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Book review: Touring the Nakba

A new guidebook provides readers with tours of 18 Palestinian villages depopulated in 1948, allowing Israelis to slowly learn the story of Palestine and create a new reality between the river and the sea.

Remains of the village Al-Ghabisiyya, north of Acre. (photo: flicker / gnuckx CC BY 2.0)

By Danit Shaham

A book always makes a statement.  Whether it’s resting on the table or visible on a shelf, it’s making a statement – cultural, political, or both. Space, on the other hand, represented by maps, hiking trails, signs, is usually viewed as something objective.  Neutral.  Not subordinated to social, historical or other forms of power.

“Once Upon a Land,” published by Zochrot and Pardes, offers 18 tour routes to depopulated Palestinian villages across Israel, from Zib (Achziv) in the north to Bir Saba’ (Beer Sheva) in the south. The book is written in both Hebrew and Arabic, and is laid out in such a manner that the text flows easily and continuously in either language.

The book is focused, easy to understand, and in addition to the tour routes provides demographic data about the Palestinian villages that were there until 1948 including notes, information about the law, historical background and the current situation, as well as specific directions about how to reach each location.

The guidebook further exposes how space has been designed in a way that silences dozens and hundreds of Palestinian stories, and thereby serves as an additional means to create a Jewish collective consciousness at the expense of Palestinian society. Thus, by providing a resource that in any other context would be viewed as legitimate and non-threatening, it offers readers tour routes which enable them to slowly learn the story of Palestine. Is this a denial of Zionism? Can it co-exist with Zionism? How threatening can this awareness be to Israeli tourists? I wonder.

One would think the question is a personal one, depending on the particular individual. But since that story has been silenced at the national level, I am afraid that the Israeli campaign against the possibility of telling an alternative or parallel story will frighten many people. I already imagine how future hikers will hesitate to page through the book, feeling like traitors if they did.

I expected a standard guidebook that would lead me through familiar sites to tell an unfamiliar story, among trees, along trails and alongside the ruins of a period no one mentions, at least not in Hebrew. I found an amazing educational resource for opening up a reality which, were we able to recognize it, as well as able to recognize Israel’s current reality for what it is, could help us create a new discourse, one that involved more listening and less haggling.

It is hard for me to remain indifferent to descriptions, even when presented neutrally as in any other guidebook. The very act of exposing hidden layers gives rise to simultaneous emotions of understanding, pain and anger.  That’s true in the first tour, to discover Zib, which starts at the place that’s known today at the Achziv National Park, where I found myself again aghast as I read the description of the neglected cemetery – especially as someone who makes an effort to visit Jewish cemeteries when travelling abroad, and who expects to find them cared for – to be able to read the names of the deceased on the gravestones and the circumstances of their death, as well as the lovely memorial texts each family chose for its loved one.

It is important to note that the Hebrew proofreading leaves much to be desired with respect to spelling errors, phrasing and excessive detail on some of the routes. These shortcomings, however, are insignificant in comparison with the content provided. It is a breath of fresh air: interesting, challenging and serves as an additional way of reexamining our reality. As Rachel Leah Jones writes in the tour of Ayn Hawd, Ein Hod and Ayn Hawd al-Jadida: “We’ll put on bifocals that will show us all of history’s contradictory layers. We don’t want to see only what used to exist and make believe it’s possible to ignore the present. Bifocal vision means seeing Israel/Palestine simultaneously: just like Israel/Palestine, what appears to be beautiful is very beautiful – and also extremely ugly; very sweet and also terribly bitter. There are many ways of approaching this reality, and this is only one of them.”

History, as we know, is written by the victors. It is never an objective account. That’s why the task Zochrot undertook – to create a guidebook that will bring to life Palestinian history in the pages of the book as well as by allowing people to walk along its tour routes – is more than a fantastic story: it is an important milestone. The book is an honest effort that enables me to hear another account of what used to be here until 1948, and still exists today in the hearts of millions in the Middle East and throughout the world.

Danit Shaham is the Human Rights Education Director at Amnesty International Israel. 

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    1. JKnoReally

      Like thousands of other desolate villages all over the world, the history of these places is precisely that – history. If Amnesty is a Human Rights organization, it should focus on the welfare of living breathing people, not on sustaining a particular irredentist nationalist movement. Because, despite their promotion of obfuscatory nonsense about a “new discourse”, Zochrot and its sympathizers are allies of the Palestinian national struggle, not promoters of human rights. Human rights are for the living, where they live, and nothing else.

      Reply to Comment
      • JK- so i guess you are opposed to holocaust memorial books, or tours of the concentration camps.

        And btw, many of those displaced from these villages are among still “living breathing people”. Are they due nothing – not even an acknowledgement that they exist and suffered.

