How to Say Awda in Hebrew

Video & Transcript
Rachel Beitarie
 Transcript No. 528 (September 16, 2019)


Rachel Beitarie:

Marhaba, thanks so much, Mohamed. Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone. I really can’t tell you how honored I am to be here. I am, quite frankly, a little bit nervous too. It’s a huge privilege. So I’d first like to thank the Palestine Center and the Jerusalem Fund, Mohamed, Rima, Samirah for inviting me and for making it happen. 

So as Mohamed said, I am the director of Zochrot, an organization, the only organization that is dedicated to commemoration and acknowledgement, taking responsibility for the Nakba within Israeli society, and growing support for the right of return within the society. And we do that in a variety of ways through an education program, through publications like this one, through tours to destroyed Palestinian villages and towns, through an annual film festival, exhibitions, our online archive, and much more. Maybe before we begin, I would just like to show you, Mohamed also mentioned the app, so this is it. You can download it and install it on your own phones. It is called “iNakba.” I like to dub it ‘iReturn.’ And it has all the destroyed villages on an interactive GPS-based map that if you are in Palestine, you can follow this map’s instructions and get to destroyed villages. It’s a quite unsettling experience to hear that you have reached your destination, but the destination is no longer there. You can just open the app and see what was where you are and imagine what was there and most importantly, imagine and envision the return to the same places. So please download it. It’s on either (the) Apple store or Google Play. And [now] I will continue about Zochrot. 

Zochrot, as I said, is the only organization dedicated [to] working within Israeli society towards recognition, taking responsibility, redress for the crime of the Nakba, and support for the right to return and a free democratic space in which all inhabitants and returnees could live in dignity. So I’m here to talk to you about the work we do within our communities, with our Israeli brothers and sisters to change hearts and minds and eventually to change the situation that we are in. I want to talk about how to say “Nakba” in Hebrew and how to say “awda,” return, in Hebrew. How Zochrot made something that was unknown, taboo, undiscussed, forbidden unknown, and made the term “Nakba” a part of the Hebrew language. And by that, [Zochrot]  made disruption in the language itself and changed it a bit and gave the opportunity to those of us born and raised in a settler colonial society to come to term(s) with the true nature of where we live and hope to decolonize it, starting with decolonizing our own minds. 

So that is the work that we try to do within Israeli society and the mission that we try to complete. And that’s starting with our own stories because we are, of course, also part of the stories. And my own story is that I have been the director of Zochrot for about a month — for about a year, sorry. It passed really fast. But long before that, I was just very average, (a) very mainstream Israeli girl born and raised in a Zionist family under the blue and white flag. And in many ways, I am still that person, no longer with the same convictions, but these are my roots, and this is where I’m coming from in all the work I do, (that) I do as an Israeli Jewish woman. I was born in the ‘70s Israel where definitely we didn’t know what (the) Nakba is (was). We have (had) never heard of it. I was raised in a small religious community near the south coast, about 35 kilometers from the Gaza Strip. And that kibbutz I was raised at called Yavne is in between the site of the displaced villages of Bashshit, Suqrir, and Barqa, all of whose inhabitants were displaced in 1948 between January and May. And most of them and their descendants now live in the Gaza Strip under Israeli closure. 

Few remains of those villages can still be seen today, and they’re a part of the landscape of my childhood. But really not so. Because, you see, I’m telling you these very basic facts as if I’ve always known them when, in fact, I knew absolutely nothing at all about those villages until my university years. I didn’t know they ever existed or the circumstances of their depopulation and destruction. I would walk or bike through cotton fields, or go to the beach with my friends, near Ashdod, Isdud, another depopulated town. I had my first cigarette in what we called “ahir beh”, a deserted house that I was brought to believe was an ancient remain, testament of (to) the antiquity of this land and our belonging to it when, in fact, of course, it was a Palestinian house from the first part of the 20th Century. And people still lived there when my grandparents came from Europe as settler colonials to settle in this land. And my own father, as a young boy, actually witnessed some of the deportations of his Palestinian neighbors. And again, I didn’t know any of that, and I was foolish to not know that for such a long time. But I was definitely not alone. 

