Eitan: How did you decide to hold a ceremony to commemorate Nakba Day?
Noa: One evening about a month before Nakba Day Safi Ka’adan, Dan Valfish and I were sitting in Minzar, a bar in central Tel Aviv; we’re active in Hadash’s Tel Aviv University branch. Safi started to talk about plans for Nakba Day. He was critical of the fact that events tended to be held in Arabic, for Arabs, and that no one tried to reach Jews and Jewish public opinion in Israel. So we started suggesting ways of changing this. Dan proposed creating a huge banner, 20 meters long, with questions and answers about the Nakba, placing mats and written information about the Nakba alongside to encourage students to sit and engage in discussion. Safi suggested printing provocative questions on tee shirts to encourage students to ask about the Nakba, what commemorating it means today, etc. I proposed organizing a memorial ceremony, modeled on Israeli memorial ceremonies.
Eitan: What did you do first?
Noa: Dan and I immediately thought of involving Zochrot – Dan because of the educational and informational material that it could provide for the banner and the discussions he wanted to organize, and I for advice and help in creating the memorial ceremony. I assumed that Zochrot had more experience than any other group in Israel in commemorating the Nakba. And the fact that I’m a member this year of a Zochrot group discussing how to plan the return of refugees to Jaffa also influenced my decision to contact them. Zochrot is trying to transform the right of return from an abstract concept, something printed on a sign but lacking any real substance, into something that can be imagined and demanded after 64 years, an actual, practical model.
Eitan: Let’s talk about the ceremony.
Noa: Sure, sorry…We contacted you to present the idea and see whether Zochrot would help us. After you gave us your blessing, we began to think about an event that would break through the widespread Israeli obtuseness. We began by agreeing that the emphasis would be placed on recognizing Palestinian suffering rather than focusing on Israel’s responsibility. We believed that recognizing the human suffering caused by the Nakba was the necessary first step toward a dialogue about the Nakba and the return. We assigned ourselves tasks; I was responsible for the content of the ceremony.
Eitan: You had two people leading the ceremony – because that’s how public schools do it?
Noa: Not exactly. That first night, in Minzar, we starting throwing out ideas about the ceremony that would help get media coverage, bring it to public attention, make people aware of it. We made the following decisions: the ceremony would be bi-lingual, Arabic and Hebrew. Two people would be on stage running the ceremony, a Jew and an Arab, a man and a woman. And then the question of who’d lead the ceremony became linked with the need for publicity, and we thought that perhaps Sa’ar Szekely would agree.
Eitan: A brilliant idea, no doubt about it.
Noa: Right. A few weeks ago he’d finished appearing for three and a half months on “Big Brother,” the reality show, where he’d calmly and successfully presented a consistent political view while maintaining good relations with all the other participants on the show. He became a very popular figure, was respected for the intelligent manner in which he tried to overcome the program’s restrictions as well as raising political issues, talking about poetry and also about the theater. He was notable as a representative of the left who refused to stand when “Hatikva” was sung, and the audience liked him despite his views. We knew he’d be happy to participate for two reasons: First, those were the reasons he joined the program in the first place – to use its ratings to publicize his values and his beliefs. Second, Sa’ar is known as a person who believes in the importance of ceremony. His artistic work includes participation in “Tnu’ah Tziburit” [Public movement], a group of performance artists who create mass events that address the way in which people learn to support the regime, how public space is organized, how they interact with the authorities. As part of his graduate studies in theater, Sa’ar is interested in the idea of a ceremony as a symbolic act that creates reality, not only one that talks about it. He agreed that same evening to participate, and in subsequent discussions he focused on the idea of the ceremony as a “speech act,” a concept referring to speech which creates its own truth as opposed to talking about something whose truth value is external to it. When the leader of a ceremony says “May the people of Israel remember” – the content of the statement is made true by the fact of its utterance, the statement fulfills its intention by being uttered. Of course, for our ceremony we changed the classic formulation, “May the Jewish people remember,” to “May the Jewish people remember, may the Palestinian people remember, may all people remember.” I sent him a message and he agreed that same evening.
Eitan: Why did you decide to create an “Israeli” ceremony?
