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Points of Departure -- Part 1

Linda Dittmar
November 2, 2017

Photo above: Palestinian ruins in forest (photo credit: Deborah Bright)


by Linda Dittmar

Editor’s introduction: One hundred years ago, on November 2, 1917, the British government published the Balfour Declaration, a “declaration of sympathy” for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” (which also stipulated that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”). Though ambiguously worded, the Declaration nevertheless represented the most significant statement of approval to date for the aims of political Zionism. As such, it also brought tensions between the Jewish Zionist and Palestinian Arab national movements to a new height. Indeed, the 1920 “Palin Report” commissioned by the UK to investigate Jewish-Arab tensions in Palestine (which had been conquered from the Ottoman Empire during World War I) rather presciently described the Declaration as “undoubtedly the starting point of the whole trouble.”

During its thirty-year rule over the area, the UK would try -- and ultimately fail -- to strike a balance between the competing national claims of Jewish Zionists and Palestinian Arabs. This failure contributed to what came next: Britain’s decision to hand over the question of Palestine to the new UN, the UN’s partition plan, the ensuing civil war between Palestine’s Jewish and Arab communities, Israel’s creation, the entry into the war of the Arab League, and ultimately, the Nakba, the displacement of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians, who fled the war or were actively expelled by Israeli forces.

The following, the first chapter in an upcoming memoir by Linda Dittmar, is an exploration of one Israeli’s efforts to come to terms with the Nakba after decades of denial.


“NO, NO WAY!” I said, horrified at Deborah’s suggestion that we embark on a photo project to record those clumps of prickly pear cactuses that are readily visible in the Israeli landscape. “I just can’t do that!”

Back then, in 1995, when Deborah and I first had that conversation, we hardly knew one another. It was a dreary late winter morning in Boston and I had just told her that in my country, Israel, such cactus clumps often mark the remains of Palestinian villages. “The villages are gone,” I explained, “but the cactuses are hard to eradicate.”

It was just a passing observation. It had occurred to me because we were looking at her battlefield panoramas, which I had found so haunting in their monochrome shades of grey banality. All you’d see in these sweeping black-and-white panoramas is a placid field or a suburban subdivision, yet that’s where thousands had died — at Antietam and Little Big Horn, at Agincourt and Waterloo and the Ardennes … These and many others. Seeing those panoramas, so still and unpeopled in their paralysis, brought to mind my own battlefields and the prickly pears that mark them. Hardly battlefields, mine. More like the villages or hamlets that at one time dotted the landscape, now gone. Seen at a distance from a passing car, you would hardly guess that a cactus clump was once a hedge that had fenced a yard and corralled cattle. Now abandoned, these bushes sprawl untended, silent witnesses to the “Nakba”— the Palestinians’ “Catastrophe” of mass exile during the war of 1948, “The War of Independence” for us, Israelis.

[caption id=“attachment_64699” align=“alignleft” width=“300”] Stones amid prickly pear cactus (photo credit: Deborah Bright)[/caption]

Though I did not realize it at the time, telling Deborah about those cactuses was a lure, a glimpse of a possibility that I both did and did not mean to make happen. I knew that this notion of a hidden landscape would draw her irresistibly to what could become a fascinating new project, but I also knew that she, an American visiting Israel for the first time, could not do it without me. I was needed, and yet for me, the Israeli insider, it was a terrifying prospect. Exposing the Nakba would be a transgression, violating the unspoken rules that let us, Israelis, believe in and celebrate the justice of our national becoming. At the time, that winter of 1995, I did not even know the term “Nakba.” The Palestinians’ mass expulsion was neither mentioned nor mentionable in common speaking. It hovered at the smoggy margin of our awareness, at once visible and yet unnoticed. The notion that Israel’s founding had dispossessed some 750,000 did not yet figure in my sense of history.

Some ten years of talking, reading histories, and reflection by Deborah and me followed that early conversation. New histories were being written that questioned Israel’s founding myths. The word “Nakba” was heard, and yet I still did not invite Deborah to join me in Israel, though I was going there to care for my aging parents three or four times a year. When I finally proposed such a visit in 2005, the cactuses were not the point. Deborah was to join me as an ordinary tourist. She’d see the wonderfully pulsating Israel that most visitors encounter — its desert blooming, its antiquities and holy sites, its cities throbbing with life…. Of course, by then we knew that there are other truths under this vibrant surface, but it was also understood that I would not lead us there.

It was as ordinary tourists that we headed, one hot June day, for Beit Shean’s archaeological park, including its spacious amphitheater, its stately colonnaded agora, and a mosaic floor depicting an alluring Tyche, the Roman goddess of good fortune. Our plan was to arrive in the late afternoon and explore the archaeological park the next morning, except that we did not take into account how short distances actually are in Israel. Checking our map, I realized that we would have arrived too early for the youth hostel where we would spend the night and yet too late for the antiquities. I had forgotten how small the country is and how quickly one can cross it on its now excellent roads.