Most Israelis born in the decades after the Nakba know next to nothing about it, about the mass ethnic cleansing and destruction of a whole culture and society that took place on our behalf. And that’s a destruction that archaeologists now claim is the most widespread and complete in all the main areas of history and archaeology that can be found in Palestine. School textbooks in Israel never mention it. It’s not discussed in families. It’s kind of a taboo subject that you’re not supposed to talk about unless it shakes your whole being. And it really does. So for me, as I started reading in university about what they thought of as the “War of Independence” from a Palestinian point-of-view. It has been a slow and often painful process of discovery. Of the facts, of the truth, of rediscovering my childhood landscape and my own identity with everything that was missing from it or deliberately erased from it. And rethinking my own personal history. A lot of the work we do at Zochrot is to try to facilitate this process for more people,  creating opportunity (opportunities) for participants to look at the landscape that is often as familiar as the back of our hand(s) and understand that they don’t know it at all, that there is something missing from it and come to term(s) with that and ask yourself “Okay, so what can I do about it?” 

Zochrot, as an organization, didn’t exist yet when I was growing up and neither was the Internet used in a (the) way that it is today as an online resource. And again, I didn’t hear anything from almost anyone, with one exception of a teacher in high school that gave me a story in Hebrew called Khirbet Khizeh to read when I was in the twelfth grade. And that’s a story written by the Israeli writer Yizhar Smilansky who fought (in) the ‘48 war and right after that right in 1949 wrote a novel about (the) fictional Khirbet Khizeh that is similar to Palestinian villages (that) he actually participated in destroying and depopulating. I’m not sure why that teacher gave me that novel to read. And when I asked her about that, she just said, ‘You know, the war was just, but there were some atrocities that we need to acknowledge.’ And that’s what many Israelis think until today. I’m forever thankful to her, however, for seeding (planting) a seed that will take many, many years, too many years, to grow. It didn’t grow immediately. It raised some uneasiness inside me, but not enough for me to not — to refuse to serve the army like a good, obedient Israeli girl. I went, and I only went as far as I refused any army course or army involvement and just wear the uniform and do nothing for two years. But that(’s) all I could do, all I did at the time, and it will (would) take me many, many years to come to the point of acknowledging the Nakba or even knowing what it (was). 

So when I was asking other people around me throughout the years about what was here before and what happened here, I ran into this wall of silence, like ‘you are not supposed to talk about this.’ And Zochrot was founded in 2002 by a group of Israelis, mostly Israelis who were active in peace organizations before and in dialogue groups for many, many years. And they gradually came to the understanding that the taboo and silence that I just told you about are (were) a hindrance to all of their peace and dialogue efforts because those efforts completely ignored the Nakba as the pivotal point in (the) Israeli and Palestinian relationship and as the root of the conflict. So ignoring that prevents peace dialogue and human right(s) efforts by Israelis from being effective at all. They started a group that was called “The Nakba” in Hebrew to initiate activities to commemorate the Palestinian Nakba, commemorate destroyed villages. And this group… to become Zochrot. 

Memory is a political tool. A very powerful one. A cultural tool too. And as probably you know, many Jewish traditions consist of commemoration rights, including our New Year that is called in the Bible ‘The Day of Commemoration.’ In Israel, the importance of memory to Jewish tradition was co-opted into Zionist society and used in many ways to indoctrinate us into Zionist thinking. One example is the Day for Commemoration for Fallen Soldiers that is always the day before Independence Day, as you might know. And that instill(s) in us since childhood a strong connection between soldier sacrifice, between the army and the existence of the state that we are brought to believe is our own personal existence as well. Zochrot also uses memory as a powerful political and cultural tool. But we try to offer a different form of memory, which is why the name ‘zochrot’ in Hebrew means ‘remembering’ in the female form.

