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Israel, Palestine, and ‘personal history in times of crisis’
15th November 2023 • Trending Globally: Politics and Policy • Trending Globally: Politics & Policy
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How do our individual experiences shape our political views? What role do our own stories and memories play in how we think about the world around us? How can we use our memories — even our most painful ones — to help build a more peaceful politics? 

These are complicated questions, and not of the variety we often ask on this show. But historian Omer Bartov thinks that trying to answer them is essential to finding political solutions to our most vexing problems. And in his new book “Genocide, the Holocaust and Israel-Palestine: First-Person History in Times of Crisis,” Bartov powerfully makes the case.  

On this episode of Trending Globally, Dan Richards talks with Bartov about the book — which weaves together personal stories, historical analyses and a moral critique of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians — and how individual stories and personal memories are inextricably linked to the politics we create. 

Although this podcast was scheduled before the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis, the interview took place in the wake of the events of October 7 and therefore those events are a big part of the conversation. But as this conversation hopefully makes clear, Bartov’s book and analysis are even more important and relevant in our current moment.

Learn more about an purchase “Genocide, the Holocuast, and Israel-Palestine: First-Person History in Times of Crisis

Reading recommendations from Omer Bartov:

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts


[COOL MUSIC ] DAN RICHARDS: From the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Dan Richards. How do individual experiences shape our political views? What role do our own stories and memories play in how we think about the world around us? And how can we use our memories, even our most painful ones, to help build a more peaceful politics?

These are complicated questions, and not of the variety we often ask on this show. But historian Omer Bartov thinks that trying to answer them is essential for finding political solutions to our most vexing problems in his new and incredibly prescient book, Genocide, The Holocaust and Israel-Palestine. First Person History in Times of Crisis Powerfully Makes the Case.

The book which weaves together personal stories, historical analysis, and a moral critique of Israel's treatment of Palestinians illustrates how individual stories and personal memories are inextricably linked to the politics we create.

OMER BARTOV: There are links in memory, there are links in experience, and there personal links-- there were soldiers fighting in Nineteen Forty-Eight who were survivors of the Holocaust who believed that they were fighting for their own existence, for their own state.

And they saw those who opposed them as somehow connected to the event that they came from. Although, of course, the Palestinians who were fighting them had nothing to do with the murder of the Jews in Europe. The politics of memory plays a huge role. And one cannot do away with it.

DAN RICHARDS: We had scheduled this podcast in September, but we recorded it after the events of October 7. Of course, those events and all that has come since became a big part of our conversation, as you'll hear. I hope, like me, you find that Omer's analysis is even more important and relevant in our current moment. On this episode, Omer Bartov on the politics of memory and the role memories and stories play in moments of crisis. Omer Bartov, thank you so much for coming on to Trending Globally.

OMER BARTOV: Well, thank you for having me.

DAN RICHARDS: Before we get into some details of the book, I wonder if we could just start with sort of you as a historian, an expert in the history of the Holocaust who has such close ties to Israel. How are you thinking and feeling about this moment?

OMER BARTOV: I'm thinking about it on various levels, in truth. I was born and grew up in Israel. I have many friends in Israel. I have a son in Israel who's partner who is pregnant right now comes from one of the kibbutzim that was attacked, from kibbutz Be'eri where over 100 people were murdered. And a cousin of hers, this cousin's husband right now hostages in Gaza. And we hope they're alive.

So on that level, it's very, very personal. It was also just shocking to hear the details, the number of the people killed and often the manner in which they were killed. I tried not to watch too many of these clips. So that's on the personal level.

But I do also have another way of thinking about things as a historian and as someone who was engaged before this happened, just in the months leading to that, in an attempt to forestall what colleagues of mine and myself were fearing. That is that the current government in Israel was leading toward something that one could tell would be some kind of violent explosion.

And on that level, I am also deeply frustrated, angry in many ways. And hoping that finally people on both sides will understand that these cycles of violence these horrific and increasingly violent events will only be stopped through politics and not through more and more violence. And so in that sense, yes, it's been very difficult weeks.

