By Ghada Ageel
Israeli advice to Palestinians to “wipe their homeland from their memory” underlines a lack of empathy for Palestinians’ rights
In January 1993, I won a full-year scholarship to study Hebrew language and literature in Israel. Seizing the opportunity was not an easy thing for a young, single, Palestinian refugee woman from Gaza.
The situation in the occupied Palestinian territories was boiling then and the first Intifada was in full swing, given the slow progress of the peace negotiations – Oslo was as yet unknown – between the Israeli and the Palestinian-Jordanian delegations formed after the Madrid peace conference of 1991.
Reports of Israeli raids on Palestinian camps and towns, arrests, killings, demonstrations, strikes, curfews, anger, and the absence of hope were prevalent in the news. The year also witnessed hundreds of thousands of Russians flooding Israel following the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
I shared classes with some of those newcomers learning Hebrew.
Part of the curriculum taught at that school was a lesson about the Holocaust titled Asour Lishkouah (“it is forbidden to forget”), which I still remember with vivid clarity because it generated a heated debate between the teacher and the students over 50 on one hand and the young immigrant students on the other hand who thought that it is necessary to forget as a way to move on in life.
I was the only young person in the classroom who opposed this line of thinking and agreed with the teacher (who was very Zionist) and my older classmates on the importance of historical memory. Ironically, it was forbidden by Israeli occupation authorities at that time to teach anything related to Palestinian history in our curriculum, a crime the US Congress said nothing about, though today it has no hesitation in recycling the frequently erroneous claims made about Palestinian textbooks.
Notwithstanding how little I knew then of my own Palestinian history, save the stories told to me by my grandmother about Palestine, I voiced my opinion that recognition and remembering, not forgetting, the events of the past is the cornerstone for moving into a healthy future and moving toward the possibility of eventual reconciliation – far-fetched as it may often appear.
I recalled these old exchanges recently, when I noted they were almost the same words uttered spontaneously by many of the aboriginal young people I met in March when I attended the final leg of the truth and reconciliation commission national event held in Edmonton, Alberta. That commission was mandated to document the stories of survivors and to educate all Canadians on the history of the Indian Residential Schools system which separated over 150,000 aboriginal children from their families.
The residential school system, which was funded by the Canadian federal government and run by churches, aimed to strip Indian children of their language, cultural identity, and traditions. In short, it strove to kill the Indian inside them. In a statement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of his government and asked for the forgiveness of the aboriginal people “for failing them so profoundly”.
My tears ran nonstop when I heard the stories of the brave aboriginal women and men whose suffering reminded me of the terrifying account one of my older classmates provided regarding her own parents’ survival during the Holocaust. My 13-year-old son, Tarek, was also visibly moved by the accounts from the indigenous people. We identified with the stories and remembered our own Palestinian oppression and denial. That was a moment of understanding, solidarity, and recognition.
But for Danny Rubinstein, the Israeli author and journalist, as well as for the Israeli government, the situation is different. Understanding might occur, but historical amnesia is best. Referencing the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, Rubinstein said, “I also identify with the images of the destroyed villages. I do understand the Palestinians’ longing and I empathise with it … The Palestinians know, or their leadership knows, that they have to forget Ramle and Lod and Jaffa [in present-day Israel] … They have to give up the return as a national goal. If I was a Palestinian politician I would say that you don’t have to remember. You have to forget.”
What hypocrisy. Rubinstein’s self-serving advice to Palestinians not to remember and to wipe our homeland from our memory is a form of denial. His self-described understanding and empathy with Palestinians’ rights is nothing but empty words and a cover-up of his racist attitude.
Today, on the 66th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, Palestine, the country, is no longer on the map. But millions of Palestinian refugees, their children, and grandchildren, together with their accounts and testimonies, are very real and exist despite multiple Israeli efforts to disperse us and convince us to forget what is rightfully ours. Today, the original map of Palestine that Israel wiped away by force in 1948 and later forbade for decades is on each corner of my home and each corner of my heart – as well as the hearts of my children.
Today, I am a third-generation Palestinian refugee, no longer a young woman with little knowledge of history, but holding a doctorate in refugee studies. Today, 21 years after that discussion in my usurped homeland – and five weeks after the Canadian truth and reconciliation commission event – I am more confident than ever that with all the changes that are currently taking place in the world the road to Beit Dares, my village, and the family home Israel destroyed, is closer than ever. I am more aware than ever that there will be no reconciliation, no peace, and no way forward until Israel recognizes and apologizes for the profound harm it caused Palestinian refugees in 1947-48.
There can be no lasting peace without justice and accountability. For Palestinians, justice includes implementing the right of return for Palestinian refugees. This is eminently fair. After all, Israel’s admission to the UN was conditioned on allowing the return of Palestinian refugees to their lands and homes.
Individuals like Rubinstein and those with similar views in the Israeli government need to think rationally and spit out the fear strangling their minds. True, no one can reverse the past, but there is always a way to correct it. Correction, in this instance, requires recognition and giving rights back. It leads to reconciliation and peace – something the Holy Land would benefit from seeing. As in South Africa and the American South, Israeli Jews will find that there is room enough for us all provided it is on the basis of equal rights for all.
– Ghada Ageel is a Visiting Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta (Canada) and active in Faculty4Palestine – Alberta. (Reprinted with permission from Middle East Eye – www.middleeasteye.net)