In this unit, we’ll see and hear testimonies from a Palestinian and an Israeli describing what life was like in 1948. We’ll ask what “testimony” means, and examine how we feel when we hear people tell about what happened during the Nakba.
- To hear about the Nakba.
- To learn about, and understand, what “testimony” means.
- To understand the different meanings of “testimony,” and how we can process the testimony we hear about the Nakba.
1. Introduction – What is a testimony? The teacher asks:
- What is a testimony? – What famous testimonies are you familiar with? – Where have you heard testimonies? – What happens to us when we hear testimony? – What happens to someone when they testify? – To whom is a testimony given? – Why do you think the witness testifies? – Is testimony the same as history? – Is there a connection between testimony and history?
To the teacher: At this stage, the students will probably refer to testimonies about the Holocaust. Have that discussion, and give examples of well-known testimonies, such as that of K. Tzetnik at the Eichmann trial.
Say to the students: We’ll talk in class about a serious, traumatic event experienced by the witness – the person testifying. These days we usually link the idea of “testimony” to the holocaust, and to trips to Poland which are accompanied by a witness. In this lesson, we’ll broaden the notion of testimony, hear additional testimonies, and focus on testimonies dealing with the Nakba.
2. Presenting testimonies: Listening to a Palestinian and an Israeli testify about events that occurred in 1948 (cf. Supplementary Material 2). Before showing the film, the teacher should ask the students to think about the following questions while they’re watching it: - What story does each witness tell? - What does each focus on?
3. Class discussion:
A. Understanding the film
- What did we hear in the testimonies? What did we see?
- How did you feel when you saw them?
- How did the testimonies differ from each other?
- How did you react to the Israeli soldier’s testimony about the Nakba, in comparison to your reaction to the testimony of the Palestinian refugee?
B. The meaning of the testimony – what does it tell us
- What do we see and feel when we encounter the witness?
Read the quote from Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995, philosopher): Levinas argues that when encountering the other’s account, their face displays their suffering. The other’s face demands a response from us, a response to the suffering they experienced. The face is a significant part of the testimony: “Silence is impossible when confronting the other. You can do nothing other than to respond, to accept responsibility […]. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ also means ‘Thou shalt do everything so the other may live.’”
- What do you think? Do the testimonies transmit non-verbal messages (in their speakers’ body language)?
- What do the faces of these witnesses tell us?
- Does hearing these testimonies impose any obligation on us? Read this quote from Shoshana Felman: “To testify, therefore, means not only to recount, but also to make a commitment to others, to commit yourself and your testimony into the hands of others, to accept responsibility – in word and deed – for the history or the kernel of truth in the event, for that whose validity and implications , by definition, by transcending the personal, become universal.”
Do you agree with this statement? What do you think it means “to accept responsibility”? What does it mean in the context of hearing testimonies about the Nakba?
4. Summing up: Writing a letter to a refugee – What would you write to a Palestinian refugee?
Now, after you’ve heard a number of witnesses testify about the Nakba, write a personal letter to a Palestinian refugee. For example, write about what you felt and what you thought when you heard those testimonies.
Suggestion for a follow-up activity:
The discussion can be enriched by conceptualizing additional theoretical aspects of “testimony”. The worksheet with selections from various sources dealing with the topic will be helpful (cf. Supplementary Material 2).
Supplementary Materials Index
Supplementary Material 1: A film in which people talk about the Nakba (11 minutes)
1. Testimony of Tup’aha Natur, from the village of ‘Amqa
2. Dov Yirmiya talking about Kuweikat
(The films were produced by Raneen Jeries, from Zochrot)
Supplementary Material 2: Worksheet
For a comprehensive, in-depth discussion of the different ways the concept of “testimony” can be understood.
We recommend using this worksheet in classes that have already had initial discussion about testimonies, or use portions of it in appropriate activities with the students.
The positivist school of historiography, which developed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, required the historian to uncover “what actually happened”, based on documents and written records. This approach granted to the historian the authority of the academy, and was considered to be objective and unbiased. Its effects are still evident today, despite significant changes in the practice of historical research.
The positivist approach has been attacked by various critical theories which argued that historical research is not, nor can it be, objective, since it deals primarily with the history of the victors, as the philosopher Walter Benjamin has said. In other words, history as written is the story of the powerful. The historical account excludes, for the most part, periods and groups whose knowledge contradicts and sometimes even threatens hegemonic norms and values. According to critical theorists, history is an interpretation of events, and subjectivity is an integral part of history. Adherents of these theories further argue that those who write history must take into account a multiplicity of sources – not only written documents – and additional objects of study, such as myths, collective memory, impressions, and attitudes – not only individuals and events. In their view, the historical account must also include the stories of groups hitherto excluded from the dominant narrative. The task of the historian is, therefore, to describe an event, to tell a story, include various perspectives, examine various kinds of knowledge, point to the contradictions, raise questions, contest, and ponder. In Walter Benjamin's words, the historian should “brush history against the grain” , reading the past backwards.
