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Once a year, a group of Arabs come to Ashkelon for a visit "to the homeland." They are displaced persons from Majdal, a large town of about 12,000, which until 1950 stood on the spot now occupied by an entirely Jewish port city. The DPs visit the cemetery to pay respects to their loved ones and then go on a picnic before heading home, to Lod. Two buses appeared for the most recent visit: one for the DPs, the other for a group of a few dozen Jews who are members of Zochrot (Remembering) and came to show their solidarity and to learn some history from the people who experienced the events themselves.

However, the Zochrot group does not just make do with holding picnics and listening to accounts of what happened in 1948 and afterward. On this trip, they brought several signs, which they took from the bus when they arrived at the site, on which a mosque once stood and which now houses a hamburger joint and the Ashkelon city museum. Nearby, they placed a sign stating, in Hebrew and Arabic, "Square where Majdal Arabs were collected and deported to Gaza." At the corner of Herzl and Eli Cohen Streets they added more information, to the effect that this spot - the intersection of streets named for the founder of Zionism and the Israeli spy caught and hung in Damascus - used to be the intersection of two streets called Al-Suq (the market) and Al-Usthaz (the teacher), which were the main streets of Majdal.

The event did not pass peacefully, of course. A few local residents reacted with catcalls and curses. One of them, Moshe Cohen, decided words weren't enough. A few minutes after the sign was placed in the ground, he ripped it out. Shadiya Hijazi, one of the DPs, wearing a festive floral dress, ran after him. They exchanged curses and some mutual shoving. "Does this bother you?" she shouted, picking up the sign that Cohen had hurled to the ground. "Does this bother you? My house was here, my father lived here, where the mosque was."

In 1951, Cohen was 33 years old; he had come to Israel from Iraq with his family, and they were housed by the Ben-Gurion government in an abandoned refugee home. Now he replied with a groan uttered straight from the heart: "My house is here, too."

The end of this reenactment of the Arab-Israeli conflict in miniature was surprisingly conciliatory. Cohen agreed to put the sign back, at least for a while, and offered the distraught Hijazi water. Asked why he had changed his mind, he replied, "So she'll be pleased." The crowd dispersed quietly, but the sign didn't survive for long. Zochrot activists have placed dozens of similar signs all over the country in the past two years, and not one of them has lasted.

Ghostly presence

Eitan Bronstein insists on remembering and on getting others to remember. A 44-year-old resident of Herzliya, Bronstein is the director of the youth section of the School for Peace at Neve Shalom - Wahat al-Salam, a joint Jewish-Arab village halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He is also the founder, conceiver and moving spirit behind Zochrot, which, despite its name - in the feminine case in Hebrew - has a mostly male membership. The feminine form is used, I am told, "in order to promote a different memory in place of the hegemonic Zionist memory, which is a violent memory and largely masculine in character. The other memory is meant to strive for conciliation, to show compassion for the Palestinian side, in which men are also usually the ones who shape the dominant memory."

It's unlikely that the feminine packaging makes Zochrot any more palatable for the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. Just as the remnants of Palestinian life are buried under Jewish cities, towns and villages, with only ruins, vestiges of terraced hills and concentrations of sabra cactus plants alluding to what was once here, so too the Palestinian Nakba (the word means "catastrophe") of 1948 is interred deep within the Israeli consciousness, below thick levels of repression and silencing. The face of the land constitutes a mirror image of the frame of mind. When someone shows up with a sign and tries to change the surface, Bronstein has written, he feels he is a ghost risen from the dead.

Bronstein and his colleagues in Zochrot maintain that we have no choice and that we must overcome the fear. Without cleansing the abscesses of the past, they are convinced, there is no chance that we will be able to build a foundation for a better future. On the association's Web site (the English site, which is not as comprehensive as the Hebrew, can be accessed from www.nakbainhebrew.org), this approach is articulated in a manner that few Jews will be able to swallow. The site, with a logo including a keyhole (which is apparently waiting for the insertion of the key, the symbol of the Palestinian return), features a map showing the locations of the more than 400 Palestinian towns and villages that were wiped off the face of the land of Israel, with Jewish locales scattered among them. The map's legend refers to the Jewish sites as "Zionist settlements [using the Hebrew word for the settlements in the territories: hitnahalut] that were established until 1948" and "Zionist settlements that were established after 1948."