DAN RICHARDS: In August of this year, over a month before these attacks, Omer co-wrote a public letter expressing this frustration with the Israeli government. The impetus for the letter, which now has over 2,000 co-signatories, was the recent so-called judicial reform efforts in Israel promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Which aimed to empower Israel's far-right wing and facilitate further Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

Omer and his co-authors wrote how these reforms weren't just anti-democratic, they were an example of the increasingly oppressive policies the Israeli government held towards Palestinians. And that such oppression was not only immoral but unsustainable.

OMER BARTOV: What our letter tried to say was there is an elephant in the room. The elephant in the room is the occupation. If we don't resolve the issue of the occupation, on the one hand, the government will continue trying to push for this reform so that it can carry out its policy of annexing the West Bank. And so that has to be faced by the protest movement.

And the letter used a couple of terms that people find difficult to swallow. One term is apartheid. And the other term is ethnic cleansing. We use the term apartheid because in the West Bank, there is now, by the analysis of quite a number of experts in international law, the regime of apartheid.

And to put it very simply, what it means is that by now there are probably about 750,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and about three million Palestinians. They live under two totally different legal systems. The Jews living there vote to the Israeli Knesset, to the Israeli parliament.

Whereas Palestinians live under military law. And that means that they basically have no rights. You can detain them for as long as you like. The age of children who can be arrested is much lower than that of Jewish children, and so forth.

And increasingly since October 7, the military is working hand in hand with the settlers there to exercise violence against Palestinians, to take over their lands, to move them out of their villages, to intimidate them with the desire to make life impossible for them so that they would finally leave. So there is a sort of increasing process of an attempt at ethnic cleansing. And this is what we wanted to point out.

DAN RICHARDS: So this letter was an attempt to bring the topic of Israel's occupation and, as you say, regime of apartheid to the forefront of the protests against these so-called judicial reform efforts. How did people react to this letter?

OMER BARTOV: Many of the signatories-- we had close to 3,000 people signing the letter within a few weeks. In Israel, many of those signed were academics. Whether there was a major response to it otherwise in Israel, not so much. There was a much bigger response in the United States.

And what was interesting, both in the people who signed from Israel and American scholars who signed, was that these were relatively mainstream people. These were people a year earlier would never have signed the letter they used the word apartheid.

And they realized that all of this is before COVID 7. We have to remember they realized that what was going on right now was no longer supportable. And we had people such as Benny Morris, a very important Israeli scholar who wrote the definitive book on the Nakba, on the expulsion of the Palestinians in Nineteen Forty-Eight, and who is quite conservative signing this letter. And I wanted to make sure that he actually signed it. And I was in touch with him and he said, yes, there is no other way to describe that now.

So there was a sense among many people, I think, also within the sort of moderate mainstream Jewish community in the United States that things were going in the wrong direction. And that we could not call them any other way but what they are, apartheid in an attempt at ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.

DAN RICHARDS: I want to get back to your views on this current crisis. But before we do that, I want to go back in time a little. So the title of your new book is Genocide, The Holocaust and Israel-Palestine. And I can't really think of a more volatile collection of words right now. But the subtitle of the book is, Personal History in Times of Crisis.

And this book deals a lot with your own personal history and how individual memories can play into the study of history more broadly, and how memory informs your understanding of this current crisis. So I was wondering, to get into these ideas more, if we could start with the story of a town that features prominently in your book, Buchach, Ukraine. Again, for listeners, this will bring us back to the present shortly. But what brought you to study the town of Buchach?

OMER BARTOV: This is going back 20 years. At the time I was already involved in writing about the Holocaust. And in the nineteen-ninties, there were certain tropes about it. It was generally seen as a particularly modern genocide in which a powerful modern bureaucratic tyranny organized the mass murder of millions of people across the continent.

And did it by transporting them to extermination camps, and then killing them in large numbers in a way that compartmentalized the process. And so in a sense, the picture that was created of the Holocaust was of a mass murder created by people sitting behind desks.

