Generation and Narration in Research and Experience: Impressions from the Trilateral Research Project “1967 and After”

“It is not talked about” and “you do not hear about it” are among the comments made by my colleagues in Israel regarding 1967 or the Six-Day War when they approached me to participate in this project with them. Whether a short or a non-war, as some interviewees characterized it, June 5th and the subsequent days of 1967 changed the lives of Israelis and Palestinians profoundly. Thus, I embarked on a joint project together with Prof. Aziz Haidar and Prof. Hagar Salamon. Our undertaking rests on the conviction that an interview project focused on posing the question ‘how did this war impact everyday lives?’ to individuals from all walks of lives, ethnic and/or national affiliation,gender, and political conviction contributes in important ways to much needed conversations in present day Israel/Palestine: there is little to no knowledge among the two main groups regarding the other’s perception of the events, and there are many deeply rooted assumptions about each other which such a project can bring into common discourse. Occupation and settlements, wars and uprisings over the past decades all have as a backdrop the new territorial situation brought about by 1967. The individual and familial everyday experience of the war and its subsequent impact deserve to be spelled out in their very diversity and be brought to a public awareness that all too easily sees but two sides rather than millions of lives and complicated biographies with specific accommodations to a territorial, familial, and economic situation. We decided to initiate a project that focused on personal stories which we hoped to bring into the public sphere to demonstrate that the historical master narratives told about 1967 in Israel/Palestine are an oversimplification.

Interview Process

The project is supported by The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft DFG), and it aims to bring Israeli and Palestinian scholars into fruitful cooperation together with a Principal Investigator (PI) from a German research institution. Since the 1980s, when the foundation initiated these trilateral projects, approximately 80 such ventures have been funded, the majority of them within the natural sciences and medicine. They are meant to create spaces of work and communication bypassing the political – which is, as one might surmise, not easy. Everyone carries their upbringing and biography as well as their personal views with them. They also present bureaucratic hurdles in configuring administrative guidelines and expectations.

We began working on the project in 2017. The biggest hurdle is undoubtedly the enormous political tension between Israel and Palestine. The Palestinian part of the project is managed by Professor Aziz Haidar, an Arab Israeli sociologist who is also affiliated with Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for Peace Studies and who facilitated the cooperation. The social difficulties and political concerns faced by Palestinian students regarding participation in the research is nonetheless omnipresent and has made it hard to find interviewees willing to share their memories and to conduct and transcribe the interviews. A solution was eventually found by entrusting NGO with carrying out the substantial number of interviews in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza, and Amman. A list of questions transcribed and translated into English, leading to a more uniform corpus. Prof. Hagar Salamon, a Jewish Israeli, was the Israeli PI. She carried out a good number of interviews herself and also mentored a 
sizable number of students to carry out interviews largely in Hebrew and transcribe and translate them into English.

Historical Context

Before 1967, there was 1948, the year when the state of Israel gained independence and when, through the war associated with independence, approximately 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from what is now the state of Israel, an event referred to as the Nakba – literally, the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians. Before 1948, there was the Holocaust, killing 6 million Jews in Europe and beyond. Before 1948, there was 1917, the year of the Balfour Declaration, signed on November 2, after the British parliament had voted favorably on it.

The Balfour Declaration was, for Jews, a sign of hope for international support for a Jewish state; for the other nearly 90% of the inhabitants of Mandatory Palestine, comprised of Muslims and Christians, it was rather an offensive document; they were not even named separately but rather lumped together under the label “non-Jewish 
communities.” While the entire globe is riddled with the aftermath of colonial powers’ poor judgment of local histories and cultural-religious diversities, when it comes to poorly formulated decrees and rash decisions, the Middle East has a paradigmatic status: it combines problematic and short-sighted actions with all potential forms of physical and mental violence and lasting desolation. The region is also the cradle of three of the world’s major religions and is home to sites of enormous religious significance for each – some of them shared, many of them not.

The Generation Factor

Different generations and different family biographies inform the positions of the interviewers and interviewees in our project. Yet without a doubt, all of them see some aspect of migration or elements of refugee histories in their own lives or in their family’s. To illustrate the benefits as well as the challenges of interviewing across generations, I will look at two cases more closely and expand from there to more general points regarding the impact that doing these interviews has on those who are conducting, transcribing, and translating them.

Generational difference has not received much attention in the theorizing of qualitative interviews. Age gaps have been reported to be productive for older interlocutors to open up to an interviewer. The complex interpersonal configurations any interview will have in the Israel/Palestine terrain is more complex. Here, it is impossible to grow up without being deeply affected by the political and territorial questions, and interviewers are challenged to keep their own ideological convictions reined in, whether they be in support of or at odds with the interviewees.