This terminology has angered Yoav Keren, who writes on the op-ed page of the daily Ma'ariv. Under the headline, "Hamas propagandists in our midst," he likened the conceptual world of Zochrot to that of the members of the Palestinian organization who, after the launching of a volley of Qassam rockets, issued a leaflet reporting on a successful strike at the "settlement of Sderot." The Zochrot group is outraged by the comparison: They are against any form of violence.

Not long ago, the members of Zochrot were invited to a memorial event in "Marj Ibn-Aamer" (the Jezre'el Valley). In a debate that flared up afterward on Ynet (the Internet site of the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth), Bronstein described himself as living "in a place that was once Ijlil" (a Palestinian village that existed between Glilot Junction and Herzliya), and his colleague in the association, Andy Yehezkel, signed his message "Al-Hiriya (south Ramat Gan)."

Eitan Reich, an M.A. student in ¼ philosophy of education at Tel Aviv University and a member of Zochrot, concedes that "there is a bit of an attempt to be provocative." Bronstein, though, disagrees: "One of the achievements of the left is that it succeeded in turning the word `settlement' into a curse. I erased the Green Line, because the real issue between us and the Palestinians is the Nakba. There was an occupation in 1948 and it's impossible to expunge that fact." He notes that "to a certain degree I look at this country differently today. Every day, as I drive to work on the coastal road, I feel that I am passing by Ijlil."

Reich: "You simply start to see the country at more than one level. I am no longer blind to the ruins along the roadsides. Next to the coastal road, near Netanya, there are abandoned Arab homes with `Nahman m'Uman' graffiti on them [referring to a famous Hasidic leader]. That used to be transparent for me, but no longer."

`Clicking' on the fortress

For Bronstein it began during a bout of Net surfing. He was born in Argentina and at the age of five came to Israel with his parents to settle on Kibbutz Bahan, not far from the Green Line.

"When I was a boy, the place I loved most was the Kakoun citadel, which is about three kilometers from the kibbutz," he relates. "It's a lovely stone structure on a hilltop, surrounded by vegetation, fruit trees and cactuses. We used to go there by bike or on tractors and eat sabras, or we would take hawks from their nests and raise them - all the things kibbutz kids do. I have many wonderful memories from there."

One Hanukkah, he recalls, the kibbutz youths organized a procession of all the members to the citadel. At the site the children put on a show involving messages written with wood and ropes and set alight, calling for equality, fraternity and world justice.

Four years ago, while surfing on the Internet, Bronstein discovered something: "To my astonishment, I discovered that there had been a large Palestinian village at the site until 1948, with more than 2,000 residents and a large market. The structure on the hill was a mosque, which, as in many other locations, was built on the ruins of a Crusader fortress. In one fell swoop my perception of my childhood was transformed. I realized that we are all living in denial and ignorance, and I was filled with embarrassment when I recalled that Hanukkah event. For me, Zochrot is the click of the mouse on Kakoun."

Bronstein left the kibbutz 17 years ago. He worked as a youth leader in the liberal-dovish Ratz party (forerunner of Meretz), but left in a huff over political differences: He refused to serve in Lebanon, and for a similar reason spent time in a military prison during the first intifada. In addition to his work at Neve Shalom, he is working on his doctoral dissertation, on a subject that is close to his heart: "constructing a landscape for political purposes."

The need to turn his ideas into deeds ripened after he visited Canada Park, which is adjacent to Neve Shalom. The park was created by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (Jewish National Fund - JNF) with the help of Canadian donors, on the lands of four Palestinian villages: Yalu, Emmaus (cited in the New Testament, Luke 13-35), Beit Nuba and Latrun. The villages were demolished immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War, even though they had not put up any resistance, as part of the Israeli strategy to widen the Jerusalem Corridor. Bronstein joined a tour organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature and was amazed to find that this very recent bit of history was absent from the guide's explanations. Nor is there a mention of the Palestinian villages on any of the signs in the park, which do, however, extol the past presence of Jews, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines at the site. A few hundred years of Arab presence have been erased as though they never existed.

"I said to myself that we should come and put signs here," he recalls. "And then I thought: Why only here? We have to do it all over the country."

