The Nakba is part of the Jewish narrative: Israelis deal with the trauma of 1948 as well

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The paper was given today by Eitan Bronstein at the Shadow of Memory: Relational Perspectives of Remembering & Forgetting conference held in Tel Aviv. Bronstein is the Director of the Israeli organization Zochrot, which carries out educational and advocacy campaigns to promote understanding of the Nakba among Israeli Jews.

Exodus_from_Lydda_and_Ramla

(Palestinian refugees leaving Lydda and Ramle, 1948. Photo: Palestineremembered.com)

“Min wayn jaye inti?”  Where the hell do you come from?: Repression of the Nakba and post-trauma among Jews in Israel

By Eitan Bronstein
Tel Aviv, June 2009

Translation: Charles Kamen

The following is an excerpt from a psychiatric evaluation:  “The patient is an 80-year-old man…no known history of psychiatric illness…was in a British jail in Palestine during the Mandate (?), fought in the war of independence, suffers from traumatic and repressed memories of the war…fully conscious, not fully aware of where he is, difficulty orienting himself, thinks he’s in a British camp or in a cemetery…False persecution ideation, ‘the staff wants to steal my blood and organs’…” [1]

At the beginning of June, 2009, a man about 40 years old came with his mother to my office.  He’d contacted me to help them trace his father’s activities during the 1948 war.  His father had recently died, aged 82, and had made both of them suffer greatly, terrorizing them with physical violence for many years.  They suspect his sudden angry outbursts were a response to the trauma he had suffered as a soldier during the capture of Al-Lid (Lod) in 1948.  They’d found on Zochrot’s web site descriptions of massacres, looting and rape.  The father had never specifically told them about what he did during the capture of Lod, but a few years ago he told his wife’s brother a confused story about how he and other soldiers ran wild in Lod during Operation Danny.  The son told me he’s afraid that his father was involved in massacres, looting and rape of Palestinians.  After Lod was captured his father went AWOL from the army for a month, and when he returned was tried before a military court.  He testified that “he felt ill and spent a month at home in bed.” [2]  “Why did he feel ill?” his son asked me, and replied, “I think it’s because of the terrible things he did.”  These activities also made the father afraid to meet Palestinians from the West Bank and from Gaza after the occupation in 1967, lest they recognize and try to harm him in revenge for what he did in 1948.

You don’t have to be a mental health professional to understand that if a person did such things, they must have affected him, and that he’s liable to be violent toward others and perhaps to himself as well.  What surprised me was that his son and wife thought that what happened in Lod in 1948 was the source of the father’s trauma.  In their particular case the Palestinian Nakba, the human catastrophe that harmed and defined the lives of millions, is also the source of the father’s years of violent behavior.  That’s their understanding of what they went through, and today they’re trying to reconstruct what he did during those days in Lod.

I’d like to describe and analyze a series of individual cases in order to argue that Jews in Israel tend to repress the Palestinian Nakba, but that signs of it appear more and more often, burst out frequently, in a form that’s known as “post traumatic stress disorder.”  I would argue that even Israelis who aren’t familiar with the Nakba, or who didn’t live through it, also experience this.  I won’t attempt here to link the specific cases with the collective trauma but, in a general sense, I think that the sources of this connection can be located in the relatively strong feeling of solidarity found in Israeli-Jewish society regarding the fundamental issues related to the conflict: the 1948 war, the justification for establishing a Jewish state, the Palestinian refugee question, the Law of Return for Jews versus the right of return for Palestinians.  There is a broad consensus among Israeli Jews on these issues, and the source of this consensus is rooted, among other things in their attitudes toward the Palestinian Nakba.

Whoever deals with the Palestinian Nakba knows quite a bit about the trauma that the Palestinians experienced, and continue to experience, but what effect did this trauma have on Israeli Jews?  It is difficult to generalize and identify specific behaviors that are the result of the defeat of the Palestinians in 1948, and the violence toward them, but one notable response can be identified – repression.  It is as old as the state.  It began in the midst of the Nakba.

Here are two examples of how the Nakba has been repressed, one from the past and one from the present. In 1948, UN personnel documented the corpses of Palestinians who had been shot at Majd al-Krum. A Haganah intelligence officer in the Galilee reported how he burned this film. [3]

Today the Jewish National Fund manages public parks that were built on the remains of destroyed Palestinian villages. Many of these parks contain signs explaining the history of the area, from biblical times until today, but skipping over the Palestinian history. Michal Katorza, who is responsible for preparing the signs posted in those parks, says: “We didn’t write on the signs that we expelled them [the Palestinians – E.B.].  Nor did we write that they’re living in refugee camps…In any case, I’m not in favor of raising this issue in the media, because it’s very sensitive. In fact, some of the JNF parks are on land where there used to be Arab villages, and the forests are there to hide this.” [4]

You can destroy film footage, post misleading sign, and plant a forest to repress the past, but can these acts make the trauma itself disappear? Such acts are themselves markers of the trauma that exists in Jewish Israeli society, but these also prevent the Jewish public from confronting trauma in a constructive way.

