The beginning:  The missing sign

In mid-2001, after a tour of the Canada Park, it occurred to me to erect the sign that was missing, in Hebrew and Arabic:  “The Imwas cemetery.”  This simple idea – a sign specifying what the Israeli landscape concealed – is the essence of Zochrot.  It combines aesthetics and politics because the sign is a physical object that alters the landscape.  The sign’s text specifically undermines Israeli colonialist identity by exposing its violent origin and the violence required to preserve it.

I led that tour when I worked in the Peace School in the community of Neve Shalom/Wahat al Sala’am.  I arranged tours of the nearby Canada Park for young Israeli Jews.  I showed them how the area became Israeli by obscuring the fact that the Latrun junction and the entire park are located beyond the Green Line.  The remains of the villages of Imwas and Yalu, which Israel destroyed during the 1967 war (along with the nearby village of Beit Nuba), are clearly visible in the park.  The KKL, which established the park in the 1970’s with contributions of millions of dollars from Canadians, erected a number of signs recounting the area’s varied histories.  They speak of Romans, Ottomans, Mamlukes, Byzantines and even the Jews of Imwas.  It’s no accident that the history of the thousands of Palestinians who’d lived in the area until they were expelled in 1967 is completely missing from the signs.

The participants in this particular tour were tenth graders from the regional high school in Giv’at Brenner.  It was a “bi-narrative” tour, the kind that’s so popular in Israel.  After I gave a general introduction to the area we heard from Zakariya Alsanbati, a Palestinian from the nearby locality of Beit Sira.  He was nine years old during the war and watched the demolition of the houses in Yalu and Imwas.  A few days later he walked among the rubble of the buildings and saw bodies buried beneath them.

Alon Gil’ad, their civics teacher, spoke next.  He’d taken part as a soldier in demolishing those villages in 1967.  These were his opening words, more or less:  Everything Zakariya said is correct, except for the bodies buried beneath the rubble.  There hadn’t been any fighting here – the civilian population was expelled.  That was the darkest moment of my life, which is why I won’t go to the Canada Park.  Today is the first time I’ve been back, and the only reason I returned is to tell you what happened here, something that should not have happened.

The stories told by the two witnesses were surprising and made me think.  I decided not to refer to bodies during the dozens of tours I led here, because I found it hard to believe that such a thing had really happened.  Only years later, after we had obtained incontrovertible testimony (1) about bodies buried under the rubble of Imwas , did I mention them during the tours I led.
The pupils participating in the tour were troubled by what they learned, and so was I.  The policy of the Peace School is to channel feelings of guilt and shame in a positive direction, but I had no way to do so.  I realized that I was part of it, and I could only repeat what I learned over and over again so others would also know.  Ah, yes – and also express solidarity with the Palestinians (2).  By erecting signs I could resolve the problematic situation in which I found myself.  I was suddenly transformed from being a suffering, passive, guilty perpetrator into an agent seeking to change both reality and the discourse interpreting it.  Erecting the sign initiates a chain of events:  opponents remove it; arguments; reinstalling the signs.  All these create a new reality and new interpretations.

The idea overwhelmed me.  For a few days I repeated it to everyone I met, speaking not only of the three Latrun villages but the hundreds of localities Israel destroyed in the nakba.  One of the people I told was a friend of mine from the army who wrote for “HaKibbutz.”  The idea excited him.  He described it in a provocative two-page spread which, as expected, inspired many angry responses by kibbutz members.  Tom Segev also referred to my idea in his column, “Foreign Correspondent.”  That was before we’d erected even one sign.  I realized from those reactions that the signs had a truly revolutionary potential and that the next step was to meet with anyone who could move the idea forward.

The idea caught on; a number of people got organized and started meeting to discuss it.  The most important meetings were with the Committee of the Uprooted in Nazareth, and with Badil in Bethlehem.  Both organizations play a central role in the issue of Palestinian refugees.  We met a number of times with the Committee of the Uprooted to discuss our idea of erecting signs in Hebrew and in Arabic commemorating the Palestinian villages that had once existed in Israel.  They were initially suspicious.  They were surprised that Israelis suddenly showed up, out of the blue, with such a strange, radical proposal.  Remember that it was after October, 2000, and Palestinian citizens of Israel were extremely, and justifiably, suspicious of Jews.  We were knew that because we’d been intensively involved in meetings between Jews and Arabs, and were able to deal with this complex situation.  Our discussions were successful.  One outcome was that in the March of Return on Independence Day 2002, the first in which Zochrot participated, there were also signs with the names in Hebrew of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948.  For some reason, the meeting with Badil was easier.  I travelled to Bethlehem with Norma Musih, my closest colleague when founding Zochrot.  We meet Muhammad Jardat and Ingrid Gasner, a married couple who founded Badil.  We “clicked” immediately; that gave us a huge push to establish Zochrot.  A short time later, when I got the idea for Zochrot’s logo – the image of a keyhole – Ingrid was the first person I talked to about it.

