Tel Aviv ‘Nakba’ film festival keeps alive memories of 1948 in Israel

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Originally published on Ma’an News Agency on Dec. 1, 2013.

TEL AVIV, Israel (Ma’an) — The first-ever International Film Festival on Nakba and Return took place on Nov. 28-30 in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, reminding audiences that the 1948 trauma at the center of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot be ignored nor forgotten.

The festival, which showcased 12 films dealing with memories of the ethnic cleansing from Palestinian, Israeli, and international perspectives, was a powerful and important intervention into Israeli public discourse.

Zochrot is an Israeli organization that has been working for years to keep alive the memory of the 1948 ethnic cleansing within Israel, and the film festival was the first in Israel that explicitly focused on the topic. Over the last two days, Israeli audiences packed the Tel Aviv Cinemateque and Jaffa Theater to watch films that approached the issue of the 1948 Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”) from a wide variety of perspectives.

During the 1948 War, Zionist militias systematically ethnically cleansed 530 Palestinian villages of around 750,000 inhabitants, clearing the way for the creation of a Jewish-majority state in their place. The Nakba is widely remembered by Palestinians as the paradigmatic example of their dispossession by the State of Israel, and it is a central moment in the narrative of dispossession and exile of the Palestinian nation from their homeland.

Yet surprisingly, among the largest mainstream Israeli left-wing and movements, 1948 is rarely mentioned. For many of the most “pro-peace” organizations of the mainstream Israeli political spectrum, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 are seen as the root of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, while 1948 is relegated to the annals of ancient history.

For these activist groups, 1967 must be reversed and the occupation ended because these events changed the nature of the Israeli state from an inherently peaceful society into a militarized, morally adrift occupying power. 1967 marks the moment when Israel began to lose its moral authority in this perspective. 1948 is rarely on the radar, and the right of return of the refugees and their descendants to their homes in what is now Israel is conveniently forgotten in this narrative.

Much of the mainstream Israeli peace movement is built on a collective, structured forgetting of the ethnic cleansing of 1948, and an unwillingness to recognize that the settler colonial nature of Israel did not begin in 1967. This erasure of memory also betrays their failure to meaningfully engage with Palestinian priorities and concerns, which generally position the dispersal of three-fourths of the Palestinian nation from their homeland in 1948 as a key point in their struggle and a central focus of restitution and redress.

Exploring the Nakba ‘an incredibly violent and terrifying process’

The failure of much of the left to engage with the Nakba and the issue of return underscores the importance of the Zochrot International Film Festival on Nakba and Return in keeping alive these memories in the Jewish Israeli public.

The festival strikes deep at the heart of the structured forgetting of the Israeli state and the Zionist public by reminding audiences that these events have not been forgotten, nor can they be, if there is to be a just solution.

As the festival program explains, “the idea of partition and separation between Jews and Arabs in historical Palestine and was a key milestone in the ongoing conflict and the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.”

“The festival seeks to creatively challenge the partition concept and suggest new pathways for just and equitable life for all of this divided country’s present inhabitants and refugees.”

The festival kicked off with Lia Tarachansky’s film “On the Side of the Road,” a documentary that follows the filmmaker’s attempts to interview Israeli veterans of the 1948 War. The director incorporates her own experiences as a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant raised in an Israeli settlement who has had to recognize her own complicity in the Zionist settlement project.

As Tarachansky explained in an interview in mid-November, “The film focuses specifically on the psychological violence against the idea of questioning. It starts and ends with Israeli independence day, one year apart.”

The film spans the year following the Knesset’s passage of a law banning commemoration of the Nakba, weaving together the frank testimonies of soldiers who committed atrocities against Palestinian villagers and Tarachansky’s own journey of revelation regarding her country’s history and its current path.

The film culminates with scenes of Israeli police surrounding Zochrot members and preventing them from saying aloud the names of the villages destroyed in 1948 in order to protect “security,” a potent reminder of how dangerous even the memory of 1948 is for many in the Israeli state and society.

“They try to violently shut up these activists because you cannot talk about 1948 in Israel and certainly not on Independence Day. That’s why (the Nakba Film) Festival is so important,” Tarachansky said. Breaking down the ideology of 1948 for Israelis and exploring the Nakba is “an incredibly violent and terrifying process,” she added.

Reviving memories of the Nakba amidst nationwide anti-Prawer mobilization

Other films presented over the course of the two days explored the perspectives of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, American Jews, and elderly Palestinian survivors of 1948 massacres themselves.

A number of films focused on the spatial aspect of the Israeli erasure of memory. “Planting Resistance to the Jewish National Fund,” for example, examined the JNF’s policy of planting forests atop the ruins of Palestinian villages. Many of these villages were intentionally destroyed by Israeli forces years or even decades after the fighting took place in order to destroy the possibility of refugees’ return, the film revealed through a combination of on-the-ground walkthroughs as well as archival footage.

Today, these lands have for the most part been converted into forests of non-native pine trees, and signs point to Roman or other ancient ruins but pointedly ignore the remaining signs of recent Palestinian presence.

The festival did not pass without controversy, however. Prior to its start, chairwoman of the Jewish Home party Ayelet Shaked implored Tel Aviv’s mayor to shut down the festival because of its “anti-Zionist” nature, but the municipality did not respond. A few scattered protesters draped in Israeli flags loitered around outside the entrance at times, but for the most part the festival did not face active threats.

The festival culminated Saturday night in Jaffa with the national premiere of “When I Saw You.” The film follows the stories of Palestinians forced to flee into Jordan in 1967, and examines the plight and resistance of a family made into refugees overnight.

The focus on the refugees of 1967 was a fitting way to end the festival, as it served as a reminder that the Nakba is an ongoing process of dispossession that began in 1948 but continues today across historic Palestine.

Indeed, festival attendees exited the Jaffa Theater to find large protests underway against the Prawer Plan, which if implemented by Israel will lead to the displacement of tens of thousands of Bedouins.

The culmination of the festival at a moment of national, and global, protest was a potent reminder that the threat of dispossession and exile stalks Palestinians well into the 21st century.