Palestinian and Israeli Debate about the Nakba and the Right of Return
BADIL Interview with Eitan Bronstein, Zochrot - an Initiative for Jewish-Israeli Nakba Awareness and Israeli-Palestinian Reconciliation
BADIL: We have been following a series of brave and very creative Zochrot activities over the past year-and-a-half or so and also reported about them in al-Majdal: Israelis commemorating the Deir Yassin massacre, linking protest against current demolitions of Palestinian homes in Lod (Lydda) with the Nakba of 1948, visiting 1948 depopulated Palestinian villages like Ain al-Ghazzal and Isdud and participating in Palestinian events organized to commemorate the Nakba and to call for Palestinian refugees' right of return.
Eitan Bronstein: There are probably two levels to the answer, a historical-cultural level and a more personal one. With regard to the first, it is important to understand that in the course of recent years we have witnessed a revival of Palestinian Nakba awareness. We started to hear, read and see much more from Palestinians about the Nakba of 1948 and their collective memory. So we can be seen as an expression of a new wave of Jewish awareness following the wave of change on the Palestinian Arab side in Israel. In addition, there were the events of October 2000 [the killing of 13 Palestinian citizens by Israeli police], which exposed the devastation of most of the Israeli 'peace camp.'
However, some understood - due to this crisis in Jewish-Arab relations - that we have to tackle the hard questions and to go to the roots of the conflict. Zochrot, together with other initiatives that radicalized themselves in this period, is part of a sector of the Israeli left that understood after October 2000 that we Jews must take responsibility, take a stand and act, and not waste time with strategy discussions or wait until we obtain the approval of the Arab side for this joint project or that. So yes, Zochrot activists are not veteran activists of the Israeli anti-Zionist movement, but rather people working in the field of education that have become aware of the necessity to act politically.
The personal motivation is of course related to above, and to the stronger interest and need among Jewish people to deal with the Nakba. For me personally the idea of Zochrot was born four years ago. At about this time, I was searching the internet and came across a place called Qaqun in the Tulkarem District. It was a place I had played in during my childhood, and it was very dear to me. We knew then that the ruins were the remainders of a crusaders' fortress. And then I found the name on the internet and I thought what does this place have to do with it? It's my childhood place. I clicked on it and I saw that it was a Palestinian village and that it was destroyed early on, following a heavy battle with the Zionist forces. This click on the computer is what Zochrot is about. Of course, it is more difficult in the real world than in the virtual one, but this is the essence of what we are about.
Your statements and activities show a strong emphasis on the need for Israelis to learn about the Palestinian Nakba and to recognize the injustice committed against the Palestinian people in 1948. Why did you decide to go back in history more than 55 years and focus on the Nakba? What is the rationale behind this approach?
If there were no Palestinians or Arabs around us, somebody could maybe say why bother? However, it is not like this. The Nakba, i.e. the catastrophe of the Palestinian people in 1948, is something we live until today. It is the major event that continues to determine Arab-Jewish relations in the Middle East, with Jews being perceived as the strong, as the perpetrators of terrible crimes, etc. Moreover, the Nakba continues also in a very concrete way in the 1967 occupied territories, with occupation, land confiscation, house demolitions and killing. Palestinians haven't given up their history and collective memory, and this is good. It gives us as chance to understand how we have become what we are today, a militaristic and racist people.
The Nakba shows us who and what we are, so different from the humanistic society we like to consider ourselves to be. We cannot get around it. It's like telling a Jewish person, "why don't you forget about the Holocaust?" We all know how we react to that. In a more complex way, all Israelis and our behaviors towards the Palestinians are a product of the Nakba, whether consciously or not, including the young soldier who makes a Palestinian woman deliver at a checkpoint so her baby dies, and including the policemen who shot the thirteen in October 2000. Therefore, acknowledgement of our wrong-doing is not only a step towards the Palestinian people, it is also a favor we can do to ourselves.
In addition, we give much importance to feminine expression, collective memory and representation as opposed to the hegemonic and chauvinist male history. We are very interested in learning about women's role in the Nakba, for example, and we have chosen our name Zochrot - we remember - in the Hebrew feminine gender. In this aspect, we do not always get the needed support from our Palestinian partners, because they have the same problem. Their collective memory of the Nakba is very much a male one. The fact that until now we aren't really sure about how to translate Zochrot accurately into Arabic is related to this.
What are Zochrot's main activities today and why?
We are planning to undertake more guided visits to 1948 depopulated Palestinian villages. Next week we will visit al-Majdal, and we will put up signs again. There are two street signs there today, one street is Herzl street, the other is named after Eli Cohen [Israeli Mossad agent executed in Damascus]. These are very Zionist names. And we will put up signs marking al-Ustaz street and al-Suq street, as they were called before 1948. We hope that people will see it and that we will make it into the media this time and cause some 'click.' We know that it works. We were there a few weeks ago and found a young woman selling merchandise in an old Arab building. We told her the story of the place and she was shocked.
We also try to stop the destruction of the remaining signs of Palestinian life from before 1948. For example, we are engaged in effort to stop construction for the expansion of Moshav Ya'd in the center of the destroyed Palestinian village of Mi'ar, and we try to prevent the demolition of the old home of the Baydas family in Sheikh Mo'annes (Lod/Lyyda). Now the Moshav Ya'd has invited representatives of the displaced Palestinians of Mi'ar to come to a meeting, in order to decide where they should build and where not, and how to preserve the memory of Me'ar village.
