The Diaries of Yossef Nachmani (Dalia Karpel). New York: First Run/Icarus Films, 2006.
After they went into Safsaf, the village and its people raised a white flag. They separated the men from the women, tied the hands of some 50 to 60 peasants and shot and killed them, burying them in a single hole. They also raped a number of the women from the village… In Salha, which raised a white flag, they carried out a real massacre, killing men and women, about 60 to 70 people. Where did they find such a degree of cruelty like that of the Nazis? They learned from them. An officer told me that the best of the [soldiers] were concentration camp survivors.
So wrote Yossef Nachmani in his diary after touring Arab villages in the upper Galilee conquered by the Israeli army in Operation Hiram, toward the end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Born in the Ukraine, Nachmani immigrated to Palestine in 1908 and joined an urban commune in Jerusalem whose members included several future Zionist leaders, including David Ben-Gurion. He moved to the Galilee in 1911 and became an organizer of the Zionist militias, Hashomer and then the Haganah. In 1921 Nachmani settled in Tiberias, a mixed city of about 6,000 Jews (mostly Arabic-speaking Sephardim) and 5,000 Arabs with a long history of coexistence. There he embarked on his distinctive contribution to the Zionist project: buying Arab lands, often secretly or through a network of Arab collaborators, for the Jewish National Fund. In 1935, he began the diary he maintained until days before his death in 1965.
In The Diaries of Yossef Nachmani, Israeli journalist and filmmaker Dalia Karpel animates these still unpublished writings, interweaving quotations from the diaries, documentary film footage and interviews with Nachmani’s son and daughter, other eyewitnesses and scholars like Benny Morris, who first wrote about Nachmani’s diaries in an essay published in Hebrew in 2000. The film is not artistically remarkable. Nonetheless, it presents the material in a livelier and more accessible form than Morris’ essay.
In Zionist terms, Nachmani was a political moderate. He spoke Arabic and maintained friendly relations with many Arabs. As a member of the city council, he cooperated with the leading Arab families of Tiberias. His son Shimon notes the “contradiction” between his love of the land and his love of the Arabs.
The film climaxes with the Zionist conquest of Tiberias and the flight of its Arab inhabitants on April 17-18, 1948. As Oren Yiftachel explains, this was a pivotal moment in the nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, because Tiberias was the first of several mixed cities from which the Arab population fled or was expelled.
Nachmani regarded the massacre of 18 wounded fighters on April 10 during the Haganah’s conquest of the village of Nasr al-Din in preparation for taking Tiberias as a crime. He did not “want our state to be built on the blood of innocent children and women.” To avoid bloodshed, he offered to arrange talks between the Haganah and the Arab leaders of Tiberias. But the Haganah commanders had orders to conquer the city and were uninterested. Nachmani regretted the flight of the Arabs and expected them to return shortly. He supported the order to protect their property and was dismayed when Haganah soldiers nonetheless joined civilians in looting it.
After the conquest of Tiberias, Nachmani traveled to Tel Aviv, met with Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders, and learned that they did not intend to permit Palestinian refugees to return. Back in Tiberias, he proposed to an incredulous city council that the old city, home to most of the former Arab population as well as many Jews, be demolished. The army approved the operation. It was implemented in July 1948 under the command of his son, Shimon, who recalls with a laugh that he demolished many more Arab homes than those of Tiberias, including the entire village of Lubya.
Still, a few months later Yossef Nachmani was shocked by the atrocities of Operation Hiram, asking, “Isn’t there a more humane way to remove (le-harhik) the Arab inhabitants?” The obvious answer is no. Nachmani’s question indicates how far he had come from earlier diary entries suggesting that he was open to a binational state and neither foresaw nor welcomed the nakba. But his life’s work made it possible, and he ultimately participated by advocating razing the old city of Tiberias.
Did Nachmani live his entire life in bad faith? A more subtle explanation is that as the British mandate waned, he, like many others, was overwhelmed by tribalist loyalties and a settler-colonial dynamic that empowered militaristic youth encouraged by Ben-Gurion to silence wiser voices. The same forces have emerged in national liberation or religious movements. While oppressors and oppressed should in no case be equated, this similarity suggests the need to consider the wherewithal of political leaders in restraining the thirst for revenge, the dangerous association of manhood and nationhood with weapons, and the willingness to imagine modern political communities that are not based on ethnic, religious or ideological purity. In these respects, Zionism failed miserably.