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For Palestinians, memory matters. It provides a blueprint for their future
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Posted by George Bisharat on May 15, 2007

Sunday, May 13, 2007 - San Francisco Chronicle

Why do some people have the power to remember, while others are asked to forget? That question is especially poignant at this time of year, as we move from Holocaust Remembrance day in early spring to Monday's anniversary of Israel's declaration of independence on May 14, 1948.

In the months surrounding that date, Jewish forces expelled, or intimidated into flight, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians. A living, breathing, society that had existed in Palestine for centuries was smashed and fragmented, and a new society built on its ruins.

Few Palestinian families lack a personal narrative of loss from that period -- an uncle killed, or a branch of the family that fled north while the others fled east, never to be reunited, or homes, offices, orchards and other property seized. Ever since, Palestinians worldwide have commemorated May 15 as Nakba (Catastrophe) Day.

No ethical person would admonish Jews to "forget the Holocaust." Indeed, recent decades have witnessed victims of that terrible era not only remembering, but also regaining paintings and financial assets seized by the Nazis -- and justifiably so.

Other victims of mass wrongs -- interned Japanese Americans, enslaved African Americans, and Armenians subjected to a genocide that may have later convinced Hitler of the feasibility of mass killings -- receive at least respectful consideration of their cases, even while responses to their claims have differed.

Yet in dialogues with Israelis, and some Americans, Palestinians are repeatedly admonished to "forget the past," that looking back is "not constructive" and "doesn't get us closer to a solution." Ironically, Palestinians live the consequences of the past every day -- whether as exiles from their homeland, or as members of an oppressed minority within Israel, or as subjects of a brutal and violent military occupation.

A Dajani family portrait in front of their Baq'a home that belongs to Dr. Mahmoud al-Dajani. After Nakba Israelis looted their home which was featured in the Israeli film called: House

In the West we are amply reminded of the suffering of Jewish people in World War II. Our newspaper featured several stories on local survivors of the Nazi holocaust around Holocaust Remembrance Day (an Israeli national holiday that is widely observed in the United States). My daughter has read at least one book on the Nazi holocaust every year since middle school. Last year, in ninth grade English literature alone, she read three. But we seldom confront the impact of Israel's policies on Palestinians.

It is the "security of the Jewish people" that has rationalized Israel's takeover of Palestinian lands, both in the past in Israel, and more recently in the occupied West Bank. There, most Palestinian children negotiate one of the 500 Israeli checkpoints and other barriers to movement just to reach school each day. Meanwhile, Israel's program of colonization of the West Bank grinds ahead relentlessly, implanting ever more Israeli settlers who must be "protected" from those Palestinians not reconciled to the theft of their homes and fields. What Palestinians are really being commanded is not just to forget their past, but instead to forget their future, too. That they will never do.

The primacy of Jewish security over rights of Palestinians -- to property, education, health care, a chance to make a living, and, also to security -- is seldom challenged.

Unfortunately, remembering the Nazi Holocaust -- something morally incumbent on all of us -- has seemingly become entangled with, and even an instrument of, the amnesia some would force on Palestinians. Israel is enveloped in an aura of ethical propriety that makes it unseemly, even "anti-Semitic" to question its denial of Palestinian rights.

As Israeli journalist Amira Hass recently observed: "Turning the Holocaust into a political asset serves Israel primarily in its fight against the Palestinians. When the Holocaust is on one side of the scale, along with the guilty (and rightly so) conscience of the West, the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homeland in 1948 is minimized and blurred."

What this demonstrates is that memory is not just an idle capacity. Rather, who can remember, and who can be made to forget, is, fundamentally, an expression of power.

Equally importantly, however, memory can provide a blueprint for the future -- a vision of a solution to seek, or an outcome to avoid. My Palestinian father grew up in Jerusalem before Israel was founded and the Palestinians expelled, when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in peace and mutual respect. Recalling that past provides a vision for an alternative future -- one involving equal rights and tolerance, rather than the domination of one ethno-religious group over others.

Thus, what Palestinians are really being commanded is not just to forget their past, but instead to forget their future, too. That they will never do.

*George Bisharat is professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He writes frequently about the Middle East.

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Post Your Comment

Posted by Mark on July 2, 2012 #144825

I must admit that if were forced out of my home at gunpoint I wouldn't have thought to take the deeds to my flat with me though I guess I would probably have taken the keys, just in case.
Were the inhabitants advised to take the paperwork with them?
Posted by suleiman on March 29, 2011 #132113

i heart palestine
Posted by Aya Maraqa on September 17, 2010 #121617

A very interesting article.It is unbelievable how facts are changed in this world, how the victim is turned to be viewed as a terrorist and the terrorist is turned to be viewed as a hero!
Posted by Joseph on October 29, 2009 #93329

my family has lived in palestine for generations i used to visit every year to see my village and land and now even as an american citizen i cannot visit or stay in alot of ereas of occupied palestine i just want to go home i was born in the us but wuold do anything to live back in palestine forever
Posted by Cathryn Baillie on May 4, 2008 #36899

