Memory and the Return of History in a Settler-Colonial Context: The Case of the Palestinians in Israel

Nadim N Rouhana & Areej Sabbagh-Khoury. Interventions. Volume 21, Issue 4. 2019.

On May 15 2012, the day Palestinians commemorate the anniversary of the Nakba, Palestinians in Israel declared a general strike. Although Palestinians in Israel have used national strikes before to protest various Israeli policies against them, this was the first national strike to commemorate the Nakba. This event symbolized, more than any other, what we define as the return of history in this context—the return of the Nakba as a defining force of the current national, political, and cultural collective consciousness of the Palestinians in Israel.

In this essay we trace the return of history as a process that has become integrated into the transformation of Palestinian collective consciousness. Based on our examination of Arab newspapers published in Israel between 1990 and 2013, we will argue Palestinian history, particularly the history of the dismantlement of Palestine and the ethnic cleansing of the majority of Palestinians from their homeland—known in Palestinian historiography as the Nakba—has gradually and persistently started to occupy the centre of the present political and cultural experience and discourse of the Palestinians in Israel. We examine why the Nakba, a foundational experience in modern Palestinian history and politics, was, until the mid-1990s, silenced in the official political sphere of the Palestinians in Israel. We will also explain when and why history returned to take central place in Palestinian political discourse and cultural fields. Finally, we examine the various manifestations of this return and briefly address the political implications of this shift.

The Return of History and Collective Memory

We define return of history, for an identity group, as the process in which a dormant past is reconstituted and becomes a constitutive force in present collective consciousness and in envisioning the political future. The return of history can become a collective force for political and cultural change, particularly in cases of dominated groups whose domination is rooted in a history incompatible with that of the dominating group(s), such as in settler colonialism. In our case, the return of history is not merely the revival of the memory of the past or the increased frequency of commemoration of past events or the emphasis on the Palestinian narrative and its expression—although it includes these dimensions. Rather, it is the dawning of a national group’s political consciousness shaped by canonical historical events that were largely silenced in the official political sphere. This return of history is the collective open recovery and revival of the absented canonical events that now emerge as the defining force of the collective consciousness.

In examining the return of history in the case of the Palestinian citizens, we make use of Halbwachs’ (1992) conception of collective memory. Like him, we employ the term to mean individuals’ acts of remembering in a defined group context. As Coser notes, commenting on Halbwachs’ work, it is individuals who remember, “but these individuals, being located in the specific group context, draw on that context to remember or recreate the past” (1992, 22). Collective memory thus requires a social context of a particular time and space with certain social forces that enable its articulation. The construction of the past is a continuous interaction between the personal and the national. In this process, commemorative collective rituals play a central role in articulating their shared memories of particular events (Zerubavel 1995). In this sense, collective memory is formed by history but is not an alternative to historical memory (Olick and Robbins 1998).

We use return of history and not “collective memory” because in our particular case, historical memory was never erased but was either silenced by Israel’s practices or self-censored by the carriers of this history themselves in the official and political spheres. The return of history is not merely a process in which people simply “re/discover” historical “truths,” facts, or evidence and reconstruct them within the present context, as they do with collective memory. It is also a process in which historical memories—those that were silenced but never forgotten—are transformed into political assets. These memories become a formative force in the construction of a framework of meaning in which the present is interpreted through the lens of the unforgotten past. In this sense, the return of history acquires the force of framing present realities, forming identities, and envisioning a desirable future. Therefore, while Nora (1989) has argued for a distinction between history and memory, we argue the return of history of dominated groups is so intertwined with their collective memory that such a distinction does not necessarily apply. A similar distinction between history and collective memory is made by Zerubavel, who claims:

History, the product of a scholarly scrutiny of the records of the past, is essentially a “superorganic” science detached from the pressures of the immediate sociopolitical reality. Collective memory, on the other hand, is an organic part of social life that is continuously transformed in response to society’s changing needs. (Zerubavel 1995, 4)

Zerubavel’s distinction, while plausible in many cases, is not applicable in the instance of denied histories such as the history of colonized groups whose very “superorganic” history is the subject matter of their collective memory in her terms.

For the dominated, in our case for the colonized, whose colonization is often accompanied by the extraction of their resources (including their archival resources), memory is an important source of archiving history—particularly when the dominated lack the means to undertake formal historical documentation. The dominant group, on the other hand, uses formal documentative history to validate what Nora (1989) describes as the “successive deformations … manipulation and appropriation” of memory. In contrast, the dominated use memory, often using oral history methodologies, as one of the foremost means available to validate their history.

The return of history in this case is a classical instance not only of providing an alternative view of the past, but also of subverting, indeed undermining, the colonizer’s framework of meaning, legitimized through power and domination. In this regard, the memory embedded in the return of history is a form of “counter-memory,” to use Foucault’s (1977) concept, because it indeed resists the disciplinary power of the official state historiography and openly challenges the hegemonic discourse and its very legitimation. In our case, it is important to notice that this is an ongoing process—rather than a single act—of “return” that, in our view, will continue in various forms as long as resistance to the disciplinary power is needed.

The analytical framework we apply here is based on the understanding that we are dealing with an ongoing settler-colonial project (Rouhana and Sabbagh-Khoury 2015), which has its own unique characteristics. Our argument, however, is that distinct parameters of the Israeli case—the combination of Zionist nationalism with the process of settler colonialism—modify some classical settler-colonial manifestations, while not necessarily changing the case’s colonial essence.