And I started wondering about that. What happened in small towns? How did this happen, actually, in a single small town? And we knew statistically that about half of the people murdered in the Holocaust were not murdered in extermination camps, but were murdered elsewhere.

And so I thought, why don't I look at one town and see what happened in that town. But I chose a town in Eastern Europe because that's where most Jews had lived and that's where most of them were murdered. My mother comes from a town like that, and I know nothing about her town.

The only thing I knew about it was from a famous author Shmuel Yosef Agnon who won the Nobel Prize in literature in Nineteen Sixty-Six and came from that town. But he left it before World War I. My mother left it in the nineteen-thirties. And I spent 20 years really retooling myself from a German historian to a historian, learning Polish history, Ukrainian history. Learning new languages and doing the extensive research that led to writing on this town.

And my conclusion was that in such towns-- and there were hundreds of such towns-- genocide looked very different. It's not the way we had thought about it. It's not Auschwitz or Treblinka or Belzec. Although some of the people were eventually deported there, but half of the people were eventually deported to those extermination camps, especially to Belzec.

But it differed greatly in the sense that at least half of the people were killed right there in situ. They were killed publicly. Everybody was watching. Everybody knew. And their fates depended not only on decisions made by the Germans who came in, but on their own neighbors because these towns were more or less 50% Jewish and 50%, in this case, Polish and Ukrainian.

DAN RICHARDS: And as you write, there was a history of ethnic tensions in this town. So it wasn't-- the killing wasn't done entirely as the result of the German army invading the town, that it catalyzed some other type of long, simmering violence.

OMER BARTOV: Exactly. So in this region in which this town is located, there were about 60,000 Jews, of whom altogether about 10,000 were in Buchach. A unit of German security police numbering about 20 men murdered 60,000 Jews in the period of between late summer Nineteen Forty-Two, and early summer Nineteen Forty-Three.

So these 20 men could not have done it on their own. And the way they do it is they activate existing animosities, resentments, desire for vengeance, greed between the communities, and particularly anti-Jewish sentiments.

And they create auxiliary police units that make it possible for them to kill people. So quickly and so efficiently often, as I say, in public view. So that everyone in that sense not only is there no compartmentalization of the process, in fact, everyone is participating in it in one way or another.

DAN RICHARDS: Of this history you uncovered, what of it was preserved and presented in the town of Buchach?

OMER BARTOV: Well, the short answer is none of it. I came there for the first time in Two Thousand-Three. The only sign that was in the center of town, that had ever been a Jewish population there, was that a few years earlier, one street was renamed "vulytsia agnona," Agnon street.

DAN RICHARDS: After the famous author.

OMER BARTOV: After the famous author who was presented in a plaque there as a Ukrainian author who won the Nobel Prize in literature. And the town was proud of that, of course. But were there Jews there? What happened to them? Nothing was known there.

You could go to the site of the Jewish cemetery, which is one hill next to the town. It was abandoned. A lot of garbage was strewn there. And there were no signs whatsoever. And there was a mass grave there but it was unmarked.

And you could go to the other hill and you had to walk pretty deep into it with a guide because it was difficult to find. And there was one tombstone sized memorial that said that here 450 Jews were murdered. It was over the first mass grave of the first execution that took place there. No other information was available. And, in fact, the estimate would be that up to 7,000 Jews buried there in mass graves around the town.

DAN RICHARDS: Omer's mother left the town as a kid in Nineteen Thirty-Five with her two brothers and her parents. They moved to Palestine. As far as Omer knows, the rest of his family that stayed in the region was murdered. There have been steps taken to reckon with this history of genocide in Buchach.

There is a cultural center there now acknowledging some of their Jewish history, but Omer's point is not just that it's important to remember the Holocaust in all its gruesome detail. There's a bigger lesson about forgetting and erasure and the complex way that our memories inform our politics.