Noa: Israeli discourse has been closed to almost everything demanded by the Palestinian public. Not long ago support for the idea of a Palestinian state was considered treasonous, the idea of dividing Jerusalem was inconceivable, and there was almost no discussion of the Jewish state symbols. Today the idea of a Palestinian state has been accepted by the right, while we on the left discuss what a just Palestinian state would look like, and whether it’s really better than a unitary state. Dividing Jerusalem is also a legitimate topic of discussion, and recently the Jewish symbols of statehood have become legitimate objects of criticism. The subject of the refugees is not yet part of Israeli discourse. The right of return is viewed as implying the destruction of Israel, turning the Jews into refugees. That’s why it’s so important to find a way to begin that discussion in Israeli society, to understand that by ignoring the issue, by silencing it, the problem doesn’t disappear but rather grows.
Eitan: When did you realize the importance of giving public expression to the Nakba?
Noa: An important moment for me was Nakba Day 2008 at Tel Aviv University. That year the Students Committee planned to hold Student Day on May 15, which is Nakba Day. I was a member of the Student Committee and fought the decision with all my power, but failed. The Students Committee has turned into a big business, and its subsidiary, “Nekhes,” wouldn’t consider changing the date because it would suffer losses vis-à-vis companies that it had signed agreements with. So we decided – Hadash and the student coalition at Tel Aviv University – to hold a demonstration blocking the main entrance to Student Day. That same morning the Arab student organization held a quiet protest vigil at the entrance to the university in which a small number of students participated, holding black flags. When one of them raised the Palestinian flag he was immediately attacked by a right-wing protester, who was himself then attacked by the other Arab students. The police arrested the Arab students and released the right-wing rioter. We waited very apprehensively for the evening. We’d prepared leaflets which said that Student Day shouldn’t be held on the Palestinians’ national day of mourning. To our surprise, the reactions by those coming to Student Day were very different from what we expected: the idea of holding a festival, parties and performances on an official national day of mourning offended everyone, even if they didn’t agree with the reason for the mourning.
That’s how I got the idea for an “Israeli” ceremony. It was clear to me that Israelis understand very well the emotional aspect of mourning, of national trauma, of a painful history that determines the future. Not for naught is Israel the world champion in monuments per kilometer and in memorial ceremonies in public schools. Israelis understand the transformation of personal mourning into a state-sponsored public activity; it’s familiar to them, visible. The idea of using the model of “Yizkor” [the traditional memorial text], a minute of silence, in a ceremony directly referencing the Israel model arose already in that first meeting. It was clear to us that the discussion and argument about a ceremony like that would be completely different. It wouldn’t be a ceremony presenting a structured political or national narrative, which would awaken the instinctive antagonism of the average Israeli, but one recounting a disaster and suffering in an emotional, symbolic manner that anyone could identify with. I also knew that the media would be very interested – as opposed to a discussion, a tour or a political lecture. A formal ceremony is very photogenic, creates headlines by virtue of its association with national catastrophes of the Jewish people and is a way to bring the Nakba into the Israeli public space.
Eitan: What dilemmas did you face regarding the content of the ceremony?
Noa: Most of the ideas were accepted immediately – formulating an alternative “Yizkor,” reading a list of destroyed villages, reading a poem by Mahmud Darwish – and, most important, six Palestinian students at the university whose families are internal refugees would tell their families’ stories. The first dilemma regarding the ceremony’s content involved the question of whether to sing the Palestinian national anthem. I, adhering to the “classic” ceremony model, believed it would be natural to sing the anthem. I thought that severing the anthem from the Nakba would be ignoring its context, that connecting the Nakba with the anthem would be something that every participant would find natural and understandable. Sa’ar thought otherwise – that here is where our alternative to the Zionist ceremonies must find expression – those ceremonies which can’t wait to harness every disaster and every trauma to the national narrative without respecting the disaster on its own terms, the suffering as suffering, the people as individuals. In the Zionist version, suffering becomes an instrument of national propaganda. When he’d finished we were all silent. You proposed that Sa’ar say those things from the podium. No one opposed the idea; in retrospect, I think it was the correct decision, one that allowed all participants in the ceremony to identify with it, and also established the right priorities: it’s people who are important; the nation is only one of the means.
Other minor dilemmas arose when the students were preparing their testimonies – for example, how to refer to armed resistance by the villagers prior to their expulsion? How to explain why inhabitants of a village abandoned it even though they weren’t expelled?
Eitan: What was Hadash’s role?
