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Co-memory and Melancholia: Israelis Memorialising the Palestinian Nakba
Yehudit Kirstein Keshet
Bookreview of Ronit Lentin, 2010, Manchester University Press, 172pp, bibliography, index.



The Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, is decidedly the skeleton of skeletons
in Israel’s national cupboard. Ignored in school text-books, its public commemoration
disparaged and, latterly, banned by law, it is nevertheless a very present absence, a
threatening and taboo topic. Rational discussion of the Nakba with the average Jewish
Israeli, including many on the liberal Zionist Left, is almost impossible. Most will cling
to the triumphalist myths of 1948: the victory of the few against the many, the purity
of Israeli arms versus the allegedly barbarous onslaught of the ‘Arab’ hordes. The
emergence of alternative, Israeli, versions of that war by scholars such as Flapan ( 1987 ),
Morris 1987, 2000, 2008) and Shlaim (1999) among others has done little to shake Israelis
from their tenacious beliefs in the righteousness of their history. Israeli-Palestinians too,
whether from fear of the authorities or for other internal reasons for years preserved
silence around the subject, with notable exceptions, as Lentin points out. (See Chapter
6: Historicizing the Nakba: contested Nakba Narratives as an Ongoing Process). Within
Israel the Nakba is notably absent from school history books, even in the separate ‘Arab’
education stream. An experimental text book (Adwan S. And Bar On D. 2005) presenting
both narratives side by side with a central space for students’ comments has recently
been withdrawn from use in an Israeli high school by order of the Ministry of Education.
(Ha’aretz, September 24, 2010)

Commemoration, recording and reviving of this buried history has more recently also
been taken up by Jewish-Israelis, notably the Tel-Aviv based NGO Zochrot [Remembering]
www. zochrot.org, that describes itself as “a group of Israeli citizens working to raise
awareness of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948”. It is this co-memory work
that is a central topic of Ronit Lentin’s latest book.

Lentin is a feminist scholar and activist, an Israeli living in what she describes as self
imposed exile in Ireland. Her work centers around political and sociological issues in
Israel-Palestine as well as migration and refugee rights (Lentin, 1980, 2002. 2004, 2007,
2008). The current book is part autoethnography, charting Lentin’s own political journey
from the heart of Zionism to a position on the radical edges of the Left. It is also a critical
analysis of Israeli commemoration practices of the Nakba, asking the question whether
we, Israelis, in memorialising the history of the other to which we have contributed so
disastrously, are appropriating it to our own needs.

“I theorise Nakba commemoration by Israeli Jews as co-memory, the memory story of Palestine

indelibly and dialectically woven into the story of Israeli-Jewish dissent... co-memoration of victor
and vanquished, united...in grieving the loss of Palestine. Melancholia shifts the mourning from the
lost object to the grieving subject and I wonder whether co-memorising the Nakba in Hebrew shifts
the object of commemoration from the colonised Palestinians to the colonising Israelis who use this
commemorative act to construct their own (Israeli Jewish) identity.” (p.129)

This is a serious question, both theoretically and politically since it touches on the core
question of how activists who continue to be part of, and enjoy the privileges of, the
colonising power can stand in solidarity with the colonized without falling into the trap of

patronage and narcissitic self-healing (and see Landy, in Lentin ed, 2008) for a thoughtful
study of this question). Melancholia: the ‘endless mourning for a loss that cannot be
fully comprehended or resolved’ Kuntsman, (2009,162;) the ‘restorative nostalgia’
for an imagined past (Boym (2001), is certainly very integral to the Zionist project as a
whole harking back to an illusory historic moment (Sand, 2008) but also forward to a
constantly elusive messianic future. (Rose, 2005). The wider cultural and affective aspects
of melancholia/nostalgia are only hinted at in what is a very densely written text.

