While on a recent sabbatical in Israel, I interviewed a Palestinian Muslim woman about her recollections of family history, their struggles during the last 50 years, and how that shapes her view of the situation in Israel and Palestine today. She spoke with surprising equanimity about having to flee Jerusalem with her family to her uncle's home in Damascus during the 1948 war, fully expecting to return within a couple of weeks. She still recalls her father telling her mother not to pack too many things for they would be gone only a short time. Two years later they were able finally to return to Jerusalem, only to move into a very modest, rundown home. At that point, she said, "We knew we were refugees."
It was when she began to speak to me about the house that she and her family fled more than 50 years ago-to which she still has the key-that she became animated and impassioned. For her, this symbolizes the injustice that has been done to her and her people. So powerful is this image that she recently hired a film company to make a film of the house-still standing and occupied by Israeli immigrants-to send to other family members, presumably to keep the memory of this deeply felt injustice alive. To forget the house is to forget the injustice, and the memory of that injustice informs her sense of identity and solidarity as a Palestinian.
The inability to remember seems self-evidently problematic to us. Without a sense of history and culture, a society cannot long maintain a sense of identity. Not to remember the injustices of the past seems like a betrayal of one's ancestors, perhaps even of the principles that ought to underwrite fairness and justice.
The simple act of looking at a range of maps in Israel illustrates this tug of war between Arabs and Jews to control memory and exercise the power to name. Competing names in Arabic and Hebrew exist for many locations. The ability to name is the ability to establish memory, and that is tantamount to the ability to control (see Genesis 2:19-20). If a person or a society is deprived of its ability to create and sustain its own version of the past, it is deprived of something close to the heart of what it means to be functionally independent.
Yet as painful as the loss of memory is, the inability to forget can haunt the soul of a society as profoundly. As a guest of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, an international force of observers that monitors the relationships between the Israeli settlers and the Arabs in the center of that city, I saw firsthand the power of memory to drive people to hatred and violence.
Each side remembering the violence done to their people is prepared, at the least provocation, to avenge the wrongs committed even decades ago. Each new incident of violence and provocation reestablishes the pattern and draws the long list of grievances, some from long ago, into the present as if they happened only yesterday. Time collapses and memory sharpens to the point of governing how the present is to be lived, and the spiral of violence goes on.
Not to remember, not to avenge is the first step to showing weakness and becoming a victim yet again. The act of remembering and the willingness to act on that memory is thought to be necessary for survival itself. In the world of these people, there is no room to forget-let alone forgive-for at the end of that path lies separation from the land, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, and perhaps even extinction.
A vivid sense of history and an active memory, to be sure, lead only a relatively few people to violence. The Palestinian woman still has the keys to the house she fled more than 50 years ago. A Jewish couple have turned their house in Ramle, a house built and inhabited by an Arab family until they were forced to flee, into an "open house" for Israeli and Arab children. Each has chosen a very different way of acting on their memory.
An intense memory filled with a sense of the conflicting claims of the past need not lead to hatred and violence, but can lead to calls for peace where the claims of justice are honored and nurtured. Why one chooses the path of peace and the other the path of violence may be a conundrum, but an active memory is the fuel that sustains both. And that memory is often shaped by the religious narratives and theological claims that govern peoples' lives in this part of the world.
The theological claim-taken literally by ultra-Orthodox Jews and, apparently, by other Israelis as well-that God gave this piece of real estate at the eastern end of the Mediterranean to the Jews into perpetuity is a powerful idea. In A Little Too Close to God, David Horovitz reports a story, perhaps apocryphal: A member of a British commission trying to figure out how to deal with Palestine asked David Ben-Gurion what right the Jews had to this land. Ben-Gurion supposedly took a copy of Tanach (the Jewish scriptures), set it before them and replied, "This is my right."
A Palestinian Christian woman I interviewed remembers growing up in British-controlled Palestine and as a child being taught the Old Testament stories as literally true. To her young mind they were stories about the Jews, and they were simply enjoyed as the tales about God and the people of Israel.
