Memory and Forgetfulness in a Settler Colony

[this post originally appeared on Jadaliyya and was re-posted by AnthroBoycott  as part of a series of reflections composed by Palestinian anthropologists in commemoration of Nakba Day, May 15, 2015] 

by Magid Shihade, Dar Al Kalima University

As we approach the sixty-seventh anniversary of al-nakba (The Catastrophe)–the term given to the 1948 ethnic cleansing, destruction, dispossession, and uprooting of eight-five percent of Palestinians as a result of the Zionist settler colonization of Palestine and the creation of the Israeli state–one cannot but reflect on the politics of memory and forgetfulness.

The dynamics of memory and forgetfulness have common features in all types of states, but they take a different turn when it comes to a settler colony. In the settler colony, the individual’s memory is completely connected to the collective. Its politics of forgetting and remembering is an active project. It is also a violent project. It requires the elimination of the native community, physically at times, mentally/culturally at others (“Kill the Indian but keep the Man”). The politics of forgetting and remembering shapes constant waves of settler violence, because as long as natives are around, they must be eliminated or uprooted from the scene. The settler colony requires that the natives not be seen. They have to be in reservations, behind walls, or marginalized through a road system structured as a tool to separate, to cage in the Natives.

While the politics of memory in the Israeli settler colonial case might resemble some aspects of other states’ projects, especially other settler colonial states, the Israeli case is different on many levels. As a recent settler colonial project, it does not have that sense of security, of “mission accomplished.” It does not even pretend to do the work of whitewashing that takes place in other cases, like in the United States with holidays such as Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Jr Day, holidays that whitewash a bloody history of genocide and dispossession of natives, slavery, and racial violence—as well as their current manifestations.  As Patrick Wolfe teaches us, settler colonialism is a structure, not an event, and it continues to shape the state and society for as long as it exists.

In Israel, the politics of memory works in schools, public space, holidays, universities, political system, policies, and laws. In the school system, we receive a Zionist education that highlights certain memories and myths, idealizing Judaism and Zionism, while at the same time Arab and local history of native Palestinians are marginalized, repressed, and maligned. It is as if the people who lived on that land for centuries had no history in the past. If there was a history, it is said to be a history of violence, conquest, chaos, underdevelopment, and stagnation. We learn Hebrew poetry, but we are not taught the works of our poets. We do not read Mahmoud Darwish, who was born in the area, studied at our school, and wrote and read his first poetry there. Our memory of the past is controlled and even criminalized by the state: The Nakba Law stipulates that any organization, school, or local council that commemorates the 1948 Nakba and what happened to Palestinian society faces, at minimum, the loss of Israeli government funds.

Darwish’s comment on memory and banning of memory (As the Land is the Language, a 1997 documentary by Simone Bitton) illustrates the Israeli and Zionist project of memory. In response to one of the questions in the interview, Darwish commented on the Zionist obsession with past memory and ancient myths and their phobia of the native Palestinian recent past/present memory. “They want us to remember things that might have happened millennia ago, but want us to forget what happened decades ago and continues to take place now,” he concluded.

The Israeli state’s project of memory is also championed by its settlers, as in the story “A Letter in the Bottle.” Philip, a recent French Jewish “immigrant” settler, built his house on land the Israeli government confiscated from Palestinian citizens in Galilee, and provided cheaply for Jews. In the foundation of the house, he placed a bottle with a letter inside it. When the native Palestinian construction worker who was building the house asked what was in the bottle, Philip explained that it included his and his family’s personal information. He added that he did this to ensure that in the future, maybe decades or centuries later—if for some reason the house were destroyed and archaeological work were done at that specific site—it would be known who owned the place!

The Israeli politics of memory is also unique because it is supported internationally. In the United States, for example, one can more readily contest the politics of memory of the foundation of the state because the state is more secure in its settler colonial identity. One can contest the politics of memory of any other country as well.  Contesting the Israeli politics of memory instead typically opens one to attacks, vilification, job denial, and potential job loss.

These Israeli practices require a certain power to persist, and they are crucially reliant on US government political, economic, and military support. They also depend on support that is provided by US media, and different political and religious groups. And they require the silence of the academy, for the academy is central in shaping the views of millions of Americans who go through college to work in different parts of the economy and further influence other citizens on this issue.

This is why it is crucial for the AAA to take a position supporting Palestinian rights and the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. The AAA, like any other US academic association, is already involved in repressing the memory of the native Palestinians, either in complicity with the Israeli politics of memory or as active participants promoting it. Thus, if the AAA adopts a boycott resolution against Israeli institutions and thereby opens a space for Palestinian narratives, it will be a testimony to ending the silence and censorship.  For native Palestinians, it matters who stands with them, who supports the repression of their memory, and who helps them to keep their memory alive, for only through thought and memory is one human.