June 22, 2014 Zochrot: Bending the Arc towards Justice part one

So why should Jewish Israelis care about what happened to the people they defeated 67 years ago? The Arabs rejected the Partition Plan, there was a war (they started it), we won, yalla, move on. That is what I call the dominant paradigm in both Israel and the United States. Eitan Bronstein, founder of an organization called Zochrot (Remembering) is a little older and little greyer than when I last saw him but still driven by the need to bring the history of the Nakba, the Palestinian experience of 1948, into Israeli consciousness. His intensity and conviction is powerful. I am pleased to see he has a new office that reflects the growing success and activities of the organization.

In 2001, he was touring a Jewish National Forest and noted that while there were signs about Roman ruins and biblical sites and Mamluks, there was no documentation of an obviously neglected Palestinian village, Imwas. “The houses were shouting to me,” the cemetery, the stones, “like an obvious blindness.” He was working with Neve Shalom/Wahat Salaam, the only consciously Jewish- Palestinian village devoted to coexistence in Israel, talked with his friend Umar, and they decided to put up signs reflecting the more recent history. This got picked up by a journalist, there was an article in kibbutz newspapers, then a list of Palestinian villages on sites of kibbutzim. Tom Segev wrote about this in a column in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and the idea took off.

Eitan explains that this work “has to do with my own colonizer identity, signage is colonizing practicing.” As Ben Gurion said, “In 1948, we took over the land, now we have to take over the map.” Eitan states, “Our way to de-colonize is to rename.” He sees the mission of Zochrot is to educate Israeli Jews and civil society about the Nakba and the more controversial right of return for Palestinian refugees, and to take responsibility for the Nakba. This is not just Palestinian history, it is Israeli and human history, “part of my own history.”

There are many invisible pieces to this puzzle. According to Eitan, the 1948 war did not happen between two sides where there was a winner and a loser; the war was mainly between Jewish Israeli fighters and Arab armies, not the local civilians on the ground.

Israel lost some of the battles when they encountered an Arab army: the Old City of Jerusalem, or the region of Latrun, but many of the victories were over civilians who were not prepared to do battle.

Additionally, the Nakba happened before the war, during the war, and after the war. He finds the most convincing evidence is the testimonies of Israeli fighters: “Expulsions were easy, shoot a few shots, tell people to leave; it was not a military challenge from the thousands of Palestinians.” So he sees this history as a systematic expulsion of a civilian population by armed units followed by the destruction of their villages to prevent return, thus the Nakba continues.

He adds that this is not the Israeli understanding of history; most now know the word Nakba, but most people do not really comprehend its meaning.

To complicate matters, the Israeli government passed the Nakba Law in 2011, which creates financial sanctions for any commemoration of the Nakba by an organization funded by the state. On Israeli Independence Day a Jewish state should celebrate, not mourn! This creates an atmosphere of fear and threats around the commemoration of the Nakba. On the other hand, the law raised a lot of interest.

There was a huge scandal over an earlier law that actually said that anyone who commemorated the Nakba on Israeli Independence Day could be sent to jail for one year. Fortunately this did not pass.

Eitan explains, imagine if the United States forbade any mourning or protest by Native Americans on July 4th or Thanksgiving. Even Australians remember the day they attacked and massacred the aboriginal population.

Since Zochrot is not funded by the state, it is still a legal, functioning organization. Universities are also closed on Independence Day, so students do not organize commemorations. However, two years ago, students at Tel Aviv University initiated a provocative commemoration on Nakba Day which raised a lot of attention and a big argument in the media. The university permitted the event, but the government said this was not okay because it violated the spirit of the Nakba Law, which was to prevent all such events. At this point, Nakba commemorations occur on May 15th, the day Israel declared independence, but the national independence day celebrations occur according to the Hebrew calendar, so the days are usually not the same.

