Memory Activism: Reimagining the Past for the Future in Israel-Palestine

Memory Activism: Reimagining the Past for the Future in Israel-Palestine

by Yifat Gutman

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SAGE Memory Studies Journal & Memory Studies Association Outstanding First Book Award, Honorable Mention, 2019

Set in Israel in the first decade of the twenty-first century and based on long-term fieldwork, this rich ethnographic study offers an innovative analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It explores practices of "memory activism" by three groups of Jewish-Israeli and Arab-Palestinian citizens—Zochrot, Autobiography of a City, and Baladna—showing how they appropriated the global model of truth and reconciliation while utilizing local cultural practices such as tours and testimonies.

These activist efforts gave visibility to a silenced Palestinian history in order to come to terms with the conflict's origins and envision a new resolution for the future. This unique focus on memory as a weapon of the weak reveals a surprising shift in awareness of Palestinian suffering among the Jewish majority of Israeli society in a decade of escalating violence and polarization—albeit not without a backlash.

Contested memories saturate this society. The 1948 war is remembered as both Independence Day by Israelis and al-Nakba ("the catastrophe") by Palestinians. The walking tour and survivor testimonies originally deployed by the state for national Zionist education that marginalized Palestinian citizens are now being appropriated by activists for tours of pre-state Palestinian villages and testimonies by refugees.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826521347
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 04/04/2017
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Yifat Gutman is a sociologist and culture researcher at Tel Aviv University and an Associate Research Fellow in the Truman Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is coeditor of Memory and the Future: Transnational Politics, Ethics, and Society.

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Memory Activism

Reimagining the Past for the Future in Israel-Palestine

By Yifat Gutman

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2017 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-2133-0


The Activist Tour as a Political Tool

One sunny Saturday morning in spring 2008, I joined a group of thirty people who waited for a tour bus outside the train station in Tel Aviv. The majority of us were middle-class Jewish Israelis roughly between twenty-five and sixty-five years old. There were also a few internationals and a foreign filming crew working on a documentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We all had preregistered for this free tour through the organizer, an Israeli NGO called Zochrot, whose name means "we remember" in female plural form in Hebrew. We knew we were going to visit the ruins of a pre-1948 Palestinian village. From chatting in the train station I found out that for many, this was the first time they would be participating in one of Zochrot's tours. All of us were casually dressed, in hats and sport shoes or hiking sandals, carrying light food and water we had packed in advance. We looked like the thousands of other Israelis who go hiking in national parks and reservations every weekend. And indeed, after an hour or so, the bus dropped us off at the parking lot of a national park that was full with cars and hikers. Shortly after leaving the bus and stretching our legs we, joined by thirty to forty other tour participants who arrived by car, gathered around the tour guide, Amin. One of Zochrot's two Palestinian staff members, Amin explained in perfect Hebrew with a slight Arabic accent where we were going, what stops we would make on the way, and what we were about to see at these stops. For a Jewish Israeli like myself, everything felt quite familiar so far, resembling the popular script of the tour by foot as it has been practiced in Israeli schools, youth movements, scouting clubs, and family weekend trips around the country. There were only two indications that this was not a regular weekend tour. First, an elderly Palestinian in traditional attire, accompanied by his son, the son's wife, and three of his grandchildren, arrived in a private car and was greeted by the tour guide and Zochrot's staff members. Second, as the group started walking, we wandered off to an unmarked path in an otherwise well-marked and mapped park. Unlike the marked paths, lined by trees planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), Israel's land and forests agency, and seeded with archeological structures, along our path there were no signs, only wildly growing fruit trees, scattered stones, and cacti. There were no other travelers on this path, which together with the wildly growing flora suggested that it is not considered a destination for the ordinary weekend hiker. Our diversion from the marked path received curious and inquisitive looks from other hikers, who we soon left behind.

