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Ha'aretz: Erasing words, names and a way of life
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Posted on December 19, 2008
By Ariel Hirschfeld

Palm trees and stone cupolas, olive trees and cactus branches, crumbling stone terraces, an old fig tree that provides sweet fruit every summer, grapevines with their branches wrapped around rocks - and in the winter, those blossoming almond trees, which rise up amid the undulating stone like pinkish-white fluffy clouds. This is the ultimate Israeli landscape, the prettiest landscape there is here. The one that spurs people to go out to hike on the weekends. The one urban gardeners try to emulate using olive and date trees imported whole to the city, along with a few boulders and earthenware jugs.

No in-depth research is necessary to know that such a landscape is always found in a place that was once the site of an Arab village. The evidence is unequivocal. This is Arab construction and this is Arab agriculture. Even the sabra - the prickly pear cactus and famous Israeli symbol - is actually a plant that was imported here by Arab farmers.

What happened to the sabra is indicative of a larger principle: To Zionist Israel, it is a poetic symbol, a plant with a special, characteristic form that also embodies an idea. The Jewish person who connects to this place aspires to resemble the thorny cactus that thrives in an arid land. It is covered with a weapon, like a porcupine, with sweet fruit hidden underneath. In Arab villages, the sabra is neither symbol nor idea, but a living, dusty and useful accessory. To be more precise, the sabra is not really local, but a foreign implant brought here about 200 years ago.

The same shift, from reality to symbol, is at the center of the terrible discrepancy in points of view between the Israelis and Palestinians in this place: The beautiful landscape - the landscape that was Zionism's beloved symbol during its heroic era, that was refined into symbolic images appearing in paintings, stamps and postcards, that to this day is the most vital symbol of Israeli local-ness - this is the image of the destruction of living Arab locales. Locales that were transformed from villages into landscape. From life into symbol. While the moment of transition between these conditions - i.e., the stage of expulsion and ruin that preceded the landscape's transformation into "beautiful" - is forgotten and erased from consciousness. People go to hike at Khirbet Sa'adim in the Judean Hills, to see the almond trees blooming amid the big rocks, and the very destruction that forms the basis of this image is replaced by a romantic view of nature blossoming amid the crumbling stone arches. No one remembers that this Israeli beauty represents total desolation for the inhabitants of the Deheisheh refugee camp.

The facts are known. As Noga Kadman writes in her new book, "On the Side of the Road and in the Margins of Consciousness: The Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 in the Israeli Discourse" (November Books; in Hebrew): "Before 1948, more than 1.2 million Arab residents lived in Mandatory Palestine. Of these, approximately 850,000 lived within the present borders of the State of Israel; they comprised the vast majority of the inhabitants of this area." Some fled, others were attacked or expelled, but none of those who remained outside Israel's borders after the founding of the state were permitted to return. The vast majority of depopulated villages were systematically demolished. The lands were nationalized. Atop the ruins of some villages, Israeli communities were built; atop others, forests were planted, with the aim of obliterating what was there before.

These things are indeed known, but this knowledge does not really penetrate the Israeli perception that sees only pretty landscapes blooming with anemones and hyssop. This knowledge, as the title of Kadman's book indicates, has been pushed to the side of the road and to the margins of consciousness. S. Yizhar's stories about the expulsion, and A.B. Yehoshua's "Facing the Forests" are reminders of what transpired and of the silenced voices of the people who were expelled, but they, too, have become a repressed presence.

Noga Kadman's book is not merely a precise historical document that lists each of the destroyed Arab villages, gives their exact locations on the map of Israel, and restores their names: It is also an attempt to penetrate the Israeli consciousness. Because a Palestinian document listing pre-1948 Arab villages cannot compare to an Israeli document that plants such knowledge in the heart of Israeli discourse, and underscores this quote from David Ben-Gurion from October 21, 1948: "The Palestinian Arabs have one thing left to do - flee." This is not an alternative map of the country. It is not a map of the "other." This is an up-to-date map of the State of Israel.

Kadman's book continues the process begun with Benny Morris' 1989 book, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949" (Cambridge University Press), to which it adds another complementary and fascinating dimension: Morris' work documents the expulsion and destruction, and now Kadman provides a description of the systematic process of obfuscation, concealment and erasure of the ruined villages, and the creation of a new map - the Israeli national map, the map of the Jewish country standing upon the ruins of ancient Judea.

A particularly intriguing aspect of the book is its insight that the process occurring here is not just the expropriation of Arab lands for the construction of Jewish communities (or in order to settle Jews in empty Arab houses), or the planting of forests to expunge the sight of the ruins from the landscape, but a comprehensive and continual spiritual-cultural process in which words, names and a way of life are erased from the consciousness of those who grow up in this country. "Knowledge of the land" - that Zionist phrase, celebrating the practical, sensory acquaintance of a person with the land, its trails and rocks, and so on - has evolved into a broader term connoting a knowledge of the land, which embodies a perception of the world as embodying the Jewish story alone, a story in which the conquest of the land and the expulsion of its inhabitants do not play a substantial part.

The publication of Kadman's book is a cultural event of the first rank. The book may have originated as an academic thesis (at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden), but it is one of the precious instances in which the academic act is a vital one within the culture that surrounds it. It would be a mistake to dismiss it as a "post-Zionist" act. It (like Morris' book) constitutes an act of criticism of the Zionist project that is required by the Zionist project itself. Kadman's book does not treat Zionism as an industry of lies or loathsome hypocrisy, but as typical of the process experienced by a new national culture and one with its own unique features; a process worthy of study and understanding, even if this means dealing with the most serious ethical land mines. It is not written out of hostility toward Zionism, nor does it seek to obscure the fact of its belonging to Israeli culture.

I shall not go into the question of whether Zionism is solely the episode that concluded in 1948, or whether it is continually changing its appearance and now includes both the malignant growths in the form of the West Bank settlers, and the new criticism and understanding within Israeli thought. As with the rest of the Israeli discussions of "identity," either way spells trouble. But the "post-Zionist" categorization poses the danger of ignoring the fact that Hebrew-Israeli discourse is an organic continuation of what preceded it, and is so critical and incisive for just that reason.

Kadman's book will certainly be a vital part of the refugee question and its solution. But before that, it will enter into the emerging, anguished fabric of knowledge of this land. Everyone who reads it will feel that his hand, too, be it raised in greeting or to bring a glass of water to his lips, is heavier. That much heavier.

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