Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg, eds., The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this volume?
Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg (BB and AG): The Holocaust for Jews and the Nakba for Palestinians are what the historian Alon Confino termed “foundational pasts,” or what the political psychiatrist Vamik Volkan called “chosen traumas.” This coedited volume is part of an ongoing, collaborative project that began nearly seven years ago in an attempt to find a way to deal with the two traumas together, despite the obvious differences between them. We, the editors, come from different disciplinary backgrounds (political theory and cultural history), which is simultaneously enriching and challenging. But this is in a way a group project in which leading Arab, Jewish, and international scholars came together to explore the possibility of creating a shared language for discussing these traumas together. On the one hand, this is essential for historical, moral, and political reasons. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible.
It is essential because we cannot avoid history and its implications when thinking about Israel/Palestine and a potential future resolution. In many situations, when either the Holocaust or the Nakba is mentioned in a discussion, the other will be immediately mentioned as well. Moreover, the Holocaust that evolved in Europe during the twelve years of Nazi regime (1933-1945) and the Nakba that happened in 1948 and is continuing ever since, are extremely interrelated historically. They happened in one historical continuum and they are connected in so many ways. So, in the context of Israel/Palestine, they must be discussed together.
Politically speaking, we think that the idea of "separation/partition"—the dominant paradigm for discussing Israel/Palestine since the Peel Commission in 1937—failed. Moreover, separation is an immoral and impossible idea; binational politics and discourse should be developed instead (by binational, we do not necessarily mean a binational state). In encountering history, binationalism means to our mind, first and foremost two major things: 1) that the Nakba is a fundamental part of Israeli and Zionist history for which Israelis have to take responsibility, while the Holocaust is—in a very different way—also a part of Palestinian history because they could not avoid its local consequences and its global significance. 2) The Israelis do not own and cannot dominate the discourse of history, memory, and trauma. This discursive framework has to be sensitive and has to make room for both traumas, therefore rejecting hierarchies of suffering.
We believe that this way of thinking supports and should even lead to a binational political solution that defies "separation." We try to elaborate on this more in our introduction.
Yet, relating to these two traumas together in an appropriate way is a difficult topic for various reasons, which we acknowledge and respect. It touches very sensitive nerves on both sides. The Holocaust is an extreme genocide that should not be banalized by irresponsible historical comparisons. At the same time, there is significant asymmetry in the responsibility of each party to the catastrophe of the other, as the Palestinians bear no responsibility for the Jewish genocide but Israel is totally responsible for the ongoing Palestinian Nakba. Nonetheless, we wanted to suggest that the phrase "the Holocaust and the Nakba" has, and ought to have, a valid historical, political, and moral meaning. In this volume, we hope we began creating a new syntax and grammar to give meaning to this phrase.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
BB and AG: As an edited volume, the book naturally addresses many topics that are discussed from various disciplinary perspectives. In our introduction, we suggest three registers of reasoning for discussing the two events together: cultural, historical, and ethical-political. One chapter gives a very broad historical contextualization of mass violence in the modern era, connecting the Holocaust and the Nakba as well as other events of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass violence. Some of the chapters focus on historical episodes that connect the two events and make us think differently about history and memory. Other chapters show how cultural and artistic symbols emigrated from the discourse over one of the events to the other. A special section in the book is devoted to the intersection of these two events in the recent novel, The Children of the Ghetto: My Name is Adam, by the acclaimed Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, who wrote a preface to this volume.
We should also state the obvious. One can sense that as an edited book it does not speak in one voice. There are differences and disagreements in tone and in substance between the different writers, even if there is a common shared ground.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AG: Some of my scholarly work is apparently not related to this book. I am a Holocaust historian working on Jewish life and experiences during the Holocaust. However, other parts of my work could be considered as the ground from which this work stemmed. I have written quite a lot on collective traumas and reflected critically about the uses and abuses of Holocaust memory in Israel and the West in the global age. I also worked on the tensions that exist within Holocaust and genocide historiography between the Holocaust meta-narrative and the post-colonial meta-narrative. These issues are at the heart of this book.
BB: For several years, my work has focused exclusively on theoretical and abstract debates around deliberative democracy, multiculturalism, reconciliation, and citizenship and nationalism studies. In recent years, in light of systematic and aggressive Israeli colonial policies, I have turned to combining my interest in political theory with pressing issues that inform and shape the realities in Israel/Palestine. My main motivation has mainly revolved around interrogating paradigmatic notions like partition and exploring alternatives to partition and venues for decolonization.
