19. May 10: Triumph and catastrophe

This year on May 10, Yom Ha’atzmaut — Independence Day — Israel celebrates the triumphant conquest of a homeland 63 years ago.  No mention is made of a simultaneous catastrophe, the Nakba, when Palestinians lost theirs.

Everything that followed appears to confirm that these two experiences of history are deeply at odds.  As usual in the human story, the official version was written by the victor.

This year, for the first time, not only will the state of Israel ignore the Nakba, it will actually punish public expressions of mourning.

A new law passed by the Knesset (parliament) in March 2011 bars funding to any organization which commemorates the Nakba on the day reserved exclusively for celebrating Israel’s triumph.  (A 2010 version of this law would have made it a criminal act, but it was feared this would harm Israel’s image abroad.)

Some Israeli Jews have announced that they will join with Palestinians today in resisting the ban and commemorating the Nakba.  Present will be representatives of an organization called Zochrot, a Hebrew word that translates roughly as remembering.

On my travels for Our Way to Fight, in Tel Aviv I met Zochrot education coordinator Amaya Galili.  Born in 1977, she grew up on Kibbutz Amir in the Galilee, near Israel’s northern border with Lebanon.

After she completed her compulsory army service, Amaya decided to research the life of her grandfather.  He emigrated to Palestine in 1938, helped establish the kibbutz, learned Arabic, and functioned as an informal diplomat between the kibbutz and its Arab neighbours in the surrounding villages.  He died the year Amaya was born.

“I started to interview people who knew him,” she says.  “They told me a lot of nice stories about him, including how he helped the refugees after 1948.  But when I asked them what happened during the war, suddenly they were embarassed, they wouldn’t say much.  I couldn’t understand this, I felt that something was being hidden.  Later I found out that my grandfather was part of a unit in the Hagannah (pre-1948 Jewish army) that collected intelligence.  While he was building relationships with the Arabs, being their friend, at the same time he was collecting information about their villages, so the Hagannah could have a file on every village, which helped them a lot in fighting the war.  So here finally was the answer to a question I had been wondering about for years — how could the kibbutz have had so many Arab neighbours before the war, but now there are none?  It was really shocking to discover these two sides to my grandfather.  For me this was an important breakthrough.”

Four years ago, as Zochrot education coordinator Amaya began working with a group of Israeli teachers to grapple with the thorny question of how to introduce discussion of the Nakba into Jewish schools.  It would be her task  to organize their work into a formal curriculum kit.

In mid-2009, she and her colleagues introduced the completed Nakba learning kit to more than two hundred Israeli high-school teachers.  Using maps, literary texts, artwork, historical material, film and other media, it includes accounts of Palestinian communities before and after 1948, a history of events surrounding the Nakba, personal testimonies of refugees, a virtual tour of a destroyed village, and a discussion of the refugees’ right of return.

The Education Ministry reacted swiftly.  According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, a Ministry official declared: “’The education kit was not approved by the ministry.  Teachers using materials not approved by the ministry are acting against ministry procedure and policy.’  The ministry also said it would conduct ‘an immediate investigation.’”

Simultaneously, the Education Minister ordered that the word Nakba be deleted from all school textbooks for Arab students in Israel.  It had only been inserted for the first time two years before, when an earlier minister permitted its use, though in Arab schools only.  For Israeli Jewish students, the Nakba would remain a historical void.

Setbacks are not new to Zochrot activists.  For their insistence on acknowledging the Palestinian experience of “the ongoing Nakba,” they’ve been called anti-Semitic, a marginal organization of lunatics, murderers, an example of Jewish pathology, an expression of narcissism and moral obtuseness, and Hamasniks, collaborators with the enemy.  In 2009, after Zochrot founder Eitan Bronstein urged Israelis to join in Nakba commemorations, he received anonymous death threats.  (You’ll find Eitan’s story and Amaya’s in chapter 14 of Our Way to Fight.)

To an outsider like me, it makes perfect sense to acknowledge the Nakba; denial can only lead to more brutality, more suffering.  But then I wonder, how many North Americans can acknowledge the equivalent disaster for original peoples here?

How did Amaya herself come to terms with the triumph-catastrophe where she lives?  “Where I grew up,” she replied, “it’s a beautiful valley, mostly agricultural.  Often I walked through fields and forests, but I didn’t see the ruins of the Palestinian villages — even the ruins were invisible to me.  So now I want to help people to see the landscape through different eyes.  We also need to develop ways to hear the Palestinians – not just to hear that we all believe in peace, which is easy to say, but what did they really go through in the Nakba, what do they still go through today?”

Why is it so crucial for Israeli Jews to grapple with the Nakba?  “First, it’s an injustice against Palestinians, our neighbours,” she replied.  “But it’s also about us, about who we are.  My grandfather helped to throw out his Palestinian friends, and then he tried to compensate by helping the refugees.  My grandparents knew a lot about this, my parents less, and by my generation nobody talked about it.  This is the silence of ignorance, but then it also becomes the silence of ideology.  To talk about the Nakba raises a lot of fear and anger.  But we have to talk about it, we have to deal with it.”

But why?  Amaya is quiet a moment, then she says, “I want to stay here in Israel, in Palestine, this is my home.  But I don’t want to be part of a colony, always at war, more and more closed in by walls and fences.  To live here in peace, with justice, we have to integrate more into the Middle East.  That means we have to stop oppressing another nation and other communities within Israel.  The first step is to acknowledge the Nakba, and what we did to the Palestinians in 1948.  I don’t think we have any other option.”

About Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.
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