In the novel Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay–one of the most talented and underappreciated fantasy authors writing today–tells the tale of the Palm, a land living under occupation by two sorcerers. The province of Tigana led the resistance against the sorcerer Brandin, and in a crucial battle Brandin’s son was killed. In retribution Brandin unleashed a devastating form of magic. “Not only did he conquer it and destroy every material vestige of [Tigana's] culture and history, but he placed a monstrous curse upon it to remove all memory of it and even its name from human knowledge. Only those born in Tigana can hear its name and know how great their loss is: no one else, except sorcerers and wizards on whom the curse has no effect, can even remember that Tigana once existed.”
War against Tigana was not enough. Brandin’s vengenace was not complete until he erased even the memory of its existence. The novel follows a band of rebels struggling to keep the memory of their beloved homeland alive.
The novel is fantasy, but the themes are not. “The Hijacking and Recovery of Memory”–to quote a chapter title from Chris Hedgs’ book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning–is a central part of wartime narratives. When nations or peoples go to war, they craft narratives that exalt their own cause and dehumanize their enemies. They do not merely try to dominate the enemy on the battlefield; they try to dominate him in memory and history. Hedges opens his chapter by relating a visit with Hagob H. Asadourian, an Armenian who has written fourteen books in a “battle to preserve memory.” Asadourian’s haunting quest parallels the fantasy tale Guy Gavriel Kay constructed. Asadourian laments, “Who still speaks of the extermination of the Armenians?” Turkey still vigorously denies the murder of more than one million Armenians. Violence against the Armenian people was not enough; the final act of violence was obliterating their very memory and the memory of their extermination. Hedges writes:
The globe is dotted with such anonymous burial pits. They are physical reminders of justice denied. Yet they have a startling power to plague the murderers decades after the event. These atrocities–denied by the perpetrators and sanctified by the victims–leave huge chasms between peoples. They serve to create two distinct and antagonistic histories. It is only with an historical consensus that there can be reconciliation.
In my last post, I condemned Holocaust denial as an inexcusable form of antisemitism. Why single out that crime? Because it is an attempt to erase memory. It is the ultimate act of dehumanization against Jews and Israelis; it strikes to the very heart of their identity, denying the traumatic event that has shaped and defined them. If the Holocaust goes away–worse, if it is a conspiracy actively propagated by malicious Jews–then the underpinnings of the Jewish narrative crumble. Holocaust denial robs Jews and Israelis of their history, their memory, and ultimately their humanity.
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is a corollary that I find equally despicable because of the violence it does against memory. President Obama was right to draw this parallel in his Cairo speech. After denouncing holocaust denial, he said:
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.
If Israel’s enemies do violence against memory by denying the Holocaust, the enemies of Palestinians do the same by denying the reality of Palestinian suffering–or by denying that the Palestinian people even exist. These claims are still commonplace (for example, the “history lesson” I highlighted from the Christian Zionist Epicenter conference). According to this narrative, Jewish immigrants settled in a wasteland populated only by scattered Bedouin tribes. No native peoples were driven from their homes during Israel’s creation; the Palestinians living in refugee camps for the last 50 years left the region voluntarily or were told to leave by Arab governments. Adherents of these beliefs are also likely to paint a rosy picture of life under Occupation and deny the possibility of abuse or injustice. The historical picture that emerges from recent Israeli scholarship is far less flattering. Recent polls show that Israeli attitudes are changing, acknowledging Israel had a hand in driving out Palestinians. And of course, there are countless tales from Palestinians themselves of brutality, coercion, and exile. Israel does not share all the blame for the suffering of Palestinians, but it certainly shares much of it. If the Holocaust has shaped the identity of Jews, Al Nakba–the catastrophe–has shaped the identity of Palestinians. Denying the violent dislocation of Palestinians and their subsequent suffering, like Holocaust Denial, is an attempt to dehumanize the “other” by erasing his history and his identity. Some carry this even further by denying that a people called the Palestinians even exist. While it’s true that the concept of Palestinian national identity is a relatively recent development, identity is malleable and it’s indisputable that Palestinians have an identity now.
I will leave it to others to hammer out the details of Palestinian and Israeli historical narratives. That’s a battle I don’t want to get sucked into, but the fact that Israeli and Palestinian supporters are constantly waging this battle–and that they frequently reaches back to Biblical times to legitimize their side and delegitimize the other–shows how powerful and essential this process is. In any conflict, rival peoples seek to control history, to shape memory, and to annihilate rival narratives.
If the destruction of memory is an essential component of war, the recovery of memory is also an essential component of post-conflict peace. In many post-conflict situations, justice is no longer possible. The crimes are too great, the damage is irreparable, and peace is often contingent on settling with the worst offenders. But truth-telling and the recovery of memory is still possible. Hedges writes:
The effort to give a name to the victims and killers begins a collective act of repentance, a national catharsis. The process, as seen in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is the only escape. And while justice is not always done–in South Africa the full admission of crimes saw killers granted an amnesty–dignity, identity, and most important, memory are returned. This, for many families, is enough.