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Between anger and denial: Israeli collective memory and the Nakba

A new documentary aims to decipher some of the anxiety that accompanies the Israeli debate over the events of 1948.

Ruins of Palestinian Nakba village Qula, 2010 (photo: Deborah Bright / Zochrot.org)

A strange thing regarding the debate on the Nakba: the responses it generates in Israeli society are becoming more and more hostile, while at the same time, the Nakba is mentioned more and more often. Those contradicting elements live side by side, as if the more we work to forget the Nakba, the harder it gets – the recent campaign regarding “the Jewish refugees” that the Foreign Office launched is  just one example.

Israeli-Russian-Canadian journalist Lia Tarachansky (from The Real News) is presently finishing up work on a documentary that tries to deal with the complexity of Israeli sentiments towards the Nakba. “Seven Deadly Myths” (working title) tells the stories of four veterans from 1948, linking them to the lives of modern-day Palestinian refugees and to Tarachansky’s own childhood in a West Bank settlement. When I wrote about the memory of the Nakba on this blog, I also began with my childhood memories. Of all the political and historical issues here, the Nakba has the most intimate feeling to it – another reason it is such a taboo.

Filming has ended, and Tarachansky is now engaged in a fundraising effort to allow her to complete editing and post-production (more details on the film’s website). The project is also taking part in the Cuban Hat competition.

This week, I conducted an email interview with Lia  Tarachansky on the roots of her project and the memory of the Nakba in Israeli society. The video below explains how this project was born.

How did you find the people you interviewed? How many Israelis who fought in 1948 were interviewed? Were they eager to speak?

LT: Most of the people in the film I found by word of mouth. I had asked around in the left’s circles. Then I stumbled onto Sergio Yahni of the Alternative Information Center who knew Tikva Honig-Parnass [seen in the above video] from when she edited the journal “Between The Lines” with Toufic Haddad.

Amnon Noiman I met through Zochrot [“Remembering,” an Israeli NGO that deals with the memory of the Nakba – N.S], other veterans (some of whom later refused to take part in the film) I met through friends of friends or through the various war museums. At first, most were not willing to speak about the war and that period in general. They reminded me of my grandfather who until his dying years couldn’t talk about his memories of the Holocaust. I realized through their silence the immense power of memory and that’s what drove me to dig through my own.

Did you find regret in the Israelis you interviewed, or a feeling that “we did what we had to do?”

Honestly, most of the veterans, both those who are in the film and those who refused, didn’t want to “reopen that file.” One particularly profound moment in the film was in my various conversations and interviews with veteran Amnon Noiman. About three years ago, the Israeli activist Amir Hallel convinced him to give a testimony of his experience in 1948 to a small crowd in the Tel Aviv offices of Zochrot. When I heard about it I grabbed my camera and begged to film it.

I was amazed at how critical Noiman was that evening speaking about the general approach of the Israeli forces during the war, but it was clear even through his criticisms that there were corners of his memory that he refused to touch. Eitan Bronstein, the director of Zochrot asked him about one specific place – Burayr. In April 1948 its residents were expelled to Gaza by the Palmach unit Noiman was part of, and yet he refused to talk about it. It was only in our interview months later that he was ready to speak about what happened that April, 65 years ago.

Your question is very interesting for me because in the beginning of the project I interviewed the veteran and former politician Uri Avnery, who published a war diary during 1948. A year later he compiled his dispatches into the book “In the Fields of the Philistines.” While in these reports he didn’t spare any details of what was happening on the battlefields, when I interviewed him in 2010 he was really defensive, repeating again and again that “if you weren’t there, you can’t judge it.”

This process of opening and closing, which I understood from my own experiences with denial, became really fascinating to me and eventually became the center of the film.

You seem to place an emphasis not just on the events themselves, but even more so on their memory. Why so?

I’ve come to realize that to understand the Israeli self-identity it’s important to understand that it’s not so much the events that shape our understanding of reality, but really our memories of them. I believe the Israeli collective memory is deeply tied to our understanding of our culture, our place in the Middle East, and of course our relationship with the Palestinians. I think that my experience and that of the veterans in the film is a microcosm of that collective memory.