        Reply to Comment
      • rose

        a really childish comment Jkno. If you would know a little bit of history you would not show us your ignorance. there is not any reconciliation if people are not ready to study which prices the indigenous people of palestine paid so that your legitimate dream could become a reality.
        btw sydney, holocaust memorial books are not connected at all to palestine and the palestinian people. it is important to read them, but your comparison is stupid as the one of your friend above.
        guys, the 2 of view live in a little bubble detached from the rest of the world. the only good aspect is that I am sure that people like you cannot be really fulfilled and happy. better than nothing

        Reply to Comment
        • sh

          The point is that physical evidence of any such history was, and still is being, effaced, on purpose, so that we should no longer remember yesterday but should only remember 2 or 3,000 years ago. Books like this will be like holocaust books if that process continues: books about things of which there is no longer a trace. And that makes them very important indeed.

          Reply to Comment
        • rsgengland

          It is time to also start making a tour book of the “JEWISH NAKBA”.
          Not sure how many remember the million plus Jews from the Arab/Muslim lands that were “ETHNICALLY CLEANSED” from the Middle East/North Africa since 1948.
          There are a few thousand Jews left , from Jewish communities that pre-dated Islam by a thousand plus years.
          Not much is left of all the property
          and possesions that these Jews were forced to abandon when they were expelled/forced to flee by the wave of Antisemitism that swept these areas before and after 1948.

          Reply to Comment
      • Y-Man

        boy, if you’re honestly conveying how you feel when you say “human rights are for the living, where they live, and nothing else,” you must really hate Abe Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League, and the immense Jewish Holocaust Remembrance phenomenon.

        Reply to Comment
        • JKNoReally

          To all the haters who like bad analogies: If Holocaust remembrance were aimed at displacing and subjugating Poles and Germans in order to reconstruct Jewish shtetls and neighborhoods, it wouldn’t be about Human Rights. As it happens, Holocaust remembrance is usually about preventing genocide in the present day, where people at risk tend to live – hence the connection with Rwanda, Darfur, etc. But the Nakba isn’t about protecting innocents today, its about waging a new war against Jews. No matter how much you try and disguise it as being about human rights, it never will be, because its a POLITICAL, AGENDA-DRIVEN narrative that complete ignores the true history of the wars of 1947-1948. Its proponents keep saying “oh nobody knows we have to educate them” – but in reality, everyone knows and nobody cares, because the narrative is propaganda. You don’t have a moral case so stop pretending the problem is ignorance.

          Reply to Comment
          • Nakba memory is about achieving justice for people who were and continue to be denied it. It looks increasingly ludicrous when citizens of a heavily militarised state try to present themselves as victims in ‘a new war against the Jews’, simply because Palestinian stories are told, in spite of all efforts to wipe them out. (I’m reminded of a question posed by Mahmoud Darwish: “Why is the most militarily powerful country in the Middle East afraid of a poem?”) By and large, these stories have been suppressed; you do not find Nakba experience in Israeli school textbooks. The ruins of most destroyed villages were quite deliberately planted over and the former habitation receives no mention in guidebooks to national parks. As the coup de grace, defenders of the erasure try to make out that this is all ancient history, not worth bothering over – while the bulldozers roll into present-day Walajeh yet again, drawing even more attention to the ruins of pre-48 Walajeh. Nakba memory is a necessary component in understanding and hopefully ending today’s injustices.

            As for Holocaust memory, it certainly can be abused politically; it has been exploited very cynically as a gag to stifle criticism of Israeli government policies against Palestinians. A guidebook to ruined communities and their stories isn’t comparable.

            Reply to Comment
          • Y-Man

            How is going on a walking tour “aimed at displacing and subjugating.” And no analogy is required to make your ridiculous statement look, well, ridiculous. Let me remind you what you said. “Human rights are for the living, where they live, and nothing else.”
            Has Abe Foxman even been to Rwanda or Darfur? Plus, it is pretty rich that someone trolling a leftist Israeli website is calling other people “haters.”

            Reply to Comment
          • JKNoReally

            Vicky: abstracting and obfuscating the ultimate goal of Palestinian irredentism – replacing Israeli Jews with Arabs – by repeating the word “justice” over and over again will get you NOWHERE. Again – it will get you NOWHERE, because its transparent nonsense. Your smokescreen has already FAILED so please just give up the talking points.
            Y-Man: Many people have used Holocaust Remembrance to caution the public about Darfur – you’re basically dumping on real Human Rights activists at this point (not Abe including Foxman), which is shameful and stupid. The big question none of you haters can answer is this: if the mass displacement of Palestinians is really, truly a Human Rights issue today, WHY aren’t the dozens of mass displacements that occurred in the last 60 years ALSO obsessed over and commemorated year-round? Huh? Any answers? WHY is the Nakba the only mass displacement that anyone in the “human rights” (Palestinian nationalist) community cares about? You have no answer, which is why this whole pity party is a pathetic joke – not about history, not about real human rights, just about fighting Israel.

