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When a Zionist Sees Palestine in the Mirror

It’s been a tortuous month and a half of collective memory for Jews and Arabs, as the two warring tribes demonstrably expose the festering wounds of grievance that forge their respective, group identities. It began with Land Day, marking Israeli land confiscations in the Galilee in 1976, continuing with Holocaust Remembrance Day, IDF Memorial Day and, finally, the two photo-negative retrospectives on the meaning of the State of Israel — Independence Day and  Naqba Day (the latter commemorating the Palestinian disaster of 1948). As the director of a Jewish Arab organization, I make the annual trek from one event to the next, trying to make sense of it all. It is tempting to think that bridging Palestinian and Jewish narratives might afford this wounded land a modicum of healing and reconciliation. The truth, in fact, is quite the opposite.

An unmarked break in the guardrail on the road to Beer Sheva leads me down a dirt path to Aziz. Together we walk past makeshift dwellings – flimsy tents and repurposed old cars — all that remains of El Araqib after repeated demolitions.  Authorities deny the very existence of the village, but there is no dispute that Bedouins from the El Turi tribe have lived here for generations. In the cemetery we pass a monument to Arab civilians killed – brutally, say the locals – in 1948. As evening falls, some 20 men gather in a ramshackle booth to break the Ramadan fast. Some, like Aziz, still cling to the land. Others just hold on to the memories. They share a simple meal, reminisce, and join together for evening prayers. This is their home.

Public etiquette eschews comparing the Jewish experience with painful historic recollections that weigh on others, but the intensity of this period invites it nonetheless. On Holocaust Day I make my way to a boarding school deep in the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, a solitary refuge of memory for the Belorussian home town of my ancestors. The Einzatzgruppen machine gunned the Jews of Drohitchen into a tank ditch in 1942. At the boarding school I peruse a Yiddish memorial book, its pages full of black and white photos that were a hallowed part of my childhood. Rabbis and ritual slaughterers, Yiddishist and Hebraist Schools, Zionists and communists, 500 years of Jewish life expunged in the course of a few hours. This dead shtetl remains an indelible part of my own psyche, though I have never seen it – nor do I pine for its muddy alleyways. My Drohitchen is here and now, in the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in the afternoon shade of my kibbutz.

Naqba Day, two years ago. I hike along with dozens of Arabs and Jews from the Hagar Association’s bilingual educational community deep into the fields of Kibbutz Ruhama. Stone buildings attest to the vital community life that existed in Jamama before 1948. A university professor relates, with barely concealed anguish, the story of a village that is no more. Ruhama, surrounded by enchanting hills and valleys, cultivates the country’s most extensive system of field crops. Its annual parade of tractors and harvesters on Shavuot is a sight to behold, the pride of the Western Negev. But right now I allow myself to indulge in a moment of painful silence in memory of Jamama. For Israeli Jews, invoking the Naqba is seen as a challenge to their legitimacy as a national collective. For Palestinians, meanwhile, it is a formative, living experience, a crucible of their very identity. As for me, it is neither.  My own historical associations take me down a very different conceptual pathway.

The IDF Memorial Day ceremony takes place a few meters from my house. At Nir Am, a community founded by Romanian Holocaust survivors, senior citizens personally knew each kibbutz member who died in Israel’s defense. Life in this border community on the Gaza envelope still remains an existential challenge of sorts, as every Kassam rocket from nearby Beit Hanoun sends us dashing in panic for cover. My life partner, granddaughter to pioneers who left family behind in Europe on the eve of destruction to found this desert settlement, was born here. Now our son calls this home as well.

As I listen pensively to the stories of the fallen, acquaintances from Tel Aviv choose to participate in an alternative ceremony that gives voice to both Palestinian and Jewish grief over those lost to the conflict. It is here that I part ways with my friends on the left. Accepting, as I do, the legitimacy of Palestinian identity as defined by Arabs themselves, it would be inconceivable to demand equal time for the Israeli narrative on Naqba Day. So, too, do I accept the exclusivity of Jewish memory on my own days of national commemoration, when I connect with the wellsprings of collective experience that shape me as a Zionist and a Jew. My own communal identity makes me whole. Good and right it is that Palestinians feel the same way about theirs.

I am inspired by Aziz’s visceral defense of his Negev patrimony precisely because it mirrors the age old Jewish yearning for this very land. No matter how hard we try, the Zionist ethos can never meet the Palestinian ethos half way. Each side’s recollection of tragedy and loss serves a different, and equally legitimate, phenomenological purpose. I, for one, am satisfied with that.

About the Author
Sam Shube is the CEO of Hagar - Jewish Arab Education for Equality, which operates the only bilingual, Arab Jewish school in the southern Israel, Scout Troop Adam - Israel's first integrated scout troop, and the Thaqafat Center for shared culture in the Negev.
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