Excerpts from the booklet:
This booklet, "Bridging Memory," describes a joint project of Zochrot and Najda, a Lebanese organization, made possible by the "mediation" of European groups that support both bodies. The 28 booklets published so far by Zochrot have dealt with the silenced memory of these Palestinian villages destroyed in the nakba or repopulated afterwards by Jews: Ayn Karim, Kuwaykat, Khirbat Umm Burj, Khirbat al-Lawz, al- Shaykh Muwannis, al- Maliha, al- Ajami in Yaffa, Hittin, al- Kafrayn, al- Shajara, Tarshiha, Bir al- Sabi'e, al- Lajjun, Suhmata, al- Julan, Isdud and al- Majdal, Khirbat Jalameh, al- Ramlah, al- Lidd, Akka, Haifa, Ayn al- Mansi, al- Haram [Sidna Ali], Ayn Ghazal, Lifta and Dayr Yassin.
The booklet is part of a project that seeks to establish a bridge between the memories of Palestinians expelled in the past from the village of al- Ras al- Ahmar, and today's reality – between al Ras al Ahmar and the Ayn al- Hilweh refugee camp, and Kerem Ben Zimra, the Israeli moshav established on their lands and on the ruins of their village.
The idea for the project was born during a meeting between Layla al- Ali, the director of Najda, an organization working in Lebanese refugee camps, and Eitan Bronstein, the director of Zochrot. The idea seemed simple: to bring the story of the Palestinian refugees into the space occupied by the Israeli locality that arose on the ruins of the Palestinian village. The story was told in video footage of testimony by the village's refugees that was transcribed and translated into Hebrew for this booklet, as well as photos of them where they live today, in Ayn al- Hilweh in Lebanon. The Israeli portion of the story is shown in photographs of the ruins of the village, and, in an interview, one of the veteran residents of Kerem Ben Zimra tells us about the moshav.
Today, at the conclusion of the project, we can honestly say that this attempt to bridge memory was largely a failure. The Jews who live in Kerem Ben Zimra are not ready at this stage to study the Palestinian history of the village in which they live, and it's doubtful that the village's refugees in Lebanon will learn something new about the
conflict because of this project. The failure of “Bridging Memory” helps us recognize the huge gulf that exists between the two sides. Whatever success it may have had involves marking this gulf, identifying the challenges we confront on the way to a future reconciliation between the sides. “Reconciliation,” Zochrot’s vision, becomes in this context an illusion, because of the unbridgeable gap between al- Ras al- Ahmar and Kerem Ben Zimra.
This failure is even more impressive in view of the many resources invested in “Bridging Memory.” Members of Najda in Lebanon collected video testimonies from dozens of refugee and edited them as the basis for a film about the project. Zochrot received the testimonies and produced a 15- minute film containing summaries of five testimonies and scenes showing the Israeli moshav and the remains of the Palestinian village. Zochrot also took photographs in the moshav and interviewed Marco Rozio, one of the first to arrive in 1949. In addition, Thierry Brasillon photographed some of the refugees from the village; their photographs were enlarged to life size and were placed amid the ruins of the Palestinian village, and then photographed again. The essays by Thierry (in French, Arabic and Hebrew) and by Eitan (Hebrew and Arabic) describe that part of the project. Zochrot also commemorated the 60th anniversary of the UN vote approving the partition of Palestine with an exhibit on Rothschild Blvd. in Tel Aviv, displaying the photographs of the refugee photos amid the remains of the village.
Zochrot attempted to hold an event in Kerem Ben Zimra, to present the material prepared in the project to residents of the moshav and other Israelis, but moshav representatives refused permission to do so. This is not the first time Zochrot has met with such refusal. The moshav Amqah, on whose land are found the ruins of the village of ‘Amqa, and Kibbutz Meggido, that sits on some of the lands that belonged to the village of al- Lajjun, refused us permission to conduct commemorative events dealing with the Palestinian Nakba. This indicates how difficult it is for Israelis to accept responsibility for the tragedy which they are largely accountable for.
Zochrot believes that accepting such responsibility includes recognizing the right of refugees from al- Ras al- Ahmar’s, ‘Amqa, al- Lajjun, and of their descendants to return to their villages. Only if the refugees can freely choose whether to return to their country or to accept another solution can there be a real chance of reconciliation between the two nations. Obviously, the locked gates to Meggido, Amqah and Kerem Ben Zimra make such reconciliation seem impossible. But, perhaps, a struggle to achieve the impossible is the most optimistic politics that are possible.
According to the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi, the remaining structures on the village land are:
Some houses still remain. One house has a front stairway, and a covered garage that apparently was added by the Israelis who live there. Another house has two high, arched windows. The site also contains stone rubble from destroyed houses, and a few fig trees and cactuses 4//5
This project was born during a train trip in France three years ago. I was giving a series of talks with Leila, a Palestinian refugee from al-Farradiyya (on whose land kibbutz Farod was established) who lives in Lebanon, at the invitation of a number of European organizations. After a few days, and a few hundred kilometers, we tried to think how we could do something together, despite (or because of) the fence and the border that separate us since the 1948 war. It seemed important to us that Palestinians who were expelled to Lebanon, together with Israelis, challenge the border between them by an act that will return Palestinians’ presence to the place forbidden them since the Nakba.
