Methods of forgetting


Some years ago, the Israeli sociologist Yehuda Elkana wrote a remarkable essay on the importance of forgetting. He was of course addressing an Israeli audience at a time when it seemed to him that, as a society and people, Israelis were too haunted by the past. His argument was that so fixated and obsessional an attitude as theirs was a positive hindrance in the present; it produced paranoia and an inability to see reality for itself, instead of as a mere repetition of the traumatic past. Therefore, Elkana concluded, forgetfulness was a necessary good, something to be cultivated and strengthened as a way of living in the present, dealing with it on its own terms. It was clear from what he argued that he was referring to Israeli attitudes to the Arabs generally, Palestinians in particular. For Israelis just to see them as instances of anti-semitism replicating the past was not only wrong, but foolish and in the end self-defeating.

Elkana’s argument, though intended in a local situation, has universal application. No society should be in the grip of the past, no matter how traumatic, or allow instances of collective history to determine attitudes in the present. Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, some of the underlying force of Elkana’s reasoning is that Israel’s gains — its military, economic, and political power vis–vis its neighbours, and especially the Palestinians — are assured and very well consolidated; there is no need at all to act or to claim that it is as vulnerable and as defenceless as Jews were during the Holocaust when, with few exceptions, they were marched peacefully to their own extermination in the death camps. Today there is the danger of using an historical trauma remembered too vividly as a screen to obscure or justify what these former victims are doing, which is nothing less than creating victims of their own.

There is considerable irony in that the Palestinian attitude to the past, as expressed by the current leadership, is too willing to forget, too loose about protecting the collective past. Unlike Jews, we are still a homeless and totally dispossessed people. Israel has taken our land, destroyed villages, militarily occupied and brutally administered the territories taken in 1967, and has never acknowledged what it has done, much less compensated us for it. Under the current administration, more Palestinian land has been expropriated, more and more houses are being demolished, not only outside but also within the Green Line. Only a few days ago, a huge amount of land was sequestered from the Palestinian town of Umm Al-Fahm — inside Israel — for use by the Israeli army as a firing range. So the depredations continue apace, even as a risible charade called the peace process crawls along, most of the time going backwards for Palestinians.

Throughout the past five years of the peace process, the PLO leadership has shown the most wanton disregard, the most astonishing callousness, the most unqualified duplicity in handling its moral and political responsibilities with regard to its people’s past. When Yasser Arafat gave his ill-fated little speech at the White House ceremony in 1993, he said nothing about the past, spending his time instead thanking Israel and the US — his most determined persecutors — for their kindness. It was a remarkably undistinguished performance, drenched in servility and hypocrisy. Mr Rabin, on the other hand, gave in effect what was the Palestinian speech, droning on insufferably about all the blood and sacrifice incurred by Israel as it inched towards peace, neglecting any mention of the over 400 villages his people had destroyed in 1948, or the fact that he and his military brothers-in-arms had deliberately expelled two thirds of the indigenous population from their land, forcing them to give up houses and farms in order that emigrants from Poland and the United States could simply have them.

But while one needs to excoriate Rabin for his dishonesty, what is one to say about a leader and his group of cronies for whom their people are pawns, words on a page, with no past, no losses and sacrifices worth mentioning? It is a particularly galling method, given that the Palestinian agony continues and, as Arafat ought to have known (but is too vain to have done so; his deputy Abu Mazen said that it took him almost a year to convince Arafat that Oslo had not given him a state), one designed to ensure continued adherence to the wretched agreement he so glowingly signed. Since that time, he has prevaricated about the peace process, accepting conditions and conceding rights that have turned the so-called Palestinian territories into vast prisons patrolled by his men on behalf of the Israelis.

Recent events in Hebron dramatise the untenability of everything Arafat has done, which is nothing less than allowing a tiny handful of Israeli zealots to control the commercial and spiritual heart of the city, while over 100,000 Palestinians are held hostage, imprisoned, and at their mercy. Not only did the Palestinian Authority and its leader forget about the past, they also ignored the present. Their sole interest, in my opinion, has been their own survival, just like their counterparts in the neighbouring Arab states.

The latest outrage concerns a report published in the US press on Saturday 10 October. In reports of General Ariel Sharon’s appointment as foreign minister of Israel, a leading Palestinian figure — a minister, negotiator, and long-time spokesperson for Arafat — was quoted as registering a quite remarkable reaction to Sharon: we are prepared, he said, “to forget history”. Remember that this Israeli military man was responsible (the Israeli court at the time said “indirectly”) for the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, but for our leaders this is perhaps too long ago to count as an obstacle to dealing with the man. Sharon’s record of crimes against Palestinian civilians in any case is a very long one. He was directly responsible for the “pacification” of Gaza in 1971, when numerous citizens were killed or unjustly imprisoned, their houses demolished and the whole area transformed into an Israeli jail. As the head of Force 101, as it was proudly called, he inherited (after having participated in creating it) the tradition of attacking Arab civilians, the massacre at Qibya being only one example. Sharon used to boast that Israel could invade and destroy any Arab country at will. His whole career was compiled out of regular assertions of Israeli arrogance, all of which ended up in exorbitant losses of Arab civilian life. Appointing him as foreign minister — an act which seems to have shocked many Israelis for whom Sharon was a source of national shame as well as the author of a 1981 “peace plan” whose principal points seem to have been annexation and the creation of Bantustans: exactly the “peace” situation of today — was Netanyahu’s way of humiliating the Palestinians still further, forcing them to deal with a man first of all whose hands were literally dripping with Palestinian blood, second, whose intentions are known everywhere as radically hostile to Palestinians, and third, who persisted in regarding Arafat as a war criminal. He wouldn’t shake Arafat’s hand, he boasted.

I realise that all I can do is to write these lines in disgust and protest, to record what is being forgotten and to mark what should not be erased from collective memory. But that we are driven to have not just correct but cordial relations with a proven war criminal simply outrages one’s conscience beyond credibility. Were this the only instance of Arab lack of dignity, it would be bad enough. But it isn’t. Last winter, when I was in Palestine making my BBC film (as yet unscreened in any Arab country, by the way), Sharon was sent to Jordan to meet with its leaders. Our Israeli soundman, whose politics were liberal, told me that he was mystified as to why Arabs seem to respect this dreadful man. To many of us Israelis, he said to me, he’s a war criminal. Why do the Arabs like him so much?

I must confess to having been tongue-tied, as I am again now. But merely forgetting about it can go too far, obviously. So it is our duty to remind these forgetful rulers of ours that there is no way that Sharon’s crimes against humanity will be forgotten, despite the Palestinian Authority’s forgiving spirit. The danger is, however, that, having already forgotten their own people, and certainly its right of return, as well as its rights of residence on its own land, the great keepers of the Palestinian revolution, as Fatah still refers to itself, will forget themselves too. Do you suppose it is impossible that they may apologise to Sharon for Palestinian existence, ask his continued indulgence and beg him to let us live on a little longer? As it is, the deal that they have accepted of nine per cent withdrawal plus three per cent to be left as a nature reserve is misleadingly referred to as a gain, even though our leaders never point out that the 10 per cent contains only one or at most two per cent that will transfer land from the Israeli area C to Palestinian area A, plus some land from C to the jointly controlled area B. All in all, then, forgetfulness is a disastrous method of procedure, whose ultimate benefit is to the Authority’s own survival under Israeli and US patronage.

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