I wanted to move ahead in time a little bit, and you brought up something that I wanted to ask you about. So you were born and raised in Israel, and you've noted in your recent book some of the resonances and perhaps echoes-- I don't know what word feels most appropriate-- but between your family's history in Buchach and your own experience growing up in Israel but in very different-- from a very different position.

And there was this very powerful moment you describe in the book of encountering the overgrown Jewish cemeteries, as you said, in Buchach and the memories that brought up for you from your childhood. And I wondered if you could just elaborate on that for listeners, that connection.

OMER BARTOV: Every once in a while you have this illumination. You start thinking about things differently because of a particular experience. And it brings back all kinds of memories. And for me, the first time I went to Ukraine, both in Buchach and in other towns, you saw these abandoned cemeteries. Often Ukrainian kids taking the goats there to graze.

And I was thinking, what do these children know? What are they thinking when they're wandering around the cemetery it has tombstones some have been broken, but some are standing with the words in a script that they obviously cannot read. What does that do to them?

And after a while I started thinking about my own childhood. And in my childhood-- I was born in Nineteen Fifty-Four, so I belonged to the first generation born after the establishment of the state of Israel. I suddenly remembered that when I was a kid, first in North Tel Aviv and then in Ramat Aviv-- which is where the University of Tel Aviv is-- there were remnants of Palestinian villages. And we used to play in them.

I remember in particular there was a village called Muwannis, Al-Shaykh Muwannis, which is on a hill. Most of it is gone now. And now the University of Tel Aviv has spread over that and their dorms there and so forth. But when I was a kid, many of the houses were standing. And we used to go there-- there were abandoned by then-- play cops and robbers. There were Sabra bushes there, and we'd sort of pick the prickly pear.

And I was trying to think what did we think at the time. And we had no language for it. We knew vaguely that there had been Palestinian villages or Arab villages, as we referred to them at the time, for a while after Nineteen Forty-Eight. After that population being driven out, Jews who came from North Africa, especially from Morocco, were housed in the abandoned Arab villages. And then they were moved out and then the houses just stayed there with a few-- there were few people living there still.

DAN RICHARDS: So these were recently abandoned. These were not long, old abandoned structures.

OMER BARTOV: No, no. They were abandoned in the nineteen-fifties. So when I was there, say, 10 years later, they were still standing there. So we knew vaguely but there was no language to speak about it and nobody around us spoke about it. The word Nakba was not-- no one knew that word, the Arabic word for catastrophe.

DAN RICHARDS: Which is used to describe the mass displacement that occurred for--

OMER BARTOV: Displacement, expulsion, flight.

DAN RICHARDS: --After Nineteen Forty-Eight or--

OMER BARTOV: During the war, during the war itself. And you couldn't really ask anyone. It was something you didn't speak about. And that made me think about those Ukrainian kids wandering around those cemeteries, and also having no way to think about it because you don't study about it in school. Nobody tells you. The town has no plaques commemorating what happened in Buchach.

And there are certainly no plaques commemorating what happened to the Palestinians of Shaykh Muwannis or [INAUDIBLE], which was where I played when I was an even smaller kid, nothing. And, in fact, ironically, there was a house there that we referred to as the sheikh's house. And it was a big handsome house, although derelict. Later on the University of Tel Aviv took it over, coated the green house, and made it into the faculty club.

And so liberal professors would be sitting in the sheikh's house talking liberal politics, never acknowledging that there were actually in the house of-- he was not a sheikh but of one of the wealthier residents of that village who had been thrown out. And there was this complete disconnect between the reality that was staring you in the face and the way you spoke about your own environment and history.

DAN RICHARDS: You described how the connection between these two places for you, Buchach and where you grew up in Tel Aviv, was illuminated as an adult. And I wonder, how exactly does that type of illumination or that connection affect your understanding of each place? Is there a way that these memories inform each other? Does it feel like there is something that we can learn from Buchach to help us think about what we are seeing today in Israel and Buchach, or is the connection of a different nature?

OMER BARTOV: In this book and generally, I'm not interested in comparing the two events. I don't think that the Holocaust and the Nakba are comparable events, for many, many reasons that we probably don't have time to go into.