Discussion of 1948 is still taboo and therefore incredibly reflexive. What I mean by that is that the main and most effective way the mainstream nationalistic narrative works is to deny the experience, and foremost the memory of the experience, of anyone who dares to challenge it (or as in my case, has slowly strayed away from it).

In that act, which is incredibly violent, the denial of the ruling narrative translates into denial of the objective history that goes along with the memory. That’s how powerful I think it is. And it is because of that power that we as Israelis grow up blind to what is all around us. That’s how I could grow up in a settlement and be blind to the villages around us.

When I grew up in Israel I never heard the word “Nakba.” Now I do, often. Do you think Israelis have a better understanding of their past? If there is a denial, what causes it?

This is a very important question. When I first started working on the film not only did I never hear the term “Nakba” I didn’t heard anything about expulsions or massacres, or even refugee camps. My family immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1991 so my grandmother didn’t fight in 1948, like most “Sabra” Israelis. That means I didn’t inherit any family narrative of the creation of the Israeli state and the war, not even an augmented one.

That’s why when I set out in making the film I thought most Israelis had the same experience as I did, and knew absolutely nothing. I quickly realized how wrong I was. I think the New Historians have played an enormous role in breaking the monotonous and simplistic history we learn as Israelis – we were innocent, we were attacked for no reason, we fought back and miraculously won.

But I think these historians and the turmoil they caused with their books failed to seriously change the Israeli understanding of 1948 because all reforms to the education system were effectively blocked by the right wing. Ironically, I think it was the right wing itself that made “Nakba” a household name with the proposal and later approval of the Nakba Law.

And even together, the New Historians and the Nakba Law failed to educate the Israeli public on what actually transpired in those fateful years of the war and immediately after it when hundreds of villages were systematically wiped off the map, the Absentee Property and Anti-Infiltration laws were instituted and the Palestinian right of return was legally denied.

Yossi Mekyton, one of the founders of Zochrot, put it best in an interview that will unfortunately not make it into the final film. He described a conversation he had with a young man while riding in a bus past some ruins of a village destroyed in the Nakba. Mekyton said that the difference is that twenty years ago the youth wouldn’t have any clue what these ruins were while today the only thing he knows is that whatever happened, was justified.

This is my feeling too. You grew up in a settlement, and often mention that you yourself were in a sort of denial of Palestinian existence around you. What was it like, and what changed your political thinking?

I don’t think I can answer what it is like to live in denial because of course I wasn’t aware that I was in denial. I only know what it is like to crack that wall and come out on the other side. I first realized that something was deeply wrong when I was in university, in Canada. It was during the Second Intifada, and people were constantly asking me what I thought about the conflict when they found out I was Israeli. All my answers seemed rehearsed – we (Israel) have to do whatever we need to do to protect ourselves from terrorists. That’s the narrative I knew.

But then I met a Palestinian student, and had my first real conversation with a Palestinian person. I don’t really remember what he looked like or what his name was, but I remember thinking “huh, he knows I’m an Israeli, but he’s not trying to kill me. Strange.” That was my first step in a very long process of unraveling what I was taught and discovering what I myself believed. The more I listened to Palestinian stories, the more they echoed my and my family’s experience from the Soviet Union where I was born. Experiences of racism and discrimination.

I had to shed everything I had taken for granted, my entire worldview and rebuild it from scratch. It was a devastating process and of course very alienating because my childhood friends and family were (and remain) very Zionist. Surprisingly, I came out of this process with a profound sense of belonging. For the first time I could form a logical line in my own understanding of the conflict and discover my responsibility as a journalist and a filmmaker.

1948 is not just a piece of history but a loaded political problem. Do you have your own thoughts on what would be a just solution for the refugee problem?

This film doesn’t attempt to give political solutions; it only tries to ask questions. I think organizations like Zochrot, and Badil have invested a lot of thought and work into coming up with just solutions to the historical problems 1948 created, including developing methods for a realistic return. I believe the right of return cannot be denied and that today millions of people live in refugee camps in the West Bank, in Gaza, and in the countries surrounding Israel and that they will never stop dreaming of return and fighting for their right to do so. I think that as a people who carry such a long and painful history, we have a special responsibility to justice and historical honesty.