Noa: The idea for the ceremony originated in Hadash’s student group (“the cadre”). Every year it holds an event on Nakba Day. An important part of Hadash’s activities among university students is presenting the Palestinian national narrative and emphasizing it to the Palestinian students. The cadres in all the universities hold an annual Nakba Day event; an event to commemorate the Kafr Qassem massacre; one in solidarity with Palestinians in the occupied territories; one for International Woman’s day; and one for May Day. They are political and cultural in nature, combining a play, film or musical performance with a political speech by one of the party’s politicians. The idea is that so long as Palestinian society in Israel lacks mechanisms for creating, preserving and disseminating the national narrative, the student groups must do so, in addition to ongoing political activity, demonstrations, struggles, etc. There is a serious shortage of cultural frameworks dealing with Arab culture, in Arabic, for Palestinian students in the universities, and these cultural/political events are usually very well attended.
But Hadash, as you know, is an Arab-Jewish party. As such, it’s particularly important to us to present what we do and make our activities accessible to both communities. We usually made do with Hebrew translations of the official event, which in any case had been designed more with the needs of Palestinians in mind. The difficulty in creating a joint politics for two peoples stems from the different political needs that distinguish us, even given shared goals and ideology.
This year Safi Ka’adan, a member of the group’s executive committee, decided to create an additional event for Nakba Day, alongside the main, traditional event, that would try to address both communities jointly, especially the Jews. At the meeting in the Tel Aviv bar, Safi wanted Dan and me, members of the cadre, to suggest new ideas for commemorating Nakba Day in a manner which would also speak to the Jewish students. That’s the origin of the idea for a public Nakba Day ceremony.
The night before the ceremony we invited cadre members interested in helping to a last-minute organizational meeting. Twenty excited and tense Jewish and Arab students showed up at Ju’ad Abu Al-Hija’s apartment in Ramat Aviv. The protocol of the meeting opens with a number of updates:
The rector informed us that the Ministry of Education is trying to have the event cancelled, and if the authorization is cancelled he hopes we’ll go to court and force the university to allow the event to be held.
The Association for Civil Rights said it would be happy to represent us, and also wants to represent us regarding the requirement that we, the organizers, cover the cost of maintaining security.
The Knesset Education Committee will meet in the morning. We can assume that it will decide whether the event will be allowed to proceed.
We plan to hold the event, and will have a dress rehearsal for the cameras in the morning – which will allow us to publicize it on Facebook even if it’s cancelled, or if there are disruptions which don’t allow the audience to hear what’s being said.
The situation at the university – for days that’s all anyone is talking about. The same argument is underway at every table in every cafeteria: freedom of speech vs. an attack on the state. The refugees’ pain vs. treason. Things are expected to be turbulent.
We agreed that if the event is cancelled at the last minute we’ll gather at the plaza and march through the university with black masking tape pasted over our mouths to show how we’ve been silenced.
We argued about the text of the leaflet to be distributed prior to the ceremony, inviting people to participate. Dan Walfish prepared a statement describing what the ceremony would include, what Nakba Day is and what it isn’t (it’s not a conspiracy to destroy Israel). Fadi Yassin strongly objected to what he felt was the leaflet’s apologetic tone; he convinced us all that it was necessary to explain what is Nakba Day and why we’re commemorating it, rather than trying to forestall possible criticism by saying we’re not out to destroy the state or expel anyone from their home. After a short, stormy discussion, most voted for Fadi’s proposal and the text was changed.
We divided up the tasks and left to work on the text and the arrangement of the stage. A group of Arab students was responsible for security – identifying escape routes from the plaza in the event of attacks by rightist extremists, organizing a human chain of students to separate the sides and prevent belligerent people on both sides from starting a riot, as well as coordinating with the university security personnel and pressuring them to do their jobs.
Eitan: Interesting. I was also worried and asked my son Leandro to join me as a kind of personal security guard.
Noa: In the last meeting of the Hadash group, on June 2, we finalized the event and agreed that our creative approach to commemorating the Nakba on campus was a breakthrough. The minute of silence overcame the shouting from the opposing fascist demonstration and found its way to the Knesset and the government in the form of a stubborn cry and demand for recognition. Many students who are not identified with Hadash told us that the event was transformative for them: the campus space felt different, the Arabs felt they belonged there, that they were present; Jews and Arabs felt connected there, the lines dividing us shifted.
