Catastrophe and Independence – Continuing Claims of Memory

In a book from 2007 Ahmad H. Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod, Nakba: Palestine, 1947, and the Claims of Memory, analyze the contradictory, competing claims of memory about the dispossession and displacement of the Palestinians by armed Zionist organizations in 1948. They do this within and by engaging with the larger framework of history/memory/identity and the hegemonizing and silencing of historical narratives.H-Net Reviews

The authors contest the idea that Palestinian collective memory is ontologically given, and agree that no memory is pure or unmediated. They outline its historical emergence, the challenges to it by marginalized voices, and the moral and political implications of its erasure. This collection of sophisticated essays reveals how the process of remembering and forgetting is informed by present contingencies and by factors like gender and generational experience. The authors discuss the heterogeneous manifestations, content, and sites of Palestinian memory, expressed in such forms as oral narratives of refugees and survivors of massacres, and the remembrance and remapping of destroyed villages in court records, in Palestinian cinema, and in various literary genres, especially novels, poetry, and theater. Two of the volume’s contributors, Lila Abu-Lughod and Omar al-Qattan, take us along, in the company of their parents, on anguished journeys of return to Jaffa. These returns to “half-ruins” (when those who had lived in pre-1948 Palestine search for the traces of their childhood in heaps of rubble, in houses now occupied by strangers, in old trees that survived uprooting, and beneath Israeli inscriptions) reveal much about the importance of place, generational relationships, and the shape of unrequited memory.

This week again is the week of the Nakba remembrance but also of Yom Ha’zikaron, Memorial Day, to remember those who lost their lives during the establishment and defense of the state of Israel and of Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). For these Israeli days the sirens go off three times during two days.
Shimrit Lee explains:
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These sirens dictate and synchronize societal consciousness, so that the nation is emotionally manipulated from the lowest low to the highest high. The siren ensures that no one forgets. We’re all in this together (whether we like it or not).

Bereavement and commemoration of those who have “fallen” in battle is particularly important in the context of national Israeli solidarity. Death in battle is death in the service of the Nation and therefore has to be endowed with national meaning. Themes of idealized sacrifice and heroism of “the fallen” are central to the Israeli ethos of bereavement and commemoration.

These symbols (bereavement, heroism, commemoration, and so on) are appropriated by the collectivity and reproduced in public life so as to sustain collective boundaries and national ideology, while other symbols are simultaneously excluded from the national discourse in order to maintain salience in national identity. These boundaries and shared ideologies are the building blocks of the imaged community. The Remembrance Day ceremony in Israel therefore exemplifies the collectively realized performance within which national ideology can be maintained and reproduced. According to anthropologist Meira Weiss, “Remembrance Day is a theatrical performance in which the performers directly address the audience, without any attempt to create a realistic illusion. Performers and audience become one in a binding myth of sacrifice and martyrology” (Weiss 2011). Much like the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in U.S. schools for example, collective remembrances connect us with our national symbols and consolidates group solidarity through contact with the “sprits of the fathers.”

Because Israel is under an existential threat, the nation is obsessed with commemoration and national symbols. The “national cult of memorializing the dead” (Aronoff 1933:54) is used as a mediator between past and present, as Zionism ideology struggles to construct a historical bridge to a land from which the Jewish people had been exiled for nearly two thousand years.

Israel’s Independence Day and the remembrance of the Nakba coincide. The latter is important because it clashes with the narratives and memory of Israel:
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by the early 1990s, annual commemorations of the day by Palestinian citizens of Israel held a prominent and symbolic place in the community’s public discourse. Much like the commemoration of Israel’s fallen soldiers has become an act of public mourning rather than of individual familial loss, so too has the Nakba been adapted to a collective Palestinian experience of bereavement.

This symbolic act of loss and mourning on behalf of the Palestinians is seen as dangerous by Israelis who view Nakba Day as a celebration of alleged wishes for the dismantling of the Israeli state. Further, this commemoration is a threat to the “imagined community,” as it creates a whole range of conflicting narratives that spoil the salience of the “ultimate Israeli truth.” On March 22, the Knesset passed “the Nakba Law” which legislates the withdrawal of state funding from any institution that commemorates the Palestinian day of mourning.