 A memory that’s not patriarchal, not militaristic, (and) most importantly, not selective, but inclusive. That calls not for defensiveness and aggression as lessons of the past, but for accountability, redress, and reconciliation. A memory in the tradition of the feminist movement that put first oral history that calls for believing the survivors, and prefer(s) their testimonies over the written official history written by the conquerors. So this is why we are called Zochrot. And by the way, every Independence Day eve, we hold either commemoration or some discussion that again is meant to be kind of a disruption to the celebration(s) that are everywhere in Israel and create something that is a resistance to this celebration of ethnic cleansing. And also to create a space for people to come and do something else on the day and commemorate in a different way. 

So in 2002, Zochrot was funded and embarked on an enormous task of mapping villages, towns, and cities, taking testimonies from Nakba survivors, posting signs on the sites of destroyed villages, and cross-referencing works of scholars like Salman Abu Sitta, like Benny Morris to make available concise information about each depopulated Palestinian locality. The number of people that live there, the day of its destruction, and the Israeli settlement, parks, army bases, or other facilities that are built on their ruins. Facts and testimonies from 65 villages, about 10% of the whole, were published in booklets in Hebrew and Arabic. And information about all 610 known localities can be find (found) on our website and on the iNakba app, as I said. Please download it. It’s really great. 

This accumulated to one of the most extensive resources anywhere and certainly the most extensive in Hebrew about the Nakba. It means that today, girls like the one I used to be, running into that same wall of silence, have a much better information source to build on and to learn the truth from that they are not taught at school. It means that, unlike before, most Israelis know what Nakba is today. It has indeed become part of the Hebrew language. I just wanted to mention that in this and all other endeavors, Palestinian citizens of the ’48 borders were instrumental. They did a lot of the research, a lot of the gathering of testimonies, and also are constant participants in dialogue and pushing us towards more political awareness. There were many of them I would like to mention too [inaudible] who has been in Zochrot since the beginning. She’s one of the funders and still volunteers with us now that she lives in Pittsburgh. And Umar al-Ghubari, my colleague and the director of our Space of Return program and the true facilitator of dialogue. 

This work that I mentioned did put the term Nakba into the Hebrew language. But what Zochrot and all of us found out in the process (was that) this was only the first step. Knowledge and accessible information does not necessarily translate into acknowledgement or willingness for political change. I had a chat not very long ago with Noma Mousil who was also one of the founders of Zochrot, and she told me ‘I think we were a bit naive at the beginning.’ We thought the problem was lack of information, and it turned out it was just part of the problem. And now that people know what the Nakba is, we have a maybe more difficult task of redressing the Nakba or offering, discussing redress and offering ways to redress the Nakba. Which in our view, of course, redress of the Nakba would mean right to return and actual return of the refugees as the logical outcome if you recognize the Nakba as a crime against humanity, which you should. 

Realizing that we in fact live in a colonial society and a regime based on separation and racist hierarchies, that this is what Zionism means, it’s not easy for Israelis, and a lot of them are not willing to go the whole way. So there would be a lot of different responses to this conversation. Some will just not consider the Nakba as a crime at all, but we will not talk about them. We would talk maybe about people who would maybe say ‘yes, it was a crime,’ maybe will even be willing to offer compensation, definitely think the Nakba should be commemorated officially in Israel. But saying ‘yeah, we still want our Jewish state. We are not willing for five million or six million refugees to come back. That’s not feasible. That’s not possible. That will mean the end of the Jewish state,’ which they are, I guess, right about that. So the process should be convincing people, and that’s very difficult to do in Israel. To separate between the regime which is Zionism, colonialism, the Jewish state and themselves and their own personal rights or collective rights to live where they are, where they were born, and how they can fit in in a future of return and that convince them that this future is actually a very hopeful scenario for them too and it unfolds in it a real possibility for a much better future than the present that we have now. 

Can I show a video? 

