The Nakba in Israel: from contra-memory to divided memory

The Nakba in Israel: from contra-memory to divided memory

Raya Cohen (archiviomemoriemigranti) 

One current issue in the role of memory in contemporary Israel is that the events of 1947-49 that led to the foundation of the state of Israel are also associated with the Nakba – the dispossession of the Palestinians from their lands and houses, first by expropriation and then by not letting them return once the war was over. In this way, the same events constitute a foundational narrative of the Jewish State and a ‘counter-memory’ of a pre-existing Palestinian-Arab society that refutes and challenges the dominant narrative.

This Nakba narrative is caught up between the ‘State archives’ of Israel, that conserves documentation and generates, authorizes and controls knowledge of the past, together with the ‘nation’s archive’, or unifying narrative of Israeli Jews, based on collective and individual memories. It is by constant enactment and re-enactment of the nation as a practice (in laws, schools, public discourses) that attempts are made to de-legitimize the Nakba and to cancel it from consciousness of the past. Indeed, the 2011 ‘Nakba Law’ regulating its public discussion illustrates how what is included/excluded from the past is constantly reenacted as a powerful mean of reproducing what Malkki (1992) calls the “national order of things” in the present.

Palestinians traditionally mark Israel’s official Independence Day as a national day of mourning and organize commemorative events. The ‘Nakba law’ authorizes the Finance Minister to reduce state funding or support to an institution if it holds an activity that rejects the existence of Israel as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’, or commemorates ‘Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the state was established as a day of mourning.’ The law, therefore, violates Israeli Arab rights and restricts their freedom to commemorate the Nabka as an integral part of their history. It is step related to the policy of systematic confiscation of Palestinian archives (first in 1948, then the PLO archive in Beirut 1982, and again the archive in Orient House 2001), which are all closed to the public.

The de-legitimization of the Other’s memory occurs not only from above. An example can be found also within the civil society reactions to the Hebrew translation in 2002, of Elias Khoury’s novel, The Gates of the Sun, an epic novel about the memories of Palestinian refugees and their expulsion from their land in 1948. The novel can be considered the first novel in Hebrew to unveil the memories of the Palestinian refugees as the victims of the Israeli policy of national cleansing in 1948 and to confront it with an alternative ‘truth’ (if we accept that the ‘truth’ of a given memory lies not so much in its ‘factuality’, as in its ‘actuality’). Its plot is simple: In a hospital in the Shatila refugee camp near Beirut, Yunes Al-Asadi, a legendary Palestinian fighter, is in a coma, and his young friend, Khalil Ayyoub, is nursing him. Like Scheherazade, he tries to keep alive his admired hero with past stories about their lives. Khalil’s monologue turns out to be an attempt to narrate the memories of the entire Palestinian refugees, which by the very nature of memories, are fragile and fragmented; at times woven together, at times contradictory.

Reviewing the novel, the journalist and historian Tom Segev, opined (in Haaretz, 4/3/2002, in Hebrew) that Khoury has produced a very impressive, yet historically inaccurate account, especially with regard to the horror stories that the author attributed to the Israeli Army during the 1948 war. The book, he argues, tells, “many stories of strange deaths, including crucifying, shocking tortures, misdeeds and humiliation. And if this is not enough there is also a story about a rabbi in Beirut that had violated children for fun. […] All of these things deviate from the creative liberty of an author. In order to be able to relate to such stories, there is first a need to know if there is truth to them. If [the stories] are not true – they do not merit to be used for fiction. The burden of evidence is on the author…”

The reaction of Segev – himself a non-conventional controversial historian – is surprising, not least because in his breakthrough book, 1949, The First Israelis (1986), he describes the systematic looting of the Palestinian refugees’ property by the new Israelis, and the political efforts of the Israeli government to avoid, by all means, the return of the Palestinian refugees. Indeed, as a professional historian, Segev does not put into question the fragile content of refugee memories. He knows, as Samera Esmeir (2007) puts it, that “incoherence, contradictions, and absences should be understood as signifier of something that is still present—the death of human relationships, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and the destruction of an entire society.”

