[This essay was published in: Nahla Abdo & Ronit Lentin (eds), Women & the Politics of Military Confrontation: Palestinian and Israeli Gendered Narratives of Dislocation, Oxford: Berghahan Press, 2002]

‘Daddy, look there, there stands AN ARAB!’

My small hand tightens convulsively onto my father’s big one. There the man stood, wearing a white gallabiyya, his head covered with a kafiyya.

AN ARAB. And the [1948] war just recently finished, a period of sirens, and fear, and sleeping at night in the shelter which functioned during the day also as my nursery school. I ‘knew’ that the seven armies of the Arabs invaded our Land of Israel and wanted to throw us all to the sea, but OUR small but brave army defeated them all and now we have our OWN state. We all sat around the radio and listened to the votes of the UN Assembly and when the required two thirds of the votes supported us my parents started to laugh and hug each other and me and my sister and shout ‘We have a state! We have a state!’ and everybody went out to the streets and laughed and danced. I remember finally lying in my bed in the dark, in the co-operative housing estate where we had our apartment behind Disengoff St., the main focus of Tel Aviv’s night life at the time, listening to all the shouts and singing of the celebrating people.

Then came the war, with very little laughing and dancing, But now it’s OVER. And yet – there stood AN ARAB!

And then my father told me something that calmed all my fears, and my hand relaxed its desperate grip.

‘Don’t worry, Nira’le. During the war all the bad Arabs ran away. The Arabs that are still here in Israel are the good Arabs.’

‘The good Arabs’. If so, wondered my sixteen years’ old self, twelve years later, why is my mother hysterical because I have an Arab Druze boyfriend, a law student whom I met when we visited the Druze village Rama in the Galilee with the ‘Youth for Youth’ organization? The relationship broke up shortly afterwards because I was too emotionally young to handle the intense declarations of love that Essam kept on directing my way. When I heard that his cousin, a poet, refused to go to the Israeli army [unlike most Druze men at the time] I used this as a lever to end our relationship. Shortly after that a friend showed me in the paper a small news item that he has disappeared, suspected to have run away to a kibbutz with his Jewish girlfriend [me?]. Ironically, years later, friends from Rama told me that he actually went to Lebanon as a secret Israeli agent and was eventually killed by Palestinian guerrillas.

‘The good Arabs’. If so, wondered my eighteen years old self, why am I sent for special security investigation in the army? After finishing the basic training of my national draft, I was sent to work in the offices of the Military Government Headquarters while waiting for the Officers Course I was to be sent on, to start. It was considered a wonderful job – I would not even have to wear military uniform. However, at the end of my first day there, my new boss struck a supposedly casual small talk with me. Among other questions, he asked me what I think about the Military Government system. My innocent eighteen years old self answered him casually that I don’t think the military government and travel restrictions applied at the time to the whole Israeli Arab population were just, as it was a collective punishment. Let them follow or even restrict all those they suspect of being a ‘fifth column’ – but why restrict them all?

As a result of this answer, I spent a month subject to further security investigations and attempts to convince me I was wrong. Now that I really had to start thinking about it all I became really convinced I was right! So they gave me a low security ranking, which deemed me never to have a higher rank than a ‘private’ in the military. Instead of sending me to the officers training course, I had to spend the rest of my time in the army [until I escaped to an alternative service in a farm near the Dead Sea] being a typist in the central army garage in Tel Aviv. I typed letters inviting the cars of the different generals to come for the weekly maintenance day and being either petted or bullied by my boss. He used to cry on my shoulder about his wife, and then sent me to shine the glass on the top of his desk after each time he put his greasy hands on it. That’s when I developed my extreme aversion to arbitrary power – and to football games – the analysis of which constituted the exclusive topic of discussion [except for flirting and sexually harassing, of course] of the military chauffeurs who were always gathered in our office.

‘The good Arabs’. So why has Levy Eshkol the Prime Minister of Israel [and the father of my best friend during nursery school time] formally declared the programme for the ‘Judaization’ of the Galilee and approved of massive confiscations of Arab lands to establish the Jewish city Karmiel, in the heart of them all?