What responses have you received from Palestinians to this project?

When I talk to Palestinians about the film, many support the idea and are glad that I am going to the source – the people who themselves fought in the war. But most Palestinians I speak to simply cannot understand how to this day Israelis refuse to learn about the Nakba and to understand their narrative.

One of the people in the film is my friend Khalil Abu Hamdeh. He is 27 and the grandson of 1948 refugees from the village of Kakun (near Qalansuwa). Today he lives in a refugee camp on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus (Schem). After years of applying for permits to visit his ancestors’ lands he was finally allowed to leave the West Bank during Ramadan this year.

In the film we follow him as he tracked the place from which his grandmother was expelled. As he looked at the ruins of the village around the historic Kakun castle, where today a national park exists, he couldn’t understand how generations of Israelis could come to this place and never asked themselves what these ruins are, or where are the people who lived there. These are the questions that guide the film and my journey to try and understand the nature of denial.


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    1. Tomer

      What about the Jewish Nakba? Is it worthy of being remembered?
      They stole from us from us an area = 5X the present size of Medinat Israel
      No Justice for Mizrahim = No Peace
      Now stick that in your Leftist pipe and smoke it

      Reply to Comment
      • RichardL

        And are you one of the Mizrahim?

        Reply to Comment
      • No One

        Tomer, who is “they” and how does that justify the Palestinian Nakba?

        What happened to Jews in the Arab world is not the fault of the Palestinians, why should they be forced to daily pay the price for it?

        Reply to Comment
        • Tomer

          What happened to Palestinians is not the fault of Mizrahim. Why should they be forced to pay the price?

          No Justice for Mizrahim = No Peace

          Reply to Comment
        • Hossein

          What happened to the Jews in the Arab world? As far as I know nothing. You mean to “what happened to ews in the Christian world”

          Reply to Comment
      • aristeides

        An excellent illustration of the problem.

        A call to recognize injustice is “Leftist” and must be attacked. How convenient a label.

        Reply to Comment
      • Steve

        What? You need MORE recognition of your victimhood while continuing to deny the same to others?

        Reply to Comment
      • dino

        No,is not worthy.The last equivalence between Nakba,a history well documented by important historians and the so called Jewish Nakbha about which until now nothing was known,excepting the Israeli actions in some Arab countries done with the the goat to scare the Jews and convince them to leave for Israel,this equivalence is a trick produced by the disgusting member of Israel beyteinu Danny Aylon,a mean and stupid propagandist with a false appearance of gentleman who launched also the new slogan:”No justice for blah,blah,blah..will not be peace”.What this rascal wants is to invent always reasons to dodge peace.

        Reply to Comment
    2. LisaB

      I’d be interested in seeing this and hope its shown in Jewish communities around the world as well as in Israel. An interesting interview.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Al Harris

      I salute Lia Tarachansky and Amnon Nioman and all Israelis and Jews who fight to tell the truth about the terrible crimes committed against the Palestinians. I know how hard truth telling can be when your nation is built on land theft and lies. I am a white Australian who has telling a similar story of death and dispossession of the Aboriginal nations of Australia. Your courageous struggle is in the fine tradition of the Jewish people and stands in stark contrast to the ugly lies of Israel’s political leaders and their supporters in the US, Australia and around the world. Shalom and ahava to you all.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Jan

      I think that this will be an important film, one that should be seen not just by Israelis but by Jews around the world.

      I first knew of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians when my now deceased brother-in-law came to the US for my wedding to his brother in 1952. Rafi talked of how as a member of the Palmach he and other Palmach members went under cover of night into Arab villages and drove the villagers from their homes across the border into Lebanon. The hapless refugees were not even given time to put on their shoes which they had left by the door of their home. Any Palestinian who tried to return to get his belongings was shot on sight.

      I didn’t ask Rafi if he killed anyone. I guess that I just didn’t want to know.

