A tale of competing narratives

By Rabbi Dow Marmur

JERUSALEM–Israelis and Palestinians are caught up in what nowadays is often called competing narratives. The Israeli story is that Jews have always lived in the land of Israel. Even the majority of them who don’t subscribe to the dogma that the land has been given to them by God point to historic evidence that at least some Jews have always lived there. Though most have been forced, or chose, to live elsewhere, the Holocaust has finally demonstrated that exile threatens their survival as a people. Their return to their land is seen as a necessary affirmation of roots and purpose. The existence of Israel has meant that even those who don’t live there have a much more secure future as Jews.

The Palestinians’ narrative also has it that they’ve lived in the land from time immemorial. Even those who don’t believe that their ancestors were the biblical Jebusites, whom the Israelites defeated, will insist that the land is theirs and nobody else’s. For them, the Holocaust is no argument for the Jews’ return. Even those who don’t espouse the expedient lie of Ahmadinejad of Iran and many others that the Holocaust never happened will nevertheless tell you that it’s not for them to pay the price for the atrocities that the Germans and other Europeans committed against the Jews.

The two narratives are irreconcilable. Only pragmatic considerations can lead to a modus vivendi. For some this means that there should be one state for both peoples. A good number of Israelis believe that it should be a Jewish state in which Muslims and others will live as minorities. Most Palestinians believe that it should be a Muslim state in which Jews live as a minority in the way they’ve lived in other Muslim states for many centuries in the past.

Not unexpectedly, neither side can accept the demands of the other. Realists, therefore, speak of two states, Israel for Israelis and Palestine for Palestinians. Since it’s not an option for extremists, moderates in both camps are looking for third-party support. Hence the diplomatic efforts that involve the United States, Europe, the Quartet, Egypt, Jordan, even Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Turkey. As neither side regards this as the best solution, we shouldn’t be surprised that progress is very slow, at times non-existent.

 An unrealistic, nay quixotic, agenda on both sides may be that the other will give up: some Palestinian leaders hope that the Jews will tire and move elsewhere; some Israeli leaders hope that with improved economic conditions, especially compared to other Muslim countries, the Palestinians will adjust to the status quo. Thus as soon as one side seems to be ready to negotiate, the other usually creates new obstacles.

At present Israel seems to be willing to come to the table. Even its current right-wing government has frozen settlement expansion and is making other concessions. In response, the Palestinian Authority is putting new stumbling blocks by insisting on new conditions. Each side, of course, has to reckon with a militant constituency back home that wants to stay with the original narrative come what may.

All of us may yearn for peace, but nobody seems to know how to change the narrative. Hence the constant seesaw and the endless frustrations. Though we must not stop hoping for a just solution, we owe it to ourselves to be realistic and not blame the other side for, literally, being the villain of the peace. Accepting complexities is the price we pay for mature judgment and for refraining from both euphoria and despair.   

Rabbi Marmur is the spiritual leader emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.  He now divides his time between Canada and Israel 


  1. carol ann goldstein
    January 10, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    I believe Israel should be a secular state where all live as equals- a real democracy- the one state solution.

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