Book Summary: Memory Activism: Reimagining the Past for the Future In Israel- Palestine

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2017. Vol. 29 Issue 3, pp 17-21.

Yifat Gutman,
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

In my new book, Memory Activism: Reimagining the Past for the Future In Israel- Palestine (Vanderbilt UP, 2017), I examine how collective memories of a contested past can be used as a weapon of the weak for political change. The book presents and conceptualizes a surge in memories of a difficult past among civil society and grassroots groups around the world in the last two decades, which I term “memory activism.” I define memory activism as the strategic commemoration of contested pasts outside state channels for the purpose of influencing public debate and political discourse. This new transnational phenomenon bridges cultural memory studies and social movement research and entails a reexamination of the relationships between culture and the political. In what follows I briefly present my research and elaborate on the concept of memory activism in relation to cultural memory theory.  

I present memory activism through a pertinent case, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2000-2011. Based on ethnographic methods and qualitative analysis the book follows three groups of peace activists, both Jewish-Israeli and Arab-Palestinian citizens, who have been remembering pre-1948 Palestinian life and their fate in the 1948 war. This history is known as Al Nakba (the catastrophe, in Arabic). The groups’ remembrance was conducted to disseminate the post-conflict model of truth and reconciliation during active conflict using hegemonic memory practices, tours and testimonies, that are a central part of Israel’s dominant memory culture. Memory practices of Palestinian citizens, primarily return visits, also appear in this activist memory work, and the meeting of the two sets of national memory practices is the most interesting part.

Memory-activist practices differ from more “traditional” and official commemorative practices by their interactive nature, their accessibility, and their aim to reach the current residents of sites where violent events once took place. Memory activists appropriate cultural practices as a means of reframing public debate about the past, to influence people’s views on present political issues, and to project a vision for the future. Like the groups in Israel, memory activists in other parts of the world often work in local spaces where violent events have occurred in the past, where they organize tours of ruins, mark space using signposting, restore the physical environment, and publish maps and tour guides in order to document and produce knowledge on the past. Many of these groups collect testimonies from current and former residents of these sites and house them in archives and information centers. Community-based educational and artistic work is often facilitated as well, on-site and online.

The political motivation behind memory-activist initiatives varies, and while they can be used to advance less peaceful and democratic aims, I trace memory activism historically to a temporal shift in international politics that is underlined by an effort to “come to terms” with violent histories in order to advance peace and reconciliation.1

Integrating Memory Activism into Collective Memory Theory

While memory activism differs from existing categories of “mnemonic actors”,2 it can be conceptualized in relation to existing classifications. I view mnemonic agents as “moral entrepreneurs” that seek public arenas and compete for support for their interpretations of the past.3 Some of them, like “communities of memory”,4 unite around the memory of an event in an effort to keep it actively remembered, while others, like memory activists, are more interested in advancing moral and political agendas beyond commemoration

Grouping mnemonic actors into three general “ideal types” makes evident that memory activism remains a blind spot that should be integrated into cultural memory theory:

  1. The first ideal type, which is the most studied among scholars of non-state memory, refers to individuals and groups who have personal experience or family ties that connect them to the historical events that they would like to publically remember. Among these are memory agents,5 memory entrepreneurs,6 or communities of memory,7 as well as victims groups, former dissidents, and veterans groups. These are often portrayed as competing with each other over state recognition and legitimacy in what is perceived as a limited public space and a zero-sum game of mnemonic “assets”.8 Memory activists are different from the first “ideal type” groups not only because they may lack personal experience and stakes in the historical events to be remembered, but more significantly because their goals extend beyond commemorative issues. Rather, they aim to address a larger political issue and influence the dominant public debate in their societies, using memory practices as the means to do so.
  2. A second ideal type of mnemonic actor is more pragmatic and expert-based and less personally invested in the events to be remembered; these are memory practitioners, for-profit initiatives, and “pragmatic activists”.9 These have been portrayed either as implementing transnational ideas and norms in domestic public debates or as mediating among different memory groups and the state in domestic struggles.10 Memory activists are different from these “pragmatics” and experts because they strive not to mediate or commemorate but to take a stand and intervene in existing political discourse and public debate.
  3. A third ideal type of mnemonic actors are more politically motivated. Defined by Bernhard and Kubik as “political forces that are interested in a specific interpretation of the past,” they “often treat history instrumentally in order to construct a vision of the past that they assume will generate the most effective legitimation for their effort to gain and hold power.”11 Through a state-oriented political science lens, these agents are characterized according to their vision of themselves and their opponents and their style of interaction in the political arena: as warriors, pluralists, abnegators, and prospectives. However, in Bernhard and Kubik’s work, all these actors are rationally calculating to gain power rather than being morally or ideologically invested in promoting a specific understanding of the past with the hope that this will lead to a new understanding of present problems and project a new vision for the future.

While memory activists are political actors, they mobilize the past not for the aim of gaining power and status, but for advancing their moral and ideological visions. Like Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz’s conceptualization of moral entrepreneurs, memory activists “seek public arenas and support for their interpretations of the past” because they care about these interpretations, rather than using them instrumentally to advance their climb up the social ladder. Moreover, the silenced past that memory activists wish to make present and their interpretations of violent histories are highly controversial and more often attract public rejection and denial rather than granting the activists legitimacy and recognition in.

Instead of seeking political power as a goal in and of itself, the intervention that memory can perform opens a window onto the meaning and nature of “the political.” In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, my interrogation reveals that using cultural memory as a means for political ends entails a process of de-politicization rather than a formal and explicit claiming of power. The de-politicization is of activities that appear to be extremely “political” – i.e. controversial and illegitimate in the larger society – and expand the schism between activists’ national group and state ideology. In Chapter 3 I explicate the strategic logic of articulating memory activism around the Nakba as nonpolitical in Israel and explain the importance of such consciousness-raising efforts for bringing about political change. In articulating nuanced distinctions among four different definitions of the “political,” I argue for the real political work done by memory activism of Israelis and Palestinians, not as simply building political support for Palestinian statehood but as a pervasive consciousness-raising strategy among Jewish Israelis, through a depoliticization that is followed by a re-politicization and the taking of a moral and political stand.



  1. See, among others,  Olick, Jeffrey K., and Brenda Coughlin. 2003. “The Politics of Regret: Analytical Frames.” In Politics and the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices, edited by John Torpey, 37–62. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield;  Torpey, John. 2003. “Introduction.” In Politics and the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices, edited by J. Torpey, 1–34. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  2. Bernhard, Michael, and Jan Kubik, eds. 2014. Twenty Years after Communism: The Politics of Memory and Commemoration. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Irwin-Zarecka, Iwona. 1994. Frames of Remembrance: The Dynamic of Collective Memory. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction. Pp. 47-50
  4. As, for example, in Vinitzky-Seroussi, Vered. 2009. Forget-Me-Not: Yitzhak Rabin’s Assassination and the Dilemmas of Memory. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  5. Jelin, Elizabeth. 2007. “Public Memorialization in Perspective: Truth, Justice and Memory of Past Repression in the Southern Cone of South America.” International Journal of Transitional Justice 1:138–56.
  6. Irwin-Zarecka, Frames of Remembrance
  7. Rothberg, Michael. 2009. Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  8. Wüstenberg, Jenny. 2011. “Transforming Berlin’s Memory: Non-state Actors and GDR Memorial Politics Today.” In Remembering the German Democratic Republic: Divided Memory in a United Germany, edited by David Clarke and Ute Wölfel. 65–76. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  9. ibid
  10. Bernhard and Kubik, Twenty Years after Communism, 4