Nestled in the stones of Lifta, a stark reminder of purity and conflict
Keeping this physical site of memory alive may serve as an important marketplace of ideas and emotion, one that can enable a bit of empathy to flourish amidst the stones.
This week, the Jerusalem District Court issued a long-awaited ruling: What remains of Lifta, the last undestroyed Palestinian village from 1948 that has not been repopulated, will stay untouched.
Former residents and their Israeli supporters had tried to block a 2004 real estate development deal in the name of preserving historical memory and refugee rights. But the court’s decision to prevent the tender ended up resting on a technicality.
It was on a visit last June to Lifta, where I encountered a random mix of individuals, that poignantly represented to me the fissures of conflict while revealing some possible points of compromise.
With me was Oded Lowenheim, an international relations scholar at the Hebrew University, who is writing a book about the hidden politics of his daily cycling commute around Jerusalem, and who served as my guide, filling in the gaps in my historical memory. As a Jew growing up in Canada, abandoned Palestinian villages were little mentioned.
Lifta consists of stone buildings set against a ridge nestled into the Jerusalem hills. Through the windows of the well-populated Jerusalem-Tel Aviv bus line, the houses of Lifta provide a bit of eye candy against the green foliage as passengers whiz downwards towards the coast.
As we descended on foot down the steep hill -- somewhat agitated by the graffiti praising Meir Kahane at the village entrance, we encountered two young men, clad in jeans and polo-style shirts. They were both Palestinian, and one of them had relatives who hailed from Lifta, he told us.
“Do you hope to move back?” we probed. His answer came in the form of something rarely heard in conversations about Israel/Palestine. “Mah sheh haya, haya (What’s done is done)," he said.
Were they simply trying to appease us? Might they have crossed over illegally from the West Bank, and didn’t want us asking too many questions? Or were they authentically reconciled to the Nakba - unlike the groups who had been contesting the real estate proposal, unlike organizations like Zochrot that seek to commemorate the erasing of the Palestinian past by erecting Arabic signage, and unlike the global BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement that advocates full refugee return?
A moment later, an example presented itself of how conflicting rights sometimes need to be reconciled: We had come upon what was once the village spring, but was now being used as a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath. Several Orthodox men began to undress, looking over at me, the only female present. In a brief contest of wills, I felt decidedly unsuited to the spot. And so we ascended the hill back to the roads of Jerusalem.
In anthropological terms, the mikveh represents the ultimate in liminal space -- that designated area between ritual purity and impurity.
Determining whose rights should be granted at that given moment was, in a sense, a liminal moment. Should the live-and-let-live norms of a nudist beach prevail? Or should Orthodox standards of modesty take precedence? It was a very subdued microcosm of the religious-secular conflict currently festering in Israel, which has been reaching a frenzied peak with the recent events in Beit Shemesh. And it was a stark reminder of the broader Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
The court’s decision to block the real estate tender represents a victory for neither of the two principled positions. In the end, a technicality was all it took to keep a corner of the Nakba alive for Palestinians who wish to honor their past, many of whom harbor hopes of a possible return.
But just as those Orthodox men couldn’t fulfill their religious duty with me present, Israel cannot maintain its sovereign Jewish ethno-national identity with a Palestinian refugee return. In the end, even though my progressive Jewish identity bristled at overly gendered representations of Judaism, I knew I had a home to retreat to that a safe and dignified exit up the hill awaited me.
Until the current Israeli government demonstrates that it is prepared to offer the Palestinians a territorially contiguous Palestinian state, where settler access roads and checkpoints do not hamper freedom of movement, Israelis and their supporters cannot reasonably expect the Palestinians to give up the demand for full refugee return. But once Israel does, Palestinians need to seriously rethink their demand, as much as they may resent it.
With the contested site of Lifta as a backdrop for eliciting empathy for various needs and narratives, these choices suddenly seemed clearer.
As for the Palestinian man who said “what’s done is done”: To know what he really meant, there will need to be two states and two capitals, and a sense of security and dignity for all.
Only then will we be able to encounter each other on a level playing field -- rather than on a steeply sloped Jerusalem hill mired in asymmetrical power and memory.
Until then, keeping this physical site of memory alive may serve as an important marketplace of ideas and emotion, one that can enable a bit of empathy to flourish amidst the stones.