One of the characteristics of PTSD is described as follows:

Reliving of the traumatic event through flashbacks, nightmares and exaggerated physical or psychological reactions to things that remind the person of the event; “triggers.” [5]

What happens to those soldiers who shot the Palestinians in the head in front of an audience of hundreds in the center of Majd-al-Krum?  What happens to someone who wrote – clearly and unambiguously – in the advance operation order issued for the capture of the village of Hunin, that the forces should “surge into the village of Hunin to kill a number of men…” [6]   We haven’t any information about a massacre in Hunin, so some of those who captured the village might at least have been spared the trauma of shooting helpless people in Hunin.

A clear order for ethnic cleansing was issued in March, 1948.  The goal of the Haganah project known as Plan Dalet was to create a contiguous Jewish territory.  That is, to capture as much territory as possible, in which as few Arabs as possible would remain.  The language of the instructions to the field commander is clear:  “When capturing villages in your area, you will decide – whether to clear or to destroy them – in consultation with your Arab affairs advisors…You are authorized to limit – as much as you can – operations to cleanse, capture and destroy enemy villages.” More that sixty years after the Nakba, someone is trying to find out what his father did as part of the 1948 conquest, and someone is drafting an order for an updated and shortened Plan Dalet.  Rivka Shim’on writes in a religious nationalist magazine named Shabbat VeShabbato, in June, 2008:  “Just as we enthusiastically search for worms in salad, so we will conquer the land, carefully, enthusiastically, longingly, with terror and with awe, so that not a living soul remains.” [7]   You don’t need much imagination to identify the spirit of Plan Dalet reappearing in Ms. Shim’on’s practical suggestions.  The enthusiasm and care with which she proposes to conquer and destroy the Arabs were definitely present when the inhabitants of 60 villages were expelled within a few days in “Operation Hiram,” in October, 1948.  In other words, her recommendation that all the Arabs in the country be expelled and killed goes very well with what was almost achieved in the Nakba.  I think her writing contains not only a recommendation for the future but an unconscious reconstruction of what actually occurred in the past, even if it was not completely successful.

But the instinct to repress the Nakba is still surprisingly active even in her.  Otherwise, how is it possible to understand the rest of her recommendation, that “We must also destroy the females – so that there won’t be any more organizations such as ‘Zochrot’ – erecting signs – as if the land were theirs.” [8]  She’s referring to Zochrot’s efforts to erect signs commemorating the Palestinian localities that were destroyed in the Nakba.  It’s somewhat surprising to find in such a violent text remnants of guilt feelings and attempts to repress the violence.  Why should Rivka Shim’on care that Zochrot erects signs commemorating what was here until the Nakba, or what will be here after the future Nakba that she’s proposing.  If the commandment to conquer the land is so sacred and morally justified, why should she be bothered by our attempts to commemorate those places that were destroyed, and that will be destroyed? Why is there a need to repress? I think, even if it makes me seen like a hopeless optimist, that this is evidence the author feels guilty and, therefore, evidence that a shred of humanity still exists, even in such a distorted mind.

A fascinating combination of Nakba-repressing violence, together with actions to reconcile with the conquered Palestinians, can be found in the short video clip describing Zochrot’s trip to Majdal, today part of Ashqelon, in 2003.  Some 150 men and women participated in the trip, half of them Jews and the other half Arabs, most of them family members of refugees from Majdal who now live in Lod.  One of the Palestinian women in the group, Sha’ida Hijazi. Shhe is a second generation survivor of the Nakba. Shadia Hijazi was born in Gaza to refugees from Majdal, and when she was 16 moved to Lod and married a son of Majdal refugees.  During Zochrot’s tour she “meets” two Jews whose families came from Arab countries and are now living in the Ashqelon neighborhood which once was Majdal.

Let’s watch the video:

Usually Zochrot’s tours, even those in urban areas, don’t lead to confrontations.  Zochrot activists erected a number of signs in Majdal.  The sign that was removed said, “The area to which Majdal’s Arabs were brought and expelled to Gaza in 1950.”  That’s exactly what the person removing the sign wants to repress, to conceal.  The fact that he lives in the city in which other people had once lived, who had been forcibly expelled only a few decades ago, and that they’re still alive and remind us of the expulsion.  The Jew can’t bear being exposed to this fact on a sign in the city square, and he prefers to remove it, to make the traces of the violent historical act disappear.  Today he’s a homeowner, lord of the land in his city, and he wants to determine what will be remembered, and what won’t.

But the act of repression evokes unexpected opposition from a Palestinian woman.  It’s important to stress the differences between the two, in order to understand how surprising is the opposition to removing the sign.  A woman versus a man, a Palestinian versus a Jew, a passing visitor versus a permanent resident of the city, a refugee and second-class citizen versus a first-class citizen.  I think that it is exactly her subordinate status with respect to all these crucial characteristics that gives her the element of surprise and also her strength.  That is, her strength lies in her apparent weakness from a conventional, sociological point of view.

