History is written by the winners. – George Orwell, Tribune, 1944
The worst thing that colonialism did was to cloud our view of our past. – Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance 1995
As a high school student in Israel in the early 70’s, I had relegated chemistry, physics, the bible, and just about every other subject to the mental waste bin. For history, though, I had nothing but contempt. What possible relevance could the Magna Carta, the causes of the First World War, or the history of the Jews have to my life?
Almost thirty years later, traveling on a German train north to Denmark, I had been gazing at picture window landscapes when we passed the sign announcing the approaching border. A surprising thought interrupted my nature meditation. What happened to Denmark during the second world war? Did the Germans invade? Not long after, an older gentleman in a crumpled suit got on the train, heaved his overloaded brown briefcase onto the luggage rack, and sat down across from me. We exchanged the usual traveler questions, and that’s when he told me he was a retired American university professor of history, with a special interest in Europe during the second world war. So I put the question to him, and this is what he said. Germany invaded Denmark in 1940, and in 1943 Hitler ordered Danish Jews to be arrested and deported. But the Danish resistance movement, with the help of ordinary Danish citizens and their boats, evacuated 8,000 Jews by sea to nearby neutral Sweden. The Danes had saved their Jews.
May 14, 1948 is an important date for Jews. This was the last day of the British mandate in Palestine. I can imagine the celebration in the streets of Tel Aviv that Friday afternoon. Men and women in shorts and sandals, arm in arm in hora dance circles, as they listened to David Ben-Gurion, head of the World Zionist Organization and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, declare the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel. I can picture a flaming orange sun sliding quietly into the blue waters of the Mediterranean, marking the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. When it next appears, it will mark the beginning of a new era for the Jewish people. To this day, May 15, 1948 is celebrated as Israel’s Independence Day.
May 15, 1948 is an important date also for Arab Palestinians. Following Israel’s declaration of independence, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq attacked the new Jewish state. Israel won the war. But for Palestinians, the date marks the nakba, the catastrophe that turned 600,000 of them into permanent refugees.
In 1965, at the age of five, Eitan Bronstein’s family immigrated to Israel from Argentina. As a young man, Bronstein served his three-year compulsory duty in the Israeli Army, but when he was called for his first stint as a reservist, he refused to serve in Lebanon, was court-martialed, and thrown in an army jail for a few weeks. And during the first Palestinian intifada (‘shaking off’, ‘uprising’ in Arabic) in 1987, Bronstein refused reserve duty in the occupied territories and was jailed again.
In the late 19th century, in Europe, Jews established the Zionist movement to return the Jewish people to their biblical homeland and what was then Ottoman-ruled Palestine. Jews immigrated in wave after wave, bought up Arab land, cultivated soil, drained swamps, and irrigated parched desert. This ascendance to the Jewish homeland istoraHIihad become the national expression of the birth of a new Jew – a labourer farmer fighter.
In the history of Zionism, the Zarnuka incident of 1913 is known as one of the first violent encounters between Jewish settlers and the local Arab population. The clash, which left two Jews and one Arab dead, broke out between Jewish settlers in the town of Rehovot and residents of the neighboring Arab village of Zarnuka. In the settlers’ version of events, during the grape harvest, two thugs from Zarnuka passed through the Jewish vineyards on their camels, and reached out to grab some grapes. A young recruit of the Jewish guard confronted them, but the Arabs took his gun and beat him up.
For many years, researchers digging into the history of Zionism have had access only to the version of events written by the Jewish side. But recently, Israeli researcher Yuval Ben Bassat uncovered a new document referring to the Zarnuka incident, in the Istanbul Archives. It’s a petition that had been written to the Ottoman Sultan by heads of Arab families living in the Zarnuka area.
The petitioners had written that the Jews wanted to strip the grape-loving Arabs of their clothes, money and camels, but that the men had managed to escape. ‘The Jews attacked our villages, robbed and looted our property, killed and even damaged the family honor.’ The villagers continue to complain about the attitudes of the Jewish settlers, their accumulation of forbidden weapons, and their resort to bribery. ‘By payments they do whatever they want, as if they have a small government of their own in the country.’
Ben Bassat found thousands of such petitions from Palestine, sent to Istanbul at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. This correspondence hints at future irreconcilable differences between the local Arabs and the new European immigrants. When it comes to attitudes towards land ownership rights, for instance, there is a huge gap. As far as the Jews were concerned, buying the land from its owners (usually absentee landowners) gave them the legal right to do whatever they wished with the land. The locals saw things differently, however. Having lived on and cultivated the land for centuries, they believed they had the right to stay.