The descriptor “settler colonialism” has been applied intermittently over the past several decades in analyses of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, especially when scholars have examined how the Zionist movement (and later the Israeli state) sought to control and accumulate land before the 1948 Nakba (e.g. Shafir 1989). There is an expanding tendency among Palestinian and other scholars to return to the settler-colonial framework to analyze the Israeli–Palestinian history and present. Taking note of this, we examine how the return of history is becoming a lens with which this community recognizes and conceptualizes Israeli state practices within a settler-colonialism frame of reference. Furthermore, we argue the return of history is a process the colonized use to challenge the hegemonic memory produced as an integral component of the settler-colonial project itself, and as a tool of gaining power while resisting the colonizer.

In a settler-colonial context, “counter-memory” becomes even more important as a form of contestation, indeed resistance, to the colonialists’ framework of meaning and system of legitimation, even if not always articulated as such by the colonized or recognized as such by the colonizers. In this sense, the term return of history is, to use Bourdieu’s (1990) terminology, a “practice.” While we do not dispute that collective memory is shaped through the lens of the present—“presentism,” as Halbwachs (1992) offers us—we argue that in a settler colonial context the return of a silenced history has an additional but reversed effect—that of the past on the present. That is to say, the history itself—not only the constructed narrative of the colonized—returns to engulf the present experience with new meanings that seek to subvert the settler-colonial structure of power.

For Palestinians in Israel, the return of history means expressing their canonical historical facts in the public sphere, not only as their “constructed narrative,” but also as a device that can shape how they view their present relationship with the colonizer and the future of that relationship.

Considering this layered definition of the return of history, we will address the following issues: (a) were the expressions of the historical experience of the Nakba indeed silenced for the Palestinians in Israel or, perhaps, were they repressed? And what particular expressions were most silenced or repressed in the public sphere? (b) Why was such a monumental historical catastrophe silenced and/or repressed, and why is this history returning now? (c) In what ways is history returning, and what forms is the return of history taking in political consciousness and public discourse? And (d) what are the political implications of this return?

Silenced History

The year 1948 was the year of rupture in Palestinian modern history. The Palestinian national being was shattered. Scholars have chronicled how the Palestinian National Movement was defeated (and later how it reemerged), how the Palestinians were scattered, and how Palestine as a political and physical entity disappeared from the map. But the national and personal traumatic experiences and their impact on memory and political consciousness have, in general, received much less attention and usually, but with major exceptions (e.g. Abu-Lughod and Sa’di 2007), have neither been articulated nor theorized. Nor was the Palestinians’ political condition conducive to articulating their experience of ongoing trauma, except in cultural spheres such as literary productions (particularly poetry), some forms of fine arts, and more recently in theatre and cinema (Masalha 2008). The decades-long struggle for self-determination led to an emphasis on the political and national dimensions of their experience. At the same time, the traumatic human experiences of 1948 and the loss of home and homeland, with all its shattering existential human ramifications, were marginalized in public discourse. These experiences have not been woven into a national or collective writing of history, unlike the history of other groups such as the Jews in Europe or African Americans in the United States. Palestinian agency has been narrated in terms of resistance and nationalist narratives. Thus, a striking feature of the Palestinian narrative over the history of their multifaceted dispossession has been the prominence given to enumerating and documenting what the Israelis did to them in the physical and political sense. These narratives fall short of articulating the human experience, psychological impact, and social consequences of Israeli policies and actions on them. This feature applies to all segments of the Palestinian nation in various forms and for reasons that differ in relation to their positionality vis-à-vis the colonizers in the post-Nakba period. But it is most prominent for the Palestinians in Israel. Other Palestinians, for example the refugees, stressed the enormity of the historical events that precipitated their dispersion, which led them to revive and ignite a resistance movement—the Palestinian National Movement, which sought “liberation and return.” Yet, for the Palestinians in Israel, the constitutive history of their colonized reality was, until recently, silenced in the official public and political discourse.

Family, as a safe space, was a main transmitter of oral history from one generation to the next. Families shared the stories of their communities and how they escaped the events of the tahjeer. The internally displaced persons (IDPs), scattered in towns and villages usually adjacent to their original towns, or the small number who remained in their own cities overtaken by Israel, were particularly diligent about relaying their stories to new generations. The landscape defied silence, as it provided a powerful context for transmitting the stories of tahjeer, through the hundreds of evacuated and destroyed towns all over the country, the deserted Arab neighbourhoods in the Palestinian cities that became known as mixed cities (such as Haifa and Akka), and other Palestinian cities that became Jewish cities (such as Safad, Beersheva, and Tiberias). The Arab houses mostly inhabited by Jewish settlers (recognized by the identifiable Arab architectural style) remained as a silent yet articulate testimony to the tahjeer and new generations of Palestinians encountered these reminders (Golan 2001).

The silenced history was also reflected in a fragmented narrative of traumatic historic events of the Palestinian experience, but a grand narration that could have linked the various fragments stayed dormant. For example, the second generation of the Nakba knew about the existence of individual displaced villages and the IDPs, but this truncated historical awareness was often not articulated to the younger generation as interrelated components of one unified story—the loss of the homeland. This dormant history awakened later within the particular political and historical circumstances that made it possible for this history to return. The process of return of history provided the framework of meaning within which the shattered pieces of the story have been reintegrated into an all-encompassing whole.

