Fighting against forgetting
By: Yishai Friedman
31/10/2008

Zochrot, the radical left-wing organization, is trying to change the views of Jews as well as of the international community. According to its activists, the Arab refugees should return to Israel, the "nakba" should be remembered and commemorated, and a binational state should be established in which Jews are a minority. They also argue that kibbutzniks and residents of Tel Aviv are the most dangerous settlers. Is this a marginal organization of lunatics, or a threat to the Jewish state? People on the right would have us be wary of those they call "traitors."

When Eitan Bronstein, Zochrot's director, says the settlers are the greatest problem in the Arab-Jewish conflict, he isn't referring to the residents of Yitzhar and Tapuach, but rather to people who live in Tel Aviv, Herzliyya and member of kibbutzim and moshavim who built their homes after the war of independence inside the Green Line. For Eitan Bronstein and Zochrot, the organization he heads, words and a well-reasoned ideology aren't enough. They are active in Israel and elsewhere in the world to gain acceptance of their ideology and implement it quickly and effectively. Last Saturday, for example, they held a celebration in which about 50 activists and guests went to Agur, the moshav located just south of Beit Shemesh, and erected a "commemorative sign" for the Palestinian village of Ajjur, abandoned in the war of independence. Zochrot also published a booklet about the ruined Palestinian village and about its inhabitants who abandoned the village in the midst of the war.

About a month ago they held a conference in Tel Aviv, with hundreds of invitees, during which they called for implementing the right of return and for the repatriation of the thousands of Palestinian refugees to Israel. At the end of last week, Bronstein, the organization's chairman, spoke at an international meeting in Spain and again laid out his pro-Palestinian views. Sixty years after the Jews succeeded in establishing a state, it turns out that some of them are tired of the idea. Members of Zochrot, a radical left-wing organization, argue that the time has come to end the Zionist project, and they also explain why. According to them, the Arab refugees should be returned to Israel, the "nakba" – the events in which five Arab nations were defeated - should be remembered and commemorated, and a binational state should be established in which Jews would be a minority. They conduct tours to kibbutzim and moshavim inside the Green Line, and note that Tel Aviv University was also built on the ruins of Sheikh Munis, just as the Knesset in Jerusalem, Herzliyya, Ashqelon and Ashdod were built on the ruins of Palestinian localities.

Unlike other left-wing organizations like "Peace Now," "Gush Shalom" or "B'Tselem," who support the idea of two states for two people, Zochrot seeks to establish one state between the Jordan and the sea, in which Jews are only one component, a minority within a larger Arab state. In their utopian view, they see Jews and Arabs living in harmony in a democratic state where all have equal rights. The fact that, so far, no such Arab democracy has been established anywhere in the world, doesn't faze members of the organization who continue to support the idea of the right of return as a step toward creating the state of Palestine.

We could, of course, go "tsk-tsk," and explain that this is nothing more than a group of fantasists with few members. In fact, that's not so wrong. The group is small, marginal, and few intellectuals or people involved in social issues pay attention to what it says or support its activities. On the other hand, we should be aware of what a small group such as this can bring about. Its members and activists travel throughout the country, from place to place, to disseminate their message. They also organize Saturday seminars and conferences in Israel and abroad in which they explain the need to commemorate the "nakba," and that the Zionist entity, as it currently exists, must be abolished. They draw from a number of thinkers who agree with them, and are very industrious in their desire to spread their ideas. They are slowly gaining adherents. This could create a problem in the future for all who believe in the importance of a Jewish majority in the land of Israel.

Kibbutzniks are the real settlers

"The Zionist movement, and later the state of Israel, are inextricably linked to the Jewish religion. They argue for the existence of an international, a-historical 'Jewish people' whose country is the Israeli entity. The expression 'Jewish people' is an unsuccessful attempt to secularize the religious term, 'people of Israel,' which itself has been rejuvenated after June, 1967. Therefore, the political structure that wishes to justify its existence to the Jewish masses within the 1948 boundaries requires the idea of the 'Jewish people.' And here the role of religion becomes visible in all its strength...(so) the connection between the state of Israel and Judaism must be broken." [Prof. Yehuda Kupferman, Department of French, Tel Aviv University, on Zochrot's official web site, www.ror1stat ]

Kupferman explained to dozens of participants in a conference Zochrot organized in Tel Aviv a few weeks ago, "From the Right of Return to One State," that Israel must be transformed into a single secular state stretching from the Jordan to the sea, and that millions of Palestinians who fled in the 1948 and 1967 wars will return. He also explains what will happen to the Jews living in the country. "Jews will live as a minority, as they have for most of their history," he says, "in a greater Palestine, hoping the Arabs, the authentic native inhabitants of the country, won't throw them into the sea."