In the 1990’s, while working at the school for peace in Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (Oasis of Peace), an intentionally created Jewish/Arab village not far from Jerusalem, Bronstein facilitated co-existence encounters between Jews and Arabs. That’s when he first heard the Arab term nakba. Then while reading books by Benny Morris, one of Israel’s ‘new historians’, he realized that something important happened in 1948 that he had never heard of. Jewish soldiers had expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and destroyed many of their towns and villages. The subject had often come up in the encounters, but it had been impossible to coax people to talk about it openly.
In 1917, the British defeated the Ottoman Turks, and beginning in 1922, they ruled Palestine under a mandate from the League of Nations. At the height of Palestinian Arab resentment to the expanding Jewish settlement, between the years 1936 to 1939, the Arabs rebelled against British rule. But with help from the Jewish militias, the British managed to suppress the rebellion.
Eventually, the British grew tired of ruling Palestine, at about the same time they grew tired of ruling India. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states: one state for the Jews and one state for the Arabs. The partition plan was accepted by the Jewish community, but the Arabs refused, arguing that it gave more land to the Jewish minority, thereby violating the rights of the Arab majority. At the time, the population of Palestine was 65% non-Jewish (1,200,000) and 35% Jewish (650,000). Civil war broke out, with Palestinian Arabs fighting the Jewish settlers. The partition plan was never implemented.
Two related events in April 1948, described in Benny Morris’ book 1948 –The First Arab-Israeli War (published in 2008), tell the story of the civil war in Palestine. On April 9, Jewish extremist militia units marched on the Arab village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem. A bullhorn in a van warned the villagers to escape but the van overturned in a ditch. When the Jews got close, they came under heavier than expected fire from the village, and they suffered casualties. They then destroyed the village, shot unarmed civilians, and executed prisoners in a nearby quarry. Morris estimates the Arab death toll at 120. A Jewish army intelligence officer reported that ‘the conquest of the village was carried out with great cruelty. ‘Whole families – women, old people, children – were killed. Some of the prisoners, including women and children, were murdered viciously by their captors.’ The atrocities were condemned by the Jewish Agency and the mainstream Jewish military. “But the real significance of Deir Yassin,” wrote Morris, “lay in its political and demographic repercussions.” Arab media reports of the atrocities, designed to rally support for Arab resistance to Jewish settlement, had the unintended effect of instilling fear in the Palestinians, which led to panicked flight.
Nonetheless, at the time, Arab militias took their revenge. On April 13, hundreds of militiamen attacked a convoy carrying Jewish lecturers, students, doctors and nurses to the Hadassah Hospital near Jerusalem. Morris has described it as a classic ambush. A mine blew a hole in the road, halting the convoy. Some of the vehicles turned around and got away, but two armor-plated buses were trapped. The shooting went on for more than five hours. Then the Arab ambushers doused the buses with gasoline and set them on fire. By the time the British came to the rescue, 78 Jews were dead, many of them roasted alive.
As a consequence of the Hadassah massacre, a novel non-Zionist approach to resolving the conflict was finally extinguished. For years, Yehuda Magnes, President of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, had advocated a binational solution – one state for two peoples, instead of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state. But after the April 13 massacre, Magnes’ approach was completely discredited.
Morris contends that “two contradictory explanations have dominated historical debate about the causes of the Palestinian Arab exodus of 1948.” The Arab explanation was that the Jewish settlers mounted a deliberate campaign of expulsion. The official Jewish version was that the exodus was ordered by Arab leaders both inside and outside Palestine.
It’s 2011. In a meeting room in Tel Aviv, twenty or so Israelis are gathered. The meeting is one of several like this one, held in recent years by the Israeli NGO Zochrot. As I watched the video excerpt online, I thought they looked as though they could be at a meeting of a housing association, or a book club. Mostly men, a few women, ranging in age perhaps from 40 to 80. They are here to witness the unofficial ‘testimony’ of a man who had been a Jewish soldier in Palestine/Israel during April and May of 1948. It is not a trial, or a hearing with any legal significance. And only a tiny minority of Israelis are interested in Amnon Neumann’s ‘testimony’.
Neumann seems serious and tense. To his left, a woman who could be his wife is half-facing Neumann, with her right arm draped over the back of her chair, hand supporting her head with coiffed white hair, her lips tightly shut, eyes gazing emptily towards the floor.
