There are two ways of looking at the increasing number of efforts by the Israeli Ministry of Culture to support Zionist creativity in the country by awarding valuable prices for “an Zionist work of art,” “a Zionist text,” or “a Zionist poster.” The first, accepted interpretation is that the Israeli government and Israeli society are becoming increasingly extreme, that the cultural environment, like the political sphere, totally denies the existence of Palestinians. The other interpretation is that the Ministry of Culture senses that too many Israeli creative works have begun challenging the official Israeli narrative and that the Palestinian nakba, the mass expulsions, preventing the return of the refugees and the occupation that began in 1967 have become a central theme in Hebrew cultural products. So, for example, the decision of the 2011 Sderot Festival to open with “Edut,” [“Testimony”] the film by Shlomi Elkabatz in which well-known Israeli actors present testimonies of Palestinians living under occupation; the Nakba memorial ceremony – including a minute of silence – held last May at Tel Aviv University; or the Haifa Cameri Theatre’s staging of “The Return to Haifa,” by Ghassan Kanafani, in 2011. These voices, although expressed by a minority in Israeli society and in Israeli discourse, represent a threat to the government and the Zionist story, which is why the state tries to silence them and turn up the volume of “kosher” Zionist voices.
The two Hebrew books discussed in this article, issued by major, well-known Israeli publishing houses (HaKibbutz HaMeuchad and Am Oved), are also examples of the kind of work that frightens the Israeli Minister of Culture. They were written in the past two years by authors in their thirties, and though they’re different from one another – in the genre they chose, their experiences, the depth of their analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict – it’s nevertheless important to read them concurrently. It’s a way to learn about Israel, Israeli society and the limits of its discourse. And to despair that they authors represent a minority, and that the Israeli majority is silent. But they are also evidence of a spark of hope from those few voices illuminating the heavens.
Tomer Gardi’s “Stone, Paper,” published during this past year, is one of the rare literary pearls created in Israel. It’s certainly not just another critical Israeli book, but a courageous attempt, almost unique, to make a forthright and original Hebrew statement about Israel’s silenced history and the mechanisms that create and maintain it. Gardi, who was born in Kibbutz Dan in the Galilee, first discloses to his readers the moment he began his personal journey to discover the history of the kibbutz. It was an ordinary evening on the kibbutz. Just another evening. He was sitting with a friend, contented, smoking a cigarette, drinking Goldstar beer, talking about the European female volunteers who’d arrived. Suddenly his friend said, almost as a joke, that the kibbutz museum, which was known as “Beit Ussishkin,” had been constructed from the stones of the nearby Arab village that had been destroyed in 1948. The friend thought nothing of it, something that had happened and had ended, but something changed in Gardi at that moment. He began a journey following one “small” story in historic Palestine: to the foundations of Beit Ussishkin, to the ruins of the village of Hunin, to the homes that were blown up and the rapes that occurred there, to the village’s refugees, into the guts of the Zionist movement and its subjective memory. “As if I’d swallowed a live horse that kicked and galloped within me and I’m on his back asking, investigating, a spokesman, snooping around, uncovering what had remained concealed, also betraying, and finally entering the archives, some of them well-known and extensive, others which almost no one had ever riffled through, no one had opened the Pandora’s box made of brown cardboard, a horse galloping inside me and I’m on its back…”
Gardi’s personal investigation leads through Israeli archives, and on the way he describes how those institutions control information and create history. Not every incident, of course, finds its way to the archive, not every detail is recorded in the documents that do reach it, not every researcher will gain access to all the existing data. Divide and rule. Gardi’s questions give him no rest. Who lived in Hunin? Where are they today? Who brought the stones from the village to Kibbutz Dan in 1948? Who decided that Beit Ussishkin would be a “History and Nature Museum,” and how did the residents of Hunin and of dozens of other Palestinian villages that used to exist in the area wind up “outside” of that history?
