An Interview with WISC Fellow-in-Residence Linda Dittmar
We sat down with WISC Fellow-in-Residence Linda Dittmar to ask her about her memoir project.
How did you hear about WISC?
A friend from Santa Fe told me about it.
What is the current status of your project?
At present, I am reorganizing and finishing the memoir. Most of the material is there but I’m doing a lot or reorganizing, filling in, and revising.
Why did you decide to construct the project as a memoir?
This is not history. It grows out of personal experience, meant to convey subjective process of coming to understand one’s world in ways that others might relate to. As an English professor, I was always interested in style, and structure, emphasizing close reading. It has to do with how a text engages its readers. This background helps me be attentive to craft as a memoir writer. My teaching post-colonial literature, including most recently Israeli-Palestinian literature to an all-Jewish class at Tufts University, made writing this memoir natural for me as an Israeli-American. I’ve been immersed in fiction and memoirs by both sides.
The history of the Arab-Israeli war is deeply controversial. Israelis and supporters have traditionally referred to the conflict as the War of Independence, seeing it as a defensive war to prevent the destruction of the Jewish state in the face of Arab aggression. Palestinian Arabs and their allies refer to the event as the Nabka (catastrophe). How did you decide to approach this difficult topic? What’s the importance of YOUR story?
Israeli Jews and Palestinians see the situation very differently, as do their supporters. For the Israelis 1948 was a War of Independence, a defensive war to prevent the destruction of the Jewish state in the face of Arab aggression. There was a need for a Jewish refuge after centuries of persecution, including the holocaust. But the Palestinians and Arabs call the war as the Nabka, or the “catastrophe,” as to them it meant a huge loss of homelands. It’s a very painful history for each side, which is what keeps them from reaching accommodation. And it’s controversial abroad too, with different groups taking sides for their own reasons.
The problem is that the Israeli side is well known while the Palestinian is generally erased from the discussion. We think of the Jews as victims, the Palestinians as aggressors. This thinking prevents resolution. This not unlike what happened to the American Indians. In focusing on the Nakba, I am trying to make that story clearer, partly just as a matter of honesty about what Israel’s statehood means and the responsibilities it incurred. It also has practical implications for peace both in Israel and the occupied territories and regionally.
Why should Americans care about these conflicts?
This history touches Americans very directly, and many others too. Americans claim that they want peace but the US has not pursued it seriously, certainly not regarding the occupied territories. Israel is an important strategic ally in matters of oil, intelligence, and potential bases. But this is in the short run. Long term, the antagonism Israel generates in the Arab world and beyond gets entangled in anti-American feelings and anti-Semitism. Traditionally the State Department and the CIA have disagreed on how to manage that, and perhaps they still do. The US’s unquestioning support to Israel helps the American military but hurts diplomacy. The U.S. says a few tough words but allows human rights abuses, violation of international law, and the creeping annexation of whatever little land the Palestinians still have. Now terrorism, ISIS, and major changes in Turkey, the Kurds, Syria, Iran, and flooding refugees make American choices even more problematic. There is tremendous ignorance among U.S. voters and their representatives, colored by an ethnic/racist bias towards a more “western” Israel and fear and dislike of the Moslem world. I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but our collective future is deeply threatened by this conflict.
In addition to working alongside the photographer Deborah Bright, you reflect on blurred images and videos of yourself as a child. How do the photographs function for you and in the story?
For me the photos are reminders, object for reflection in retrospect. It is important for me to tap the physical feeling of being in a certain place but also ask what it meant in ways that I did not consider as a child: What was it like to climb an abandoned minaret, to walk on top of ruins, to feel the hot air in my face, or smell the sap of newly planted pine trees? Like Deborah’s photographs that tell us what to look at and how, my childhood photographs help me in this. Deborah has a forensic eye that interprets what it sees. I learned a lot from her about looking, especially looking at landscapes that have undergone man-made trauma.
What are the most important questions for post-conflict or conflicted societies?
The challenge is to find ways to see the “Other,” understand the “Other,” and acknowledge what one has done wrong. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings are suggestive. The listening has to be mutual. Ultimately, what’s needed is reparation in a situation where the “truth” is not all on one side. We need to have all the issues acknowledged, on both sides. Everybody has to give up something if they want peace, though the grievances and losses may never be symmetrical. Some of the wrongs cannot be made right. True peace will aspire to justice but accept its limitations.
What messages did you get from your parents?
I got a mixed message from my parents. I suppose they felt that children should be protected from knowledge. There was also a prevailing silence in the country. The radio news broadcasts were on all the time, but at the same time the “enemy” was not given a human representation. (That’s always true of wars.) Sometimes it takes until the third generation for address collective trauma, Holocaust survivors didn’t talk about it to their children. The Japanese Americans did not talk about the relocation camps either. My parents were liberal and compassionate. They were sympathetic to the Palestinians but still didn’t talk in any but the mainstream way about it, and mostly avoided it altogether. I sensed their deep liberalism and was influenced by it, but only learned their views later. As I was growing up, the country at war demanded unquestioned allegiance.