      The kibbutz on which Rafi lived was built on the land of one of the destroyed villages. I find it truly terrible that I as a Jew can “return” to a land where none of my immediate blood relatives ever lived while the people who were ethnically cleansed have been denied that right.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Noam

      The film looks very interesting and intelligent, I’d like to see it. However, it’s a shame the filmmaker resorts to populist nonsense during the last 30 seconds. Nobody passed a law “prohibiting the mourning the 1948 destruction”. People who challenge the Israeli mainstream narrative aren’t “thrown out of society”, let alone “outside of the law”. Anyone can read the content of the so called “Nakba law”; it reduces state funding to PUBLIC institutions who mourn the founding of the state. I, personally, oppose it. Arab citizens who want to commemorate and mourn their loss are part of this state. And public funding of anyone shouldn’t be conditioned by anything but violent or racist rhetoric (which should be outlawed for everyone). Yes, I find it oppressive, but it’s within the range of debate – it’s not Russian silencing, and nobody’s liberty is directly violated. Nobody is censoring or outlawing any opinion.

      Look, people disagree on historical issues, they share different narratives, they come from different families. The expectation that everybody agrees with your angle, and the accusation of everybody else as liars or imposers is annoying. This war veteran’s testimony is valid just as that of other veterans which describe the war otherwise.

      I think the people who the “mainstream” is fed up with are those (as Zochrot), who wish to impose an entirely Arab-nationalist view of 1948, and discredit any nuanced view. Zochrot don’t merely wish to challenge debate and raise questions, eventually shifting public opinion. Their homepage advocates “recognizing and materializing the right of return”. This creates understandable antagonism towards them. The concept of genocide-style commemoration of one aspect of an armed conflict between national movements is upsetting. Suggesting Israelis alone (and not the Arab world) share collective responsibility for the fate of all of those people’s descendants is upsetting. I see it as an attempt to instill German-style guilt onto a nation that was waging an independence war, not genocide. Did Israel commit immoral actions, crimes during the war? Sure. Do Palestinians deserve statehood and compensation for injustices? Absolutely. But advocating Israel’s integration of 5 million members of an “enemy nation” (as of now) is as preposterous as suggesting the USA absorbs, by ratio, 195 million Iranians. It’s an absurd assault at the mainstream, not an attempt the engage and challenge its discourse.

      People who point out Israeli responsibility for crimes are not automatically shunned by the state, that’s untrue. I studied “Hirbet Hizah” in my high school curriculum. And so have my parents. Tom Segev’s book on 1948 was a best-seller. But the moment 1948 is entirely “Nakba” and “destruction”, as if not talking about an imposed war, but about the results of planned genocide; the moment School-of-Pappe writing (which is disputed by many scholars) is quoted like the word of God, accusing everybody else of immorality and lies – for THAT almost everybody has little patience. Including me.

      Let me be clear, I agree that any attempt to outlaw ANYONE’S opinion is dangerous, unless it directly incites to violence. I would go out on the streets for you not being silenced. But you aren’t for now. Calm down a bit.

      Reply to Comment
    6. “German-style guilt” : I was once in a crowded German university cafeteria, sitting alone. A German graduate student asked to sit with me. We spoke, of course, in English, as I knew no German (a point). At one point he said he felt he had to apologize for the war. I replied: “No. You have kept the camps to remind us all. No one else has done that, in history, as far as I know.” Most large German cities also keep one ruin intact, like a bombed church, as a reminder of the past. Last year I went to the Japanese American detention camp in the high desert of Utah. Absolutely nothing there but a tall flag pole with required flag and a slab of marble saying Congress is now sorry. The Supreme Court case affirming the detentions is still constitutional law. I live in Phoenix, AZ and know, abstractly, that Native Americans and Hispanics were dispossessed of land and water/mineral rights here. It matters not at all.