Shimrit Lee participated in both experiences of memory and refers to Ariel Azoff’s (also participating in activities of remembrance from different sides) blog who wrote on the Nakba Law:midthought » Reconciliation in the Shadow of the Nakba Law

The Israeli narrative is: the Jews defeated their enemies and created a state where they could forever have a homeland and be protected from persecution. Valid. The Palestinian narrative is: a homeland was taken from them. Also valid. Yes, these seem hard to reconcile, and they have proven to be so. The cruel irony of the situation, though, is that reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians is impossible without mutual recognition of the validity of both narratives.

A reconcilliation is deemed necessary and rightly so, although both Shimrit Lee’s and Arial Azoff’s account show how memory and history are tontested because they are part of the whole conflict. The next video about the village of al-Walajeh, located to the south of Jerusalem, adequately sums up the current situation:
While in the Israeli case it seems to be the state that is forcing its definition of remembrance upon the people (incl. Palestinians) also the Palestinian narratives and memories are hegemonic, in the sense that they focus on belonging and displacement and resistance vs. capitulation.Another side of the Nakba « Beirut, Beijing, Beyond and Back

The day’s events, the demonstrating children, the unflinching politician and the diplomatic reaction of one who had suffered as a refugee for her entire life, combined to give real substance to a question of immediate saliance. It is a notion raised by anthropologist Dianna K. Allan in the volume Nakba: Palestine, 1948 and the claims of memory (2007, Columbia University Press): “Do institutionalised commemorative practices […] make it harder for subsequent generations of refugees to articulate a sense of identity and belonging in terms of present realities and their own hopes for the future?” (Allan, 2007, 257)

Alternatively, I contemplated: what space does the rhetorical insistence on the right to return leave for the young generations in the camp to carve out an identity not separate from, but possibly parallel to, Palestinianness as defined by resistance and displacement?

It is clear that also researchers might fall into that trap. This is not to say of course that dispossession, destruction, and so on, do not exist. On the contrary, they are still very much part of every day life which make it also hard of course to find parallel articulations of identity. Consider for example the next video initially displaying Gaza as a tourist attraction but then going on to discussing occupation, wars, and blockade:
Nevertheless, searching for and allowing for alternative visions of remembrance may be necessary and Abu Lughod sees, very optimistally, a great possibility for this precisely because Nakba and Independence, Palestinians and Israeli are so tightly connected:
SPIEGEL Interview with Lila Abu-Lughod: ‘Any Solution Will Have to Involve More Creative Thinking’ – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News – International

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Nakba is a national trauma for the Palestinians, hundreds of thousands had to leave their homes and villages behind. But of course the number of those who actually lived through it decreases every year. Has this changed the meaning of commemorating the Nakba?

Abu-Lughod: This is a wonderful question. Dr. Rosemary Sayigh, who has been interviewing Palestinians about their experiences for decades, describes her work as a race against time. But Diana Allan, an anthropologist from Harvard who has been videotaping old men and women in the refugee camps all over Lebanon to create a Nakba Archive, would be the first to insist that though it is important to get these stories, it should not distract us from the contemporary problems Palestinians face, in Lebanon and elsewhere. I have been following with interest, though, the way this particular Nakba commemoration has galvanized people and spurred storytelling: a good example is the series of “untold stories” on the Web site of the Institute for Middle East Understanding.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Nakba and the founding of the State of Israel can’t be separated from one another. What does this mean for relations between Israelis and Palestinians today?

Abu-Lughod: Palestinians and Israelis are tightly entangled. Any resolution must involve a recognition of the fact that Israel was founded on the expulsion of Palestinians. Then we can think and talk together about restitution, redress, compensation, or whatever it takes for a more just way forward. In Israel and Palestine we have an amazing opportunity — to think about changing history by considering a democratic state with a living future for everyone.

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