A Different Kind of Memory
An Interview with Zochrot
“Who is trying to change the names of Haifa streets to the street names in the period prior to the War of Independence?” This question led an article in the December 15, 2004 edition of the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. Someone—“people from outside,” said the mayor—had placed signs in Arabic that labeled major thoroughfares as they had been known prior to the expulsion of many of the city’s Palestinians, and the incorporation of Haifa into the nascent state of Israel, during the war of 1948. Some of those people were affiliated with Zochrot, “a group of Israeli citizens working to raise awareness of the nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948.” Meera Shah, former media coordinator at MERIP, spoke with organizational leaders Eitan Bronstein and Norma Musih on July 17, 2007.
What do you see as Zochrot’s mission?
Eitan: Zochrot’s main goal is to tell Israeli Jews about the history and geography of the Palestinian nakba. Our hope is that this knowledge will enable people to acknowledge the loss of the Palestinians and then to take responsibility—our responsibility as Israeli Jews—for our part in this tragedy. Taking responsibility can mean many things, including changing behaviors or practices, one of the most important of which is acknowledgement of the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
We do many things in pursuit of this goal. One set of activities involves the landscape. We organize tours to Palestinian villages that were either destroyed in 1948 or have been repopulated by Jews since then. There are hundreds that have no signs, nothing marked. We place signs in Hebrew and Arabic marking these places. We also publish testimonies of refugees from these places.
On average we have 100 people on these tours, usually half of them Palestinian, and half of them Jewish. People are very moved. It’s powerful to hear the testimonies and see the place when you are there with refugees who are telling you: “This was my home; here was my father’s home.” It is a different experience than when you read about it. You see places that you know as Jewish places, and then suddenly you see them as Palestinian places, too—as another layer. It is not only an intellectual experience, but also an emotional experience.
In addition, when building plans in Israel will result in the destruction of Palestinian heritage, we voice our protest. Sometimes we’re the only ones to submit objections. Another project is our website, which serves as a resource about the nakba. We have a new art gallery here dealing with the nakba, and we have recently started a magazine. It is called Sedek, which means fissure.
Who is your target audience?
Eitan: Our target audience is definitely Jews in Israel, as Jews are the ones who have to acknowledge what happened to the Palestinians and also acknowledge our role—to know what happened to them, but also what happened to us. Our audience tends to be educated Ashkenazim from the Tel Aviv area. Palestinians in Israel are also very interested in our work. We try to reach the underprivileged Jewish population, but it’s not our main target.
Norma: The situation for marginalized Jews, who are mostly from Arab countries, is different, as often they were placed by the state in the remains of Palestinian villages. So it’s complicated to raise these issues. There is an organization called Mahapach that works with marginalized communities via community organizers and university students. We’re working with Mahapach to think about ways to address this history in these communities.
How do you channel that powerful experience of the tours—that initial sentiment— into a more long-term engagement?
Norma: Well, that is hard. There are people who attend just one tour and don’t return. The nakba is a very difficult issue in Israeli society. People are afraid to confront what it might mean about them to become involved in these questions. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who have come on our tours who have become more involved, by requesting to be on our mailing list, volunteering at events or attending other activities. But this kind of commitment is not very easy.
Zochrot seems to occupy a unique niche on the spectrum of the Israeli left. How and why did your effort begin?
Eitan: Of course, we are part of the Israeli left, but most of these organizations deal with the occupation of 1967. We deal with the occupation from 1948. We do not fit easily together, but still we cooperate on some projects. Now we hear more and more Israelis talking about the occupation of 1967, but referring to the occupation as starting in 1948. That is partly due to Zochrot’s influence. We try to introduce the idea that the occupation began in 1948 into the discourse, but it is not always easy or comfortable for many of these groups.
Norma: Zochrot means the act of remembering in the feminine plural: We remember. In Hebrew, you must choose between masculine and feminine genders. Usually, people choose to speak in the masculine. This is the default. We decided to call it Zochrot because we wanted to promote a different kind of memory. It is not just the memory of wars and the memory of men. It is also a memory of a place that tells other stories, for example, the story of the nakba. Within this story of the nakba, we try to promote stories of women, women talking about the experience of 1948. The name also represents a way of acting, a more feminist way of presenting ourselves.
So, it’s a deliberate choice, it seems. You’re forcing people to think outside of the default.
Norma: Yes, that’s right. If we want to change things here, we must first change the language in which we talk about these issues. Using the feminine form is a way of exercising a different kind of language, a different kind of politics.
