Collective memory of conflict is not all about politics—The Israeli case: Empirical, theoretical, and practical aspects

Published date01 March 2018
Date01 March 2018
Collective memory of conflict is not all about
politicsThe Israeli case: Empirical, theoretical,
and practical aspects
Rafi Nets-Zehngut
Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel
Rafi Nets, Bar-Ilan University,
10 Bnei Dan Street, Tel. Aviv, Israel.
The most important theme in conflict memory studies has
been the politics of memory.This article, however,
argues that memory is also significantly influenced by
many apolitical factors, which are typically underre-
searched. Based on numerous documents and interviews,
the article examines the Israeli official, autobiographical,
cultural, and historical memories, from 1949 to 2004, of
the 1948 Palestinian exodus. Empirically and theoreti-
cally, the article offers various contributions, such as the
first typology of the three manifestations of the political
and apolitical uses of memory, and traces 13 apolitical
factors. All these findings are translated into practical
implications for the use of peacemakers and others.
Collective memory is an important sociopsychological phenomenon, which significantly influences
the international and the national arenas (Langenbacher, 2010). It addresses many subjects such as
nationalism and identity, although its major subject is political violence, defined widely to include
inter- and intrastate conflicts, terrorism, genocide, and despotic regimes (hereafter conflicts).
Memory studies have undergone significant growth recently, mostly pertaining to conflicts (Olick,
Vinitzky-Seroussi, & Levy, 2011; Paez & Liu, 2011). The main theme in these studies is Politics,
generally serving to advance the idea that the past, through memory, is presented in certain manner
to promote contemporary interests (Olick, 2007; Radstone & Schwartz, 2010).
The current article supports the Politics observation while suggesting a largely new direction in
memory studies: Memory is not only shaped by political considerations, as might be concluded from
the focus of the literature on the Politics theme. Many apolitical factors have an impact on the repre-
sentation of the past as well, though they are significantly underresearched. These apolitical factors
will be discussed below, exemplified by the ways in which the 1948 Palestinian exodus was pre-
sented in Israel by seven institutions from 1949 to 2004. This exodus is a central incident in the
Received: 10 July 2017 Revised: 18 October 2017 Accepted: 3 December 2017
DOI: 10.1002/crq.21211
© 2018 Association for Conflict Resolution and Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Conflict Resolution Quarterly. 2018;35:275294. 275
IsraeliArab/Palestinian conflict, a major conflict in the world politics and therefore of interest for
2.1 |The literature on collective memory
Collective memory can be generally defined as representations of the past, assembled in narratives,
that are collectively adopted(Nets-Zehngut, 2012a, p. 128; see also Kansteiner, 2002; Liu &
Hilton, 2005). Collective memory is a general category, which includes several (sub)types of memo-
ries. Five of the main types (Nets-Zehngut & Bar-Tal, 2014) are as follows: (a) Popular memory
representations of the past adopted by the public that can be best directly observed via public sur-
veys (Middleton & Edwards, 1997); (b) Official memory—“the representations of the past adopted
by the institutions of the state. This memory is manifested, for instance, in publications of state min-
istries and the army, national museums, and textbooks approved for use in the educational system
(Nets-Zehngut, 2012a, p. 128; see also Connerton, 2009; Wertsch, 2002); (c) Autobiographical
memory—“namely that of the people who experienced the discussed events first hand, which is typ-
ically manifested in memoirs and story-telling(Nets-Zehngut, 2012a, p. 128; see also Jennings &
Zhang, 2005); (d) Historical memory—“the way the research communitymostly academics, but
also independent scholarsviews the events of the past in its studies(Nets-Zehngut, 2012a; see
also Winter & Sivan, 1999); and (e) Cultural memorythe manner in which the past is viewed
through various texts such as books or newspapers, as well as through memorials, films, buildings,
and other cultural phenomena (Assmann, 1995).
The major theme in recent research on collective memory, including all of its types, is the poli-
tics of memory(a phenomenon also addressed as a usable past) (e.g., Olick et al., 2011; Rad-
stone & Schwartz, 2010; Winter, 2006; in addition to many of the studies mentioned below and
above; see also the below quote of Wa
skiewicz). This theme highly correlates with Maurice Halb-
wachss notion of the presentist approach,as it is presented in his seminal book On Collective
Memory.According to this approach, the past is a social construction that is shaped by present
interests and aspirations of a society. As collective memory is a social construction, individuals are
influenced by the interests of their society in its construction (Halbwachs, 1992).
The salience of the Politics theme is demonstrated by the research findings conducted by the
author of this article in the leading database ISI/Web of Science/Knowledge.It examined aca-
demic articles published in the first decade of the third millennium (from early 2000 to the end of
2010) and found that 889 articles deal with the politics of memory,and 165 deal with usable
past”—meaning a total of 1,054 articles deal with the Politics theme. The actual number of studies
dealing with this theme, however, is certainly much higher. There are many more academic data-
bases and many more relevant books that address the Politics theme, which were not reviewed in
the articles of the ISI database.
A significant group of the articles traced in the ISI database deal with state building and nation-
alism. Nonetheless, the majority of them discusses memories of conflicts (e.g., in South America,
the former Soviet Union and East European countries) in addition to social schisms (e.g., racial seg-
regation and maltreatment of indigenous peoples). Therefore, due to this salience, this article focuses
on the politics of the memory of conflicts.
A narrative of a conflict describes its course and the major events that led to its eruption. Typi-
cally, it is selective and simplistic, portraying in a biased way the group holding the narrative in a

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