Truth on Trial: Unearthing the Legacy of the Nakba
“What the state policy was, everybody knows,” he begins.
“What the government decided at the time, everyone knows, yes? To expel as many as possible! That was the government’s policy. And at the time I saw nothing wrong with it. We were not mature people. We were kids, and did what we were told. We were also in constant danger. If you don’t win, they told us, you won’t survive.”
So proclaimed an Israeli veteran of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
The man gave his testimony before the Truth Commission on the Responsibility of Israeli Society for the Events of 1948-1960 in the South. The Truth Commission, the first of its kind in Israel, was founded in 2012 by the Israeli non-governmental organization Zochrot, pronounced zokh-rote, the kh making a guttural sound at the back of the throat. Zochrot’s stated mission is to “promote acknowledgement and accountability for the ongoing injustices of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948.”
In Hebrew, “zochrot” means “remember.” It is not a command—remember!—but a present-tense descriptor with a feminine plural subject: we remember, you remember, they remember. In Hebrew, the convention is to default to the masculine (“zochrim”). Zochrot’s name reflects a self-proclaimed rejection of the masculine, violent historical narrative.
Since its founding in 1948, the State of Israel has had to contend “with the preceding layer of its existence, a layer that it has erased and on which it has been built,” according to Jewish Israeli researcher Noga Kadman’s book Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948. The 1948 War, triggered by Israel’s May 14 declaration of its establishment and the subsequent Arab response, was fought between Israel and a coalition of neighboring Arab states. The nine-month-long conflict displaced nearly a million Palestinians, either internally or as refugees to neighboring countries, and at least 418 Palestinian villages were depopulated. This was the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe.”
The history of the Nakba is the subject of fierce debate in Israel and around the world. At the center of this debate is the extent to which Israeli forces intentionally expelled Palestinians, the role of neighboring Arab states in necessitating or encouraging Palestinian flight, and the existence of a pre-Nakba Palestinian identity. Often, though, the Nakba itself goes unmentioned.
Israel’s political parties might be helpful in illuminating how the Nakba is remembered, or erased, across different segments of Israeli society. A search for “Nakba” on the Hebrew websites of various parties yields results that range from outright opposition to omission to support. The word appears once on the website of the right-wing ruling Likud Party, in the transcript of a 2014 speech from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against the Palestinian Authority’s “incessant incitement…reflected in the fact that they hold processions on what they call the ‘Nakba’…defining the existence and establishment of the State of Israel as a disaster that must be corrected.” A search on the website of the left-wing opposition Labor Party yields zero results, and the far-left Meretz Party displays eight results, linking to pages describing party policy, historical fact sheets, and statements of principle. Acceptance of the Nakba as historical fact remains a feature of the Israeli far left, where Zochrot comfortably sits.
With its Truth Commission, Zochrot seeks to establish a historical, testimonial archive of the Nakba. Doing so places the group squarely at the nerve center of Israeli society: By attempting transitional justice for a still-raging conflict, the group seeks to challenge what it sees as Israel’s carefully constructed collective memory.
“It can be traumatic to understand what happened here,” Kadman told The Politic. “What happened on the land that I live in today, what happened to people who were killed, who lost everything, who were dispossessed.”
Israel has mostly dealt with the legacy of Palestine by forgetting it, Kadman argues in Erased from Space and Consciousness. According to Kadman’s account, the Israeli government strives to erase the legacy of the land’s pre-1948 inhabitants by demolishing vacant Arab villages, converting them into apolitical historical attractions, and Hebraizing remaining Arab place names.
These efforts are intimately tied to the battle over Israel’s collective memory, defined generally by Kadman as “stories that a group tells itself about its history, something that is constantly being built and shaped normatively by the hegemonic ruling class.” Dominant Israeli narratives rarely center on the Nakba; Kadman summarized them as “we won and established our state, and the things that happened in wars happened, and Palestinians became refugees and they escaped, and this is now our country.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in its online timeline of Israeli history, makes no mention of the event.
