History and Memory: Global and Local Dimensions

History and Memory: Global and Local Dimensions

Thursday, May 17, 2012
12:00 AM - 12:00 AM
Landau Economics Building Lucas Room 134(A)

The second conference in the multi-year TEC-Van Leer Jerusalem Institute project on the reconciliation of divided regions and societies.


Conference Summary
By Roland Hsu, Associate Director, the Europe Center, and Kathryn Ciancia, (Ph.D., Stanford).

The Europe Center, with project partner the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, hosted the major international conference at Stanford University (May 17-18, 2012), dedicated to “History and Memory: Global and Local Dimensions”.  This conference was aimed to deepen our understanding of disputes over history, and to find ways towards resolving conflictual memory.  Participants – all leaders in their field, and representing voices from U.S., European, Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab worlds – were challenged to answer:

  • What are the historians’ responsibilities in developing shared narratives about war, civil conflict, occupation, and genocide?
  • How do we understand the relation between the work of professional historians and that of civic society organizations?
  • How should one think about the relative importance of historical commissions and truth commissions in “coming to terms with the past”?
  • How do efforts in post-conflict situations to reach accurate assessments (“truth”) of the events meet the needs of healing social, ethnic, and/or religious wounds (“reconciliation”)?
  • What are the consequences and meaning of actions of forgiveness, including the formal granting of amnesty? Do these actions conflict with the writing of history?

Participants included:
Khalil, Gregory (Telos Group)
Göçek, Müge (Univ. of Michigan)
Milani, Abbas (Stanford)
Bashir, Bashir (The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute)
Barkan, Elazar (Columbia)
Karayanni, Michael (The Hebrew University)
Confino, Alon (University of Virginia)
Bartov, Omer (Brown)
Cohen, Mitchell (Baruch)
Eshel, Amir (Stanford)
Glendinning, Simon (LSE)
Motzkin, Gabriel (The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute)
Naimark, Norman (Stanford)
Penslar, Derek (Toronto)
Rouhana, Nadim (Tufts)
Uhl, Heidemarie (Austrian Academy of Sciences)
Zerubavel, Yael (Rutgers)
Zipperstein, Steven (Stanford)

Notes and Highlights

In his opening remarks, Amir Eshel, Director of The Europe Center, situated the conference within its wider context—a series under the title “Debating History, Democracy, Development, and Education in Conflicted Societies,” which began with a conference on “Democracy in Adversity and Diversity” in Jerusalem in May 2011.  Eshel posed the question of why Stanford’s Europe Center should focus on issues relating to the wider Middle East, particularly the historic and ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  In answering his own question, Eshel argued that the European Union had begun to look closely at its own neighborhood, with a particular emphasis on the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EUROMED), which explores questions of migration, religion, and civil society in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa.  As such questions are important in both Europe and the EUROMED region, scholars who work on Europe need to think within a broader geographical context that stretches beyond Old Europe or even the European Union.

Amir Eshel also introduced some of the key ideas that informed the conference. Questions of memory and history have been central to academic discourse over the past three decades.  Indeed, memory and history have taken on a crucial, even obsessive, dynamic.  Where are we today in this global interdisciplinary conversation?  Can the study of memory help us to understand the conflicted societies of the greater Middle East?  Can the huge scholarly interest in such subjects help us to think in new ways about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?  Can the European experience of dealing with difficult memories aid us as we try to understand Israeli and Palestinian memories of the 1948 Nakba?  What is the role of historical research, on the one hand, and cultural remembrance, on the other, in promoting reconciliation and cohabitation? Since the conference aimed to focus less on the peace process in the Middle East and more on attempts at reconciliation and cohabitation, he urged participants to consider how Israelis and Palestinians might live together

In order to highlight work that had recently been undertaken, Eshel then focused on the fields of historical research and cultural discourse.  Over the past few decades, he argued, narratives have become increasingly crucial in the historiography, much of the impetus coming from so-called critical historiography.  For instance, the last decade has witnessed the publication of Motti Golani and Adel Manna’s Two Sides of the Coin, which presents two narratives of the Nakba of 1948.  In this multi-perspective narrative, the conflict is presented as one of both territory and historical memory.  Similarly, Mahmoud Yazbak and Yfaat Weiss’s Haifa Before and After 1948 was co-authored by Israelis and Palestinians and features fourteen different narratives.  A further collection, entitled Zoom In: Palestinian Refugees of 1948, Remembrances, deals with contemporary memories of the Nakba.  All three books were published by the Institute For Historical Justice and Reconciliation and the Republic of Letters, while the Van Leer Institute and Al-Quds University in Palestinian East Jerusalem have also published a series of schoolbooks that present similar multi-perspective narratives.

