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Note: Although the first edition of Israel and Palestine: A Common Historical Narrative has been published, the document undergoes continuous refinement through ongoing stylistic and scholarly review. Text on this page may be changed from time to time as a result of this process.
Israel and Palestine:
A Common Historical Narrative
©2020, The Israel Palestine Project
All rights reserved
By Rick Phillips, Executive Director, The Israel Palestine Project
You hold in your hands a unique book. Israel and Palestine: A Common Historical Narrative is unlike any other book chronicling the tragic and persistent struggle between the peoples of Palestine and Israel. To be sure, many histories have been written about this conflict, but this book is no ordinary history. It tells the story from a unique perspective, a model elegant in its simplicity while breath-taking in its potential to heal and transform the most intractable conflicts in the world today.
As historians, we often ask, “What started this conflict?”
We rarely ask, “What is the energy that drives this conflict forward, relentlessly, day in and day out, year to year, decade to decade?”
At a level deeper than “facts on the ground”, perhaps even below our conscious awareness, “What is it that makes this conflict so seemingly intractable?”
Consider these questions:
What forces continue to drive the conflict between Palestine and Israel?
What is missing that, if provided, could powerfully alter the status quo?
What future is possible for Israel and Palestine when the conflict is resolved?
These are the questions that faced Jack Berriault, the founder of The Israel Palestine Project, almost two decades ago. The answers are not obvious and may surprise you. For certain, they are not about fixing the conflict; others are working heroically in this realm, albeit so far without success. Jack’s insight was to engage the conflict at the level of narrative, the long-held community “stories” that define and maintain it.
In the persistent conflict between Israel and Palestine, the events and interactions between the two peoples have produced, over decades of time, conflicting interpretations and myths. Referred to by sociologists as “national historical narratives”, these contradictory stories live in the literature and minds of both peoples, deeply embedded in the national consciousness of each community. These divided narratives guard the status quo, resisting all attempts to resolve the conflict. Inspired by this insight, Jack and his team asked a provocative question: “What would be possible if Palestinians and Israelis came together and crafted a single, common narrative in which both peoples were equally represented, understood and honored?”
The journey of exploration, invention, and discovery that followed produced the book you now hold in your hands.
In a famous quote, renowned American author Mark Twain observed, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know, it's what we know for sure that just ain’t so."
Rabbi Michael Lerner would agree. Founder of Tikkun Magazine and the international Network of Spiritual Progressives, Lerner has devoted his life to social transformation. In his ground-breaking book, Healing Israel/Palestine – a Path to Peace and Reconciliation, Lerner states, “As long as each side clings to its own story and is unable to acknowledge what is plausible in the story of the other side, peace will remain a distant hope.”
Jack Berriault and many others have seen this too. In the space of separate conflicting narratives, the future is grim: a world of escalating inequality and ongoing military conflict driven by never-ending cycles of suspicion, hatred, cynicism, and resignation. What is missing is a bridge, a single narrative in which Palestinians and Israelis can hear equally both themselves and each other. In 2003, inspired by this realization, Jack established The Israel Palestine Project (TIPP) and set in motion the crafting of A Common Historical Narrative.
Although unique, A Common Historical Narrative is built on a firm foundation of dedicated and inspired work by people in Israel and Palestine who have long recognized the intractable influence of national historical narratives on maintaining the conflict. Over the past several decades, vitally important work has been done in academia and journalism to distinguish and share the separate Palestinian and Israeli narratives. Through this work, people—perhaps some for the first time—see that there is a narrative other than their own.
As one example, Haaretz (Israel’s leading newspaper), published the two narratives side-by-side in weekly installments. In another example, the educational organization PRIME has published booklets for Israeli schools that show the two narratives side-by-side with a space opened-up between for comments and reactions.
Perhaps the most significant example and closest to The Israel Palestine Project’s vision is Truth Against Truth, a pamphlet by the Israeli peace organization Gush Shalom, founded by the late renowned journalist, politician, and activist Uri Avnery. In Truth Against Truth, the two narratives are compared, contrasted, and commented-on editorially through a concise history that also includes recommendations for ending the conflict to the satisfaction of both peoples.
All of this work is ground-breaking and critically important. However, so long as the narratives remain separate, the choice remains for choosing one narrative over the other. For people living in the stress of the conflict, as well as for all people concerned with the future of Palestine and Israel, the natural human tendency is to take sides and support one narrative against the other, thus perpetuating the status quo.
Crafting the Single Narrative
By their very definition, historical narratives are stories generated and shared by the people that experience them, not invented by outsiders looking in, however well-intentioned. Guided by this fundamental principle, The Israel Palestine Project began with a unique collaboration among participants from both sides of the conflict to craft a common narrative in which both Palestinians and Israelis would be represented and honored.
Jack started by establishing an Advisory Board of fifteen prominent Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals, politicians, creative thinkers, and community leaders, all inspired by the possibility of the common historical narrative. Then, facilitated by Jack, an international Writers Team held regular weekly conference calls over a span of several years in which conversations were held to generate a common, mutually-agreed-upon set of historical events and interpretations.
During 2006 and 2007, at the height of this interactive process, the original texts were developed in a year-long, facilitated dialogue between a Palestinian journalist and a former officer in the Israeli Defense Forces (both choosing to remain anonymous), each representing their respective mainstream populations.
