What happens when you say ‘Nakba’ in Hebrew – an interview with Eitan Bronstein Aparicio

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The Arabic term “Nakba”, meaning “catastrophe”, is a description of the major wave of ethnic cleansing that was inflicted upon Palestinians in 1948, which has also continued in various modes since (a process also known as the “ongoing Nakba”).

To speak about this in Palestinian society, in Arabic, is to address a definitive part of one’s national Palestinian history. But to speak about it in Hebrew-speaking-Jewish Israel, in Hebrew, is an act of defiance – defiance of an institutionalized denial and even outlawing of Nakba commemoration by the state. The Nakba is supposed to remain an exclusively “Palestinian narrative”, and eventually to be erased together with all else Palestinian, in favor of Israeli “independence”.

Eitan Bronstein Aparicio, together with his wife and working partner Eléonore Marza Bronstein, has recently authored a book in Hebrew, literally titled Nakba in Hebrew – A Political Journey summarizing the transformation of the Nakba discourse in Israel since 2001, when Eitan had established Zochrot, an organization dedicated to Nakba commemoration (he later moved on to De-Colonizer – research and art laboratory for social change, in which the couple both work today, in similar territory).

The book itself is an incredibly moving, as well as informative account. As it is not yet published in any other language than Hebrew, this is not the place for me to do an English book review (I have done one in Hebrew). Nonetheless, the book has managed to penetrate into the Israeli political reality recently, challenging the state, which has attempted to shut down discussion about it through legislation. This is the story that has become a real-life drama, which I thus spoke with Eitan about.

The backdrop was a book-discussion event at the Barbour Gallery in Jerusalem, which took place a couple of weeks ago. In advance of the event, the Jerusalem Municipality tried, unsuccessfully, to get the courts to bar the event (in both Municipal and Regional courts). Culture Minister Miri Regev was highly involved behind the scenes. Bemoaning the weakness of the current anti-Nakba legislation, Regev wrote to the Attorney General requesting his “immediate intervention to advance legislation that would enable us to cease supporting once and for all cultural institutions that use their public spaces to provide a platform for relentless subversion against our very existence, symbols and values”.

Israel already has a ‘Nakba-law’ from 2011, but it is mostly aimed at outlawing Nakba commemoration ceremonies by public institutions held on Israeli Independence Day. The Municipality sought to have the court apply the Nakba Law, but the judge rejected that it applied. This is the ‘loophole’ that Regev seeks to close.

I ask Eitan, first of all, about the event itself.

Eitan: It passed peacefully and quietly. Maybe it’s a bit disappointing (but not surprising in my view), that all this mess didn’t bring that many people. In my opinion, and we wrote about it also in the book, the issue is that the Nakba, also in the Israeli left, is not… what they support is the freedom of expression, but that doesn’t mean that a whole lot of people will come and get interested in such a thing. So about 35 people came, it was alright, reasonable, nice, without any special provocations. The main thing was in the press, which was indeed interesting, that is in court – that was amazing, but the event itself passed without anything special [occurring]. [….] It’s important to understand, that the context of the fight of the municipality against the event was part of a larger fight against the Barbour Gallery. Now, in addition, [the municipality] argued against the event itself, and that added to it, but the appeal itself against holding this particular event is occurring within a legal procedure that the municipality is conducting against the gallery already for over a year, since they brought Breaking the Silence [Israeli army whistleblower organization].

The issue is, that 13 years ago, the foundation which runs Barbour Gallery, got the building from the Jerusalem Municipality, in some way without even a contract. And they operated there for 13 years and all is good and well, until last year, where they suddenly brought people who were ‘too leftist’ for the municipality [Breaking the Silence], and then it exploded – then they said “how can it be that in an asset that is owned by the municipality, an event would take place that delegitimizes the IDF soldiers and all that”… There’s a very nice photo in the Haaretz coverage, of a big demonstration of many leftists against the intention to close Barbour. In the meanwhile, it seems that [Barbour] are in a pretty good legal state – they have managed to get a decision in the court which forces the municipality to conduct a complete trial around all this, which prevents the Municipality from just making a single act [of eviction] and getting the asset back. And that actually puts the municipality in a difficult position in terms of getting the asset back – it may be that the municipality will win the case, but it will apparently take years. Now in the meanwhile, the gallery continues to conduct events which raise the ire of the municipality. A few months ago they hosted a discussion about Memorial Day – for the “Palestinians and for IDF soldiers”, and that already made the Municipality jump, and now they’re jumping again. […]