It’s also important to note that the day following the ceremony, the Hadash student group held its traditional commemoration of Nakba Day in an auditorium, with a political address by Muhammad Baraka, the Palestinian flag and red flags, and a play by Salim Dau. It was held in the largest campus auditorium, with 500 seats. Many students couldn’t get in and had to listen from the lobby. We were pleased that the different ways of commemorating Nakba Day didn’t interfere with each other.
Eitan: What influence do you think Zochrot had on the event?
Noa: For me, personally, Zochrot’s main influence was on the decision to devote effort and thought to raising awareness of the Nakba among the Jewish public. The political discourse of the Israeli left of which I’m a part always preserved the traditional distinction: talk with Jews about topics that won’t frighten them, about two states and ending the occupation, and perhaps also about equality for Arabs in Israel, and talk about the Nakba only with Arabs, about the return and anti-Zionism. Zochrot made me think about how to change that approach, what else could be done to alter the discourse, to create a different space.
I don’t address the right of return in the belief that the refugees will come back tomorrow, nor because I believe that the maximalist demands we are careful to present will become the actual solution when the Israeli occupation ends. The Israeli occupation divided the Palestinian nation and separated its components from one another, as it did their struggles. From my point of view, the struggle against Zionism includes the struggle for equality, for the end of occupation, for return.
Zochrot’s agenda is of a unitary state, and while I worked at Zochrot I was asked more than once how I was able to support both the two-state solution and the right of return. I don’t object to a unitary state in principle, but I think that so long as overthrowing the Zionist regime in Israel is far from being achievable, we are obligated first to oppose the occupation which is now most cruel and repressive. But in order to truly be able to claim that the struggle against the occupation doesn’t sideline the issue of the refugees we must do all we can to advance that goal at the same time. We, as Jewish and Arab activists within Israel, must find creative solutions and means to raise the painful and difficult issues over which there is disagreement: the Nakba and the refugee problem.
Zochrot was always an inspiration to us on this issue. Ten years ago few even on the left knew what the Nakba was; the destroyed villages were seen as remnants of an ancient period rather than an original sin. Zochrot’s activities brought the past which had been denied, but which exists as a very painful present for millions of people, into the Israeli discourse and made the left, in particular, aware of it. The initial effect of the signs erected at the destroyed villages, tours to the sites of those villages, the conferences, the publications was on academic and professional discourse. Joining the “Marches of Return,” the publicity they received, working together with the Committee of the Uprooted allowed this new awareness to become the source of a joint struggle, Jewish and Arab, against erasing and silencing the Nakba.
A few days after the ceremony, a student in a course I was taking in the law school, who was apolitical, uninvolved, asked – “Wouldn’t it have been better if we hadn’t closed the borders right after the war of independence? I mean, we won and everything, but why create the refugee problem, the people sitting in camps waiting to return to their country…” I’m sure that student wouldn’t have raised the issue had it not been for the Nakba Day ceremony on campus, because the chances are she wouldn’t have heard or thought about those refugees, or even knew they existed. So the ceremony represents, particularly in an academic setting, a direct continuation of Zochrot’s work. That’s why we decided to contact Zochrot as soon as we had the idea for the event, to hold our planning meetings at the organization’s headquarters, with the participation of its founder – you. That’s why we also asked you to read from the stage the testimony of Majdolin Baidas, a refugee from Sheikh Muwanis, the village on whose land Tel Aviv University stands today.
Cooperation with Zochrot was vital, primarily because it’s the only group with knowledge and organizational experience on the issue. No other body or organization in Israel has devoted as much thought and activity to the issue of commemorating the Nakba in Israel. So when we undertook to commemorate Nakba Day at Tel Aviv University - particularly since we were, in effect, establishing something new, an open, public ceremony - it was important to us to learn as much as we could and work together with Zochrot so that it could warn us if necessary, so that our activity would take place within the framework established by the group for dealing with the issue.
Eitan: What was the university’s reaction? Permits, second thoughts about permits, allowing the counter-demonstration…
Noa: The university’s procedure regarding public and political events on campus has two components: the Dean of Students is responsible for approving the type of event, the content, the location, the time, etc., and the security office is responsible for reviewing everything connected to providing security after the dean has approved the event.
We submitted our application almost one month in advance; the dean approved it. But written confirmation was delayed, for various reasons that had nothing to do with us, so we weren’t able to forward it to the security office.