During his search for the history of the area where he grew up Gardi finds in the Israel State Archives a document from September, 1948, classified “Secret.” It’s headed “Operational Order No. 2,” signed by the commander of the Carmel brigade’s 23rd battalion. Paragraph 3 specifies the goal of the operation: “To invade the village of Hunin, kill some men. Take prisoners. Blow up some of the buildings and burn what can be burned.” This act of burning, the explosions, the attempt to conceal, to destroy evidence, undermine the ground on which Gardi stands. He begins to see what’s missing around him. He tries to write the erasure. That’s how he discovers that the road on which the family drives to the restaurant in Metullah has also been paved with stones from Hunin. He asks whether anyone else on the kibbutz knows about this history and discovers that the younger generation is completely unaware of it. It’s been erased completely, totally forgotten. And he wants to learn more about what’s no longer here. About the 400 people left in Hunin after the first IDF operation who were expelled to Lebanon by order of the army. He wants to restore the dignity of those who had been obliterated. And perhaps restore their homes as well. And his journey submerges him in the murky waters of routine Israeli obliviousness. He seeks traces of the rape of four women from Hunin by IDF soldiers, who then shot and killed them. He finds documents from the court martial which acquitted the rapists. The crime was erased, and also the shame. The women were erased, the village was erased. Later he discovers that details of the incident had been erased from documents in the archive. And dares to confront the archivist and ask what he’s not allowed to ask: “Why was this document erased?” He’s told it’s a question of privacy, the right of a person to privacy, but Gardi won’t accept that response. He wants instead to preserve the rights of the victims. To end the historic injustice. To call things by name: rape is rape; ethnic cleansing is ethnic cleansing. To locate the documents from the 1950 trial in which the soldiers admit to rape. To list their names. To publish the documents. To retrieve what has been erased.
And yet, Gardi isn’t writing history. He writes from a personal perspective, freely, simply, based on his experience. He doesn’t adhere to an “accepted format,” neither of historical writing nor of a novel. He interleaves the chapters with legends he created, stories seemingly unconnected to his personal journey, but what’s prominent in all of them is the erasure and forgetting undertaken by a satiated, secure, victorious majority, as well as the stubborn struggle of an individual against an existing, unjust order. Gardi isn’t obedient. Certainly not to what official Israel wants him to think. He chooses instead to see the human beings beyond the documents. He finds on the internet the site of a youth club whose members are Hunin refugees living in Berlin and looks at the photos of the soccer team. “The goalie reclines on his side, smiling and holding goalie’s gloves. He has pleasant eyes and a high forehead,” writes Gardi. He wants to contact the people from Hunin, to share his findings with them, but doesn’t succeed. Instead he imagines meeting them. Perhaps, in this way, he’ll again be able to write what was erased?
The second book discussed here also revolves around an imaginary dialogue between an Israeli and a Palestinian. It begins with an actual meeting lasting only a few seconds between an Israeli soldier in the occupied territories and a Palestinian girl, which led the protagonist to write the book and dedicate it to the Palestinian girl whose name he didn’t know and whom he’ll probably never meet again. “My Holocaust Thief”, by Noam Khayut, is another important contribution to the critical Israeli literature about Israel’s actions and crimes. The book is, in essence, the autobiography of a young, upper-middle-class Israeli, an Ashkenazi, an officer in an elite military unit, “salt of the Israeli earth.” The story of his life is quintessentially that of the state of Israel, and his forthright, flowing narrative provides an inside view of how the Israeli Zionist narrative developed: the link between the holocaust and the army; between the school, the youth movements and military service in the occupied territories; between victimhood and the use of force; between collective memory and truth; the tremendous gap between “the most moral army in the world” and the reality on the ground.