Did you serve in the Israeli army?
Yes, I was drafted, like everybody. Training was shorter but not that different from the guys’: marching, jumping, shooting, parades, etc. Discipline! What I value most is being with people from all walks of life. In basic training, which is gender segregated, there were women from socialist/Marxist kibbutzim (collective farms) and immigrants from development towns--Israel’s elite as well as its most disenfranchised. The rest of my two-year service was even more mixed socially. It’s a lesson in diversity Americans rarely experience. Of course, the kibbutzim changed over time, with the ideal of gender equality gradually eroding and prosperity muddying the waters further. (There is a wonderful documentary about women of the Kibbutz, made by Michal Aviad.) Military service has changed too, with women more gender-segregated than in my time and more easily let off the draft.
When was your last trip to Israel? What were the circumstances?
I was just there this summer to see family and friends.
Short list of favorite authors?
Faulkner, Conrad and Woolf. David Grossman and Ammos Oz in Israel. I read Marilynne Robinson recently and I think she is wonderful.
As an academic professor of English and feminist—can you say something about intersectionality?
All human experience is “intersectional”: We draw on various aspects of our experience and knowledge to help us understand our world, our work, and one another. My teaching was always “intersectional” before this buzzword emerged. Can one talk of women without talking of race and class? Without thinking of occupation and desire and ideals and scars and responsibilities? It is necessary to understand the relation between individuals and a communities and ways their identities intersect (or don’t) along lines of history, economics, religion, psychology and more. This has to be at work whether we think about Biafra or Los Alamos or Canyon Road.
For my current work, an important book was “Sacred Landscapes: The Hidden History of the Holy Land,” by Meron Benveniste. Its geographer’s research opened totally new thinking for me, followed by more readings. I also read memoirs written by Palestinian women. My teaching film and literature, focused especially on texts by women and other marginalized groups. All this work was informed (“intersected with”) history and politics and geographic research. We could see how the concerns of one group intersect with others’. Gender, ethnicity, nationalism, class, and caste are all intersecting modes of oppression.
You reflect on your biases--this is hard work and painful! How were you able to come to a place to write your story?
I wouldn’t call it bias. My work is subjective, but not blind. It is my identity and it is my people that I’m writing about, trying to be as honest as possible. I suffer the pain of my belonging to a people who have wronged and continue to wrong ordinary Palestinians, mostly peasants and urban people. I am keenly aware that there is the Jewish-Israeli side with its own horrendous suffering, but I see our suffering turning into greed, which painfully makes me critical of my own people. This growing awareness came slowly and reluctantly to me. I was avoiding it for years but what I saw in the US since my arrival in 1961 (Civil Rights, Vietnam, and Feminism), in addition to developments in Israel, have moved me in that direction.
How do you get rid of that narcissism that prevents self-critique?
I strongly believe in humanistic education, beyond testing for facts and skills. There has to be an ongoing emphasis on critical thinking--“critical pedagogy.” It doesn’t necessarily lead to uniform views or consensus, but it teaches people to think responsibly, to be accountable for their conclusions, to enter into dialogue with others. In the recent women’s march that responded to Trump’s election, my favorite sign read, “Make America Think Again.” I’m very concerned about the ongoing assault on liberal arts and the humanities at all levels. Critical thinking is our only safeguard. It is hard for teachers and parents to foster inquiring minds. It’s a lot of work. People are lazy and politicians turn to platitudes. Questioning is a painful condition, but it brings out the best in us.
Top 3 most inspiring women.
Hannah Szenes: she was a Jewish Hungarian kibbutz member who (with three others) volunteered to parachute back into Hungary during WWII to save Jews and radio information for the British. She was caught and executed by the Nazis. We know her also as a poet.
MaryAnne Ferguson: she was one of the “mothers” of feminist literary studies and an unstinting supporter of younger women entering the field before it had legitimacy in academia.
Eleanor Roosevelt: She is rightly the most admired woman in the United States, and had a sterling decency.
Sojourner Truth: I’m adding a fourth, a black feminist and abolitionist, as MaryAnne (above) is more personal to me. I particularly want to celebrate the courage and wisdom of women whose contributions tend to be forgotten.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a book by W.G. Sebald….And I’m reading something by Tony Hillerman.
You’ve lived such a full life. What can you say about balance?
Women of my generation had a particularly hard time as feminists. We wanted to move on with our career and goals but we were still not equal to men, at home or at work. A male faculty committee would always look to the female to be the secretary. In my household my needs came last—housework and childcare were still my responsibility. Women had a “double shift.” It was important to me to be a mother but my work suffered. Later on I discovered that all but one of the women faculty on my campus who were married and of child bearing age, had only one child. It took heroic effort to somehow maintain “balance.” Feminism and conscious-raising group helped create supportive communities, but we, second wave feminists were all improvising as we went.