Occupation & Nakba: Interview with Ariella Azoulay & Adi Ophir

Professors Adi Ophir and Ariella Azoulay have been at the forefront of academic research regarding Israel’s maintenance of the West Bank and Gaza Strip Occupation.  In 2008, they co-authored the definitive Hebrew text on Israel’s occupation; This Regime Which is Not One: Occupation and Democracy between the River and the Sea (1967- ). Recently, Professor Azoulay was the subject of a tenure battle at Bar Ilan University, where she has been a lecturer in the department of Philosophy for the past 11 years. The author of 10 books and numerous articles, it is understood that she was denied tenure at Bar Ilan based on her political opinions.

Last week, I interviewed Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir about their book, the Nakba and Israel’s occupation regime in the West Bank and Gaza.

Joseph Dana: What are your thoughts on the recent legislation ‘banning’ public commemoration of the Nakba within Israeli society?

Adi Ophir: The legal banning of public commemoration of the Nakba is a welcome contribution to the critique of the dominant Israeli discourse. Through its distorted conceptual grid and the sheer lies it helped to spread, this discourse has long prevented the appearance of the Nakba as part of the history of the Israeli State. While Zokhrot – the NGO dedicated to commemorate the Nakba among Israeli Jews – has succeeded to reach one or two dozens of thousand people during its ten years activity, the banning has made almost every Israeli aware of something called the Nakba. The prohibition – like every prohibition – might make the prohibited object desirable and drive more Jews and Palestinian to learn more about that which they cannot commemorate.  Another advantage of this banning is the fact that it exposes the racist tendencies of the current Israeli government and the Jewish majority which it represents.

Ariella Azoulay: One of the most important and distinctive features of the Israeli regime, which is often ignored, is the way and intensity of the mobilization of Jewish citizens to take part in its perpetuation, while misrecognizing the nature of the regime and the meaning of their actions. The Israeli regime is not exceptional in its colonial, oppressive, and discriminatory practices, but it is quite unique in this respect. Formally, the Nakba law is not about concealing the Israeli-Palestinian past but about testing the Palestinian loyalty to the Jewish State. Its subtext is not the fear of exposing Jews to the true reality of the occupation but the wish to frighten Jews by exposing the allegedly true nature of the Palestinian as basically traitors. But the effect of this is that now everyone knows that the terrible thing that Palestinians have to hide is that they have been victims of the Israeli State.

JD: What is happening in Israeli academia in relation to the Nakba? After the explosion of information in the 1990’s by the so called ‘New Historians,’ who is leading research about the Nakba and what is the climate for this research? In Israel, are we able to have a free and open conversation about the Nakba the way that Palestinians are able to interact with the issue?

AA: The Nakba is a major event that shaped the lives of everyone who lived in Palestine in the late forties and has continued to affect the lives of those people’s descendants. The repression and disavowal of the Nakba by Israeli Jews is a denial of a constitutive element of their experience. Israeli academia took part in this denial and the work of the New Historians and other post-Zionist scholars is just the beginning of an attempt to overcome a series of political-epistemic obstacles that have made us blind to the conditions of our own existence as Israeli Jews, let alone to the conditions of our Palestinian fellows. There is still much work to be done and anyone committed to this work still has to resist heavy ideological and political pressure. But such work is necessary, and it is not just a matter of the history of the Palestinian disaster – the story of the victims and the story of the perpetrators are but two sides of the same story about the last years of Mandatory Palestine and the first years of the Israeli State.

JD: Based on research on the nature of Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza, what are your feelings on the proposed recognition of a Palestinian state in September? Can Palestinians achieve unity under the ‘regime’ which you describe in your book?

AO: The idea that such a declaration would be reflected in changes to the way Israel currently rules in the Territories is an illusion. The declaration should be understood as one in a series of acts of resistance by the Palestinians. We are unable to tell when the effect of this resistance, backed by international pressure and – what seem less likely – changes in the American policy would crack the wall of the Israeli regime (of which the occupation is a constitutive element). But any non-violent act that brings this regime closer to its end is welcome.

JD: You have proposed that the ‘Freud Trauma Concept’ can be applied to understanding the perception of the Nakba in Israeli society and how the Occupation of 1967 serves/doesn’t serve to distance Israeli society from dealing with the Nakba issue. Please explain this idea.

AO: Trauma, for Freud, is the association of a first violent event that is imprinted in the psyche but remains un-articulated and incomprehensible, and a later event that is interpreted retrospectively as a repetition of the first. In this structure of experience it is the latter event which endows the former event with its meaning.  The Palestinian experience of the Nakba was not structured in this way; the event was understood and experienced from the beginning for what it was – a national disaster – and no repetition has been involved in its conceptualization.

AA: Concepts are tools for thought and their productivity is demonstrated when they enable one to ask new questions and see things in a different light. A symptom of trauma is an unexplained reluctance to establish any contact with an object that for no obvious reasons causes one to tremble. We have identified such a reaction not among Palestinian but rather among Israelis. For the perpetrators too, their involvement with the crime might have been experienced traumatically. We have identified a symptom of this traumatic experience in the unexplained decision by Israeli authorities to stop the deportation of Palestinians after the war in 1967 and allow the return of many who had already left. Almost everyone in the military and political establishment at the time was involved with the Nakba. We have proposed, speculatively, of course, that the anxiety associated with the return of the repressed was behind the decision to avoid a new wave of ethnic cleansing.

JD: Do you see the occupation changing any time in the near future?

AA: Our analysis shows that the forces at work within Israel are very successful in reproducing the basic structure of the occupation regime, and that they are capable of transforming this regime in response to Palestinian resistance and outside pressure – the disengagement was the last major example – without giving up its basic structure. We do not see the forces – either Israeli or Palestinian – that could undermine those that work to perpetuate the occupation.  This either-or, this split between the two civilian populations is the core of the Israeli regime. If any internal force will ever undermine this regime it would be one that would overcome the split, a force generated by the combined efforts of Israeli and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs.

Read more in +972 Magazine’s Remembering the Nakba project:

Eitan Bronstein: Nakba Law: Inside Pandora’s Box
Yossi Gurvitz: Rightwing group publishes Nakba denial booklet
Dahlia Scheindlin: Nakba Law: Is it time for civil disobedience?
Noam Sheizaf: Why Jews need to talk about the Nakba