One week before the date of the ceremony the dean contacted us, asking to change the ceremony’s date, to move it up or delay it by one day. When we agreed we learned that the location we’d requested, the lawn in front of the humanities building (Gilman), had already been booked on that day (14.5.12). We asked for an alternate site; the dean approved holding the ceremony on the plaza in front of the social science building (Naftali), with use of loudspeakers permitted only during breaks between classes, and with no stage. Because it took a few days to obtain that permit, almost at the last minute, we were becoming stressed. I contacted the dean personally. He told me that because the media were filled with criticism of the event, and attacks were anticipated from the right and from the government, he referred the issue of approval to the university administration. It discussed the request, consulted with the security office and with the legal department, and decided to approve the event with the above conditions, and also on condition that we would cover the cost of providing security in order to ensure that the university wouldn’t later be accused of taking part in organizing an event that violated the recent amendment to the budget principles legislation know as the “Nakba Law.”
The Nakba Law prohibits any institution that receives public funding from “commemorating Independence Day as a day of mourning.” It could be argued, first, that commemorating Nakba Day is different from commemorating Independence Day as a day of mourning. (a) It’s not the same day; (b) If there is mourning, it’s not because of independence but over the expulsion and uprooting; (c) The students, not the university, are those organizing the event. In the opinion of the Association for Civil Rights, and a previous court judgment dealing with public financing for security at political events, it is erroneous to interpret the Nakba Law as prohibiting the university from providing security for the event. A public institution is obligate to provide security for any legal activity occurring on its premises. Since the Nakba ceremony is being organized by students at the university, and since it does not violate laws limiting free speech, it is a legitimate public activity. As such, the university is obligated to provide security for it. Funding security does not constitute organizing the event, because the university’s obligation to provide security on its premises also applies to activities other than those it organizes.
When the security office received for confirmation the permit approved by the dean, it introduced changes that in our view it was unauthorized to make. According to the Dean, there had been consultation with the security office prior to the approval of the event by the university administration, so it was unclear on what basis it was able to make additional changes. The security office preferred to relocate the event from the plaza in front of the social science building to Antin Plaza, the main entrance to the university, which is located outside the gates of the university. Moreover, the security office cancelled the permission we had to use loudspeakers. The security office approved the use of loudspeakers by the counter-demonstration that would be held nearby at the same time, ensuring that our ceremony would barely be heard while the counter-demonstration would be audible from afar.
But Tel Aviv University deserves high marks for supporting us. The Dean of Students, Prof. Yoav Ariel, participated in the meeting of the Knesset Education Committee that discussed the event and said, unequivocally, that so long as student activities do not violate free speech laws, he as dean will not intervene or prevent them. The rector of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Aharon Shai, told us he supports holding the event. He said the university had remained steadfast in the face of heavy pressure from the Ministry of Education and the Council for Higher Education. He even informed us that if the university bows to pressure he hoped we would go to court to require it to hold the event, in order to put an end to such pressure in the future. Eventually he also joined the audience and participated in the ceremony.
Eitan: What happened with the media?
Noa: We originally intended to issue a press release a few days prior to the event. But we put the event up on Facebook on 6.5.12, and a few hours later we got the first phone call from the media – Radio 7, the extreme right wing station. Makor Rishon found you at Zochrot soon afterwards, and the rest of the media followed.
We decided to give the first comprehensive interview to a journalist we knew at Haaretz, Talila Nesher, to ensure at least one balanced report before the flood of attacks – which weren’t long in coming. More than 40 stories in Hebrew, coverage and discussion on all the radio and TV stations, in all the newspapers and internet news sites without exception, dealt with the Nakba Day ceremony during the week before it was held.
Even if some of the newspapers and the radio and TV stations interviewed us primarily in order to pressure us, many preferred to set up a confrontation between one of the organizers and a representative of the extreme right. The advantage of this arrangement was that opposition to commemorating Nakba Day was presented as an extreme view by speakers known to be racists and fascists, while the interviewer, who usually took a more balanced approach, represented a moderate Zionist viewpoint that recognized the right to remember and commemorate the Nakba.
Following such a confrontation on television, Yaron London, one of Israel’s veteran journalists, wrote a column in Yediot Aharonot, the Israel newspaper with the widest circulation, explaining why Zionism should be self-confident enough to listen to and recognize that there were also victims on the other side, those who suffered from its legitimate victory. For us this was a triumph – but of course our view was different, that not only are we obliged to hear about the sufferings of the other side, but that we must seek solutions to rectify the injustice.