The Truth Commission works against erasure. Jessica Nevo, a curly-haired Argentine immigrant who coordinates the Truth Commision, was one of the Commission’s earliest advocates within Zochrot.
In 1976, when Nevo was 14 years old and living in Buenos Aires, the Argentine military overthrew President Isabel Perón in a coup and installed General Jorge Rafael Videla in her stead. Two years later, Nevo and her family left Buenos Aires for Israel. They decided to migrate because of the new regime, which “made disappear, tortured, and killed members of my family,” she said in a 2004 speech before Badil, a Palestinian rights NGO.
“[Living] almost all my life under state terrorism, military checkpoints and curfews has had an impact on my adopting a critical perspective to the conflict [in Israel],” Nevo told the audience.
The similarities she perceived between Israel and Argentina’s national traumas gave Nevo hope that Argentina’s post-dictatorship mechanisms of truth-seeking, commemoration, and justice could succeed in Israel.
Zochrot’s Truth Commission draws inspiration from the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), established in Argentina in 1984, the year after the fall of the military dictatorship. CONADEP was the first truth commission of its kind, and its task was, in Nevo’s words, “to establish the truth about the fate of the disappeared.” The commission worked for nine months. Its final report, Nunca Más—Never Again—named the disappeared, published the testimonies of survivors and their families, and documented the junta’s systematic repression of Argentine society.
During her 2004 speech before Badil, Nevo predicted that a truth commission on the Nakba could “end up putting the whole Zionist project on trial.”
The trial began in 2012. In October of that year, Zochrot hosted in its Tel Aviv gallery Towards a Common Archive, a media exhibition curated by filmmaker Eyal Silvan and historian Ilan Pappé that presented testimonies of thirty Jewish fighters from the 1948 War. According to Zochrot’s final report, the event illuminated the need for a larger, organized effort to document testimony about 1948.
Shortly thereafter, Zochrot established a steering committee to develop the framework for a truth commission about the Nakba. The members of the steering committee could draw inspiration from many international models: Since CONADEP published Nunca Más in 1984, truth commissions have been established in over thirty nations, most famously in post-apartheid South African and post-genocide Rwanda.
Despite several delays, the preliminary steering committee eventually gave way to a formal commission, which began its research in October of 2014 and chose to focus its work on the south of Israel. As the Commission wrote in its final report, “the project’s preliminary and semi-experimental nature” made studying the whole of the Nakba—a behemoth task for any group—impossible.
Focusing exclusively on the events in Israel’s south also served political purposes. The Nakba is best remembered in the center and north of Israel—in the Galilee, the Sharon Plain, Jerusalem and its environs—where the displacement of Palestinians registers, for those who choose to acknowledge it, as a historical event.
The displacement of the Bedouin Arabs of the Negev Desert, which stretches over most of the south of Israel, is a less-recognized part of the Nakba. Walid Khalidi did not include Bedouin communities in the list of 418 depopulated Palestinian villages in his 1992 book All That Remains. Kadman, drawing off Khalidi’s work, excludes Bedouin sites from study in Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948. Focusing the efforts of the Truth Commission on the south of Israel, then, was an attempt to bring the Bedouin experience into the memory of the Nakba.
By the end of 2014, Zochrot was ready to host the first public hearing of the Truth Commission. It took place on International Human Rights Day, December 10, in a gray-walled and colorfully-carpeted conference room in the southern city of Be’er Sheva. Over two hundred people attended, including two classes of high schoolers from Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
The testimonies delivered at the first hearing reflected the broader conflict over what, exactly, happened in 1948. Nuri al-Uqbi, a Bedouin witness, testified that the Israeli Army expelled his family from the Negev, “The Jews came to our large tent…and said that within four hours they did not want to see anyone here. ‘Go east of the Jordan River.’”
Another Bedouin man, identified by the last name abu-Ashiva, described in detail the evacuation of his community.
