Zoom In: Palestinian Refugees of 1948, Remembrances

haifa2-e1343661799609Sami Adwan, Efrat Ben-Ze’ev, Menachem Klein, Ihab Saloul, Tamir Sorek, and Mahmoud Yazbak

Genesis of “Zoom In: Palestinian Refugees of 1948, Remembrances”
In 2010, a group of Israeli and Palestinian scholars gathered in the Netherlands to discuss creative practices for understanding the unresolved and complex issue of remembrance. The meeting also explored the use of memories in addressing the on-going conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The plight of Palestinian refugees, who now number 4.7 million, was another point of focus. The fact that this meeting and the subsequent development of the project occurred at a time of strain between the State of Israel and Palestine makes the results particularly impressive.

The group consisting of historians, anthropologists, sociologists and scholars of both literature and education worked together to select thirty-two pictures and develop a questionnaire for the respective pictures. The pictures from which the group selected were sourced from various archives and were taken in or around 1948. Deciding which photos should be used in the project was detailed and a subject of much debate. Fifty-four college students from universities in Haifa, the West Bank and Maastricht were asked to respond to the selected photos. They were first asked to look at a photo without a caption and then describe the photo itself and explain the emotions it evoked. They were then shown the same picture but with the proper caption, and asked again how they felt now that they knew what was in the picture.

The result was the book Zoom In: Palestinian Refugees of 1948, Remembrances by Sami Adwan, Efrat Ben-Ze’ev, Menachem Klein, Ihab Saloul, Tamir Sorek, and Mahmoud Yazbak. This work consists of three parts. The first contains the thirty-two photos along with selected responses. The second part is a shared narrative on the Palestinian villages of ‘Aylut and Ma’lul. The last part is a collection of contributions from each participating scholar that analyzes the photographs and the comments from the respondents, thus placing them in a broader context.

Chapter 1

The Photos and Responses

Birth of a New Settlement – Elyakim, Umm al-Zinat, 1950

A college in Israel/Female/25 Years old/Israeli
The picture evokes wonderful feelings of co-existence that is hardly possible to see today. [In the picture we see] two men, a Palestinian and an Israeli, with a sign of a new Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

Maastricht University/Male/29 Years old/Palestinian
The impression I get is that Palestinians participate and support the Zionist project unwillingly due to necessity. A feeling of anger and sadness arises that Palestinians are forced to renounce their identity to survive.


Palestinian Refugees Living in a Cave, 1950

Male/27 years old/Israeli
It is shocking to see how Palestinian refugees lived. It looks very primitive and very difficult.

Palestinian University/Male/21 years old/Palestinian
I could not absorb this interpretation because the picture does not show the sadness in the hearts of this family because they had to leave their homes.

Chapter 2

‘Aylut and Ma’lul: A Tale of Two Palestinian Villages Before and After the 1948 Nakba and the Birth of Israel by Mahmoud Yazbak and Menachem Klein

In this shared narrative, a Palestinian and an Israeli scholar look at the history and fate of two Palestinian villages, treating their experiences as definitive of those shared by most Palestinian villages. The aim of the chapter is to explore the relation of the past to the present and how young Palestinians of today remember the expulsions. During the Ottoman period, the state allowed families to farm large tracts of land without official ownership. Both Aylut and Ma’lul grew similar products, such as wheat, barley, legumes, and sesame. The Ottoman Land Law of 1859 allowed state lands to be purchased by individual Ottoman citizens, often to the detriment of Palestinians. The Sursuq family of Beirut purchased the land that the two villages occupied and essentially turned the people who lived on the land into hired labour. The landowners eventually began selling land to Zionist settlers who wanted to farm themselves, and ended up expelling Palestinians.

In 1948, both villages became part of the new state of Israel. The authors stress that neither village was known for anything or had any strategic importance to either side of the conflict. There was no resistance in the villages, and no Arab soldiers or weapons were ever stationed there. All of this was known before the villages were occupied. Yet ‘Tochnit Dalet’, Plan Dalet, was carried out in an effort to clear Palestinians off land for territorial continuity. While both villages are representative of the whole Palestinian experience of expulsion, their fates differed.

While ‘Aylut consisted of about seven thousand Palestinians in 2011, eyewitness accounts of July 1948 tell of a Zionist occupation that resulted in a massacre and expulsion. Those who were forced to leave went to Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, while some managed to go to nearby Nazareth. Those who went to Nazareth attempted to return a couple weeks after their eviction, but more men were killed and they were forced to leave again. Bedouin tribes were brought in to assist in the government take-over. Sixty years later, survivors and descendants were able to erect a monument to those killed.