When she grew older she began to realize how these stories, understood as literally and forever binding by Israelis, were being used to her detriment in everyday life. She suffered a disconnection between her own religious memory and her present reality. The one appeared to work against the other. In the end, she revised and relativized her understanding of those biblical stories to bring them into a workable relationship with her growing sense of political dissatisfaction. In her case, she did this by looking at the Old Testament stories through the figure of Christ, who reveals for her not vengeance but the love of God. And, she continues, what Christ did not reveal about the love of God, Mohammed included and completed in the Qur'an. She has, in short, revised her theological memory to correspond to her current experience as a Palestinian Christian living in Israel.
Remaking one's understanding of the past to account for present circumstances can be a complicated and painful process. Some people will go to great lengths, if they have the means, to try to bend the circumstances of the present to conform to their vision of the past. At the same time, their memory of the past is subtly revised, even dramatically in some cases, to provide a mythic rationale for their current social and political situation-maybe also to provide justification for their actions.
The contour of a people's collective memory is fluid; to forestall a form of cultural schizophrenia, memory must be adaptable to the realities of the present, as well as to the society's hopes and fears for the future. This is the stuff of which national myths are made. In the case of the Israelis, the so-called "Masada Myth" compels many people to prepare to defend the nation to the death, just as the Jews of old faced down the overwhelming power of Rome almost 2,000 years ago. This, along with the experience of the Holocaust, undergirds the nation's security system, which not only defends the Jews but diminishes the Arab's self-respect at every border and checkpoint and in every confrontation with Israeli military might.
Bringing these conflicting memories and myths into some form of equilibrium where coexistence is possible is the elusive goal that well-meaning Israelis and Palestinians are still trying to achieve. Failure to do so will consign future generations to continued outbursts of carnage (as we see again in recent days) where one violent act becomes the excuse for the next. This spiral of unrelenting retaliation hardly seems an appealing future for either group of people and their yet-to-be-born children.
Two Arab university students I discussed this issue with argued forcefully that biblical and Qur'anic traditions simply cannot be taken literally when they run up against the rights and presence of other people who occupy the same land today. For these two young people who hope to continue to make Palestine their home, the Old Testament is history, but its claims about God giving title to the land to the people of Israel can in no sense be binding in the present. They argue, in effect, that political and social claims for justice in the present must govern how the ancient biblical traditions are understood. In other words, any claim that their religious memory has over their current situation must be made to conform to their hopes for the future. To do otherwise can only lead, for them, to an intolerable situation.
The perennial contradiction running through the ideology of Israel is the notion that it can be a Jewish state on the one hand and a modern democracy on the other. To be sure, there are many Arabs who are citizens of Israel, but the idea that a critical mass of Jews must constitute the state still prevails. This notion also makes the leaders of Israel wary of allowing the Palestinian diaspora to return to the land in any significant numbers. Controlling demographics, whether by immigration or birth rate, is critical to controlling the land. Since Israel wields enormous power, it can control immigration to its advantage. What it cannot control, however, is the birth rate differential between Arabs and Jews. Large Arab families continue to remind Israelis of their demographic vulnerability, which only underscores their fear of being swallowed by the Arab masses.
In the life cycle of a society, the power to remember-and, when called for, the power not to remember-are both necessary for long-term social health. The ability to shape constructive memory is a blessing without which meaningful life is impossible, yet the ability to subdue and reconstruct memory may also be virtues of great value. What we are able to remember is important, but how we remember is also important.
Memory is a complex attribute of human life; and whether it is the memory of an individual or the collective memory of a people, left unexamined it has the power to exercise a devastating tyranny. Some may say that memory is simply memory and has no particular value judgments attached to it. Often this may be true, but not always. Some memories and some ways of constructing memory need to be reexamined and critiqued for the way they contribute to human beings' ability to live constructively and humanely with other human beings.
Nowhere may this be more true than in the Middle East. Short of that, Israelis and Palestinians may simply consign themselves to a spiral of violence that threatens the survival of all sides in this dispute.
James W. Aageson is a professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, and author of In the Beginning: Critical Concepts for the Study of the Bible (Westview Press, 2000). He was in the Middle East last summer working on a religious pluralism project and a book on the legacy of the apostle Paul in the early church.