Together we published in 2015 an edited volume in Hebrew (with the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute) on the same topic. The book in Hebrew is a different book in terms of content and contributors. Upon its publication, the book generated heated debate and controversy in Israel. Though many found it useful and eye-opening, some right wing groups protested harshly against it, and this debate even reached the media. Since then, we continue publishing on this issue and we hope to continue developing this historical and conceptual endeavor. This volume in English is part of a preexisting and continuing effort. There is still much to do in order to persuade scholars that it is a valid and essential historical and political scholarly framework.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AG: Part of my current work is also related to this volume. I am very much interested in the ways by which contemporary individuals related to these two events. Once I became aware of this perspective on history, I could see that many sources actually talk about it in so many ways. Hence, I recently wrote an article about a Holocaust survivor who fought in the 1948 Israeli-Arab War, and for him the two events were completely interrelated. This intellectual journey also led me to write about Elias Khoury's novel Bab al-Shams, which to my mind integrates the two events in a most interesting and intriguing way. I am now writing a piece on The Children of the Ghetto which was mentioned above.
BB: My current research focuses on two major research projects. First, in light of the recent return to and revival of liberal principles and values like constitutionalism, the rule of law, common civic identity, and neutrality of the state institutions as guardians against the tribalism, fragmentation, and other risks of identity politics, I have started a research project that explores various attempts to reinvigorate liberal democratic thinking. Secondly, together with Leila Farsakh (University of Massachusetts, Boston), we have been leading a research project that aspires to revisit contemporary Arab engagements with the Jewish Question, namely the question of Jewish political rights under the light of European anti-Semitism and Zionism. It also explores Jewish engagements with the Arab Question, namely how Zionism and non-Zionist Jewish voices dealt with Palestinian presence and political rights in historic Palestine. These key political questions have been historically debated, but not juxtaposed, despite the fact that they have become inextricably intertwined.
J: What is the contribution of this book to memory and historical studies beyond Israel/Palestine?
BB and AG: While the volume proposes a new and original frame for a joint and productive conversation about the Holocaust and Nakba, our introductory chapter as well as several other chapters in the book offer normative and methodological insights concerning memory, trauma, and history in general. In many ways, this volume is an attempt to implement Michael Rothberg's concept of "multidirectional memory," perhaps in the place where it is most difficult and painful though at the same time essential. We think, and elaborate on this in the introduction, that the intersection of the Holocaust and the Nakba is actually an intersection of two global historical meta-narratives: the Holocaust narrative and the postcolonial narrative that clash and also intersect on several fronts. Thus, political theorists, historians, social psychologists, experts of conflict resolution and in memory studies will find profound debates about amnesia, strategies of narration, confronting and coming to terms with injustices etc. In this sense, the volume’s relevance exceeds the confined boundaries of Israel/Palestine and the Holocaust and Nakba.
Excerpt from the Book:
Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun (Bab al-Shams) narrates the Palestinian catastrophe.
During one of his monologues, Khaleel, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, directs a question at Younes, a hero of the Palestinian struggle, who lies unconsciously on his death bed in a hospital in one of the refugee camps in Beirut:
But tell me, what did the [Palestinian] national movement posted in the cities do apart from demonstrate against Jewish immigration?
I’m not saying you weren’t right. But in those days, when the Nazi beast was exterminating the Jews of Europe, what did you know about the world?
. . . Don’t worry, I believe, like you, that this land must belong to its people, and there is no moral, political, humanitarian, or religious justification that would permit the expulsion of an entire people from its country and the transformation of what remained of them into second-class citizens. . . . But tell me, in the faces of the people being driven to slaughter, don’t you see something resembling your own?
Don’t tell me you didn’t know, and above all, don’t say that it wasn’t our fault. You and I and every human being on the face of the planet should have known and not stood by in silence, should have prevented that beast from destroying its victims in that barbaric, unprecedented manner . . . because their death meant the death of humanity within us.
This critical passage may serve as a key to the issue at hand. It marks the problematic aspects of simultaneously addressing the Holocaust and the Nakba and the anxiety that this arouses. This is primarily an anxiety about foregoing absolute justice, which is shared by both Jews and Palestinians. The Nakba underlines Palestinian political justice, while the Holocaust currently underpins many Jews’ ultimate claim to justice. Yet the willingness to weave the catastrophe of the other side into each party’s national narrative, and to establish a new shared historical grammar and syntax, does not imply a dismantling of the core justification of the national narrative. Or, in the words of the narrator in Bab al-Shams, who here refers to the Palestinian perspective: acknowledging the Holocaust does not undermine the justness of the Palestinians regarding the wrong done to them or to question “that this land must belong to its people.” Taking account of the origin of the Jews who came to Palestine does not, from the narrator’s viewpoint, detract from the claim to justice on the part of the Palestinians. Neither does it imply that things would necessarily have turned out differently had the Palestinians taken into account why Jews came to Palestine. In other words, this empathy toward the Jewish victims of the Holocaust does not amount to a complete identification with them and their point of view. It does retain one’s otherness in relation to the “other.” It does not erase difference.
Nonetheless, from this very position the narrator, and seemingly Khoury himself, demand that the Jewish refugees’ plight be recognized: … “Their death meant the death of humanity within us.”