I will begin with Raisa (pseudonym), an Israeli student who – like a number of the other young interviewers in our project – practiced interviewing with her grandmother. She had heard the stories of her parents, who were in primary school in 1967, as well as the precise accounts of what happened on which day on earlier occasions from her grandmother. But the greater formality of the interview unlocked sensory and bodily memories – the atmosphere of visiting the Old City for the first time after the war, for instance, which is an important component of most of the Israeli interviews. Attuned to how interviewing opens a space for personal memory and how it perhaps lets the judgment about the war’s outcome recede, at least in part, Raisa repeatedly stressed how impressed she was with the diversity of experiences the interviewees represented. Beyond the overall male-female difference, she found herself drawn into how individuals, back in 1967, made sense of the events, for instance in deeply religious terms, stressing the miraculous nature of the brief war, or in far more practical terms, with narrators recalling events moment by moment. But what she picked up as well from the seven interviews she had conducted up to the point of our conversation was the downturn within the present: the war did not lead to a good resolution.

Furthermore, interviewing and contributing to a project also involving Palestinians deepened the rifts within Raisa’s own sense of identity. Having done military service and having been made to feel good about her shooting skills, her post-military-service life turned toward peace making endeavors and investment in projects such as this one. Seeking distance from that former self and encountering, in the interviews, individuals who themselves are proud of the Israeli army and their families’ participation in defending and expanding Israeli territory is a methodological as much as a personal and a political challenge.

Emil (pseudonym), an Israeli interviewer who was born a decade and a half after the Six-Day War, made me realize the generational dimension inherent to this project methodologically. He described in quite emphatic terms how he experienced the gulf in ideological intensity between himself and an older female interviewee as the interview proceeded. She described her deep commitment to socialist goals in the years before 1967 when she still lived in the United States. The threatening war made her decide that she needed to leave her children behind to fight for the existence of Israel. While Emil marveled at the fervor of her actions, she in turn looked back at her young adult self and chastised herself for having placed her ideals before her role as a mother. Reflecting on the interview, Emil felt a profound gap: His own life experience is characterized by a highly conflicted attitude toward the state of Israel, always hoping to avoid being called into active military duty; he found it hard to grasp that anyone would ever have been so obsessed with this state that they would want to rush to its defense.

Emil also interviewed two older Palestinian men who had experienced 1967 as young adults. The contact had been established through a Palestinian friend in East Jerusalem. As he introduced the project’s aims, one of the interviewees asked: “What have you ever done for us Palestinians?” Emil was baffled; he had come as an ethnographer and found himself humbled as an Israeli. Generationally, he did not feel responsible for the 1967 war, and yet the interview situation made him feel guilty – not unlike the guilt felt by many young Germans, generation after generation, for the atrocities of National Socialism.

By contrast, Amal (pseudonym), a Palestinian Israeli in her late 30s who interviewed a Palestinian businessman twice her age in Jerusalem’s Old City, expressed deep empathy for her interviewee. She was drawn into his assertions regarding the veracity of his recollections of 1967. Details he narrated of the familial situation made her suffer with him and with them in hindsight. Here, the shared element of being on the losing side turned the generational difference into an enlargement of the collective memory of suffering. While I have not been able to have conversations with the mostly female Arab Israeli interviewers in their early twenties, the translated transcripts point to interview situations with high deference, with narrators speaking without interruption. The personal stories of hope for liberation that were quashed, turning into its opposite, are part of a larger, passed-on experience, albeit with many differences in the details.

Perceptions of Danger on Both Sides

There are many facets one could probe regarding the intertwining of age and generation in terms of both narrated experience and generational distance between narrators and interviewers. While the project seeks to transcend the winner-loser dichotomy and put the experiences of the individuals on an equal footing, this dichotomy and its aftermath nonetheless remain within the subjects involved, both those doing the research and those being researched. One difference is the latent awareness of violence, 
both real and potential, that runs through all of the young interviewers. Palestinians experience the daily hurdles of passing through checkpoints and living under surveillance from guard towers and armed Israeli patrols throughout the occupied terrain, including East Jerusalem. Young Israelis carry the obligatory military service within them as an experience that forces them to participate in their country’s defense, which is simultaneously also a source of ever-present potential aggression toward 
aggressors; at the same time, they have grown up through intifadas that have left them with a habitual sense of alertness, caution and anxiety.

Thus, particularly striking in generational terms is the differential amount of relatively peaceful time spans experienced. Palestinian interviewees often recall the time before 1967 as an almost pastoral, peaceful time, with at least the first years after the war still holding some possibility of peace agreements and rising prosperity. Israeli interviewees often appear to invoke 1967 as a war followed by a happy and prosperous time and acknowledge the continued economic prosperity despite ongoing major and minor warfare since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The young Israelis born into a succession of Intifadas speak of an awareness of endangerment and vulnerability since their childhood. One Israeli interviewer pointed to the knife Intifada as a moment when nervousness became a constant into her daily life, whereas for Palestinian interviewers, their entire life has been one of living under observation as a result of the constant suspicion of Arabs in the Israeli public sphere. For them, the participation in a collaborative project renders them suspect among their own, increasing the difficulty of getting interviews in the first place.