Book Review: Remembering Palestine in 1948: Beyond National Narratives

Remembering Palestine in 1948: Beyond National Narratives.
By Efrat Ben-Ze’ev.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 243. AUD$115.00 hardback.
Reviewed by MARIA THERESIA STARZMANN, McGill University

Marked by ruptures and breaks, the memory of Palestine resists a hegemonic reading. As a result of the forced removal and expulsion of Palestinians throughout the history of Israel, Palestinian experiences of the catastrophe of 1948, al-Nakba, are rarely remembered as a coherent event. Indeed, the possibility of remembering Palestine only exists in nervous tension with the expanding presence of the Israeli nation-state.

Against this backdrop, Efrat Ben-Ze’ev offers a micro-historical perspective, one that interjects localized stories about the events of 1948 into a larger statist narrative. In her book, Remembering Palestine in 1948: Beyond National Narratives, the author challenges the notion that remembrance of historical events is a nation-state affair alone. By conducting anthropological research among three groups of interlocutors, Ben-Ze’ev unravels different threads of memories that disrupt the tight fabric of a master narrative. As the author shows in her introductory chapter (Part I), Israeli national historiography pits two sides against each other, telling of tensions between the Yishuv, the Jewish community in the British Mandate of Palestine, and the Arab population of Palestine, which erupted in the ‘War of Independence’ of 1948. In critical distance to this story, Ben-Ze’ev seeks not only to decentre Israeli national mythology, but to also stress the heterotopic and dynamic character of memory, making room for different ways of remembering the past. The author provides a section each on Palestinian-Arab (Part II), Jewish-Israeli (Part III), and British Mandatory (Part IV) memories, all of which are, to the author, ‘memories in the making.’ In each part of the book, and most legibly in Parts II and III, Ben-Ze’ev demonstrates how processes of remembering take place on various temporal as well as on different spatial scales. For instance, the commonly-held notion of a linear temporality is refracted; memories are circulated among the children and grandchildren of Palestinian refugees, and each generation invariably reshapes Palestinian history.

The author further shows that different ways of remembering correspond to drastically different spatial experiences, which in the case of Israel/Palestine are tied to a settler-colonial order. As Ben-Ze’ev makes clear, Israel, like all nation-states, created itself by drawing borders and boundaries—both on paper and in the realm of imagination—not in order to describe spatial realities, but to construct them. In the process, Palestinian land was mapped out, sliced up, fenced in, and expropriated—first by the British occupying power and later by Jewish-Israeli settlers. The political forms of exclusion that ensued facilitated the proliferation of grand narratives and the silencing of localized histories and memories.

In her discussion of the diverse and competing recollections of the events of 1948, Ben-Ze’ev distinguishes between national narratives and “subnational conversations” (3). This distinction might be analytically helpful, however, it risks eclipsing the fact that the memories of Palestinian villagers, Palmach (Israeli) soldiers, and British policemen—even if all of these constitute subnational conversations in their own right—are produced under fundamentally different political conditions. Of course, it is true that localized memories are always messy. They are, in each instance, the result of individual life histories and experiences. In this sense, Palestinian and Israeli memories alike have the power to slice through established narratives of a quick and clean Israeli siege in 1948: not only in the story told by a Palestinian villager, according to whom the war of 1948 “began bit by bit” (69), but also in the accounts offered by Israeli soldiers, which speak to a “general disorderly state of affairs” (75) during battle activities.

But these examples merely demonstrate that all subnational narratives are diverse, and Ben-Ze’ev’s comparative approach ultimately falls short of acknowledging the powerful effects that settler colonialism has on memory itself. Given that the production of memory cannot be extricated from the colonial imagination that is at the root of Israeli politics, the memories of Palestinian refugees and those of Palmach soldiers cannot match up. Ben-Ze’ev’s methodological choice to juxtapose Palestinian and Israeli memories thus remains a problematic one: the point is not simply that Jewish soldiers’ memories are part of a subnational narrative that confirms that there is no “coherent story of a war” (63). Rather, these subnarratives always contain undertones of a “definitive” (23) Israeli history: in essence, the soldiers’ memories are inevitably centred on a desire to prove Israel’s status legitimate, no matter how precarious the state’s existence is rendered by prevailing national accounts or how problematic its political authority appears before international law.

On the underside of this, Palestinian memories emerge from a strained historiographical framework, and the interlocutors who have shared their memories with Ben-Ze’ev are shaken by a harsh political reality. The suffering that results from being a stateless Palestinian refugee or a second-class Arab citizen of Israel is intense and has only become more aggravated with the ceaseless expansion of the Israeli state since 1948. And while Ben-Ze’ev expresses a desire for “tolerance” in her concluding chapter, asking the reader whether there might come a time at which we can “bear parallel narratives and suffering side by side,” the book has only shown that a story in which “Israel has been the most powerful player” does not provide room for parallel histories (192). Indeed, although both Palestinians and Israelis may recall instances of direct violence encountered during their lifetimes, Palestinian life itself is arrested by the kind of structural violence that lets people die not of bullets alone but “of a broken heart” (138).

In offering a reconciliatory narrative, paralleling Palestinian refugees’ memories with those of Israeli soldiers, Ben-Ze’ev inadvertently collapses two highly disparate experiences that underlie the formation of memory in Israel/Palestine. Israeli and Palestinian subnational practices of remembering are neither comparable nor compatible. As Ben-Ze’ev herself makes clear, in the story of 1948 there is one side that suffers and one that inflicts the suffering. At its most fundamental level, this experiential difference corresponds to the divide between colonizer and colonized, the former responsible for sending the latter “into exile with all the occurrences that accompany it … [The Palestinian villagers] left with quilts and pillows in their hands and bit by bit lost them, until they were left with only their clothes on” (138).

In the face of such violence, Palestinian memory work is not so much about the creation of a coherent story as it is about mourning a past that has largely been erased. It is about the retrieval of fragments of memories in a process that Ben-Ze’ev likens to a “personal archaeology” (103). While this archaeology—as any archaeology—relies to some extent on the peeling back of layers of dirt, it is much more than the collecting of “personal objects or soil” (103). It is in fact “a collective art of commemoration” (10), wherein older generations of Palestinians share memories with their children and grandchildren, thus excavating not only a palimpsest of material traces, but one of signification. This becomes a particularly meaningful practice in the face of Israeli colonial power, which inscribes itself into the landscape by the “systematic obliteration of many Palestinian sites” (5). As political strategy, this erasure of Palestinian sites is just as much about the seizure of territory as it is about the eradication of memories. Palestinian recollections of life before the Nakba rely, after all, on an intimate knowledge of the local topography and bear attachments to specific sites and landscapes in the form of “mental maps” (123) containing original—Arab—place names.

The analysis of how Palestinian villagers engage with the material traces that are left of their life before 1948 is the strongest point the author makes in her book, because it foregrounds that remembering is an embodied practice. By recognizing this, the objects that Palestinians collect during visits to their former homes (what the author reads as ‘pilgrimages’) are more than mere “relics” (102) or containers of memory. These material traces come to function as ‘biographical objects’ of sorts that do not just symbolize or represent a long-gone past: rather, they allow those who have become refugees in their own land (and beyond it) to quite literally be in touch with their history. What is more, these keepsakes are not souvenirs: the souvenir, although taken as a stand-in for an actual experience, is eventually shelved and forgotten, leaving no room for imagination or for hope. The objects picked up by Palestinians in the rubble of their former homes, however, become extensions of a previous life; they carry not only the traces of a painful past into the present, but also retain the promise of the future.