On March 30, 1976, the mayors of the Arab towns and villages in Israel declared a one day strike, in protest against the governments policy regarding the use of eminent domain to acquire land for Jewish settlements. They perceived this policy as an attempt to force the Arab farmers and shepherds off of their ancestral lands. The peaceful protest degenerated into riots in several locations. Israeli police and soldiers opened fire, and six Arabs were killed. Ever since then, March 30, Land Day, has been a day of memorial and sometimes of protest among the Arab citizens of Israel. The focus of the rioting in 1976, and the site of a monument to the six who were killed (created by two sculptors, one Jewish and one Arab), is the town of Sachnin. Sachnin is a five minute drive from Shorashim; it is a town of 23,000, 90% Moslem, 10% Christian.
Since the riots of October 2000, which represented a scenario similar to Land Day of 1976, there was much discussion of what will happen on Land Day this year, and what we, the Jews of the area, should do to defuse violence, to assert our own rights to peace and safety, to help the Palestinian Arabs of Israel achieve equal treatment and opportunity. We (Makom ba-Galil, the seminar center at Shorashim) decided that our proper role is educational, so we scheduled an educational tour for the general public a week before Land Day, including meetings with Jewish and Arab leaders and a look at issues of land policy and ownership. To our surprise, over 50 people signed up from communities in the area, and the morning was a great success, characterized by thoughtful and open discussion.
Among the stops on the tour was an exhibit created in Sachnin by a dynamic young history teacher from the town, in the Islamic community center. It consists of photographs, news clippings, and other memorabilia relating to events in the town in each violent episode in recent history: the Arab rebellion of 1936-39, the War of Independence (when Sachnin surrendered to the Israeli army without a fight), Land Day, and the riots of October 2000 (when two young men were killed). As we left the building, a friend - a Jewish educator - commented to me: so where does that lead? What do you do with it? The exhibit was clearly designed for the youth of Sachnin, to familiarize them with their heritage of suffering. But what is the message of that heritage? Sadness? Anger? Pride? Hatred? Self-pity? Righteous indignation? Belief in a better future?
As with our own teaching of the Holocaust, I think that there are two different messages that can be drawn from a heritage of suffering, from the perception of victimhood:
Never again! - no one will help us if we dont help ourselves. Therefore we must be strong, know how to look out for our own interests, not be deceived into compromising our safety.
We know the heart of the stranger - knowing suffering as we do, we must be especially sensitive about preventing the suffering of others.
The purpose of the exhibit in Sachnin seemed to be to transmit not a universalistic message against oppression and violence, but rather a very particularistic, nationalistic one of look how we have suffered - see how it gives us the high moral ground! Too often, I fear, this is how we relate to our own history. It is a moral, educational fallacy that does no one any good. When we see it in our own educational efforts, we can critique it and discuss it and explain it. When we see it in others, it makes us feel angry, afraid, and threatened. After all, we are the classic victims; people can be tried and punished for denying our suffering. How dare the Arabs come along and claim victim status - with us as the oppressors, no less!
Why must victimhood be a zero-sum game? The educational challenge is: how can we learn to understand and respect the pain of others without feeling that doing so somehow challenges the authenticity of our own suffering, or even our right to exist?
Footnote: Land Day passed this year quietly: peaceful protest marches by Arabs, while the police kept their distance.