Eitan: I initiated this project [in 2002] with Norma and other friends, but it didn’t necessarily start intentionally. I was guiding tours to Canada Park, near Latroun, which was occupied in 1967 when Israel emptied and destroyed three villages: Yalu, ‘Imwas and Bayt Nuba. The Jewish National Fund founded a park in this area, but the park had no references to the three villages it was built upon. There are all kinds of historical signs, but nothing about the Palestinian history. After one of these tours, I just thought it would be interesting to post some simple signs marking an ‘Imwas center or the Yalu cemetery. I showed Canada Park in a critical way, how it constructed the landscape for Israelis and neglected, or silenced, the history of the Palestinians there. I started talking with friends and we thought this was an interesting project, but there are hundreds of places in Israel to post signs, not just from 1967, but also from 1948.
How did you come to hold these critical views?
Eitan: I was raised in a kibbutz. I went to the army. After my three years in the army, the war in Lebanon began. On my first reserve duty call-up, I was sent to Lebanon. After many hesitations and much confusion, I decided to refuse. I had opposed the war from the first day, but for me to refuse to serve in the army, coming from a kibbutz and having been an excellent soldier, was very hard and strange. To refuse was not a small thing. So I was jailed for one month. It was my first real crisis with the place I was living in. When the first intifada started, I refused twice to participate in operations in the West Bank, and I was jailed both times.
I was raised in a kibbutz called Bahan near a place called Kakun. Nearby there are the remains of a beautiful Crusader fortress. Five or six years ago, when I became interested in the nakba and learning about destroyed Palestinian places, I came across one of those nakba websites with a map of the Tulkarm district and an area marked Kakun. I was amazed to find out that it was a Palestinian village until 1948, a rather big village with some 2,000 people. There was a battle there between the Iraqi army and Jewish forces in 1948. This was an important illustration for me of how little we know about the places in which we live. We know nothing about this history. I tell people this story, and many Israelis say that the places where they live have similar histories to that of the Kakun area.
What is the nature of your cooperation with Palestinians?
Eitan: Usually, we work in villages where the former inhabitants are still living in Israel as internally displaced people. We locate people and collect testimonies. Often, our Palestinian colleagues at Zochrot do this work. On the tours, Palestinian refugees from these villages join us and share their stories. In a way, we organize the time and space for Palestinians to tell their stories in their own places of origin. Usually, but not always, their reaction is positive, with lots of emotions reacting to all the Israelis and Jews who want to hear their stories. Usually, this acknowledgement is accepted as a really great experience, a healing experience in a way—for both sides.
Power dynamics of the occupation can seep into joint Israeli-Palestinian projects. You often hear Israeli voices dominating discussions or steering activities. Zochrot is speaking, by and large, to Israelis. How do you avoid that power dynamic?
Eitan: Zochrot is not defined as a Jewish or Palestinian or Israeli-Palestinian organization. We’re defined more by our target audience, which is Israeli Jews. As such, it is often easier for us as Israeli Jews to represent the organization. In a way, this is the essence of Zochrot: Jews in Israel are taking responsibility and acknowledging our role in this history. This is something we’ve talked about a lot and there have been several crises within Zochrot regarding this question. But I think today it’s clearer. On the one hand, we cannot do this work without the Palestinians. We cannot learn about these events from books alone. During the tours, it is clear that Israeli Jews are there to listen and not to tell other people how to remember their own places. We try very hard to make sure that the people leading a tour are Palestinians from that village. I hope we do it with the right sensitivity. I think we do.
You work mostly with Palestinians inside Israel, but obviously there is a large Palestinian refugee population outside Israel. Does Zochrot have a position on the right of return?
Eitan: We support the right of return for Palestinians—those still living in Israel-Palestine and those outside. We have also some contacts with Palestinians in the West Bank and the diaspora. It’s not easy to develop these contacts, but we think it’s very important to link these people to the places here and to Israeli Jews, because for many Israeli Jews, these people do not exist.
Your position on the right of return is not exactly in line with mainstream Israeli thinking. How do you reach your target audience with such a position?
Norma: It’s clearly not easy. This issue is not something that most Israeli Jews are willing to hear about or talk about. I think that most people are very afraid of it. We live on these legends that it’s either them or us, that there’s not enough space here for both Jews and Palestinians. I think that part of what we’re doing is trying to open up these negative binary understandings, to say that it’s not either them or us. It can be both. We’ve spoken out quite a bit about the right of return, and we participate every year in the March of Return traditionally held by internally displaced Palestinians on Israel’s independence day. Because we are not afraid of this issue, in some senses, we provide a model for Jews of how to engage with it.
