Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory (The Cultures of History) edited by Ahmad H. Sa'di, Lila Abu-Lughod. Columbia University Press. Hardcover, 416 pages. $72.

The cover of Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory  (The Cultures of History)

Human testimony is basic to the courtroom pursuit of justice. But if one follows the news, one must feel queasy about what people remember and say under oath. Using DNA, the Innocence Project has so far exonerated more than two hundred people wrongfully convicted of crimes in the United States. In nearly four-fifths of the cases, according to one study, the convictions were based at least in part on eyewitness identification. Besides that, informants mistestified, sometimes to clear themselves. Defendants confessed to crimes they didn’t commit.

Memory is fluid, uncertain, susceptible to influence. It can be warped by what others say or want to hear, by an interrogator’s questions, by prejudice, by the effort to make sense later of a chaotic moment. A defense attorney may rip apart a rape victim’s confused testimony of trauma, though the crime really happened and the man across the courtroom might well have committed it. Yet not every criminal case offers the cold evidence of DNA and fingerprints. Can justice really do without oral testimony? Indeed, the victim’s chance to tell his or her tale may itself be part of justice.

As in the legal profession, there’s intense debate among historians about spoken testimony and the value of memory. As two valuable new scholarly collections show, a key case is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially the war of 1948. In part, that’s because both sides have treated history as a court, expecting it to certify the justice of their causes. Yet time and politics have reshaped memory, raising questions about its accuracy. And the hard, “forensic” evidence of documents from archives is unfairly distributed: More Israeli papers are accessible.

July 25, 1948, in Tel Aviv, only hours before the second truce in Palestine.
July 25, 1948, in Tel Aviv, only hours before the second truce in Palestine.

Benny Morris, the editor of Making Israel, stands at the center of this argument. In 1987, he published the groundbreaking book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949, an all-out assault on the public, “official” memory of what Israelis call the War of Independence. Rather than being the few who defeated the many in 1948, Morris said, the Jews enjoyed advantages of numbers and organization. The stronger side won. Social collapse was one reason for the exodus of Palestine’s Arabs. But another was atrocities by Jewish forces and deliberate expulsions that became more common as the war went on.

Morris built his account on what were then newly opened Israeli archives, methodically combing documents and combining data. In the years since, he has stressed his positivist view that “there is such a thing as historical truth.” This is what scholars must seek, he argues, rejecting postmodernism, alternative narratives, and the study of subjectivity. To get to objective truth, he has written, a “historian must base his work on . . . contemporaneous documents, and must be exceedingly wary of oral history, especially when the events that are being remembered are morally sensitive and politically charged, and occurred many years ago.” Morris’s revisionism and his reliance on documents are integrally connected: What his father’s generation remembered about the war they’d fought and that defined their lives is irrelevant.

Morris made this generational divide explicit in a 1988 essay that was originally published in the magazine Tikkun and is the opening piece in Making Israel. (Given the fuss around the essay, the book is worth getting for it alone.) He labeled himself and several other younger scholars the New Historians, who were “more impartial” than the Old Historians. The latter were unable to look objectively at events in which they’d taken part. Ironically, Morris’s riff on objectivity said quite a bit about how subjective the writing of history can be. He declared an oedipal agenda, attacking the founding fathers. He noted that the New Historians were products of an Israel that became more self-critical after the 1982 Lebanon war. Rephrased in a way that Morris would not put it, their view of the past was shaped by present-day politics. One could reasonably ask whether they were projecting their disillusionment with the militarily reckless Israel of the 1980s onto the Israel of 1948. Perhaps a historian may write his own biography even when describing events in which he did not take part. In fact, he might not be able to escape doing so. None of this detracts from the significance of Morris’s work on the Palestinian exodus. It does suggest that history inevitably includes not only what “really happened” but also the historian.

Making Israel is a good introduction to Israel’s internal battles over history and sociology. Two of the best essays, quietly self-critical, come from writers not known as New Historians. Mordechai Bar-On, who fought in 1948 and later served as chief of the Israel Defense Forces’ History Branch, carefully examines the limits of personal testimony. A participant in a battle, he notes, sees only a thin slice of what happened, hears much from his comrades, and incorporates the hearsay into his “memory.” Soldiers in a war aren’t thinking about wide historical forces such as the inevitable clash between Zionism and Arab nationalism. As a nineteen-year-old in 1947, Bar-On was certain that the Arabs had initiated the armed conflict, because the Jewish bus in which he was riding shotgun came under fire while passing through an Arab village the day after the United Nations voted to partition Palestine. Later in the war, as a platoon commander facing an invading Egyptian column, Bar-On felt overwhelmed— even if he would later learn that the overall numbers were on Israel’s side. His generation’s picture of the war is built on “honest memories.” But honest memory can misrepresent historical and moral complexities.

When Morris’s book on the refugees appeared, I was shocked at the shock among Israelis. Who hadn’t heard of “Hirbet Hizah,” the story by renowned Israeli author S. Yizhar in which a soldier takes part in expelling Arab villagers? In her essay on the story’s history in this volume, Anita Shapira explains how a whole country can forget something that lies in plain sight. When first published in 1949, Yizhar’s story earned praise for its candor, but the author’s fellow soldiers were “eager to put the blood, sweat, and filth” of the war behind them, especially the parts that didn’t inspire pride. They locked away much of their memory. In 1978, a filmed version of “Hirbet Hizah” appeared on state television, igniting new controversy.