Noam Khayut was born in Kfar Yehezkel in the Jezreel Valley, and well remembers his childhood and the great importance of ceremonies, including commemorations of Holocaust Day and Memorial Day, in forming his identity. He also understands very well the national and nationalistic context of the celebration of Jewish holidays in Israel. When he was six years old he dressed up on Purim as an Israeli soldier, and he chose the photo of him – in a uniform, wearing army boots and carrying a plastic gun – for the book’s front cover. His description of his childhood and adolescence, a real success story from the perspective of the Israeli establishment, is fascinating. Khayut is a winner. He’s smart, the girls like him, he loves Israel and believes in it unconditionally. He’s also very talented, musical, began playing the trumpet at an early age. He plays at ceremonies on his moshav and in the youth movement whenever the flag must be raised, or lowered to half-mast. In high school he participates in the “traditional” trip to Poland and visits Auschwitz. He understands very well what happened there, and writes in his book how “I was proud and joyful in Poland.” He recalls how the Holocaust, which so saddened him as a child, became an emotional symbol of power when as an Israeli adolescent he played the trumpet during the trip to the extermination camps. “My feelings about the Holocaust changed completely. Now, a high school student in Poland, I actually began to feel that I belonged, that I loved myself, was strong, proud. A desire to contribute, to be strong, so very strong that no one would ever imagine wanting to harm me.”
He enters the army at 18, becomes an officer, serves primarily in the occupied territories. He adopts the Israeli military terminology and outlook, views the soldiers as victims and the Palestinians living on the West Bank as aggressors. He becomes an esteemed officer who believes treats the Palestinians morally. He does such a good job explaining his views and those of the IDF that at the end of his stint he’s sent to Miami by the IDF spokesman and Israel Bonds. Khayut finally feels what he wished for his entire life: he’s become a hero.
But below the surface, beneath his overwhelming addiction to the feelings of sanctity and bravery, the way he connects the heroes of the bible with Israeli soldiers, Khayut receives the greatest blow of his life. Not a fist, not a bullet or a kick. Nothing more than the way a Palestinian girl looks at him. He remembers how, during an operation in the Ramallah area, after completing the mission, he was about to return to the armored vehicle. He saw a few children playing by the roadside, and he – the good-hearted, moral Israeli officer, who doesn’t harm the innocent, who believes in peace – smiles at them “the stunning smile I inherited from my mother. A responsible, sensitive smile.” He wants them to love him, understand him, for them to see that Israeli soldiers don’t just shoot and stand at checkpoints, but are also human beings. But his smile doesn’t elicit a smile in return. And certainly not a hug. The Palestinian girl looked at him in horror. He was appalled. He understood that she was deathly afraid of him. “The girl didn’t return my smile in the manner to which I’d been accustomed since I learned to smile that way as a youth leader. No, she froze, grew very pale and seemed terrified. She didn’t scream or run, just stood before me with a look of terror on her face and pierced me with her dark eyes.”
Khayut describes that moment in his life as the one in which his Holocaust was “stolen.” When he recalls the Palestinian girl he writes that “My Holocaust Thief”, and feels that when she finally turned her back to him and fled “she’d taken the most valuable emotional and spiritual asset I’d inherited from my forefathers: my Holocaust.” He understands that if his life had until that moment been divided into absolute good (he himself, representing the Jewish people) and absolute evil (Nazi Germany), “that girl had taken away from me the belief that there’s absolute evil in the world and that I’m avenging it, combatting it. Because, for that girl, I myself was the absolute evil.”
After travelling to India and returning to Israel, Khayut is no longer the person he had been when he left. The look he saw on the face of that girl in Ramallah had pierced the veil of hypocrisy and lies, the half-truths he’d told himself, the virtual reality he’d constructed. He suddenly begins to recall incidents from his military service which he’d repressed, didn’t remember, ignored. How they’d taken over a Palestinian home in Tulkarm and expelled the family. How they’d humiliated a Palestinian youth. How they’d injured another youth. How they selected someone at random and beaten him up “so we wouldn’t look like suckers.” The account of Khayut’s transformation is fascinating not only because of his belated awakening, but primarily because of his extraordinary description of Israeli society from within. How there is so much violence that’s seen only as a “response” to the violence of others. How patently immoral acts are consistent with the fervent belief that the IDF is the most moral army in the world. How you can maintain an occupation so obviously and overtly without seeing yourself as an occupier. How Palestinians and their struggle for freedom come to be seen by Israel as terrorists and terrorism.