How do you respond to people who say that implementing the right of return would mean the end of a Jewish state of Israel?
Norma: We try to reframe the question. When you say the “end of Israel,” yes, it will be the end of Israel as we know it today, a racist state that is only for Jews. If we want to live in a different state, we have to be a different state. The state of Israel as we know it today? I do not want to be part of this. I want to change this reality. I usually ask what you mean by the state of Israel. Do you mean that the Jewish people will have a place? Expelling Jews or throwing them into the sea—this is something that I never hear from any Palestinian. If I want to live in a different place, this different place could not be the place we live in today.
With regard to the nature of the state, there’s been discussion recently of the one-state solution and the end of the two-state solution. Do you think the two-state solution is possible or desirable at this point?
Norma: We don’t have a defined “map” for the right solution to the conflict. But we believe there is more than one right solution. It could be one democratic state, a binational state or a confederation of states including Jordan. We have to develop them and think about all of them and what they mean. Of course, we believe that the right of return should be implemented in each of them.
Eitan: I hear more and more people talking about the impossibility of the two-state solution. People are talking more about one state—in different shapes—and I think we are part of this. If we refer to 1948 as an occupation and are calling for the implementation of the right of return, then that means a return to the areas of 1948. This is not possible in a two-state solution, or at least not in the classic two-state solution.
The situation still has not changed radically. We are in a different place compared to 15 years ago, when almost no Israelis knew the word nakba and the issue was totally neglected, or hidden. Today, many more people know about it. But the discourse in Israel is still very challenging, or very challenged by this issue. The education or socialization or whatever you want to call it of Israeli Jews is still the main challenge for us to address, but Zochrot alone will not change things.
Still, I must emphasize that there is a growing [educated] minority, mainly in academia. In the Israeli academy today, I don’t think it’s possible to write a paper about Israel’s creation without mentioning that people were expelled from here. The average person is not an academic or an historian. Even if people know about these events, they’ll react, “It’s in the past and we don’t want to know about it anymore.” Any questioning of the way Israel was created is threatening and most Israelis are not in the position to open a real discussion. This is what I mean when I talk about education and socialization.
Where do you think this attitude comes from?
Eitan: From the very beginning, from the way Israel was founded. We are living here at the expense of other people. That’s a fact, but it’s a hard fact to acknowledge, especially when we’re still in a bloody and violent conflict. For Israelis to acknowledge the past usually means that they’ll have to change their perspective about the conflict today. As long as Israel continues its war, which is the policy of most of the leaders today, it goes hand in hand with the past.
That’s very interesting. Very often, you hear the horrors of the Holocaust brought up as contributing to the pervasive sense of fear that Israelis and/or Jews live with. But you seem to be saying something different. How does the lingering impact of the Holocaust play into Israeli attitudes?
Eitan: Of course, the Holocaust has been used by the Israeli state and education system to create all kinds of justifications for what we’re doing to the Palestinians. I don’t believe that we’re doing what we’re doing because of the Holocaust. I’ve heard testimony from Jews that the Holocaust brought them to a completely different outcome than to be a very nationalistic or chauvinistic person. But Israel manipulates this oral history and the tragedy of the Jews in Europe to use it to justify anything we do to others. I don’t think that the Holocaust as it is, as an historical fact brought us to this. Of course, it’s connected, but this conflict mainly uses the Holocaust. It is not a result of it.
Norma: The Holocaust is very big tragedy that happened to Jews and not to Zionists. A lot of people that died in the Holocaust were not Zionists. What Israel is doing is also a difficult thing for the Jewish memory, transforming every victim of the Holocaust into a Zionist. I think there is something very important to learn from the period of 1948: There was more than one option. There were people who were talking about developing different kinds of Jewish culture, cultures that you don’t necessarily see represented in Israel.
Let’s return to the Israel-Palestine of the present, where the outlook seems bleak. Where do you see signs of progress or hope for your long-term objectives?
Norma: It’s difficult, and it’s a question I ask myself all of the time. The situation is changing all the time, people are changing, the discourse is changing. I see two different processes that are going toward two poles. On the one hand, you have political developments in Israel that are making the country more and more fascistic, more and more militaristic…uglier.
On the other hand, in civil society, you have more and more radical groups that are doing important work—Anarchists Against the Wall, New Profile, Ta‘ayush—and have developed in the last few years, after the start of the second intifada. It’s not just Zochrot. These two processes are happening in parallel. There’s something going on in civil society that’s not going on at the political level. In the paper today, there was an article talking about how a lot of people are not going into the army, not just as refuseniks, but for a lot of reasons. For me this is a very good sign.