Zochrot's tour of Palestinian ruins continued to follow the tour format familiar to Jewish Israelis: following a tour guide on a path through nature, making stops along the way to hear the guide commenting on the landscape, explaining what had been there before. Yet some differences did arise: not only that the tour guide spoke first in Arabic and only later in Hebrew; the elder Palestinian also spoke alongside the guide; the man is a Palestinian refugee and a former resident of the site before its destruction in 1948. His mental map of the place, communicated through testimony, in combination with documents and photos, critical historiographies, and testimonies of other former residents, provided the foundational body of knowledge for this tour. Moreover, at central stops during the tour, signs prepared by Zochrot that carry the Palestinian place name in Arabic and Hebrew (sometimes also in English) were posted by the refugee's family, some of Zochrot's staff and volunteers, and willing participants. These signs resembled the JNF signs that are posted throughout this national park but had brighter colors.

The guide and refugee gave short oral presentations at every stop along the way. They had visited the site together at least once before to prepare for this one-time public tour of this particular site organized primary for Israeli Jews. In fact, the refugee's testimony was transcribed and translated to appear in a booklet handed out to tour participants at the beginning of the tour. The same knowledge on the site is distributed through two mediums: the written booklet and the spoken and embodied performance of live testimony during the tour. This suggests that Zochrot does not expect the written information to function independently from the refugee's presence and performance. Giving testimony is indeed a position that, in addition to providing firsthand knowledge, carries unique moral authority, especially when performed in situ (J. Feldman 2008, 69). It is a position and practice that Israelis are highly familiar with when the witness is a Jewish Israeli Holocaust survivor for example. But will they give the same legitimacy and authority to a non-Jewish witness, moreover, to a Palestinian who testifies about Jewish and Israeli violence, displacement, and dispossession? And how will the Palestinian refugee communicate a long-silenced memory to those whose parents and grandparent may have taken part in the war that caused his displacement and loss?

These and other questions suggest that this activist tour, which mimics the form of the tour previously used for Zionist national education, to portray not Jewish Israeli, but Palestinian ties to the land, is far from being simple and straightforward. The activist utilization of the tour carries dilemmas, tensions, contradictions, and ironies, some which are inherent to the hegemonic use of the tour in Israel, and others that stem from its activist employment in the political context of the 2000s.

Here we begin our close reading of how memory activists have been appropriating and redeploying locally familiar memory practices to pursue the postconflict paradigm of truth and reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This close reading, which continues in the two following chapters, is of the activist appropriation of the tour and testimony by different groups of Jewish Israeli and Arab Palestinian activists since 2001; these are commemorative forms and practices that are locally rooted within Israel's dominant memory culture. The examination not only includes cultural forms that have been dominant among Jewish Israelis but also considers similar, separate yet related, practices developed by Palestinian citizens. The analysis begins with the appropriation of cultural practices primarily by and for Jewish Israelis by the largest of the memory-activism groups I studied in Israel, Zochrot. Drawing on a history of touring in the Zionist movement and among Palestinian citizens of Israel, the intended and unintended consequences of a meeting between a Palestinian refugee and an audience of primarily Jewish Israelis that is meant to receive that refugee's previously silenced memories is revealed.

Neither side fully complied with the tour plan and format, despite Zochrot's congenial facilitation. Nevertheless, the majority of participants who joined Zochrot testified to a successful transformation of attitudes after participating in even one of the organization's tours. This response, which otherwise seems counterintuitive in light of participants' behavior and interaction in the tour itself, is explained, first, in light of the historical deployment of the tour as a tool for Zionist national education, and second, in relation to how activists have redeployed it in the political context of the last decade. My findings suggest that the relationship between an activist group and its publics is culturally mediated; this relationship is enacted through culture and cultural practices and decided in the public sphere.