I have yet to understand the reasoning of the Israelis that somehow Palestine is "theirs" and that the native Palestinians should move away. These people have their history and traditions and religion and families - why don't the Israelis or Hebrews understand? Your article is very interesting.
Posted by unknown on April 21, 2008 #35454

I am a Jordanian citizen living in hamilton. i am also a Palestinian. my feelings for Palestine are speachless. if i were to say something i were to get locked up. i'm not even sure a 12 year old can be locked up but after what isreal has done... i think anything is possible. i miss my home land. my poor olive trees suffer. i know i have never been to palestine... but i have been in isreal. i hope that isreal will never be known becuase it does not belong. im sorry if i have hurt anyones feelings.. i was just saying my own feelings. yours trully,
Posted by tayseer Abdulraziq on April 17, 2008 #35079

Dear George, Being a man of 55 years old,I still remember my father who was an illiterate very humble old man when he was from a time to another asking my sister to bring a very old metallic can . Opening it and asking me to read those papers which proves our land properties in Ras Al-Ain 12km to the east of Yafa. Every time I read those papers my father eyes fled with tears. This action was repeated many times that I learned all the papers by heart . Later on when this process was repeated I read the continents by heart. This thing and the very dear tears of such a very strong , stable old man whom I never saw his tears except on this occasion generated a very strong ambition that drove me although I was a small kid to adventure and go to see It before 1967 in spite of the hatred Jewish occupation. I tried many times and once a time I was caught by an officer of the Arabic Jordanian Army and forced me to retreat. This nostalgia continued till the I967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank. A year later we were allowed to go to visit the 1948 occupied territories but armed with a special authorization from the Israeli Military Governor. We got that document and on the extreme early of that tomorrow he waked me up and ordered me to prepare myself to go to Al-sahil (opposite to the mountainous- the name given by the olds to the occupied 1948 ) Obeying his orders I got speedily dressed and we marched our foot journey which took us 2hours. When Ras -al- Ain appeared , my father sat on a stone and began weeping very silently . I stood a little way from him and began watching that outstanding beautiful landscaping . Later then my father said that every thing has changed and the marks to discriminate the area had vanished . Finally he lead me through an old street which has not been removed and began saying see this belong to ... and he began specifying the owners . We came to a spot where he told me to stop then he broke into tears and said : My son this is our property . The land was surrounded with a metal hedge and was changed to a stadium . We visited the other locations and we left back home but haunted with very severe sorrows. But since that time I am haunted with a very strong feeling that sooner or later we will restore it and I have designed to build a villa their if not for me it will be for my seed as my father ( God may rest his Soul) has given me those precious Paper. Thanking you George for your article . with my wildly regards.
Posted by Doris Norrito on October 22, 2007 #22143

When in Jordan, I spoke w/ Palestinians and heard stories of their losses and the diaspora after 1948. I never heard unkind words spoken against Jewish people. But the overwhelming sympathy world-wide for displaced Jews and neglect of recognition for the plight and suffering of displaced Palestinians is regarded as one-sided and dehumanizing so there is underlying resentment. In the US, those who speak out for Palestinian rights are often silenced, accused of being anti-Semitic and in support of terrorim: so most voices go unheard. When the brave speak out, they are soon silenced as was Palestinian rights advocate Dr. Sami Al-Arian. Imprisoned and charged with terrorism, following a six month trial he was found "not guilty." That was almost two years ago; yet today he remains in prison. Palestine Remembered are the voices that must be heard!
Posted by alba ecosse on October 6, 2007 #21318

I will always remember when I lived in Amman the old man whose son I nearly married who still had the key to his house in Haifa. The thing I remember most is that this man and his elderly wife had no hatred for the jews who took his house and land, he said to me " they have to have somewhere to live but why did the world decide it was my house and no one asked me"! don't believe those people who say there was no one living there and it was an Empty Land to paraphrase Golda Mayer. Long Live Palestine a free and fair land
Posted by Rosalie on September 19, 2007 #20651

I have suffered from this war also and lost contact with someone I love very dearly. I am trying to find Sami Haddad or Hassan Jaber Samarrae from Yaffa Palestine. I was with him in Beirut during the 70's and am trying very hard to locate him now. Please tell me if there is any registry that can locate missing Palestinians.
Posted by hariyono on June 13, 2007 #17163

I am completely,like many Indonesians, to stand with the positions for a liberated Palestine,for all religions,belief of the oppressed Arabs.This world is unjust.There is a condemnation for China in bad treatment in Tibet, but when he critizes the Chinese agreesion in Tibet; he will be called neither as anti-asian nor anti-buddhist,but when he critizes the Israelis'violation to Arabs,he is called as anti-semit and even the offsprings of Goebbels.Viva the liberation of Palestine