But the Holocaust was a continent-wide genocide in which close to six million Jews were murdered. And the Nakba was, in my terms, ethnic cleansing. It happened during a war, and the Israeli military was engaged in either intimidating or driving out the majority of the Palestinian population of what became the state of Israel, about 750,000 men, women, and children.

I'm not interested in comparing the events, but I am very interested in seeing the links between them. There are links in memory, there are links in experience, and there personal links. There were people who came from one event into another. And they brought the memories and the rage, the resentment, the fear of one event into another.

There were soldiers fighting in Nineteen Forty-Eight who were survivors of the Holocaust. And who believed that they were fighting for their own existence, for their own state. And they saw those who opposed them as somehow connected to the event that they came from. Although, of course, the Palestinians who were fighting them had nothing to do with the murder of the Jews in Europe. And that sort of memory, the politics of memory, plays a huge role. And one cannot do away with it.

DAN RICHARDS: And as Omer explained, its role, of course, continues into the present.

OMER BARTOV: The most explicit thing I would say is that over time, and especially since the nineteen-eighties, interestingly, the Holocaust as an event and as a memory has played an increasingly important role in Israeli politics. It has been mobilized to energize the population to give new generations of Israeli Jews a sense of meaning, a sense of threat, and to justify actions that otherwise are very difficult to justify, such as oppression of Palestinians.

So this is one aspect. The other thing, the Holocaust is in the past. Jewish populations have been largely removed from Eastern Europe mostly through genocide. There is no movement to go back there. This is over. This is a closed historical chapter.

The Nakba is not over. And any Palestinian you would speak with would tell you it's not over because, first of all, there are, as we said earlier, there are seven million Palestinians living in one way or another under the control of the Israeli authorities. And, secondly, because there is ongoing oppression of Palestinians. Many of them live in refugee camps. Many of them fear that there's going to be-- right now, in fact-- that there's going to be a second Nakba.

And there are many other Palestinians living in exile, and they have not given up the idea of coming back to their homeland. And as long as that is not dealt with, the Nakba is an ongoing event. And the only way to end it is through politics not through erasure.

DAN RICHARDS: You write in the book about using individual memories and histories and testimonies of individuals to help us see a fuller view of historical moments. Does that approach feel relevant and applicable to current crises like what we're seeing now?

OMER BARTOV: I think it has to be. It's hard, and it's especially hard for people who are suffering right now. Whether you're talking about the families of Israeli Jews whose family members were brutalized or are still as hostages in Gaza, or when you talk about Palestinian families with-- apparently by now-- thousands of children killed quite apart from the total numbers-- are now, I think, around 8,000 as we speak today-- these are figures that, OK, we don't for sure but the numbers are very high.

So people who are undergoing this kind of violence find it extremely hard to look at it through the eyes of the other side, of course. But we who have the privilege of not being right there, of not being directly impacted by this, I think must do that.

I actually was thinking about it just the other day. And I wrote a short piece on children because what you find is that both sides right now, not to be too polite, are weaponizing the deaths of children to show the brutality and inhumanity of the other side, thereby, in a sense, justifying their own brutality and inhumanity.

The horror, as in the past, can produce more horror, more violence, or, hopefully, can make people understand that you only perpetuate it by constantly flaunting your own victimhood in order to victimize others.

DAN RICHARDS: Given how much violence and pain is occurring in that region right now, how do you think we could-- steps could get taken to go in the direction of that type of, sort of, understanding and a more peaceful politics, as you write towards the end of your book.

OMER BARTOV: Look, I mean, right now things are so terrible. And as we speak right now, it's impossible to know where this is going to go. The dangers of a regional conflict, even larger than that, are very, very present. And the rage is huge.

But I was in the past a military historian, that's how I started my career. And the first thing you learn when you study military history, you have to learn Carl von Clausewitz who was a great Prussian analyst of war at the beginning of the 19th century. His most famous line is, "War is the extension of politics by other means."

