Memory Voids and Role Reversals

A Palestinian scholar describes the whiplash of learning about the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks while visiting the Jewish Museum of Berlin, and reflects on moral juxtapositions and worlds overturned

Memory Voids and Role Reversals
The installation “Shalekhet” (“Fallen Leaves”) by the Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman, part of the Memory Void, one of the symbolic spaces on the ground level of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. (Robert Wallis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Listen to this story


My phone was buzzing in my back pocket, but I didn’t want to reach for it as I entered the Holocaust Tower. The “voided void” — a desolate concrete space accessible through a single door, with only a sliver of light from above — demanded full attention. I stood for a few minutes in the chill and dark, absorbing the sense of absence and loss.

This room was the end point of the underground floor in the Libeskind building, a recent addition to the Jewish Museum of Berlin. The building’s architecture is intended to convey “the physical emptiness that resulted from the expulsion, destruction, and annihilation of Jewish life in the Shoah.”

I was visiting Berlin for a conference and had wanted to see the museum on my free day. Berlin, and the fate of its Jewish population, has always weighed on my mind as a Palestinian. The atrocities of European antisemitism had overturned the world, ours included. And in the present day, Berlin continued to be a stage where Israeli-Palestinian politics played out. Not only was the city home to large Palestinian, Arab and Israeli communities, but Germany’s belated attempt to reckon with its antisemitism had also made a target of Muslims in general, and the Palestinian diaspora in particular.

I stepped out of the tower, and before proceeding to the upper levels for the permanent exhibits, I unlocked my phone. I had notifications in every group chat and social media app. Hamas fighters had breached the militarized fence around the Gaza Strip, entered nearby settlements, killed an unknown number and taken hostages. Academics and activists I spoke to regularly were trying to make sense of what was happening and what was to come. I couldn’t really absorb the scope of any of it.

Throughout the rest of the day I spent at the Jewish Museum, I oscillated between reading the information in each exhibit and stepping aside to check for more updates. I learned about the Jews of Worms and Mainz and their deep-rooted history in Ashkenaz (the region north of the Alps, though eventually the term would come to refer more broadly to Central and Eastern Europe). I learned that when Christian Europe launched the Crusades in the Levant that killed thousands of Muslims, it turned on its Jewish communities too, setting fire to Jewish quarters and driving them from their cities. Then I checked the latest death counts. I watched videos about German-Jewish life during the Weimar Republic and the debates that emerged between the assimilationists, who believed they had a space in European society, and Zionists, who advocated migration elsewhere. Then I refreshed live blogs for the latest statements from world leaders as the death toll ticked higher. It was as if I was absorbing violence across different eras, one bleeding into the other.

In one corner, a video of an elderly man, a proud socialist as he called himself, played alongside other Jewish voices to demonstrate the diversity of the community. When asked whether he felt at home in Germany, he responded: “If Israel had not been created, I would not have remained in Europe.” This sentiment is familiar to many Jews around the world. In a reality where the assimilationists had been proved wrong, Israel was the insurance policy. Israel ensured Jewish safety. As long as it existed, Jews could live anywhere with some reassurance.

But was that truly the case?

The founding of Israel did establish for Jews a state that represented them — that centered them — and that surely means a great deal to Jewish people, particularly those with family experiences of the Holocaust. But given that there was another population, embedded in a long-existing Arab civilization, already living in what would become Israel — the Palestinians, with their own nationalism — this state came with many costs.

The formation of a new state can be a “refugee-generating process,” as the late political scientist Aristide Zolberg outlined four decades ago. In the creation of the new Israel, 750,000 Palestinians were expelled, generating refugees and internally displaced people hemming in the new state from all sides. These refugees ballooned even further with every Israeli territorial expansion, including the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. Their right to return to their original homes was denied, and their justified anger escalated. “Safe” is not the word I would use to describe these conditions. Palestinians, of course, were never safe.

Israel maintained control over this population through an increasingly brutal military occupation, with a sophisticated system of permits and passes, alongside policies that dispossessed those remaining and pushed them out of the country. Later, Israel added such tools as a land, air and sea blockade in Gaza that continues to devastate generations, and a 30-foot separation wall that turned towns into crowded ghettos, surrounded by growing (and dangerously armed) settlements, all across the West Bank.

As historian Daniel B. Schwartz notes in his book “Ghetto: The History of a Word,” the ghetto has “figured prominently in virtually all the major developments of modern Jewish history,” with Israel emerging as the answer to the ghetto suffered by Jews around the world. The irony of a state formed as the “antithesis” to the ghetto using ghettoization as a strategy of control is not lost on Palestinians. This infrastructure of coercion went hand in hand, of course, with ever-present physical violence — imprisonment, home demolitions, air strikes and more.

Uprisings against this reality, and the use of violence, emerged frequently. For a short time, the idea of a two-state solution was entertained as a possible way out. That was quickly abandoned, however, and in recent years even the pretense of finding a solution has taken a backseat for both Israeli officials and their counterparts in the international community. Those involved in the peace process negotiations, such as Aaron David Miller, have acknowledged that they failed because of their one-sidedness, with U.S. officials handicapping themselves to take the Israeli position.

Instead, with the abandonment of the two-state solution, the international community — the U.S. in particular — has empowered Israel to ignore the Palestinian problem, expand settlements and make everyday life for Palestinians even more unlivable while it pursues normalization deals with governments in the region, sidelining the issue altogether. If the Palestinians are discussed at all, it is in the context of either marginally improving their conditions through economic incentives at best, or (as Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has put it) whether Palestinians will “surrender or transfer” at worst.

