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‘Shemesh, your family’: Jewish Israelis struggle with the Nakba

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The following is an email exchange between Eitan Bronstein, the executive director of the Israeli organization Zochrot, and a Jewish Israeli supporter of the organization. Zochrot’s mission is to make the history of the Nakba accessible to Israeli Jews. As part of this work they offer guided tours for Israelis of destroyed Palestinian villages. In addition they advocate for "equal rights for all the peoples of this land, including the right of Palestinians to return to their homes."

This exchange speaks volumes. As the Zochrot website states – "Acknowledging the past is the first step in taking responsibility for its consequences."

Sent: Sunday, December 6, 2009, 15:34
Subject: Shemesh, your family

Dear Nurit [names and other identifying information have been changed],

I’m writing you again regarding Avraham Shemesh. I’m not sure if you told he’s either your uncle or grand-uncle… Umar is preparing the tour to Al-Araqib, and met with Nouri and other elderly people from their village. They mentioned Avraham Shemesh as someone who tyrannized them. Umar told me that he dealt very severely with the residents of Al-Araqib. That is, he not only was involved in expelling them from their land, but abused them as well.

I imagine that it isn’t easy for you to read this, or to hear about it, and I sympathize with you. But I think you can make an important contribution to the booklet we’re publishing, “Remembering Al-Araqib.” I understand that you aren’t able to interview any members of your family because the matter is very sensitive, and you already have conflicts with them. So I have a different suggestion/request: Write a short piece about the subject, even anonymously, from your own personal perspective, as a member of the family. For example, how significant is it for you to know that a relative of yours was involved in expelling Palestinians during the Nakba? Does it create problems for you? Opportunities? Do you feel guilty? Responsible? What does all that mean? – and anything else you think of?

What do you say?

Sent: Sunday, December 6, 2009, 16:22
Subject: Re: Shemesh, your family

Hi, Eitan,
Avraham Shemesh is the husband of my (…’s) sister. That is, he was; I think he’s dead. I already knew he’d abused the residents of Al-Araqib. I spoke with Nouri al-Oukbi about it, and heard about it a few years ago. It wasn’t easy at all. But I never did anything with it. For a long time I was ambivalent about whether to detonate the topic within the family, but decided that I’d already caused enough explosions.

I’ll think about your suggestion, about what I might have to say about the subject. When do you need an answer?

Sent: Sunday, December 6, 2009, 16:53
Subject: Re: Shemesh, your family

Nurit, thank you, excellent.

Our deadline is this coming Tuesday, the day after tomorrow, in the morning our time. It would be great if you could write it in Hebrew and in English, but we’ll make do if it’s just in Hebrew…

I think that a text like yours has an importance that goes beyond your own family, so I don’t think it really matters whether you write anonymously. I also understand completely the difficulty involved in exposing family skeletons. I have some of my own that I don’t dare touch.

Sent: Monday, December 7, 2009, 03:41
Subject: Re: Shemesh, your family

Hi, Eitan,

I tried to write something today about the al-Araqib tribe. The result was awful, and I think I’ll give up. The problem seems to be that I’m ashamed, and feel guilty – that I never did anything with what I knew. I think I should have done something – confront my family, help Nouri in order to compensate for the injustice done to him. But I never did a thing, just fled to America.

It weighs on my conscience, and I don’t feel like admitting it publicly.

I don’t know what else I can tell you. You could interview the widow – her name is (…) (formerly…., today Shemesh). Today she’s quite old; I think she still lives in Be’er Sheva. She has four daughters, one of them recently widowed. Her twin sister lives in Kibbutz (…). She’s a strong, impressive woman. It might be interesting to speak to her – she may know and remember things. Just don’t tell her that I sent you…


Sent: Monday, December 7, 2009, 09:51
Subject: Re: Shemesh, your family

Hi, Nurit,
Listen, you couldn’t have written anything stronger. It could appear just as it is, as an exchange of e-mails between us, with no connection to you. I won’t specify how you’re related to Avraham. If you dared to speak more openly to me I’d try to convince you that I think it’s fine to avoid creating a family crisis. That’s not the issue at all. The issue is the burden on your conscience, which makes you feel that if you bring things to a head at home it will help somehow. But it won’t. It will only help you feel better.

A public act would be much more powerful. What you wrote in this brief e-mail is much more powerful than any sophisticated formulation which conceals more than it reveals.
Please allow me to publish it. It’s very important! PLEASE! By doing so, you will have acted. What if the issue arises again for you in the future? What will you do then? Where will you flee to?

Look, maybe you feel like an idiot for having told me about this. If you hadn’t told me, everything would have passed “quietly.” We would have gone there on Saturday, without you, Nouri will probably lose in the Be’er Sheva court when he tries to prove that he has rights to the land and all of us will move on, from one injustice to the next.
Now I’m the nudnik, trying to convince you to do something that won’t be good for your health. No doubt about it.

Nurit, do a good deed and allow me to publish it. I promise to show you the text before it appears so you can approve it.

I wish I could hug you,

Sent: Monday, December 7, 2009, 15:08
Subject: Re: Shemesh, your family

Hi, Eitan,
I don’t know. I’m also ashamed for my family. We always thought very highly of ourselves. We weren’t very wealthy, but we were members of the elite – my great-grandfather was a very educated, progressive person, and the Zionist underground in Baghdad was established in their house. We always saw ourselves as the salt of the earth, the moral leaders. It’s true that Avraham Shemesh is connected to my family, the (…) family, only by marriage – he was married to a family member. But I’m still very embarrassed to be connected to him. And I also understood that (…), one of my (…’s) brothers, is also somehow connected to the story – I think he worked with Shemesh.

Yes, I know that Zionism is racism, and that there can’t be Zionism without injustice. But I also see complexity. You can understand the Zionism of Jews in the diaspora, and I can understand it even better after living two years in America and realizing what it means to be a stranger. What it means to be a member of a minority – even if you’re not being persecuted.

The problems began with their behavior when they arrived in Palestine, which wasn’t of a piece either. What Shemesh did was the worst of all. So even if all of us are wallowing in the mud, Shemesh is really immersed in it.

That’s why I feel guilty myself. Didn’t I have any personal responsibility for Nouri and his family? Shouldn’t I have taken this single, isolated case and fought so that justice was done? Shouldn’t I have expected such behavior from someone whose family member had done me a similar injustice? Why didn’t I break the vicious cycle?

I haven’t any good answers. Maybe I tired of tilting at windmills. I’m sick of losing all the time. I wanted to finish the dissertation, live a normal life. Perhaps I also wanted to stop thinking about what my relatives did. It’s hard to face Nouri – seeing him reminds me exactly of what happened and who’s responsible.

Why do you want to publish it? What value has it? I don’t think my identity can be concealed, because there are people who know…

Sent: Monday, December 7, 2009, 15:44
Subject: Re: Shemesh, your family

Hi, Nurit,

Thank you for what you wrote.

Your words remind me of Derrida’s wonderful and difficult text, “On Forgiveness.” Here’s a link to a fascinating, short video about him. Perhaps I mentioned it to you.

I see in what you’ve written, in the feelings you’re burdened with, exactly what Derrida refers to (if I understand him correctly…). That you can’t really be forgiven by Nouri al-Oukbi because there’s really no forgiveness for what was done to him. There can be forgiveness, as Derrida says in the video, for political, for therapeutic, for other purposes, which are important considerations, important to many people. But from a rigorous philosophical perspective, there isn’t any way to forgive the expulsion and the series of humiliations which Nouri and his family has suffered since the Nakba. That’s the reason for your terrible dilemma, which is completely understandable.

But that’s exactly what’s important here. That you understand the mess that you and all of us are living in, from which there’s no way out. And certainly not through Zionism. Your personal family problem is a synecdoche (a part that represents the whole) of the problem all of us here confront. Your great advantage over most of the country’s Jews (even – and perhaps particularly – over the leftists) is, I think, that you understand that the problem is insoluble given the way we live here. So what must be done is to fundamentally remake Zionism, or flee to somewhere else in the world, or become addicted to television or some other drug.

Nurit, that’s the tremendous value in publication. Publishing the “We’ve no way out.” That’s more important that presenting various wonderful solutions.

This is an opportunity – yours and ours – to cry out aloud that we already lost Nouri’s suit a long time ago, and there’s no chance we’ll be found innocent.
How I wish you’d agree.

The likelihood that someone will recognize you and tell your family is one in a million. You could ask those close to you politically, who might identify you, not to tell your relatives.

I tried to call you a few minutes ago, but there was no answer.

Sent: Tuesday, December 8, 2009, 03:56
Subject: Re: Shemesh, your family


Translation: Charles Kamen

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