By Belen Fernandez
A few years ago, the Israeli Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs unveiled an English-language website with the aim of repairing Israel’s image, which was said to be under unfair attack abroad.
A Jerusalem Post article marking the debut of the (now defunct) site noted that it “provide[d] hasbara material related to current events, tips for the ‘novice ambassador’, myths and facts about Israel and the Arab world, and lists of Israel’s most prominent achievements in science, medicine and agriculture”.
Among alleged image-improving factoids listed by the ministry was that “[a]n Israeli invention for an electric hair removal device makes women happy all over the world.” The catalogue of “myths” included that the West Bank settlements are an obstacle to peace – a notion debunked on the website as follows: “The Palestinian Authority sees the roots of the conflict as being the ‘1948 settlements’, whereas the facts show that the settlements were founded after the 1967 war.”
Via this attempted sleight of hand, the ministry endeavoured to dismiss the problematic issue of 1948 by triumphantly “proving” that the post-1967 settlements were indeed established after and not before 1967 – something that no one argues with anyway.
The real myth, of course, is the one propagated by Israel, whose refusal to atone for, or even acknowledge, that the crimes upon which the nation is founded constitutes the principal obstacle to peace.
Israeli mythmaking and the attendant forced disappearance of history is the subject of a new documentary by Israeli video journalist and former West Bank settler Lia Tarachansky, titled On the Side of the Road.
Set to premiere at the first International Film Festival on Nakba and Return in Tel Aviv-Jaffa on November 28, the movie explores Israel’s “biggest taboo” – the events of 1948 – through the stories “of those who fought to erase Palestine and created an Israeli landscape of denial”.
In recent years, the landscape has played host to expanding methods of denial such as Orwellian parliamentary efforts to criminalise mourning on Israel’s Independence Day, a holiday that represents the destruction of over 530 Palestinian villages, the killing of approximately 10,000 Palestinians, and the expulsion from Palestine of some 750,000 more.
Other landscaping techniques have ranged from planting forests atop the remains of Palestinian towns to burning Palestinian olive trees to the rampant building of unsightly walls.
Tarachansky’s film begins with footage from Independence Day 2011, when activists from the Israeli organisation Zochrot sought to raise public awareness about the facts of Palestinian dispossession, and the racist and absurdly totalitarian nature of proposed prohibitions on mourning.
The activists’ peaceful demonstration was met with less-than-receptive shouts from passing revellers, such as: “You’re whores! Go to Gaza! Go f*** Arabs!”
The demonstration attracted the police, who demanded to know why Tarachansky – who was filming the scene – didn’t fulfil her “responsibility to report actions whose purpose is to disrupt the peace and order”. By “actions”, they of course mean not the verbal abuse and intimidation of peaceful pro-justice activists by rabid nationalists, but rather the activists’ decision to hang up a picture of an elderly Palestinian man holding the key to his former house.
In her exploration of Israel’s paranoid schizophrenic methods of protecting its founding myths, Tarachansky relies heavily on the testimony of two Israeli veterans of the 1948 war – Amnon Neumann and author Tikva Honig-Parnass – whom she accompanied to the sites of former Palestinian villages erased by Israel.
Honig-Parnass articulates the dehumanisation of the “primitive Arab”, portrayed as a creature with no civilisation and no values, which facilitated efforts to purge the territory of its Palestinian inhabitants. Recounting her transition from university student to enlisted soldier, she describes giggling with a female friend over the following prospect: “Could we kill an Arab?”
In the end, it was decided that killing would be “no problem”, as long as the said Arab sported a traditional keffiyeh rather than “dress[ing] like a European”.
Honig-Parnass also discusses the institutionalisation of Israeli denial that enabled her to effectively forget the very existence of villages to which she herself had been.
Tarachansky, meanwhile, presses Neumann on the business of overriding observable facts with fabricated realities: “How could you be told from childhood that you’re in an empty land when you could see you weren’t?”
Neumann explains that, despite regular afternoon swimming excursions with Arab children, “what we learned in school remained”.
Figures like Honig-Parnass and Neumann are no doubt indispensable to establishing accountability and breaking through what Tarachansky refers to as the “collective amnesia of Israelis”. Although the official Israeli narrative stipulates that empty Palestinian villages were “abandoned”, for example, Neumann asserts his own role in the migration of former inhabitants: “I expelled them.”
There are telling limitations to Neumann’s introspection, however, of which he himself is notably aware. Speaking about the Nakba at a Zochrot gathering, he rails against questions posed to him about the slaughter that took place in the village of Burayr shortly before the Israeli declaration of independence: “[L]eave me alone… These are not things to get into… Why? Because I did these things.”
Neumann observes that “[a] soldier sees only as far as he is told to shoot. And he doesn’t want to see more because he knows what happens when he starts to wonder.” Incidentally, this analysis is readily applicable to Israel’s militaristic society, predicated as it is on an all-pervasive friend-versus-foe mentality and a universal military draft.
As Tarachansky noted in a recent radio interview with the Brussels-based Le mur a des oreilles, 1948 has become “an entire ideology” and any attempted deconstruction of this constitutes “an incredibly violent and terrifying process”. Hence the state-directed “psychological violence against the idea of questioning” and the crackdown on Nakba commemorations.
Having grown up in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, Tarachansky attests to the difficulties of “[u]nlearning and decolonising your understanding”. Not until attending university in Canada did she discover that, contrary to the Israeli narrative, the primary pastime of Palestinians is not “trying to kill Israelis and Jews”.
On the Side of the Road ends with a scene from Independence Day 2012, in which Zochrot’s attempt to honour the memory of destroyed Palestinian villages is interrupted by an announcement from an Israeli man who identifies himself as a member of the military’s Golani Brigade: “[I]f we had the chance we’d shoot you one by one.”
Ever helpful, the police informed the activists that the distribution of informative fliers and pictures amid the celebration will not be permitted “[o]n the basis of protecting the security of the public”.
To be sure, a truthful reconfiguring of Israel’s “landscape of denial” poses an acute threat to the security of national mythology – which is why it is indeed “revolutionary”, as Tarachansky says, that the Zochrot-organised International Film Festival on Nakba and Return is being held at one of the country’s most prestigious theatres.
After all, the only way to make the desert bloom is to reclaim the landscape.
– Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine. (This article was first published in Al Jazeera on Nov 28. Visit: Aljazeera.com.)