Sha’ida told me after the tour that when the sign was removed she felt as if she was being expelled from Majdal “again” – that the trauma of her parents’ generation was revisiting her today.  Even though she’d never lived in Majdal, when she saw the signs being erected in the city, recalling the life of her family and community here, she couldn’t take the symbolic uprooting of the sign.  She’s ready to defend it and uses force – both physical and verbal – to do so.  Nor does she back down when the man threatens to kill her, and she utters a similar threat in response.  A second man also confronts her, but she doesn’t give in.  He starts talking to her in Arabic, in a moment that makes manifest what life could have been like in Ashqelon, in Israel, had the Palestinians not been expelled.  The Arabic spoken by Jews in Israel is usually used by the intelligence agencies and the GSS to harm native speakers of that language.  “Min wayn jaya inti?” – that is, where the hell do you come from? And then the most surprising thing of all happens.  With no preliminaries, the man who removed the sign and struggled with Sha’ida, says to her, “Come on, let’s put it back.”  It doesn’t take her more than a fraction of a second, as if she’d been expecting this, and she says to him, “Put it back.”  He replaces the sign with her help and explains that he did it “so she’d be satisfied.”

You could say that he simply gave in to her, and to the force of her convictions.  But how can we explain what he did next?  He makes the effort to bring her a glass of water to calm her down.  My interpretation is that, at this moment, he’s trying to reconcile with her.  This gesture of reconciliation is also, apparently, not a conscious one, but one that I want to understand as containing the potential for reconciliation involved in the act of recognizing the Nakba.  Dealing with the Nakba frees one from the automatic violence and/or the victimhood that Israeli Jews are taught to feel.  This freedom can be healing, both personally and collectively.  When Jews in Israel recognize the Nakba, they become motivated to extend a hand or a glass of water to Palestinians, in an appeal for forgiveness and reconciliation.  This man, who’s giving this woman a glass of water, is no longer the same man who removed the sign and struggled with her only a few minutes earlier.

Our web site recently received an email showing there are Israelis who understand the importance of recognizing the Nakba, and refuse to repress it:

Hello,

My name is…, and I’m a MA student in linguistics at the Hebrew University.

I’m employed as a secretary in a Jerusalem real estate agency, whose most prestigious properties are, of course, “Arab houses.”  A few days ago I accompanied one of the agents who showed clients (Americans, of course) an Arab house that was for sale in Baq’a.

As a granddaughter of holocaust survivors, who returned to her family’s large house in Romania and saw how it had been divided into apartments for residents of the city who were able to go on with their lives, I felt bad, and though a house is just an empty shell, there’s certainly someone who misses it, and a entire life that was changed after they left it.  I was very pleased to see awareness of the  issue, and that it is being addressed by Israeli citizens and Jews.

I’d be happy to receive updates on the organization’s activities.  Your web site is very informative and interesting.

Good luck,

[signed]

Jerusalem

I don’t want to conclude without referring to the place where we’re now sitting and discussing memory and forgetting.  The David Intercontinental Hotel is located in the center of what was once the Manshiyya neighborhood, part of Jaffa.  In April, 1948, the neighborhood was captured and much of it destroyed, but its final destruction was carried out only in the 1970’s.  Hotels and commercial properties were built on its ruins, as well as Charles Clore Park, in the name of “reclaiming the wilderness.”  The Tel Aviv municipality has recently begun to preserve the Manshiyya railroad station in order to transform it into a tourist site.  When the preservation project began, it was called the “Manshiyya” project, but today that name is gone, replaced by “The Station.”

This conference is taking place in the city of Tel Aviv, which is currently celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding.  It’s important to me that you know that the city has forgotten Sumeil, Jamasin, Sheikh Muwanis, Abu Kabir, Salame and Manshiyya, all of them Palestinian villages and Jaffa neighborhoods that existed within the current boundaries of the Jewish city, even before it was established.  Repression of the Nakba is still with us, as are our traumatic responses to it.

Notes

[1] The full report is in my possession.
[2]  From the trial transcript.
[3] From a talk by Adel Man’a at Zochrot, 18.6.2009
[4] Eretz Yisrael Shelanu, No. 32, 24 Sivan 5768, p. 3
[5] http://www.activist-trauma.net/doc/hebrew_A3.pdf
[6] From Sedek, No. 1, Tomer Gardi, ed., May, 2007, p. 137.  Carmel Brigade/23 Battalion, 54/1088/סד , 28 Av, 5708/ 2/9/1948
[7] Shabbat BeShabbato, No. 1232, 23 Tamuz 5768, 26/7/2008, p. 8
[8] Ibid.

About Adam Horowitz

Adam Horowitz is Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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