As a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem I joined the movement against the military government and the land dispossession of Israeli Arabs. [I was persuaded to actually become active and not just hate it all by Uri Davis to whom I was later married for a period of about ten years]. Karmiel was established, but the military government was cancelled in 1965 [1966] and no more land confiscations took place during the following two years. We thought we were the winners.

And then the 1967 war took place and the massive Occupation and a collective victory drunkenness of such a large majority of the Israelis. It seemed that what we had fought against in the Galilee was just a mini scale general rehearsal for what was going on in the Occupied Territories.

I grew up in a co-operative housing estate at the heart of Tel Aviv in which only members of the Histadrut [the zionist labour union] were allowed to move in. Every Independence Day my father would put out the Israeli flag and on the 1st of May we had both the red flag and the Israeli flag waving in the wind. When the state of Israel celebrated its tenth anniversary we, the children of the housing estate, decorated the building all over with chains of little flags and brightly coloured paper chains. I remember one of the passing pedestrians asking us what public authority was organizing the decorations. The contempt we felt towards his question. We were the public, we were the state, we were the nation. Our parents who participated in the struggle against the British and the Arabs and for the establishment of the Israeli state on the whole had no hobbies – the state was their hobby, the primary signifier of their lives.

The political differences among the people I knew when growing up was usually between Centre-Labour and Left-Centre Labour Zionism. My questioning, as a teenager, first took me out of the labour youth movement when I decided I would not join a kibbutz when I ‘grew up’. [I felt then that life in the kibbutz would be too tame, like ‘healthy animals’ – the understanding of national, ethnic and class roles of the kibbutz in the zionist project came much later]. Questioning then, as mentioned above, sent me to be a low security army typist instead of the officer I was going to be and that my older sister had been. And there were more shocks on the way until I became, for many years, the ‘black sheep’ of my family and the peer group I grew up with.

It was shocking to discover that I had more in common with the non Jewish [the first I ever met in my life, except for Israeli Arabs] hippies [actually it was the transition period then between the ‘bitniks’ and the ‘hippies’] I met while serving the 2nd year of my national service in a farm near the Dead Sea, than with all the people I grew up with and went to school with.

The process of demystification of all the naturalized nationalist history and perceptions took years to unravel. I remember hearing Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who was teaching us a course on ‘mind and body’ as part of my psychology degree, stating assertively that it is impossible that Joseph Trumpeldor, the one-armed folk hero of the zionist settlement, actually said ‘It’s good to die for our country’ as his last words before he died. People don’t say such things just before they die, argued Leibowitz. And I, with all my supposed political and intellectual sophistication of my early twenties’ self, felt a shock when another myth I was brought up with disappeared.

Of course, the place where most of these myths were attacked was the historical series of seminars organized by Matzpen, the Israeli Socialist Organization, whom I chose to study for my MA dissertation. It was there I heard for the first time an analysis of zionism as a colonial settler movement. And it was there that I heard for the first time the details of what many years later, Israeli scholars called ‘the revisionist history’ of what actually happened during the settlement period and the establishment of the Israeli state.

It took me years, however, to ‘translate’ this intellectual and historical knowledge into an emotional one. By necessity, this journey from being brought up at the heart of the zionist establishment into the anti-zionist left, involved my leaving the country. Only by being exposed to living in different, more pluralist societies, with different naturalized assumptions about human relations [although with their own forms of racializations], could I really transcend the parameters of the social reality in which I grew up.

However, two emotional encounters, with two Palestinian friends, played crucial roles in this process.

The first encounter took place a couple of years after Uri and I had been living in Boston, Mass., USA in the early seventies. Fouzi, an Israeli poet and journalist friend, whom we befriended at the Nina Di-Nur forum [the first Jewish-Palestinian dialogue forum in the sixties], came to stay with us for a while after leaving Israel. He accompanied us to a meeting of the Israeli Students Association, to which we were invited to discuss the political situation. After a long and heated debate with the other students, concerning the realities of the Israeli occupation and the need for Israel’s full withdrawal, we went to a café in Harvard square. I was feeling high, as I felt that I managed to argue successfully my position. So was Uri. Fouzi, however, was much quieter than usual and sipped his coffee with a sober face.