In addition to the changes in the historiography, there has been a shift in the cultural discourse, exemplified by the Israeli novelist Alon Hilu’s The House of Rajani (2012), which details the experiences of one Palestinian family and includes a map of Jaffa-Tel Aviv featuring Palestinian sites that vanished in 1948. The fact that Hilu’s novel received critical acclaim and was commercially successful indicates a new willingness on the part of Israelis to learn about the Palestinian experience.  Eshel has himself just completed a book comparing post-Second World War German and Austrian cultural memory with Israeli cultural memory of 1948. Since Palestinians and Israelis are bound to live together, Eshel argued that the solutions depend on narratives of the past, with history at the center of the discussion.  Throughout the conference, participants were urged to ask themselves two questions: Can we do more? Can we do better?   


Video casts of select sessions of the conference are available on Stanford YouTube.

Titles of the sessions are:

  • History and Memory Welcome and Introduction (Amir Eshel and Gabriel Motzkin)

  • Session 1:  "Memory and the Philosophy of History" (Gabriel Motzkin) and “From Rational Historiography to Delusional Conspiracies: Travails of History in Iran” (Abbas Milani)
  • Session 2:  “The Public and Private Erasure of History and Memory: Ottoman Empire, Turkish Republic and the Case of the Collective Violence against the Armenians (1789-2009)” (Fatma Müge Göçek)  and “The Shoah and the Logics of Comparison: The place of the Jewish Holocaust in Contemporary European Memory” (Heidemarie Uhl)
  • Session 4:  America, Prolepsis and the 'Holy Land' (Gregory Khalil) and “Neutralizing History and Memory in Divided Societies” (Bashir Bashir)
  • Session 5:  "Role of Historical Memory in Conflict Resolution" (Elazar Barkan) and “I Forgive You” (Simon Glendinning)
  • Session 6: "Historicizing Atrocity as a Path to Reconciliation" (Omer Bartov) and “A Memory of One’s Own: History, Political Change and the Meaning of 1977” (Mitchell Cohen)

Plans for the Next Conference
The final session involved a Round Table discussion in which participants had the opportunity to reflect on the larger themes of the conference and to suggest ways in which the dialogue could be fruitfully continued.  Three of the conference organizers began with their own reflections on the conference before the discussion was opened up to all participants.  Norman Naimark pointed to three key ideas that he had learned from the proceedings.  The first was the concept that history and memory should not necessarily be seen as distinct entities.  Second, Naimark pointed to the importance of comparative approaches, citing Derek Penslar’s presentation as a good example.  While the conference did not deal with the fields of Eastern European, Russian, and German history, external scholarly interjections into these fields have made them places of stimulating debate. Finally, since there is much that we do not know about 1948, Naimark urged the creation of a history that would place those events within a much broader chronological context, just as Omer Bartov is doing for the town of Buczacz.  In his remarks, Gabriel Motzkin focused on the relationship between memory and the ongoing political process in Israel.  He expressed agreement with Nadim Rouhana that Jewish Israelis need to recognize Palestinian memories, but added that Palestinians have to acknowledge the Jewish religious project in which the land of Israel occupies the same place that salvation does for Christians.  Finally, Amir Eshel urged participants to consider the role of the “practical past”—how do we use the past in order to engage the present and imagine the future? He suggested that there are a variety of possible political solutions, but that there is also a long list of actions that the present Israeli government could take in order to aid reconciliation, including acts of apology and acknowledgment.

The organizers express their deep appreciation to the conference participants.  They also support the keen interest in continuing the work on this subject and the larger project, with follow-up programming.  The next conference in this series, from the Europe Center-Van Leer Jerusalem Institute partnership, will be announced at The Europe Center website.