“Look,” I said, pointing on the map to a meandering green-coded road that snaked its way through the tiny tree-shaped icons that indicated “forest.” “It’s marked ‘scenic’ and we have the time, so how about a detour?”

“Uh…sure,” Deborah said and veered off the highway and onto a narrow country road that twisted its way uphill into a lush pine forest.

- - - - - -

IN A COUNTRY like Israel, parched for months on end, anything growing green is a thing of beauty and forests always stand for “scenic.” The trees confirm that moisture is nonetheless feeding them, that survival is possible and wellbeing imaginable. There is a sense of resolve about these forests, felt on the paths and the roads that slice through them, like the one we were driving on that afternoon. Visibly man-made, these clearly demarcated, green patches of uniform pine trees planted by the Jewish National Fund embody that urgency. The claim for the planting is ecological: the forests fight erosion and improve the air quality. While this claim is not spurious, the reality includes another story. Planted on Palestinian lands, some purchased before 1948 but much of it usurped after that year’s war, our forests disguise remnants of Palestinian villages buried underneath the newly planted trees. Their very presence announces that Jewish survival and wellbeing are paramount.

But I am rushing ahead of myself here. On that afternoon, in 2005, as Deborah and I entered our scenic road, I was not thinking about the geopolitical meaning of the beauty that enveloped us. It was a lovely afternoon. The pine forest was softly lit by a sun that was slowly descending into the coastal plain we had left behind us. Mild breezes swayed the supple pine branches, dappling the forest floor with a golden light and perfuming the crisp air with the pungent scent of sap. We were entering the Gilboa Mountains, I realized with the kind of sentimental catch in the throat that some of us, Jews, feel when a Biblical story becomes almost tangible. These are the mountains where a young David, in his dirge for King Saul and his beloved Jonathan, commands the skies to withhold their dew and rain in mourning for the heroes dead in battle.

We were also, I realized with dismay, near the northern border of the Occupied Territories, the Palestinian lands Israel has been holding since 1967. In the distance, where the planted forest ends abruptly and the rolling expanse of eroded mountains opens up to view, we could see tiny Palestinian villages, maybe even the outskirts of the West Bank city of Jenin. Never mind Biblical nostalgia, I reminded myself! We are hugging the border here, the “green line” that demarcates the ceasefire agreement of 1949, not that far from Jenin’s refugee camp which so recently, in 2002, saw terrible fighting.

The forest felt eerily deserted. There were no houses near the road and no cars driving on it. A lone sign advertising boutique cheeses available at an unseen farm only deepened the sense of desolation. The place felt empty, its beauty awash in melancholy — partly because of the deepening shadows, but perhaps also because I sensed on some not-yet-articulated level that we were skirting no-man’s-land. The demarcation where the forest ends and the bare hills begin was so striking!

Was Deborah thinking about that, too? I glanced at her, sitting there on the left side, away from the border, but all I could see was a profile looking ahead, hands firmly on the wheel, shirt slightly swelling in the breeze that rushed in through the open window. Never chatty, she drove on silently, leaving me to my own ruminations.

Trees were flying by, trees and more trees. I am not sure when in this lulling, monotonous scene I first registered the stone markers that appeared by the roadside every so often at more or less regular intervals, perhaps a quarter of a mile apart. Shaped like tombstones, they were not clustered as in a burial ground. Rather, they were lined up some distance apart, each with a small metal plaque affixed to it, facing the road. Our curiosity piqued, we stopped by one of them and read that this segment of forest had been paid for with moneys donated to the Jewish National Fund.

I should have guessed as much. After all, tree-planting has been a major campaign for years, both for us in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, and the diaspora abroad. Tree certificates were given as wedding and Bar Mitzvah gifts, for graduations, condolences, and prizes, for days of remembrance and days of joy. It was a special moment in my elementary school when our class would line up on Fridays —every Friday, every year — to deposit coins in the JNF collection box. There would be songs and perhaps a story or a short puppet show for the welcoming of the Sabbath (kabalat Shabbat) before our teacher removed the JNF box from its nail high up on the wall. Wearing our neat almost-Sabbath clothes, we’d approach carefully, each in turn depositing that coin or two brought from home in that special little metal box that had a blue silhouette of Palestine (until 1948 British, not yet Israel) printed on the white enamel background.

Glancing again at Deborah, I felt a chasm separating us. What does she know, when all is said and done? She had never lined up with that grush, that small coin, clutched in her palm, wearing the navy blue skirt and that blouse with Yemenite embroidery that marked our special occasions. The forest was somber in the lengthening shadows, but, ultimately, what did she know?

