Redeeming the Land - by Force

Dalia Karpel's film suggests the origins of the lust for real estate in Israel and the compulsion to uglify the urban landscape.

Hayomanim shel Yosef Nachmani [Yosef Nachmani's Diaries], a documentary by Dalia Karpel, 62 minutes

There is little about the name Yosef Nachmani to tempt anyone to see a movie, and yet this important film should be watched. If the road to resolving the conflict passes through a comprehension of the injustice - and not in spurious and empty terms (such as "justice against justice") but concretely - then this movie will someday be included in a reader of the kind produced so far only in South Africa, so that the whites would truly understand what they had done to the blacks.

The Zionist enterprise was carried out by many people whose names have long been forgotten. Those devoted to action usually drown in a sea of flowery rhetoric about "the importance of doing," which is often perceived stereotypically as the opposite of "thinking," of rumination. In Karpel's film, thank God, this polarization does not appear. What does it mean to do, to act? Is doing really separate from thinking (its antithesis)?

Yosef Nachmani bought land from landlords in Beirut and the eastern Galilee and was involved in disinheriting the tenants living on it. He was like many of his fellows in the Second and Third Aliyah; they sang labor songs, songs redolent of the idolization of Russian sharecroppers, and they carried with them guns, bills of purchase and a great many lies.

Here is what Nachmani wrote on January 5, 1939: "This morning we left Beirut after a tedious and galling business with the owners of Qadas, for four days, including the nights, until we received the paperwork signed and approved by the consul. I do not believe that I am done, and until the kushans [bills of ownership] are in my hands, I will not believe it."

A month later, on February 13, 1939, Nachmani wrote in his diary: "I went to Safed and at 9:30 I met Assistant British Commissioner Reeves in his office.... I told him that until today I had been busy determining the identity of the land's legal Arab owners. I must act to obtain legal possession of it, and he must help me in this."

It is important to remember what a central place the preoccupation with "legal possession" had in the everyday routine of the "redeemers of the land," and how much they nullified that ownership, not only with money or other forms of power but especially through their belief, secular as they were, in a "divine right." These, ultimately, are not contradictions, and the "inner conflict" that historians such as Anita Shapira have invented retroactively for them becomes them, not us. There was no inner conflict here: the man purchased the land on behalf of the "enterprise," drove off the tenants without batting an eyelash and completed the act by ruminating about it.

The day's diary entry continues: "My actions in making the arrangement for the tenants are based on a willing agreement with them. The homeland of the Arabs is not limited to the boundaries of Palestine, and transferring them to other territory, in Syria or on the east side of the Jordan River, does not force them to leave their homeland. For those tenants who do not want to leave, we will make arrangements on the land and give them the same territory and the same treatment as the Jewish settlers." These words did not contain a shred of truth in them, not even in 1939.

Nachmani was born in Russia in the late 19th century and came to Palestine in the Second Aliyah. For years he worked alongside Yosef Weitz, the father of 1948 "transfer", in what was known as "redeeming the land." Slowly this term is sinking into obscurity, in part because the efforts to buy land involved the disenfranchisement of poor tenants by pioneers who loudly proclaimed their commitment to liberating the working man. But that was not the only reason; it was also because the "redemption" efforts paled to nothingness compared to what the army managed to do in a few crucial weeks during the 1948 war.

Ethnic cleansing

Abd al-Hadi Hamad was one of the defenders of Tiberias, the ethnic cleansing of which is the subject of this important film. He tells Karpel about the expulsion: "I gave first aid to a wounded man near the vegetable stalls, and I arranged for a vehicle to take him away, and when I returned to the place where I had been, no one was left. I looked ahead, and 30 meters before me I saw a truck laden with furniture climbing slowly up the road. Fast as lightning, I did the calculation in my head.... Run, boy! So I ran, I reached the truck and hung onto it and climbed inside.... At the exit I saw a Jew I knew. He made an obscene gesture with his hand, cursed and yelled: 'You didn't want to sell your house for 17,000 lira? Now we're taking it for nothing.'" It was not only embarrassment at the contradiction between the "religion of labor" and the way the tenants were disinherited that caused the stories of the "redeemers of the land" to be erased, but their quantitative dwarfing next to the large-scale looting.

Nachmani, like the father of the land-buyers, Arthur Ruppin, was a member of Brit Shalom (who advicated a binational state among other ideas concerning the conflict with the Palestinians.) The connection between the disenfranchisement of the sharecroppers and the members of Brit Shalom has only recently been studied, notably by Etan Bloom of Tel Aviv University. Karpel, however, touches on this issue as part of her general interest in the role that humanistic thought played in the broader disinheritance. Nachmani spoke Arabic and may even have liked Arabs. On October 18,1939, he wrote: "At Khisas I got the rest of the tenants to sign off on the 1,000 dunams we plowed. The tenants were not present. Base people, they do not want to appreciate how they profit from our actions.... I have the impression we will not finish today, either. At noon Kamal Hussein returned bearing news. He convinced the people of Lazzaza to conclude the matter of their tenants, and despite all the hesitation and fear, they signed on the transfer to us of 887 duman west of the Hatzbani... Now there is nothing delaying the establishment of the collective farm. We must go on to redeem al-Naima, finish al-Zuq al-Tahtani and eliminate Khan al-Duwayr. We must continue without stopping, pushing and pushing without resting. I must succeed, it is not just my private affair."

At the end of this segment, one can detect the real essence of action: Feelings are ostensibly a private matter; that is the purpose of a diary. Action is a collective matter. Eventually the great experts on "internal conflicts" arrive - whether the case involves a war criminal, or Israel Kasztner, or some other agent of history - and relieve themselves of the need to pass judgment on the nature of the act, on its moral weight, using that concept we remember so well from youth movement debates, a "dilemma." Nachmani, in contrast, writes after the United Nations resolution regarding the division of the country between the two peoples: "In my heart is joy mixed with sadness. Joy, that the nations have finally recognized that we are a people with a nation, and sadness that we have lost half the country, Judea and Samaria, and that in addition there are 400,000 Arabs in our part."

Good intentions

Here another of the film's virtues should be noted. Not only does it forcefully present for discussion how "inner conflict" and "good intentions" tie into the historic event, and not only does it finally elicit the testimonies of Palestinian fighters as the besieged minority, and not only do we clearly see that many in the young state thought the Palestinians would return after the fighting, while only the political and military establishment knew well what was being planned - in addition, the film places Tiberias at the center of the debate. Karpel has the wisdom to see a model in the city's ethnic cleansing, under British protection, by means of the massacre of villagers - and this in a city where the lives of Arabs and Jews, especially Sephardi Jews, were for years the model of a different kind of life.

Karpel's film gives us some notion of how ugliness (Tiberias is one of Israel's ugliest cities) fits into the national lust for real estate. After the ethnic cleansing, Nachmani tried to protect the Old City from looting. When he learned that the military establishment had other plans he quickly proposed to his son, a demolitions officer in the newborn army, that they blow up all the houses of the Old City. The beautiful basalt city was gone in a few hours. Is there any other city in Israel whose war crimes are part of its architecture?

But it gets even sadder: few other cities had a continuum of joint Jewish-Arab existence engraved in their history like Tiberias. Not only did the violent events of 1929 skip over the city, but its history includes the story of how 200 Jewish families from Izmir emigrated there in the early 18th century. And who invited them? The Arab ruler of the Galilee, Dhaher el-Omar.