I’ll tell you a little anecdote: Regev’s letter [to the Attorney General] was published just a few hours after her resounding failure to bring the Argentinian soccer team to Jerusalem. And then, she published that letter [to Attorney General] as a kind of contra, to save herself, to show that she is still alive and kicking. And then she got hundreds of responses to that letter, which were all about Argentina and Messi, and not even about this event! It was hilarious. And in her letter she wrote that in Barbour Gallery they were doing “incessant pro-Palestinian babble” about “Nakba fairytales” [see full letter here ].

Eitan tells me how a right-wing troll by the name of Shai Glick was instrumental in the campaign to get the event cancelled.

Eitan: He heads an organization named ‘B’tzalmo’ [a pun on the Israeli human-rights organization B’tselem’], which seeks to protect ‘the rights of the Jews’ or something, against the leftists and the anti-Zionists and all […], so he’s a very clever guy, and he constantly monitors leftist events, and he seeks loopholes through which he could enter. [….] In our case he referred directly to Miri Regev and said ‘look what’s going on here’.

I ask Eitan about the nature of the Culture Ministry’s involvement in the actual court procedure. I asked whether the Ministry was in fact involved in the appeal to the court.

Eitan: Not directly. She contacted [Jerusalem Mayor] Nir Barkat, and I understand that Nir Barkat is not going to contend any more for municipal elections – he is going for the national, for the Likud, and he’s a friend of Miri Regev, and he’s trying to make this political connection […]. So Nir Barkat is the one who activated the legal department, although the woman from the municipality who testified in court denied this […]. It was clear that this was politically maneuvered. Their claim was that this is all legal, and not political, because if it was political, the court would wave them away.

JO (me): So there was an unofficial lobbying here from the Minister of Culture, which activated the legal mechanisms in the municipality, which were already existent.

Eitan: She wrote it explicitly. She wrote explicitly that she spoke with Mayor Nir Barkat, you can see it in her letter, she wrote explicitly that she is working both to close the place as well as the event.

JO: How would you characterize the nature of the first Municipal court rejection?

Eitan: The judge rejected them on the basis of the bureaucratic procedure, what is called the main procedure regarding returning of the asset to the municipality. And she said to them, you’re actually coming now and trying to dictate rules via ad-hoc injunctions, while there is a main procedure that is taking place. It cannot be – the main procedure needs to be exercised, and a decision taken on whether the place is being closed or not – but it cannot be that in the meantime you come anytime you feel like it in ad-hoc fashion. She didn’t enter the question of the content of the event and whether it was incitement or anything. She said ‘if you have such a problem, contact the police’.

JO: So then the municipality tries again, and appeals to the Regional Court.

Eitan: [….] There they brought forth the ‘Nakba Law’ [….]. They cited the main line of the Nakba Law, which says that it is illegal to commemorate Independence Day as a day of mourning, and that an organization which does this, an organization which is supported by the state (or municipality) is liable to be fined […]. This is of course a far-fetched interpretation of this law. [….] We wrote this in the book too, that since the law was passed, Miri Regev constantly tries to interpret the law in a wider fashion. And it’s very important that the court, in its decision, regarded that law in itself, and stated that it doesn’t apply here. What is important to understand here is, that Miri Regev admitted already in her letter, that they don’t have the legal tools to prevent this.

JO: Yes, on the one hand, there is the legal victory here, wherein it is stated by the court that you cannot apply the Nakba Law in this way, in a way that makes blanket censorship on any discussion of the Nakba. On the other hand, as you are telling me, this was known in advance, and we are looking at a much wider process, which is to do with cultural censorship.

Eitan: Clearly, there is a much wider context here. But what is important to note here, is that to the best of my knowledge, and as you know I am one of the people who follow this very closely, to the best of my knowledge this [law] was not previously tried in court. It’s a first time that someone comes with a legal complaint and tries to apply it legally [….]. On the other hand, regarding the wider context which you rightfully mention, it’s necessary to accentuate, that I do not know of another case wherein discussion of a book has gone through two courts – it’s pretty amazing.