According to Kupferman and his associates in the organization, the greatest settlers and occupiers in the country are the members of kibbutzim and moshavim. They say that the settlers in Judea and Samaria, built their homes on uninhabited land, on rocky mountains and virgin hills. Unlike them, the first settlers from the kibbutzim and moshavim were the ones who also took over the houses, the fields and the olive trees, in what was clearly an act of dispossession and conquest.

When you hear Zochrot's ideas, and the firm ideology of its activists, the immediate reaction of many is total ridicule, or, as Arieh Stav, the editor of the right-wing journal "Nativ," writes: "What we have here is total insanity, which can only be explained as Jewish pathology." But Arieh Stav also admits that the organization has an effect on public opinion in Israel and abroad, and has succeeded in affecting Israeli discourse and consciousness. "Zochrot," he says, "is responsible for introducing the idea of the nakba into Israeli public discourse – in the media, the culture and the academy."

Molding the discourse

Zochrot was established in 2002. It's made up of a small group of Israelis, most of them Jews as well as some Israeli Arabs. Most of its activists are academics, students or young people active in political and social organizations. Zochrot's director, Eitan Bronstein, told HaTzofeh that financing for the group comes not from Israel, but primarily from European organizations. Abroad, it seems, Zochrot is very popular. Bronstein was invited, among other places, to the "Bilbao Initiative" conference, held last weekend in Spain, where he explained to the European audience why commemorating the nakba and returning the Palestinian refugees to Israel are obligatory. "The organization's primary target is the Jewish public," says Bronstein, "and we focus on them."

Dr. Udi Lebel, a senior lecturer in Political Psychology at the Sapir College and the Ariel University Center, argues that Zochrot's methods are much more effective and significant than those of other Israeli left-wing organizations: "This group differs in a number of ways," he says. "It isn't a protest movement, although it has some of those elements." Unlike all the other left-wing organizations, its strategy is to influence the Israeli discourse and the Israeli unconscious, to shape Israeli language and the academic, the research, the cultural and the intellectual arenas. Its strategy is to influence indirectly – which is actually more effective."

Zochrot's activities, particularly at international conferences, succeed in questioning the legitimacy of Israel as a whole, not only aspects of it. "Unfortunately," says Lebel, "the most important cultural battle today has again become that of the legitimacy of the state of Israel, rather than the legitimacy of one or another aspect of it. Zochrot is very effective. It has made Israel into the only country whose legitimacy is discussed at international conferences; there's no other country in the world like that."

Among people on the Zionist left there are those who are disgusted by Zochrot's views. Ben Dror Yemini, the journalist, called member of the group "collaborators with Hamas." Yemini also said that what's involved is a "sick, destructive phenomenon."

Dr. Gadi Taub wrote (Ma'ariv, Hayom, 6/7/08) that Zochrot is "an expression of narcissism and moral obtuseness." According to him, "Zochrot speaks in the language of human rights, but in fact is engaged in warmongering that will ultimately lead to rivers of blood as in Bosnia."

"The time has come to live normally"

Eitan Bronstein, the organization's director and one of its founders, wrote a number of articles in HaKibbutz, supporting the right of millions of Palestinians to return to Israel, and of memorializing Palestinian villages on whose lands kibbutzim were established by erecting signs on the kibbutzim commemorating them. The articles are entitled, "Every village has a name," and "Yad Vashem [Memorial]." Bronstein says that the editors, not he, decided on the titles, but regardless of the provocative titles, Bronstein has caused considerable unrest among many kibbutz members. He claims they took over Arab lands, a claim that, not surprisingly, greatly angers the Jews from the kibbutz.

"There's no difference at all between the kibbutzniks and the settlers in Judea and Samaria," Bronstein tells HaTzofeh. "At least the settlers from Judea and Samaria built their homes on empty hills, unlike the first settlers after the war who built their localities on Arab villages."

