Between anger and denial: Israeli collective memory and the Nakba

A new documentary aims to decipher some of the anxiety that accompanies the Israeli debate over the events of 1948.

Between anger and denial: Israeli collective memory and the Nakba
Ruins of Palestinian Nakba village Qula, 2010 (photo: Deborah Bright /

A strange thing regarding the debate on the Nakba: the responses it generates in Israeli society are becoming more and more hostile, while at the same time, the Nakba is mentioned more and more often. Those contradicting elements live side by side, as if the more we work to forget the Nakba, the harder it gets – the recent campaign regarding “the Jewish refugees” that the Foreign Office launched is  just one example.

Israeli-Russian-Canadian journalist Lia Tarachansky (from The Real News) is presently finishing up work on a documentary that tries to deal with the complexity of Israeli sentiments towards the Nakba. “Seven Deadly Myths” (working title) tells the stories of four veterans from 1948, linking them to the lives of modern-day Palestinian refugees and to Tarachansky’s own childhood in a West Bank settlement. When I wrote about the memory of the Nakba on this blog, I also began with my childhood memories. Of all the political and historical issues here, the Nakba has the most intimate feeling to it – another reason it is such a taboo.

Filming has ended, and Tarachansky is now engaged in a fundraising effort to allow her to complete editing and post-production (more details on the film’s website). The project is also taking part in the Cuban Hat competition.

This week, I conducted an email interview with Lia  Tarachansky on the roots of her project and the memory of the Nakba in Israeli society. The video below explains how this project was born.

How did you find the people you interviewed? How many Israelis who fought in 1948 were interviewed? Were they eager to speak?

LT: Most of the people in the film I found by word of mouth. I had asked around in the left’s circles. Then I stumbled onto Sergio Yahni of the Alternative Information Center who knew Tikva Honig-Parnass [seen in the above video] from when she edited the journal “Between The Lines” with Toufic Haddad.

Amnon Noiman I met through Zochrot [“Remembering,” an Israeli NGO that deals with the memory of the Nakba – N.S], other veterans (some of whom later refused to take part in the film) I met through friends of friends or through the various war museums. At first, most were not willing to speak about the war and that period in general. They reminded me of my grandfather who until his dying years couldn’t talk about his memories of the Holocaust. I realized through their silence the immense power of memory and that’s what drove me to dig through my own.

Did you find regret in the Israelis you interviewed, or a feeling that “we did what we had to do?”

Honestly, most of the veterans, both those who are in the film and those who refused, didn’t want to “reopen that file.” One particularly profound moment in the film was in my various conversations and interviews with veteran Amnon Noiman. About three years ago, the Israeli activist Amir Hallel convinced him to give a testimony of his experience in 1948 to a small crowd in the Tel Aviv offices of Zochrot. When I heard about it I grabbed my camera and begged to film it.

I was amazed at how critical Noiman was that evening speaking about the general approach of the Israeli forces during the war, but it was clear even through his criticisms that there were corners of his memory that he refused to touch. Eitan Bronstein, the director of Zochrot asked him about one specific place – Burayr. In April 1948 its residents were expelled to Gaza by the Palmach unit Noiman was part of, and yet he refused to talk about it. It was only in our interview months later that he was ready to speak about what happened that April, 65 years ago.

Your question is very interesting for me because in the beginning of the project I interviewed the veteran and former politician Uri Avnery, who published a war diary during 1948. A year later he compiled his dispatches into the book “In the Fields of the Philistines.” While in these reports he didn’t spare any details of what was happening on the battlefields, when I interviewed him in 2010 he was really defensive, repeating again and again that “if you weren’t there, you can’t judge it.”

This process of opening and closing, which I understood from my own experiences with denial, became really fascinating to me and eventually became the center of the film.

You seem to place an emphasis not just on the events themselves, but even more so on their memory. Why so?

I’ve come to realize that to understand the Israeli self-identity it’s important to understand that it’s not so much the events that shape our understanding of reality, but really our memories of them. I believe the Israeli collective memory is deeply tied to our understanding of our culture, our place in the Middle East, and of course our relationship with the Palestinians. I think that my experience and that of the veterans in the film is a microcosm of that collective memory.

Discussion of 1948 is still taboo and therefore incredibly reflexive. What I mean by that is that the main and most effective way the mainstream nationalistic narrative works is to deny the experience, and foremost the memory of the experience, of anyone who dares to challenge it (or as in my case, has slowly strayed away from it).

In that act, which is incredibly violent, the denial of the ruling narrative translates into denial of the objective history that goes along with the memory. That’s how powerful I think it is. And it is because of that power that we as Israelis grow up blind to what is all around us. That’s how I could grow up in a settlement and be blind to the villages around us.