JO: It’s very interesting, because what we are seeing here, is that the state apparatus is as if responding to attempts by you, by Zochrot, by De-Colonizer, by the book etc., always attempting to respond, as if it was a kind of fence-breach – breach of the ‘Nakba-fence’. In the book, you and Eléonore tell how the Nakba law was actually a response to the fact that more and more Nakba commemoration marches were taking place on Independence Day, and that [the law] was a direct response to this – and this is why the law is phrased as it is. And now you have encountered another legal procedure, wherein the state once again tried to respond to yet another attempt in this territory, and now Miri Regev admits that the law is insufficient, so they will probably continue on with [advancing further legislation]. It’s an inevitable process.

Eitan: This is precisely the process we have here, which is of course this kind of dialectical process, which brings with it increasing interest around this subject.

JO: What is you feeling in the end, after the event took place, about the event itself, about those who came, about the interest?

Eitan: The atmosphere was excellent. It’s possible that of those who came, there were people who came out of solidarity in terms of wanting there to be a space for discussion of this type, concerning the Nakba and the [Palestinian] Right of Return – because it was clear from the questions and also answers, that not all are really with us in our [ideological] line, and that’s totally fine. So it was a fine event. There were two Palestinians speaking there, refugees actually – one [woman] from the town of Miskeh, which was the first town to which Zochrot made a tour in 2002. [….]

JO: Eitan, when you say ‘refugees’, are you meaning ‘Present Absentees’, that is internally displaced Palestinians?

Eitan: So yes, in her case yes, she is internally displaced, living in Tira [….]. And it was very moving to hear from her that she thought that the book had an incredible value. [….] And then spoke a man from the village of Lifta, [a depopulated Palestinian village at the outskirts of Jerusalem] which is under ongoing destruction attempts [….]. And he’s a Palestinian East-Jerusalemite, who lives in the French Hill neighborhood, upon the lands of Lifta [….]. So he spoke very emotionally [….].

There was also a founding member of Zochrot, and he spoke about what we’re doing as causing “empathetic friction”. I think it’s a very nice and very precise description – I keep insisting not to give up on the Israelis. I keep proposing to Israelis this challenge, of the Nakba. He said that what I was leading, was something where we don’t just come and say what is the right and true position, we don’t push it in their face. Rather, we pose a challenge, as a kind of invitation to study. We invite them to look and see, ‘what is around your house?’. You lived in Givat Haim? Look, what do you know about your area? Let’s go and look at it, let’s study it together. I’m not telling you ‘yes, here is Khirbat Manshiya, they have to return back tomorrow morning’ – no. And this is our position, it always was – we say ‘let’s go and research this together’. So he said, that this insistence to always keep returning and to pose this mirror, the Nakba as a kind of mirror or constant challenge, this erodes the usual wall of resistance against leftists, where they say ‘oh you’re just Israel-haters, you’re just against us’. [….]

And maybe a final little anecdote which moved me a lot:  my dear friend from Miskeh [another one], he bought another ten books – he had already bought seven books before – he buys them and sells them to people around him, to the uprooted people, people in Tira… and it’s interesting to note, that the greatest interest of someone concerning the book is actually from a Palestinian.

Eitan tells me that a French translation of the book is due to be released in September. After that, English translations will be explored. Eitan also notes that they are currently seeking opportunities for translation and publishing in Arabic.  

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In the past 5 years, the State of Palestine’s military adventurism abroad in Syria led to the creation of 12 million refugees. The State of Palestine’s Arab nationalist enterprise in Libya caused 5 million people to lose their homes. So the idea that a far-right Arab nationalist can discuss “refugees” without acknowledging the greatest refugee situations of the last Century (which the State of Palestine created) is laughable. If you want to help refugees –… Read more »

“How many more people in Venezuela is the State of Palestine going to expel, kill, and starve to death…”

That must be the Palestinian “military adventurism” you refer to.

what an interesting interview. these attempts to utilize the courts and past draconian legislation (the nabka law) for incremental tightening of the noose to wrestle this gallery away from leftists and clamp down further on any reference to nakba is fodder for a Fellini movie.