Khayut’s journey, his reexamination of himself and of Israeli society, is filled with insight. A new world that had always been there is suddenly revealed to him. He begins interviewing other soldiers and publishing their testimonies about harassment and injuries to Palestinians in the occupied territories. He visits the occupied territories as a civilian, joins the line of Palestinians waiting at the Qalandiya checkpoint, for the first time sees the soldier standing there as an occupier and the Palestinian as occupied. Travelling in the country he suddenly begins asking himself questions which he’d never before even been aware of. “I wondered how I was so familiar with the history of this place, including the biblical and Roman periods, but not its most recent period. How could I have walked so long on this country’s trails without seeing the most obvious archaeological stratum that’s lying right in front of our eyes?” He begins asking questions about Israeli education, and also about his own home: “How are we taught the history of the Jezreel Valley in school, about what took place there 2,000 years ago but not about what occurred only yesterday?” The explanatory signs in nature reserves suddenly take on a new significance. “Once more I read signs describing the battles of 1948 and see how the girl who stole my Holocaust has given them a new meaning. She’s added aspects, truths and facts.”
Khayut is thus in dialogue with Tomer Gardi and the attempts of courageous young Israelis, who are few in number today but whose voices are growing stronger, to reexamine what the Israel Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Education insist on teaching. But these two authors also differ from one another. While Khayut emphasizes the change he experienced during his military service and focuses on the occupation that began in 1967, Gardi writes primarily as a civilian who’s less concerned with Israel’s secondary occupations than with the earthquake created by its establishment in 1948. Both have become activists, also in clearly different ways. While Gardi has become a leading figure in Zochrot, whose goal is to raise awareness of the Palestinian nakba among Israeli Jews, Khayut began to volunteer with “Breaking the Silence,” an organization gathering accounts from soldiers who’d served in the occupied territories beginning with the Al-Aksa intifada. Zochrot undertakes a “civil discourse,” a joint endeavor by Israelis and Palestinians; “Breaking the Silence” tries to affect Israelis’ soft underbelly: the military. Gardi also wants very much to meet the residents of Hunin, to redress an historic injustice, but Khayut is afraid to look again into the eyes of the Palestinian girl from Ramallah. It’s unclear whether Gardi and Khayut share a worldview, see the conflict in the same way, but from the perspective of official Israel, at least, they represent two sides of the same coin, an existential threat to Israel’s foundations as they’re currently conceived.
That may be the secret of their power. Because despite the differences in their writings, both Gardi and Khayut encourage Israelis, and young Israelis, to think imaginatively. Although official Israel is becoming more extreme politically, a growing number of other voices are being heard in civil society speaking of the Palestinian nakba and the ongoing Israeli occupation. It’s not clear how widespread such critical voices can become, and whether they, together with Palestinians in Israel, will ever be able to form a significant bloc of Jews and Arabs who want to live in an egalitarian state, one that isn’t occupying another people, and which is ready to accept responsibility for past injustices. Until then Gardi, Khayut and their colleagues will continue working within Israel in various ways. They’ll apparently continue to do so disconnected from the Arab intelligentsia and from the Middle East, who won’t translate their books because of a fear of “normalization” with Israel. Perhaps we’ll understand in the future that cooperation with critical forces in Israel is necessary in order to engage in forthright and fundamental action to change the situation. But might it then be too late? Who’ll read what we now write after it’s been erased once again?
Originally published in Arabic in“Al-Mashad al-Israili,” September, 2012, by the Madar Center, the Palestinian Center for Israeli Studies, Ramallah.
Translation to English: Charles Kamen