      What Israel is being asked to do almost no nation state will do: remember the losing side in war and development. You have an incomplete war of the past on your hands, and that is quite rare. The response will be Israeli and Palestinian, and will have no clear prior model, I suspect. And it is clearly not for me to say what that resolution of memory should be. I think we should remind ourselves, and say to Israelis, that Israel is confronted with a reality almost all States have avoided via destruction. This may not be totally new for humanity, but it is clearly far from common. The very existence of Arab Israeli citizens, albeit still denied full equal protection of the laws, says something. It has not been all an absolute and complete loss; and that, ironically, creates the present burden.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Obsidian

      Qula, the Arab village used in this article’s photo, violently resisted the creation of the State of Israel. About a dozen Jewish soldires died in the attack to seize the village from the Arabs. The village’s ‘hometown boy’, Hassan Salame,was trained in Nazi Germany to kill Jews in Palestine. If I’m not mistaken, he plotted to kill Jews by poisoning the drinking water of Tel Aviv.

      Reply to Comment
      • And, Obsidian, Jews plotted to kill Arabs too. Surprise. Exactly how are we all different?

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      • gabi

        No, Qula was “depopulated” by burning the village with some people still in their houses, before 14th May 1948. Did you give us a list of the other villages “cleansed” by the Jews – BEFORE the declaration of the state of Israel? eg Irgun massacre in Dier Yassin? April 48?

        Reply to Comment
        • Obsidian

          Arab massacres of Jews at Gush Etzion and the Hadassah Hospital convoy massacre.

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          • gabi

            Yes, shocking. That was a retaliatory action following the Deir Yassin massacre. But if you count up the various murderous actions taking place, you would have to admit that the Irgun, Stern gang and Haganah had much more on their conscience than the Arabs – especially considering most of those actions were taking place before the creation of the state when the British were supposed to be “in charge”. And the perpetrators subsequently became prime ministers of Israel!!!

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    8. This is a wonderful project, it is like national psychiatry, and as in individual psychiatry, there will be many people who cannot or will not think back adn remember, but some can, and there should be important healing for those who manage it — and for all who become their audience.

      How odd that Israelis should complain that Palestinians do not sufficiently know and acknowledge the Holocaust (which they did not cause), but are themselves unable or unwilling to know and acknowledge the Nakba, which was the result of their national [and still on-going] acts.

      Reply to Comment
    9. noam

      Pabelmont – your twisted analogy is the odd thing, not that most Israelis don’t equate the Holocaust and the Nakba. The two events might be comparable in the place they hold in either nationality’s ethos, but that’s where it ends.

      In 1948 both sides (Pan-Arab and Jewish, mind you, not Palestinian and Israeli) – tried to push each other out. It was a war over land and sovereignty. One which was declared by the Arab side and was avoidable. Did Israel commit morally wrong actions in that war? Yes. That is proven. Would the Arabs have done the same of worse had they won? Yes. Is the “ongoing Nakba”, as you describe it, solely an Israeli act? Were Arabs always only passive victims? Why wasn’t the State of Palestine liberated from Jordan and Egypt and founded between 1949-67 ?

      I’m all for a Palestinian state. But for reasons that are justice and pragmatism, not nonsense.

      Reply to Comment
      • Justice is an attempt to escape the word chains of history. In the world of Israel, “right” and “wrong” hop around everywhere until neither can be clearly seen. Justice looks out of the faces of the young, having no say where they were born. If adults force them to live this word history yet again, who is the oppressor? The combined, destructive use of history in your land is numbing of all response. Perhaps that is its point–keep all alternative to enfeebled to speak.

        Reply to Comment
      • gabi

        Noam, you say the war in 1948 was avoidable. Had the Arabs not come in to protect the Palestinians when the Brits left, the Jews would have taken the whole of the land up to the Jordan. Ben Gurion has plainly said that was his intention. That was, in fact, his promise to the Jews in the build up to the end of the Mandate. So if Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Jordan had not fought against the new state (a state declared, without borders, btw) we would not be talking now about Gaza and the West Bank. No talk of “occupied territories.” It would all have fallen to the Jews had there been no organised army there to protect what remained of the land allocated to the Arabs under the UN Partition Plan. Some, not all, of that land was saved. None was taken from that part allocated to the Jews.

        Reply to Comment
    10. Noam

      Gabi, as far as I know, Ben Gurion talked about the Jewish “right” over the whole land. However he DID accept the partition plan. This is not unlike Abbas talking about the “right” for Acre , Jaffa and Haifa every second speech, however accepting partition of historic Palestine along the ’67 lines.