Jewish-Arab cooperation as a Condition of possibility

Zochrot, therefore, wasn’t founded in the wake of strategy meetings leading to the realization that the time had arrived for Israeli Jews to recognize the nakba and the right of Palestinian refugees to return.  The initial idea was intuitive but it was rooted, of course, in the specific historical political context of the period.  For me personally, and for many of my friends on the Israeli left, the events of October, 2000, represented a breaking point.  Today I can say they led to my final break with Zionism.  After that, our paths diverged.  Unfortunately, most of my friends moved to the center, “disappointed with the Arabs who simply betrayed them during those events.” (3)

Today I know where October, 2000, is situated in the development of my political consciousness.  At 18 I joined the army without hesitation.  I first drew a line after completing my compulsory service and refused to serve in Lebanon when I was called to my first reserve duty.  I was jailed for a few weeks in Atlit, which became a kind of intensive seminar on conscientious objection.  But that was still selective objection which didn’t question Israeli military service in principle.  On the contrary – I told my commanding officers I’d serve if they sent me elsewhere.  When the first intifada broke out I knew I wouldn’t be able to repress a popular uprising of a people whose independence I support in the territories captured in 1967.  I refused and was jailed twice more, but I was still willing to serve in the army so long as I wasn’t asked to do things that violated my conscience.  I’m not proud of my military service; I’m much prouder that my two grown sons refused to serve.  Recently even my daughter, who seemed to be the toughest nut in the household with respect to the army, is showing signs of life – that is, she’s starting to investigate what she must do to accept responsibility and not serve in the IDF.

Zochrot was thus born a few months after the violent events of October, 2000, which I also experienced personally in demonstrations on a hill in Umm al-Fahm overlooking Highway 65.  After I joined the demonstrators I was advised to leave because the chanting and violent atmosphere was frightening.  On my way home I heard about the two demonstrators who had been killed because of Barak’s policy to open the roads at all cost.  After the killings the road was completely blocked by the security forces.

Those killings made me realize that any struggle for equality between Jews and Arabs conducted in the framework of Israel as a Jewish state is doomed to failure, not because those involved are dishonest or that the establishment doesn’t want it to succeed.  Equality between Jews and Arabs is by definition beyond Israel’s capacity, external to its self-definition.  In other words Zionism, manifested historically as the State of Israel, eliminated any possibility of fully equal coexistence with the country’s Palestinian inhabitants.  Whoever wishes to preserve any hope of living in peace and civil equality and rejects the divisions between Arabs and Jews must challenge Zionism’s exclusivist self-definition which established a state only for Jews, in which only Jews can be complete citizens.

Palestinian refugees in the physical and virtual landscape Zochrot is creating

This challenge must begin with Israeli Jews recognizing their responsibility for the Nakba.  Such recognition implies ending the prohibition on the refugees’ return and active efforts to bring them back.  But recognizing the Nakba, even if that primarily involves Israelis working with other Israelis, can’t occur without Palestinians.  For the Palestinians bear the Nakba in their identity, their corporeal memory and their collective history; addressing it without Palestinians reproduces the division created and maintained by Israeli Zionism.  “The Palestinian story” is central to most of Zochrot’s main activities, not because Jewish-Arab cooperation itself is the goal but because nothing is possible without it.  Such cooperation is the precondition for the possibility of Israeli Jews recognizing the Nakba.  It must precede any such activity, even if it has no effect.  Testimonies by Palestinians, their knowledge and memories of the destroyed localities, and more, provide the foundation for Israelis’ understanding of the Nakba.  Zochrot has recently been reading testimonies of Palmach fighters about the Nakba, and these only confirm what Palestinians have said.  The testimonies of Zionist combatants can’t be the sole authoritative source of information.

From the beginning, Zochrot’s activities have focused on the country’s physical landscape.  Tours of the ruins of Palestinian villages destroyed during the Nakba have become the organization’s best-known events.  Hundreds of yellow signs with green lettering in Hebrew and Arabic erected during those tours have marked new/old locations.  Even if most of them were removed shortly after they were put in place, their installation was documented on film and preserved in an open archive on Zochrot’s web site.  That simple sign was designed by “Samir Signs” in Tira.  Although Zochrot takes great care with the appearance of the material it produces, we never altered the design of those signs – another example of Jewish-Arab cooperation which hadn’t initially been intended.  More Palestinians than Jews participate in many of those tours even though they’re aimed at Israeli Jews.  Palestinians here have a “natural” interest in the Nakba’s history.  They’ve also gone through the Israeli educational system, so most of what they know about the Nakba is what they’ve heard at home.

