The Transformation and Memory of Israel/Palestine

by David Shasha

Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948,
by Meron Benvenisti (University of California, 2000)

Throughout the 1980s, the origins of the State of Israel were examined by scholars such as Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappe. These scholars were Israel's "revisionist historians." Their basic position, though each had a bit of a different take on things politically, was that the 1948 war was not a simple "bad" Arabs against "good" Jews scenario. With Arab belligerancy in the wake of the British takeover of (then) mandatory Palestine, the Zionist leadership continued to look for ways to secure a homeland-at the expense of the native inhabitants.

 This story of the Zionist victory was always told in such a manner as to minimize the nature of Palestinian suffering. The Zionists, masters of the historical record, narrated a tale of David and Goliath. The new works of the revisionists began to place that narrative in a murkier light. In books such as The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, we learned that the Jewish army, which won the war, itself created the refugee problem. And while scholars like Morris and Pappe disagee over the facts leading to the problem, it is now clear in the historical record that Palestinians were expelled from their homes and land.  This expulsion took place in a manner that denies the very assertion that the Israelis were innocent victims of a conflict that was meant to trigger their own destruction.

With the publication of Meron Benvenisti's Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948, we now have not merely a military or political history of this crucial period in Middle Eastern history, but a clearly-reasoned biography of the landscape of Palestine/Israel.  This biography permits us to hear the very voice of the landscape, a voice that Benvenisti knows quite intimately. In chapters such as "The Hebrew Map," "Ethnic Cleansing," and "Uprooted and Planted," we acquire a clearer sense of how the landscape was transformed on the surface, yet like a palimpsest leaves traces of its past.

 Benvenisti, the former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and head of the seminal West Bank Data Project, is a man on a mission: The goal he has set out is to reclaim the nativity of each and every rock and tree in the region.  Here it would be worthwhile to remember the role of Meron's own father David Benvenisti in the Zionist claim to the land:

... a textbook entitled Our Land, written by my late father, David Benvenisti, had been published.  This was one of the most popular texts for the teaching of the subject called yediat ha'aretz (Knowing the Land), an important component in the education of every young Jew in Eretz Israel.  This subject encompassed geography, geology, history, ethnology, botany, and zoology, but it was not simply a course of studies: it was a mechanism of indoctrination by means of which Zionist ideology was implanted in the heart of the Jewish child.
The attempt to resolve what may be Benvenisti's Oedipal conflict is at the very core of his ouevre, for David Benvenisti was at the center of creating a false Zionist consciousness which his son Meron has spent a lifetime trying to correct.

 Unlike many tendentious political and ideological arguments, the argument of Sacred Landscape is a simple one: The Land belongs to its inhabitants.  And the Land does not forget.  At the epicenter of this book is the idea that Land is not part of a strategy; no matter how much indoctrination takes place, there is an organic functionalism that is rooted in nativity.  This point emerges quite clearly in a discussion of Arab place names in Palestine:

The wealth of Arabic toponymy is astounding in its beauty, its sensitivity to the landscape, its delicacy of observation and its choice of images.  Its metaphors have a poetic quality; its humor is sometimes refined, sometimes sarcastic.  The knowledge of the climate, the familiarity with nature and inanimate objects is absolute.  The people who chose these names had no need to articulate their love for the land in vast lyrical creations or to sing songs of longing from a distant Diaspora.

The thesis of the book, which comes by and large to complement the more overtly political scholarship of the historians, is that Zionism is  a colonial phenomenon; not colonial in the sense that we normally think of it, with a nation going out of its borders to colonize another people, but colonial in the sense of imposing a new (re)visionary landscape on the land.

 The chapters of the book on naming, the nature of ethnicity and nativity in the region, and the conflict that developed when the Palestinian Arabs were stripped of their civil rights, all flow naturally from this thesis.  Benvenisti's scholarship over his past few books has taken on the luster of the alternative.  Rather than assessing the standard documents found in archives, he takes on textbooks, maps, private letters and diaries and literary texts.  From this patchwork he writes a book that feels essentially human; Sacred Landscape is a brilliant examination of the very prosaic nature of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict written by a man who has the integrity of the landscape in mind.

 In his analysis of how the Zionists manipulated the names of places he states:

... in the aftermath of the 1948 War and the mass exodus of the Arabs from their towns and villages, the country had become a blank slate upon which the [naming] committee could inscribe names as it wished, without being restricted to the very limited areas under Jewish ownership.
 There is in this book the idea that names and things have a profound interrelationship; the tearing asunder of the name and its referent is dialectically connected to the evisceration of any sense of the native in Israeli culture.

 It is this loss of nativity that haunts Zionist culture in its feverish collapse today.  Benvenisti disappointingly devotes only a tiny section of the book to the Mizrahi experience in the midst of this shattered landscape.  In many ways, the Mizrahim, rooted in the Levant for centuries (and it is vital to remember that Benvenisti is himself of an old and venerable Sephardi clan), have an internal memory of this landscape.  But their memory has been burned clean by the Zionist revolution.  After 1948, Mizrahim were, as Benvenisti eloquently shows, pulled out of their native environment(s) in the Middle East and sent to resettle the "Homeland," a homeland that served neither as home nor permitted the maintenance of their own historical connection to the land.

 Those displaced by Zionism-the Palestinians and the Mizrahim-have developed a consciousness of loss and forgetting.  They have lost their way in a world that had formerly been their own.  Meron Benvenisti's crystalline portrait of the landscape of Israel/Palestine is perhaps our own book of memory, a book that brings us back to see what has happened to us these past 50 or so years.

 By connecting the land to language, Benvenisti brings us back to who we are as a people.  His staunch activism and his fearless commitment to the truth embody a luminous presence on an overwhelmingly bleak, partisan landscape. To read this extraordinary book is to be animated with the spirit of the prophets of old.  As Sephardim we are obliged to hear his voice and to learn the profound lessons that he is teaching us.

David Shasha is a writer, educator and activist who lives in Brooklyn. His forthcoming book is Drawing From the Well of Memory: Essays on Judaism.

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