On September 23, 2011, two national leaders addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. One spoke of
the brutality of aggression and racial discrimination against our people…ethnic cleansing…colonial settlement…sixty-three years of suffering…
while for the other, his country was
unjustly singled out for condemnation…the one true democracy in the Middle East…. I didn’t come here to win applause. I came here to speak the truth.
No mastery of textual criticism or profound learning is required to distinguish these two. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, and the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu might as well not have been talking about the same subject, and indeed they weren’t. They were not conducting an argument or even shouting at one another; they were loudly addressing quite different audiences—in Israel and the United States in Netanyahu’s case, everywhere else in Abbas’s—and that schism in global opinion is now part of the problem.
Far from there being anything unusual about fierce communal or national struggles, they are all too common, from Ulster to Bosnia to Ceylon and so many other places afflicted by Yeats’s “great hatred, little room.” Moreover, these conflicts all display similar characteristics: not only does each side think that it’s in the right, each side thinks that it’s the victim (and can usually adduce some evidence to that effect). But the conflict in the Holy Land is well-nigh unique in its bitter intractability, fortified by sheer reciprocal incomprehension. Here are two sides locked in what sometimes looks like a dance of death, and is all too plainly a dialogue of the deaf.
Any attempt to open an honest debate between the two is welcome, and Side by Side is such an attempt, worthy if curious. The book was inspired by the late Dan Bar-On, the Israeli scholar who founded PRIME, or the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (the very name is forlorn!), and developed from a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian academics and teachers in 2000. They were struck by the fact that the versions of history told in Israeli and Palestinian school textbooks were not just different but mutually exclusive and uncomprehending, like those two speeches.
One possibility, which Bar-On and two colleagues, Sami Adwan and Eyal Naveh, originally attempted, was to construct a synthesis or “bridging narrative” that both sides could share. But such detached and impartial histories are easier dreamed of than achieved, even from a consciously neutral position by those of us outside the quarrel. Trying to narrate an objective account of recent events anywhere is difficult enough. “Whosoever, in writing a modern history, shall follow Truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth,” said Sir Walter Raleigh and, since he wrote his History of the World in the Tower of London and was then beheaded, he may be thought to have known what he was talking about. But this particular subject is the most fraught or demanding of all.
At any rate, those colleagues quite soon realized, not very surprisingly, that such a synthesis could not be achieved. Instead they have compiled the book under review, which consists, as its title and subtitle say, of parallel narratives side by side. On the verso or left-hand page is the Israeli text; facing it on the recto page is the Palestinian text. We can read the two, and then compare and contrast, as exam papers used to say.
If the two narratives are not only contrasting but largely contradictory, that need not in itself imply bad faith. Two parties in a divorce will not recall their marriage in the same terms, and any lawyer or policeman knows that two chance eyewitnesses to the same event may give startlingly disparate accounts of it. But to read these two versions—not written by some extreme adherents of Likud or Hamas, but by Israelis and Palestinians who truly want to cooperate—is as revealing as it is dispiriting. Here are two litanies of sorrow and grievance, a competition in suffering, with more than a hundred years of history driving them ever further apart.
Sometimes the contrast is made with visual force. One recto shows a photograph of British police breaking up a Palestinian demonstration in Jerusalem; facing that on the left is a photograph of the entrance to Auschwitz. A right-hander reading “Israel destroyed entire Arab villages and confiscated the agricultural land” is followed by another instantly recognizable photograph, of Adolf Eichmann in the dock. Even the tone of the two narratives is discordant: rueful and occasionally irritable in the Israeli text, bitter and brooding in the Palestinian.
Few passages are flagrantly false, though both versions are often tendentious, the Palestinian marginally more so, not least when dealing with the years of British Mandatory Palestine from 1920 to 1948. The British received no sympathy over this episode in their late-imperial history and they deserved none, but to say that “the British government…was complacent with the Zionist conspiracies” (is “complicit” intended for “complacent”?) is too broad and lurid, while “British policy in Palestine was based on the subjugation of the Palestinians” is a simplification at best. At any rate, nothing better illustrates the reciprocal sense of victimhood than this: the Arabs believe that they were betrayed by the British, and so do the Zionists.