But for us the goal of holding the ceremony was to move the topic into Israeli discourse. If the Israeli mainstream says, we have to listen and recognize what happened, but not make amends, that’s a much better starting point for an argument about the right of return. I believe that the public discussion about the ceremony was an important step in that direction. The media coverage showed that we had the right idea – the Israeli collective memorial symbols served as a bridge for many who saw Palestinian mourning and Palestinian loss for the first time. This loss still arouses opposition and apprehension, but the view that it must be silenced is no longer an indisputable part of the consensus but a political issue at the heart of public discourse.
Eitan: What kind of discussion developed on the event’s Facebook page? How did you feel about it, respond to it?
Noa: The Facebook page provided a forum where people could express their views about the ceremony. The assault began as soon as the page was created. People from the right started flooding it with harsh, crude and vulgar attacks on the organizers and on Arabs in general. We were interested, of course, in a political discussion on the Facebook page, but the tone of the posts was so shallow and insulting that students from the cadre began asking us to intervene and delete offensive, violent and rude posts. Safi Ka’adan, who was in charge of the Facebook page, asked us all to help and added ten people whose job it was to enter the site a few times a day to erase offensive responses.
While we were cleaning up the site, Arab and Jewish students began posting their feelings about the event. Long threads with dozens of posts discussed whether it was permissible to hold an event that deviated from the consensus; whether what was being mourned was the establishment of the state and whether this was permissible; what really happened in ’48; etc. The discussion was regularly interrupted by outbursts of curses and threats from the right wing, which made some people apprehensive about what might happen the day of the ceremony which could have become very violent. As a result, we decided at the meeting of the cadre in preparation for the ceremony on the evening before it was to be held to recruit about three husky, experienced students to serve as our own internal security force to stand between us and the counter-demonstration, plan escape routes in the event of serious violence and coordinate with the university security office to try to avoid a confrontation.
Eitan: How was the right organized? How did you feel about it?
Noa: The right’s activities were divided between two locations. At first, they weren’t given a permit for a counter-demonstration in Antin Plaza, so “Im Tirtzu” obtained a permit to conduct educational activities on campus while we were holding the ceremony outside of the main gate. They set up stands and distributed their booklet, “Nakba bullshit.” That was a very good activity for them, because handing out material of your own is often much more effective than standing around yelling objections to someone else’s activity. But they weren’t successful in diverting attention from our event, which was too big and too prominent to be ignored.
A second group, led by the head of one of the student government departments, decided to mount a counter-demonstration even though they didn’t have a permit to hold it in Antin Plaza. The counter-demonstration they led eventually attracted the activists from “Im Tirtzu” (almost none of whom were students from the university) and from the right wing gathering.
At the last minute, on the day of the demonstration, they were able to pressure the university and obtain a permit for their counter-demonstration. Even though our application had been submitted one month in advance, and theirs only on the same day, for some reason they brought loudspeakers while we hadn’t been allowed to do so. When we asked the university security staff what we should do, and whether we could also use loudspeakers, so we could be heard despite the shouting from the other side, we were rudely told that the security office approved their loudspeakers, we still didn’t have approval for them, and if we used loudspeakers we’d be dispersed.
That, of course, was infuriating and outrageous. Though the loudspeakers used by the right were disruptive, and many of the activists participating in our ceremony complained that it was difficult to hear, the content of the counter-demonstration actually supplemented our own event. Even before our ceremony began they began emotionally to sing their variation on “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” – “Heveinu Nakba Aleichem.” We almost couldn’t resist responding that it’s good to see both sides agreeing on the historical narrative! They kept yelling racist slogans, inciting to violence, which only showed passers-by who were the “good guys” and who the “bad guys” – those trying to hold a respectful memorial ceremony in which students recount their own stories and those of their family, as opposed to those yelling disgraceful statements and threatening expulsion and violence. One counter-demonstrator even climbed onto the highest step in the plaza, which served as the stage, and tore the black cardboard backdrop on which “Nakba” was written in Arabic, English and Hebrew, and below it “since 1948,” to indicate that the Nakba continues to this very day. The university security staff jumped that person and hustled him away, but not before detaining the Palestinian student from the audience who rushed to remove him from the stage.
