Israelis Commemorate the Fate of the Palestinians

The Zochrot organization is dedicated to forcing the Israeli public to acknowledge and commemorate the uprooting of the Palestinians – an undertaking that is anything but easy. By Joseph Croitoru


Logo Zochrot

​​For the Palestinian people, the violent events of 1948, referred to by the Israelis as their "War of Independence" and celebrated as a great triumph, represent instead a sad chapter in their history.

The military defeat of the Palestinians was followed by their systematic expulsion from their lands by the Israeli conquerors. But many Palestinians also voluntarily left their homes behind, assuming that after the war was over they would some day be able to return.

Yet that "some day" never came: the Israelis immediately closed the borders and turned away any Palestinians who tried to return to the towns from whence they came.

In Palestinian collective memory this dark chapter in their history is referred to as the "Nakba" – in Arabic: catastrophe. And this catastrophe ended for numerous Palestinians in an exile that still continues today, for many of them in a life of misery in one of the dilapidated refugee camps.

The dispossession of the Palestinians was accompanied by the systematic destruction of their villages by Israeli bulldozers. An entire history of settlement was deliberately eradicated. Israeli settlements were often built atop the ruins of these destroyed villages – with new, Hebrew names of course.

An attempt to establish a new culture of commemoration

While the Palestinians have been publicly remembering the Nakba for a good two decades now, and have extensively documented the destruction of their homeland, most Israelis do not wish to be reminded of these events.

But reminding them is exactly what a small Israeli association has now set out to do. "Nakba in Hebrew" is the name chosen by this courageous commemorative project, which intends to document what Palestinians remember about the situation, translate these memories into Hebrew, and then publish them.

The association’s members, especially its founder, Eitan Bronstein, want to raise awareness on the part of the Israeli public of the world the Palestinians inhabited before it was destroyed by the Israelis in 1948.

Commemorative plaques posted in the open landscape and in Israeli towns are designed to remind people of the Palestinian villages that once stood there, in order to force them to come to terms with the past.

The association calls itself "Zochrot,” which in Hebrew means "those who remember" – in the feminine form. The feminine is intended to stand for a path presenting an alternative to the, according to Bronstein, aggressive and hegemonial, Zionist culture of commemoration.

The choice of name also implies an invitation to the Palestinian side to join the Israelis who are ready to launch a dialogue in creating a culture of reconciliation.

Vehement reactions in Israel

The teacher and peace educator Bronstein and his cohorts have already incited the anger of the right-wing Israeli public. On its website, Zochrot presents itself in a deliberately provocative manner: the association’s logo contains a keyhole – an allusion to the key that for the Palestinians is a symbol for exile and return.

Those who were banished from their homeland back in 1948 took their house key with them, thinking they would soon be able to return.

This logo alone, which expresses agreement with the Palestinians' right to return to Israel, was enough to trigger an attack. A commentator in the right-wing Israeli newspaper "Maariv" reviled the association's members as "collaborators in the Palestinian terror organization Hamas." But these kinds of attacks are not enough to intimidate Eitan Bronstein and his comrades.

Forced to remember

On Independence Day in Israel, Zochrot members marched through Israeli towns holding banners that reminded viewers of the towns' Palestinian past.

The commemoration activists gathered in a central square of the southern coastal town of Ashkelon, where before 1948 the Palestinian town of Madschdal used to stand, and held a banner stating in Hebrew and Arabic: "It was from this spot that the residents of Madschdal were deported to Gaza in 1948."

It didn't take long for people to react to this campaign. Incensed Jewish passersby tore up the banners, and a sign noting "This was formerly the site of a Palestinian mosque" was quickly demolished.

But Eitan Bronstein has no intention of giving up. He wants to appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court to force the local Israeli authorities to put up these kinds of signs and commemorative plaques. If he succeeds even in part, it would be a revolution for Israel's culture of commemoration.

A decidedly greater degree of interest in the work of the Zochrot association is shown by the Palestinian side. There, people were at first astonished that a Jewish Israeli like Bronstein could be interested in the Palestinian Nakba.

However, any initial mistrust has now subsided. Several Palestinian refugees have already been interviewed for the new commemorative project. These interviews are presented on the association's website.

Joseph Croitoru

© 2004

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

Zochrot - Nakba in Hebrew (in English and Hebrew)