Until recently, the Palestinian voice had hardly been present in the historiographic discourse on the 1948 war. During the past two decades, a growing number of historians, positivist as well as critical, have uncovered information challenging the accepted discourse – sometimes employing oral testimonies. Our encounter, as Israelis, with Palestinian testimonies about the Nakba, has been a meeting between strangers. A testimony must address a listener, must be heard. Such testimony has the potential to shatter the silence surrounding 1948.
The Israeli-Jewish listener confronts many obstacles in dealing with Palestinian testimonies. The language of the testimony is Arabic, which many listeners associate with fear, and by which they feel threatened. Such feelings may lead to negating both the language and those who speak it, and sometimes even to doubting the validity of the testimony, and whether the events described actually occurred. Hearing testimonies about the Nakba challenges such views, it returns Palestinians and their language to the center stage, and it allows us to begin dealing with the testimonies addressed to us and the demands it makes.
Levinas says that when we encounter the stories of the others, their pain is visible on their faces. Their faces require a response from the listener, a response to their pain. What does hearing the Palestinian’s testimony require of us as Israeli-Jews? Does it require us to accept responsibility? And if so, how?
The act of giving testimony, and of hearing it, removes the Nakba from the realm of personal experience and moves it into the public realm. Although the testimony describes an event that occurred in the past, it in fact refers to the future, demanding that we construct that future, and thereby also brings hope.
This unit introduces students to the concept of “testimony,” using oral testimonies about the Nakba, and dealing with the difficulties they present. A testimony is an account of things, of events, that were witnessed by the person testifying. But many difficulties arise when the testimony recounts traumatic events. Testimonies, as a way of providing information orally, raise many questions about the relationship among memory, history and truth, the effect of time, and other issues.
Listening to testimonies about the Nakba is not easy. Testimonies about the Palestinian trauma also touch the foundations of the students’ identity as Israeli Jews. By recognizing the Palestinian trauma, we, as Israeli Jews, are also uncovering our own trauma regarding the 1948 war, and its ongoing effects on our lives. Israeli students grow up in an environment from which the Nakba seems to be missing, and their reaction when confronting it is usually one of suspicion and disbelief in what they’re being told. In many cases, this can lead to disenchantment, uncertainty, and questioning of their own identity. Testifying, moreover, has usually been a practice identified with holocaust survivors, and students may resist accepting it as legitimate in connection with other traumas.
This unit is designed to allow the expression of such feelings, and to promote a critical view of how many Israelis actually see the Palestinians. Students are encouraged to take a critical approach to both positivist historiographical knowledge based on documents, and to oral evidence.
The first section of the unit prepares the students to hear the testimonies and begins helping them develop critical tools. It does so by asking them to examine what it means to hear testimony. In the second part we see and hear two people speaking about 1948: one is a Palestinian and the second is an Israeli. The third part deals with what the testimonies mean to us as Israeli-Jewish listeners. The unit concludes with the students writing a letter to a Palestinian refugee - addressing the Palestinians directly would be a way of working through what the students experienced during the lesson.
1. Levinas, E. (1995) Ethique et infini (dialogues of Emmanuel Levinas and Philippe Nemo). Jerusalem: Magnes press (Hebrew).
2 All the quotes in this unit are translations from Hebrew versions of the texts and are not official translation of the original text or an official English translation.
3 Felman, S. and Laub, D. (2008), Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. Resling Press: Tel Aviv (Hebrew)
4 "Hegemony” is a concept introduced by Antonia Gramsci to the philosophy of the social sciences. It refers to the sum of the justifications and understandings that allow the dominant world-view to appear “normal”, “natural”.
5 Benjamin, Walter, about the concept of History, In: Ronen, A. (2002) To brush history against the direction of the fur, Zmanin 81 (in Hebrew).
6 Felman, S. and Laub, D. (2008), Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. Resling Press: Tel Aviv (in Hebrew).
7 Lyotard, J.F. (1996), Le Diffe'rend, translated by Ariella Azoulay, Theory and Critique 8, Jerusalem: Van Leer (in Hebrew).
8 Levinas, E. (1995) Ethique et infini (dialogues of Emmanuel Levinas and Philippe Nemo). Jerusalem: Magnes press (Hebrew).
9 Margalit, A. (2002), The Ethics of Memory, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
10 Felman and Laub, ibid.