Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

Speaking of the Nakba…

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…In which open-minded Israeli students defy an administrative stone wall.  A glimmer of hope (real hope, not the packaged kind) in a darkening place.

  Baydas family home, village of Shaykh Muwannis.  (photo: Zochrot)

A bit of context:  Israeli community group Zochrot (Hebrew for remembering) strives to raise awareness among Israeli Jews about the Nakba, the catastrophe of displacement that Palestinians have endured since 1948.  It’s a challenge, to say the least.  It was recently made a crime in Israel to mourn the Nakba on the day when the Zionist triumph is celebrated.

Amaya Galili is education coordinator of Zochrot.  In Our Way to Fightshe argues that if the Israeli state is to have a liveable future, Israelis need to acknowledge the Nakba.

Here is Amaya’s account of what happened at one school:

At the end of April, Zochrot accepted a request from students at the Kibbutz Teachers Training College in Tel Aviv, to help organize an event in commemoration of the Nakba, on International Nakba Day, May 15.  It would be an opportunity to open a dialogue with future teachers about how to teach about the Nakba in various educational settings.

A group of students, together with faculty supporting them, planned to organize a tour of Shaykh Muwannis [a destroyed Palestinian village, on which Tel Aviv University was built], and an evening symposium on the Nakba with the participation of Sami Abu Shehadah, Amaya Galili and Eyal Naveh. The students hoped to create a space on campus for an open, frank discussion of the issue.

However, the college administration used a variety of bureaucratic excuses to make it difficult, and eventually impossible, to hold the event on campus, setting conditions and making demands not normally imposed on events organized independently by students at the college.

The students had originally planned to hold the event under the auspices of the student government association.  They were turned down, and told to obtain approval for an independent student activity from the Dean of Students, Dr Dvorah Gesser.  The Dean sent them to the head of the School of Education, Dr Yehudit Weinberger, who told the students “there’s no reason to discuss the Nakba on a particular day,” and that in any case the Kibbutz College addresses the Nakba throughout the year.

The students argued that the educational activity would provide an opportunity for discussion and analysis, and is therefore appropriate for the college, particularly in view of its stated policy of providing a forum for innovative and critical educational initiatives.  In response, the administration began to impose conditions on the content of the program. These included a demand to change the title of the event, to reword the invitation, to select the chairperson for the discussion, and to vet participants to ensure “balance.”  It was made clear to the students that approval of the event depended on their agreeing to all of these conditions.

In order to carry out what they felt was an important activity, the students reluctantly agreed to these conditions despite their displeasure at the administration’s censorship and crude interference.  They changed the title of the discussion from “What does the Nakba mean to me?” to one determined by the administration, “Narratives of independence and rebirth or Nakba – catastrophe and disaster – can they co-exist?”  They invited an additional speaker, Gil’ad Maniv, a teacher and pedagogical advisor in the Ministry of Education, to meet administration demands.

Nevertheless, the college administration refused to approve the event and continued to demand additional changes in wording.  For example, they required that “Female students invite you” be changed to “Students invite you,” the addition of the Hebrew date, and other edits. The students agreed to these conditions under duress, and understood that the event was now approved.  As this was now only two days before the event, they started to publicize it and to invite students.

Then, no more than an hour and a half prior to the start of the event, the college administration suddenly claimed that it had never agreed, and finally denied permission to conduct the event.

That evening the student organizers walked through the college, facing locked classrooms, and sought space on the college lawns.  In the background stood Dr Yehudit Weinberger and representatives of the student government, threatening to bring students before the disciplinary committee if they went ahead with the event.

Finally the students and Zochrot representatives convened on mats in a grove of trees outside the college fence, a grove that had been planted on the site where the home of the Baydas family once stood, in the village of Shaykh Muwannis.  The house was demolished in 2003 in order to construct apartments and expand the college.

About 70 students participated in the event.  After the panel discussion, many students expressed interest in learning more about the Nakba, both at the college and outside it, despite the administration’s attempts to prevent discussion of the topic.

The behavior of the college administration, from the inception of the students’ initiative to the administration’s final refusal, reinforces the need to discuss the Nakba in educational settings.  It also raises the question of how an institution which claims to be humanistic in outlook, one that educates for social responsibility, can be so determined to repress and censor free speech and the activities of its students.  How can it imagine that ignoring and silencing discussion of such a complex, emotional and central a social issue as the Nakba can be a lasting educational and pedagogical strategy?

We [Zochrot] call on the college administration to behave in a manner consistent with the values it claims to uphold, to continue a dialogue and discussion with the students, to support commemoration and study of the Nakba in a variety of ways, and to refrain from disciplinary action against student activists.

Author: Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.

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