Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
On Narratives, Power, and Peace: A Note from a Palestinian Activist
by Mazin Qumsiyeh
As a social species, humans build narratives to sustain and strengthen group bondage and identity. Like all human constructs, narratives can bring positive or negative results. We should generally respect different philosophies and narratives, but there are some narratives we simply cannot accept -- for example, a narrative like that of a white European who believes Aryan white culture is superior to others and acts on this idea like fascists and Nazis did in the twentieth century.
Why should we accept notions of Christian superiority held by some Catholics who supported massacres committed during the crusades, or similar notions among some Orthodox Christians who supported massacres committed during the crusades and during the civil war in Lebanon? Why should we accept the notions of an Islamic "Umma" as articulated by Osama Bin Laden that all Muslims should stand as one and justify mass killing of "the others"? And why should we accept the political Zionist narrative of "the Jewish nation" that results in displacement of native people who happen to be Christians and Muslims?
Narratives based on mythologies can of course be harmless when believed by people living their ordinary lives in a multicultural and multireligious society. But they can be highly destructive when practiced via state power. That is why the founding fathers of the United States were adamant about the separation of religion from state power. Thomas Jefferson wrote to Rabbi Mordecai Noah on May 28, 1818:
I thank you for the Discourse on the consecration of the Synagogue in your city, with which you have been pleased to favor me. I have read it with pleasure and instruction, having learnt from it some valuable facts in Jewish history which I did not know before. Your sect by its sufferings has furnished a remarkable proof of the universal spirit of religious intolerance inherent in every sect, disclaimed by all while feeble, and practiced by all when in power. Our laws have applied the only antidote to this vice, protecting our religious, as they do our civil rights, by putting all on an equal footing. But more remains to be done, for although we are free by the law, we are not so in practice.
Here in Palestine, we unfortunately face a unique narrative that acquired tremendous power and resulted in a large population of refugees after World War II. The question many Jews are struggling with is how to separate this Zionist narrative from the rich and wonderful history of Jewish contributions to humanity. The way forward is certainly not to replace the Zionist narrative with another theocratic narrative (based instead on misrepresentation of another great religion) but to apply the remedy that Jefferson spoke of to Noah. Transforming Palestine/Israel into a state for all its people with a constitution that separates religion from state power is described in detail in my book Sharing the Land of Canaan. This is the path that will ensure survival and prosperity to all people regardless of their particular narrative. That is the real road to peace and the path that will make us a "light unto the nations."
Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, Ph.D., teaches and does research at Bethlehem and Birzeit Universities in occupied Palestine. His latest book is Popular Resistance in Palestine: A History of Hope and Empowerment (Pluto Press, 2010).Her articles in Tikkun include "Co-existence and Joint Action: A Lesson from 60 Years of Conflict," May/June 2008; and "Should We Be Celebrating Israel/Palestine Negotiations in D.C.?," September 2010.
Source Citation: Qumsiyah, Mazin. 2011. On Narratives, Power, and Peace: A Note from a Palestinian Activist. Tikkun 26(1): 62