In regard to the signs in Canada Park, the past two years saw a lively correspondence between Zochrot and the JNF. At its conclusion the JNF declared that it refused to put up signs referring to the Arab chapter in the history of the area, on the grounds that "the JNF does not get involved in political matters." Zochrot is now preparing a petition to the High Court of Justice on the subject.

Bronstein decided to enlist the cooperation of members of kibbutzim in the project of the commemorative signs, and an article on the subject appeared in the kibbutz movement journal under the headlines "Yad Vashem" (the name of the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem) and "Every village has a name" (an allusion to the reading of names of Holocaust victims on Holocaust Memorial Day). Members of various kibbutzim were asked for their opinion of the initiative.

Esther Salmovich, who was a Knesset member in Tsomet, a (now-defunct) nationalist party founded by Rafael Eitan, a former chief of staff, and who lived in Moshav Ben Ami (formerly Umm al-Faraj), replied: "The memorial signs have to say that the residents collaborated with the gangs that wanted to kick out the Jews who were displaced from their homes in Europe and returned to their ancestral homeland. They should also say that the displacement was due to a war of survival and that the majority of the residents left their village voluntarily."

Bronstein was not surprised at this response: "Yes, there were people who opposed the Zionist occupation, there is no doubt of that, and there were also some who murdered Jews. But this story has two sides and we like to see only our side and to demonstrate our control of the country by means of the signs."

On the ruins of Summeil

Zochrot has nearly 100 members, most of them young people whose names are not those one expects to find from the veteran left, and more than 1,000 e-mail addresses on its contact list. There are a few familiar names on the membership list, such as Dr. Orit Kamir, from the law faculty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and director Eran Torbiner, whose film on the radical left-wing Matzpen movement, which was active in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s, has garnered international prizes.

Another leading activist is Yuval Tamari, 30, the son of the late major general Nehemia Tamari. The younger Tamari, who served as a captain in the Israel Air Force, is working on his doctoral dissertation at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, on the subject of mixed cities. Two years ago he was one of the first to sign the initial letter of refusal to serve in the territories during the intifada, and in the last election he was head of the Jewish wing of Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace).

Zochrot's activities attract dozens and sometimes hundreds of participants. In the past two years they have held a series of processions and sign-planting ceremonies in places where there were once vibrant Arab communities: Jalma (now Kibbutz Lahavot Haviva), Isdud (near Ashdod, where Sami Shalom Sheetrit read from his poetry), Ein Ghazal (next to Moshav Ofer on the slopes of Mount Carmel), Miska (next to Ramat Hakovesh) and so on. At every site the activists place a sign, make a few speeches and learn about the history of the place from refugees who are still alive or from relatives who have been located with much effort.

The association also engages in ramified and lively correspondence with a number of institutions, such as Tel Aviv University. Zochrot asked TAU's directors to give expression, in the form of a sign, to the history of Sheikh Munis, the Palestinian village on whose land the institution was built. The request was signed by dozens of senior lecturers, including Shlomo Zand, Orly Lubin and Ariel Rubinstein, though so far with no results.

Activity in Zochrot is on a purely voluntary basis. The Mennonite Church in Canada donated $20,000 to the movement, which is used mainly to subsidize transport and produce pamphlets. Bronstein is aware of the fact that the association could get donations from organizations in the Arab world that fund activity to promote the right of return, but he's not enthusiastic about the idea: "I find it problematic to accept money from Arab donors. My fantasy is that Israeli Jews will finance the activity, because the whole point is that we are appealing to the Jewish public and inviting them to take responsibility and to talk about the Nakba in Hebrew."

The Zochrot group marked this year's Nakba Day - May 15, the anniversary of Israel's creation, in 1948 - with a march in memory of the Arab villages that lay within the municipal boundaries of present-day Tel Aviv. They marched from Jammasin al-Gharbiyeh (a village on the banks of the Ayalon, whose residents raised buffalo-like animals) to Summeil (on the corner of Arlosoroff and Ibn Gvirol Streets) and on the way stopped by streets bearing the names of Zionist leaders (Pinkas, Namir, Jabotinsky), reflecting on their part in the Palestinians' "catastrophe."

