Opinion

Israel's Art Scene Is Whitewashing the Nakba

Two exhibitions, in Haifa and Jerusalem, relate to the Nakba but somehow manage to ignore the Palestinian narrative

Chalil Rissas (Rassas), “Fighting in the region of Jerusalem,” 1948, Haganah Historical Archive. From the exhibition and the book “Photography in Palestine in the 1930s 
and 1940s” (author and curator: Rona Sela; 2000)/Courtesy of Rassas Family
Chalil Rissas (Rassas)

Two recently opened exhibitions reaffirm what we already knew: Israel is afraid of the Palestinian narrative and makes every effort to rewrite it, conceal or present it in soft, easily digestible colors.

The first show, “1948,” at the Haifa City Museum, sets out to address “the dramatic change undergone by Haifa in the 1948 war [which] still resonates in the city’s urban space, its buildings, inhabitants and cultural-historic climate.” The second, at Jerusalem’s Ben-Zvi Institute, presents “four albums of pictures he [Moshe Carmel, from Menachem Begin’s Irgun underground organization] rescued from a burning photography store in Jerusalem during the 1947-49 War of Independence” (“Hundreds of photos found from when Israel’s War of Independence raged,” by Nir Hasson). This exhibition displays pictures taken by the American Colony photographers and by Chalil (Khalil) Rissas (Rassas) and Chalil (Khalil) Raad.

Full disclosure necessitates the acknowledgement that I am connected to both of these projects in various ways.

In 2000, I was the first to uncover photographs by Chalil Rissas, whose work was looted from the studio owned by him and his father, Ibrahim, and afterward transferred to the historical archive of the Haganah (the pre-1948 underground militia of the Jewish community in Palestine), in Tel Aviv. In 2009, I exhibited Rissas again when an additional collection of photos that were looted from his studio were declassified for perusal at the Israel Defense Forces Archives. This became possible after the censorship and restricted-access status of the photos were lifted. The collection was exhibited as part of a show, one of whose themes was the plunder of Palestinian archives by Israel/Israelis and by Jewish forces before, during and after the Nakba. The exhibition also revealed the way in which the Israeli archives govern the Palestinian materials: by means of censorship, restriction of access, biased cataloguing and interpretation, and subjugation to Israeli law.

Soldiers of the "Holy Jihad," Jerusalem, 1948; from the Ben-Zvi Institute show.
Batya and Moshe Carmel collection

In 2007, when I was appointed curator of the Haifa City Museum, one of the first shows I planned – provisionally titled “1948” – sought to deal with that blood-drenched year. As a result of the exhibition, which was eventually cancelled, I was dismissed from my post after one year, because I used the word “Nakba” in an interview to describe the “catastrophe” endured by the Palestinians, when more than 700,000 of them fled or were expelled from their homes and not allowed to return in the war during those years. I also sought to examine the term “coexistence,” which rings pleasantly in Israeli ears but in practice means the exclusion and discrimination of the Palestinian population in the shared public domain.

Inbar Dror-Lax, the current curator of the Haifa City Museum and the co-curator of “1948,” juggles the language and uses some fine words to describe the rupture that population experienced. “The exhibition reflects a range of attitudes toward this complex and multi-layered history,” she writes on the museum website. “It represents the attempt to create, in the museum’s galleries, an arena wherein encounters and conflicts between identities and memories can come together in a dynamic representation.”

Dror-Lax’s whitewashed vocabulary is wrapped in a cloud of ambiguity to ensure that no one gets angry – for example, “dramatic change,” “resonates in the city’s urban space,” and also “we wish to create a human mosaic” and “the many facets of that one fateful year.”

Throughout, the curator avoids using the words disaster, tragedy, Nakba, exile, loss, oppression, rule, exclusion or destruction. “We chose not to take a side, she emphasizes” (“In controversial new exhibit ‘1948,’ fusing Palestinian and Jewish narratives,” by Naama Riba; Dec. 16). Is it possible to deal with ethnic cleansing, exiling, expelling, preventing return and refugeehood by using terminology that denies them – with words that hide the past and create a new history?

“Evil,” by Eliahou Eric Bokobza, on show at the Haifa City Museum’s “1948” exhibition.
Stas Kolorov

A similar state of affairs exists with respect to the Ben-Zvi exhibition, which was mentioned in the Haaretz article, but about which no information exists on the institute’s own website or Facebook page.

The albums are defined as “present absentees” – a term that refers to the Palestinians who were declared to be absentees and whose property was taken from them under the Absentees’ Property Law. Such categorization shows that, like the Palestinians’ homes themselves, there is no intention to return the albums to their owners. Moreover, the discovery of these albums is described as having played a meaningful role in Moshe Carmel’s family and as being “part of [his] life story.”

The exhibition’s curator, Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, erases the Palestinian history that’s portrayed in the photographs, many of which were taken by Palestinians (Rissas and Raad) and subordinates them to the life history of an Irgun man. Rissas and Raad aren’t important to Shalev-Khalifa, nor is what they originally were intended to depict. Their narrative is of no interest to her – through them she seeks to tell the Zionist story.

Furthermore, the photos in the Ben-Zvi Archive are catalogued as the “Moshe and Batya Carmel collection,” not as the collection of the store that was looted. The looting and plunder are described in heroic terms as “rescue” and “salvage.” Like Dror-Lax, Shalev-Khalifa squirms and adopts a pluralistic-liberal image: “Now they have been revealed to the public with the various interpretations that they can be given,” she is quoted as saying in the Haaretz article.

Artist Lamis Ammar wanted to call her video work on show at the “1948” exhibition “Nakba Steps,” but “was told not to do that,” Naama Riba writes in her article; ultimately, the title that is used is not threatening and does not include the word “Nakba.”

The walking on eggshells, the rewriting and the erasure are all part of an ongoing Nakba process of erasure of consciousness that Israel is forcing upon the Palestinians. Only when the stories will be told in their original voice, without rewriting and biased interpretation, when the censorship and restricted access in Israeli archives regarding Palestinian materials or items of Palestinian importance is removed, when the archives are returned to their original owners and when Israel confronts its past, recognizes the events of its history and their implications, and embarks on a remedial process – only then will it be possible to maintain a shared life based on respect, recognition and reciprocity.