Friday, May 18, 2012

The Nakba and the Minister of Education and the Minister of Culture and us

In a map published by the British Mandatory Government in 1945 I located the area where I now live. Within walking distance from my home, currently in the center of the city of Holon,  there appear on this map ​​the fields and orchards of Palestinians from the town of Yazur - fields bearing the name  "Wadi en-Nada" (Morning Dew Valley).

Today in this area there is a small quiet street named for Arthur Ruppin, a founder of the Zionist Movement. Ruppin devoted most of his life to the obtaining of Arab lands and the settlement of Jews on them, so as to create the basis for a Jewish state. At first he thought it was possible to achieve this goal without conflict with the inhabitants of the country. Later, he came to the conclusion that realization of the Zionist enterprise would inevitably entail a conflict - and that this enterprise must go ahead anyway, at all costs. There must still be, in refugee camps somewhere, people who remember Wadi en-Nada from their childhoods. Had they wanted – and been able - to visit Ruppin Street in the city of Holon, it is doubtful whether they could have recognized anything. (Perhaps, here and there among the houses, an ancient tree which had already been there in 1948...)

Two weeks ago, on the night of Independence Day when the citizens of Israel celebrated the sixty-fourth anniversary of the establishment of the state, a small group of activists planned to go out into the celebration in the streets of central Tel Aviv and spread on the sidewalk pieces of paper bearing the names of cities and towns and villages which were destroyed during the creation of this state and which thereupon became "abandoned property", empty houses and fields and orchards where a large part of Israel's citizens came to live. The Tel Aviv police considered that the spreading of these pieces of paper might  cause "a serious disturbance of public order". Therefore, police imposed a several hours' blockade on the office of the Zochrot ("Remembering") group and detained several of its activists. The police's conduct naturally imparted to this action a great public resonance, far more than the organizers had expected or hoped for.

This week, Jewish and Arab students conducted a commemoration of the Nakba at the Tel Aviv University. The university which was established at the village of Sheikh Munis Village, a village whose inhabitants did not take part in the war waged by their people against the newly formed State of Israel, and whose non-participation in that war did not save them from becoming refugees nor did their village escape being razed and erased from the map. The Minister of Education of the State of Israel strongly denounced this intended ceremony and made undisguised threats against the university which gave permission for it to be held – and nevertheless, it did take place on schedule. And next day the Zochrot activists went out on the streets of Central Tel Aviv and at last placed on the sidewalk their pieces of papers with the names of destroyed villages, and what a surprise! There was no public disorder to be witnessed. Nothing worse than a few loud but on the whole civilized street debates.

"But they brought it on themselves: they had rejected the Partition Plan!" Opponents said this on that day, as they say it wherever the issue comes up.  In 1947, the Palestinians rejected the Partition Plan proposed at the time by the United Nations - namely, that the Palestinians would have to give up in favor of the Zionist Jews some 55% of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, and themselves rest content with the remaining 45%. For rejecting this, the Palestinians were punished with the loss of homes and fields and property and becoming refugees. And if so, what does it imply for the Israelis who at the present day reject  the Partition Plan nowadays proposed by the UN and the entire international community? Under this plan, the State of Israel would give up 22% of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River (i.e., the West Bank and Gaza Strip) and have to stay content with "only" 78%...

"What are these Arab villages which Zochrot is speaking about and trying to present to the public? They present a map on their website, and the map is full of dots. Dots, dots, dots" stated the angry Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture, at the stormy debate in the Knesset. "Dots, from the north of the country to the south, even south of Beersheba. These dots, which are the villages they talk about, are all over the State of Israel. I found some in the Tel Aviv area, dozens of dots. In Bat Yam, Rishon Lezion, Rehovot - where not? Also in Beit Shemesh, Netanya, Or Akiva, around each and every one of all these regions. At Tiberias, Madam Speaker. In Beit Shean. Where not? Indeed, where not?"

Indeed, the Minister is right in her description. Everywhere, throughout the State of Israel, towns and villages were destroyed. Many of them were wiped off the map, as our country's bulldozers did their work well. But the villages remained in the old maps in various libraries and archives, and it is difficult to collect and destroy all of them. And  memories are left, among people who are no longer young, but who are still alive and who still remember.

In theory (very much in theory) it should have been Zionists, more than anyone one, who would have understood and sympathized with the demand to realize the Right of Return, which is so central to the national consciousness of the Palestinians. For after all, what is the basis of Zionism if not the assertion that  all Jews, wherever they may be, are refugees whose ancestors were expelled  from this country, refugees who - all of them without exception – are entitled to exercise the Right of Return. Even after two thousand years have passed, even though there is not a single Jew now living who can point to a specific village or a specific field and say "Here is where my personal ancestors lived two thousand years ago". And if it can be so after two thousand years, all the more it can be after sixty-four years, when there are still many people who remember their own destroyed village, and a lot of younger people who had never been  there but who know exactly where each house had been, each well, each olive tree, even if on the ground everything had been totally destroyed.

Precisely sixty-four years ago, on May 15, 1948, David Ben Gurion stood up at  the hall of the Old Museum in Tel Aviv, and read out the text of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, including the words: "After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom". Thereupon, the representatives of all parties and factions in the Zionist Movement came up and signed the text. Had these words been translated into Arabic and read verbatim in Ramallah or Gaza or any of the refugee camps, certainly the representatives of all parties and factions in the Palestinians National Movement would have come up and signed them, just as their Israeli counterparts did.

So far – theories and "might have beens". In the reality in which we live, it is very difficult to conceive, as a concrete idea to be actually implemented, a situation in which the State of Israel would consent to a full correction of the injustice which is at this state's very foundation and bedrock.

Though growing dim in recent years, the hope is not yet lost that a government would eventually be established in the State of Israel which would agree to terminate occupation which had been going on since 1967, and facilitate the creation of the independent and sovereign State of Palestine, with no  settlement enclaves in its territory, and its border with Israel based on the borders of June 4, 1967.

In particularly optimistic scenarios, the peace movement inside Israel would  recover and grow stronger, and external pressures increase, all pressures together bringing about an end to the occupation. Especially if Barack Obama gets re-elected as President of the United States of America, and takes up the issues of the Middle East from the point where his elections campaign interrupted his all-out confrontation with Binyamin Netanyahu, and as a second term President would be no longer bothered by the force which an Israeli government can muster within American politics. In an optimistic scenario one can think of an Israeli government signing an agreement with the Palestinians, ending the occupation and gaining for that step the support of a large majority among the citizens of Israel, with opposition limited to a minority of settlers and their religious-nationalist supporters.

Even so, it is very difficult to expect that the Palestinian refugees will get more than what was on the table in the Taba talks of January 2001 – i.e. the return of a limited number of them into Israel's territory, and not necessarily to their original villages.

At a minimum, the State of Israel must recognize the injustice which it had done to the Palestinians, and understand that accepting a state within the 1967 borders would be for the Palestinians a very hard and very painful concession.

If at all, it could only succeed if the State of Israel makes to the Palestinians a really generous offer - a two-state solution fully implemented without tricks and shenanigans. And not too late.