New York, NY —Anchor: In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, each side clings to the memory of its past sufferings to justify retaliation. In this commentary, WNYC's Brian Lehrer says both sides are using the past the obliterate the future.
Brian: In 1986, author and holocaust survivor Elli Weisel won the Nobel peace prize. His Nobel lecture, delivered on December 11th of that year, was titled memory, hope and despair. Wiesel is well known for his eloquence on the importance of memory to human culture and to prevention of future holocausts. But part of his message that day was an attempt to reconcile what Wiesel called "our supreme duty towards memory with the need to forget that is essential to life."
why is forgetting essential to life? As Wiesel hauntingly put it: "When day breaks after a sleepless night, one's ghosts must withdraw; the dead are ordered back to their graves." But referring to Jews after the holocaust, he added: "for the first time in history, we could not bury our dead. We bear their graves within ourselves. For us, forgetting was never an option."
The war between Israelis and Palestinians raging today is a struggle between two peoples who can't put the ghosts away in the morning. Their two leaders, Arafat and Sharon, appear to me as captives of their memory's grips.
No matter which side we identify with more in the conflict, no matter whose understandable rage and frustration, their violent campaigns cannot bring what either of them wants - statehood for the Palestinians or security for Israel. This is a war no one can win because it's a war about the past, not the future.
On the Palestinian side, they should know by now that Israel's number one criterion for agreeing to a Palestinian state and withdrawing from most of the West Bank settlements is confidence that peace will be real, and that a Palestinian state will not be used as a staging area for further attempts to try to destroy Israel. The continued suicide bombings, many of which come from Yasser Arafat's own factions, and which Arafat embraces and praises, make a Palestinian state on Palestinian land much less likely, not more.
on the Israeli side, experience should teach that imprisoning and humiliating Arafat, and reoccupying the West Bank won't stop the suicide bombings. They only make the warrior Arafat more of a symbol of Palestinian aspirations. The history of the Sharon administration so far is a cycle of harsh terrorist attacks followed by harsher Israeli response, followed by yet harsher terrorist attacks. What exactly is the plan? Viewing too much through the lens of memory, both sides talk mostly of retaliation, and act in self-defeating ways. The past becomes indistinguishable from the present, and thus obliterates the future.
In his 1986 Nobel speech, Elie Wiesel said,
We must remember the suffering of my people, as we must remember that of the Ethiopians, the Cambodians, the boat people, Palestinians.
Yes, he included Palestinians on his list of peoples damaged by collective trauma.. A Palestinian's list should include Israelis. But we can't live in others' memories any more than we can live in their skins. So we can only plead: balance your duty to memory with the courage to forget. The future demands it.