So I just want to show you… so this is a film that we screened actually on Israeli Independence Day. And it concludes the process of tours and our research in some destroyed Palestinian villages in the area of [inaudible] south of Jerusalem during 2018 were when a group of Israelis learned about the history of these villages and tried to think (about) what return could actually look like in this specific area. It’s part of our efforts to talk about (the) practicalities of return, look at it (in) as concrete terms as possible, and see how it can be done and what it will entail. 

*Plays video* 

Okay this is just a very small example of what we do on the tours and we’ll just jump forward just a little bit. 

So… this bit may be a bit uneasy to watch. I know it makes me uneasy. I want to tell that woman ‘You are not the victim here, really.’ And I could have chosen something else. I chose this to try to show you a little bit of the process that people go through when they come and participate in a Zochrot activity. Yeah, they are dealing with the past and the present and a realization that you are not part of an inspiring story of nation-building, but part of a settler colonial society, and that me and my family are personally responsible to a variety of despicable crimes. That realization can crush someone, or it can (spring) sprung and motivate someone into action. For many, it leaves them guilt-ridden, also isolated, sometimes from their immediate environment, from their families, lonely in the workplaces, etc. And this may not be very conducive to political action. 

So the importance of an organization like Zochrot is it ability to expose Israeli — this inconvenient truth. But maybe even more so in its ability to create a space and ways for them to do something about it, to turn guilt into activism. So this is actually what we try to do. And it goes through conversations like that in our last tour that we did ten days ago — latest, sorry, not last. There was one participant who was a psychiatrist, and he told us about a term called ‘spaces of embarrassment’ or ‘spaces of dissonance.’ And he said that exactly what is happening in our activities may be what is happening here right now as well. But from these spaces, if you know how to handle them, and if you give people some time to think, (you) can grow into something significant. So we try to tell people that ‘Yes, you are apart of a colonial society and of an ongoing crime against humanity, but you don’t have to be. You can also be apart of a struggle for justice and for a more hopeful future.’ 

Zochrot has always supported the right of return from the beginning, but the focus of the first decade was more on commemoration and acknowledgment of the Nakba. Maybe it took time to evolve to be more bold in our conversation with Israeli society because talking about actual return seemed, and maybe still seem(s), so far removed from (the) day-to-day reality. But once the first building black is put and the information is out there, you can’t ignore it anymore. And as I said, the logical next step is to support the right of return as a redress for the Nakba. 

Okay, I — you of course know about Palestinian refugees. They still have no solution and no state, mostly live in refugee camps, and a third and fourth generation still hold on to the right to return, so it’s a basic obligation of any Israeli of conscious to support this demand. It’s a scary thought for many Israelis though. The thought of return means the end of the Jewish state, which they would understand as the end of security, a threat to their own personal existence. And we try to offer a different thought. Can you think of your existence as one free of the need to oppress other people? Can you exist in society without racial hierarchies? Does your Jewish identity really depend on the negation of Palestinian identity? These are the questions that we ask. 

So we learned how to say Nakba in Hebrew, and now we’re learning how to say ‘awda,’ return, in Hebrew. We need to talk about return as a basic, non-negotiable human rights (right), of course. But also as a hopeful prospect for everyone who live(s) in this land, including Jewish Israelis. It’s a challenging conversation, and the way we do it is using imagination. If I said memory was a powerful political tool, imagination is too, even more powerful sometimes. And again, we look at a Zionist society, a Zionist movement that in a very big time, (in a) very big way, used imagination as a political tool to tell the world a very powerful story, false, but nonetheless powerful, of a people returning to their homeland after centuries of being persecuted and exiled. A land without people to people with no land, as the Zionist slogan goes. And to convince anyone of this, to be persuaded that the land is empty, you have to look at the current, then current, inhabitants of the land and not see them as real people. So there was a very strong dehumanization from the start of Zionism, and it still goes on today in Israel in a very, very big way, not really seeing Palestinians as fully human who deserve the rights, and it is used, still, to prevent return and to deny basic rights. 