I asked him what was the matter. He looked at me for a long time and then answered quietly that until that evening he thought we were good and close friends. Of course you are, I protested. [Later on when our son Gul was born, Fouzi was chosen by us to be his Godfather]. If this is so, answered Fouzi, why don’t you want to live in the same state, let alone the same neighbourhood as me just because I am Palestinian and you’re Jewish? I just heard you this evening explaining to the Israeli students that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a partition of the land and the population to two states – Israeli and Palestinian.

I was silent. I looked around us in the café, with the usual ethnic and racial mixture of Harvard Square, and suddenly something shifted in my guts. He was right. While protesting against the Israeli occupation, I still naturalized my position as a member of the hegemonic national collectivity in Israel and Fouzi’s as a minority one. In such a construction, he was right – in order for him to be of equal positioning to mine, he would have to move to the Palestinian state. Otherwise he would have to accept his position as an outsider in his own country.

Never again did I take my hegemonic membership in the Israeli society for granted. Never again did I collude in the grand delusion of overlapping boundaries that the hyphen in the nation-state term implies. And in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is not that I would later object, necessarily, to the two-states solution – under certain historical conditions there may not be a better short-term solution. However, never again did I have any illusion that such a state division could solve the Israeli-Palestinian national question [especially in relation to the Israeli Palestinians], nor was I ‘naturally’ part of the ‘common destiny’ of the Israeli Jewish community. With all their faults and their various racializations, I have come to appreciate living in pluralist societies such as the USA and Britain [or, at least, in some enclaves in these societies].

The second shift in me in this direction was more complex, less intellectual, more painful and penetrated deeper, childhood strata in my psych.

Rafiq [not his real name] and I met in London, in a political meeting on the Israeli occupation. He said such wise things. He sat a couple of rows behind me – I looked back – tall, handsome, high forehead, shining eyes, lovely smile. I felt the joy of meeting him, a kindred spirit, an attractive man. We met for dinner, we ended up in bed – his bed – that evening. We talked. We made love. I don’t remember how much we laughed. What is clear is that when we met a few more times, we began to laugh less and less. There was a growing sense of unease between us. It was focused on the fact that I was a single mother, and that he didn’t seem to like my son. And I didn’t like this at all.

And I didn’t want my son to find him in my bed. I sent him at 3 o’clock at night out of my bed, to sleep on the sofa, downstairs in the living room of the shared collective household we were living in at the time – an old, drafty, with no central heating large space above an optician shop in Hackney. He didn’t like this at all, either.

We finally talked about it all. He told me that he found children a problem and does not intend to ever have children of his own. Indeed, a couple of years later, when another anti-zionist Israeli Jewish woman he befriended became pregnant without his consent with his child, he tried to persuade her not to have the child, and once he failed, he refused to ever recognize or meet the child. Nor did he ever have children with the Palestinian woman he eventually married.

He told me that this was connected with him being abandoned by his own mother as a child, and that he never forgave her for that, although he met her – once – as an adult. And then it came out. He was abandoned by his mother during the 1948 war. She ran away when the Jewish forces advanced towards the village and left him, a four years old child, behind. He was rescued by other members of the family and grew up in a different Arab country than the one she fled to.

Which village was it, I asked, unsuspectingly. Oh, you might not know it, it doesn’t exist anymore. A fishermen village on the Mediterranean coast – Tantura.

Tantura. Tantura? My magical childhood paradise?! Tantura.

There was the prosperous veteran kibbutz Nakhsholim on one side, the new moshav Dor, populated mostly by Greek fishermen Jews on the other side, and behind were some remnants of the glass factory building built by the Baron de Rothschild at the beginning of the century.

And in front, on the beach, over looking the bays, the inlets, the islets, were the abandoned, half ruined, houses of the ghost village of Tantura.

A good friend of my parents worked in the municipality of Ramat-Gan. For some reason this municipality had some property rights over the abandoned houses of Tantuta. So our families could rent one of these houses for the summer.