We chose the village of al-Ras al- Ahmar, in the Galilee, none of whose residents succeeded in remaining in Israel as refugees. Almost all of them have been living since their village was captured in the refugee camp of Ein-el-Hilwe, next to the city of Sidon. The goal of the project was to bring those refugees’ memories into Israeli territory, and in particular to the land of the village itself, on which moshav Kerem ben Zimra was established in 1949.
Activists from Leila’s organization collected video testimonies from the village’s refugees, and sent them to Zochrot. The idea was to turn them into a short film, with a Hebrew translation, and to show it to Israelis in Kerem ben Zimra and elsewhere. Ranin Jereis from Zochrot took additional photographs in the moshav and created a film that included the refugees’ testimonies as well as pictures of the village today. What the exhibition presents isn’t what I’ve just described. The photographs in the exhibition are the outcome of an idea developed by Thierry Barsillon, a French photographer who works with one of the organizations supporting the project and who travels frequently to Lebanon and to Israel.
Erecting photographs amid the ruins of al-Ras al-Ahmar
Thierry’s idea was simple: to photograph the refugees from al- Ras al-Ahmar in their homes in Ein el-Hilwe, bring the photos to Israel, enlarge them to life-size, print them, and set them up amid the ruins of their village. At first I recoiled from the idea. It’s hard for me to explain why. Something having to do with the bodily presence of the refugees who were uprooted and then returned anew to the place “where they belonged” but who are now so far away from it…
We tried it out. We made a lifesize enlargement of Muhammad Qassim al-Shaib’s picture and took it to Kerem ben Zimra. We stood it next to a two-story Arab house from al-Ras al-Ahmar. He had returned to his “place”, with Lebanon in the background, not so far from where he’d lived since being expelled. No more than a few minutes had passed before the moshav security chief appeared. He asked what we were going, and we explained the project to him. He was very interested in the refugee in the photograph, his name, his desire to return home. He told us that, as a child, he grew up in that two-story house, which belonged then to his grandmother. He led us to another Arab house that serves as an office of an irrigation company. A fascinating conversation developed with two members of the moshav who worked there. Right of return – how is that possible? And if not – how will there be peace?
Half an hour later they asked us to put the refugee’s photograph on the office wall. We offered to return and organize a broader activity for additional moshav members. They hesitated, but didn’t refuse outright. Thierry, who came with us to the moshav, took some photos for his next trip to Lebanon. We wondered how the refugees would feel about this activity. It turned out that they were very moved to see the photo of the refugee standing amid the remains of their village. Activists of the Lebanese organization, our “partner” in the project, had more reservations about cooperating with Israelis.
Encouraged by the refugees’ response, we printed five lifesize enlargements, took them to the remains of the village and set them up next to the same building, and near the village school they had attended. The most moving photograph, for me, is that of Ahmad Salim al-Hatib in the remains of his village’s cemetery. He died a few months before we placed his photograph in the cemetery in which he must have dreamed of being buried. If, as Barthes teaches us, photography is the cultural site of death, the photo of the still-living-but-already-dead refugee, next to his “grave”, is an excellent example.
A series of gazes
The simple act of photographing the refugee in Lebanon, printing the photograph in Israel and positioning it next to the remains of his village creates a fragmented series of gazes:
Thierry looks at the subjects of his photographs and documents the moment they are looking into his camera.
We here, in Tel Aviv, look at the photographs and hear the stories of the refugees on video.
The life-size enlargements set up amid the remains of the village: near the school, next to the house that was left, and in the destroyed cemetery. Activists from Zochrot and additional moshav members look at them there, full-bodied yet two-dimensional, once again present in the place from which they were uprooted six decades earlier.
The refugees in the Lebanese refugee camp look at photographs of themselves placed by Israelis amid the ruins of their village; The photographs sit in Zochrot’s offices, drawing the amazed gaze of everyone who comes in. The life-size photographs, along with the photographs documenting the project as a whole, are set up on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv as part of an event commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the decision to partition Palestine. Hundreds of people meet the refugees’ gaze, and return it. Sometimes frightened, sometimes surprised, and sometimes like Neta Ahituv (in the photograph).
I look at her looking at Muhammad Qassim al-Shaib, the refugee, here in the exhibition, and think about the possibility of using photography to create a civil nation, as Ariela Azulay proposes1. Photography bridges time and space, the living and the dead, and allows us to envisage a civil nation. In this simulative civil nation uprooted Palestinian refugees, settlers living on their lands, partners of these settlers and those who carry on their work look at one another. This civil nation may demand the rehabilitation or the establishment of citizenship. Of the Nakba’s victims as well as of those who caused it. The actual return of stateless Palestinian refugees to their country, to live together with Israelis, is what we dreamed about during that train trip, and that’s what I see in these photographs.
Tel Aviv, June, 2008
1 Azoulay, Ariella; The Civil Contract of Photography, Resling, Israel, 2006