The silencing of the 1948 story was remarkable if one considers the importance of Palestine for the Arab world after 1948, particularly during the era of pan-Arabism in the 1950s and 1960s. After it was lost, Palestine became the main Arab cause, occupying a unique political and moral place among Arab nations. In sharp contrast, Palestine and the story of tahjeer became a taboo in the official space for the Palestinians in Israel. Israel’s political erasure of Palestine and its physical dismantlement was matched by an equally powerful and deliberate project to erase Palestine from the consciousness of the Palestinians in Israel (Rouhana and Sabbagh-Khoury 2015) and to repress the story of tahjeer. This project was intended to impose a new narrative not only on Palestinians in Israel but also on Jewish Israelis and on global discourse. After all, justifying the enormity of the settler-colonial project required an equally formidable psycho-epistemological system of denial (in addition to other mechanisms of justification). It is hard to overestimate the centrality of Nakba denial in Israel and the threat of the Palestinian narrative to Israel’s righteous self-image. Israel’s concern about its own legitimacy was a major factor in creating a foundational narrative in which denial of the Palestinian uprooting by the Zionist forces was fundamental. In the official Israeli state memory, Palestine was eliminated from the geography and history of the land. Israel imposed new time and space coordinates across the land. This spatial reordering replaced Palestinian names of geographical areas, towns, and places with Zionist ones. The media, educational system, academia, military service, and cultural institutions played a fundamental role—particularly in the early stages of nation-building—in absenting Palestine, or even in an attempt to eliminate it and replace it with a reinvented Zionist vision (Kadman 2008). For example, the state determined the educational curriculum for both Arabs and Jews, placing the Arab educational system under the control of the security apparatus (Al-Haj 1995). The word “Palestine” was eliminated from the Israeli educational system altogether, both in Arabic and Hebrew. During a period of military rule that lasted until 1968, the word “Palestine” itself became a taboo and Palestinian identity a security threat. The coordinates of history were radically reallocated to underscore biblical Jewish history and deemphasize Arab history, in effect drawing a continuous connection between ancient biblical history and modern Zionist history (Masalha 1997a).

Like Palestinian history, cultural expressions reflecting Palestinian identity and narrative came close to being a taboo in the public sphere. Thus, cultural production relying on institutional support, like theatre and cultural associations, especially suffered (Bäuml 2017). The name “Palestine” was erased not only from geographical and geostrategic maps, but also from public discourse. Israel invisibilized the “Palestinian people” as a whole and replaced the term euphemistically with “Arab refugees,” “Arabs of the Land of Israel,” “locals,” and other similar names, and named the Palestinian citizens “Arabs” or “Arabs of Israel,” trying to eliminate their historical roots and connection to their history.

However, in the private sphere, Palestinian culture—including poetry, folksongs, literature, and fine arts—was developed and preserved to the extent possible. Cultural production was promoted outside the state’s official spaces, and thus it more easily escaped the Israeli military government’s censorship. For example, Ghanim (2009) illustrates the degree to which the Nakba was a fundamental event in the Palestinians’ private and collective lives. Similarly, when Kassem (2011) interviewed women from Lydda and Ramleh on their life stories, the starting point for many was the Nakba.

Palestinians in the Israeli Communist Party (ICP) promoted Palestinian culture in the party’s literary periodicals as long as the cultural content avoided the explicit political sphere (Rouhana and Sabbagh-Khoury 2015). Cultural modes became a primary vehicle for expressing Palestinian history and a central medium in nourishing a Palestinian identity that visibly reemerged among the Arab citizens only in the early 1970s (Rouhana 1997).

Poetry, in particular, was the arena for the expression of Palestinian experiences as well as aspirations. These themes included love of the homeland, the experience of tahjeer, yearning for the return of refugees, and the pain of loss. After 1967, resistance emerged as a central theme (Furani 2012).

The silenced political themes found an outlet outside the explicit political discourse through these cultural expressions. In some cases this bifurcation of sites was done knowingly in order to avoid state surveillance, and, in other cases, a political party’s ideological commitments. For example, using interviews, Salman Natour documented the early personal tahjeer accounts of the IDPs. These stories were not published in al-Ittihad, the official newspaper of the Israeli Communist Party where he was a writer, but rather in al-Jadid, the cultural journal that was published by the same party. This was a deliberate decision by al-Ittihad to avoid the military censorship and also to circumvent possible internal censorship within the party.

The process of attempted erasure was inflicted in its full force upon the Palestinians in Israel under a military rule and was so comprehensive that some leading Israeli political sociologists claimed Palestinians had been “Israelized” (see, in this regard, Smooha 1997). It is no surprise, therefore, that counter-memory, a process of regaining the repressed Palestinian history, did not enter the public domain until the 1970s. For Palestinians outside Palestine, the emphasis on the national and political and the deemphasis of the human personal experiences consigned the meaning of the Nakba to the Palestinian refugees and sidelined the Palestinians in Israel, as if the Nakba was only a catastrophe for those who were ethnically cleansed. The return of refugees was the core of the national Palestinian question until the early 1970s. The focus shifted in the mid-1970s to establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza (Rouhana 2014). Yet both of these paradigms marginalized the historical experiences of the Palestinians in Israel and their place in the question of Palestine until the late 1990s. Until recently, when Palestinians living under occupation and in exile discussed the Nakba, they excluded the Palestinians in Israel (including the IDPs). At the same time that Palestinians in Israel were in effect excluded from the national and human dimensions of the Nakba, their national and political aspirations were forcefully repressed by the Israeli state. To this day, Israel refuses to recognize its nearly 1.5 million Palestinian citizens as a national group. Recognition of Palestinian collectivity and presence would undermine the concept of an exclusively Jewish state and contradict the essence of the settler-colonial project’s denial of the indigenous people’s right to their homeland.

Absenting the Historical Trauma: Between Self-Censorship and Thought Surveillance

While Palestinians in Israel experienced a historical trauma similar to that of the Palestinians in exile, and have suffered its lasting consequences, this experience has not been voiced. This section offers explanations for why this experience was not openly and publicly expressed or articulated in the official public space among Palestinians in Israel.

