Israel at 70: A tale of two histories
The creation of Israel marked a moment of rebirth for Jews, but is remembered as a catastrophe by Palestinians. To mark the anniversary, our correspondent accompanied a tour that gave dueling Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives. One hopeful message: Understanding is possible.
Ramallah, West Bank—Tumbling off their bus and into the glaring afternoon sun in the West Bank town of Ramallah, the US tourists assemble before Yasser Arafat’s marble tomb and hear two vastly different takes on the former Palestinian leader.
Standing to the left of the tomb, Husam Jubran, their Palestinian guide, describes who Mr. Arafat was for Palestinians: a charismatic freedom fighter who put their cause on the map and spent his final years under Israeli siege in a bunker beneath his government’s headquarters, some 100 yards from where the tourists are standing.
He also tells them most Palestinians still believe Arafat was secretly assassinated by Israel in 2004, not felled, as his doctors said, by a blood disorder. “They believe he died a martyr, killed by the Israelis, and hear stories that at the time Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked US President George W. Bush for the green light to kill Arafat,” Mr. Jubran says.
A few breaths later, still absorbing those jarring words, they turn their heads to the right to listen to Yuval Ben-Ami, their Israeli guide, who tells them, “Israelis have an image of Arafat as a terrorist and a corrupt person.”
He then walks them through the early 1990s when Arafat and his Israeli counterparts, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, prime minister and foreign minister at the time, shared the Nobel Peace Prize for the Oslo peace process. Hope briefly glimmered that another future might be in reach. That dream shattered amid another round of bloodletting.
The tour group is on Day 2 of a nine-day dual-narrative journey through Israel and the West Bank. It’s a tour most visitors to this region do not experience, an opportunity to crisscross the political and social divides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Such a tour is all the more exceptional, and poignant, today. This spring marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel. For Israelis, who observe the day according to its date on the lunar Hebrew calendar, which this year fell on April 19, it is a time of celebration, hailed as the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish nation in their ancestral homeland in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
But for Palestinians, who will mark the day May 15 – when Israel officially declared independence in 1948 – it is the Nakba, or “Catastrophe,” mourned as the beginning of their exile from what they, too, consider their homeland. Some 750,000 Palestinians, almost 70 percent of the Palestinian population at the time, fled or were expelled from their homes in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, which broke out just after Israel’s Declaration of Independence was signed and forces from four Arab countries invaded.
That jagged divide in how both peoples remember 1948 continues to affect their perspective on the conflict, which has festered these past 70 years.
The dual-narrative tour takes the visitors through Israeli military checkpoints to visit Palestinian cities like Ramallah and Bethlehem; a refugee camp; and a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Back in Israel, a kibbutz and archaeological sites in the desert and the Galilee are on the itinerary, as are holy sites in hotly contested Jerusalem.
Along the way are speakers of all faiths and political backgrounds, each with his or her own back story to share – from the imam of Jerusalem’s iconic Al-Aqsa Mosque, who offers them a fiery political perspective, to an 81-year-old who, as a young orphan girl, managed to survive Nazi concentration camps.
Interpreting the history, archaeology, and competing political claims and narratives are Jubran and Mr. Ben-Ami, both in their 40s, who have cemented a friendship so deep during the dozens of tours they have co-led that Jubran, a Muslim, officiated at the Jewish Ben-Ami’s wedding last year.
The guides' own stories
The two also share their personal stories. On a visit to Bethlehem, Jubran, who lives in a village nearby, recounts coming of age in the first intifada as a teenage political activist, one of tens of thousands of youths who joined mass demonstrations facing off against Israeli troops. He spent time in an Israeli prison, was wounded by an Israeli soldier’s bullet, and spent almost a year in a wheelchair. He later embraced nonviolence and sees guiding this type of tour as part of his work in building peace.
Ben-Ami tells of being a third-generation Israeli from Jerusalem. He grew up in a neighborhood in the eastern part of the city that he did not even realize was contested by the Palestinians. His grandfather’s entire family perished in the Holocaust. His father was Israel’s chief military spokesman for several years.
Both men talk about the importance of giving context to the complex region they each call home.
“I tell them that context does not justify things, but if you receive the context, you understand why this particular group acts the way it does. Even if you do not immediately identify with them, you can feel open to understanding them,” Ben-Ami says.
Jubran started out doing tours for Christian and Muslim groups. But he wanted to go deeper into the Israeli and Palestinian narratives. “It really did not seem fair to me that tourists would come here and you would avoid certain topics,” he says.
The pair met when each started working for Mejdi Tours, founded by a Palestinian entrepreneur and activist, Aziz Abu Sarah, and Scott Cooper, an American Jewish entrepreneur with a background in conflict resolution, with the concept of providing both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives for tourists. Mejdi Tours provides these Israel-West Bank tours on behalf of National Geographic Expeditions.
The concept has since expanded and been applied to other parts of the world. The company now offers tours in 18 countries and regions, including Ireland, Bosnia and Croatia, and Vietnam.
Bus ride to Yad Vashem
At 8 a.m. on a recent spring morning, the tour bus sets off through Jerusalem’s morning traffic toward Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial.