Zochrot’s tour returns the destroyed Palestinian locality to the landscape from which it had been removed and any trace of it erased.  The Nakba map that Zochrot published in Hebrew on the occasion of Israel’s 65th Independence Day identifies 678 Palestinian localities destroyed by Israel in 1948.  Meron Benvinisti taught us that the physical conquest of the country preceded the true conquest - of the discourse, the “Hebrew map” Ben Gurion created. (4)  The country and its maps filled with Hebrew names while after the early 1960s almost no trace remained on them of the demolished Palestinian localities, even if they hadn’t been physically destroyed completely.  We learned from Aharon Shai that the final demolition of hundreds of localities was completed only during the 1960s; one of the main reasons for doing so was the difficulty they created in locating orienting oneself because they didn’t appear on maps. (5)  In other words, to make the maps accurately reflect the physical landscape, the landscape was adapted to the maps.  Israelis, as students of British colonialism, understood that maps represented reality better than the physical landscape they presumably described.  Zochrot’s tour reconstructs and rejuvenates that which has been destroyed, thereby challenging Israeli spatial rationality.

Such reconstruction occurs during the tour itself and it can be viewed as disrupting the timeline of Israel’s history.  I remember how shocked I was to read “TAZ” (“Temporary Autonomous Zone,” published by Resling).  I thought Hakim Bey had written about a Zochrot tour, because those tours create a temporary autonomous zone in which Israeli historical time is replaced by a chronological continuum competing with the hegemonic Israeli narrative of “the barren land” and “marauding villagers” that retreats in the face of the accounts of men and women who remember having lived there and had been violently expelled.  This historical reconsideration briefly creates new power relations which may seem to reverse those that exist:  Israeli Jews listen (that’s rare, but it could happen:-) and learn from Palestinians who briefly become lords of the land, or at least its legitimate inhabitants.  It’s a difficult moment for many Jews, but they always find it revolutionary.  Everything they’d learned about the history of ’48 is undermined when the Nakba is revealed as a systematic project of expulsion rather than as “an inevitable result of war.”

The tour in the “field” is an experience limited to when it takes place, notwithstanding its significance and intensity.  Like Zionism, and perhaps also (rotting?) fruit in a basket, Zochrot also transformed documentation and the virtual landscape into topics regarding which it operates extremely effectively.  The Palestinians’ virtual presence in the Israeli landscape and in the Hebrew language has become central to Zochrot’s activities.  Though the tours are one-time field events their documentation preserves them, makes them accessible to everyone browsing the internet who comes across them intentionally or accidentally.  Fifty-five tours have been conducted so far, each accompanied by a booklet about the village in Hebrew and in Arabic; a tremendous amount of virtual material exists in the on-line archive.

Palestinian refugees are also made present through various activities undertaken by Zochrot.  Here are two examples.  A few years ago a French photographer, Thierry Barsilon, travelled to Lebanon to photograph Palestinian refugees from the village of Ras el Ahmar living in the Ein el Hilweh refugee camp.  He brought us the photos, we enlarged them full-size, printed the enlargements and pasted five of them on poster boards.  We brought them to the Kerem Ben Zimra moshav, which had been established where the buildings of Ras el Ahmar once stood, some of which are still in use today.  We placed the photos next the elementary school those refugees had attended, stood among them and Thierry documented our stance.  One of the refugees had died approximately one month earlier; we placed his photograph next to the remains of a broken tombstone in the Ras al Ahmar cemetery, where presumably he would have wished to have been buried.  Thierry returned to Ein el Hilweh to show his photographs of the enlarged portraits placed at the village sites; people were very excited to see them.

Jewish activists from Zochrot also carried those enlarged photographic portraits through the streets of Tel Aviv as part of the Human Rights March organized by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.  Those Palestinian refugees – rather, their photographic representations – joined the march through the center of the first Hebrew city.  We transmitted images of the march and the large portraits in real time via mobile phones and Skype to Palestinian refugees watching in Bethlehem and in Beirut.  Later they wrote us in response.  A professional photographer photographed this activity; we uploaded her excellent photos to the archive on Zochrot’s web site along with the excited comments we received in response from the Palestinian refugees.
These two activities exemplify a demand for, according to Hannah Arendt, “the right to have rights.”  Those Palestinian refugees have no rights in the land where they were born.  The current regime views them as the wretched of the earth, expelled as excess baggage, unnecessary, far from all contact, out of sight.  Thus they have no standing to demand rights in Israel.  Those who can do so on their behalf are the ones who have rights, who physically/bodily carrying their representation with them.  But because Palestinian refugees are not, and cannot be, citizens in Israel, claims on their behalf can’t be made in an Israeli civil context, except for the claim to make them citizens in the sense of agents, undertaking a civic act that involves living with and among other men and women, not (necessarily) in the framework of a nation-state.