The Fear Factor

The group context of individuals’ acts of remembering is an important factor through which collective memory is formed (Halbwachs 1992). However, group context is equally important in the process of silencing. In the face of a massively oppressive clampdown on history and memory, basic personal fear played a major role in silencing the public conversation about Palestinians’ traumatic history. This was in large part because such a conversation would have made the colonizers themselves apprehensive (Sabbagh-Khoury 2010). This existential fear was rooted in the catastrophic exilic experience of their nation. The threat of facing exile and loss of one’s home in a context in which the majority of one’s nation has been forced out of their homeland carries profound meaning that is not restricted to the material loss of property.

Under military rule, Palestinians lived in the shadow of fear of traumatic expulsion. They became aware of stories of Palestinians who tried to “sneak” back to their homes and towns from across the borders, and the thousands who were shot and killed to stop their return (Morris 1999). Indeed, Israel continued its ethnic cleansing well into the early 1950s (Masalha 1997b) and criminalized and securitized the return of refugees to their towns. The Israeli authorities have coined a special term for the Palestinians who tried to “sneak” back to their own homes: “infiltrators” (mistaninim in Hebrew, mutasallileen in Arabic), a term carrying criminal and security connotations. This criminalization legitimized the immediate killing of “infiltrators” when Israeli soldiers discovered them at the borders. Sometimes these returnees were put on trucks and forced back across the borders. This criminalization was supposed to serve a triple purpose for the newly created Israeli state: deterring those who considered returning to their homes from across the borders; warning the Palestinian citizens against assisting the returnees by hiding them in their houses; and inciting fear of Palestinians among the Jewish population, thus justifying the extreme measures of simply killing these refugees. No wonder that the term baqa’a, which literally means “staying” (in this context, “staying in the homeland”), remains a central political motto in Palestinian cultural and political discourse to this day. This rootedness is integral to societies under settler colonialism, as Veracini (2015) points out. And this survival is at the heart of what persistently constitutes Palestinians as a “demographic threat” to the settler-colonial project (Bäuml 2017).

The Palestinians who stayed in their homeland witnessed and lived a human catastrophe—next-door neighbours, relatives, and friends left on foot, on trucks provided by the Israeli forces and the British Mandate, or in boats from the coastal cities of Jaffa, Haifa, and Akka. They witnessed neighbouring villages, Palestinians cities, and hundreds of other vibrant towns overtaken in their entirety by new Jewish citizens. They saw their neighbours’ homes and belongings, stores, schools, orchards, factories, and farms taken by or given to Jewish citizens and organizations. Many of them experienced this loss themselves as IDPs. The landscapes of their familiar everyday lives were transformed. This loss was best articulated in the literary productions of Palestinians in Israel, mainly after the end of military rule in 1966.

Under military rule, Palestinian citizens were isolated in their own towns, requiring a permit to move to other parts of the country (Bäuml 2017; for details of life under military rule, see Robinson 2013). Additionally, in the years 1948–1949 large numbers of Palestinian males were placed in special prison camps, unaware of their fate—whether they would be expelled—or the fate of their families (Kabha and Awawidah 2013). This uncertainty, accompanied by the news about the killings of those who tried to return, engraved fundamental fear into the community’s collective consciousness.

The state operated an elaborate surveillance system (Sa’di 2013; Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2015) to instil fear in the Palestinian population, and employed collaborators in order to spy on its Arab citizens (Cohen 2006). Expressions of dissent were punished, thus imposing silence on the majority of Palestinian citizens (Bäuml 2017). Israel made known the pervasiveness of the system to the community, seeking to destroy communal trust and inculcate a sense of a panopticon in the Bentham sense (Sabbagh-Khoury 2010). The saying “walls have ears” became part of the colonized people’s popular discourse and was often used, particularly by traditional elders, to warn against speaking freely. State-controlled employment was used to foster acquiescence. Perhaps the most notorious case of employment requiring security clearance was in the education field, where educators in public and private schools required such clearance (Robinson 2013). This panopticon-like surveillance continued well after the end of military rule. Although the fear might have become less evident, it still exists under the surface today, including in political discourse.

The Hegemonic Paradigm

Israel’s creation, and the ethnic cleansing it entailed, voided Palestine, or more precisely, the part of it on which Israel was established, of the vast majority of its cultural and educational elites. The political class and cultural leadership in Palestine were expelled, along with the majority of the middle class and the urban stratum. The cities, by and large, were evacuated of their inhabitants, most cultural, educational, and political institutions vanished, and their physical space was expropriated. The main organized political leadership that managed to remain (or return) were leaders of what became the Israeli Communist Party (ICP) (Muhareb 1989) in the country—the only Arab–Jewish party.

The political frame of reference for the ICP was the Soviet Union’s acceptance of the United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution 181 partition plan (Budeiri 1979), and accordingly Israel’s legitimacy became fundamental to their operation as a political party. After 1948 the Arabs in the ICP represented a defeated community, and the party’s line was primarily set by its Jewish leadership until 1965, when many Jewish members left the party and Jewish hegemony started to fade (Muhareb 1989).

The ICP was burdened with an enormous agenda. Resisting the massive violations of the rights of the Palestinian citizens posed an almost insurmountable problem. This included defending the rights of the returnees to stay, resisting policies of displacement and land expropriation, and fighting for the abolishment of military rule. The ICP’s leadership and activists were targeted by the state security apparatus and subjected to various kinds of state harassment, further exacerbating fear of Palestinian involvement in the political sphere. The party’s hegemony among the Palestinians continued until the middle of the 1980s, when nationalist voices managed to organize themselves into another party, the Progressive List for Peace, which was elected to the Knesset in 1984.

The hegemonic leadership of the ICP operated within a paradigm that we have called elsewhere the “equality paradigm” (Rouhana and Sabbagh-Khoury 2015). In its emphasis on equality, and after 1967 on ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state in the territories Israel occupied, the ICP gave priority to equal citizenship and political rights in official discourse and sidelined the foundational history of 1948. Within this political paradigm there was not much place for the Nakba and its historical memories. It was not until after the Oslo agreements in 1993 that the equality paradigm lost its hegemonic status and the process of the return of history, which we describe in this essay, began.

