Dan Bar-On and Saliba Sarsar*

Source: Middle East Times, April 27, 2007. Distributed by the Common Ground News Service with permission to republish.

While we are presently preoccupied with fighting extremism and terrorism, we should remember that history is a powerful resource for our images, beliefs and actions. The more focused we are on learning its lessons, the more prepared we may be to meet its challenges.

Past and current tensions have lasting negative effects that breed enmity and hatred. Reconciliation is a process that can salve history’s poisonous after-effects by translating the painful memory of the past to the service of understanding, individual and social justice, and true peace.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and the ruins of Deir Yassin may be in geographical proximity, but a world apart in the psyche of Jews and Palestinians. While the first commemorates the systematic mass extermination of European Jews under Nazi occupation prior to and during World War II, the second marks the village where Palestinians were massacred at the hands of Jewish extremists in April 1948 and symbolizes Palestinian dispossession and their struggle for self-determination.

While there are fundamental differences between these human tragedies — and we have no intention of comparing them — Jews and Palestinians have been steadfast in their distinct interpretations of history, refusing to participate in each other’s painful memories and denying each other’s most sacred reconstructions of the past.

Unfortunately, the Oslo agreement was equally premised on putting the past aside. We, however, are suggesting history should be addressed, rather than repressed. As difficult as it is, this must be done if the Abrahamic people and faiths are to embrace each other and bring about a just peace for both Israeli Jews and Palestinians, who, supported by other Jews and Arabs, are in conflict not merely over territory, but also over narratives, rituals, public opinion and time frames. Indeed, it is common when Israelis and Palestinians meet for the former to emphasize building a different future, while the latter focuses on the unreconciled past.

Israeli Jews have generally refused to take even partial responsibility for the Nakba (the Catastrophe) that befell the Palestinian Arabs in 1948. Such an acknowledgement, in their mind, creates a moral obligation for the Right of Return or its equivalent, thereby undermining their majority in the State of Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinians have difficulty conjuring a positive vision of the future at a time when they are still subjected to critical conditions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — something the Oslo process did not change.

Only in the past decade have a few Israeli Jewish and Palestinian intellectuals found the courage to try and acknowledge these two devastating chapters of Israeli and Palestinian history, still preoccupying the minds of their people.

Al Hayat columnist Hazem Saghiyeh and Tunisian journalist Saleh Bashir have both argued that Arab denial of the Holocaust achieves nothing. The Palestinian reporter Nazir Megally has expressed shame that Palestinian education ignores the Holocaust, even though recognition of Jewish suffering and feeling empathy for Jews could be viewed by many Palestinians as psychologically dangerous at this point in the conflict. Meanwhile, a group called Zochrot made up of Israeli citizens works to raise Israeli awareness of the Nakba and of the Arab villages that were destroyed in 1948. In addition, B’tselem and Ta’ayush are Israeli organizations focusing on the practical aspects of the occupation and its negative impact on the Palestinians, creating an Israeli Jewish awareness of the Palestinian plight.

The Peace Research Institute in the Middle East, the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, the Middle East Children’s Association and Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam all promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. We hereby wish to join the courageous few by emphasizing our shared history and our moral obligation toward both the past and the future.

If mutual dialogue is to occur between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, each national community must acknowledge and respect the other’s painful memory, whether or not it was party to its creation. An empathetic embrace of the construction of the other’s history will help both sides to work through their tragedies rather than exclusively ignoring each other’s pain. Such an inclusive act of communication and faith will prepare the way for reconciling the past and for building a better future, one to which our children and grandchildren are entitled.

It may be not a coincidence that the new exhibit of Yad Vashem in the form of a deep mountain tunnel opens up unwittingly toward the hill where Deir Yassin was once located. That, for sure, was not the intention of the architect. It takes a new kind of courage to recognize the symbolic importance and implications of both Yad Vashem and Deir Yassin in order to go beyond them and envision a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

*Dan Bar-On was born in Haifa and is Professor of Psychology at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. He is also Co-Director of the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME) and presently a Fulbright Scholar-In-Residence at Monmouth University. Saliba Sarsar was born in Jerusalem and is the Associate Vice-President for Academic Program Initiatives as well as Professor of Political Science at Monmouth University.