When Boaz Modai finished his posting as the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland, he published an intriguing article in the Irish Independent that talked about the subject of memory.
In that piece, he compared his experience to that of Bill Murray in the film Groundhog Day, finding an equivalent between Murray’s continually waking up on the same day to the ongoing reset he experienced regarding attitudes towards events in the past. Specifically, he continually found himself having to explain and re-explain simple and obvious truths that seem to be forgotten as soon as the sun went down on the Emerald Isle.
I suppose the fact that Israel came into being as a nation state the same way dozens of other nations did after World War II, or that the new country had to fight off an attempt at annihilation at the moment of its birth can be consigned to history which few people know these days (a depressing fact in itself). But why have events within living memory – including generous peace offers made by successive Israeli governments, voluntary withdraws from territory conquered in defensive wars (the only examples of this phenomenon I can think of) and the behavior of Hamas during the many wars it has triggered since seizing Gaza – also fallen into the memory hole?
As much as I enjoyed Modai’s Groundhog Day reference, it strikes me that a better movie metaphor for the phenomena he describes is Memento, a quirky thriller about a man (played by Guy Pearce) who suffered a brain injury which left him incapable of forming new memories. In order to deal with his impairment, Pearce organizes his life around obtaining “facts” which he writes down and tattoos on his body in order he navigate his quest for revenge against the person who supposedly caused his injury and killed his wife. To the hero, this mechanism offered a sensible way to manage his mental limitations, but for the rest of the cast (and the audience), this behavior left him indistinguishable from a psychopath.
You can see similar pathologies at play among those who have substituted their own “facts” (ones that begin at the “Nakbah” and include only acts of supposed indiscriminate brutality by Israelis) for everything that has occurred over the last century that might put those acts into any kind of context. And, as we all know, this behavior is hardly isolated to Ireland (even if Israel-hatred has proven to be particularly brutal and transparently moronic in that location).
Of course, such amnesia is abetted by active propagandists committed to reinterpreting every event – present and past – in a way that characterizes Israel in the worst possible light. This is why books are published, conferences convened and posters plastered onto the sides of buses all dedicated to demonstrating that patently obvious truths (the nature of Israel’s founding, the wars waged against it, peace offers, the responsibility of Hamas for the current state of Gaza, etc.) don’t exist or never occurred.
And just as the word “Holocaust” has been seized upon as one more verbal weapon against the Jewish state, so has “denial” (a term originally coined to describe the behavior of those who refuse to believe the Shoah happened) has become a tool of propagandists who condemn their critics as “Nakbah Deniers” for refusing to accept their one-sided version of history as holy writ.
The behavior of such propagandists, as ugly as it may be, is at least understandable given their political mission to smear the Jewish state to such a degree that its destruction becomes desirable. But what are we to make of the amnesia being displayed by the wider public – in Ireland and around the world – which seems ready to self-lobotomize when it comes to understanding what the Middle East is truly like?
I suspect the answer can be found in another discussion of memory, notably Lee Harris’ notion of “forgetfulness” fleshed out in detail in his masterful book Civilization and Its Enemies.
I looked at this concept a little bit when I thought I was retiring Divest This a few years back, but to distill it into something that fits into this conversation, forgetfulness is Harris’ way of describing the behavior of people in the world (such as Europeans and, increasingly, Americans) that have had the good fortune to avoid the war, hunger and misery that have characterized human existence for nearly our entire time on this planet.
The first generation which has managed to reach such a state of bliss is likely to be astounded by their incomparable good fortune. But subsequent generations will start to take their comforts as a given and begin to forget that their experience is an extreme exception to all human previous experiences where life was nasty, poor, brutal and short.
Such forgetfulness is not passive, but active and – in some cases – violent. For the need to forget the dangers of the past also requires you to ignore those same dangers in the present, especially the behavior of ruthless actors ready to rain misery on the planet once again for their own personal gain. Thus a nation like Israel – which is forced to continue to live in a world that includes the danger and sacrifice other peoples have forgotten (or want to forget) – becomes a painful reminder of what the world is truly like.
Faced with such a reminder, we can make room in our lives to understand that it is we in our comfort and seeming security that represent an anomaly, and turn with respect towards those who are forced to still confront the jungle we have walled ourselves off from.
Alternatively, we can resent and even hate those who demonstrate that our seeming bliss might be illusory (and likely temporary) and ignore (or forget) everything that might cause us to understand vs. despise those forced to live in the world we’d prefer to ignore.