Not many people stayed there. I remember an Opera singer who occupied a room on the roof in one of the only buildings which still had a second floor, one or two other families, and then us. We were three families, occupying a big building, with a big yard, a bustan, a walled garden. We, the children and our mothers, stayed there for about a month in the summer, and our fathers joined us for long weekends.

Tantura – where I learned to swim in the sea, learned the joy of empowerment and freedom, swimming in the deep [but calm] waters towards the Islet of the Seagulls; where I watched beautiful sunsets and starry skies, with the sun and the moon at different times of day and night projecting magic pathways across the water in which I could swim. Tantura, where I experienced the sense of adventure of exploring all the ruins – the Palestinian and the Roman [there was an ancient port there] in and outside the water, accepting them both unquestioningly as naturalized relics of the past; where I escaped to a shady corner in the bustan, eating grapes and reading a favourite book; where my parents stopped being the harrassed and stressed people of the city and became fun people. I shall never forget the evening when we all made a fire, and sang and danced around it ‘Yesh Lanu Taish’ [‘we have a he-goat’] and my mother laughed so much that – as she confessed to me – she peed in her pants!

Tantura – my childhood’s Paradise.

I could never meet again my Palestinian lover after that night. The child in me hated him. He invaded, dispossessed, tainted Tantura. He took away from me my childhood haven, the sheltered protected corner of Paradise. He took away the last vestige of my, the child of the settler colonial society, innocence.

Years later, I decided I must visit Tantura again. How would it look to me, the un-innocent adult, after all these years? The sea, the sand, the little islets, still seemed beautiful. The seagulls I named my son after, still circled over the water, defending their nesting areas on the islets from possible invaders. The remnants of the Roman port were still there, some of them reconstructed by archaeologists who worked there over the years.

Unlike during the time of my childhood paradise, there were again Palestinian fishermen working on the beach. They came from the one Palestinian village that did survive in the area – on the Karmel hillside Faradees. The meaning of the name Faradees in Arabic, I think, is Paradise [A coincidence?]. I found out later that those inhabitants of Tantura who survived and did not escape to Arab countries moved to live in Faradees.

The local kibbutz and Moshav did not engage with sea fishing anymore – too much hard work, too little profit. Tourism has become one of their main sources of income. Where the ruins of Tantura once stood, where the bustan used to grow, stood now prefab beach chalets inhabited by holiday makers. One could not guess that once this was the fishing village where the boy who became the man I knew was first born and then abandoned. Nor could one guess that this was the romantic ruinous paradise where I, my family and friends, once spent some magical summers.

Except for one thing. The mosque still stood there, among the prefabs. Full of rubbish and smelling of urine. Apparently there is a law forbidding the destruction of ‘holy places’.

And Israel is a state of law…

With all narcissist innocence taken away, I was ready to view Israel and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in somewhat more detached eyes. Things fell much more into place when I, almost accidentally, went on a lecture tour to visit Australia (following my then lover Stephen and meeting my present – and for the last fifteen years – partner, Alain). The water in the bathtub swirled down the plug hole the other direction, and cute Koala bears swung on the top branches of the trees near Hanging Rock, but the territory was familiar, and not just because of the scorching sun. This was another settler society, with dominant settlers, indigenous aborigines and racialized ethnic minorities of late immigrants. Situating the historical case of Israel/Palestine alongside other settler societies [as I eventually did in the book I edited on the subject with my friend Daiva who grappled with similar issues in Canada] made it easier to understand the issues involved in a more comparative way, from the contested claims on the country between natives and settlers to the complex and racialized hierarchies among the settlers themselves.1 It also helped me to start the healing process in my relationship to the society I grew up in. I suppose this has been a process of maturation similar to that of adults forgiving their parents for not being as perfect as they would have liked them to be. It did not make me oppose less what was going on, but with a bit less zeal of ‘exceptionalism’. Being involved in global networks of women in militarized conflict zones (such as Sri Lanka and Former Yugoslavia) and of more general anti racist and anti fundamentalist movements have had their impact.

