Israeli Activists bring Jerusalem’s Palestinian history to life for Nakba Day

Neta Rotem, a 23-year-old student, stood near the cashier’s windows at the Jerusalem Theater. Dozens hurried by her to the ceremony awarding poet Nurit Zarhi the Yehuda Amihai lifetime achievement prize. Rotem handed them brochures, of which one side said, "remember the cacti you used to see on hikes? They were the hedge around Palestinian villages," while the other side offered a review of the Arab history of the Talbieh neighborhood, where the theater is located.

"We use fliers, movies, pictures and testimony to bring the neighborhood’s Arab history to life," she explained. "Today Talbieh is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. Five minutes from here is the prime minister’s residence; the Belgian ambassador lives nearby and the German Goethe Institute is near here. But the neighborhood has another history: In mid-February 1948, the Haganah moved its people in here and called on the residents, mostly Palestinians, to leave. Some fled to East Jerusalem, Lebanon or Egypt and their homes were given to Jews. Unfortunately, few Israelis are willing to recognize these simple facts, and some are not even aware that entire villages were destroyed."

Rotem’s activities are part of the "Nakba 60" project, a coalition of five Jewish and Palestinian organizations established a year and half ago. "The project aims to raise awareness of the Nakba ["catastrophe," the Palestinian term for Israel’s Independence Day] in advance of the 60th anniversary of the events in May 2008," explained Lotan Raz, a coalition activist.

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"One initiative was holding four events in different Jerusalem locales where abandoned villages were located: in the new central bus station [near Lifta], in Emek Refaim [formerly Bakaa], at the theater and in Ein Kerem," Raz said. "All the events are taking place in the week between Israeli Independence Day and Nakba Day, which is marked today [Monday}. In addition to the street events, a tour of abandoned homes in Lifta was held earlier this week."

At the theater last Wednesday, activists gathered around a slide projector showing images of Talbieh’s Arab houses and the ruins of other Arab villages, including Lifta and Dir Yassin (now the Givat Shaul neighborhood). Against this backdrop, Raz read the testimony of Palestinians who left in 1948, including Edward Said, author of the book "Orientalism," who revisited his childhood home in 1998.

Reactions ran the gamut from anger to apathy. "Emigrate if you don’t like it," one woman shouted as she disappeared into the theater. Others took the brochures.

"Raising consciousness takes a very long time," coalition member Tamar Avraham said. "We are working against a very strong narrative that presents Independence Day as having only positive aspects. I deal with Jewish memory in my work at Yad Vashem. So this was natural for me. Some people are quick to say ‘the Nakba and the Holocaust are not the same,’ even though I have never claimed they are similar. There is fear in the Israeli street that dealing with the Nakba will erase memory of the Holocaust, and we are trying to change that fear."

The coalition is funded by EPER, the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, which promotes coexistence in 45 strife-torn countries such as Sudan and Sri Lanka.

The police are less interested. After an hour, a police car pulled up to the theater with lights flashing. Raz quickly turned off the microphone and the slide projector. The police asked the crowd to disperse. Efforts to explain that this was a "cultural event" failed, and the activists hurried off.

*this article reprinted from haaretz.com

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