Unlike ‘Aylut, the villagers in Ma’lul were expelled and the village was demolished by Israeli forces. In 1945 there were 690 people living in Ma’lul, including 490 Muslims and two hundred Christians. In late June, 1948, women and children were evacuated to Nazareth and the men remained to guard after declaring their willingness to cooperate with the state and not participate in the fighting. Israeli forces told the villagers to leave and later bombed the area, leaving only the mosque, two churches, the graveyard and water well. They also planted trees in the village to change its topography. What is left of the village area is now used as an Israeli military camp.

Former residents of these two villages became either external or internal refugees. Most former residents of Ma’lul are still recognised as coming from the village and now live in the villages of Yafat al-Nasira and Nazareth. ‘Aylut residents are also dispersed and are known as ‘present absentees’. In 1950 the Israeli government enacted the Absentee Property Law that entitled the state to confiscate the property of Palestinians who were expelled from their homes on the pretext that they were not present when the State of Israel was established. This law contributed to the creation of 700,000 refugees at the time.

The authors also point out how the 1948 generation wanted to look forward rather than backward. As a result, Palestinians kept quiet about Nakba due to the shame and embarrassment they felt over leaving their homes without fighting. Palestinian shame only increased resentment of the ‘occupiers’. The 2000 Intifada triggered renewed awareness of the Nakba and inspired Palestinians to look back and remember.

Chapter 3

Analysis on the Comments

The first contribution, A Choreography of Memories, by Menachem Klein looks at the Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish picture responses and places them a broader context. In the Palestinian responses, the Israeli side is always referred to as Jewish, while the Palestinians refer to themselves in national terms rather than as Muslim or Christian. In their narrative, the Palestinians tend to have a collective outlook, which guards against a loss of identity or memory. For the Palestinians history is seen as a struggle for survival, and the dispossession occurring today is an expansion of the past. In many ways the events of the past have become mythical, leading to historical ignorance. The responses also highlight how the Palestinian narrative fails to see its own weaknesses. The responses to historical circumstances of the Nakba were not expressed and there was no awareness of how the collapse of Palestinian society, through internal rifts and political failures, affected the community. As part of a collective, Palestinian refugees are presented as one unit, whereas there is variety in how they self-identify.

The comments by Israeli-Jewish respondents show a lack of history knowledge. The author points out that they have no historical tools or knowledge of Palestinian culture and their settlement, uprooting and systematic replacement. They do not have the historical tools to address Palestinian arguments. For the Israeli respondents, 1948 memory focuses on Jewish immigrants and is part of the Zionist myth. Despite empathy to the human distress in the pictures, respondents rejected Israeli responsibility and justified actions by invoking the overall objective, part of a “no choice” or “no option” argument. Those respondents who were not empathetic tried to throw doubt on the truth or just outright denied the conclusions made from the pictures. For Klein, the Palestinian narrative is based on weakness, while the Israeli-Jewish narrative of 1948 is built on power.

Mahmoud Yazbak’s article The Nakba and the Palestinian Silence provides a historical context to the Palestinian responses. In total, four hundred Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed. The state systematically took control of property, lands and villages. As a result, “absentee owners” and internally displaced people (IDPs) were created. IDPs received Israeli citizenship but were governed by military law until 1966. Signs of Palestinian culture and history were destroyed when neighbourhoods and villages were devastated. There was also no collective leadership to represent the dispersed Palestinians. On top of the societal and physical destruction of Palestinian society and culture, Palestinians also suffered due to the agendas and interests of the ‘host countries’ who, according to the author, sought to erase Palestinian identity through marginalization and social and political ostracization. Control over the media limited Palestinian access and participation in presenting their experiences. Besides the media silence on Palestinian issues, the new refugees also had to focus on survival, while battling shame and guilt, so there was little interest in discussing what had happened. This silence gave the victors space to tell their story without regard to the results of the victory. After the 1967 war Israel gained control over the refugee camps, forcing the state to address the effects of the 1948 war. A new Palestinian generation in the 1980s who had received higher education brought back the importance of Nakba and collective memory as a part of their identity.

The next contribution by Efrat Ben-Ze’ev, Social Silence: Transference, De-Sensitization and De-Focusing Among the Israeli Students, turns to the Israeli students’ perspectives and uses the concept of social silences to help explain war and denial. The author uses three qualities to explain social silence. First, social silence is inherent to any social context because it allows for the simplification of reality and creates a coherent narrative of the past. Second, social silence is neither good nor bad, and can be constructive or destructive. Lastly, just like memory, social silences are constantly in flux. In the Israeli context the social silence regarding 1948 is evident. It is also a predictable response since any member of a nation would want to conceal facts that do not fit well with their foundational story.

