Coming to Terms with the Past or Simply Easing Consciences?

Israel will celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of its foundation this May. The celebration coincides with another sixtieth anniversary, namely that of the dispossession of Palestinians (al-Nakba) in 1948. Nevertheless, it would seem as if interest in al-Nakba is growing among young Jewish Israelis. Joseph Croitoru investigated the depth of this interest

Old City of Jerusalem in 1948 (Photo: AP)
Two histories inextricably bound together: 1948 is for Israelis the Year of Independence, for Palestinians it is the year of the Nakba

​​The Israeli newspaper Haaretz sees a paradigm shift in the way Israelis view the Palestinian Nakba. To back up their theory, they tender two different kinds of evidence:

Firstly, a number of best-selling novels by young Israeli authors that highlight the fate of the Palestinians and have topped the bestseller lists, and secondly, the fact that an increasing number of Israelis are standing up for the conservation of Palestinian architectural monuments that have been earmarked for demolition.

A bold theory indeed! One novel cited as evidence of this apparent paradigm shift is Homesick, a novel by the 37-year-old Israeli author Eshkol Nevo. Homesick tells the story of an Ashkenazic student couple that rents accommodation in the house of a Jewish family of Kurdish origin on the outskirts of Jerusalem where the Palestinian village of El-Kastel once stood.

Reconciliation, but no return

The main protagonists of the novel are Jewish and the focus of the novel is on problems within the relationship or fights about religion. An Arab character does appear, albeit in a minor role: a Palestinian construction worker suddenly discovers his parent's old home in the district. As a result of his determined attempts to gain access to the house after so many years, he is suspected of being a terrorist and put behind bars.

The readers were particularly taken with the reconciliation between the quarrelling Jewish characters that takes place at the end of the book. Even though the author does empathise with the fate of the Palestinians in his novel, his attitude to the Palestinian problem is unequivocal: in an interview with Haaretz, Nevo made it clear that he was against the return of dispossessed Palestinians to Israel.

It would appear that the supposed paradigm shift is in fact an intellectual trend; a salving of the conscience instead of a serious attempt to come to terms with the past - a process that could have significant political and economic consequences. The same can be said about another recent bestseller that Haaretz singled out for praise, The House of Dajani by the 36-year-old Israeli Alon Hilu.

A moral without consequences

Hilu's book is based in nineteenth-century Palestine. A Jewish settler from Europe is using every trick in the book (including an affair with an Arab widow) to gain control of the fertile land that belongs to the native farmers. The widow's son can see into the future and describes in his diary his visions of a not-too-distant future in which the houses of the village have been replaced by the skyscrapers of Jewish colonists and where the original inhabitants have long been forgotten.

The book was a huge success. It offered readers not only an abundance of sex scenes, but also a kind of salve for the conscience because it allowed the reader to feel morally superior to the evil Zionists of the past. That being said, the novel doesn't necessarily inspire readers to seriously address the desolate situation in which the Palestinians find themselves.

Moreover, Haaretz's reports of widespread public interest in the conservation of Palestinian buildings that survived the systematic destruction of 1948 and have now been earmarked for demolition to make way for a number of skyscrapers are not entirely accurate; interest is in fact limited. The Tel Aviv-based newspaper could not really have ignored the most recent case to which it refers, especially as the building in question is so close to home: it is one of the very few former Palestinian buildings still standing in the centre of Tel Aviv.

No less than two television reports have focussed on the story. The conclusions they reached were very reassuring for Israelis: the Palestinians who once owned these buildings have no intention of returning and say that they wouldn't have any chance against the major real estate companies anyway because these companies are determined to get their hands on these valuable plots.

Joseph Croitoru

© 2008

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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