Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Can my truth and your truth become our truth? : Contested Land, Contested Memory with Jo Roberts

What if your childhood memories had a competing narrative, a threat to your convictions? Would you sooner ignore the other memories than than recognize their validity as a alternative to your idyllic memories? In a discussion of her book titled Contested Land, Contested Memory, Jo Roberts addresses the lasting effects of traumatic memory and its effects on a people. Or to be more specific: two peoplesthe Israelis and the Palestinians, respectively.


By providing an alternative narrative, which does not focus on the conflict, Roberts instead emphasizes the role of traumatic memory in the manifestation of generations of uncertainty, pain, and misunderstanding. Both lauded and criticized by the full spectrum of political opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Roberts’ book is thought-provoking and refreshing in its renewed focus on the importance of the collective memory of a people; of the problems that emerge when competing collective memories threaten one another, and consequently impede progress.


Though careful not to equate the Holocaust and the Nakba (the catastrophe, the term used by Palestinians for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948), Roberts identifies both events as central to the collective memories of Israelis and Palestinians respectively. She explains that for Israelis, the achievement of statehood, through the creation of a Jewish state is a moment of liberation and assuredness in the future of the Jewish people following the devastation of the Holocaust, while the same event was for the Palestinian people, a moment of dispossession and acknowledgment of an uncertain future. These moments of suffering linger today, and infiltrate the narratives of Israelis and Palestinians, hardening perspectives and limiting understanding. The absence of consideration of one another’s suffering thus perpetuates and hardens feelings between the two peoples.


At the present time, these traumatic memories are not recognized by Israelis and Palestinians, resulting an environment which denies one another’s collective memoriesthrough positive actions and more profoundly, through silence. The unfinished traumas of the Holocaust and the Nakba still live strongly in both Israeli and Palestinian society, wherein the continued threat to Israel’s safety and security serve as a reminder of the vulnerability the Jewish people still face, and the failure to acquire a state of their own reinforces the Palestinian narrative and sentiment of dispossession and abandonment.


Roberts argues that the acknowledgment of one another’s suffering and unfinished trauma is central to validating both peoples, and ensuring that the volatility of this trauma is manipulated for the good, rather than the bad.


Trauma is often times too terrible to forget, but simultaneously too terrible to remember. As such, Roberts recognizes that most often it is the children and grandchildren of those who lived the trauma that are the gatekeepers to their stories and experiences. It is this next generation which has the capacity to use the memory of the trauma to cease the opportunity to recognize the trauma of their “enemy” and utilize it to proceed towards a more cohesive narrative when approaching the conflict itself. These entangled stories of suffering and struggle inform approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian, and in turn determine how it will progress. Should Israel establish a museum in Tel Aviv explaining Palestinian historical memory explaining Palestinian history to the Israeli public? Should the Palestinians create a parallel museum, which teaches Palestinians about the trauma of the Holocaust and its lasting effect? Will this formal recognition and creation of mechanisms of validation facilitate a more peaceful future or will it provoke a greater sense of complacency amongst one another? Will Israelis and Palestinians forever be mutually perceived as “the other”?


Importantly, in her discussion, Roberts referred to an encounter she had with an Israeli woman living in London. This woman, Nira, had a conception of her childhood spent in Tantura, which was filled with beauty, wonder and magican idyllic environment. When she moved to London in adulthood, Nira met a Palestinian man named Rafiq, who later became her lover, and confidante. Soon, Nira learned that Rafiq’s family had come from Tantura as well, and was surprised by how drastically his recollections of the city contrasted with hers. Rafiq’s memories of dispossession and hopelessness, forced Nira to re-conceptualize her childhood, and caused her great struggle in reconciling the realities of Rafiq’s narrative with the magic of her childhood memories. Roberts’ description of Nira and Rafiq illustrates the unsettling but truthful reality of a fragmented historical memory, shared by two peoples competing for one space, refusing to recognize the validity of each other's struggles.


Mutual recognition of suffering is central to Roberts' narrative, and is identified as vital to the development of a more understanding generation, one which could one day be capable of achieving a lasting peace. In order to do this, the realities on the ground must first be acceptedprimarily, that the Israelis and the Palestinians are not going anywhere, and one way or another, tools must be evoked to ensure that a future mutual acceptance is a possibility. This sentiment is best summarized by Yshay Schecter who is quoted as saying: “I have no place to go, he has no place to go. We have to make good plans for the future together.” This is the reality, and as such, this is what must be addressed, beginning with the mutual recognition of suffering.