Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Remember This

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Remember This

Article excerpt

What we are able to remember is important, but how we remember is even more so. Nowhere is this more true than in the middle East.

While on a recent sabbatical in Israel, I interviewed a Palestinian Muslim woman about her recollections of family history, their struggles during the last 50 years, and how that shapes her view of the situation in Israel and Palestine today. She spoke with surprising equanimity about having to flee Jerusalem with her family to her uncle's home in Damascus during the 1948 war, fully expecting to return within a couple of weeks. She still recalls her father telling her mother not to pack too many things for they would be gone only a short time. Two years later they were able finally to return to Jerusalem, only to move into a very modest, rundown home. At that point, she said, "We knew we were refugees."

It was when she began to speak to me about the house that she and her family fled more than 50 years ago--to which she still has the key--that she became animated and impassioned. For her, this symbolizes the injustice that has been done to her and her people. So powerful is this image that she recently hired a film company to make a film of the house--still standing and occupied by Israeli immigrants--to send to other family members, presumably to keep the memory of this deeply felt injustice alive. To forget the house is to forget the injustice, and the memory of that injustice informs her sense of identity and solidarity as a Palestinian.

The inability to remember seems self-evidently problematic to us. Without a sense of history and culture, a society cannot long maintain a sense of identity. Not to remember the injustices of the past seems like a betrayal of one's ancestors, perhaps even of the principles that ought to underwrite fairness and justice.

The simple act of looking at a range of maps in Israel illustrates this tug of war between Arabs and Jews to control memory and exercise the power to name. Competing names in Arabic and Hebrew exist for many locations. The ability to name is the ability to establish memory, and that is tantamount to the ability to control (see Genesis 2:19-20). If a person or a society is deprived of its ability to create and sustain its own version of the past, it is deprived of something close to the heart of what it means to be functionally independent.

YET AS PAINFUL as the loss of memory is, the inability to forget can haunt the soul of a society as profoundly. As a guest of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, an international force of observers that monitors the relationships between the Israeli settlers and the Arabs in the center of that city, I saw firsthand the power of memory to drive people to hatred and violence.

Each side remembering the violence done to their people is prepared, at the least provocation, to avenge the wrongs committed even decades ago. Each new incident of violence and provocation reestablishes the pattern and draws the long list of grievances, some from long ago, into the present as if they happened only yesterday. Time collapses and memory sharpens to the point of governing how the present is to be lived, and the spiral of violence goes on.

Not to remember, not to avenge is the first step to showing weakness and becoming a victim yet again. The act of remembering and the willingness to act on that memory is thought to be necessary for survival itself. In the world of these people, there is no room to forget--let alone forgive--for at the end of that path lies separation from the land, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, and perhaps even extinction.

A vivid sense of history and an active memory, to be sure, lead only a relatively few people to violence. The Palestinian woman still has the keys to the house she fled more than 50 years ago. A Jewish couple have turned their house in Ramle, a house built and inhabited by an Arab family until they were forced to flee, into an "open house" for Israeli and Arab children. …

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