What provokes Segev is the Arab narrating voice: “Khuri does not provide us with any proof for his words. He is not a known author in Israel and there is no reason to believe him. […] rather, stories like that are limiting the Palestinian tragedy to discussion of minor events, whether one specific massacre has happened, as if this is the main question” (ibid). In other words, what turns Khuri’s novel – and by extension the memory of the Nakba – a “counter memory” is not only its content but also its truth value. An Arab novel about the Nakba should include only proven facts if it wants to be in condition to be ‘heard’ by Israeli public; as if to say that the subalterns’ narratives need to support its narrative with the means that western power use (documents, archives and other institutions) in order to turn its narrative into a historical truth.

Yet his compassionate critique of the novel, a critique that includes terms like ‘truth’, ‘prove’, ‘facts’, ‘falsification’ and even ‘war crimes’, suggests that underlying what Judith Butler (2012) calls the ‘inaudibility’ of the Palestinian memories, is also a fear of a tribunal, a demand for accountability, or at least admission of war crimes committed. It is precisely these two aspects – the power to question the validity of the narrating Other and the validity of memory as traces of crimes – that reflect how even a liberal historian like Segev, re-enacts the national narrative as a location of denial of the Nakba. The question is not so much about Israel destroying the previous Palestinian society and turning Palestinians into refugees, as about avoiding acknowledgment and denying responsibility for it, a matter of what Michael Taussig (1999) calls, “knowing what not to know.”

This gap between the traces of the Nakba – constantly invoked by ruins of Arab houses, names of places, as well as the biography of Israel’s Palestinians citizens (20% of all Israeli citizens) — and the lack of accountability of it, is addressed by various groups and associations. The testimony  of Amnon Neuman, a Jewish soldier in 1948, published by Zochrot, is one illustration of how the Nakba is part of the history and memories of Israelis, too, precisely because they were the perpetrators. His is not an apologetic voice, nor a victorious one. It is the voice of a man who fulfilled orders, and is conscious of having committed war crimes. He wants to relate that which the national narrative has suppressed, testifying to the fact that the Jewish military expelled, ‘cleansed’ with all possible means, the Palestinians who had previously been their neighbours in order to establish a Jewish State.

Like other memories, it is made out of gaps and silences, and the facts are not corroborated by official documents, yet the crimes he himself had committed, he says, have haunted him for 50 years. He is not the only one. Some of the Israeli soldiers’ testimonies are inaudible to the Israeli public, some are even unpronounceable. However, the Israelis’ memories regarding the Nakba are not only about perpetrators and victims, but also about traumatic experiences, about powerful ideology and obedience, about mutual fears and vulnerabilities, and even about an ageing individual and the need to reposition oneself with regard to collective narrative. The prevailing national narrative excludes the individual and collective memories of both Jews and Palestinians.

Paradoxically, the ‘Nakba law’, as with any law that limits freedom of expression, brings into being that which it seeks to regulate. It also exemplifies a state power that attempts to enact the nation on the basis of a narrative that negates any accountability for the past. But historical events have no nation. The difference between many Israeli-Jewish memories and many Palestinian memories regarding the events during 1947-9 is rooted in their different experiences, not in historical facts. Unlike in a tribunal, the traces of violence do not need to be proven by the witness, whether victim or perpetrator. They need to be put, as conflicting memories, into a historical perspective.

Giving place to the various excluded memories of the groups that actually live – or lived – in the country, listening to life stories of the Other, turns ‘inaudible’, non-recognized (‘contra’) memories into competing, divided memories within civil society. Including that which was excluded from the prevailing (‘Zionist’) narrative about the formation of the nation-state, does not undermine the national (Jewish) community, but rather puts into question relationships between the nation and ‘its’ space and confronts the scars left by the violence of the past.

Butler, Judith (2012) Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, Columbia University Press.
Esmeir, Samera (2007) ‘Memories of Conquest: Witnessing Death in Tantura’ in In Ahmad H. Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod (eds) Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory. Columbia University Press.
Malkki, Liisa (1992) ‘National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees.’ Cultural Anthropology, vol. 7(1).
Segev, Tom (1986) 1949, The First Israelis. The Free Press.
Taussig, Michael (1999) Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford University Press.

Raya Cohen is an Israeli historian who has taught in Tel Aviv University and in Università degli studi di Napoli, Federico II, and now collaborates with archiviomemoriemigranti (Archive of Migrant Memories) in Rome.