Conquering the Land with Our Feet: A Local History of Touring

There is no better way to get to know the land than a well-planned trip. The trip links a person to his environment, he becomes attached to it and grows to love it. ... The trip on foot is the most desirable. The impressions gained through close inspection of the environment while hiking become etched in a person's heart and have a great influence on him. (Vilna'i 1953, 5, cited in Katriel 1996, 8)

This pedagogical text, written by the established Jewish Israeli scholar and educator Ze'ev Vilna'i, was originally published in 1945 by the Youth Department of the Jewish Agency as part of the Pedagogical Library for Councilors series. As the Zionist educator described here, touring the land by foot was perceived as central to cultivating personal attachment to the environment, and it was expected, additionally, that hiking will have "a great influence" on participants. From youth movement trips around the country in prestate Palestine to mandatory school trips in the national education system, to family weekend hiking tours organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature, tours by foot and hiking trips around the country are a central form of education, recreation, and symbolic communication in Jewish Israeli culture (Ben-David 1997; Katriel 1996, 1991; Y. Zerubavel 1995; Ben Yehuda 2002; Katriel and Shenhar 1990). Despite shifts in the imaginary links and ideological foundation of this form of secular pilgrimage over the years and a few critical debates within Israeli media, the tour remains today an almost consensual practice of mainstream Jewish Israeli culture, and an important element in its complex of "public ceremonies and myth making practices" (Katriel 1996, 6, 12).

Yet this form or practice is in itself an appropriation that was shaped through an intercultural setting. The use of the organized hiking tour as a pedagogical tool was influenced by a secular European pedagogy and the ethos of a return to nature of German youth culture after World War I, expressed by its youth movements and their Jewish version, Blau-Weis (Katriel 1996). At the same time, it had somewhat religious elements in the Zionist movement's (secular) interpretation of the traditional Jewish longing to return to the sacred land of the Bible and pilgrimage (Katriel 1996). In the prestate years in Palestine and nation-building period as a state, the organized tour had two central goals: (1) to create and reaffirm a sense of belonging to the land both as the sacred biblical space and as a national homeland, and (2) to reconnect Jewish immigrants with nature, as well as with found traces of the land's past (Katriel 1996).

In the prestate days, Jewish youth movement tours also tried to show Jewish ownership of the land by using the imagery of "conquering the land with our feet" (Benvenisti 1998, 145; Katriel 1996, 6; Ben-David 1997; Lentin 2010, 67). After the establishment of the State of Israel, youth movements saw tours by foot as the best way to produce knowledge of the land (yediat ha'retz), which fosters love for the land (ahavat ha'aretz; Naor 1989, 246, in Katriel 1996, 7; Katz 1985; Kadman 2008, 47). For Zionist educators in the nation-building period, however, this "love" or attachment to the land that the tour by foot was supposed to cultivate was also a source of concern. These educators saw the lack of touring as a mark of lesser attachment and participation in the new Jewish state (Katriel 1996). Youth movement members were mostly Jewish youth of Ashkenazi decent, and those who did not hike in the same way — Mizrachi Jews and Palestinian citizens — were viewed as demonstrating a weak attachment to the land (Katriel 1996; Noy and Cohen 2005, 23). Later, in the more pluralistic Jewish society of the 1980s, what was viewed as a lack of interest in tours by some of the population, especially marginalized Mizrachi youth, was interpreted by education experts as an ideological stance that prevented full participation in the society, and was therefore something to be corrected (Stahl 1985). As tours became part of the mainstream secular Ashkenazi-oriented culture in the nation-state, pedagogues saw "a taste for touring" among non-Ashkenazi Jewish Israelis as an invitation to participate in the society through the production of its shared values around historical and archeological sites (Katriel 1996, 9).

But "distaste" for tours by foot may have existed not only outside the dominant Ashkenazi culture, but also within it. Katriel illustrates this by way of another form of commemorative and national education — Israeli settlement museums: "The paradox of having to consciously cultivate a sense of affiliation where it should have been a cultural given" may have been important for new Jewish immigrants in the Yeshuv but raised doubts among the next generations who were born in Israel and for whom "a sense of place was a cultural experience" that "the rhetoric of roots only threatened to undermine. The more markedly ideological these assertions became, the more potentially destabilizing they seemed to be" (Katriel 1997, 9). Native-born Israelis had, in Katriel's account, a lived sense of belonging to the land that was very different from the intentional cultivation of cultural roots through commemoration.

