Israeli/Jewish historical memory of the Palestinian refugee issue

Posted: April 2, 2011 by Rex Brynen in Israel, new research

The latest issue of the Journal of Peace Research has a piece by Rafi Nets-Zehngut (Tel Aviv University) on “Origins of the Palestinian refugee problem: Changes in the historical memory of Israelis/Jews 1949–2004.”

The major historical issue in the Israeli–Arab/Palestinian conflict is the causes for the 1948 Palestinian exodus. Among the Israelis/Jews there are two main narratives regarding this issue: the Zionist one – the refugees fled, for various reasons; and the critical one – some fled while others were expelled by the Jewish/Israeli security forces. This article explores the way the Israeli/Jewish historical memory (i.e. the Israeli/Jewish research community) related to this historical issue from 1949 until 2004. According to the findings, until 1957 this memory exclusively presented the Zionist narrative. However, from 1958 to 1976 this Zionist trend largely continued but was accompanied by considerable critical studies. Later, from 1977 to 2004, this memory was characterized by the almost exclusive adoption of the critical narrative (with major increase in its significance since 1988). These findings contradict the way the literature relates to this memory as almost exclusively Zionist until the late-1980s. Other aspects of this memory are also discussed, such as the explanations for its characteristics, the significance of non-academic scholars, the contribution of scholars who reside externally to the given country, state–research community relations, the influence of present interests on the portrayal of the past, and gender issues. The findings have theoretical implications for collective and historical memories.

In the study, the author examines “studies [of the refugee issue] published as books, articles in academic journals, or chapters in edited volumes”  written in Hebrew or English by Jews (only), whether living in Israel or abroad. Frankly, I’m not entirely convinced that research work by scholars is necessarily a good proxy for measuring historical memory, or indeed any other sort of attitudes—the views of MESA members on the Middle East would track fairly poorly as a measure of US public attitudes, for example. Consequently, it would have been nice to have seen some integration into this analysis of the (admittedly limited) public opinion data on Israeli Jewish attitudes to the refugee issue. A much more rigorous content analysis might have been undertaken as well. Still, the article does show the shift in (academic) narratives on the refugee issue over time.

In future, when new academic articles or books appear on the Palestinian refugee issue appear, I’ll try to post a note here on the PRRN blog. Consequently, if readers come across something recently published that I’ve missed, please drop me a line to let me know.

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