Now, it does not mean that you always go to war because you can't resolve things politically. What it means is that when you go to war, you must have a political goal. If you don't go to war with a political goal, war can become an absolute war. An absolute war means a war of everyone against everyone it's a war of destruction. That was a term that was used by Hitler when he went to war on the Eastern Front, a war of annihilation, a war of destruction.

So if you try to apply this to the current state of things, Israel has the right to defend itself. There are good arguments to say, OK, Hamas needs to be dismantled. Although what that exactly means nobody quite knows. But what then? What does one want to accomplish?

And in Israel today, people are not talking about it. If you don't talk about it, then you are bound to perpetuate the situation of ongoing violence. And Israeli governments, at least in the last 20 years under Netanyahu, have decided to manage the conflict not to resolve it. And at the same time, to constantly enhance the settlement of occupied territories so as to make impossible any political resolution.

And this now blew up in people's face. And I'm not condoning the a horrific attack by Hamas, I'm just saying that you cannot expect anything but more and more violence if you try to simply deny the need for a political solution and you think that can keep people for decades under an oppressive rule.

DAN RICHARDS: You also write towards the end of this book about a new project you're working on, which aims to sort of weave together personal histories and political analysis of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Could you describe that project a little?

OMER BARTOV: Between October and January Twenty Twenty-Two, just before the so-called legal reform began and then these recent events, I spent three months in Israel. And I was doing what I called research for the new project that I outlined in sort of general terms in this book.

And what I did, I interviewed more or less 55 people, Israeli Jews and Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. And I interviewed people of my generation, that is people born between the late nineteen-fourties and the early nineteen-sixties, the first generation of people born into the state of Israel.

And I asked them about their link to the place. How do they feel linked to this place that they live in? And I did not define for them what I mean by place because people have different ways of thinking about it, and nor did I define link or connection.

And these were amazing conversations, and I will be using them to write a book. But what I would say is, A, that almost all the people I spoke with, with very few exceptions, had a very powerful intimate connection to the place.

B, all those people, I think with no exceptions, Jews and Palestinians, grew up in traumatized families either because of the Holocaust or because of the Nakba. Families in which often one could not speak about that until much later on.

And, three, that in speaking with people or really listening to them, just asking very few questions, just listening to them, what was created through the process of listening was a kind of empathy that you could not even imagine in theoretical terms.

It was simply when you ask people about their childhood, about their families, about their parents, then about raising their own children, something opens up which is way beyond, certainly, the usual conversation that happens in a place like Israel where you keep correcting the facts of the person you're speaking with. You say, no, it didn't happen exactly like this or you-- it's about listening.

And I think that when you do that, when you listen to people telling a story that is their story, you can't take their story away from them. You have your own story and they have their story. That is the beginning of an understanding that all those people belong to that place. They are part of it, but they have to find a way of living there together.

And the way to live there together is, first of all, to listen to each other's stories. It's beyond politics. It's deeper than politics. But without that, always imposing your own views on others, your own understanding of the past, your own memories on others is a one way street. You cannot do it.

So I don't know that the book that I'm going to write will change anything, but I'm hoping at least it will help to think a little bit differently about the place itself, about the people inhabited who are people just like us with their own memories, with their own fears, and with their own very strong connection to the place they were born in.

DAN RICHARDS: Omer Bartov, thank you so much for coming and talking with us on Trending Globally.

OMER BARTOV: Thank you very much for having me.

DAN RICHARDS: This episode was produced by me, Dan Richards and Zach Hirsch, with production assistance from Eric Emma. You can find links to Omer's work, as well as to book recommendations from Omer, for better understanding the history of Israel and Palestine in our show notes.

If you liked the show, please leave us a rating and review on the podcast platform you use. It really helps others to find us. And if you haven't subscribed to Trending Globally, please do that too. If you have any ideas for guests or topics, send us an email at Again, that's all one word, Thank you so much for listening. We'll be back in two weeks with another episode of Trending Globally.





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