            Reply to Comment
          • Early last year I met a lady who was expelled from Lydda. She saw people who were so disorientated from hunger and thirst that they were clutching cushions and thinking they were their babies. She herself drank her own urine on the road to keep herself going. Her sister went missing and she never found out what happened to her – maybe she was one of those who collapsed and died on the way, maybe she made it to safety in some other community. Efforts to find out what happened to her were fruitless. For sixty-four years this lady has lived with that gap in her family, and she will probably die without knowing.

            Saying that all this is just a smokescreen and a talking point won’t become true no matter how often you repeat it, even if you repeat it in capitals. Wounds like that don’t just seal up if you ignore them, no matter how much time passes. It’s like broken bones – if you don’t set them properly, they can’t heal properly and there will always be damage. There are so many families carrying weight like this,. Hence the need for justice. My doctoral research is on accessing taboo history (with a specific focus on the Nakba in Israeli society and the Holocaust in Palestinian communities) and to my own surprise I have found a wary but quite robust interest in hearing and exploring stories that have been placed off-limits – and not just from people who fit the politically liberal mould either. The interest is there not because people think they can get political mileage out of a topic, but because on an individual level they recognise that these histories have collided in their living space and affected them personally, and they want to unpick how. This has nothing to do with some irredentist desire to replace Jews with Palestinians, and making that claim first of all requires you to dismiss people’s grief and memory as somehow not real. Who is erasing what here?

            Reply to Comment
          • The Jewish State was attacked by the Arab Armies. Before the war no one was expelled. I am aware of Rabin’s book about the expulsions from Ramla and Lod but this was during war time. Jews were never invited back to Jerusalem or the Etzion block.

            Reply to Comment
          • JKNoReally

            Vicky: What would it take to “set the bones properly” as you put it? What does “justice” require? Give me SPECIFICS. You say that Nakba remembrance isn’t about replacing Jews – but you simply cannot explain what it IS about without retreating into metaphors and buzzwords – hence the accusations of BAD FAITH against the Nakba obsessors. Please tell me: how does giving tours of ruined villages going to help the refugee woman? Why don’t you focus on helping her achieve a decent set of rights where she lives, and improving her standard of living? Don’t you think that would be more in line with Human Rights work than breaking taboos that don’t even exist anymore? The Nakba doesn’t need you to talk about it – its on the record, its just that people don’t care. That’s really your problem – not that there are diabolical obscurantists at work thwarting “justice.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Eugene

            Here are some specifics – if more people in Israeli society accept that Israel bears some responsibility for the plight of the Arabs who used to live on its territory but now are refugees, maybe more Israeli politicians will be nicer to the Palestinians. So the settlements may be stopped. So the woman from Lod/Lydda may stand a better chance of dying in a viable Palestinian state that isn’t governed so much by armed men. Maybe the woman from Lod/Lydda could even receive some compensation, giving her a better chance of dying in higher living standards, with less anger and more of a feeling of reconciliation.

            Reply to Comment
    2. The Trespasser

      Human rights couldn’t be sold for profit, while book certainly could.

      Reply to Comment
      • Y-Man

        yeah, Elie Wiesel has sold a lot of books

        Reply to Comment
    3. Jan

      I hope that this book will be printed in English so that others in the world will know that the Jewish state was built on the villages of people who the Jews dispossessed.

      Palestine was never, as Zionists loved to say, a “land without people for people without a land.” The hundreds of villages destroyed by the Jews showed that there were people on the land, people who loved the land and that there were perhaps a million of them.

      While anti-semitism in Europe and the Holocaust were indeed tragedies, what the victims of these tragedies did to the Palestinians was and is another tragedy – a state built on the lands of a people who bore no responsibility for the anti-semitism that lead some European Jews in the late 1800s to decide that there must be a Jewish “homeland” on the land already populated by another people – a people who would have to go if there was to be a Jewish state.

      It is past time that Israelis and Jews around the world understand this and come to terms with it. Israel was built on the land of others.

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      The people who bear responsibility for the Nakba are the leaders of the time of the Palestinian people who convinced to embark on a genocidal jihad to crush the Jewish yishuv in 1948. Thus, it might be profitable for Palestinians to visit these sites as living reminders of the disastrous leadership they had then and the equally disastrous leadership they have today which is also leading them to further defeats.

      Reply to Comment
      • Y-Man

        Genocidal jihad? Remind me again which side expelled three-quarters of a million people?

        Reply to Comment
        • The side that won the war that was imposed on them. If the other side had won there would be no problem today because there would be no Jews left n the region.

          Reply to Comment
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