Limited Capacity to Produce and Disseminate Culture and Knowledge

Cultivating collective memory and narratives is usually a state project. The Israeli state worked to assault the memory of the colonized and to hinder collective cultural cultivation. At the same time, immediately following the 1948 rupture, Palestinian society did not have the necessary resources to nurture and consolidate its collective memories. The articulation of the monumental loss experienced in academic, media, and cultural productions required human resources and appropriate institutions that were beyond the capacity of the Palestinians, who remained without the urban cultural elites or the urban centres that could have provided the appropriate context for these institutions to reemerge and develop. In this vacuum, in addition to the Palestinian family unit as bearers of history, the small but very important institutions that operated were those of the ICP, mainly the party’s Arabic publications. These included al-Ittihad, the political mouthpiece of the party that was published only once a week until 1983 (and later published daily); al-Jadid, a literary monthly first published in 1953; and al-Ghad, a youth magazine first published in 1974. These publications provided a space to evoke history and memory and encouraged their expression, but only to the extent that these expressions remained constrained to the cultural sphere without being articulated in political terms. Perhaps it was this bifurcation of culture and politics that enabled and enhanced the cultural expressions of collective memory, contributing enormously to its preservation.

This paucity of cultural institutions characterized the critical period of military rule for this “quarantined” group, particularly for the generation born into this reality. Then, and until now, there were no Palestinian universities and major research centres. Yet there has been a gradual reemergence of institutions and human resources, including institutions of cultural production and Arab-controlled media. This reemergence reflects a slow collective recovery from the great rupture experienced by Palestinian society and culture, while at the same time preparing the ground for challenging Israeli settler colonialism’s tight grip over history.

The gradual reemergence of cultural and research institutions and the reappearance of cultural leaders were paralleled by the rise of a new and powerful political leadership that challenged the very essence of the state ideology and brought history back while integrating it into, rather than splitting it off from, politics.

The Overwhelming Everyday Struggle

After the 1948 ethnic cleansing, the Palestinians in Israel, although receiving citizenship, became the target of the settler-colonial project and its policies of erasure and replacement. Resistance to Israel’s settler-colonial policies became the focus of everyday life. The community’s struggle against these policies climbed to the top of its political agenda and the challenges of everyday life became intertwined with national issues. Fighting land expropriation, home demolitions, the right to establish political parties and cultural institutions, persecution of political leaders, discriminatory legislation, police brutality, and attempts to disqualify political parties became a consuming agenda that left little space for considering the core issues that constituted the Palestinians’ experience as settler-colonial citizens (Rouhana and Sabbagh-Khoury 2015).

Yet, over the past decade, the community has transformed itself into a strong national group that can now shift its agenda from struggling against the everyday challenges of settler-colonial policies to attending to larger political and existential questions. Within this broader framework it has become possible for Palestinian citizens to consider the nature of their collective experience and begin to bring back history to the public sphere.


The immediate post-1948 national experience for the Palestinians in Israel was an integral part of the all-Palestinian experience of losing their homeland. Even though these Palestinians physically remained in their homeland, they experienced loss in a similarly traumatic but different manner to those who were expelled. Israel dispossessed Palestinians within its borders from their collectivity, and thus discursively expelled them from belonging to their homeland. Instead, the land they had lived on was turned into the exclusive homeland of the Jewish people, enacted through the self-definition of the state as Jewish. For the Palestinians in Israel, this social, historical, and cultural rupture manifests itself in myriad expressions of trauma. They had witnessed their homeland being conquered and claimed by foreign colonizers, as well as the mass dispersal of their nation. Those who stayed saw the destruction and Judaization (i.e. erasure of Palestinian traces and in many cases their replacement with Hebraicized forms) of their local cities and towns, accompanied by the looting of houses, stores, and farms. The state dealt with Palestinian property as if it were the spoils of war, redistributing it to Jewish citizens and recent immigrants. Palestinian citizens now found themselves under a foreign sovereignty that cast them as enemies. The social and psychological impact of this traumatic shock, while no doubt experienced individually, is only recently being articulated at the collective level.

However, the impact of the trauma could have been mitigated by several factors. Two main factors, in particular, softened its potentially devastating effects. First, after the Nakba, Palestinians dealt with their new situation as if it were temporary (Bishara 1993). This sense of temporariness made it easier to cope with or dull the disastrous dimensions of the loss. There was a sense, at least until the Oslo agreements in 1993, that the “Palestinian Problem” would at last be resolved and the status of Palestinians in Israel would be addressed within the final settlement’s terms. Second, similar to the ways in which the Palestinian resistance and the Palestinian National Movement played a role in easing some of the traumatic effects of the Nakba for Palestinians in exile, the struggle of many segments of the Palestinian community in Israel against colonialist policies helped them face the traumatic effects of the Nakba. It should be noted that since the Palestinians in Israel were positioned outside the Palestinian National Movement, they have not engaged in the same modes of resistance as other Palestinian communities (in exile or the West Bank and Gaza). Yet, even within the framework of Israeli citizenship, which obfuscated the essence of the settler-colonial relationship with the state, Palestinian citizens developed strategies of everyday resistance and managed to engage in collective civil protest (Sa’di 2017). Their resistance took different forms, including perhaps most importantly, as we see it, the maintenance of the Palestinian memory and narrative.

From Silent Resistance to the Return of History

After decades of state silencing, the Palestinians in Israel have begun to reconstitute a dormant past that has become a constitutive force in present national politics and in envisioning the future. This return is rooted in the fundamental historic experience of the dismemberment of Palestine, the loss of the Palestinian homeland. Therefore, it is not surprising that the return of history stems from this constitutive experience of dispossession, which is intertwined with and intensified by the colonialists’ denial of their indigeneity.

