Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Dual narratives

One of the books we brought back from our Sabbatical at the end of 2013 was a remarkable then newly published American volume ‘Side by Side; parallel histories of Israel-Palestine’.  I’ve thought of it often in the last few weeks as apparently sloganised discussions (of re-emergent English anti-Semitism and the continued colonisation of the West Bank) have seemed totally destructive of better understanding, so I’ve taken it off the shelf again.  It speaks of two nations built at each other’s expense, each buttressed by the construction of separate collective identities.

The premise is simple.  Each of the two narratives (accusations, histories, identities, political justifications) we are given include objective truths and are internally self-consistent and irrefutable.  So a group of Israeli and Palestinian teachers have spent several years producing a Hebrew and Arabic text-book which sets these out in parallel – literally on opposite pages.  They have been mentored by a Professor of History from Tel Aviv University and a Professor of Education form Bethlehem University.

What is almost the most powerful thing is how difficult they found handling it.  On teacher is quoted as saying how it took her four years using the material in her classroom before she could overcome her emotional reaction to presenting the parallel page.  If someone so committed to this work found this, she says, then what chance do those have who have no willingness to try.

From quite other contexts I am conscious that equally treated accounts (‘symmetries of narratives’ they call them in this context) are notorious for perpetuating the abuse of the more vulnerable party (‘asymmetries of power’ is their language), but one of their discoveries is how both narratives are presented as being of the more vulnerable narrators in besieged or in occupied territories, in minorities in a region or in a country.

Meanwhile Christian Zionists drop literature even into one of my churches here to say God’s purpose is that the whole of the West Bank should be part of a Jewish state with no Arab citizens while Iranian Government spokesmen speak of the ‘Zionist entity’ because they cannot bring themselves even to voice the possibility that the State of Israel should exist at all.

And, at a distance from those chilling extremes, many Jewish people in England are being subject to racial abuse and discrimination and many of those who speak up with what Palestinian Christians want said are told that their motivation is self-evidently anti-Semitic.

This week the buds have burst on the walnut tree at the entrance to St Nicolas’ churchyard.

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