IN 1973, IMMEDIATELY following the Yom Kippur War, I watched the movie Exodus. I was so swept up by Leon Uris’ depiction of the Zionist struggle that I wrote in my journal, “The U.S. should do everything it can to defend the state of Israel!”
Two years later, I read a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict in a serialized encyclopedia of World War II. It transformed me into an impassioned defender of Palestinian rights. Clearly, the historical narrative one accepts is critical to determining how a conflict is understood.
Jo Roberts’ book Contested Land, Contested Memory: Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophe challenges the nationalist mythologies of both Israelis and Palestinians, peoples largely in denial of each other’s histories. With exhaustive research and numerous personal interviews, Roberts has created a book that is both sensitive to and challenging for partisans of either side.
Roberts begins with the story of an Israeli Jew whose memories of idyllic childhood vacations in a particular village are shattered when she learns from a Palestinian boyfriend that his family was displaced from that village by Israeli soldiers in 1948. Roberts goes on to offer a history of Zionism that is not without its share of heartbreak. From persecution in Catholic Spain to the Dreyfus affair in France and government-sanctioned pogroms in Russia, she reminds us of the prevalence and ferocity of anti-Semitism, which led many to join the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine. She includes a report to President Truman about 250,000 Holocaust survivors, who in late 1945 were still confined in former slave labor and concentration camps because no country, including the U.S., would accept them as refugees. Roberts makes a convincing case that many Jews went to Palestine because they literally “had nowhere else to go.”