Perhaps the most revealing and powerful indication of this return of history is the dramatic shift in the mode of public celebration of Israel’s Day of Independence from the state’s early years to its last two decades.

“Your Day of Independence is Our Day of Nakba”

For many years, especially during the years of military rule, Palestinian citizens publicly participated in Israel’s Independence Day celebrations. Elaborate festivities were held in Arab schools because the educational system was under tight control. Often, schoolteachers were obligated to observe Israeli national ceremonies or risk losing their jobs that depended on approval from Israeli authorities. Even local Arab governments, which were similarly controlled by the state, held Independence celebrations.

Anton Shammas, a Palestinian novelist who grew up under military rule, describes his experience at a primary school in the Arab town of Fassuta, in the Galilee, during a visit from a Department of Education inspector. His description reflects the experience of the colonized and the public image many Palestinians in Israel sought to convey to the colonizers during these critical years after the Nakba:

The same year, during the ceremony marking both the completion of my first year of primary schooling and the first anniversary of the founding of the public school in my village … we were sent to bring laurel branches from the tree shading the village spring, to decorate an enormous star of David that one of the teachers had built from six planks. Our Arab principal wished to make a good impression on the Jewish Inspector of Schools whom he had invited to observe the achievements of the new school … I sometimes wonder whether we were not seared by that star, whether it isn’t a branding iron after all. A branding iron to all Arabs who were left, for some reason or another, inside the borders of Israel, in the years of our Lord Balfour 1948. (Shammas 1991, 219)

During the period of military rule, at Independence Day celebrations in Arab schools, Arab children performed songs and poems praising the new state and its independence. The songs and poetry spoke of Israel as a shining star that emerged in the skies of the East and described how children were full of joy on the independence day of “their country.” Arab schools, decorated with Israeli flags, held major celebrations in which the local communities participated. In the hometown of one of the authors, the village school was decorated with state flags, and the community celebrated Independence Day with festivities including sports events, poetry about independence, songs, and student theatre productions. Ironically, the principal who gave the key celebratory speech year after year was an internal refugee whose town, Iqrit, had been destroyed by the Israeli air force on Christmas Eve, after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 1951 that its residents, who had become IDPs in adjacent towns, should be allowed to return to their homes.

In eerie contrast to the orchestrated and coerced public ceremonies of Independence Day, there was another manifestation of Palestinian experience in Israel: public silence. We argue this silence represented a multilayered way of coping with the memories associated with Independence Day. On one level, it represented the silencing of memory and perhaps the repression of the traumatic historical experience altogether. On another level, at least during the first few decades, it reflected the system of fear instilled under military rule, but persisted following its end. Public silence offered a method of coping, while feelings and actions were confined to the private sphere.

For many, the silence was itself a form of resistance, albeit not depicted as such publicly. In other cases, the public silence of Palestinians was accompanied by private expressions that took the form of sharing the history and experience of the Nakba with their children and younger generations within the private sphere of the family. Another form of commemorating the history of their personally experienced Nakba was family visits to the sites of destroyed villages—a spontaneous but purposeful way of reliving the memory of the Nakba and perhaps a way to cope with the pain. During the period of military rule, travel permit restrictions on Arabs were lifted only for Israel’s Independence Day, so Palestinians could travel freely. Many of the IDPs chose to visit their destroyed towns. But these visits remained a private space of grief expressed by those who lost their homes and communities. The return of history has made possible the collective expressions of loss of homeland that transcended the loss of particular homes and local communities.

The Palestinian journalist Najwan Simri-Diab has reflected on her experience as a child during military rule (2014). She writes that on Israel’s Day of Independence her family would secretly go to Birwi, their village whose inhabitants were all expelled. Some were forced to flee to places outside the borders of the state, while others, like her father, became IDPs in adjacent towns. Remembering these childhood visits, she describes the heavy silence and the unexplained imposed stillness. She recalls how her father would sit on a distant rock and return with red eyes, and how her mother’s body language imposed silence. After collecting some plants, they returned home, but Simri-Diab never understood why this holiday was “sad, silent, gloomy, [we did not receive] new clothes, and with a hidden smell of death.”

Yet, through a gradual process of historical regeneration, Israel’s Independence Day has become a day to articulate and commemorate publicly the collective memory of the Nakba and the return of Palestinian history. There has been a complete transformation of the public’s manifestations of this day from “celebrating” Israel’s independence (even in the distorted, forced, and repressed ways described above) to the collective expression of repressed historical experiences. The IDPs have played a significant role in reviving this history, which was accelerated by political transformations within the Palestinian community and changes in the political context of the conflict. Bringing history back has become a source of strength for the colonized and a significant tool of resistance. The Israeli state and society have responded to the Palestinian citizens’ return of history, in particular the commemoration of the Nakba, with concern and opposition. Perhaps the most illuminating example of this perceived threat is the Nakba Law, passed in 2011, which punishes organizations for commemorating Israeli Independence Day as a day of mourning (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2017).

The Rising Discussion of the Nakba in Public and Academic Discourse

In recent years Palestinian-organized public events commemorating the Nakba, including the Nakba March, have begun to appear in Israel every year from the end of April through the end of May. Various cultural and political institutions sponsor these commemorations, which have endured despite the Knesset’s passing of the Nakba Law.