Of course, it was not only I that changed. The overall collectivist ideology started to weaken in Israel and the society started to fragment ethnically, religiously, politically. While there were probably more fascist and fundamentalist groupings in the population than ever before, there were also processes of opening up and liberalization. The ‘other’ Israeli history that I first heard in Matzpen seminars has become part of the mainstream ‘revisionist’ Israeli history and sociology. (Among many other stories that came out was also the story of the massacre the Israeli army committed in Tantura during the 1948 war). Most importantly, after the Gulf War of 1991, the mainstream establishment in Israel started to understand that it could never win by military means alone. If war is diplomacy by other means, Rabin, Peres & al. have come to look at peace as alternative means for gaining and consolidating Israel’s security and domination.

Things were developing also in the Palestinian side. The Intifada consolidated processes of nation-building, civil and political empowerment. Then, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the complete domination of the USA in the region, more and more Palestinians came to the conclusion that they would need to follow the zionist movement’s example by accepting historical compromises in order to consolidate their state apparatus. When the ‘peace process’ started by negotiations in Washington DC, I asked Laila Shahid, who was then the PLO representative in the Netherlands (where I was staying at the time as a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Social Studies in the Hague), why would the PLO agree to take part in discussions under such disadvantaged conditions. ‘This is post-modern politics’, answered Laila, ‘we talk therefore we exist’. Indeed, after the Gulf War, with the money from the Arab countries stopping and the political credibility of the PLO seriously damaged because of their support of Iraq, this seemed to be the way forward.

This is not the place and space to analyse the ins and outs of the ‘peace process’. It is important to point out, however, that when the dialogue shifted from the open space of the formal dialogue in Washington, into the behind closed doors Oslo process, its character changed and its ability to contribute to a wide transformatory social movement on both sides has been seriously hampered. Instead, it became an instrument, on the one hand, for Israel to impose and consolidate the benefits of occupation without some of its most expensive military and political costs. On the other hand, it helped to consolidate a corrupt and undemocratic regime in the Palestinian side. It established an atmosphere of complacency in Israel, as if the peace has already arrived and they did not have to pay any significant price for it. It also fostered a higher and more bitter level of frustration among the Palestinians who accompanied the beginning of the process with growing expectations for the end of the occupation.

When I first visited Israel after the Oslo agreement I could feel people being ‘drunk’ with peace victory in a similar way to how they were drunk with war victory after the 1967 war. I was astounded to hear some respectable sociology professors argue at a sociological conference, that the relationship of Israel with its near neighbours – from Palestine to Syria – have been solved and the real problem for Israel would be the Arab countries further away such as Iraq and Libya. I discovered that I could still get angry more easily in Israel than anywhere else outside it.

However, the changes in the political climate in Israel were generally kind to me personally. People like me gradually stopped being treated as traitors and outcasts and I was even invited as a keynote speaker to one of the annual conferences of the Israeli Sociological Association (hence my presence in the above discussion). Moreover, I also gradually discovered an academic community (most of them of younger scholars) who has been working within a paradigm of Israel as a settler society similar to mine, and who have been allowed to develop their analysis and discourse within the Israeli academia.

As a result, I found myself last year, for the first time after 29 years, teaching in Hebrew a mini-course in Ben-Gurion university, where a higher concentration of such scholars accumulated, being the youngest of Israel’s main universities. I did not feel myself exactly ‘a prodigal daughter’ but for the first time since the last member of my close family died more than a decade previously, I felt that I might establish again ‘a home’ in the ‘homeland’. We agreed that I would return the following January with a view of establishing a permanent link with the department, coming each year to teach a course.