Following Hannan Hever, wefurther deliberate on Khoury’s narrator’s notion of otherness and empathy in regard to the Nakba and the Holocaust by means of the concept of “empathic unsettlement,” coined by Dominick LaCapra in his protracted discussion of trauma and the Holocaust. This concept manages to closely and convincingly link memory, ethics, history, and trauma in a way that we believe suits the notion of empathy we share with Khoury.
Before further elaboration on the usefulness of empathic unsettlement, we should note that in utilizing LaCapraian psychoanalytical concepts we are not seeking to reduce the narrative of conflict to the realm of psychology or issues of empathy….we try to extract from this conceptual world a theoretical structure that facilitates understanding and analysis of political reality.
LaCapra contrasts empathy and empathic unsettlement with complete identification:
“Empathy is mistakenly conflated with identification or fusion with the other. . . . In contradistinction to this entire frame of reference, empathy should rather be understood in terms of an affective relation, rapport, or bond with the other recognized and respected as other.” Identification follows the risky fantasy of universal likeness, which seeks homogeneity and eradicates difference. It operates on one of two levels—appropriation or subjugation— since, if it is to occur, the individual must either reduce the other to his own concepts or subjugate himself to the concepts of the other. Thus, identification is always connected to narcissistic impulses and indicates a type of illusion that is potentially aggressive and violent.
As we have argued, Khoury’s narrator is aware of the risky fantasy of universal likeness and sameness and rejects this form of identification. He refuses to relinquish his point of view for that of the enemy, even as the latter has experienced extreme trauma in the form of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, he finds some resemblance. (“In the faces of the people being driven to slaughter, don’t you see something resembling your own?”) But what is the significance of this recognition? How does it exert an influence? And what does it mean?
The narrator gives us no immediate or unequivocal answer to these questions. This response is suspended for the time being —it only destabilizes an overly stiff narrative. This, in fact, is how empathic unsettlement undermines meaning. For, by contrast to identification, which seeks to blur the distance between the self and the other, empathic unsettlement requires the subject to make, like Khoury’s narrator, two opposite movements simultaneously. On the one hand, it recognizes the fundamental, inherent otherness of the individual who experiences the trauma, defined as an excessive experience that transcends the existing array of social symbols and images.92 On the other hand, and despite the recognition of the radical and ineradicable otherness of those who experience trauma, empathic unsettlement calls for a sense of empathy toward them. Therefore, the ethics of trauma is an ethics of disruption that compels us to react empathetically to others while being fully aware of their otherness, and at the same time to recognize the component of trauma that disrupts and prevents any structure, narrative, or relationship from reaching wholeness and closure.
Disruption is the key word here, since it is located between the two poles that trauma is liable to generate: disruption neither completely dismantles the discourse (as a field of distinctions), nor does it fortify dichotomous opposition. It introduces some rather indigestible otherness to the discursive sphere, which emanates from an ethical commitment to those experiencing the trauma, but that cannot necessarily be formulated immediately. As such, empathic unsettlement disrupts and constantly undermines every “redeeming narrative” of suffering that offers a melancholic pleasure, and this is the source of its considerable political value. One might say that it compels us to take the otherness of the other seriously. It operates in the twilight zone between full identification, which appropriates the other or requires her to submit to the concepts of the “self,” and outright alienation, which generates a sphere from which communication is absent, in which only power dictates. The weakened identification experienced as part of empathic unsettlement is therefore sensed not only vis-à-vis the person experiencing the trauma as someone who is suffering, but first and foremost as an “other” in whose core experience there is something that goes beyond the symbolic and political contours that purport to represent him. And this turns him into a symbol and manifestation of intense ethical commitment toward radical otherness.
We have formulated the demand for empathic unsettlement by means of Khoury’s well-crafted story. Nevertheless, we would argue that the demand applies more to the Jewish side, which is, as we have noted, the stronger side and the one that perpetrated the Nakba. The story of “from Holocaust to rebirth” is such a closed, exclusive, and redemptive narrative that it necessarily leads to violence, and must therefore be disrupted by means of the imperative of empathic unsettlement. The demand that Khoury presents to the Palestinians should be presented with even greater urgency to the Jews as well. After decades of colonial denial, negation, erasure, and misrecognition, they should look in the faces of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants, whom they expelled or whose return they prevented, and in the faces of those who stayed in Palestine and the State of Israel and now live under varying degrees of discrimination and repression, and see in them the radical others of Zionism, a reflection of their own history, and seek a way to recognize the suffering they have inflicted on them. They ought to find a way to disrupt their narrative through paradoxical empathy for their own victims, the Palestinians (refugees and nonrefugees), and to tell the story not only of “from Holocaust to rebirth” but, like the title of a book by Yair Auron, The Holocaust, Rebirth, and the Nakba. This is the moral challenge that empathic unsettlement presents to the Jewish side.