The Israeli taboo... 55 years on
By: Isabelle Humphries
30/04/2003

The Israeli "left" have long been talking and arguing over the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza of 1967. More controversial amongst so-called "peaceniks" is the future of the city of Jerusalem . But the ultimate taboo is to talk about the occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948. Discussing Jewish action in 1948 is naturally treacherous within mainstream Israeli society, but is even off limits to the Israeli "peace" movement.

While Israeli recognition of the injustice of the continuing occupation of 1967 is essential, a genuine just resolution will never begin to emerge until Jewish-Israelis address the issue of 1948. I have lived for close to three years in Nazareth , the largest Palestinian city remaining inside the 1948 borders. Approximately a third of the community lost homes and land in 1948 and became refugees in Nazareth . Even if the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza ended tomorrow, the injustice committed against Nazareth refugees, just as for their brothers and sisters in Lebanon , would not be addressed.

In recent weeks, the case of Teddy Katz, Israeli research student at Haifa University , has once more surfaced in the news. Katz' academic research provided evidence of a 1948 massacre in the Palestinian village of Tantura , in the northern coastal region, by the Israeli Alexandroni Brigade. Despite the academic rigor of his thesis, senior academics at Haifa University decided that even the demanded "revised" version of his thesis would be disqualified. The Katz case would never have attracted so much attention to the massacre in Tantura if it was not for the lengths that the Israelis authorities have gone to suppress the research. Professors who have supported Katz, notably Dr. Ilan Pappe, have seen their jobs threatened over the issue of challenging mainstream Israeli myths of 1948. "In the present atmosphere of fear and conformity in the Israeli academic community it is very easy to elicit even a dozen negative reports of any work, especially by students, which are critical of Zionism or Israel " writes Pappe. The Katz case has demonstrated the level of denial, and taboo nature of discussing the Nakba (1948 war) within Israeli society.

This year is 55 years since the Nakba. On receiving a notice that a group of Jewish activists were organizing a memorial at Deir Yassin to remember the victims of perhaps the most famous massacre and expulsion of the Nakba, I was curious. Half expecting that it would be the usual bunch of "let's hold a little ceremony and then we don't have to feel guilty about going home to our beautiful ancient stone home on the hillside (which used to belong to a Palestinian family)." I was in for a pleasant surprise. Speaking by telephone to one of the organizers, Yosef Mekyton, I tried to introduce myself. "I have been working with a 1948 Palestinian NGO," I said. And then I suddenly thought perhaps he wouldn't understand that by this I meant Palestinians in Israel , so I began to explain "Oh I guess you might say 'Israeli Arabs'..."

"Actually I wouldn't say 'Israeli Arabs'," he said, (a term which Israel uses that explicitly excludes the word "Palestinian" in the identity label).

"Oh" I said in relief/surprise. I had thought you could count on one hand the number of Israelis who didn't use the term "Israeli Arabs."

Zochrot (meaning "to remember" in Hebrew) is a group made up of around ten key members and several others who participate in the activities. "The group is about learning to take responsibility for 1948," explained Yosef, "and about recognizing that what was done in our name is still going on." The group has three main activities, preparing a website in Hebrew about the Nakba, raising awareness in Jewish schools of the history that the Israeli curriculum tries to hide, and posting signs on the sites of destroyed Palestinian villages.

"Many monuments and road signs point out the loss of Jewish soldiers in wars, yet no indication of the destruction of Palestinian life may be found at all on our cultural and geographical landscape" states the position paper of the organization, written by activist Eitan Bronstein. The group sets out to change this, and the ceremony at Deir Yassin was part of fulfilling this goal.

On April 9, 1948 , 93 Palestinians were killed in Deir Yassin by the Irgun and Stern gangs, including some captives who were first taken and paraded alive around Jerusalem . Fifty-five years later, the protestors gathered at the site, now home to the Israeli Kfar Shaul Psychiatric Hospital , where they put up a list of the dead in Hebrew and Arabic on the perimeter fence, and erected a signpost to the village. Abdul Barakat, 81, whose mother was from Deir Yassin, and who has 17 family members killed in the massacre, spoke to the group of around 80 Jews and 20 Arabs. Nearly as many police as protestors arrived, and also dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jews from the neighboring apartment blocks to shout abuse at the demonstrators.

"Palestinian pain... is illegitimate; all expressions of pain are considered hostile and threatening," continues Bronstein. "Israel regards its Arab citizens' grief as a threat to Jewish existence here and now." While the group has Palestinian members from inside the 1948 areas, it is primarily for Jewish citizens. "We don't need to teach the Palestinians about 1948," said Yosef, "we need to teach ourselves." The group is translating important documents written by Palestinian historians into Hebrew to make information available for a Jewish audience. They are trying to broaden contacts with Palestinian refugee groups to get advice on their activities, and to let Palestinians know that there are Israelis trying to overcome the deep denial about the Nakba at the heart of Israeli society.

The criticism often leveled by Palestinians and foreign campaigners for Palestinian rights is that Israeli activists fail to realize that recognition of pain should lead to concrete support of the Right of Return. I brought up the Right of Return with Yosef, an issue that distances many activists from supporting Jewish "peace" groups. "The group doesn't have an official policy on the Right of Return," said Yosef, "but on a personal level, most of the group members would support that this is a just claim from Palestinian refugees. However, we believe that with the deep denial that Israeli society is in, our primary task now is simply to work towards recognition of the wrong that was done to Palestinians in 1948. This is the first task." And it is not an easy task. To persuade schools to allow speakers or alternative reading material about the Nakba is an uphill struggle. Signs marking unrecognized villages are sometimes removed by Jewish residents.

Jewish citizens of Israel who support Palestinian rights are sometimes seen by the government as even more treacherous than Arab citizens. They are dismissed and labeled as "self-hating" Jews. A clear example is the case of two Jewish activists who were subject to a campaign by local media to have their children taken away from them as "unfit parents." While genuinely radical Israeli-Jewish citizens are few and far between, it must not be forgotten that there are a few people who believe that their status as an Israeli bestows a moral obligation to redress the wrong done to those dispossessed in the name of a Jewish state.

Zionist collective memory... prevents Jews from acknowledging their part in the destruction, from accepting responsibility and, consequently, from achieving real reconciliation with the Palestinians. The Jewish people have not taken and do not take any action aimed at acknowledging their part in the Palestinians' suffering.

Posting signs at destroyed Palestinian villages is part of a larger effort to bring civil and national equality to the country. Physically marking these villages and holding public discussions on the Palestinian Naqba may encourage a more ethical discourse and reveal both the victims and the initiators of the hardships - Zochrot 

Zochrot online