Students explore Israeli and Palestinian collective memories

In the second CSMCH Discussion Group session on 16 February, History MScR student Tsiona Lida presented the documentary ‘On The Side of the Road’ by Lia Tarachansky and led a discussion about Israeli and Palestinian collective memory. She wrote this report for the blog.

It has been almost 70 years since the British Mandate in Palestine came to a clumsy conclusion and the State of Israel was born. For Israelis, May 14th 1948 marks national independence, and it is celebrated throughout the country with street parties, fireworks and Star of David inflatable hammers. For Palestinians, the same date is symbolic of the Nakba (the catastrophe) in which the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians is commemorated. The events of 1948, as well as the dichotomous narratives that have stemmed from it, are the focus of Lia Tarachansky’s 2013 documentary ‘On the Side of the Road.’

For the second session of our CSMCH discussion group, I decided that this film screening would serve as a unique entry point into further discussion on the Israel-Palestine conflict. This is because it explores the silenced history of the Nakba in Israeli culture while simultaneously exhibiting the personal journey of the director, who grew up in one of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The film begins and ends with the Nakba law. First proposed in 2009 and passed in 2011, this law curtails support for any institution or activity that rejects Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state or commemorates Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning. In effect, the history of exodus is silenced, and any expression of it potentially penalised.

Tarachansky’s film suggests that the Nakba has long been muted and denied in Israeli collective memory. Tikva Honig-Parnass and Amnon Noiman are two Israeli 1948 veterans interviewed about their experiences of the war. With varying degrees of openness, both testify to forcibly dispossessing Palestinians from villages as well as doing so without questioning the legitimacy of their actions.

Where refugees went didn’t interest them, Tikva tells us with belated shock. Amnon reluctantly describes shooting those who fled: visibly frustrated, he insists on the futility of such details; ‘it doesn’t change the essence of the Nakba.’ It is a tortured admission that doesn’t yield a neat or simple emotional response. Their testimonies provide a window into the mindset of early Zionist soldiers and reveal the struggle to come to terms with the past. Through these veterans, the documentary demonstrates how the first seeds of a national narrative were sown and cultivated in collective memory, generation after generation.

The film utilises footage of street protests, various speeches in the Knesset, and events organised by Zochrot, an Israeli NGO that promotes awareness of the history of the Nakba. We also meet Khalil Abu Hamdeh, a Palestinian who is granted a 12-hour permit into Israel to visit his grandfather’s village – now the site of a National Park. He describes his longing to return home, to a land in which he was not born, and the sentiments inherited as a refugee.

Tsiona presents the documentary

The documentary also follows Tarachansky’s personal journey back to Ariel, the settlement in which she grew up. She tells us that she only became aware of the reality of the Israeli Occupation and the events of 1948 as a student in Canada. The detached compassion with which we listen to all those interviewed seems to reflect Tarachansky’s internal conflict toward the country. Without imposing blame, the film successfully displays a variety of perspectives and exposes the complexities of national memory.

Switching on the lights and replenishing our refreshments, the screening prompted a lively discussion. We began by sharing first impressions, which touched upon the Nakba as an ongoing phenomenon, the notion of denial and the significance of the military in Israeli society. One student asked how appropriate the word ‘denial’ was for Israel’s response to the Nakba. Indeed, the documentary displayed Israeli awareness of Palestinian expulsion, and aggressive rejection of it, rather than denial. This was particularly evident in footage of right-wing rallies where crowds chanted hostile and threatening rhymes.

Similarly, Israeli activism for Palestinian rights and Zochrot’s efforts to integrate the Nakba into social discourse were largely met with resistance. As one student commented, the New Historians movement in the 1980s has made the realities of Palestinian expulsion and ongoing injustices unavoidable, even in Israel. We remarked on how Israeli society splinters in response to this knowledge – ranging from vehement resistance to calls for change.

We talked about how Palestinians’ interactions with Israelis are usually limited to checkpoints and soldiers and the effect of this pressing military presence. One student brought up the issue of conscription and voiced concerns about authority and weaponry being placed in the hands of Israeli youth, who are called up to military service at age 17.

We reflected on how national narratives are embedded in education systems and questioned the extent to which the youth can critically engage with the Israeli occupation when they go straight from school to the army. We discussed the significance of experience in shaping attitudes – comparing the left-leaning cosmopolitanism of Tel Aviv, where tensions with Palestinians are less tangible, with cities such as Sderot, which borders Gaza and has experienced frequent rocket attacks.

We concluded that the work of groups like Zochrot is an indication of younger generations challenging their national narrative and questioning the actions of their elders. That said, the documentary revealed the fierce resistance to the Nakba and Palestinian rights still prevalent in large parts of Israeli society. In the case of the 1948 veterans, the word ‘denial’ refers to repressed memory – Israel’s ‘collective amnesia’. While this may serve as the root of Israeli resistance to the Nakba, denial has grown into the refusal to come to terms with the past; the active rejection of a people whose history is so integral to understanding Israel’s own.

Tsiona Lida has recently completed her MSc by Research in History. Her research interests lie broadly in the History of Emotions, twentieth century intellectual history in Europe and the Israel/Palestine conflict. Her dissertation examines the role of emotions in Hannah Arendt’s writing on Jewish politics and Israel.