Independence and ‘Catastrophe’?

An Israeli group tries to democratize memory by recognizing Palestinians’ ‘Nakba.’

Robert Hirschfield

On May 18, young Palestinian men sit in front of a poster marking the 61st anniversary of Nakba. The poster hangs on the wall that divides the West Bank village of Azariya, near Bethlehem. (Photo by:Musa Al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images )

In a country rooted in the Zionist narrative of how Israel was created, the organization Zochrot (Hebrew for remembering”) says to its adversaries what the black nurse in Angels in America says to the dying Roy Cohn: I am your negation.”

Founded in 2002 by activists, mostly Israeli Jews but a few from Palestinian political party Fatah, Zochrot is rooted in memory: the memory of the Nakba,” Arabic for catastrophe’, and how Palestinians refer to the creation of Israel on their land. 

Zochrot tries to democratize memory. Each year on Israeli Independence Day, it holds its Nakba Day rally in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, where a monument to the Holocaust stands. In that square in 2005, it unveiled its Nakba Map, which restores the locations of Palestinian villages destroyed during the 47 War of Independence and afterwards.

The Jews in Israel,” says Eitan Bronstein, the director of Zochrot, know almost nothing about the Nakba.” That must change, he says, if our responsibility for taking part in the Nakba” is to be understood. In school, when we studied Israel’s War of Independence, we learned about Operation Gideon and Operation Danny, which conquered Ramle, but we never learned about who were expelled because of these operations.” Bronstein estimates that 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes, and 500 villages and neighborhoods were destroyed.

Zochrot members regularly take groups of Israelis and Palestinians on tours of these villages and neighborhoods, sometimes accompanied by the Palestinians who once lived there. Tour participants are told of the lives and fate of the vanished inhabitants. 

Zochrot is known for putting up in signs at the sites of the wiped-out villages with their original Arabic names. The signs are usually removed after 15 minutes,” says Norma Musih, one of Zochrot’s founders. At most, two hours.” 

Early in 2004, Zochrot activists were prevented from resurrecting the names of the villages of Yalu and Imwas in Canada Park, a suburb north of Jerusalem. Zochrot took the town to court and in March 2006, the court ruled in its favor. A commemorative sign was posted that read in part: The villages, Imwas and Yalu, existed in the area of the park until 1967. In the village of Imwas there lived 2,000 residents who now reside in and around Ramallah.”

Musih was both outraged and amused. Nothing is written about what happened to the residents. It’s as if they just decided one day to move to Ramallah.” Most Israelis hold Zochrot in contempt for its identification with Nakba. This is especially true of older Israelis who cling to the traditional narrative of how the Jewish state was created. The younger generation, says Bronstein, is more cynical and open to hearing out heretical challenges to cherished beliefs.

While Dan Flesher, of the Israeli-Palestinian blog, Realistic Dove, stresses the importance for the Palestinian side of having their narrative presented unedited to Israelis, he questions Zochrot’s interpretation: I am not sure it is entirely accurate. Each side has its own version. Each side committed atrocities, and were guilty of injustices. The narrative is not a simple one.”

This past Nakba Day, Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest newspaper, ran an op-ed piece by a Zochrot member explaining why she doesn’t celebrate Israeli Independence Day. Much of the response to the piece was nasty, said Musih. People wrote: You are traitors. You should be jailed.’ But we did actually get some very nice letters sent to our website.”

Bronstein was pleased with Yediot, but he remains fundamentally at odds with the Israeli press. They get things twisted. They say we have the Palestinian narrative about the Nakba. It’s our narrative.”

The Knesset is currently considering a weak version of an anti-Nakba Day Law, first proposed last spring by MK Alex Miller of the right-wing Israel Beiteinu Party. Miller called for the criminalization of any observance of Nakba Day. Violators of the law would have faced up to three years imprisonment. The amended law, expected to pass shortly, would result in the denial of government funding for legislators in Israeli Arab towns that organize Nakba Day rallies. Zochrot responded with a statement, saying the legislation reflects the Israeli establishment fears the inevitable encounter with the Palestinian Nakba, and the understanding that the Nakba is a foundational part of the Israeli identity.”

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Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer who covers Israeli and Palestinian peace activists. He has written for The Progressive, The National Catholic Reporter and Sojourners.
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