Commemorating the Nakba increasingly occupies the political consciousness of Palestinian citizens in Israel. In our view, literature on commemoration and its importance for reviving memory is not sufficient to explain the meaning of this transformation of consciousness. For example, Yael Zerubavel talks about a “master commemorative narrative,” a narrative that “focuses on the event that marks the group emergence as an independent social entity” (1995, 7). In this perspective it is a commemoration “essential for demarcating the group’s distinct identity vis-à-vis others” (7). This analysis might best apply to contexts in which ethnic and cultural groups use commemoration as part of a process of remembering their past in order to gain acknowledgment and recognition of their identity and to increase their political power in an existing political order. Yet, in a settler-colonial context, such a process has the potential to shake the foundations of the system itself. As such, it could become a practice of decolonization. Thus, the slogan “Your day of independence is our day of Nakba is not just a project of constructing difference or a contrast in identity with Jewish Israelis, but a slogan that undermines the historical foundation of the Zionist state.

Furthermore, the commemoration of the Nakba inside Israel reinforces the constitution of a common history with other Palestinian communities. In this way, Palestinians in Israel commemorating the Nakba as an act of decolonizing memory heralds a larger movement to decolonize the political system.

A survey we conducted of newspaper articles that addressed the Nakba—its impact, or its commemoration—in the months of March to May from 1990 to 2013 for al-Ittihad and Kul al-Arab, and from 1997 to 2013 for Fasl al-Maqal, demonstrates the powerful political implications of the commemoration. The articles surveyed reveal how different political parties express the need for commemorating the Nakba, perhaps in different ways. Some employ the commemoration as a way to penetrate Jewish Israeli consciousness, hoping to gain their support for achieving equal rights (Al-Ittihad, May 14 2012). Others see it as an expression of the transformational potential of history. For example, one approach emphasizes

the real value for commemorating the Nakba is a political value, which means not only that we will not forget, but mainly that we did not and will not accept all its political consequences … foremost among those the ‘Jewish state’. (Zoabi 2009)

Another writer argues that repressing the past is a crime not only for past generations but also for future generations who seek justice and national dignity (Zreik 1998). However, common to all views is the emphasis on bringing a silenced history into the present in order to achieve justice.

Literature as a site of maintaining and acknowledging Palestinian history preceded the vocal, public demonstrations commemorating the Nakba. Literature was the sphere in which Nakba experiences were voiced. Arab poetry has always functioned as a reservoir of Palestinian experience rooted in the history and ramifications of the Nakba (Ghanayim 2009). Likewise, national sentiments and the grief of expulsion and loss of homeland were expressed in novels, which developed as a literary genre at a later stage. The relationship between the Nakba and the current conditions of Palestinians has become an integral theme in their modern literature.

In the academic sphere, after decades of negation, the return of history is reflected in efforts to write and rewrite Palestinian history, particularly focusing on Palestinians in Israel. This is represented in recent works on revised readings of the history of the Nakba and examinations of the Nakba and claims of memory (Kabha 2006; Abu-Lughod and Sa’di 2007). Kassem (2011), for example, considers the tahjeer stories of the Palestinian population of Lydda through women’s voices in order to shed light on the gendered aspects of the Nakba. Palestinians in Israel are not only publishing these revised accounts within Israeli academia, they are also contributing to an emergent academic project, in which Palestinians and other academics attempt to bring this history back (Abu Hanna-Nahhas 2012).

The long absence of research on the Nakba within Arab and Jewish scholarly work in Israel is not unrelated to the power and practice of Israeli settler colonialism. Israeli academia rarely considered the Palestinians in Israel in the historical context of Palestine or the impact of the Nakba on them. The zero-point for this scholarship was usually the establishment of Israel. Post-Zionists and critical sociologists who have paid some attention to the question of the culpability of Jewish forces in the displacement of the Palestinian people, and who have worked to challenge some Israeli national myths, have focused mostly on Jewish Israeli actions and narratives, albeit critically, and not on the Palestinians (Flapan 1987; Morris 1994; Ram 2005; Pappé 2006).

The Return of History in Political Consciousness and Public Discourse

From the moment the Zionist movement successfully established the State of Israel, Palestinians in Israel were under attack. These local communities were hardly prepared for such a massive attack on their resources and place in their homeland after the defeat of their nation and the exile of the majority of their society. This inevitably put the Palestinians in a defensive mode of existence characterized by everyday resistance and reactions to state policies. The return of history has signified a major shift in the dynamics between Palestinians in Israel and the state. In this regard, history’s return to the public discourse—particularly the Nakba political consciousness—has reversed the dynamic of state action and Palestinian reaction, such that the Palestinian citizens of Israel have now become the instigators of political change, in a way putting the state on the defensive (Sabbagh-Khoury 2012). As such, the importance of a historical recounting exceeds its immediate utility of serving as a form of collective assertion. It cuts across all political parties and it challenges, in its essence, the colonial situation created and imposed by Zionism. This emerging consciousness fundamentally embodies a political statement that the historical outcome of expelling the Palestinians is not irrelevant or past. Thus, even if not always articulated epistemologically, the return of history roots itself within an anticolonial consciousness that rejects the system manifest in the structure and policies of the Jewish state. It further points to a need, not fully articulated by any of the existing political programmes of current Arab political parties, to take this history into account when thinking about a new political order.

The Renewed Meanings of the Nakba among Palestinian Society in Israel

The return of history is characterized by a new collective consciousness expressed through various channels of representation and discourse. Four main manifestations of this revived history indicate that it is gaining broad popular support in the national consciousness of Palestinians in Israel, and that it is becoming increasingly articulated both in the cultural sphere and in the discourse of some political elites. However, this discourse is not fully reflected in the political agendas and rhetoric of Arab political parties, perhaps because of restrictions imposed by Israeli constitutional law.

