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By Chana Morgenstern

A few years ago, in a seminar I took on contemporary Palestinian literature, the professor gave us a homework assignment to draw a map of Israel and Palestine.  I remember finding it a bit comical, the idea of a bunch of graduate students going home, digging up some crayons or markers, and clumsily tracing maps of Israel and the occupied territories, carefully coloring in the areas along the borders.  And what was the point, really? Weren’t many of us a little too familiar with this map, which managed, no matter how often its borders promised change, to serve as a reminder of the political stalemate?  During the following class, we all laid out our half-baked creations like children, placing them carefully side by side on two seminar tables that had been pushed together.  To my surprise, the drawings barely resembled each other; some (like my own) attempted to faithfully record the contemporary political situation as it stood during that particular month and year, but others varied wildly: there was a rendition of the traditional pre-1948 map of Palestine drawn in black and brown crayon, with hundreds of names of Palestinian villages painstakingly written in black ink, maps that represented the “biblical” Israel that  spread into the territories of Syria and Jordan, maps that did not include Israel but represented Palestine as the entire territory with an emblem of the Palestinian flag grafted over Jerusalem, and maps that traced the many shifting political borders of the past sixty-odd years, a spiderweb of aftermaths: 1948, 1967, 1993 and so on . . . For me, the most surprising map was a simple computer printout of the Middle East, which had been placed unassumingly and perhaps a little sheepishly toward the end of the row.  Whoever had produced the map remained silent, perhaps embarrassed by the perceived lack of effort he had put into the assignment, but I found it fascinating that only one map actually reflected Israel/Palestine in a global or regional context.  None of the other maps included any Arab countries (except as border markers) around the Israeli/Palestinian territory; they looked like islands surrounded by white space.   For me, these floating triangular islands were reminiscent of the way in which the political situation is treated by mainstream media, as a kind of isolated, tribal conflict, with no concrete relationship to world history.

I recently read a forum on the Internet on the topic of why so many people in the West are “obsessed” with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  A handful of people reiterated what many of us already know: that America’s fixation on the conflict stems from their ongoing involvement in and tacit support of it as weapon suppliers (as well as financial backers) of Israel.  Yet, America as well as Europe’s relationship to this conflict runs much deeper than current foreign policy reveals.  This relationship includes the history of British colonialism in the Middle East and the institutionalization of such seminal treaties as the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a colonial mandate document that called for “a national Jewish home in Palestine,” without a thought to the national rights of the Arab Palestinians living in the region.  It includes the divide-and-conquer tactics of French colonizers, who pitted North African Jews and Arabs against each other in a bid for population control.  It includes the history of European anti-Semitism, which forced many Jews out of Europe, and Middle Eastern nationalism, which forced many Jewish communities out of Arab countries.  And finally, it includes the many Jewish and Palestinian communities that have been an integral part of both the Arab world and the West.  Israel/Palestine is not some isolated territory, but one whose communities and politics are irrevocably tied to various aspects of global imperialism, history, and culture.  Yet, in many places there seems to be a vested interest in suppressing this kind of understanding.  When I was growing up in Jerusalem during the early '90s, most of my school friends were Jews from the Arab Middle East and North Africa, yet we hardly ever discussed the cultural and historical origins of our families.  In school, it was, of course, far more common to hear about the history of Eastern European Jewry than that of the Middle East, yet even that history seemed a slightly archaic and embarrassing relic of the past.  What was important was that we were Israeli.  Yet the whole notion of what it means to be Israeli, and Palestinian, is inextricably tied to these historical and cultural roots: the history of both Jews and Palestinians in the Arab world and the West, the relationship between Western imperialism, the Middle East, and Israel and Palestine, and the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians within this larger context.

And what, you might ask, does all of this have to do with literature?  In my own experience, this region’s literature is precisely the place in which these transnational, cross-cultural dynamics are being explored.  Just as the Israel/Palestine conflict is portrayed out of context, in isolation, so the literature of both Israeli and Palestinian writers is often depicted as narrow and provincial.  But despite their obvious differences, both Israeli and Palestinian literatures are directly engaged with the project of recording historical, communal, linguistic and cultural shifts, chronicling the histories of their communities both regionally and globally, and exploring the history and psychological dynamics of the conflict itself.  In the coming months, we hope to explore contemporary literature and interview writers in Israel/Palestine whose work reflects these cross-cultural, regional, and global connections. 

Published Aug 9, 2010   Copyright 2010 Chana Morgenstern

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