Monday, February 05, 2007

Narrative in the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

Narrative is an inescapable condition of our lives. We organize and interpret reality through the lens of narrative spheres, taking otherwise discordant, unverifiable, or incomprehensible events and reinterpreting them so they represent order, meaning, and reality. This clashes rather harshly with the prevalent view that our perceptions reflect (more or less accurately) something "real" and that our perceptions are shaped solely by reality (rather than any influence in the other direction). But, popularity notwithstanding, it still remains true that--in the words of a fictional debate coach--"reality isn't."

Different narratives can coexist, but often they compete and sometimes they completely nullify each other. Indeed, the adaptation of one narrative necessarily involves the suppression of others. This is problematic, because the undeniably pluralism of reality makes it more than likely that even suppressed narratives contain grains of truth inside of them, and their marginalization thus operates as a cognitive shortcut to simplify (but distort) our perception of the world. Yet it is unavoidable--it is impossible to function while simultaneously affirming every possible narrative existent in the wide world.

I think this offers an important qualifier to discussions on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. There are many narratives clashing here: Jewish restoration of homeland versus Palestinian naqba, Binational versus unitary states, terrorism or resistance. People adopt a favored narrative and then interpret events through that lens. So, in the comments to the last post we discussed the shooting death of a young Palestinian teenager by the IDF. As usual, there are conflicting stories as to what happened--the IDF says he was trying to cut through the security barrier, his friends and family say he was riding a horse near the barrier but was not attempting to cross it. Whom one believes is largely a function of how one more broadly conceptualizes the narrative of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. My internal narrative frame emphasizes anti-Jewish oppression, of which Israel is supposed to be a haven from. In this context, Palestinian attacks on Israel is simple a localized version of a global trend. Israel's actions are understood in the context of preventing another Auschwitz--never again will we meekly march to our own graves. This narrative has a supporting super-structure of news reports, historical anecdotes, stories, polls, etc., which buttress the idea that much of the violence stems from Palestinian and Arab anti-Semitism and their illegitimate inability to come to terms with having Jewish neighbors on "their" land. And Israel, for its part, qualifies its behavior based on Jewish experience and ethics, which desire to minimize civilian casualties and have an ultimate desire to live in harmony with its neighbors. Civilians still die, of course, but these are seen as mistakes, tragedies, or products of Palestinian terror groups basing their operations within civilian populations.

Of course, even within this narrative, it is quite obvious that in any given case (or in this case) the Palestinian teenagers and their families may be telling the truth. All armies contain brutes who like inflict suffering, and the hierarchal nature of occupation make exploitation easy to cause and easier to cover up. But since I have no way to independently verify what happened in any particular case, I mentally categorize the events as what they are "most likely," which is accordance with the dominant narrative. The net effect is suppress instances of illegitimate Palestinian suffering that I theoretically "know" happen but never actually grapple with because I can derail their entry into my consciousness at the level of the particular event.

Hence, the dominant narrative of Israel attempting to defend itself from its enemies, while trying to do so as ethically as possible, suppresses a counter-narrative that I also know to be legitimate--that Palestinians, many of whom are innocent, are dying or are otherwise harmed by Israeli policies, that they face suffering which is illegitimate. My narrative also obliterates (i.e., refuses to recognize the legitimacy of) still other counter-narratives, ones that might challenge whether Israel legitimately exists at all, or whether it has any particular ties to ethical behavior constraining its action.

I focused this piece on critiquing my own narrative, because the point of the post is to be cognizant of the manner in which our internal proceedings construct and constrain our political horizons, and it would be hypocritical to try and deny this in ourselves. But it is important to note that the exact same analysis applies going in the other direction. A narrative which assumes Israeli mal intent, for example, might theoretically be aware that any individual IDF soldier is responding to a genuine threat, but subsumes that narrative into the dominant one suggesting Israeli brutalism as the primary precipitation of violent activity. This narrative obliterates the counter-narrative (i.e., the element of my narrative) that says Israeli institutions do care about such ethical boundaries. Still more radical narratives, such as the one that says Israel had no right to exist in the first place, forcibly exclude counter-narratives about Jewish history in the region, Israel as a haven for oppressed Jews, and other sundries which are part of my reality and my existence.

As I said, to some extent this is unavoidable, as no narrative can necessarily be complete or all-encompassing of reality. Yet, I don't ask of that impossibility. Rather, I use this example to ask us to be cognizant of our narratives, and recognize that by defaulting to particular views of the world, we are necessarily depriving ourselves of the full extent of the reality out there. A little humility is in order.


ans said...

It's a good post. I can see that you're trying to be open-minded, to take a step back and look at where you (and others) are coming from. I think you're taking the notion of narrative, in this case, a bit too far, but that if you do assign narratives this kind of significance then you're missing one huge point. It's a busy week and don't have time to write it all up now (I'm a dreadfully slow writer) but I'll try to have something by the weekend.

The probligo said...

David, I could ask no more.

Yours is a model of objective self examination and judgement.

Seth Weinberger said...

An excellent introspective and considerate piece. But, one must be careful of going to far with the narrative analysis. The problem with deconstruction is that that it focuses entirely on narrative framing and ignores the reality of a given situation. Things are, in fact, true. That doesn't mean that we can necessarily know the truth, and we must be aware of own ignorances, biases, and limitations, as you so eloquently note. But we must nonetheless be willing to assess truth, make judgements, and render opinions. Otherwise we are merely mired in meaningless opinion and relativism.