Lentin positions her critique in the political context from which she writes. She speaks
of the need to recognize that the Occupation of 1967 is an extension of that of 1948.It is
the ideal of the so-called Peace Camp, or Zionist Left, to ‘return’ to the imaginary Israel
of supposed justice and honour ‘ ... that erases the 1948 Nakba and assumes that before
the 1967 war Israel was beautiful and just for the Palestinians living under martial law
and for the Mizrachi population sent to live outside the centers of urban power...’ (p.4),
She thus makes a connection that is absent in many studies between the Palestinian
refugee problem and the status of Mizrachi (Arab) Jews as a political, not an ethnic,
issue. (p. 3) (and see also Shenhav (2006). Crucially, she reminds the reader that, like so
many Jewish Israeli activists, she is a middle class Ashkenazi (European Jew) and that
‘...my viewpoint...is limited by a racial and class divide.’ She adds: ... ‘I remind myself
that in researching Palestine as in co-memorating the Nakba in Hebrew the Palestinians
often get erased their voices subsumed by the voice of the powerful coloniser and that,
regardless of our position and politics, all Israeli Jews are implicated in and must take
responsibility for the colonisation of Palestine...’. ) (P.5)

Two sub-texts are repeated in the book: one is the deep connection, at least in Israeli
minds, between the Holocaust and the Nakba, ( see also Kirstein-Keshet, forthcoming) a
connection that plays into Jewish anxieties of obliteration by the “Arabs.”It is of course
also a central part of the experience and emotional baggage of many Jewish Israelis,
survivors or children of Holocaust survivors and refugees, like Lentin herself. The other
sub-text is the question of denial: Israeli denial of what was perpetrated during the
Nakba, denial in the silences of Holocaust and Nakba survivors alike. Lentin movingly
details her own attempts to come to terms with the silence around her father’s role
as a soldier during the fall of Haifa in 1948, that is, with the silences in her own history
paralleled by the silences in Palestinian history, the latter in large part imposed by Israel.

It is in Chapter 7 that Lentin reaches the nub of her theory with a detailed analysis of
Zochrot’s practices, both performative and discursive. Zochrot relies heavily on oral
testimonies which, as Lentin, quoting historian Tamar Avraham, points out, often
obscure historical narrative (p.139). Oral histories do however have an important
function, especially in conditions where the recorded, ‘scientific’ history of the
Palestinians is almost totally absent. However, as Lentin points out that:

“the problem of the perpetrators using victim testimonies goes beyond historical accuracy.
Refracting Palestinian refugee testimonies through the voices of the collectivity, often in mediated
or attenuated format so as to make them palatable to a hostile Israeli Jewish public, runs the risk of
separating the Nakba past from the Palestinian reality.” (P139)

For indeed, the Nakba – ethnic cleansing, land expropriation and arbitrary state/military/

bureaucratic violence - continues for Palestinians to this day, across the imaginary of the
Green Line and within Israel. While Lentin concedes that Zochrot is an evolving group,
increasingly taking collective responsibility for the Nakba and moving from co-memory
practices to more explicitly political work, she queries whether:

“...Nakba co-memoration enables groups such as Zochrot to perform co-memory as an act of

reconciliation rather than as leading to the dismantling of the Israeli racial state...is Nakba co-
memoration ultimately about aiming to heal Israel and repair Jewish identity?” (p. 150).

One might challenge the latter statement by asking whether reconciliation may in fact
be a first step to mutual Jewish-Palestinian recognition, de-demonizing and mutual
legitimacy, without which there can be no ‘dismantling of the Israeli racial state’, a
contested concept in itself. And perhaps self-healing is a first step in truly recognizing the
rights and needs of others? These questions themselves and the debates that they will
hopefully generate are of the utmost importance. The current (December 2010/January
2011) outbursts of overt racism in Israel, with street mobs supported by state religious
authorities calling for the exclusion of ‘Arabs’ from urban localities , and the persecution
of Israel’s Bedouin communities in the Negev, may well harbinger a new wave of ethnic
cleansing of Israel’s Arab citizens. The activities of Zochrot and other activist groupings,
however flawed, are therefore a welcome counterweight to these overt racist trends.