They saw no reason to celebrate Independence Day (which follows the Hebrew calendar and did not fall on May 15). Instead, they set up makeshift stages at selected points in Tel Aviv from which refugees or members of the association read out testimonies about the Nakba to anyone who wanted to listen. Eitan Reich admits that the majority of the passersby had no idea what it was all about.

Doesn't it bother you that by such activities you give the impression of being a band of eccentrics?

Reich: "Is it we who are eccentric, or people who walk on the street in a transparent bubble and don't understand what there is to protest about?"

In a country where most of the sacred cows have already been slaughtered, the focus on the Palestinian Nakba is threatening the last taboo and generating visceral opposition from many people.

"From their point of view, it's like joining the enemy," says L., a 31-year-old Tel Aviv psychologist who prefers not to give her name because of her family's response to her activity in Zochrot. Her father is a famous pilot and she spent her childhood on air force bases. Her former partner is also a pilot. "They have no idea what this is all about; they think I must have a loose screw somewhere."

The view from Cinema City

Ibrahim Abu Sneina stands on a small limestone hill at the far end of the huge parking lot of the Cinema City multiplex, just north of Tel Aviv, and looks at what was once his house. With expansive strokes of his arms, he describes the area as it was 56 years ago, when he was five. His native village, Ijlil, stretched from here to there, a total of 750 families. This is where the orchards were; here they grew peanuts, carrots, potatoes. His father's house stood on top of the hill, exactly where the theaters are where you can now see "Shrek 2" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." On the hill opposite, where we are now standing, there are quite impressive ruins of the home of his uncle, Ata, who was one of the wealthiest residents in the area. Ata even had a private swimming pool.

Maybe it's the money that was originally invested in the building that has enabled parts of the house to survive to this day. A few walls, iron rods, windows. Atop the hill one is immediately greeted by a refreshing breeze from the Mediterranean, and the sea is also visible - a blue stain through the heat vapors rising from the coastal road. It's almost possible to visualize the Abu Sneina family sitting on the porch at dusk on a day in the 1940s. Ibrahim remembers the events at second-hand, from stories that were told in the family and continue to be told today by his older brothers and his uncles: how the Jewish ring closed in on the village from all directions, how there were rumors that the Jews had killed hundreds of members of the Shubaki tribe to the north, although the truth, he says, was that only five were murdered.

Abu Sneina: "But that was exactly what they wanted - for us to die of fright and check out of here fast. When we left, some on mules and those who could afford it in large vehicles that they ordered, we gave the keys to a Jew who guarded the fields here and was like one of the family. `Look after things,' he was told, `we'll be back in a week or two.'"

Abu Sneina's immediate family moved to a plot that his father had purchased earlier, east of Kfar Sava, on the edge of the West Bank city of Qalqilyah. The family is still there today. His father, he relates, never stopped lamenting the land that was plundered to his dying day. His uncle still refuses to eat oranges. "In 1968 our house was still standing here," Abu Sneina recalls. "I was already working as a contractor and I had come to buy limestone from my own land. It cost me 20 [Israeli] pounds."

On another occasion he came with his father to visit the orchard that was also once theirs and picked a hefty amount of tangerines. "I thought we would bring some to Mother, but my father ate all the way home, another tangerine and then another, and gave some to people on the way. It was only when we got home that I understood that he didn't want to bring any to Mother in order not to reopen the old wound."

Abu Sneina does not live in the past. He has no illusions about ever returning here, to what has become a vast tract of asphalt, and he doesn't really want to, either, but it's important for him to keep the memory alive. His family is among the "internal DPs" - those who stayed in Israel and became its citizens; the majority of the residents scattered in Jordan and the territories.

"They talk about a return," he says. "What are they talking about? I have no return, so are they going to have one? We have a proverb that says: Everything grows with time, only calamity becomes smaller."

`Cold-feet syndrome'

According to Eitan Bronstein, the most common phenomenon that strikes Israeli Jews who are exposed to Zochrot is "the cold-feet syndrome": "There are many people who are responsive to the underlying idea, but afterward, when they understand what it means and what has to be done, it takes them a long time to accept things, if at all."

