In his latest Nation column, Eric Alterman describes Side by Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine, a new volume put out by Peace Research Institute in the Middle East. The group and the book aim to reconcile Palestinian and Israeli narratives of Israel’s creation and the subsequent conflict. “Alas, it proved impossible,” Alterman reports. “And so Side by Side instead tells the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an Israeli and a Palestinian perspective on alternating pages. This follows the example of PRIME’s series of three pamphlets, which included a third, blank section for students to write their own histories. Perhaps predictably, however, neither side’s schools would use them.” (I haven’t read the book.) Alterman and PRIME both seem to see the inability of the two sides to agree on a common narrative as a failure; at the least, they think that working toward a common narrative is a good idea.
While their hearts are obviously in the right places, I disagree. Arriving at a common narrative—even common facts—is probably a futile endeavor, and even if it isn’t, it’s not worth the energy. Besides that, it focuses attention on a sense of overall, total justice, a game neither side will ever win, because, where ultimate justice is concerned, each side’s fanatics can always fall back on irrational, unfalsifiable appeals (religious, nationalist).
Instead, I think the strategy should be to get large majorities on both sides to concede the legitimacy of many of the other side’s claims, even if they don’t necessarily agree with them. It’s important that most Israelis acknowledge that many Palestinians were expelled during the War of Independence; it’s less important they agree on numbers. It’s important that most Palestinians acknowledge Jews’ historic and spiritual claim to the land, including (and especially) Jerusalem; it’s not as essential that they feel that this claim completely supersedes their own. One side can call it the War of Independence; the other side can call it the Nakba. I have my own opinions on which side’s version is more correct (surprise surprise, the Israeli side), but that doesn’t need to matter if all of that is put aside in favor of creating something workable on the ground.
(It should go without saying, but apparently it needs to be said, that part of this arrangement would permit the discussion of facts that some people don’t agree with, not the arresting of people for discussing those facts, as happened last night in Tel Aviv.)
A discussion of rights can only lead to further stagnancy (and bloodshed), both because of those aforementioned irrational, unfalsifiable appeals, and also because what you would probably find is that both sides have legitimate rights to all of Jerusalem, and to all of the land.
By contrast, a mutual suspension of the discussion of rights could allow the two sides to discuss—and this is, as Alterman notes, the pertinent question—what is to be done. Practically, there are two peoples living on one land, and only one of them has a state, and the other lacks security—those are much easier facts and narratives to agree on. By reducing the conflict to its most practical, contemporary elements, you do forsake ultimate justice, but you actually make a deal much easier. One cannot compromise if the stakes include the past, because the past cannot be changed. The third, blank section should not be for writing history. It should be for writing the future.