Driving on, we paused by the next marker, and the next, and the next: “… planted in memory of . . . , beloved wife and mother…”; “… in honor of those lost in the . . . deportation of …”; “…by members of the Beth Emunah congregation of …,”; “… by survivors of … living in …”; and on it went, marker after marker: Canada, Argentina, Israel, South Africa, Italy, Australia, England … too many to count.

[caption id=“attachment_64698” align=“alignright” width=“300”] Fallen JNF marker in Gilboa forest (photo credit: Deborah Bright)[/caption]

It was a mature forest, planted a while back. The trees were large, the carpet of dead pine needles beneath them thick. The stones also showed their age, with some markers coming loose from the rusting nails that pinned them into the stone. A few markers had fallen or gone missing altogether. In the darkening afternoon, a shared sense of mourning weighed on me, learned since childhood, over years of remembrance. This road, so short in actuality, suddenly felt long.

WE DROVE ON silently, each alone in her own thoughts, when Deborah suddenly slowed the car.

“Look!” she said, pointing to the right.

“What? Just more forest.”

“No. Look there,” she said, jabbing her index finger across my chest and through the open window.

“What? I don’t see anything.”

“The stones, those stones, under those trees…”

“So what? There are stones everywhere here in the mountains. The earth just about spits them out.”

“No, no,” she said. “These are from an Arab house. Look at their shapes. Look how they are piled up.”

I could see that there were stones lying among the trees, but exposed stones are the banal reality of Israel’s mountainous region. Over centuries of erosion, the land has been exposing its rocks and ejecting its stones. There’s nothing remarkable about that.

“I don’t see anything special,” I said, leaning to peer in the direction of her pointing finger as she pulled over. “Just stones. Like everywhere.”

“No, no, you are wrong. This is masonry. These are house stones, chiseled.”

“You’re seeing things,” I shrugged, settling back into my car seat. “Just because you read about the Nakba doesn’t mean that every stone we pass is a remnant of a Palestinian house, you know.”

If she was right, I didn’t want to know it. I had already made it clear that I would not be a guide to the Nakba.

Still, by now, on the way to Beit Shean, a decade after our 1995 conversation about photographing cactuses, this argument couldn’t be buried. Was it the weight of experiencing Jewish catastrophes memorialized in the forest that made us also think of the Palestinian catastrophe? We had each just finished reading Meron Benvenisti’s Sacred Landscapes: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, whose close and deeply moving account of Palestinian land claims reveals the tangles of ownership and attachments that people feel for this land. Taken together, the history Benvenisti describes challenges the Zionist myth of reclaiming “a land without people for a people without land.” Instead, it offers a devastating account of Israel’s systematic erasure of Palestinian presence, including the destruction of hundreds of villages. It was hard to shrug off evidence – if what Deborah saw was in fact evidence.

Deborah’s assumption, that the stones she saw among the trees had once been part of a house, was reasonable, but so was my claim that similar stones are scattered throughout the region, regardless of human use. Ordinary village masonry was not so uniform as to be easily identifiable and builders often used ordinary fieldstones. But Deborah was determined. Ignoring me, she got out of the car and walked into the forest. As her faded denim shirt grew smaller in the dappled distance, I could see her rummaging here and there on the forest floor, bending to peer at something, lifting a stone, moving on, and looking again, while I sat glumly in the car.

What had gotten into me, usually so quick to seek things out, that kept me paralyzed? When Deborah returned, she confirmed that she was sure that the stones were once part of a house. “How can she be so sure?”, I thought irritably. There were no two stones joined together, no residual mortar, let alone a standing wall. As far as I could tell, these were just odd stones scattered among the dead pine needles.

That afternoon we dropped the matter, except that now the Nakba had been named. Neither of us was willing to give in, and it was getting late. What originally promised to be a leisurely afternoon had suddenly shrunk; there was no time left to follow the sign to a lookout further up the road. It would only be some nine years later, in 2014, now traveling with my friend Jacoby, that I took that extension. The lookout we found is named for Israeli soldiers who died in battle, as such places often are. Now, during this visit with Jacoby, it was holiday time, Sukkot, and the lookout was buzzing with Israeli families. The expansive panorama it overlooks stretched from the Jezreel Valley eastward to the Jordan Valley and beyond it to Jordan. You could see Syria rising in the hazy distance, beyond the Golan Heights, now cultivated by Israelis.

Deborah and I, however, had missed this sweeping view and the breathtaking illusion it gives one of being in possession of the land that spreads so placidly below. We had to get to the youth hostel. We were also tired and on edge — partly about our argument, but more, I think, because of the melancholy that pervaded the forest. The Hebrew markers I had translated into English for her and her conviction that the stones she saw marked a destroyed Palestinian village combined to make complacent tourism impossible. By the time we found ourselves winding our way back down that road, we each knew too much.

Read Part 2 of “Points of Departure” by clicking here.