When I grew up in Israel I never heard the word “Nakba.” Now I do, often. Do you think Israelis have a better understanding of their past? If there is a denial, what causes it?

This is a very important question. When I first started working on the film not only did I never hear the term “Nakba” I didn’t heard anything about expulsions or massacres, or even refugee camps. My family immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union in 1991 so my grandmother didn’t fight in 1948, like most “Sabra” Israelis. That means I didn’t inherit any family narrative of the creation of the Israeli state and the war, not even an augmented one.

That’s why when I set out in making the film I thought most Israelis had the same experience as I did, and knew absolutely nothing. I quickly realized how wrong I was. I think the New Historians have played an enormous role in breaking the monotonous and simplistic history we learn as Israelis – we were innocent, we were attacked for no reason, we fought back and miraculously won.

But I think these historians and the turmoil they caused with their books failed to seriously change the Israeli understanding of 1948 because all reforms to the education system were effectively blocked by the right wing. Ironically, I think it was the right wing itself that made “Nakba” a household name with the proposal and later approval of the Nakba Law.

And even together, the New Historians and the Nakba Law failed to educate the Israeli public on what actually transpired in those fateful years of the war and immediately after it when hundreds of villages were systematically wiped off the map, the Absentee Property and Anti-Infiltration laws were instituted and the Palestinian right of return was legally denied.

Yossi Mekyton, one of the founders of Zochrot, put it best in an interview that will unfortunately not make it into the final film. He described a conversation he had with a young man while riding in a bus past some ruins of a village destroyed in the Nakba. Mekyton said that the difference is that twenty years ago the youth wouldn’t have any clue what these ruins were while today the only thing he knows is that whatever happened, was justified.

This is my feeling too. You grew up in a settlement, and often mention that you yourself were in a sort of denial of Palestinian existence around you. What was it like, and what changed your political thinking?

I don’t think I can answer what it is like to live in denial because of course I wasn’t aware that I was in denial. I only know what it is like to crack that wall and come out on the other side. I first realized that something was deeply wrong when I was in university, in Canada. It was during the Second Intifada, and people were constantly asking me what I thought about the conflict when they found out I was Israeli. All my answers seemed rehearsed – we (Israel) have to do whatever we need to do to protect ourselves from terrorists. That’s the narrative I knew.

But then I met a Palestinian student, and had my first real conversation with a Palestinian person. I don’t really remember what he looked like or what his name was, but I remember thinking “huh, he knows I’m an Israeli, but he’s not trying to kill me. Strange.” That was my first step in a very long process of unraveling what I was taught and discovering what I myself believed. The more I listened to Palestinian stories, the more they echoed my and my family’s experience from the Soviet Union where I was born. Experiences of racism and discrimination.

I had to shed everything I had taken for granted, my entire worldview and rebuild it from scratch. It was a devastating process and of course very alienating because my childhood friends and family were (and remain) very Zionist. Surprisingly, I came out of this process with a profound sense of belonging. For the first time I could form a logical line in my own understanding of the conflict and discover my responsibility as a journalist and a filmmaker.

1948 is not just a piece of history but a loaded political problem. Do you have your own thoughts on what would be a just solution for the refugee problem?

This film doesn’t attempt to give political solutions; it only tries to ask questions. I think organizations like Zochrot, and Badil have invested a lot of thought and work into coming up with just solutions to the historical problems 1948 created, including developing methods for a realistic return. I believe the right of return cannot be denied and that today millions of people live in refugee camps in the West Bank, in Gaza, and in the countries surrounding Israel and that they will never stop dreaming of return and fighting for their right to do so. I think that as a people who carry such a long and painful history, we have a special responsibility to justice and historical honesty.

What responses have you received from Palestinians to this project?

When I talk to Palestinians about the film, many support the idea and are glad that I am going to the source – the people who themselves fought in the war. But most Palestinians I speak to simply cannot understand how to this day Israelis refuse to learn about the Nakba and to understand their narrative.

One of the people in the film is my friend Khalil Abu Hamdeh. He is 27 and the grandson of 1948 refugees from the village of Kakun (near Qalansuwa). Today he lives in a refugee camp on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus (Schem). After years of applying for permits to visit his ancestors’ lands he was finally allowed to leave the West Bank during Ramadan this year.

In the film we follow him as he tracked the place from which his grandmother was expelled. As he looked at the ruins of the village around the historic Kakun castle, where today a national park exists, he couldn’t understand how generations of Israelis could come to this place and never asked themselves what these ruins are, or where are the people who lived there. These are the questions that guide the film and my journey to try and understand the nature of denial.