To counter this, part of what we do, especially in our education program, and we produce curriculums for schools and educators to use, is showing Palestinian cultural history from a  Palestinian point-of-view — Palestinian literature, Palestinian works of art, and the history of Palestinian resistance as a way of showing this as a whole people, (a) whole culture, humanize it in a way to students who learned almost from childhood to dehumanize the same people. The same thing happen(ed) in our annual film festival … is called 48mm: Films from Nakba to Return. It shows in a very central place in Tel Aviv Cinematheque every year in December. And it shows among other works by international and Israeli filmmakers a lot of Palestinian cinema. Again seeing, for Israelis, seeing that the story from Palestinian eyes is very, very important, (a) sometimes life-changing experience. And the screening of films like that that are never screened in Israel, except by us, again, creates a disruption in space, in society, and creates something different than what we are always taught. 

And that is when everybody in Israel is live (living) in fear and anger and don’t see any hopeful future. Even our friends in the activist left are mainly preoccupied in pointing out, maybe resisting current atrocities, protesting them, etc, but with very little clear vision of how to change this reality or even what they want this change to be. To present return as a hopeful future for everyone is an act of radical optimism. And Zochrot is one of very few Israeli institutions that actually look(s) further into the future and thinking (thinks) a coherent political program that can change this land. 

The tours like the ones you just saw a bit of are very central to Zochrot’s work. We go to destroyed depopulated villages, towns, (and) neighborhoods inside cities. And the reason is because of course touring and being in the places is the best way to actually comprehend what the Nakba is, seeing remains, seeing places where nothing remained at all. And it can also be an active play of imagination, seeing what’s there now, who is living there now, knowing who is living in the refugee camps, and try to think ‘Can this destroyed space become a space for return?’ and ‘can their arrangement we make for an actual return and what will it entail, what will have to happen, what will we have to work on, and how to bring it about. 

Also, we use tours for another reason that — touring the land, which is a biblical term, is very central to Zionist indoctrination as well. Most of us are being told since childhood to go travel in our own land and that, and to conquer it through the “fit”.  It sounds ridiculous, but I (have) heard this term many, many times, teaching that through walking the landscape and getting to know it, it become(s) yours, which is a bit subversive I think because it implies unintentionally that it isn’t really yours. But that (is) besides the point. So as a result of that, Israel has a fairly developed outdoor culture, and we actually build on that and make disruptions in the culture when we do these tours. And we take people sometimes to places they know very, very well, and then they see that they actually don’t know them at all, like I didn’t know the place where I grew up. 

The tour we did 10 days ago, it went through five large parks in the center of the country between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, parks planted by the Jewish National Fund, Cachal, over the ruins of dozens of Palestinian villages. And as we walked and drove through this land, you could really see almost complete ethnic cleanses in that part of the country. And one of the participants (???) really know(s) these roads and trails very well, but he will never be able to look at them the same way again. So this is what we’re trying to do. And as you can’t, you can’t look at this place the same way again, what do you do? What can you do with that? So that is a very good question, and what we tried to do, is as I said, create disruptions as much as we can. We call it sometimes ‘go through the cracks.’ Our curriculum in history, literature, and history of the Nakba is called “Cracks.” Identify the crack, go through it, push it as hard as you can to widen it and to find ways to, to integrate, for example, works by Ghassan Kanafani or by Mahmoud Darwish into the Israeli curriculum. And we have a network of about 400 teachers who would — Israeli teachers in Jewish Israeli schools — that would take these materials, sometimes all of them, sometimes part of them, and find ways even though we are not allowed ourselves to go into schools unfortunately. But teachers will come and do training with us and will take materials and will find ways to teach it. 

