The Other Side of Israel's Birth

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The Baltimore Sun

The Other Side of Israel's Birth

by
Alice Rothchild

This spring we are obsessed with anniversaries: the fifth year since the invasion of Iraq, the 40th since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and, of course, the 60th anniversary of Israeli independence. Each such marker shapes our understanding of history, framing how a story is to be told and how it is to be remembered. I am struck by one conspicuous anniversary that is not making many headlines.

On tour recently in the U.S., Eitan Bronstein, director of the Israeli organization Zochrot, explained that "zochrot" is the Hebrew word for "remembering," intentionally used in its feminine form to imply that this organization is not about the standard history of schoolbooks but about a memory grounded in compassion. Zochrot focuses on educating Israelis about the other side of the 1948 War of Liberation, the dispossession and expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians living in what was to become Israel. Through careful documentation of the locations of more than 450 destroyed Palestinian villages, by interviewing and photographing Palestinians living in Israel and surrounding refugee camps, Zochrot creates a living human memory that encompasses the other side of history.

Mr. Bronstein has been touring with Mohammad Jaradat, a Palestinian activist, negotiator at the Madrid peace talks and co-founder of Badil, Arabic for "alternative," a foundation that researches and advocates for Palestinian residency and refugee rights. He is part of a vigorous Palestinian movement for civil society that is largely unknown in the U.S.

Listening to these two men, I was struck by how memory shapes our understanding of history and how dangerous it is to blind ourselves to the realities of the past. For decades, Jews have shaped the memory of the Holocaust, honoring its victims and justifying the behavior of its survivors, creating a story in which we Jews are all at some level survivors, claiming Israel's victories as our own. The narrative of indigenous Arab resistance to a Jewish state and acknowledgment of the human suffering that was a consequence of Israeli military victory and political policy thus become a personal as well as a political threat.

Mr. Bronstein contends that Israel's failure to recognize its responsibility for Palestinian dispossession is a critical though invisible part of Israeli history, that embracing this history is the first step toward acknowledging Palestinians as fellow human beings, and that this process can lead beyond peace to permanent reconciliation between the two peoples. While the Palestinians clearly "lost the war" in 1948, the decision to prevent them from returning to their ancestral homes was a political decision that has led to a constant state of friction and war between Israel and its neighbors.

At a time when Jews and Palestinians express little hope for a peaceful future, Mr. Bronstein offers us a path where Israelis acknowledge the price of their victory and take responsibility for their share of the Palestinian catastrophe. At the same time, Mr. Jaradat is working for the kinds of civil rights that are enshrined in international and human rights law, reminding us that Palestinians deserve nothing less than we would expect for ourselves. Both men share the conviction that acknowledging the Palestinian refugees' internationally recognized right to return and developing creative solutions -- from resettlement to financial compensation -- is the foundation of a lasting resolution of the conflict.

As Israel celebrates its 60th anniversary today, I wonder what would happen if this tragedy, Al Nakba, were to be publicly recognized alongside the Israeli victory. Perhaps taking the risk of acknowledging the pain of the "other" and seeing "the enemy" as a real person is how peace is ultimately made.

The dispossession of two-thirds of the Palestinian population in 1948, and the consequences borne by generations of families living in Israel, the occupied territories, refugee camps and the diaspora, can no longer be hidden. It is time to acknowledge that other anniversary and to move forward with eyes and hearts open to the suffering of all the children of Abraham.

Alice Rothchild, a physician, is the author of "Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience" and co-chairwoman of Jewish Voice for Peace, Boston.

Copyright © 2008, The Baltimore Sun

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