For Palestinians, recovering the memory of 1948—which they refer to as Nakba, or “catastrophe”—is seen as a political imperative. Their main historical source is oral testimony. So the workings and reworkings of memory are the focus of Ahmad H. Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod’s anthology, Nakba. If read critically, with attention to the subtexts and the disagreements between authors, the book is essential for anyone interested in testimony and history, even those for whom the Mideast is not an obsession.

Benny Morris, Jerusalem, 1998.
Benny Morris, Jerusalem, 1998.

Strikingly, Morris is an important figure in this book, too, though here he is the subject of stormy ambivalence. As Sa’di writes, no other Israeli scholar has studied the expulsion in such detail, and Morris’s use of Israeliarmy archives lends his work credibility. Sa’di’s essay, summing up the volume, is written as a seamless indictment—I use the judicial term deliberately—of Israel, in which all the evidence fits together to show that Zionism intended to displace the Palestinians from the start. Morris provides much evidence for Sa’di’s verdict. Yet the Israeli historian rejects Palestinian testimony and memory and depends on Israeli state documents.

Within Israeli discourse, Morris’s devaluation of oral testimony served to break the hegemony of the founding generation, those who remembered the war. As seen by Palestinians, though, he is maintaining Israeli power over history. He is silencing the victims, who do not have archives precisely because of the catastrophe of 1948. For Sa’di, a lecturer in politics and government at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, justice demands affirming the victims’ story, but it also requires listening to them speak. Memory serves the Palestinians as plaintiffs, as he and Abu-Lughod write in their introduction: It “asserts Palestinian political and moral claims to justice, redress, and the right to return.”

Sa’di asserts that the Israeli archival evidence complements Palestinian testimony. Samera Esmeir argues the opposite in an essay on the dispute over whether Israeli soldiers carried out a massacre at the village of Tantura in 1948. The issue reached an Israeli court in 2000 in a libel suit by veterans against an Israeli researcher, Theodore Katz. Esmeir challenges the court’s preference for Israeli state documents over Palestinian testimony. She asserts that “the very project of the state” requires erasing atrocities against Palestinians. Palestinian villagers’ oral testimony is useful, she argues. If it is contradictory, incomplete, and incoherent, that’s partly a result of the traumatic experience and the shattering of community. People saw small pieces of what happened and were not able to piece the story together afterward.

Yet if Esmeir were right about the Israeli documentary record, Morris would never have found documentation of expulsions and atrocities. The flaw in her reasoning is that she conceives of the Israeli state as monolithic, a single entity consistently acting according to ideology. Though she and Sa’di disagree about Israeli archival evidence, they share this assumption. Unintentionally, they point to another quality of memory: We are more likely to remember the confusion and contradiction on our own side of a conflict, among people whose faces and names we know, while remembering the adversary—a mass of nameless strangers—as a single beast.

Even if memory of the Nakba was initially individual and incoherent, Lena Jayyusi writes, it has evolved into a narrative in “the collective first-person voice.” The process elides the particulars of what happened in different spots and times. Though Jayyusi does not say it in these words, she is describing how individual memory is melted down and wrought into national myth. The Nakba is now imagined by Palestinians in the present continuous. Later events such as the war of 1967 and the Israeli assault on the Jenin refugee camp in 2002 become part of “a potentially unfinished trajectory of fatality.” Uncannily, this is a mirror image of how Israeli Jews fit new events into the Holocaust narrative of “the whole world wants us dead,” a mindset that warps judgment of present-day political risks and opportunities. Too much memory can be a cage.

It’s therefore reassuring to read Diana K. Allan’s account of her fieldwork in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp. Allan finds elderly refugees with memories outside the myth, a community with “growing ambivalence toward . . . acts of national remembrance,” and young people more concerned with the future than the past. The desire for testimony, Allan suggests, may come “more from the elite echelons of the Palestinian diaspora than from its base.” It is driven by “fear of political defeat and justice not being done.” These doubts are a step toward a more critical examination of the past. Deeper revisionism, including a look at the role of Palestinians in creating the inferno of 1948, will probably come only after they have enjoyed the security of a couple generations of political independence.

These two books are best read as a set. Doing so forces questions of consistency: If a collective, politicized narrative obstructs Israelis’ view of their past, why is building such a narrative positive for Palestinians? If fragmentary testimony helps us understand how Palestinians experienced 1948 and how memory changes over time, might not Israeli testimony have the same value?

Most basically, the books inadvertently show the limits of the judicial model of writing history. Finding out the cold sequence of events is an essential goal. Expecting to do so beyond a shadow of a doubt is often unrealistic, and it excludes testimony about how history looked to the people who lived it, because they are unreliable narrators. Looking for a guilty party and an innocent victim leads to a search for sharp, unambiguous motives. History’s actual characters often have conflicting beliefs and are morally ambiguous. Remembrance of things past does not fit well into history as verdict. It does belong to history written with the complexity of literature— in the case of 1948, as a terrible tragedy.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967– 1977 (Times Books, 2006).