The legacy of the Nakba

Academic institutions pride themselves on fostering freedom of expression and thought. But Israeli universities are accused of complicity in the silencing of Arab voices by British academics. Jaimie Kaffash reports

July 5, 2008
4 min read

Afaf Abdullah Abu State has only fond memories of the village where she grew up, which she will never see again. ‘My most beautiful memory is when I used to go to the sea to catch the fish with my father,’ she says. ‘I remember how happy I was to go to meet him on a boat on the Jeraisheh, a small river, now called Yargon. These were happy times being entertained by daddy.’

Afaf’s childhood village, Sheikh Muwannis, is no more. Destroyed in the Nakba (‘catastrophe’ in Arabic) by Israeli forces 60 years ago. In its place stands the campus of Tel Aviv University. All signs of the existence of Sheikh Muwannis are gone.

In the months leading up to the declaration of the state of Israel, it is estimated that 13,000 Palestinians were killed and a further 900,000 expelled from their homes. Eitan Bronstein, an Israeli Jew and director of Zochrot, an organisation committed to raising the profile of the Nakba in Israel, comments: ‘I think there is much more openness about the Nakba in Israel in recent years … In the context of the 60th anniversary, there has been much more talk about the Nakba. On the other hand, people who use the term don’t know much more than the term itself, that it is the tragedy of the Palestinians. It is a bit contradictory. It is not a profound change, but it is a change on the surface.’

This is not always positive, according to Bronstein: ‘Most of the reports are not very supportive. Usually, the media incorporate the defence of colonisation within the context of the struggle against Israel.’

In his role as director of Zochrot (‘remembering’ in Hebrew), Bronstein has taken an interest in Sheikh Muwannis. ‘We started the campaign a few years ago to ask Tel Aviv University to indicate the existence of Sheikh Muwannis within the campus, and we asked the university to commemorate the village. The answer we got was negative … no, worse than that, no comment.

‘Tel Aviv University has no memorial to the Palestinians who used to live on the land. There are history departments and we think it should be required reading. The universities have contributed to the continuation of the silencing of the Nakba.’

There is a movement within the UK that, like Zochrot, believes that Israeli universities must take responsibility for attitudes that, they believe, are heightening the tensions in the Middle East. Professor Steven Rose is the secretary of the British Committee for Universities for Palestine (BRICUP). The principal aim of BRICUP, Rose stresses, is to implement an academic boycott ‘aimed at the institutions’ in Israel. ‘The Israeli universities are complicit in the actions of the Israeli state,’ he says.

‘Israeli universities have never, as universities or as academic trade unions, protested against the lack of equity with their Palestinian colleagues,’ he continues. ‘Individual universities operate policies which include putting buildings on expropriated Palestinian land and treating Arabs – even Arab Israelis – as second class citizens. There are many reasons why the universities are not defenders of the academic freedom of their Palestinian colleagues. They are, in fact, actively participating in the oppression of those colleagues.’

Rose says that Tel Aviv is not the only university that stands on seized Palestinian land. ‘The Hebrew University in Jerusalem sits on a substantial amount of expropriated Palestinian land. The original land was bought from Palestinians because it was set up before the state of Israel itself, but as the university expanded, it expropriated a lot more land.’

For Afaf, the university is symbolic of Israeli attitudes towards the Nakba. ‘Their policy is to eliminate all memory and traces like we never existed, like our villages never were,’ she says. ‘Sheikh Muwannis was a suburb of Jaffa and it was a beautiful little village. We had shops but the most prominent characteristic was the bayyaaraat – the orchards, consisting of citrus fruit trees, oranges, grapefruit, youssof effend [a type of clementine]. Those have disappeared without trace. Yes, all that is gone and I miss it.’

‘Two years ago, I visited the area,’ she continues. I couldn’t recognise anything. It was an entirely different place and I was so depressed to see all the beautiful landscape gone and instead ugly concrete buildings. I feel upset, sad and furious. They have eradicated and killed one of the most beautiful places.

‘I wish, I only wish, that before they built the university, they would have kept some memory of the area, the village, to remind us who once lived there, of how beautiful it was and how very strange and built up it has become.’


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