I find it an interesting historical point that while most Palestinians in Israel lived under military rule until 1966, I.e., they needed permits to travel within Israel, this rule was lifted on Independence Day, and no permits were needed. So on that day, Palestinian families for years would visit their villages for personal, mostly quiet, less political family gatherings. Fifteen years ago, they held their first March of Return on Israeli Independence Day, so the issue is becoming increasingly politicized and public and Zochrot is in the forefront of this struggle.

Zochrot is involved in a number of extraordinary projects:

1. Offering alternative tours like the one we did to the destroyed village of Lifta.

2. Creating the only Hebrew map of destroyed Palestinian villages.

3. Documenting all the destroyed villages since the beginning of Zionism through the 1967 war and placing 678 localities, including 22 Jewish localities destroyed in 1948 by Arab armies and 62 Palestinian localities destroyed before 1948. Eitan explains that when Zionists “redeemed the land,” they destroyed the Arab structures. Landowners were sometimes Palestinian, Lebanese, or other large, often absentee, landowners. Eitan was told that the Golan was empty and only had Syrian army bases there, but Zochrot documented 127 Syrian villages with approximately 170,000 people.

4. Preparing an educational study guide for high schools. While they cannot get officially invited to schools, they train teachers to use their material and to include the information in their lessons. While teachers can get fired and have been bureaucratically threatened, Zochrot advises them to be “discreet,” to introduce the idea of “multiple narratives.” This reality obviously poisons the atmosphere for many teachers who want to explore this topic in depth.

5. Writing a very successful, practical tour guide in Hebrew and Arabic, with eighteen routes to different places in the Nakba with photos, maps, and history.

6. Creating a book called Awda (Return) with imagined testimonies for possible futures after the right of return for Palestinian refugees is implemented. There are twelve stories, six by Jews and six by Palestinians.

7. Creating an iNakba app for iPhones, a free download that uses GPS, and accurately shows all villages, photos, and related information.

8. And facilitating a host of educational workshops, symposiums, film festivals, websites, and coalitions with other groups such as Badil, Al Haq, and Palestinians in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, as well as Israel.

Zochrot’s most controversial work, I suspect, is on the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Eitan explains, “We support the right of return based on the right to choose or to compensate with reparations; it is the choice of the refugees.” How to actualize this is a very big challenge, it is clearly not practical for people to expect to return to their old homes, often places are not there, some are vacant, or now encompass a different community. “We try to show how implementation is not putting us in more danger and will actually favor peace and prosperity.” He is not talking about symbolic numbers, like the Geneva Initiative and other agreements.

“We do not accept that ideology,” and as an example he explains: in practical terms, find out how many people want to return. “So let’s say here are one million Jaffa refugees, maybe one hundred thousand may return. How do we do that, so we must prepare to absorb these folks, so when, how, time frame (one million Russians came, it takes time).”

He continues on that he favors a one-state solution, where everyone can live in equality, where the state is no longer a Jewish state. “This is the core reason of the conflict and is very problematic.

In the context of the Mideast, this is a good recipe for constant war. We already have a big Israeli collective here, a culture. Hebrew speakers will continue and be enriched by Arabs. Everyone should be bilingual, why not? We are in the Mideast; Jewish tradition and culture will continue but not as a state.”

So how did Eitan come to such an idealistic, and some might consider radical, position? “We began right after the onset of the Second Intifada, a crisis of the left.” In October 2000, he had, “My last crisis with Zionism. I finally understood that the problem is Zionism. Many more Israelis are exposed to this knowledge,” but they are still a minority. Many Israelis acknowledge the Nakba, but cannot deal with the right of return, but “it is not possible to dismiss.” Thinking back to the hundreds of children we saw playing in the barren concrete streets of the Balata and Aida Refugee Camps and the massive security apparatus and concrete walls that the Israeli government and military continue to erect in their increasingly ghettoized efforts to protect themselves, it is clear that it is time to think beyond the dominant paradigm, and Zochrot is clearly a good place to start.