Two Narratives for Two Peoples

Two Flags: Just as Israelis and Palestinians cherish two different flags, the historical narratives that animate the two peoples cannot be reconciled.
Getty Images
Two Flags: Just as Israelis and Palestinians cherish two different flags, the historical narratives that animate the two peoples cannot be reconciled.

By Hussein Ibish

Published May 19, 2011, issue of June 03, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Many Jewish Israelis and their supporters have reacted with outrage to a New York Times Op-Ed on May 17 by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, particularly its invocation of the Palestinian historical narrative. Most troubling to them was Abbas’s description of how his family was “forced” to flee their home in what became Israel in 1948 — a word choice they feel implies that Abbas and his family were evicted by Jewish troops.

Abbas did not make any such claim, of course. Palestinians did, as the historical record suggests, quite reasonably feel “forced” to flee a war zone even when they were not physically compelled to do so. But the focus on that one verb was also a distraction from the main point of his narrative: the ongoing denial of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. This denial, which is unquestionably true, lies at the heart of the Palestinian refugee grievance. It is also a historical fact — confirmed even by Israeli leaders who personally participated in these actions like the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — that many Palestinians were subjected to forced expulsions, even if Abbas’s family was not among them.

What this disingenuous uproar points to is the continued refusal by both Palestinians and Israelis to recognize each other’s narratives as legitimate and to insist that their version of history alone is truthful.

Both sides fundamentally regard each other as interlopers. Modern Jews, particularly Jewish Israelis, see themselves as the sole heirs of the biblical Hebrews, and tend to view that ancient history as a metaphysical deed to the entirety of the land. They also tend to see Palestinian history as beginning with the Muslim conquest of Palestine, and sometimes dismiss most Palestinians as recent arrivals drawn to the area by the benefits of Jewish immigration in the 20th century. Palestinians typically consider themselves to be the descendants of all of the ancient peoples of the land, including the biblical Hebrews, and often question the lineal descent of modern Jews from the biblical Hebrews. They sometimes cast Jewish Israelis simply as colonialists and question key aspects of the Jewish historical narrative.

Israeli leaders have a long history of denying not only Palestinian history, but also Palestinian identity, such as Golda Meir’s infamous comment that there was no such thing as a Palestinian people. Palestinians, of course, have consistently returned the favor, frequently implying that Jews are a religious community but not a coherent national or ethnic group with the right of self-determination.

The truth elided by both parties is that the Palestinian and Israeli identities are 20th-century phenomena that emerged in parallel and in contradiction to each other. One hundred years ago, the words “Israeli” and “Palestinian” were meaningless. This is not to say that Arabs and Jews don’t have deep histories, but both political identities are recent constructs, forged in the context of the ongoing conflict.

Palestinian and Israeli national narratives both contain elements of the truth but they are tendentious and dismiss crucial and undeniable, but inconvenient, historical facts that are crucial to the other party’s identity. It is impossible, in the foreseeable future, for these narratives to be reconciled. Jewish Israelis will not become Palestinian nationalists, and Palestinians will not become Zionists.

One of the reasons that the two-state solution is the only way out of the conflict is that it would allow the two national projects and narratives to coexist in separate states. Rather than trying to base a resolution on arriving at one mutually accepted understanding of history, a two-state solution would also be a tacit acceptance that there are two mutually exclusive narratives, but this should not prevent each side from achieving some compromised version of its national aspirations.

Ultimately, it will be necessary for Palestinians to acknowledge the deep Jewish attachment to the land and for Israelis to acknowledge that the Palestinians are indeed its indigenous people, with not only civil and religious rights, but national ones as well.

But Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” is implausible because it implies a permanent, metaphysical national right belonging to all Jews in the world, whether or not they are Israelis. However, language in which Palestinians recognize a Jewish right of self-determination in the State of Israel and Israelis recognize the Palestinian right of self-determination on what are now the occupied territories, is almost certainly a prerequisite for the conclusion of a viable peace agreement.

Such reciprocal recognition of self-determination in two states will probably have to come at the end of negotiations, rather than as a prerequisite for them. The core final status issues, like refugees and Jerusalem, cannot be bypassed or foreclosed first.

The ultimate goal of a two-state solution, however, must be not only two states for two peoples but also two states that will each embody an expression of their respective people’s national and historical narratives, two stories that will coexist without one needing to negate the other.

Hussein Ibish is a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine and blogs at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.