Of the four manifestations of the return of history, the first is an increasing awareness that the Nakba befell not only those Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 but that it also affected the Palestinians in Israel. Originally, the term Nakba was used by Palestinians and other Arabs to refer to the dismantlement of Palestinian society and the loss of the Palestinian homeland, and the refugees were conceived as the central victims of this disaster. The Palestinians in Israel are gradually changing the geographic and demographic limits of the Nakba, thus expanding its meaning to include their own traumatic human experience in addition to the political and national experiences.

Second, there is increasing awareness that the Nakba forms a structural component in the relation between Palestinian citizens and Israel. The return of history has not only transformed the geography and demography of the Nakba’s map, but also its temporal contours have been expanded from the beginning of dispersion and exile up through the present (Al-Qasim 1998). Even linguistic reference to the Nakba has changed to reflect its perception as an ongoing process rather than solely an event.

This emerging differentiation between the Nakba as a traumatic and rapturous event and the Nakba as an ongoing process is of utmost importance. Admittedly, consciousness that what Palestinians currently face in all their communities is the direct extension of the Nakba and part of it is relatively new. It is concurrent to the gradual but deep sense that Palestinians do not have a clear way out of their state of collective exile, statelessness, constitutional inequality, occupation, and continued sense of loss and deadlock.

Support for the increasing awareness of the Nakba as an ongoing structural process rather than a memory of a discrete historical event with a beginning and an end, and support for the realization that the Nakba also includes the Palestinians in Israel, can be found in the gradual emergence of certain sentiments. These sentiments have always been expressed in the literary sphere, particularly poetry (Ghanim 2009; Makhoul 2012), but now Palestinians express them in public discourse and political rhetoric. The various Arabic newspapers from 1990 to 2013 exhibit a strong presence of the Nakba as an ongoing social and political structure in news items, opinion pieces, and editorials. For example, Kul Al-Arab published an editorial on April 16 1998 explaining how “we live a Nakba that has not ended yet” (Al-Qasim 1998). The editorial connects the political experience of the Palestinians in Israel with current Israeli policies towards them—such as racism, limitations on building permits, the status of the Arabic language, settlements, occupation of Arab lands, etc. Similarly, some Zionist opinion pieces call for the continuation of policies that seek to empty the land of Arabs and replace them with Jewish settlers (Kul Al-Arab, May 28 1999). In response to the Nakba Law, Kul al-Arab (April 4 2011) editorialized that “the Nakba is not a curricular subject of study that can be cancelled; it is rather a reality that people in Palestine and in exile live.”

Third, there is the beginnings of a realization among political elites that the continued Nakba is the other side of the colonial project of the Jewish state. This is perhaps the political dimension of the return of history. While political consciousness about this colonial context and its dimensions will likely be further developed, translating this awareness and critique into a political programme within the framework of the current Israeli legal and political system will be a challenge. The connection between the project of the Jewish state and its establishment and the destruction of the Palestinian nation and society has always been present in Palestinian consciousness, but there was also a project—indeed, the dominant Palestinian national political project from the mid-1970s—to resolve the Palestinian predicament by reaching an agreement with Israel in the form of a two-state solution. The new element in this consciousness is that, even within a two-state solution, Palestinian citizens’ share of the Nakba will continue within a Jewish state.

Fourth, there is growing emphasis on and investigation of the human and personal dimensions of the Nakba for the Palestinians in Israel, and Palestinians in general. The human experiences of exile, occupation, or settler-colonial citizenship within the Jewish state have not been, until recently, adequately expressed and publicly articulated in the official Palestinian sphere. The cultural life of the Palestinians, which was disrupted with the shattering of their collective existence, reemerged as an exilic project that was most attentive to resistance, endurance, struggle, and liberation. The sense of temporariness of Palestinian experiences—as an aberration in their national existence that should end with liberation—contributed to the emphasis on resistance; although the unending occupation (the longest in modern history), the prolonged exile, and the continued colonization ended this sense of temporariness. At the same time, the protracted negotiation process somewhat submerged the dominant theme of resistance and enabled Palestinians to voice their human experiences.

In recent years there has been a surge in public cultural activities attentive to the rich shades of human and personal experience. Palestinian cinema and theatre address themes such as the human experience of being Palestinian under occupation, in exile, or as foreigners in their own homeland. Cultural institutions are being established that examine the human themes of collective and historical experience; for example, the first Palestinian museum has just been inaugurated. The modest literary scene also recognizes and examines a more nuanced human experience. In general, the media revolution created more avenues for Palestinians to voice and explore their human experiences. In this sense, the human experiences themselves become a manifestation of the return of history—the profound realization that the continued Nakba is part of their present existence.


In this essay we have described and analyzed the return of history as a process that the Palestinians in Israel have begun to use to challenge the hegemonic framework of meaning produced as an integral component of the settler-colonial project itself, and as a tool of gaining power while resisting the colonizer. We differentiated between collective memory and return of history by emphasizing that the latter is a process of breaking a coerced silence about history—not simply in order to reconstruct it within the present context, as in the case of collective memory, but rather to bring silenced history back and employ it as a transformational force that provides a new framework of meaning that elucidates for the colonized group their history and present, and provides visions for the future. As such, it has the potential to guide political forces and political actions. The return of history as a transformational process is manifested in a new framework of meaning in which it became increasingly clear that the Nakba befell the Palestinians in Israel as much as it did those Palestinians who were expelled in 1948. The Nakba is now considered to be an evolving, unfolding process—the other side of the ongoing colonial situation.

The return of history is becoming the driving force behind new visions of the future, and therefore of new political programmes. The essence of Palestinian citizens’ relationship with Israel is gradually being reconceived, their relationship with the Palestinians across the green line is being reconsidered, and the forms of future relationships between Palestinians and Israelis in historic Palestine are being reenvisioned and reassessed. This is not a process that only engulfs society, but a significant process with the potential to define the central political consciousness of the Palestinian community.