If we succeed here, and if we can prevent the demolition of the Baydas home, we will have accomplished something concrete. We also have an interesting new project, which we haven't actually started yet: a process of dialogue between internally displaced Palestinians and Jews who are living on their land; refugees of Miska and Kibbutz Ramat HaKovesh or of Bir'im and Kibbutz Bar'am designing - based on the recognition of the wrong done in the past - a plan of action aimed at improving the lives of both sides. This is something that has never been done before.
How does Zochrot operate? How big is the initiative? How do you take decisions about your positions and activities? Who do you consider your main allies?
EB: We are a group of mostly Jews who work in dialogue projects and we understand that Israeli Jews don't know the Nakba, the injuries and losses incurred and about our responsibility for resolving the problem. We have been working very informally so far: 10 - 15 activists, mainly Jews, attend our meetings and decisions are taken together there. Of course we do have heavy arguments sometimes, especially when we have to put things in writing.
A series of days of reflection to be held shortly will help us to clarify our positions and strategies. Zochrot is not only about knowing and acknowledgement; we are here to do things and to act. Some 70 - 200 people usually attend our activities. Our major allies are the internally displaced Palestinians in Israel, their local committees, the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced (ADRID) and organizations like BADIL.
It is conventional wisdom that there is an Israeli consensus about the solution of the Palestinian refugee question and the right of return. Is there such a consensus? If yes, what does it mean exactly?
Yes, there is such a consensus. It is basically along the lines of the Nusseibeh-Ayalon proposal. If there were a chance for a peace agreement tomorrow, Israelis would support a two-state solution, the removal of the settlements and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the Palestinian state. However, I don't think this will work. Not only because it is not just, but also because there is no Palestinian partner for an agreement along these lines.
In relation to the above, how do recent initiatives, like Nusseibeh-Ayalon and Khalil Shekaki's opinion poll, effect Zochrot's efforts? Especially since they suggest that a solution to the Palestinian refugee question and peace can be achieved not by dealing with the root causes of the conflict, but by obtaining Palestinian acceptance of the red lines as defined by Israel today?
If we were only studying and learning about the Nakba, we could agree with them, even with Ami Ayalon. However, since I believe that the right of return is a condition for reconciliation, we cannot avoid disagreement. We do face their arguments sometimes with people who think that Zochrot should not be dealing with the right of return. In general, however, people are far to little educated for a substantial discussion about the right of return. It is very different from Palestinian society. The Israeli discussion is so superficial that people cannot deal with the issue in any detail.
When speaking and writing about Zochrot we are often confronted with the argument that, "Yes, this is interesting, but isn't there somebody else?" Or: "Initiatives of this kind are marginal and unable to change the Israeli consensus against the right of return. Palestinians should rather focus their efforts on the Israeli mainstream and decision makers in order to achieve peace and not on marginal initiatives." How would you respond to this? Does an initiative like Zochrot have the capacity to impact the Israeli consensus?
This question is difficult to answer today. I believe the chance is there, although it takes time. If Zochrot was a big initiative with resources, the amount of resources available to Ami Ayalon for example, we could do it. People would listen. We know this, because we have so many strong examples. Even without resources, there is growing interest, but we will depend very much on coincidence and good luck.
What do you see as the biggest obstacles to the work of Zochrot?
The major obstacle are the Zionist notions that are still very strong among the Israeli public, meaning basically an attitude that holds that Jewish Israelis are always right and have the right to be here and live here and there is no other people and no other history. And if there is, they shouldn't be here. This is very difficult to change. A second obstacle is of course the lack of resources.
What do you consider Zochrot's biggest achievement so far? What are your priorities and expectations for the next two-three years?
Our biggest achievement is the growing acknowledgement among Israelis of Zochrot as the organization dealing with the Nakba. We have become known as those working on the Nakba file. People address us with questions and requests for information about Palestinians in 1948 and the Nakba and consider us experts. Our priority for the future is to do more of the same, but with more resources, a bigger organization and on a broader scale. Secondly, we must work hard in order to build expertise in what we are doing, we must learn the issue thoroughly and acquire more skills.
What do you consider the best ways in which Zochrot's efforts can be supported by Palestinian community organizations and NGOs? By the international solidarity movement and other actors for peace in our region?
Regarding the international solidarity movement and other international players the answer is easy: we need support with contacts, public relations and resources. With regard to the Palestinians, the issue is more complex.
On the one hand, good contacts and support are vital, in order to encourage Jewish people. In fact, this relationship can be a simulation of the type of normal relationship we could have with each other. I, for example, feel very good and calm when I walk with friends, who are Palestinian refugees, on their land and we speak together about what happened and what we can do. There is trust, and this is very encouraging.
On the other hand, joint projects and formal cooperation with Palestinian organizations might be problematic. They could sabotage our initiative, because people will say - and I've heard it already - that we are subcontractors of the Palestinians. Therefore, we need to develop ways of cooperation and mutual support that allow us to maintain our independence and authentic position among the Israeli public.
Eitan Bronstein works at the School for Peace at Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam and is the founder of Zochrot (Remembering). The interview was conducted by BADIL Director Ingrid Jaradat Gassner on 13 September 2003.