict. Literary theorist Monica Fludernik coined the term “narrativization” — an interactive process that allows for the construction of narratives. This method, in my opinion, could enable the two major groups who live in conflict on this stretch of land to build a common narrative that is founded not on collective historical narratives, but rather on values of civil and human rights, primarily the right to live in freedom and equality. This would be relevant not only for Israelis and Palestinians but also for Jewish-Arab relations within Israel.
Yes, it is true that constructing common narratives is no easy feat. And in fact it is not even a tested theory. It would require both sides in the conflict to look for creative ways to implement the profound conceptual change that such a shift would entail. This means compromise. But only such change can generate a historical reconciliation that goes beyond and is more sustainable than a political solution on its own.
Constructing a common narrative needs to take place in several areas simultaneously: education, the economy, politics, the media and more. For example programs on democracy, human rights and multi-culturalism must be integrated into the education system as a central component on both sides. This is necessary for increasing the importance of the values of human dignity and human rights in the eyes of the young generations particularly if the programs would offer tangible tools for shaping coexistence based on dignity and equality.
A profound conceptual change would have to take place across the entire decision making spectrum away from narrow national, religious or political interests to a broader, more integrated perspective that sees the greater good and shared interests as fundamental guiding principles. In order to move towards a joint future, those who are in a position of power would have a responsibility to shape their work based on this principle of a common good which would encompass the two narratives.
Perhaps this sounds pretentious and like wishful thinking. But will we continue to let the past dominate over our present and future? Can we not, Jews and Arabs, finally make this change and enjoy living together in a shared common sphere and in peace?
Amal Abu Zeidan is active in peace organizations and involved in educational programmes that promote democratic values. He comes from the village of Maghar in the Galilee and lives in Jerusalem. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).