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  • The Linguistic Turn Along Post-Postmodern Borders: Israeli/Palestinian Narrative Conflict
  • Nancy Partner (bio)

The Two Narratives

This is a clash between the two narratives, the Jewish and the Arab, in the endurance of the two societies.

— Moshe Ya’alon

This kind of observation, foregrounding language and its incommensurate constructions, uttered in 2004, would pass as entirely unremarkable at any conference in the humanities where, since the 1980s, academics have folded discourse analysis around political history, and “narrative” long ago became a touchstone of the linguistic turn and postmodernism generally. But this “clash between the two narratives” was not invoked by a professor of comparative literature or even history. The speaker was the former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Moshe Ya’alon quoted in the Israeli newspaper of record, Ha’aretz, from an interview Ya’alon had given another news daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, in August of 2004.1 He was not offering a lesson in military literary criticism. The larger context and occasion of his entirely serious remarks was the proposed plan (carried out one year later) to evacuate the Jewish settlements from Gaza: “When speaking of the implementation of a step like this, one has to consider all these aspects,” Ya’alon told his interviewer, giving high priority to “the two narratives.” The Ha’aretz journalist, Israel Harel, a regular voice in political commentary, was angered by the general’s remarks but hardly pushed beyond his own area of familiar reference: “‘Narrative,’” Harel rejoined, “is a post-modern term that stresses relativity and subjectivity. In the history of the nations there is no absolute truth—except, of course, the Palestinian truth. It is important to reiterate and state that the life story of the Israeli nation in the land of Israel, the exile from the land and the people’s cleaving to the land that developed in the Diaspora in order to return to the land, are neither myth nor relative truth. They, according to every historical and [End Page 823] sociological parameter, are absolute truth, not narrative” (my emphasis).2 This exchange, inflected by sober earnestness, irony, and anger, positing a binary opposition between narrative and truth, was not a whimsical or rare digression in the public expression of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In an online question-and-answer forum in 2005 sponsored by Ha’aretz, the former head of the Mossad espionage agency, Efraim Halevy, replied to a question about military preparedness for attacks: “[in spite of a high level of IDF preparation] [i]t is my view that there will not be a viable reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians until there is a mutual recognition of each side related to the basic rights and basic narratives of the other side” (my emphasis). Halevy’s understanding of the core of these “basic narratives” is made clear: “Thus, just as Israel is called upon to accept the right of the Palestinians to exist as a national entity, so is it incumbent upon the Palestinians to subscribe to the legitimacy of zionism. These are tall orders and it would be very difficult to obtain them. But without such a mutual acceptance and recognition any agreement between the Palestinians and Israel will be of a temporary nature.”3

In late 2007, a voice from a different quarter of Israeli society, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, codirector of the Shalom Hartman Institute, proposed a vision of Israel that would fit harmoniously into the two-state goal of the peace process and would require recognition of multiple identity narratives. “In our understanding, the Jewish national narrative is of necessity the majority narrative here.” But Hartman concedes that no ethnically particular narrative can be imposed on a nonmember: “To expect that a non-Jew will accept a Jewish national identity is to fail to recognize the complexity of the multicultural reality that is the modern State of Israel. . . . We Israeli Jews have to understand that Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state with both Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, must have multiple narratives that inform its national identity. There must be a Jewish narrative and a broader Israeli narrative that creates a collective space [for all citizens].”4 It is...


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