By undertaking to do so, Jewish Zochrot activists thereby remove themselves from their static condition of citizenship in a state, preferring the global citizenship of individuals seeking to appeal their status as subjects of a state and to create a new, independent subject-status.  This new citizenship necessarily includes the country’s Palestinian inhabitants whose return is also a necessary condition for Jews to become full citizens – but not of the Jews’ nation state, not as conquerors.
Engin F. Insin writes "Citizenship understood as political subjectivity shifts our attention from fixed categories by which we have come to understand or inherit citizenship to the struggles through which these categories themselves have become stakes". (6)  The active citizenship exemplified by Zochrot challenges the categories defining citizenship in the Jewish state and proposes altering them radically.  But I think the primary radicalism lies in Zochrot’s language of political action, not in its content.  The distinctive language Zochrot developed made its achievements possible but also confronted it with challenges.

Zochrot’s successes, and their price

If, a few years ago, I would have hesitated to claim Zochrot had any effect in Israel with respect to the Nakba, today I can definitely say it has.  There have been too many reactions and indications to believe otherwise.  The best-known response may be the nakba law, passed during the height of Zochrot’s activities and obviously in reaction to the challenge it presented.  In addition, many on the right warn of Zochrot’s effectiveness.  “They’re naïve, but definitely dangerous,” says one woman who’s particularly belligerent. (7)  Many have written about Zochrot; let me note a fascinating analysis by Dr. Udi Lebel, a political psychologist, who explains Zochrot’s success:  “It’s not a protest movement, though it involves protest.  Its strategy, unlike all other organizations on the left, is to shape the Israeli discourse and unconscious, the Israeli language and the academic, research, cultural and intellectual arenas.  Its strategy is to have an indirect effect – which is in fact much more effective. (8)

Serge Moscovici, a better-known social psychologist, showed that a minority has a greater long-term effect than the majority.  When the minority is consistent in its position, maintains its activity for a long time, and [I will add] is creative, varied in its approach, bases itself on research and documents its activities, it can have a sizeable effect relative to its limited resources.  Moscovici seems to provide the best scientific explanation of Zochrot’s success in affecting Israeli discourse about the nakba and the right of return.  Ariella Azoulay’s new definition of the concept of “revolution” allows me to claim that what Zochrot has done, and continues to do, has been no less than a revolution. (9)  It has allowed us to rethink relations between those dominated by the state of Israel and the regime in order fundamentally to transform it.

When I started Zochrot and googled “Nakba” (in Hebrew) the results referred to turning out lights and its declensions.  Today an internet search returns innumerable results referring to the 1948 tragedy.  The Arabic word, “Nakba,” is written and spoken in Hebrew; it appears so widely in Israeli discourse that it’s become almost transparent, obvious, which would have been inconceivable a decade earlier.  Even if most Israelis still don’t know much about the nakba, they understand it’s a significant event that challenges the Israeli narrative, which is why the majority still responds with hostility and even violence (only verbal, at least for now).  But it’s already clear the Israeli mainstream can’t ignore the Nakba and its principal spokesman in Hebrew – Zochrot.  That’s demonstrated by the efforts of Im Tirtzu and NGO Monitor to religiously follow the work of our relatively small organization and respond to them both openly and covertly.

Success also comes with a price.  Various Israeli and Palestinian organizations aren’t always pleased by Zochrot’s success; they’re envious.  This is, of course, too sensitive an issue to discuss openly but it’s sometimes surprising to find even strategic allies who aren’t happy with our achievements.  Clearly, however, the greatest danger to Zochrot’s existence comes from the political right and the government of Israel which is liable to pass even harsher legislation   endangering the continuation of our project.  As I write, an orchestrated campaign is underway in opposition to a conference Zochrot is organizing whose subject is the return of Palestinian refugees.  The conference will be held in an auditorium at the Eretz Yisrael Museum in Tel Aviv; the museum has been bombarded with threats of budget cuts because of the conference, and there have even been calls for a boycott of the museum posted on a Facebook page dealing with boycotts of Israel. Im Tirtzu recently appealed to the Registrar of Non-Profit Organization demanding he shut Zochrot down, on the basis of various illegitimate arguments.  It’s clear that the reason for these efforts is Zochrot’s success in mounting a significant challenge to the Israeli hegemonic discourse.