‘Erased from Space and Consciousness’ is the product of years of meticulous research to raise awareness of the hundreds of villages Israel destroyed during and following the 1948 war. But is awareness enough to remedy the injustices of the past?
By Tom Pessah
Kadman, Noga: Erased From Space and Consciousness – Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948. 2015. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 256 pp.
Noga Kadman’s Erased from Space and Consciousness is one of those rare books that profoundly re-shapes your perspective. Growing up inside the Zionist education system meant that even when I did eventually hear about the “Palestinian narrative,” it seemed distant — not connected directly to my life experiences as an Israeli.
Kadman’s book, a product of visits to the sites of 230 former villages and extensive archival work, traces the points at which the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 was submerged and normalized, until this massive break in the country’s history became almost imperceptible to younger generations of Israelis. Through documenting the points at which these Palestinian experiences were re-coded, the book enabled me to de-familiarize the familiar – to finally notice the ruins and the cacti I regularly passed on bus rides, and to start asking questions about their former inhabitants. As Edward Said notes, “there can be no hope of peace unless the stronger community, the Israeli Jews, acknowledges the most powerful memory for the Palestinians, namely the dispossession of an entire people” (p. 145-6). This acknowledgement can only happen once we re-read our surroundings and fully perceive what has always been there — in the background.
After a useful forward by Prof. Oren Yiftachel and an in-depth review of the scholarship on the Nakba and its erasure, the book runs through three empirical chapters. The first examines publications from 25 rural Jewish communities that took over the lands of ruined villages, and describes how this transition was narrated there. The second describes in detail two government bodies established following the state’s founding — the Government Names Committee, and the Survey of Israel (the agency responsible for mapping) — both of which determined how the sites of former Palestinian localities would be officially named in Hebrew.
The third chapter discusses signs and publications by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which help mold the public’s perceptions of what became nature reserves and holiday resorts, which mask the sites of former villages. Extensive quotes from these sources are accompanied by historical photographs of the sites (new immigrants dancing among the recent ruins), contemporary photographs by the author (ancient cacti still visible among the newer JNF forests), and reproduced illustrations from when the kibbutzim were founded (pioneers marching forward to till the land, with a destroyed house in the background). The appendices include detailed lists of the depopulated villages (but not towns), their location, demographic and topographic features, as well as the communities and parks that were built atop them and the new names they were given.
The process Kadman documents included more than “erasure” or “silencing.” More precisely, the memory of the former Palestinian inhabitants was re-shaped into a form more palatable to Israelis. The mill used by the villagers of Jarisha, inside what is now Tel Aviv’s HaYarkon Park, is attributed to the “Ottoman period” on the JNF website, with no mention whatsoever of the villagers who used to live there (p. 122).
Furthermore the memory of certain villages became synonymous with filth and backwardness: Kibbutz Sasa wrote that “we are mired in the ruins of an Arab village, that even before its destruction we had to run around in it among fleas and dirt” (p. 74). Sometimes the old name remained long after the inhabitants were gone, preserved by informal agents such as Mizrahi immigrant transit camps (whom the Names Committee accused of “distorting the Hebrew face of our state” — p. 103).
In the lexicon of Kabri, one of the many newly-established Jewish community, the entry “orchards in Kabri” describes delicious fruits, without mentioning the residents of the Palestinian village, al-Kabri, who planted the trees (p. 64). The Names Committee listed Moshav Kfar Daniel as “named to commemorate Daniel Frisch, the president of the Zionist Organization of America,” (p. 101) but the name curiously echoes that of the destroyed village that existed on the same site – Daniyal.
Moshav Ya’ad provides a somewhat different example, in which elements of the older village were actually re-associated with its original inhabitants. The moshav was built on the lands of Mi’ar in the Lower Galilee in 1974, decades after the village was destroyed. Perhaps this is the reason members of the moshav were willing to work with internally-displaced refugees, who managed to stay inside the State of Israel during the 1948 war and today reside nearby. Together they managed to prevent new construction on the site of the former village, and the ancient cemetery was fenced off and protected. However, the majority of Ya’ad members opposed placing a sign to explain the history of the destroyed village.
Yet even this modest example of cooperation is an exception. At most the first generation of kibbutz members sometimes expressed sorrow for the fate of the inhabitants whose land they took. Their questions (“what gives us the right to reap the fruits of trees we have not planted?” Kibbutz Sasa Passover Haggadah, p. 84) remained unanswered and inconsequential, and were not raised again by the following generations. In moshavim, less committed to a socialist ideology with universal pretensions, these dilemmas were entirely absent.
While Kadman’s research on the renaming of Palestinian locales remains groundbreaking, a decade after she began her study, her conclusions may seem too timid for some readers’ taste. During this period, Zochrot, the central Israeli organization trying to raise awareness of the Nakba among the Israeli public, shifted its emphasis from memorialization of the Palestinian catastrophe to actively reversing its results. Zochrot now explicitly calls for the return of refugees to the lands they were expelled from, so that they can live alongside the present Israeli inhabitants. Kadman is doubtlessly right to stress “the importance of memory,” and to document efforts to bring this memory to the consciousness of Israelis, but many Palestinians would argue that memory alone is not enough and cannot replace meaningful efforts to reverse the expulsion of 1948.
Nevertheless there is no doubt that exposing the memory of the former Palestinian locales and the attempts to cover it up is a crucial first step towards reconciliation. Kadman has provided us with a valuable tool for reconfiguring our own consciousness and perceiving the everyday traces of some 85 percent of the Palestinian population of what became the State of Israel – those who remain, to this day, “erased from space and consciousness.”
Tom Pessah is a sociologist and activist, currently studying at Tel Aviv University.