And then the ‘Al-Aqsa Intifadah’ broke out, dropping the bottom under the feet of the complacent and exposing the basic issues that need to be confronted before any historical settlement can be reached of the conflict. The Israeli authority and government responded with growing brutality, the establishment ‘peaceniks’ wrote how the Palestinians let them down, and the majority of the Israeli population voted for Arik Sharon, the extreme right ex-general, to become the next Prime Minister, with most of the Labour party happy to join him in a unity government. And yet, even the editorial in Yediot Aharonot, the most popular daily newspaper in Israel by far wrote that there is no military solution to the conflict even now. A family relative who used to belong to the ‘Greater Israel’ movement and to denounce me as ‘a lover of Arafat’ in every family opportunity, re-established contact after 20 years for some reason and wrote to me that Israel now is back in the 1948 situation except that it can do less now, because the world media is onto them. But even he, who never considered the Palestinians to be more than part of the biblical landscape and/or terrorists ended up this part of the letter by saying: ‘But we don’t have any other choice. We have to find a way to live peacefully side by side to them’. The combination of the Intifada and the peace process has made the Palestinians permanent and autonomous historical agents even to my family relative and his likes.

And indeed, in spite of Israel being a powerful nuclear military force, a high-tech society with a population many times larger than 1948, and in spite of the fact that his existential anxiety has nothing to do with the immediate reality but with collective memories (and in his case also personal memories – he is a holocaust survivor), in some ways the situation has gone back to the 1948 state of affairs. It is not just a question of whether there can be a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli one that would be more than a Bantustan, what would happen in Jerusalem and to the Palestinian refugees. It is even not the fact that for the first time the Palestinian citizens of Israel in the 1948 borders have become directly involved and that any future solution, unlike in the Oslo agreement would have to consider them as another collective historical agent. It is that the false foundation of the 1967 borders on which the various imagined solutions of the conflict were anchored, was broken. The reality of the history and the effects of a hundred years of the Zionist settlement project need to be looked at again now, before any sustainable solution could be found. And in the meantime, the Palestinians suffer more than ever before and their resistance is more violent than ever before.

I just came back from another visit to Israel. In the first shock of the Al Aqsa Intifada my visit back to the department was cancelled. But although the gap between the Zionist and Anti-Zionist Left in Israel has grown again, I am still invited to come back next year and teach. In the meantime I joined one of the many organized resistance and solidarity activities of the Israeli Left – both Jewish and Palestinian, with the Palestinians under siege in the Occupied Territories. It was called ‘Ta’ayush’, an Arabic term which means ‘Living together’. We went in a caravan of cars, Jews and Arabs, accompanying lorries loaded with food to distribute in a couple of Palestinian villages on the West Bank.

We were accepted warmly and both sides talked about living together peacefully. Then the Israeli army used our presence there and entered the village after seven months of absence. They claimed they came to ‘protect’ us, ‘proving’ it by trying forcefully to stop the unloading of the lorry and stop the food from reaching the local inhabitants. When they were resisted non violently they beat some of us up, causing one of us, an Israeli Palestinian, to faint. He had to spend a night in hospital. Eight others were arrested by the police that waited for us at the exit from the village, and only the fact that CNN reporters accompanied the caravan and actually took pictures of the soldiers’ attacks, prevented them from taking any further action.

The twist in the tale of this story is that the reason we agreed to leave the village, although it became clear the police was waiting at the exit to make arrests, was to protect in the first instance the Israeli soldiers who were following us behind. It was made clear to us by the villagers that if we were not there, and if they did not appreciate the solidarity we showed to their plight, they would have started to shoot at the Israeli soldiers. This Intifada is a low intensity war, no more just civil uprising.

There is no end to this tale, but here is where I pause now. Except to mention that in the car where I sat in the Ta’ayush caravan, next to me, sat Tisam – an Israeli Palestinian, living in Faradees, a daughter of a refugee from Tantura.

  1. It is not that the Israeli settler society does not have its own specific characteristics (Nahla Abdo, one of the editors of this volume and I wrote about it in one of the chapters of Unsettling Settler Societes, book I, edited with Daiva Stasiulis, Sage 1995) – the main ones are firstly, that it constructed itself as a national movement returning to its ‘old’ homeland and not just building a new society/nation, secondly, that it was autonomous from its inception rather than a product of a specific empire, but always had to ally itself to the dominant empire in the area at the time and thirdly – that unlike other settler societies, it does not constitute clearly a majority or a minority in the population, and therefore the eventual outcome of the settlement between the settlers and the indigenous population is less predictable.