The students responsible for the scenery, Shada ‘Amer and Hagar Bartana, didn’t lose any time, lay the backdrop on the ground, took repair tape and fixed the tear, amid many photographers from all the media covering the event. A Jewish student and an Arab student repairing the damaged Nakba – without a doubt, one of loveliest symbolic photos of the ceremony. The backdrop was again installed after being fixed, with the long tear that didn’t hide what was written on it, but only emphasized once again the violence from the right in the face of the catastrophe, the Palestinian Nakba.
Eitan: What were the dynamics among the organizers? Was there anything special about the dynamics between the Jews and the Arabs?
Noa: The dynamics among the organizers were particularly good. First, they were based on long-term cooperation among Hadash cadre members. Rula, Safi, Dan and I have worked together in the cadre for a long time, which helps a lot in organizing such events. There’s no need to re-examine what we believe, what our principles are, as might be necessary when working with other activists. We’re all pretty familiar with the institutions we work with, whether they’re from the university, organizations on the left or on the right, and we also know what we, the Jews and the Arabs, are capable of organizing. Though Sa’ar hadn’t previously worked with the cadre, he took part in organizing the ceremony without trying to represent any specific interests, exert influence or gain recognition. You, from Zochrot, involved in the event but external to the campus, were also supportive and without any organizational conflict of interests which sometimes lead to tensions within groups involved in political activities such as this.
No one raised their voices during the planning meetings; it was wonderful to see how each listened to what others had to say, to their points of view and their reservations. The Jews as well as the Arabs were very much in favor of holding the event. Even on potentially sensitive topics, such as the question of flags and national anthems, the division wasn’t between Jews and Arabs. The trust we had built up over a long period of time, and our shared ideological framework, made cooperation much easier.
Eitan: What noteworthy responses did you get to the event, or while you were planning it?
Noa: Response to the event was overwhelming wherever I appeared during the following weeks. At a press conference about the elections to the Histadrut and the social protest a representative of the unions asked me to talk about how the government’s privatization policy is leading to a “workers’ Nakba.” I refused; I didn’t think I had the right to use the term Nakba that way. A gay rights activist told me I should change my Facebook name to “Noa Nakba Levy.” Support and enthusiasm came from activists throughout the country, Jews and Arabs, from various organizations and movements. A religious Palestinian student approached me to shake my hand and thank us for organizing the ceremony; it was one of the most significant experiences she had during her studies. A large group of politically active Palestinian students gathered in the Gilman cafeteria after the ceremony, hugging each other emotionally. A Jewish campus activist wrote on Facebook: “The everyday separateness vanished before my eyes in the Gilman cafeteria after the ceremony. It suddenly, unintentionally, felt free, became a home for a moment; as if for one tiny second it turned into a shared home for Jews and Arabs, refugees and the displaced, male and female activists. A home whose key was engraved on each person’s heart.”
Responses from other campuses soon followed. The Nakba event planned by the University of Haifa’s Hadash group was cancelled; that organized by Hadash at the Hebrew University was turned into a public event, and because of permit problems the group’s secretary was called before a disciplinary committee and the event was dispersed shortly before it was to have concluded. Students from the Kibbutz Seminary contacted me for advice regarding a similar event; they eventually decided to have an open discussion about the Nakba. After endless interventions by the dean with respect to the content of the event – from changing its name to “Rebirth and Nakba – a contradiction?” to including a representative of the Ministry of Education on the panel, the permit to hold the event was withdrawn a few hours before it was scheduled to begin. The discussion eventually took place in the dark, in a grove of trees next to the seminary.
In the wake of the conflicts on the campuses regarding the Nakba, all of which were a result of our ceremony, I was invited to a meeting in Haifa with representatives of various groups and organizations dealing with free speech on campus, in particular with reference to Arab students and non-Zionist political activity. The group, which included representatives from the Association for Civil Rights, Adala, The Follow-up Committee on Arab Education, the national student’s organization and faculty from a number of universities, intends to begin activities next month.
Nor did right wing politicians delay their responses. MK Alex Miller, who initiated the student rights law, which grants students “freedom to organize and demonstrate regarding any and every subject,” proposed an amendment to the Nakba Law which would prohibit funding for colleges and universities that permit activities or expressions that deny the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel, and permit the chair of the Council of Higher Education to impose sanctions. That position is held by the Minister of Education, who today is Gid’on Sa’ar. That led, of course, to an argument over whether commemorating the Nakba is equivalent to denying the state’s Jewish and democratic character, but for us, anti-Zionist activists, it’s as serious as the prohibition of commemorating Independence Day as a day of mourning. The legislation, whose purpose is to silence students on the grounds of the university, is still in a preliminary stage.