“The killings and murders began in the north, then moved westward, and then they came to al-Sab’a,” abu-Ashiva said. “The city surrendered quickly, without war or resistance. The urban women were running barefoot, and the blood dripped from their legs…and then they drove the men to the [West] Bank.”
Most Israeli veterans did not blame their own forces for the violence. Before the Truth Commission, Amnon Neumann spoke of his encounter with a comrade during the 1948 War.
“A man came,” he began, “and said, ‘I raped her, and I shot her.’ She was seventeen or eighteen, I don’t know. I went to the commander of his platoon, and told him that he should be executed.”
But, Neumann hastened to clarify, “he was not a son of this land…We didn’t do anything wrong!”
Similarly, the Israeli veteran Zalman Arzi defiantly testified that he “would be ready to apologize if [he] felt that [he] had done something not fit.”
Al-Uqbi and Neumann agreed on one point, though: The Truth Commission had a slim chance of effecting change. They made sure their thoughts on the matter entered the testimonial record.
Neumann concluded his testimony by announcing that he believed the organization “cannot solve the problems” it seeks to address, and al-Uqbi concurred.
“This is not a commission. It has no authority. If a day comes when a real trial takes place with an accused, a prosecutor, and a judge, I’ll say things much more serious than what I said today,” al-Uqbi said.
The two raise a salient point. Zochrot remains a small fringe group in Israel, relegated to the outer orbit of the Israeli Left at a time when the right wing enjoys unprecedented political and cultural dominance. Its ability to make change is limited by the bounds of public and official discourse.
The Israeli state actively suppresses memory of the Nakba. The “Nakba Law,” which allows the Finance Minister to withhold state funding from any institution that celebrates Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning, or Nakba Day, has caused legal repercussions against commemoration of the Nakba. In 2014, the University of Haifa expelled two Arab students for organizing political activity on campus on the anniversary of the Nakba (this decision was later canceled by a district court), violating the school’s ban on Nakba Day commemorations instituted after the law’s passage in 2011. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev recently called for the government to use the law to fine the Tel Aviv Cinematheque for hosting a film festival about the Nakba, organized by Zochrot.
“Crimes are still being executed today,” Kadman said. “Israeli society is not in the state that this commission could have any momentum…A lot needs to happen. We need to look at history with more open eyes and in a balanced way, to see the other, to hear the other.”
A year after the opening event came the commission’s closing, under two tents in the Bedouin village of al-Araqib. The Israeli government does not recognize the locality, meaning al-Araqib lacks basic services like electricity and water and is regularly demolished by the state. In the program, Zochrot encouraged attendees to consult its iNakba app to find the village, which is not on Google Maps. During the two-day closing ceremony, Zochrot ran an aerial photography workshop, held an event to document artifacts for a digital archive of al-Araqib, and released the final report of the Truth Commission.
The English version of the report is thirty pages long, and contains excerpts of testimony and several pages of background and analysis. Its cover features, in large yellow block letters, the name of the document in English and Arabic. The second page clarifies, following a copyright symbol, that “all rights are reserved to those who were expelled from their homes.”
Jessica Nevo delivered the opening address of the event. She spoke, in her Argentine-accented Hebrew, of the role Zochrot could play in Israeli society.
“Truth commissions in the world, processes of transitional justice, processes of coping with the past and the acceptance of responsibility, are not to add salt to a wound,” Nevo said, “but to heal the wound. To place a salve.”
Three months after the January 2 event, in March of 2016, the Truth Commission on the Responsibility of Israeli Society for the Events of 1948-1960 in the South submitted its final report to the United Nations Rapporteur on the Right to Truth, Reparation, and Guarantee of Non-Recurrence.
Three months later, after the tents specially erected for Zochrot’s closing event had come down, after the Truth Commission’s report was placed safely in the hands of a United Nations bureaucrat, after the truth of 1948 had been excavated and preserved and publicly declared, the Israeli government demolished al-Araqib for the 100th time.
Village leader Siyah al-Touri told Al Jazeera that the army “stormed in and destroyed everything, every single building, every single home.”
The truth was no salve.