Tactics can be creative in many way(s). They can be more confrontational like a protest, like the one we did this year right in front of the Ministry of Defense in support of the Gaza Great Return March called for return. It was, I think, the first demonstration for the right to return in many, many years in Israel by Israelis. But sometimes they can be less confrontational or a bit more roundabout, like our gatherings on the eve of Independence Day. And this year, we showed this film that I just showed you a bit of, and we had a discussion about return with two members of the new Knesset that was just elected then. And he’s being elected again tomorrow. But, so it creates space for people to come and participate and do something else [other] than the celebration outside, but it also creates disruption. But we are not satisfied with that. We do inward communal work, but also outward work and what we did this year, we usually do some direct action on the eve of Independence Day. 

This year a group of activists went outside to the streets of Tel Aviv that were very celebratory and very loud. This is how it is on Independence Day — fireworks and all the rest of it, loud music — and they stood near the village of Sumail, what’s left of it now in (the) center (of) Tel Aviv, and used the projector to — and a very simple bedsheet that activists wore on themselves — to screen a short film in a loop that showed footage from the Nakba and footage from the Great Return March in Gaza and ended it with the question, “So what will happen now?” It was not immediately clear to passersby what is (was) going on here (there). We weren’t demonstrating with Palestinian flags or anything. They were just see — I don’t know some crazy people doing something, and they were curious (about) what is going on here. And in this state of mind of curiosity, we see a crack that we can enter, and you can start a conversation. So we had some leaflets ready to hand to them. We had some facts about the Nakba to tell them. And we try to engage just passersby who were celebrating Independence Day in conversation about what this independence really mean(s). 

We don’t usually expect people to be convinced instantly. That rarely happens. But I think we take — they take something with them just as I took something with me that took me more than 10 years to reach where I am today. And it’s still a process of continue (continuing) to learn. This work is necessary in Israeli society, and it’s actually a work to correct the society. If people — a lot of the time, even in my own family, ask me why do you care about Palestinians more than you do about your own people, and the answer is I really don’t. I care about my own community, and I want it to be just and fair and equal and not colonial and racist. So this is my motivation to do that. This work has to be done locally. Of course, Palestinians are doing their struggle everywhere in the West Bank, in Gaza, in refugee camps, in the U.S. and other countries. A lot of international organizations and activists are doing an amazing job of advocacy for Palestinian rights and Palestinian return. And our part of the puzzle is to do the work within Israeli society and to turn it into a society that can join justice and not obstruct it. 

So our tools are for talking ‘awda’ in Hebrew apart from knowledge and the language of human rights, our imagination, memory, curiosity, empowering people of conscience to turn the guilt and fears into activism, and radical optimism. To give (a) more coherent ideological framework to this ongoing activism, Zochrot gathered over the past two years a group of Israeli intellectuals and activists supportive of the right to return to draft a document we call “Return Vision” that aims at envisioning how return could be brought about, what it’s realization would entail, and what are the different phases that will be needed. You can read the whole thing on our website in Arabic, Hebrew, or English. And I just want to read a short paragraph, and I will finish with that. 

“We, members of the Council, are fully aware of the need to overcome barriers within Jewish Israeli society in order to break the taboo against publicly discussing the return. This is part of our accountability as Israelis, on the one hand, and part of the need to make amends and redress the ongoing injustice against the Palestinian people. We see a future in which the land will be transformed following the refugees’ return, transformed from (for) the better when vision or a dream change that will allow a democratic society grounded in equality and freedom, a multicultural society that will express and acknowledge our Middle Eastern cultural origins, and enable us to integrate in the region. This integration will also include the Jewish identity when it is no longer Zionist and racist. We do not want to be occupiers, master(s), or colonialists. Never again. We want to live in this land as equals. We therefore undertake to our utmost — to do our utmost — to reach out to our public, to call for acknowledgement of the Nakba, of our responsibility to the approaching of most of the Palestinian people from their homeland, to recognize the right of return, redress the injustice and do that justice for the sake of a life of peace and true partnership for all the inhabitants and returnees of the land.” 

So this is our vision. Thank you so much. Thank you.