Eitan: What was the whole experience like for you personally? The fears, excitement, pressure, preparing the content.
Noa: Preparing the content together was a very good experience. During the first meeting at Zochrot we quickly developed the general format of the ceremony and decided what would be said from the stage. I, who was responsible for content, met with Rula to prepare her part, I met with Sa’ar and Safi to write his texts, including the “Yizkor” which many people referred to and cited, and I spoke with the six students who would describe from the stage what happened when their families were uprooted in ’48, to prepare with them the testimonies they’d read during the ceremony.
Preparing the “Yizkor” was particularly interesting. Following the May Day demonstration Safi, Sa’ar and I sat in a bar in the middle of Tel Aviv, reviewing the “Yizkor” portions that are read at ceremonies on Memorial Day and Holocaust Day. We first tried to adapt them exactly, that is, to change the content but adhere to their structure. But we got stuck, the text didn’t flow, wasn’t appropriate, and the graft seemed artificial. We began talking about what, exactly, we want to remember, and whether the Israeli people and the Palestinian people really remember the same thing when they recall the Nakba. Then Sa’ar told us what he thinks it’s important to remember. I, who was taking minutes, wrote down what he said, rewording it to sound more “ceremonial:” “Those who were killed, who were expelled from their villages, who fled for their lives, who weren’t allowed to return home, who became refugees in their own land and in foreign camps.” After I read the guys this sentence the creative floodgates opened and we started formulating, one after the other, the sentences of the Yizkor text that was quoted in all the media:
“We are gathered here today, Jews and Arabs, to remember the Palestinian catastrophe, the Nakba. To remember those who were killed, who were expelled from their villages, who fled for their lives, who weren’t allowed to return home, who became refugees in their own land and in foreign camps. On this day we commemorate 64 years of pain and silencing, of clinging to the land and being torn from it, of the loss of human dignity, of the denial of rights to those who are here and those who are elsewhere. 530 Palestinian villages were torn up. Some of their inhabitants were expelled. Some were killed. Some fled in fear of the killing and weren’t allowed to return. More than 750,000 people, including 95% of the urban population, became refugees. Movie houses were orphaned. Arab printing presses were destroyed. Theatres and clubs emptied. The storytellers in the cafes fell silent. The political and social landscape of the Middle East was torn and sundered. Arabic became a foreign tongue in its own land. This is the catastrophe which has created the state of war in which we live. This is the disaster we were forbidden to recognize, whose consequences we haven’t yet grappled with. It was followed by military rule, expropriation of land, discrimination, dispossession and political repression, a regime of those who were equal and others less equal, of citizens and second-class citizens. And, in addition, the refugee camps filled. We refuse to forget the refugees. Our human obligation is to remember, not forget. While our stories may be different, the lives and freedom of us all are sacred. May the Jewish people remember; may the Palestinian people remember; may all people remember.”
Eitan: And on the day of the ceremony?
Noa: On the day of the ceremony I was unbearably excited. When we arrived on campus the cadre activists were everywhere, doing their jobs: some were setting up the stage, some printing the texts, some preparing the dress rehearsal, some handing out invitations to students, some speaking to the media. A small group of Zionists carrying Israeli flags began gathering hours before we came, yelling things to incite people, which made us very uncomfortable.
As far as I personally was concerned, the ceremony was one of the most successful political activities in which I’d been involved. I was very apprehensive that the event would become violent, and that most of the victims would be Palestinian students. The previous day I said to Dan: “We keep urging that the event be held, but we’re not the ones who’ll be beaten if things get out of hand.” But as I said, when all was said and done the university security personnel, and especially our own internal security people, did a good job keeping the counter-demonstrators away from us and prevented a confrontation.
I think, on the one hand, that we’ve begun a tradition that other activists will take up after us, that they won’t give in to attempts at silencing. On the other hand, as far as I’m concerned, even if we’ve begun an important tradition that preserves and transforms the way Israeli discourse views the Nakba, our next activity will have to deal with the next challenge: how to include the right of return in the discourse, the refugees, the lands. I’m not sure that Nakba Day is the only appropriate vehicle for all those issues, but it was certainly a breakthrough.
Eitan: How did you decide to hold a ceremony to commemorate Nakba Day?