Although the inaugural Israel Studies Conference on “The Zionist Ideal in Israeli Culture” sponsored by Weinberg and the Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies, is primarily focused on the Jewish experience in Israel, there is another narrative to be told.
On Tuesday, Hannan Hever, the Blaustein Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Yale University, spoke to a crowd of over 50 people about Israeli poetry on the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, as part of the literature component of the three-day academic conference.
According to Hever, “Hebrew poetry formulated a moral voice” for Israelis to discuss the Palestinian situation. For the generation of Israelis who experienced the 1948 War of Independence, poetry illuminated “the acute conflict between justice and injustice for Jews in the middle of an existential war.”
The Nakba is the defining event in the national consciousness of both the Palestinians in the occupied territories and the Arabs in Israel, representing the loss of the land and the unrealized dreams of Arab sovereignty in Palestine. However, it is also present, if rarely discussed, in the Jewish narrative of Israeli independence.
“The writing of the poem became an act of punishment, a cleansing act through poetic testimony,” Hever said.
In the works discussed by Hever, the dilemma of moral culpability for the Palestinians’ predicament haunts Israeli authors.
“The Jewish voice identifying the Palestinian narrative is a dominant voice that depicts the war from a subjective point of view, the same one that caused the trauma of the Nakba,” he said.
This recognition is an often-suppressed narrative in the contentious history of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Lost in the endless mix of accusations and denials is the acknowledgement of the Palestinian fate and the suffering it entailed.
Describing the background to the Israeli dilemma, Hever asserted that “the Israeli army destroyed and expelled many Palestinians, and prevented others from returning to their land.”
This harrowing event, combined with the 16-year military government that followed it, left deep psychological scars on the Palestinians and the Arab minority in Israel. However, the idea of trauma in Israeli poetry also includes an inescapable element of Jewish tragedy.
“Representing trauma in Hebrew texts cannot escape the Jewish trauma of the 20th century, which culminated in the Holocaust,” Hever said.
Indeed, the Holocaust was a central event in the 2000-year history of Jewish exile and persecution. The near total annihilation of the European Jewish population left enormous scars on the Jewish community in Israel and strongly influenced the behavior of the newfound state, which sought to preserve the remnants of a decimated, distressed diaspora population.
Any discussion of past traumas in the Israeli discourse therefore must include the Holocaust. Nevertheless, “the shared Palestinian-Jewish destiny and the common land” necessitate a rethinking of the “sharp contradictions” in Israeli consciousness, in Hever’s view.
“In order to address the Palestinian trauma, it is necessary to address the Jewish trauma as well,” he said.
Hever’s discussion of mutual antagonisms between Jews and Arabs drew criticism from the audience when one Evanston resident disrupted his speech.
Senior Hannah Jones, a History and International Studies major in Weinberg, noted that Hever “didn’t give much context for his speech. Given the heckling from the crowd, it would have been nice to start with more background information.”
The conference, which covers Israeli music, dance, theater, visual arts, literature and film, includes the works of more than 20 professors, directors and performers in a celebration of Israeli culture.
“It’s great to get so many experts from different places in a single conference,” Jones said.