As a reviewer who shares, albeit with reservations, Lentin’s political stance, I can see
that this book will raise considerable controversy not only from the mainstream but also
on the Left, particularly her analysis in Chapter 5 of post-Zionism and anti-Zionism, with
a clearly critical position towards the former. The important contribution of the book
may well be the stimulation of self-appraisal on the Israeli Left, again, something often
noticeably absent. Lentin positions herself throughout the book as an anti-Zionist which
in Israeli terms is to be regarded as a traitor, one to be excluded from the cosy Zionist
collective of ‘us’ and even from the Zionist Left. It is the margin of the margins. The
feminist writer bell hooks writing from the margins as a Black woman in White academia,
says:

“We know that the forces that silence us because they never want us to speak, differ from the forces

that say speak tell me your story. Only do not speak in a voice of resistance. Only speak from a space
in the margin that is a sign of deprivation, a wound, an unfulfilled longing. Only speak your pain.”
(1990 p.152m emphasis added).

hooks suggests that existence on the margins of power structures can also be a creative
opportunity. (ibid. p.153). For Left-wing Israeli activists today, the margin can seem an
uncomfortable space, excluding and threatening. Lentin has embraced that marginality
and turned her own melancholia into a space of political and personal creativity, of which
this book is an example. It is her strength that she is able to hear the Palestinian ‘voice of
resistance’ and to recognise her own limitations, as a hegemonic coloniser, in letting that
voice be heard in its own right in her work. The melancholia with which she contends can
perhaps have a productive effect and the longing for the allegedly just lost society can
perhaps be transformed from mere protest to ‘the voice of resistance’ fired by the vision
of a truly revolutionary political order , however distant that prospect seems today.

Yehudit Kirstein Keshet

References

Ammended Nakba Law Approved, Ha’aretz, 19/07/2010
Adwan S and Bar On D (2005) Learning Each Other’s Historical Narratives
in Israeli and Palestinian Schools Peace Research Institute in the Middle East
(PRIME), Beth Jalah/Jerusalem
Boym, S. (2001) The Future of Nostalgia, New York, Basic Books.
Flapan, S.(1987) The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities. Pantheon Books,
Random House, New York.
hooks, b. (1990), Yearning Race, Gender and Cultural Politics, South End
Press, New York.
Kirstein Keshet, Y. Of Ghosts and Dybbuks: Haunting and the Israeli
Imagination, forthcoming
Kuntsman, A. (2009) Figurations of Violence and Belonging: Queerness,
Migranthood and Nationalism in Cyberspace and Beyond. Peter Lang, Oxford.
Landy, D. Authenticity and Political Agency on Study Trips to Palestine in
Lentin, R. (ed) Thinking Palestine, (2008), Zed Books, London
Lentin, R. (1980 ) Conversations with Palestinian Women, Mifras, Jerusalem
(Heb)
...If I Forget Thee...Terms of Diasporicity in Abdo, N. and Lentin, R. (eds)
(2002), Women and the Politics of Military Confrontation: Palestinian and
Israeli Gendered Narratives of Dislocation, Berghan Books, London and New
York.
...(2004) No Woman’s Law will Rot this State: the Israeli Racial
State and Feminist Resistance’ Sociological Research Online 9.3
www.socresonline.org.uk/9/3/lentin.html
...(2007)The Memory of Dispossession, Dispossessing Memory: Israeli
Networks Commemorising the Nakba in Fricker K and Lentin R Performing
Global Networks, Cambridge Scholars Press, Newcastle.
....(ed) (2008) Thinking Palestine, Zed Books, London
Morris, B.(1987) The Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem, 1947-
1949,Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
..... (2000) Correcting an Error: Jews and Arabs in Palestine, 1936-1956 Am
Oved, Tel-Aviv ,in Hebrew
..... (2008) 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, Yale University
Press, New Haven
Rose, J. (2005) The Question of Zion, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

.

Sand, S.((2008) When and How was the Jewish People Invented? Resling Press,
Tel-Aviv, in Hebrew
Shenhav Y. (2006) The Arab Jews: A Postcolonial Reading of Nationalism,
Religion and Ethnicity, Stanford University Press, Stanford


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