To anyone who follows Israeli and Palestinian politics with a modicum of honesty, with the humanity of the peoples involved at the forefront of their minds, the events of Oct. 7 were perhaps shocking in their scope and stomach-churning in their details, but not entirely surprising in their timing. Palestinian protest movements have been repressed, civil society has been targeted and hollowed out, and almost every type of political advocacy for Palestinians criminalized. What’s more, Palestinians have watched as grand “peace deals,” predicated on their continued subjugation, are drawn up and celebrated by self-proclaimed defenders of democracy like the U.S., alongside authoritarian regimes like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Violence has been present, escalating, and an explosion was coming; it was not a matter of if, but when.

The Western world’s bloodlust drove Jews, present in Europe for centuries, to seek safety, away from the antisemitism that it seemed no amount of assimilation could undo. And the Western world’s hypocrisy — giving a green light to virtually anything Israel does, sending weapons, vetoing humanitarian aid and sidelining Palestinians — now sustains violence that threatens to unravel the entire region into chaos, with global effects.

This dynamic has never been safe for anyone involved, but for a while this was easy to ignore because the Palestinians were the ones bearing the brunt of insecurity. An attack of this magnitude shocks the world, as it should. But this shock also speaks to the fact that the world has long normalized a lack of safety for some.

The world’s solution to safety and security, for Jews and for others, continues to be inextricably linked to the nation-state and its sovereignty — to militarized borders and an obsession with demography. As modern history has shown, such an idea always has the potential for exclusionary politics and mass violence. Perhaps most damaging of all is how such a solution propagates a diminished understanding of safety: It is the state that needs defending, not people. It is the state that holds sovereignty, not people. This logically leads to policies that label certain elements of society acceptable losses in times of conflict — sacrifices in the name of the state. And it facilitates an essentialist view of the world that cannot include the history of human migration and leaves no room for the fluidity of identity.

What this moment should instead make clear is that every road ends in violence if the only “solution” is this status quo. Thus, an end to violence means finding solutions to the issues that animate this conflict. Many people have articulated the issues; some have articulated possible solutions. For example, Palestinian organizations such as Al-Haq have outlined how, in the wake of a permanent occupation, Israeli domination can be characterized as apartheid. Later, international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch came to the same conclusion. In tandem, human rights advocates have outlined rights-based approaches, while scholars such as Leila Farsakh, Nicola Perugini and Rana Barakat have discussed settler colonialism as a framework for understanding dynamics in Palestine.

Activists with the One Democratic State Campaign, among others, have argued the two-state solution is no longer viable, and articulated what a one-state reality might look like.

But it is clear that none of these discussions and debates have significantly impacted realities on the ground because Israel does not come to the table, and given Israel’s increasing right-wing turn, it will continue to refuse to do so. The international community should have stepped in, but it didn’t. It allowed itself, and Israel, to think that it could maintain safety through sheer force. Instead, the most extreme elements have won out. And now the international community is greenlighting war crimes and forced displacement.

To be clear, actors in a conflict or on the international stage have agency, and all can make different choices. This applies to the Zionist militias prior to 1948 and the new Israeli state after, which have displaced Palestinians and often targeted civilians. It applies now to Israel’s conduct in Gaza, where at the time of writing over 8,000 Palestinians have been killed.

And this also applies to groups like Hamas. As an organization, Hamas came into existence 39 years after the state of Israel — after the displacement of 1948, the occupation of the territories in 1967 and a great many confrontations in the Arab-Israeli conflict over the decades. But, as Palestinian scholar Tareq Baconi has noted in a recent interview with The New Yorker, if it were not Hamas, it would have been something else. Indeed, the new militias that have emerged in the West Bank over the past two years, unrelated to Hamas, corroborate his point.

However, Hamas’ conduct on Oct 7. was not inevitable, nor was the hostage-taking and targeting of civilians, as Palestinian intellectual Azmi Bishara has pointed out. In this vein, Baconi noted in a recent interview that “colonial violence instills dehumanization both in the oppressor and in the oppressed,” but that “not all of that violence is in pursuit of a political project.” It seems the likelihood of actors using “sadistic violence” increases exponentially in a violent status quo.

A reconsideration of the nation-state as the sole source of safety, as well as the notion of a state-based sovereignty, is essential. It is people who have sovereignty: People have the right to a dignified life, to self-determination, to control of their environment and a say in their future. And people can only be safe collectively by ensuring those around them are also safe. States are the way we organize our world, and they can provide forms of safety, but often narrowly, fleetingly and by denying safety to others. A state that continues to deny sovereignty cannot sustain safety. In the name of sovereignty and safety, it will continue to cause violence. And a garrison can only protect for so long.

The whiplash of absorbing atrocities across multiple decades took a toll on me, so I left the Jewish Museum before closing time and wandered around, on streets that Jews had largely been erased from. I passed the remaining facade of Anhalter Bahnhof, a train station that served as a deportation center for Berlin’s Jews, not too far from the museum. None of this is history; the impact of Europe’s white supremacist violence is still being felt. I was too numb to cry but knew that more violence was coming. The world had still not learned that the only way to guarantee safety was to understand safety is relational.

This article was published in the Winter 2024 issue of New Lines’ print edition.

Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy