This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
As the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators once again try to resolve the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fundamental differences remain. As part of the initial negotiating sessions in Washington, Secretary of State John Kerry framed his hopes this way: “The parties have agreed here today that all of the final status issues, all of the core issues, and all other issues are all on the table for negotiation. They are on the table with one single goal: a view to ending the conflict, ending the claims.”
The goal of ending the conflict through negotiation is obvious, though most observers of Israel/Palestine remain skeptical. Though Kerry singled these “passionate skeptics”as people he doesn’t have time for, the issues go beyond those Kerry seeks to make final. For Kerry, ending the conflict means ending the Palestinian claims on Israel. He echoes the oft repeated statement of Israel’s lead negotiator, Tzipi Livni, who believes that when a Palestinian state is born, Palestinians should celebrate its birth and cease referring to Israeli’s birth as the Palestinian Nakba, their catastrophe.
Directing settlement terms when you are the overwhelmingly dominant power is one thing. It’s straight-up politics, especially when you have the global superpower in your corner. Directing how Palestinians should frame their defeat and remember their history is something else. “Ending the claims” is a convenient way of finalizing historical grievances politically. Memory is off limits.
Jews in Israel and beyond have refused to relinquish claims on the world regarding the Holocaust. In Jewish empowerment, the Holocaust looms ever larger. As part of final settlement terms, what would Jews think if Palestinians demanded Jews around the world drop the Holocaust as a reason for Israel’s existence?
In this context I thought of The Village Under the Forest, a recently released film made by two South African Jews, Mark Kaplan and Heidi Grunebaum. Kaplan, the director, is an award winning filmmaker whose career has been committed to human rights. His work explores themes of memory, social justice and the search for accountability. Grunebaum, the writer and narrator of the film, is a senior researcher at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. Her work focuses on memory and trauma, the afterlives of war and genocide and pycho-biographies of displacement in South Africa, Germany and Israel/Palestine.
I met Heidi Grunebaum a few years ago at a conference in South Africa celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Kairos Document. The Kairos Document was written by dissident South African clergy of diverse racial backgrounds and signaled a break within the Christian churches over apartheid. Importantly, the Kairos Document labeled apartheid a Christian heresy, therefore a sin. The document’s importance went beyond church circles. Within and beyond South Africa, the Kairos Document established apartheid as a moral and ethical issue on the international political scene.
The conference was a celebration of a singular moment in the struggle to end apartheid. It was also an occasion to critically analyze post-apartheid South Africa. A main issue discussed was post-apartheid South Africa and where it is heading politically and economically. Many of the conference participants felt their revolutionary moment had become stuck in ordinary politics. Class and status difference continue in South Africa even as the color barriers fall. Ironically, the post-apartheid government is made up of many from the Kairos Document generation. Have they become the new oppressors in South Africa?
In my discussions with Heidi Grunebaum, I came into contact with a searching and poetic person, a scholar but also a free spirit. As a South African, she is troubled with the direction South Africa is taking. As a Jew, she is troubled with the direction Israel is taking. During the conference I only touched the surface of her discontent. And her depth.
The Village Under the Forest is about the South Africa Forest in the Galilee in northern Israel that as a child, Grunebaum with other South African Jews, contributed money to have planted. It’s a beautiful forest, resembling the lush landscape of Europe. With a group of teenage classmates, Grunebaum visited there on a class trip in 1983. As she toured an Israeli military museum she celebrated Israel’s victory in its 1948 War of Independence. She had little idea of what lay beneath the forest she contributed to. Years later she discovered the awful truth.
South Africa Forest is located on the ruins of a Palestinian village that was conquered by Jewish forces in 1948 and subsequently destroyed. The Palestinian village was Lubya, a village located ten kilometers west of Tiberias. Lubya had a long history, with early population statistics dating back to 1596. In 1945, Lubya had a population of 2,350 Arabs, almost all of them Muslim. In the formation of Israel, the residents became refugees, mostly in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Since then Lubya’s refugees have scattered beyond the Middle East.
Grunebaum was haunted by the discovery of a history she couldn’t have imagined existed. Raised in a transplanted European family that fled pogroms, Nazi persecutions and the Holocaust, Israel and South Africa Forest were points of pride for her. Yet travel to Israel began a reckoning with her roots and identity. Early in the film, Grunebaum narrates with foreboding: “What I did not know was that between the passing of seasons and layers of pine needles lay the remains of the Palestinian village called, Lubya.”
The reckoning came to fruition later in Grunebaum’s home country, South Africa,as apartheid was dissolving. As a child the South African government had cautioned whites to be prepared for “terrorist” attacks. With other whites, she was taught to fear black people and that the police, the government and the armed forces would protect her and her family. The prospect of apartheid’s end raised fears higher. Without the protection of the apartheid state what would be the fate of white – and Jewish – South Africans?
Yet the protection the apartheid South African state offered was deeply conflictive. As Grunebaum relates in a soon to be published reflection, her entire being was being rent asunder:
I was silent, fearful and content to abide by childhood and adolescent life in the cocooned world of middle-class ‘white’ privilege, the fatal illusions of impunity it created. Whilst I knew well that apartheid was a vicious, greedy and dehumanising system, as a rebellious and questioning teenager, I chose to pour my energy into writing angry poetry and listening to music by Rodriguez, éVoid and Bob Marley, rather than finding a way to become active against apartheid. Politics seemed estranging, utterly illegible and menacing. And it took place in another world, far removed from mine. Whilst the broader structural/conjuctural conditions of the 1970s and 1980s were extremely complex and merit a thoroughgoing analysis, the wider social milieu of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, and my family, affirmed the strategic value of individual silence for “the community” as a whole. It was a milieu which affirmed that as the generation of Jews who had barely escaped with their lives from the Nazi genocide, we, the next generation, would do well to keep our heads down, and not draw attention to ourselves, as Jews, as a group raced “white” living in an obsessively racialized and militarized society.
For high school, I moved from the public school system to attend an orthodox Jewish day school run according to the principles of the Bnei Akiva movement and ideologically aligned to the Gush Emunim settler movement in its Zionist orientation. It was a school that I chose to attend because of its intensive focus on Limmudei Kodesh, studying closely the texts of the Tanach. By the mid-1980s, and after a school visit to Israel in 1983, Zionism became my way out of the moral conundrum of being “white” in South Africa, despite not noticing, let alone questioning the militarisation of civilian identity in either context. And by the time I finished high school in 1985, I was ready to explore Israel with an eye to immigrate after further studies.
Along with fear, the massive change in South Africa and her imagined emigration to Israel, Grunebaum gradually began to acknowledge a series of contradictions which she relates in the film: “I began to unthread all of the narratives of my history: a history where I had one foot in South Africa, and one foot in Israel. Now I found myself questioning both.”
Grunebaum’s questioning was far from easy. It still isn’t. The film traces her unthreading in deep and poetic terms. When one foot is in a country, South Africa, where apartheid reigned, and the other foot is in an apartheid state, Israel, that is expanding and consolidating its reach, one’s roots are unearthed. For Grunebaum, Lubya underneath South Africa Forest is more than a symbol. It represents a history she grew up with in South Africa and lives today in her struggle for justice in Israel/Palestine.
In the film, Grunebaum’s personal story is veiled. She is anonymous; her face is never clearly shown. This anonymity allows the film to represent the larger story of South African Jews and their relation to South Africa and Israel. Yet the filmextends beyond South African Jews as well. The great majority of Jews live in America and Israel. Both countries have more in common with South Africa than either population is willingly to admit. The Village Under the Forest has a message for global Jewry.
For Jews around the world the film is an indictment and a challenge. Like South Africa, America was an apartheid state. Much of America’s color line remains intact. Israel was founded in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the forced separation of Jews and Arabs. It continues to expand its own brand of apartheid. The vast majority of Jews around the world live within imperial and colonial states – within America as an imperial power on a global scale and Israel as a Western-oriented colonial power in the Arab Middle East.
The Village Under the Forest rarely ventures there. Yet since Jews wherever they live are increasingly privileged, mostly identify as white in countries and regions where people of color now or will soon predominate and exert power over others as a matter of entitlement, Grunebaum and her South African Jewish counterparts offer a window into a larger Jewish conundrum. What are Jews to do with their new found and increasingly bellicose imperial/colonial identity?
For the most part, Jews continue to see themselves as innocent and justice oriented. However, Jews are increasingly viewed by others as aligned with unjust imperial and colonial powers, doing empire’s bidding and benefitkng therein. Jews often charge that such views as anti-Semitic in nature. After a long history of anti-Semitism it is difficult to separate fact and myth in public discourse about Jews. But what if the fact of contemporary Jewish life is closer to culpability than innocence?
Often the Holocaust is used as a justification for Jewish privilege. How can Jews be held accountable after the Holocaust? The abuse of power by Jews over others is rarely considered. When empowered, though, even the memory of suffering has to be held to account. Grunebaum’s narration and the film itself suggest a way of entering the central question of contemporary Jewish identity from the perspective of Jewish and Palestinian suffering. Has Jewish empowerment – and the consequent suffering of the Palestinian people – brought Jews closer to a healing after the Holocaust or increased the Holocaust trauma?
The Village Under the Forest is a clarion call for the necessity of a re-working of Jewish identity for Jews everywhere. Where Jews once suffered, Jews now oppress. Denying the oppression that Jews enable means that Jews are in deep denial. It is doubtful that a healthy and productive Jewish identity can be formed when the center of Jewish identity is one of enabling oppression and denying that very fact.
Jews live after the Holocaust. Yet Jews also live after Israel and what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinian people. As Grunebaum and other South African Jews were contributing money for forests under which other destroyed Palestinian villages remain, Jews around the world were doing the same. This destruction of Palestinian life, culture and land is at the heart of contemporary Jewish life. The Village Under the Forest raises the question as to what Jews will do with the violence at the heart of contemporary Jewish identity.
The film’s major premise is that a re-rooting of Jewish identity may come after but not before a reckoning with Jewish history in Israel/Palestine. The fate of Lubya and the Palestinian Nakba is that reckoning. Along with Grunebaum and South African Jews, the film portrays this through interviews with Palestinians who survived Lubya’s conquering, some of whom regularly visit the grounds of the destroyed village in which they were born. These interviews are a counter to the haunting, narrative of South African/Jewish self-discovery. Some Palestinians interviewed are bitter about the Jews that conquered them. However, their most caustic comments are about the Arab countries that ineptly and corruptly “defended” them. Still others are wistful, fondly remembering their childhood memories in Lubya.
Grunebaum’s conclusion is clearly drawn. Hers is an indictment of the violence that attended the formation of Israel and the aftermath of its creation. Grunebaum asks what has become of Jews and what Jews can do to redeem what has happened to the citizens of Lubya and the Palestinian people. Here Grunebaum’s narration moves far beyond sentimentality and wishful thinking. The situation is dire. The oppression of the Palestinian people is deep, ordered and backed by state power:
Our coins from the diaspora have not only planted Jewish trees, uprooted Palestinians ones, they have contributed to a forest of a very different kind. A vast forest of bureaucracy where the force of law is a weapon: regulation rules, procedures, permits, planning by-laws – all regulate the tiniest minutiae of everyday life for Palestinians who are slowly choked, inched off the remainder of their lands. Corralled into ghettos, building permits refused, Palestinians watch as their homes are demolished.
I see God’s warriors occupying roofs and roads; land and sky; permits and passes. The guardians of the gates chew gum, hold semi-automatics. They look my daughter, my uncle, my brother.
The film closes with Grunebaum’s challenge:
What happened in 1948 has not ended. It continues. To commemorate the Nakba is both an act of memory and a protest against what is still happening.
The state has outlawed the Nakba as a day of mourning. So commemorating it has been made a crime.
Against prohibition and the force of violence, Lubya’s ruins are a fragile house of memory where resistance to the speech of conquest are the voices of poetry and return.
With me at the Kairos Document conference was my oldest son, Aaron, who also had the occasion to meet and speak with Grunebaum. When I told him about the film and her moving narration he wasn’t surprised.
A Jew of yet another generation, Aaron with Jews of Conscience everywhere have a different vision of resolving the conflicts and claims that John Kerry and Tzipi Livni seek to impose. Aaron and Jews of Conscience know that the conflict and claims on Jewish ethical life do not end in a political settlement that allows Jews and Israel to wipe the historical slate clean. Jewish violence against Palestinians will have to be dealt with over many generations. We are just touching the surface of what has been done in the name of Jews and Jewish history.
The Village Under the Forest is a haunting reminder that the future of Palestinian and Jewish life is inextricably bound and that the ancient Jewish prophetic, though battered and seemingly on its heels, is alive and well. This is the other side of Israel’s abuse of power – with the emergence of Jews of Conscience the Jewish prophetic is exploding in our time.
The Jewish prophetic always arrive at the end of Jewish history as we have known and inherited it. It arrives when everything ethical in Jewish life is being squandered. We are at such a time. But the Jewish prophetic also signals a new phase of struggle and witness. The Jewish prophetic is an end. It is also a beginning.
A Village Under the Forest is about this end and beginning. And despite her desire for anonymity, Heidi Grunebaum is a witness to the fact that the Jewish prophetic voice will never die.