      Rhetoric is one thing, pragmatism, and as long a pragmatism prevails, Israel and Palestine can BOTH have an unfulfilled right to all of the Mediterranean islands, for all I care.

      I’m not convinced by your assertion that had the Arab side accepted partition, the Yishuv would suddenly alter its decision and launch a war. What is this based on? It’s like saying the PLO is lying when it declares it will settle for 2-states.

      Reply to Comment
      • gabi

        Noam – what I’m saying is that neither Israel nor the Arabs accepted the Partition plan – Israel took more land than was allocated to it in the PP before 14/15th May 1948. That is a matter of record. They had already launched a war. Just ask the British. In fact back then the Jews called it their War of Independence. They were talking about this well pre creation of Israel, not post. And why should the Arabs have accepted the PP? The UN gave away 55% of their land to a body who was at that time less than 13% of the population. As to the PLO “lying”- actually, if you read the Likud charter you will see that it is Israel who is lying when it talks about 2-states.
        Further, if you read Ben Gurion’s own account of the lead up to the establishemnt of the State of Israel, he had been saying for many years that the Jews would gain all that land (even talking of land up to the Euphrates) and not the “right” to the land. And his actions clearly show that he was not merely wistfully talking about the “right” but was talking about establishing the fact. And would have done so, as I said. Read Illan Pappe, and Ben Gurion himself on the subject.

        Reply to Comment
        • gabi

          Noam I suppose that what I’m essentially saying is that on the one hand Israel describes its actions in Palestine in 1947/1948 as their “War of Independence” while on the other hand they say they accepted the partition plan. If they had accepted the partition plan, then what need was there to fight a war of independence because the partition plan already gave them that.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Gabi, your logic doesn’t make sense. Yes, the Jews accepted the partition. The Arabs rejected it and got reinforced with units from the outside (ALA). The British did not accept the partition decision. The mere acceptance by the Jews of the partition decision would not have translated into the creation of a Jewish State. The War for Independence had to be fought for that to happen. As for the expanded borders, once the partition plan was rejected by the other side it made no military or political sense to adhere to the extremely indefensible borders of the partition plan. For one thing the Jerusalem corpus separatum that the partition plan had proposed had no chance of being implemented while the area of Jerusalem has a very large Jewish population.

            There is absolutely no contradiction between accepting the partition plan while acting forcefully once the partition plan was rejected by the other side in order to deal with the military and political reality created by the situation.

            Reply to Comment
          • gabi

            Noam – I can’t accept your logic. The Arab states did not come in to fight for the Palestinians until after Israel declared the State of Israel. Before that date, and from 1946 but mostly 1947 and early 1948 some of the area allocated to the Palestinians had been depopulated by the various Jewish terrorist organisations. The British couldn’t control them, (that’s the main reason why they decided to give up on the Mandate) neither could the Palestinians. What you are saying is that cleansing of those villages was OK because the Arabs had rejected the Partition Plan. And you no doubt would also say that the reason there were so many refugees was because the Arab armies told the villagers to leave to give them a clean target (some Israelis tout this nonsense) The fact is that some 250,000 to 300,000 refugees fled Palestine before May 1948 – almost half of the total number of Palestinian refugees. That can only be explained by the fact that the Irgun, Stern gang, Haganah, Palmach etc were determined to gain the whole of the land between th Med. and Jordan. In fact Ben Gurion said that accepting the Partition Plan did not mean they had to give up their claim to Transjordan! (So I guess once the West Bank goes, Jordan is next?) Also, you seem to be saying that because of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, the PP couldn’t work – so . . .? On the one hand the Jews accepted it, but really not. Cheers.

            Reply to Comment
          • gabi

            Kulomn 9 – my last post was addressed to Noam – in error. Sorry both to you and Noam. But the same comments apply. You say the British did no accept the partition – but they were the main decision makers. They had the Mandate. They had to be consulted as to where the boundaries of each state should be, and as to how the areas were to be made contiguous; how and where crossings could work best. So I don’t understand that part of your post.
            Nevertheless, Cheers and Shalom.

            Reply to Comment
    11. The Myth of the empty Land of Palestine

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