I still remember the day in summer 2004 when, on a visit to Palestine/Israel, I stood in a field under the hot sun, staring at piles of stones covered with cacti and undergrowth. These were the remains of Zir’in, a Palestinian village destroyed by Israeli forces in 1948. Like hundreds of other towns and villages—an estimated four out of five Palestinian communities in what became Israel—its inhabitants became refugees, prevented from returning home.
There may not be much trace left of Zir’in, but across Israel you can find countless examples of this “hidden history” if you know what you are looking for, or perhaps if you are simply willing to see it. Eitan Bronstein, founder and director of the Israeli organization Zochrot, understands this distinction.
Bronstein’s family emigrated from Argentina when he was a small boy, pushed by a dire economic situation, and they settled on a kibbutz. “I was involved in the kibbutz’ youth movement,” Bronstein recalls, “and we would have celebrations and festivals at this particular site where there were these ruins I believed to be simply a ‘Crusaders’ fortress.” Much later, Bronstein would learn that these were remains of the Palestinian village of Qaqun, destroyed in 1948 and its residents expelled.
This is the kind of hidden history that Bronstein and Zochrot now work to bring to the attention of Jewish Israelis, a struggle against ignorance and denial that goes all the way back to decisions made more than 60 years ago. Zochrot’s purpose is to raise awareness among Jewish Israelis of what happened in 1948—as well as to highlight the Palestinian history of so many towns and cities and the current reality for Palestinians living in refugee camps or as second-class citizens.
Soon after Israel’s establishment, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion set up a commission to replace Arab place names on the map with Hebrew ones. By mid-1949, an estimated two-thirds of all the land sown with grain in Israel was land “abandoned” by Palestinian refugees. Ex-deputy mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti describes in his book Sacred Landscape how “the destroyed Arab landscape” of the Palestinians’ “homeland” was “overlaid with the blossoming and prosperous Israeli landscape.” Benvenisti notes the common perception that “anyone seeking to delve beneath the foundations of Israel’s landscape would not only arouse slumbering ghosts from their lair but also would undermine the foundations of the entire structure and bring it tumbling down.”
Unsurprisingly, this history below the surface—inseparably linked, of course, with the political present—is emotive and contentious, in Israel and in the West. Some deny it completely; others, while acknowledging the facts, center their discourse on 1967 with the start of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Yet there are no neat divisions. Of the refugees that make up most of Gaza’s population, some came from Majdal, a “cleansed” town that today is called Ashqelon.
Precisely because there has been no contemporary political reckoning or resolution, the history of the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”) is not restricted to 1948. For Palestinians seeking their basic human and political rights, this is unfinished business. Even the public act of memory is contested; a law making its way through the Israeli Knesset would ban state funding of groups that mark Nakba Day.
This is the context that makes the work of the Israeli group Zochrot (Hebrew for “remembrance”) so fascinating and commendable. Zochrot’s approach is action-based and intended to directly confront the memory “black hole.” So activists will replace street signs with the original Palestinian Arab names, or on Nakba Day place stickers around a city such as Tel Aviv with speech bubbles coming out of peoples’ mouths saying, “I almost forgot—today is Nakba Day.”
The group also arranges trips to, and tours of, destroyed villages. A recent example was a visit in April to al-Manshiyya, a destroyed neighborhood that today is part of Tel Aviv. As described on the Zochrot Web site, around 100 people participated in the tour, beginning in a largely demolished area where one of the few buildings that remained had been turned into a museum in honor of the Jewish fighters who in 1948 had seized the neighborhood from the Palestinians. There are still living survivors from the Nakba generation, and on this particular Zochrot tour, one of them, Abu El-Sa’id, spoke to those gathered about his memories:
“I was born in Manshiyya,” he said. “I went to school here, and when I grew up my brother and I opened a butcher shop in the Carmel Market, where we worked. Manshiyya was a living, thriving neighborhood, well-developed, with many shops and markets, lively by day and night ... a neighborhood that never stopped.”
In December 2009, Zochrot organized a trip to al-Araqib in the Negev desert, a place I visited earlier this year. The area provides a perfect example of how the past remains a part of the present, with Palestinian Bedouins struggling to keep their ancestral land at al-Araqib from being taken over by the Israeli state or the Jewish National Fund.
As one al-Araqib tour participant wrote on the Zochrot Web site, “The tour taught us something important. The Bedouin didn’t live only in tents before the Nakba. Nuri [al-Uqbi, a Bedouin human rights activist] took us to the ruins of some houses constructed of stones and mortar which the state of Israel had demolished after 1951 ... Opposite Nuri’s tent we could see the ruins of his father’s house, in which he was born. His father had been the sheikh of the al-Uqba tribe. The house also served as the tribal court up to 1951.”
In following Zochrot’s mission to make the Nakba a presence in the consciousness of Jewish Israelis, the group seeks to create positive encounters between Palestinian refugees and Israelis who live today on land that belonged to the Palestinians. Activities include workshops, talks, and film screenings at the Zochrot Learning Center in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, as well as the tours; the group provides online resources such as a list of destroyed Palestinian villages.
That much of Zochrot’s educational and activist work is focused on alternative tours can perhaps be attributed to the experience of Eitan Bronstein. He attributes the idea for Zochrot to a visit he made to Canada Park, an Israeli national forest planted on the remains of four Palestinian villages destroyed during the 1967 War. To Bronstein’s surprise, the park’s guide and signage made no mention of this history.
As Bronstein explained to me, “I had the idea to post simple signs indicating the Palestinian history of the park. My friends told me it was a great idea—but that it wasn’t just a few villages, but hundreds,” a realization that helped give birth to Zochrot.
Jewish Israelis who get involved in Zochrot are compelled by a variety of individual motivations and combination of factors. But for many, there is a sense of responsibility—and the knowledge that understanding and education alone are insufficient and must be intimately connected to the realization of Palestinian rights.
Thus Zochrot is not simply a “heritage center”: It is explicitly political in its call for the rights of Palestinian refugees to be honored. Recently, Zochrot uploaded onto YouTube a video called “On the day Yafa’s refugees return,” where Israelis on the street and in cafes and shops are asked questions, first about African refugees in Israel, and then about Palestinians. This moving short film encapsulates the courageous work being done by Zochrot: uncovering what many prefer to remain hidden, and imagining a different future for Jews and Palestinians.
“We keep asking ourselves about the role of addressing 1948 in the contemporary situation,” Bronstein said. “I think the main point here is that it is always relevant: Without addressing 1948 and the refugees and the Nakba, we cannot really address the main issues of the conflict. It will only be possible to close the ‘Nakba file’ when colonialism is finished here.”
Ben White, a freelance journalist and writer, works with the U.K.-based Amos Trust on the “Just Peace for Palestine” campaign.