The Arty Semite

The Nakba in Israeli Art

By Ethan Pack

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This Saturday, May 15th, will be the first illegal Nakba Day in the state of Israel’s history. Due to a law passed by the Knesset last summer, any organization that receives public funds will be forbidden from taking part in demonstrations that commemorate the “Nakba,” an Arabic term for the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian population during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.

Yet a growing community of Jews and Arabs are seeking to raise consciousness of the Palestinian tragedy in Israeli culture. Among them is Zochrot, a non-governmental organization focused on “bringing the Nakba into Hebrew.” In addition to organizing tours and posting signs at destroyed Palestinian villages, Zochrot serves as a hub for Israelis who wish to reconsider the Palestinian experience of 1948 to 1949 through the arts.

Among its activities, Zochrot publishes a literary journal and hosts an art gallery. On May 6, they opened an exhibition by the architectural collective Decolonizing Architecture, whose projects attempt to “imagine the reuse, re-inhabitation or recycling of the architecture of Israel’s occupation” with proposals that respond to Israeli settlers and Palestinians. Zochrot’s exhibitions are not typical of counter-cultural protests against the Israeli government. “Part of our work is to deconstruct the fear,” said Norma Musih, a curator of Zochrot’s gallery. “Even in our imagination, the most private and intimate thing that we can have, we don’t have the words, we don’t have the images to start thinking about a different scenario.”

The Nakba Law, whose original version would have criminalized any mourning or protest over 1948, provoked criticism from prominent Israeli writers and ’48 veterans. Despite the amended law, there is clearly a growing audience of Israelis who wish to speak, write and read about the Nakba in Hebrew and in English. Eshkol Nevo’s novel “Homesick,” recently translated into English, prominently features an Arab character who struggles with alienation while living near his family’s vanquished village outside Jerusalem. The novel spent over a year on Israel’s best-seller list and is now part of the national curriculum for high school students.

In 2008, S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, a novella that depicts the expulsion of Palestinian villagers during the war, was translated into English by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck. Originally published in 1949, Khirbet Khizeh was highly significant and relatively uncontroversial for decades — it was added to the state curriculum in 1964. With the election of Israel’s first Likud government in 1977, a made-for-television adaptation of the book was put on hold (though eventually broadcast) amidst the outbreak of a culture war over Israelis’ memory of their War of Independence.

Earlier this year, Zochrot published Tell It Not in Gath, a collection of Hebrew poems that address the Palestinian tragedy. The poems were all written in the first decade after 1948. The anthology has quickly gone through its first edition. Its editor, Hebrew University Professor Hannan Hever, insisted that integrating the Palestinian narrative into Israeli memory does not undermine Israel’s national identity. “Our identity is not constructed on the denial of the Other,” he said during a recent debate at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. “Are we two peoples, divided, or two peoples who speak to one another?”


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