Bronstein is easy to talk to. He's very open and talks freely, perhaps because of his South American background. He came to Israel from Argentina when he was five years old. His mother was an active communist in Argentina and he grew up on a kibbutz, Bahan. Later he taught at the Peace School in Neve Shalom. He has four children, three sons and a daughter. The oldest son refused to serve in the army, which made his father very proud; he himself had been jailed for refusing to serve - once, when he was called up for reserve duty during the first Lebanese war, and a second time during the first intifada. They didn't like Bronstein's refusal to serve on Kibbutz Bahan, but that didn't keep him from developing even more extreme political views. Today he has a full-time position as director of Zochrot.

Q. Why are you doing this?

A. For many years I've been dealing with the Arab-Jewish conflict. I've always been amazed to discover the enormous ignorance that exists about it. In Israel they think that the conflict's about a Qassam rocket fired at an Israeli locality or Jews and Arabs fighting each other in Akko. The nakba, that we see as a war of independence, is the price the Palestinians paid, and it's almost unknown, all of it. In recent years people know the word, they also know there are refugees, but that's about it.

Q. There was a war in 1948, the Arabs of Palestine chose sides, and luckily they lost. That comes with a price.

A. That statement is an example stemming from great ignorance. There's no necessary or immediate connection between the nakba and the war, which went on off and on during 1948. The nakba was a political result of decisions made by Ben Gurion, and in order to establish the state of Israel they decided to expel the Palestinians. To say that it's the result of the war is extraordinarily ignorant. It's nothing more than simply a huge lie. It was a decision for ethnic cleansing.

Q. You're calling, essentially, for the collapse of the Jewish state.

A. I think more and more Israelis want to live normal lives. I'm not saying that they stop being ideological nationalists, but as far as I'm concerned, if Bibi Netanyahu leaves office and goes into business, and Barak makes a living from giving lectures, I understand that Israelis want to live normal lives. So long as Israel will be a country only for Jews, it will be involved in conflict. Ben Gurion, Peres and Beilin tricked us. They managed to pull the wool over all our eyes, that there could be both peace and a Jewish state, and that can't happen. I prefer peace, and in return I'm willing to relinquish my position of power.

Q. You're giving up everything.

A. I continue to live here. I believe that life here will be much better, people won't live in fear, neither of terror nor of war.

Q. How can you be so sure you'll be able to live here securely?

A. I can't be "certain;" nothing is certain. But the way we've chosen as a Jewish state is a recipe for perpetual war. I think we've already lost a few wars. I want to live in a democratic state, not in one like we have today. I want to live as a member of a minority in a democratic state. And a minority has rights. You could live here.

Q. Do you think Jews have a right to their own country?

A. The whole idea of the nation state doesn't particularly excite me. Nationalism hasn't led to too many good things anywhere in the world. A national idea expressed through territory, through policy, usually is accompanied by great tragedies. I think that after the holocaust a solution should have been found for Jews to live securely. But to move from that to the idea that Jews should rule over territory is a big leap. And it's a fact that many Jews didn't make that choice, and I think they're safer than we are.

Q. Do you think you're succeeding in changing Israeli public opinion?

A. I don't think you could say that Zochrot is making people radically change their opinions. But I do feel that there is change in the way people look at things. We are part of a great crisis that Israeli society has been undergoing for many years. I'm not surprised that more and more organizations are springing up [radical left-wing groups: Y.F.]. What's interesting about this flourishing is that groups such as Zochrot come from the core of "Israeliness." The people who come to Zochrot are totally Israeli. They're not professional political activists who arrive in the country with fully developed ideas about universalism or communism. We grew up in the midst of Israeliness. The response we get indicates that there's been a change. We held a conference in ZOA house in the center of Tel Aviv, and a great many people came. We expected fewer, but hundreds came. I have a feeling that more and more Israelis are beginning to understand that what happened here in '48 is important to understand the conflict, and not only to celebrate the victory of our glorious Independence Day.

Q. How do you feel on Independence Day?

A. Independence Day annoys me very much. I think it's a day of national chauvinism, and I'm personally very repelled by it. For me, it's a day of dancing on blood.

