I visited the Museum of Jewish Heritage and Living Holocaust Memorial for the first time when was 14. I remember being awed by the depth and texture of the Jewish ritual tradition and horrified by the abject, inhuman cruelty of the Nazis. I left thinking how right it was that the Jew should have a homeland and that it should be the Promised Land Israel. It never occurred to me then that when the international community incentived European Jews to move Israel, a different people was already there and had been for thousands of years. It wasn’t that I had been told that Palestine was a “peopleless land” but no one had ever told me there was anything complicated or questionable about European Jews inhabiting an Arab land either.
In 2010 I traveled in Israel and Palestine for two weeks meeting with grassroots peace organizers on both sides of the conflict. I was traveling with an interfaith group of Christians and Jews and our conversations were nothing if not candid, challenging, and transformative. We began out travels all over the ideological map and returned still not agreeing but none of us in the same places as we started either. The people we met with and the books we read troubled the waters for my understanding of Israel, the government’s actions, the United State’s support, and our cultural narrative that unquestioningly supports Israel and its right to exist. Not only was Palestine far from a peopleless land, it was a thriving and diverse nation that was systematically conquered, evicted, and replaced by European Jews who told each other that this land was their birth right.
The Museum of Jewish Heritage and Living Holocaust Memorial was an entirely different experience this time. I was reminded of the adage that the winners write history and I would include memory as a part of that history. Perhaps memory is the first piece of creating history. Our memory determines what we will carry forward and what we collectively distill to the mainstream idea of objective “history.”
The version of history that most of the world supports for Israel and Palestine revolves around the image of the Jews, as underdogs, triumphing over all odds to establish a sacred, god-given homeland. There is more than an overtone of deserving in this narrative that is not unlike the American narrative “we built this!” (We don’t often note the contradiction between the ideas that Palestine was a “peopleless land” and that the Jews fought and triumphed to establish their homeland. If the land really was peopleless, whom were they fighting? The bushes?)
In Gentrification of the Mind Sarah Schulman writes about the supremacy ideology: “the self-deceived pretense that one’s power is acquired by being deserved and has no machinery of enforcement. And then, the privileged, who the entire society is constructed to propel, unlearn that those earlier communities ever existed. They replace the history and experience of their neighborhoods’ former residents with a distorted sense of themselves as timeless.” I don’t at all want to down play the horror and oppression of the holocaust, but Schulman’s observations about supremacy and gentrification are being played out on an international scale in Israel and have been since the 1940’s.
Though they have international support that gives them a vast military advantage, many Israelis and the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) cling to the notion that they are still the victims and that the Palestinians don’t deserve their homes because they just left; they weren’t forced out with violence. On the political stage Israeli officials pretend that new West Banks settlements are innocent and neutral acts, not the calculated and malicious takeover of even more Palestinian land. The Israeli government constantly puts forward fear and victimization as their justification for the actions they take against the Palestinians all the while those actions further reveal the nation of Israel to be victimizers, oppressors, or as Schulman might call them: gentrifies. Yet the international community stays silent as if the Palestinian people never existed, and the Israeli occupation was just a natural, inevitable occurrence that colonial powers had no part in engineering. Best yet, Jews living in Israel is in the Bible! It’s a timeless phenomenon. It’s divinely ordained. It is the gentrification of a land, a people, and a nation.
Our visit to the Living Holocaust Memorial left me wondering what are we remembering and at whose expense? What can we do when the “history” is being constructed is based on flawed memory? Does the elevation of one memory or narrative always come at the expense of others? What would a memorial to the Palestinian people or the occupied land look like? Can such complex and inextricably intertwined narratives as the ones held by the Jewish and Palestinian people’s ever be honored and memorialized at the same time or in the same place? What would it take to try? Can the United States ever participate in the process honestly when we haven’t acknowledges or made reparation for our occupation and oppression of this land and it’s native people?