Created and edited from the core material developed in this process, an initial draft of A Common Historical Narrative was then reviewed and accepted in principal by two prominent historians, Moshe Ma’oz (Professor Emeritus in Middle East History and Islam at Hebrew University in Jerusalem) and Philip Mattar (President of the Palestinian American Research Center in Washington, DC).
Jack and The Israel Palestine Project’s editorial team continued the editing and refinement of the narrative under the initial advice of Ma’oz and Mattar and through the ongoing support of prominent Israeli historian Yitzhak Reiter (Chair of Israeli Studies at Ashkelon Academic College and Senior Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research), and his research colleague and doctoral candidate, Eran Tzidkiyahu.
Following Jack’s death in 2016, this work continued, and this book is the fulfilment of Jack’s visionary experiment: a single, common historical narrative of two peoples in conflict, and a new opening to a future of reconciliation, collaboration, and peace.
How to Use This Book
Although the story that follows has been fact-checked by leading Palestinian and Israeli historians, this book is fundamentally a narrative, not a history. Although narrative and history are commonly held as synonyms (words having the same meaning), consider the following definitions from the respected online source, Wiktionary:
Narrative – The systematic recitation of an event or series of events; that which is narrated; the representation of an event or story.
History – The branch of knowledge that studies the past; the aggregate of past events; the assessment of notable events; a record or narrative description of past events.
In these definitions, a history can be expressed as a narrative and, to this extent, this book can be read as a short history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, as recitation, narration is an act of speech, and this book is best read as if listening to a story being told, an authentic story spoken from the heart and heard deeply.
As you read this story, we invite you to bring a generous spirit and an open mind and allow yourself the time, space, and permission for the narrative to engage with you in ways you may not anticipate. Be prepared: at various points in this story, you may find yourself inspired, discouraged, validated, confronted, happy or sad, even angry! Take heart in that all these reactions and emotions are part of what it is to be human.
As this story is told, listen for the facts—indeed, footnotes throughout the narrative will lead you to references and additional sources of information—but listen even more deeply for the experiences of both peoples as they live this single story in which all experiences of both peoples, both common and distinct, are recognized and honored. Resist the temptation to take sides, or to pull apart the story as if the experiences of one people are more correct or compelling than the experiences of the other. Listen instead for the shared humanity and mutual respect that only a single, common narrative can reveal.
After you have read this story and taken it in, we invite you share it, put it to good use—in short, allow this book to use you! It was always Jack’s intention that A Common Historical Narrative serve as a tool in a greater game, the transformation of a conflict between two great peoples. Using this Narrative as a place to start, a foundation of common understanding, Jack envisioned generative conversations among Israelis and Palestinians, lighting the path toward reconciliation, forgiveness, shared purpose, and the co-creation of a future of unimaginable possibility.
At the time of his death, working with colleagues in the field of transformation, Jack had moved his attention to the design of programs and techniques to inspire, facilitate, and steward these conversations. As you read the Narrative, we invite you to share these possibilities. The Narrative will not itself end the conflict—that was never Jack’s intention—but it will end eventually as all conflicts do. What then? Imagine Israelis and Palestinians facing each other around a table, empowered and united by a common historical narrative. The conversation begins. A world awaits.
Jack Berriault – An Appreciation
When Jack passed away on August 23, 2016, I lost a dear friend of over a decade and one of the most complex, challenging, and inspiring individuals I have ever encountered in life.
To say that Jack Berriault led a remarkable life is to risk understatement! He was a person who possessed a unique and compelling vision of the possibilities of Israelis and Palestinians at peace, each secure in their own national aspirations while co-creating a shared future through committed speaking and listening. In what can only be described as a breath-taking insight, Jack saw the key to this future in revealing and honoring the separate stories held by both peoples and weaving these stores into a common skein of history characterized by fierce authenticity and unwavering compassion.
Jack dedicated his life to human rights and social transformation at the age of 14 in 1945 when he was profoundly impacted by the newsreels of the liberation of Auschwitz and the other Nazi concentration camps. Over his lifetime of work in the arena of social transformation, including over three years as National Director of The Hunger Project in Belize, Central America, he learned first-hand that when you change the stories that people tell themselves and others, you transform people’s lives.
In the fall of 2002, Jack joined a group called The Global Exchange and toured the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv. He interviewed leaders of human rights and peace organizations and came to the realization that the Israelis and the Palestinians were living at the effect of opposite and contradictory stories driving the conflict forward relentlessly.
At that point, Jack founded The Israel Palestine Project and took on the inspired work that shaped and filled the balance of his long and purposeful life.
In 2016, shortly before his death, Jack expressed, on behalf of the core team, a heartfelt acknowledgement of all who contributed to the creation of Israel and Palestine: A Common Historical Narrative. "The authors, editors, and I express our profound gratitude to all participants for the generosity of time and spirit that it has taken to complete this often painstaking process, to bring together noted historians and active participants in the conflict to agree on this ground-breaking common narrative. From here, we can, together, build a new future free of the past, for all our grandchildren.”
Jack imagined the day when peace has come to the Middle East and people ask, “How could we have let this conflict happen? Why did we allow it to go on so long?”
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