"They're traitors"

The Israeli right doesn't pay much attention to Zochrot, perhaps because it sees it as lunatic and fantasist. Nevertheless, some do take it seriously, and demand that it and its activists be treated as traitors to the state and its people. That's the view, for example, of the editor of Nativ, Arieh Stav. According to him, "this business of identifying with the enemy, national treason and creating a situation of national disaster is, unfortunately, a typically Jewish thing. There has never been anything like this in all of human history."

Q. What kind of environment could give rise to such an extremist movement?

A. I think such things arise when two conditions are met. One is that most of the Jewish people, and the radical Jewish left in particular, has essentially betrayed its land. Second, people are tired. They don't want to fight any more. After a sixty-year struggle, and a long series of wars, you begin supplying yourself with virtual solutions that have no connection with reality, but are dreams. Zochrot and the entire radical left is a combination of the two.

In addition to being traitors, Stav claims that Zochrot distorts the concept of justice by taking the side of the aggressor who started the '48 war: "In '48 the Arabs, Hitler's allies, determined to destroy the remnant that had been saved from the flames, that is, to complete Hitler's work. They attacked Israel, which was tiny, intending to destroy it. The Arabs of Palestine were in the vanguard.

"When the Allies were victorious in the Second World War, they punished Germany by taking a great deal of territory away from it. Germans who had lived in those territories were expelled with no compensation at all. Thus was the aggressor punished. No one said a word about it because that's what justice demanded, that injustice not create rights. That is, the criminal must be punished.

"Not only did Israel have the right to expel every Arab from Palestine, the principles of justice grounded in international law obligated it to do so. Israel didn't finish the job. It annexed the territory it captured, that is, applied Israeli law to it. We're talking about the Galilee, Lod, Ramle, the Negev, and so on. But it didn't finish the job, because it expelled only relatively few Arabs. Most were left in place, which was a crime from the point of view of international law. Instead of punishing the aggressor – the state of Israel forgave it.

"That's also the corrupt morality of the radical left-wing organizations. They stand behind the enemy openly, avowedly, while it declares its obligation to destroy the state of Israel, and I'm not only referring to Islamic extremists but to Fatah as well. There's never been corruption like this in all of human history, when a group springs up from one's midst that openly and avowedly calls for the destruction of the Jewish people. Of course they won't say so openly, but the very fact that they want to return those they call refugees, in contradiction to the idea of basic justice – they stand behind the criminal."

It turns out that the kibbutzim also don't like being called settlers. A number of angry letters were sent to the editor of HaKibbutz in response to Bronstein's article supporting the right of return. One, from Moshe Me'iri, a tour guide from Beit HaShitta, proposed erecting signs in every Arab village established on the ruins of an ancient Jewish locality. "As a tour guide, I have no problem at all mentioning and explaining about every place where there was an Arab locality, or noting the Arabic names of the country's streams and hills. I doubt, however, whether Zochrot would agree, for example, to erect a sign on the ruins of an Arab village that would also mention the Jewish settlement that preceded it. For example: "These are the ruins of the village of Saffuriyya, built on the ruins of the important Jewish settlement of Tzipori, the residence of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, where he redacted the Mishnah."

Dov Tzafroni, from Ayelet HaShahar, also couldn't remain silent: "I have my own personal Zochrot organization, one that wasn't established by me but by my good neighbors – villages located around Ayelet HaShahar before 1947. When I was 11 years old, I spent a month in a shelter covered only by 40 centimeters of earth. Fourteen-year-old boys from Ayelet HaShahar were killed by artillery shells of the Syrians, our neighbors of 29 November 1947, who tried in every way possible to disrupt our lives. They also tried to kill us in 1967, in 1973, and as everyone can remember - in 2006. I don't intend apologizing for surviving, and I can tell my story to my grandchildren, and say to them 'Don't return even one holy dunum of land. Reconciliation among nations can only be psychological, not territorial. The refusal of our neighbors to accept us is not because their land was taken, but because they see us as a foreign element in the sea of Islamic fanaticism surrounding us.' My neighbors from Tuba, the elderly among them at least, have the same opinion, and that's been proven. Try going to your neighbors and telling them: Accept the situation that your actions have created, let's build a life together, and when the war and hatred is over the day will come when we can talk about compensating you, and weigh it against the compensation to be given to those of us who left the lands of the Middle East." 

Zochrot online