In the 1980s, the connection to the biblical past and ideological components shifted to accommodate ideas about personal growth and progressive and active learning. The tour by foot did not change its form but appeared as a nonideological activity, "a ritualized, pedagogically and recreationally oriented practice in its own right" (Katriel 1996, 10). However, the ideological foundation of the tour reappeared when the form was mobilized by both right-wing and left-wing groups, to make a political statement for or against the occupation of the Palestinian Territories since 1967, especially from the first Intifada onward. Yet for the most part, as long as they appear nonideological, tours have remained an almost consensual activity that is a fundamental part of "growing up Israeli" (Katriel 1996).

A Palestinian History of Touring and Visiting

Although unregistered in the complex of practices and meaning making of "growing up Israeli" — that is, Jewish Israeli — Palestinians have also been strolling, touring, and visiting significant historical and national sites. Yet their restricted movement under martial law from 1949 to 1966 and the destruction of their pre-1948 sites by the state influenced their touring and visiting practices in a different way, giving these acts particular urgency and political significance. The literature has thus centered on one set of such practices over others: that of the return visit (Ben-Ze'ev 2004; Slyomovics 1998; Davis 2011). While Palestinians have been active in recreational hiking and strolling from the pre-1948 period (for example, Arab Girl Scouts' hiking tours, Hasan and Ayalon 2011) and until today (with growing difficulty in the West Bank as Shehadeh 2008 reported) return visits have received more scholarly and literary attention. Often these visits are analyzed through the lens of their national underpinning and commemorative dimension, although in the last decade or so some of these visiting practices have also incorporated aspects of leisure and active learning. In addition to return visits of Palestinian refugees with western passports to their village sites, or of Palestinians without immediate ties who instead follow "a mythology of place images and descriptions" (Slyomovics 1998: xx; see also Tamari 2003), internally displaced Palestinians who reside in Israel have been visiting the remains of their villages more often with their families. Some of the components of their post-1948 tradition have included picnicking, meeting others from the same locality, recounting their village's story during the annual Nakba Day and on weekends, and picking fruits and herbs and telling stories about their use (Ben-Ze'ev 2004). This tradition is unique to Palestinian citizens of Israel, who commemorate and transmit the memory of pre-1948 Palestinian places and communities when Israel celebrates its Independence Day (Ben-Ze'ev 2004; Slyomovics 1998, 17). Around 1998, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Nakba and Israeli independence, Palestinian associations within Israel joined various commemoration efforts in the territories and abroad, in organizing group walking tours to the ruins of 1948 villages for Palestinians in general, not only for refugees. The majority of these groups mobilize around 1948 to raise awareness of specific and urgent political problems of Palestinian citizens in the present: the Arab Cultural Association (ACA) in Nazareth, which was led by Rawda Bishara Atallah and includes an archive and an information center, is associated with the Palestinian party Balad; the Sadaka-Reut youth movement holds tours in Jaffa to show the state of current home evictions and demolition of Palestinian residences; and the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced Persons in Israel in the North of the country promotes the Right of Return of the internally displaced through tours, processions, and commemorative ceremonies.


Excerpted from Memory Activism by Yifat Gutman. Copyright © 2017 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: The Logic and Practice of Memory Activism 1

1 The Activist Tour as a Political Tool 27

2 The Activist Archive of Survivor Testimonies 42

3 Similar Practices, Higher Stakes: Palestinian Memory Activism in Israel 63

4 The Shift: The Nakba Law and the Memory War on 1948 90

5 From Reconciliation without Truth to Truth without Reconciliation 112

Conclusion: The Future of Reimagining the Past 143

Notes 153

References 165

Index 183

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