Bronstein tells me in an email how Zochrot was founded. In the early 90’s, Bronstein had been leading groups on guided tours to Canada Park, established by the Jewish National Fund on land captured by Israel in the Arab-Israel war of 1967. Visitors would learn the history of the place by reading signs put up by the JNF, signs telling the story of different inhabitants over the ages – Romans, Ottomans, Byzantines. And Jews. What had struck Bronstein, though, was that there were no signs describing the history of hundreds of years of local Palestinian habitation. To fill the void, Bronstein came up with the idea of putting up signs to tell the story of the Palestinian villages that had been there in 1967. Soon Bronstein realized there were hundreds of places in Israel where Palestinian towns and villages existed until 1948, or 1967, and the idea grew in scope. So in 2002, with a group of friends, Bronstein formed an organization to erect historic signposts commemorating destroyed Palestinian villages and towns. They chose the name Zochrot, the feminine form in Hebrew for those who remember. Women remembering.
“In Hebrew we speak almost all the time using masculine verbs,” writes Bronstein. “Also in Arabic, it’s very common. So using the feminine form indicates we are not using conventional language, just like what we are remembering is not the conventional memory of 1948.” It’s not about the War of Independence, he tells me. It’s about the Nakba, the experience of the Arab Palestinians who were expelled or fled from their towns and villages during the war of 1948, and were prevented by the Israeli army from returning.
In the online video, Amnon Neumann says: “It would be an exaggeration to say we fought against the Palestinians. In fact there were almost no battles.” The Palestinians had no military, and they weren’t organized. Mostly, the villagers fled when the Jewish soldiers were ordered to clear convoy escort routes through what was then Arab-controlled territory. “They didn’t think they wouldn’t return. And no one imagined that a whole people would not return,” Neumann recalls. “We came to inherit the land from foreigners. That was the foundation of our thinking. We drove them out because of the Zionist ideology. Pure and simple.”
Neumann concedes that he didn’t see anything wrong with it. He says he was conditioned to it just like everybody else. “For 50 or 60 years I’ve been torturing myself about this. But what’s done is done. It was done under orders.”
Bronstein asks Neumann to describe an expulsion action, how it was done. “In some cases, we were ordered to destroy villages,” says Neumann. “We would drive there, and find that the men had already fled. We surrounded the village, started shooting in the air, and everybody started to scream, and we drove them out. The women and children went to Gaza. By morning no one was there.”
Zochrot has traversed a long road since its history-sign-erecting origins. Besides the ‘testimony’ meetings, the organization shows films and art exhibits at its studio, takes people on tours of historical places, conducts research, and publishes articles and guides. All this is designed to push the nakba deeper into Jewish awareness. The organization’s most courageous project is its school study guide (How do we say nakba in Hebrew?) and teacher training program.
Bronstein is the organization’s director of public outreach. “Zochrot has succeeded in creating a revolution in the attitude of Israelis to the nakba,” he says, “from almost absolute repression to an understanding that it was a meaningful traumatic event also for Israelis. I hope Zochrot becomes part of the mainstream of the one state we all live in after we overcome Zionism. I want to live with equality between Israelis and Palestinians.”
“Are most Israelis hostile to your work,” I ask. “Yes, of course I encounter hostility. Sometimes it gets a little scary. But it never develops into real violence. There have been times when very harsh words were used against me. For example, one national radio interviewer called me a murderer, Jew-hater, anti-semite.” Bronstein’s son Noam, who is nine, doesn’t tell his friends about his father’s work. “They are all Arab haters. But I also get a lot of support from Israelis, and others, who know that what I do is very important to our life in Israel.”
I ask Bronstein how he feels about living in the Jewish State of Israel. “Of course, I feel shame and anger sometimes, to be an Israeli. My country does terrible things to the Palestinians. And also to Jews, by turning them into occupiers and oppressors.” Bronstein hopes the work of Zochrot will eventually make it possible to reconcile with the Palestinians. But that would only happen if Israelis recognize the nakba and their the right to return to their homeland. “Without reconciliation, we will be forced to live as occupiers forever, and we will live in a violent and repressive state.”
I think back to how I felt leaving Israel in 1977, almost immediately after my military service, without any desire to live in a Jewish state, nor the resolve or courage to fight for truth and justice. Following Bronstein’s work with Zochrot gives me a small sense of vicarious redemption. Together with Morris, Ben Bassat, Neumann, he’s making history.