Middle East Watch

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© تموز (يوليو) 2022

Learning the Nakba as a condition for peace and reconciliation

Sunday 10 ربيع الثاني 1430, by Norma Musih

All the versions of this article:

  • English

The Jewish people in Israel, or at least most of them, live in complete ignorance or even denial of the Palestinian disaster that took place in 1948, the Nakba. The Nakba has no place in the language, the landscape, the environment, and the memory of the Jewish collective in Israel.

Traveling in Israel, one may find signposts, landmarks and memorials that create and sustain the Jewish-Israeli narrative. Jewish-Israeli events that took place more than 2,000 years ago are celebrated through these memorials while Palestinian memorials are nowhere to be seen. Moreover, there is an attempt to erase this memory from the collective consciousness and from the landscape. We, the Israelis, study in our schools that the Jews came to Israel to transform the desert into a blooming country, because we were a “people without a land” returning to a “land without a people.”

Zochrot is an NGO whose goal is to introduce the Palestinian Nakba to the Israeli-Jewish public, to express the Nakba in Hebrew, to enable a place for the Nakba in the language and in the environment. This is in order to promote an alternative memory to the hegemonic Zionist memory. The Nakba is the disaster of the Palestinian people: the destruction of the villages and cities, the killing, the expulsion, the erasure of Palestinian culture. But the Nakba, I believe, is also our story, the story of the Jews who live in Israel, who enjoy the privileges of being the ‘winners.’

Zochrot was founded in early 2002 and its main goal is to bring knowledge of the Palestinian Nakba to Jewish-Israeli people. One of the basic assumptions of our work is that the Nakba is the ‘ground zero’ of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Awareness and recognition of the Nakba by Jewish-Israeli people, and taking responsibility for this tragedy, are essential to ending the struggle and starting a process of reconciliation between the people of Palestine-Israel.

Zochrot acts in many ways to advance this goal. Of all its actions, the most unique and outstanding activity is the organization of tours for Jews and Arabs to Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948. During these tours we post signs that commemorate the different sites in the destroyed villages and give more details about each of them. Knowledge of village history is provided by refugees and their families and an attempt is made to expose as much of the ruined village as possible. It is through these stories that participants can get an idea of what the village actually looked like, and what it was like to live in it. The event is also important in establishing the historical/collective memory of the land.

The tour has a different meaning for Palestinians and Jews. For Palestinians this event is a journey back in time to the place where they used to live. For Jews, the tour and the commemoration of sites reveals memories that are hidden from view. The memories revealed often compete with the common, Zionist memory of the place. Another unique activity is to produce a special booklet, in Hebrew and Arabic, for each tour. These booklets reflect Zochrot’s process of learning. They feature testimonies by refugees, photographs of the village, and historical background from different sources.

It is Zochrot’s ambition to recreate the Nakba in Hebrew — in other words, to enable a space where the Nakba can be spoken of or written about in the Hebrew language. For this purpose, a website was created that includes a database of all the Palestinian villages that were destroyed since 1948 and the names of the Israeli localities that were built on their lands. There are also specific maps of the destroyed villages and different details about each of them. The site also presents the different activities of Zochrot. The importance of this site is that it places the Palestinian Nakba in the virtual space of Hebrew speakers who surf the web.

Another way that we reach the Israeli public is by hosting workshops and lectures with different groups of students, teachers, social activists, and so on, who want to learn about the Nakba. These meetings give rise to many different needs of the participants: the need for accurate information, anger at their own ignorance, denial, and misunderstanding. Difficult questions are raised at these encounters that challenge the participants’ prior knowledge and values. We have also organized encounters between Palestinian refugees and the Israelis who live on their lands. During the encounters, the different narratives of 1948 are shared and there is an attempt to discuss opportunities for creating a space that would enable the needs of both sides to be met.

Zochrot has an unusual name, which in Hebrew means “remembering” in the feminine form. We are often asked why Zochrot and not the masculine, Zochrim. The masculine form of remembering, as presented in the Zionist discourse, is violent and nationalistic. Zochrot aims to promote another form of remembering, an alternative form that will enable the expression of other memories that are often kept silent. In addition, Zochrot makes an effort to create a space for the memory of women in the Palestinian Nakba. The name “Zochrot” insinuates to all of these.

Learning the Nakba is an important step for Jews living in Israel. It often reflects a genuine interest to know and understand. But learning is not enough. The Nakba is not the story of another people that took place somewhere else — it is a story that we, as Israeli Jews, are responsible for. Learning, without taking responsibility, is to me not enough.

What do I mean by taking responsibility? I mean the acknowledgment and deep understanding of the tragedy that took place, and taking responsibility of our part in this tragedy. Acknowledging the personal and collective right of return for every refugee that was expelled, and hoping for the implementation of this right, either by returning the lands, paying compensation or implementing actual return. These make learning the Nakba a viable stepping stone to reconciliation.

This position is complicated for Israeli Jews. It is hard for us to give up the image of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, an image that would be endangered should we choose to allow the right of return. Allowing the right of return will change the demographic balance in Israel and the Israeli state would not continue to exist in its current form. I believe that in this new state life would be better for both Palestinians and Israelis living in this land.

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