The 20-odd tourists from all over the United States are hushed as Ben-Ami begins to tell them the story of his grandfather – how, in 1938, the teenager from what was then Czechoslovakia made the long journey alone to what was then British Mandatory Palestine. He entered illegally with his fellow Jewish refugees, jumping into the coastal waters of the Mediterranean and being plucked out by kibbutzniks – members of collective farms.
His grandfather’s parents and five siblings stayed behind. The letters from them eventually stopped arriving.
“Years later we would have these family dinners on Shabbat, and he would be so happy with all the children and grandchildren together. But I’d often find him alone in tears. And the tears became bigger as he grew older. He felt so guilty, wondering, ‘Why am I here and they were not saved?’ ” Ben-Ami tells the group.
“This place became his home,” says Ben-Ami, gesturing toward the modern state of Israel racing by the bus window. “For my family, this was a real proven land of refuge. Although the events recounted in the museum did not take place here, they are tied so closely to the country.
“This is a scar that is still fresh,” he continues. “It all happened 75 years ago, not very long ago in the scope of things. Some would argue we were not allowed to heal normally because we are in this situation of conflict, still in fear.”
After touring Yad Vashem, the group hears from Jubran about the complicated relationship Palestinians have with the Holocaust.
“Some deny the Holocaust even happened; others say it happened, but not as it is described. Both have some level of denial,” he tells them.
“But the denial does not come of hatred,” he argues, “but usually out of ignorance, and when confronted with the facts they will recognize it happened.”
He then breaks down the other responses. A significant number prefer not to talk about the Holocaust, concerned it will justify the creation of Israel, Jubran says. “People will say, ‘You had the Holocaust and we had the Nakba.’ I don’t think there is any parallelism in the stories, but that is where most Palestinians stand.”
Others fully recognize the Holocaust, but will say, “Why do we have to keep talking about it?” A final group, he says, encourages fellow Palestinians to learn about it to better understand the Israeli psyche and works to bring groups to Yad Vashem.
In Ein Karem, stories of 1948
The bus now carries the group farther west, away from the center of Jerusalem and toward the neighborhood of Ein Karem, once a Palestinian village and now a Jewish area nestled in the green foothills of the city. Jubran tells the travelers that in Arabic its name means “Spring of the Vineyard.”
At the bottom of a winding road, under an archway cut from large pink stones, is the gurgling spring the village was named for. Christian tradition says Mary stopped to drink from its waters during a visit to the parents of John the Baptist, who was born here.
It is around this peaceful spring that Jubran and Ben-Ami speak of the upheaval that took place here in the wake of the 1948 war and the village’s place in the story of both Israelis and Palestinians.
In 1947, not three years after the end of the Holocaust, the United Nations voted to divide Palestine into two states, Jewish and Arab, a partition rejected by the Arab League. Israel declared independence a few months later, the Arab armies attacked, and the Zionist forces counterattacked. Amid the fighting, Palestinians in some cases were expelled and in others fled their homes, assuming they would return once the Arab armies were victorious. Those who later tried to return were kept out by the then-nascent Israeli army.
Ein Karem is one of the Palestinian villages inside Israel that remain intact. Hundreds were destroyed, either in the fighting or after they were depopulated. Of the present-day towns and villages, some were left mostly intact, while others were rebuilt on or near their original locations.
Though Ein Karem survived, its population changed from Palestinian to Jewish, first immigrants from Morocco but today Israeli Jews of all backgrounds.
When Palestinians refer to the 1948 war of Israeli independence, Jubran says, “we use the term Nakba, a very harsh word in Arabic meaning the ultimate catastrophe.” He tells the tourists of the 750,000 Palestinians who ended up outside what became Israel and of villages that were “wiped off the map.”
“Most Palestinian cities became Jewish or Jewish majority,” he adds, Nazareth being the only exception – a Palestinian city that remained so.
Ben-Ami then jumps in with the Israeli narrative he was raised on, that Jews developed the land they bought from absentee Arab landholders. He describes the early Zionist movement as borne out of desperation by European Jews who believed they would never be fully accepted or safe there and who began settling Jews in farming communities here 50 years before the Holocaust began.
“Here it is, the point, counterpoint, which is why discussion of the Nakba is one of the most sensitive in our journey,” he says.
Most sensitive of all within that history is how villages like this were emptied of their residents. Jubran suggests that an infamous massacre at a nearby Palestinian village, Deir Yassin, is likely what scared those in Ein Karem to take flight.
The two guides describe why the Palestinian refugee issue remains central to Palestinians today but how Israelis cannot even begin to broach it. “We [Israelis] say we are not talking about it; it raises the fear of being homeless again,” says Ben-Ami.
There is much for the group to absorb. And they’re still digesting talks from the previous day by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, a former Israeli army spokesperson, a Palestinian Foreign Ministry official, an expert on Jerusalem biblical archaeology, and a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, each telling his or her own version of the story of these intertwined peoples.
“It’s very important to note that this is not a political tour,” says Ben-Ami. “It’s just a tour that dares address the politics.”
Some tourists say that the trip is fascinating and at times head-spinning.
“But what gives me hope is how well our two guides get along,” says a tour group member from New York.
Echoing that theme, Jubran says, “We don’t want people to leave in despair, but with hope. You don’t need to give up; there is always common ground where we can come together.”