The author then discusses three types of social silences using the pictures and responses. One is transference, when feelings triggered by specific circumstances are redirected to another place and time. In the context of 1948 this is linked to the competition over victimhood. The next type is de-sensitization, a form of distancing and emotional suppression; at times, this means the subject is turned into an object. The last is de-focusing, where there is partial acknowledgement, the negative or the other is mentioned in passing, and then the discussion is moved on to the next topic in an attempt to diminish significance. In their commentaries, the respondents applied general statements or used universal explanations. Social silences are not unique to one place or event, yet are often linked to war and violence.

In The Afterlives of 1948: Photographic Remembrances in a Time of Catastrophe, Ihab Saloul looks at the ways the Palestinian students’ narratives articulate memories of loss in connection with 1948. Memory is a volatile concept that can be inherently contradictory. Memories come from people in the present, yet are used as authoritative sources on the past. As a result, memory is always mediated, always both individual and collective. Memory is not just about events in the past, but how we know things, whose voices are being heard and where there is silence. The absence of a state to promote an official version of events problematizes the relationship between history and memory. Hegemonic histories promoted by the state tend to clash with memories from marginalized segments of society. In the case of 1948, the Palestinian narrative goes up against a well-backed Zionist narrative. There is a near total omission of Palestinians’ history of Nakba from mainstream academic and public discourse.

The author then turns to intergenerational continuity of memory and everyday experiences. Nakba began in 1948 and continues to the present through Palestinian exile. It allows people to remember events they did not witness. Two different theoretical views are presented. Marianne Hirsch believes that post-memory serves as a model in which a continuity of intergenerational transmission of traumatic memory and experiences become possible through imagination. Ernst van Alphen denies any intergenerational continuity of memory, arguing instead that it is effects, not memories, which are transmitted between generations. Following generations do not have the memories of the events, they instead experience the effects related to their parents’ experience. The author is of the opinion that the first generation experienced the event, while later generations live with its effects. The author concludes with the multi-temporality of Nakba. For the Zionist narrative there is a fixed date, but according to the student narratives actual commemorations take place on different dates for different moments, e.g., when specific villages experienced Nakba. The act of remembering is a political act and a response to loss of place.

In The Victimhood Trap, Tamir Sorek looks at the implication of self-presentation as a victim. Sorek uses the responses to the photographs as well as outside information. In both Zionist and Palestinian history there is a strong tendency to reject the self-image of a victim and to inject agency and prowess into the collective self-image. In the Zionist narrative, the idealized image of the self-confident ‘new Jew’ replaced the negative image of the immigrant. Since the 1960s, there has been a contradiction in the portrayal of Palestinians, from the victimized Nakba generation to the ‘new’ heroic Palestinian. Yet by the end of the Mandate, Palestinians were trying to mobilize national and international sympathy, while Jews claimed the need for international compensation from the Holocaust. The increase in human rights discourse has made victimhood an asset and contributes to the belief in the justness of national goals and delegitimizing the “Other”. While portraying a group as victims can interfere with national pride it can be useful for external interactions. In photo responses, Jewish-Israeli students had grown up viewing Israelis as militarily strong– the antithesis of the victimized European Jew,–yet some of the pictures revealed something different and the students were surprised. For the Palestinian respondents, the theme of humiliation was common with some anger toward those who handed over villages to the Jews by leaving. Victimhood can be a political and cultural tool.

The last article, Al-Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe Continues, by Sami Adwan looks at the Palestinian refugee situation today. Palestinians continue to suffer social, cultural, historical and political deprivations that contribute to following generations’ continued sense of loss. The expulsion of Palestinians continued in the twentieth century through permit issues, the inability to prove places of residence, expulsion and travel restrictions. No one has officially admitted to any direct or indirect responsibility for the refugees. The continued denial of responsibility makes it difficult to reach a final and comprehensive peace agreement. The main Palestinian narrative places full responsibility on Israel, the Zionist ideology, and Britain. They base their right to return on international law and UN Resolution 194. From the Israeli perspective, Palestinians left of their own freewill and were assisted in doing so. This article specifies seven different types of Palestinian refugees. (1) Those who were expelled from places of residence to nearby areas in Israel and not able to return; (2) those expelled in 1948 who settled in the West Bank and Gaza; (3) refugees who were expelled to nearby countries; (4) those expelled in 1967 who went to Jordan or Egypt; (5) those expelled between 1967 and the present because they travelled abroad; (6) those who live in Arab East Jerusalem; (7) and those who were displaced by the Separation Wall that was begun in 2002. In total, there are eleven million Palestinians and fifty five per cent are refugees, scattered among sixty-nine refugee camps. The author places the beginning of Nakba at 1897 with the first Zionist world conference. The photos in the book represent various forms of human suffering and psychological trauma. Home is an essential part of identity.