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      Wermenbol, Grace. A Tale of Two Narratives: The Holocaust, the Nakba, and the Israeli-Palestinian Battle of Memories

      Arab Studies Quarterly
      Pluto Journals

            Main article text

            In A Tale of Two Narratives: The Holocaust, the Nakba, and the Israeli-Palestinian Battle of Memories, Grace Wermenbol joins the two foundational, traumatic memories of the Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian societies—the Holocaust and the Nakba (Arabic: catastrophe). To understand how each has been constructed in the collective identities of the respective communities, the book examines the transmission of these memories over time into the existence and perpetuation of “victimhoods.” This notion has been used as a form of theoretical denial and minimization of past trauma—with the Palestinian trauma being ongoing. By examining various social realms of memory transmission, the author argues that the contextualization of such historical events—and one where a group of indigenous people fled or were expelled in mass numbers because of the violent settler-colonial regime—demonstrates the interrelatedness of the asymmetric power relationship between the two communities being examined.

            Methodologically, A Tale of Two Narratives institutionalizes group narratives within the social realm of memory creation. The institutionalization process, Wermenbol describes, is a set of beliefs of the narrative, created by “society members who acquire and store this repertoire as part of their socialization from an early age” (17). To be successfully executed, the institutional process depends on the appearance of the narratives in educational materials, such as textbooks and other state institutions. Therefore, Wermenbol poses several research questions to guide her argument. The first addresses “the qualitative nature of exclusionary victimhood narratives” by examining the avenues in which the collective understanding of the Nakba and the Holocaust generates victimhood narratives (17). In doing so, she highlights the social dynamics of identity and narrative-based formations by discussing how collective narratives either constitute or echo modern political and social concerns in Israel/Palestine. A Tale of Two Narratives relies on mostly official Israeli historical materials, such as observational research, semi-structured interviews, newspaper articles, textbooks, and institutional archives to answer the research questions at hand. More importantly, Wermenbol notes that the book’s objective is to reveal the hidden mechanisms that translate victimhoods, actions, and beliefs that influence the narratives, though she acknowledges limitations on education of Palestinians in Israel because aspects of their “history, culture, and identity” are “carefully screened and censored” (71).

            To examine the evolution of the two narratives, Wermenbol divides the book into three parts, each subdivided into separate chapters on Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish society and their collective narratives. Part 1, titled “The Textbook of Memory,” discusses the teaching of the Holocaust and the Nakba as told in textbooks. The educational transmission of both traumas is examined through a close analysis of history textbooks published between 1994 and 2014, as well as interviews conducted with education officials, and former ministers of education. The incorporation of Middle Eastern and modern European history in classroom textbooks, Wermenbol argues, not only denoted an analysis of the narrative’s transmission as it is being taught, but it also provides an analysis of the presentation—or lack thereof—of the other’s history. Specifically in the settler colonial setting, the Palestinian experience is omitted.

            Part 2, “The Landscape of Memory,” explores the various geographies of memory, and how they were formed under a consciousness of reconstruction. For the state of Israel, 1948 designates the “war of independence.” For the Palestinians, 1948 is the beginning of the ongoing Nakba. Specifically, this section of the book emphasizes the dissemination of “exclusionary victimhoods” through a focus on official and semi-official mnemonic practices—both physical and non-physical. This part offers a close analysis of mnemonic acts by the State of Israel, such as the annual observation of official memorial days like Yom ha-Shoah, and recurring visits to memorial sites. Here, the author draws a distinction between mnemonic practices that are a testimony of the physical divergence that arose due to the varying forms of governance between the two groups being examined. A Tale of Two Narratives tells of the inability of the Palestinian community living inside the post-1948 Nakba borders—a minority group—to build a memory site or commemoration of the Nakba and its continuing ramifications. The political and cultural marginalization of the Palestinian people by the State of Israel is, therefore, evoked through imposed laws that prohibit familial visitation to demolished geographies into a collective Palestinian mnemonic, one that perpetuates the Nakba.

            Part 3, “Scoop on the Past,” discusses the landscape of national identity in Israel and the evocation of the past as an ongoing threat to the future. This is achieved through an in-depth analysis of anniversary journalism by the media, dedicated to the commemoration of the Holocaust in Israel. Specifically, Wermenbol presents the national trauma invoked by the Holocaust and the Nakba as a national identity formed by the largest Israeli and Palestinian media outlets, albeit under the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, A Tale of Two Narratives presents the significant impact of mass media on the insight of the viewers and the general public. This part of the book also provides perspicacity into the instrumentalization of the two narratives of memory, where the past contextualizes current occurrences, perceptions, and concerns. Generally mass media, as a means of ideological agenda-setting, forms the perceptions of those who adhere to it. Nonetheless, not only are those who consume mass media are impacted by its mediated transmissions, but the agents behind their creation are as well. It is important to note the contradiction that exists in this part of the book. Mass media in Israel has not given as much attention to the Palestinians and their lives under the ongoing Nakba, as it has the trauma of the Holocaust. Therefore, the examination of mass media brings forth the issue of misinformation and under-coverage, which exists when examining the Nakba.

            The book concludes with a discussion of “the ongoing Nakba,” in which the Palestinian minority has “used its cultural autonomy to address grievances resulting from its post-Nakba status as an involuntary minority” (305). In fact, Palestinians in Israel lack cultural autonomy as a minority with no equal rights. This, according to the author, stems from the continued attempts by the State of Israel to erase their narrative from the “public consciousness.” Wermenbol posits that for the Palestinians living within the 1948 borders, the Nakba continues to present itself as a continuous event which is characterized by the contemporary political, social, and cultural marginalization, suffered under Israeli hegemony.

            A Tale of Two Narratives suffers a serious lack of engaging the Palestinian experience. Specifically, the book is written along a narrative which places the traumatic memories of two groups of people side-by-side. There is no comparison for these two distinct experiences, given that one narrative may not be considered a memory but an ongoing struggle of displacement, threatening the existence of an indigenous people. Although Wermenbol claims that “one cannot compare mass extermination by an external, third party with mass, episodic displacement,” for such an “equation” would be ethically and historically erroneous, one that fails “to recognize the divergence in historical culpability” (2; italics added). Her terminology downplays the planned dispossession and expulsion of Palestinians by Zionists. To this day, Palestinians continue to live under the belligerent settler colonial state and its occupation. While Germany is responsible for the Holocaust, as Wermenbol notes, the state of Israel is historically responsible for the Nakba and its enduring policies against the Palestinian population of the Filastin al-dākhil (internal Palestinians) and the Filastin al-shatāt or al-khārij (the diaspora of Palestinian refugees).

            Despite the gaps, A Tale of Two Narratives would be of interest to students and scholars of Middle East and Memory studies, identity politics, the creation of nation-states, and settler colonialism. Finally, A Tale of Two Narratives is of the upmost importance for those interested in examining the interaction of the media, press, and state in fomenting a national identity based on collective memory.

            Author and article information

            Arab Studies Quarterly
            Pluto Journals
            4 November 2022
            4 November 2022
            : 44
            : 3-4
            : 218-220
            [1-arabstudquar.44.3-4.0218]AM Candidate, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University
            Author notes
            © 2022 Christina Bouri

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            Page count
            Pages: 3

            . A Tale of Two Narratives: The Holocaust, the Nakba, and the Israeli-Palestinian Battle of Memories ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021). 392 pages. Hardback $99.00

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