And one must admit they both have a point. The betrayals stemmed from the incompatible promises—some public, some private—the British made to Arabs and Zionists during World War I; rarely has Albion been more perfide. Even so, for the Palestinian text to say that the Balfour Declaration “and the unremitting attempts to implement it by all means contradicted everything that Britain and its World War I allies had always stood and called for, namely, the right to self-determination” is empty rhetoric.
In the great shake-up that took place after the war ended in 1918, what made the sundry settlements imposed by the victorious powers so ugly was that a veil of President Wilson’s high-sounding idealism shrouded the usual power hunger and scramble for territory. That and the fact that, as Walter Lippmann so truly said, “self-determination” is a disastrous notion, which “rejects…the ideal of a state within which diverse peoples find justice and liberty under equal laws,” and can only end by inciting mutual hatred and aggression.
Looking at the end of the Mandate period rather than the beginning, the Palestinian text might have had stronger points to make. It’s left to the Israeli text to remind us that, before its landslide victory in the 1945 British election, the Labour Party adopted “a pro-Zionist platform,” which is if anything an understatement. The fateful passage seems to advocate ethnic cleansing: “Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in,” it read, which is, one might say, what happened in 1948. This document was written by Hugh Dalton, an overbearing product of Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, who became a socialist and an academic economist and then served as Attlee’s first chancellor of the exchequer. In private, Dalton called Harold Laski, his LSE colleague and the Labour Party chairman, an “undersized Semite”—something to ponder for those who think that “pro-Zionist” and “philo-Semitic” must always be synonymous.
On some of the grimmer episodes in the last years of the Mandate the two accounts differ only in emphasis, and not always in that:
One of the most notorious massacres perpetrated against the Palestinians took place in Deir Yassin on 9 April 1948. The Zionist forces killed more than 100 and wounded dozens more.
There was a massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem; Irgun and Lehi units attacked the village, and by the time the battle was over, according to most updated historical research, 100 to 120 Arabs had been killed, including women, children, and the elderly.
The first is the Palestinian text, the second the Israeli, which is also candid about the reprisals against whole Arab villages taken by Israel throughout the 1950s.
Recounting the long years of defeat and humiliation, the Palestinian text grows more somber, but not necessarily more accurate. The Six-Day War in 1967
was an attempt on the part of Israel to take over new Arab lands in a quick war, and consequently would enable it to establish additional settlements and absorb a large number of Jewish immigrants…. Capturing the whole of Jerusalem was a dream Israel had looked to since its establishment of the state.
But the story is not (of course) as simple as that. Israel may have begun the 1967 war, but did not do so for calculated purposes of conquest and acquisition. While the war was still raging, Levi Eshkol, the prime minister, told his colleagues, “Even if we take the West Bank and the Old City, we will eventually be forced to leave them,” although, as it turned out, no one did force them to leave.
And so through the 1973 war, the false dawn of peace with Egypt, and then the 1982 Lebanon war. That changed not so much the course of history as the tide of sentiment, and not only in the outside world. According to the Israeli text, “The consensus that had characterized Israeli society in all of its previous wars was ruptured.” For all the bravado of Menachem Begin and Netanyahu, national self-confidence has never been the same in the thirty years since.
Even after so many bloody wars, the last chapters of the book are in some ways the gloomiest. The story tails off some ten years ago with the second intifada, so that the continuing expansion of settlements and the rise of Hamas are barely mentioned, and the book has since been overtaken by events—or “nonevents,” if that’s the word for things that have not happened.
Apart from harsh intractability and mutual incomprehension, Side by Side unintentionally demonstrates something else about this conflict. George Orwell said that every national movement makes very free use of the begged question, in the correct sense (which seems to be going out of journalistic fashion) of petitio principii, the supposed demonstration in argument resting on an assumption that itself needs to be demonstrated. That’s true here, with advocacy on both sides turning into long lines of petitiones principii.
One central begged question in the Palestinian text is the very word “Palestinian” used to describe a nationality, as in the first chapter, which complains that the Balfour Declaration “made no mention of the inalienable political rights of the Palestinians”—and “inalienable political rights” is one more begged question. To be sure, few single sentences have ever been as potent, as ambiguous, and perhaps as hypocritical as that letter of November 2, 1917, to “Dear Lord Rothschild” from Arthur James Balfour, the foreign secretary, in which
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. [Emphasis added.]