On Fiery Birth of Israel, Memories of 2 Sides Speak
By Dina Kraft
May 19, 2009

In a high-rise apartment with a Mediterranean Sea view, the cameraman checks his frame and the interviewer makes sure the slight, silver-haired man is relaxed enough to tell his story.

Then Peleg Tamir, 81, starts recounting his days as a teenage recruit for an underground militia fighting for the Jewish state.

Arrested by the ruling British authorities in 1947, he smuggled himself out of a detention center in a suitcase. “Everyone was shocked when I climbed out,” he said.

Tufaha Natur, 74, lived a very different part of this story. The women from her small Arab village in the Galilee fled when Jewish militias arrived. “A woman who carried her two or three children also carried clothing and food; how could she organize herself?” she said. “There was a woman who forgot her son in the bed, leaving him and taking a pillow instead.”

As Israel celebrated its Independence Day last month — an event that Palestinians call the nakba, the catastrophe — the videotaped accounts of Mrs. Natur and Mr. Tamir are part of efforts to preserve the narratives of both sides of the war that led to Israel’s tumultuous birth in 1948.

While historians debate the reliability of first-person accounts given decades after the event, advocates argue that they give voice to ordinary people’s experiences of historic times.

In November 1947, the United Nations approved partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Infuriated, neighboring Arab states invaded, supported by local militias. Zionist forces fought back. Some Palestinians fled, hoping to return once the fighting ended; others were evacuated or saw their villages destroyed by the Israeli forces.

The different sides tell vastly different stories, and the act of preserving them is itself a political statement in a land locked in arguments over narrative. No battle over the regional historic record is perhaps more contested than the one over the story of Israel’s establishment.

The unresolved questions of that history will continue Monday, as President Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel in Washington. Their expected discussion of Palestinian statehood is directly rooted in the events of 1947-48.

On the Jewish Israeli side, an ambitious new project called Toldot Yisrael is trying to reconnect with the Zionist story, which many Israelis feel is overshadowed by the narrative of Palestinian displacement.

Modeled on Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which interviewed about 52,000 Holocaust survivors, the project is collecting firsthand accounts of the arrival of the Zionists and their struggle to create a Jewish state. One account was that of Harold Katz, a Harvard Law student and World War II Navy veteran, now 85, who volunteered to help illegally smuggle Holocaust survivors by ship to pre-state Palestine. “We couldn’t just sit in law school while history was being made,” he said. “We had to do something.”

In testimonies collected on the Arab side, witnesses tell of smoldering remains of villages destroyed in the fighting, and confusion as families fled and became separated.

In an interview with Zochrot, an Israeli organization that promotes awareness of the Palestinian perspective on 1948, Dia Faour, 93, tells how men and women in her village, Sabalan, near the Lebanese border, were divided by Jewish militiamen and told they had an hour to leave the village or be shot.

“I started running in fear,” she said. “My children and I went in one direction, my husband in a different direction. I fled to Lebanon and nighttime fell. It was very cold outside and the children were hungry.” It took her two attempts, dodging military checkpoints with four young children in tow, but eventually she returned and found her husband.

The historian Michael Oren, who was recently appointed the Israeli ambassador to the United States, said videotaped testimony collected by these groups and others would inevitably become part of not only the historical record, but also the political debate. “I have no doubt it will become a weapon on both sides,” he said. “Maybe those documenting don’t have political agendas, but they will be asking different types of questions.”

The Jewish interviews focus “on the struggle for statehood, heroism and sacrifice,” he said, whereas the Palestinian ones are “about pain and uprootedness.”

For Diana Allan, founder and director of the Nakba Archive, which has recorded interviews with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the testimonies are inherently political. The question of who is responsible for Palestinian refugees bears directly on the contentious issue of whether they should be allowed to return to within Israel’s borders. “Our aim has been to but record this critical period of Palestinian history through the voices and personal experiences of those who lived through it in a way that moves beyond the statistical, mythical and anecdotal,” she said.

Eric Halivni, 37, who founded Toldot Yisrael last year, said he was motivated by intense curiosity about the period. “I don’t see this as a political issue but as our history and heritage, so let’s preserve it,” he said.

For the Palestinians, much of whose documentation and libraries were destroyed or confiscated during the fighting between 1947 and 1949, personal testimonies have special value, said Sharif Kanaana, an anthropologist at Birzeit University in the West Bank, a pioneer in recording Palestinian testimonies.

“There are some who would say the value of oral history is to establish the facts of what happened in 1948 and the conflict,” he said. “To me, the value is in people, the Palestinian people, refugees in particular, knowing their background, their past and the communities they lived in.”

Today, the larger-scale Palestinian oral history video projects are being conducted inside Israel, collected by Arabs who are descendants of those who lived through the events, as well as among refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.

Sometimes, stories intersect, showing the human paradox at the heart of any complex story.

“An old man sat with his back to the village — he could not bear to watch it burn,” said Yisrael Cohen, a Jewish militia officer, recalling the conquest of an Arab village. “From a burning courtyard a young boy came running to me laughing; he wanted to play. He came up and I took him into my arms and he hugged me. What will I do with him, I thought. It was such a contradiction to what was going on around us.”