Indeed, it's difficult for an Israeli Jew who was raised to believe in the Zionist ethos to cope with the materials that Zochrot offers. The association has produced many pamphlets, each of which contains a historical study and testimonies centering on the circumstances in which a Palestinian village was wiped off the face of the earth. It is not a pleasant reading experience. Students in the Israeli education system will never see such material. Some of the information has been gathered in the pamphlets for the first time, and large chunks of it have appeared in books by the historian Benny Morris and elsewhere. Myths of the "they left of their own volition" or "that's what happens in war" variety are voided of content by a perusal of the documents and testimonies about war crimes of varying degrees of severity that were perpetrated during what is considered the finest hour of the Zionist enterprise. The question, though, is what to do with all this now.

There is no uniform response to that question from Zochrot. Talia Fried, 30, a graduate student in social psychology at TAU, doesn't reflect on practical issues such as the connection between the activity of Zochrot and the right of return. "I am relatively new in the association, and so far we haven't had any conversations about models for implementing the right of return. What's important for me right now is the approach, the fact of going to the other side, the opportunity we have to reeducate ourselves. The people who get involved change all the time; there's no way to know where you'll be at the end of the road. To get to know and identify with the story of the other side is an experience of being liberated from everything that has been stuffed into our heads."

Fried was born in the United States to Israeli parents and immigrated to this country seven years ago. "For me it began when I entered into a Jewish-Arab dialogue at the university," she says. "I am not undertaking this journey to tell you what happened in 1948 or what things will be like in another 30 years. I'm doing it to open myself to many questions about who I am and what my moral criteria are. For us, being engaged in this is very healing, for the other side it is consoling, and overall there is a great deal of satisfaction."

Bronstein is far more practical. "When we were established, we didn't support the right of return. We wanted to promote a discussion, create a process. Now it is pretty clear to us that it's impossible to take responsibility for 1948 and say that you don't support the right of return. Deep down, most Israelis know that, and that's why they don't want to learn or know what happened in the Nakba."

When you say that you support the right of return, aren't you actually backing the realization of the nightmare of every Israeli - that tomorrow a refugee family will knock on the door of his house and demand his land back?

Bronstein: "I do not support the expulsion of people from their homes, because you can't correct one wrong by doing another. I don't know what the exact model for this is. I also think that not many refugees will want to return. We imbibed a lot of phobias and demons with our mother's milk, and I think we are afraid - and in a certain sense, rightly so - of what we have done. Zionism is a project of return, which succeeded in forging a link between nation and territory and realizing it, and in the course of doing so, expelled the residents of the country. So the idea of return arouses fears of exactly the same thing. But is this the only possible return?"

What kind of return do you propose?

"I don't know who will want to return, but whoever will want to - let him return. And if the result is that there will not be a Jewish state, then there won't be one. My preferred concept is one state from the sea to the Jordan River, in which all the residents have rights and both peoples have an attachment to the land."

The narrative you propose is equally one-sided, because according to it, the Palestinians have no part in the tragedy that has been played out here for the past 100 years. You're forgetting, aren't you, that the Arabs opposed the United Nations partition plan and they launched the war that brought their great catastrophe on them?

"The Palestinians definitely are accountable, but we have to deal with the accountability of our side. In fact, the majority of the Palestinian villages were not involved in the fighting at all, but despite that their residents were expelled, pillaged and murdered, because their very presence interfered with the Zionist enterprise."

Eitan Reich: "The Zionist Yishuv [the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine] was not naive. It planned and in practice implemented non-acceptance of the partition plan, which was expressed in the attempt to move borders and populations. The state bears direct responsibility for the fact that after the war was over, it did not allow those who were expelled to return, seized their lands and property, and dispossessed them of their rights and their memory. We cannot escape that responsibility."

What does that mean on a day-to-day basis? That those who don't want to be part of the plundering should avoid living in Jaffa or in other places from which the Arabs were expelled? A glance at the map shows that not many options remain for us.

Bronstein: "Someone told me that ever since she learned about the past of Ijlil she no longer goes to Cinema City, because once she thought that was the cradle of civilization and now she understands that it's the destruction of civilization. I don't share that approach. I don't think that people who live in Jaffa are any less moral than I am. And why just Jaffa? What about TAU? The question is not where you live but what you do in order to take responsibility. I expect every person who lives in a place from which people were expelled to put up a sign honoring the memory of those who lost."n