Contested Land,
Contested Memory:
Israel’s Jews and Arabs
and the Ghosts of Catastrophe



1948: As Jewish refugees, survivors of the Holocaust, struggle toward the new State of Israel, Arab refugees are fleeing, many under duress. Sixty years later, the memory of trauma has shaped both peoples’ collective understanding of who they are.

After a war, the victors write history. How was the story of the exiled Palestinians erased – from textbooks, maps, even the land? How do Jewish and Palestinian Israelis now engage with the histories of the Palestinian Nakba (“Catastrophe”) and the Holocaust, and how do these echo through the political and physical landscapes of their country?

Vividly narrated, with extensive original interview material, Contested Land, Contested Memory examines how these tangled histories of suffering inform Jewish-and Palestinian-Israeli lives today, and frame Israel’s possibilities for peace. Journalist Jo Roberts brings her training in both law and anthropology to bear, eliciting honest, intimate responses from her numerous informants and vividly portrays the psychological as well as political costs of the continuing conflict.

Contested Land, Contested Memory begins as simple journalism, but quite soon the reader recognizes that she is in the presence of a brilliant feat of juggling – of weaving together oral histories, personal observations, psychological analysis, historical background, and quotations from primary sources into a seamless whole. Gradually I came to realize that everything I had known, much that I had forgotten, and even more that I had never known were not only present, but were being reinterpreted for me in terms beyond those merely personal or political.

Her analysis of the conflict is nuanced and complex, including personal, political, geographic, historical, psychological, and philosophical points of view. She is especially adept in portraying the differences among different generations of Israeli citizens, and how changes from one decade to the next (military events, politics, immigration, religion) have been reflected in the minds of Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis (and Arab-Jewish Israelis). How they see themselves, how they see the past (especially the Shoah and the Nakba), how they see the future of Israel – all these have changed for reasons and in ways not always obvious to outside observers.

Contested Land, Contested Memory will appeal to a variety of audiences, due not only to the importance of this particular conflict but also to the universality of the issues raised: trauma, personal memory, collective memory, nationhood, historic enmities. Jo Roberts’ theories on social suffering and memory narrative resonate across history and culture. Readers from every region in the world will find parallels to their own and gain understanding. As I read, I was applying her analysis to situations with which I am intimately familiar, from post-colonial Africa to recent events in American inner cities. Just as we might be tempted to think there is nothing new to learn about modern Israel and the Palestinian conflict, or that the situation is too intractable for a solution, comes this lyrical and balanced book advocating a path towards reconciliation based on the notion that a fractured relationship can only heal when both parties open themselves to regard the pain of the other.

- Faith Adiele
2014 finalist judge

2014 Nonfiction Runner-Up

Jo Roberts
Jo Roberts

(Click photo to see acceptance speech at awards dinner.)

Jo Roberts
Contested Land, Contested Memory:
Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophe


“The identity of a nation is rooted in its collective memory, and the collective memories of peoples, like the private memories of individuals, often calcify around a remembered trauma. Understanding and acknowledging the wounds and scars of each other’s histories is critical to any genuine reconciliation and peace.”

— Jo Roberts                        

Trained in her native England as a lawyer and anthropologist, Jo Roberts is now a freelance writer. For five years she was managing editor of the New York Catholic Worker newspaper, to which she frequently contributed. Her reportage from Israel and from the West Bank has appeared in Embassy, Canada’s foreign policy weekly. She lives in Toronto, Canada.

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Excerpt from the book

How is a community to make sense of its shattering by a shared disaster? The myriad individual tragedies out of which it is constituted both bind and separate its members. Too terrible to be remembered, it is also too terrible to forget. New generations grow up, often in the anguished silence of their elders, trying to make sense of a trauma which they never experienced but yet has indelibly shaped and scarred them.

Trauma gets stuck in the craw of the collective memory, half-digested, painful, refusing to be ingested or expelled. It shapes the climate of the everyday, a permanent frost. A traumatized people is a people frozen by the absolute imperative of “Never again!” for whom security, and the control it necessitates, is paramount. For those still trapped in ongoing trauma, such as the Palestinians — stateless, living under occupation or in diaspora, four-tenths of them still in refugee camps — that freezing can turn into a numbed passivity, or into patterns of self-destruction.

Trapped in the present but not of the present, trauma repeats. It lies close to the surface, within easy recall at the slightest provocation of memory, a touchstone against which present events are automatically tested. And, should the victim group become powerful, the trauma may repeat in other ways as, desperate to rid itself of an alien threat, real or perceived, the victim becomes the oppressor.

The Hebrew word Shoah translates into English as “Catastrophe” — as does the Arabic word Nakba. Both Israelis and Palestinians understand their national identities through the collective remembering of a traumatic past.


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