June 21, Nazareth, Saffuriya
Today, Jonathan Cook, a brilliant British journalist and writer now living in Nazareth with a Palestinian wife and family and Israeli citizenship, broke my heart. We were wandering through the scattered stones in the cemetery of the destroyed village of Saffuriya, admiring the gorgeous towers of saber cactus, laden with fruit. The saber cactus, (or in Hebrew, sabra) is a symbol of indigenous nativeness for both Jews and Palestinians, he explains. For Israelis, the cactus is associated with the return to the land, the creation of the muscular, tough, farmer-Jew deeply rooted in the land, prickly but sweet. For Palestinians, it is a symbol of existence as a resilient indigenous people and of being physically connected to the earth: the cactus was used to denote property boundaries and is virtually impossible to eradicate, so it is a constant reminder of a past that many prefer to forget.
The problem, Jonathan explains gently, is that the saber cactus is not a native plant and was imported from Mexico 350 years ago. Who knew? As proof he notes that Israelis and Palestinians only eat the cactus fruit, while his Mexican friends know how to cook the entire plant because they have done that for centuries.
It is somewhat fitting that my cactus fantasy has come to die in a cemetery. I look around at the jumble of stones and grave sites. It seems that this cemetery is not well maintained, even though the Saffuriyans went to court to obtain the right to care for the site, because they are so harassed by the local moshavniks who engage in what Ilan Pappe has termed “memoricide.” I think I will stick with the saber/sabra mythology out of loyalty to my complicated cactus loving heritage and in memory of the people buried here.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The main international news I can glean as we drive from Beit Sahour to Nazareth, is that the New York Times is now referring to the kidnapping of the Yeshiva students as a “disappearance,” which sounds like we know even less than before. Hamas is asking Netanyahu for proof. Meanwhile three Palestinians (human beings with mothers and fathers) were killed yesterday and 330 (likely young men, also human) were arrested in the past week. Yesterday in Hebron the IDF, (20 and 30 somethings, also human with mothers and trained by one of the most powerful armies in the world) fully armed with the latest in military hardware, (most likely kicked in doors doing house to house searches), was faced with rocks, gasoline bombs, grenades, fireworks, and improvised explosives.
We pass signs to Hebron where the Arabic lettering has been spray painted red, (this is a frequent problem with Arabic signage), and see the large red signs at the roads to Palestinian villages and cities warning Israelis not to enter and to beware of the extreme dangers that await them. We drive through a number of checkpoints and are only stopped at one. The soldier (one of five including a woman who looks 15), checks our driver’s papers and then opens the van, welcomes me, asks where I am from, wishes me a nice day, and gives me a thumbs up. I restrain myself in the finger department. As we drive north, the streets of Jerusalem are eerily quiet, probably because it is the Sabbath. I keep pondering the idea that the insanity in Hebron where fanatical Jews backed by an out of control military devastate and control a city of Palestinians (who have a right to feel angry), is not actually deviant behavior; perhaps Hebron can be seen as the vanguard as the Israeli Jewish population becomes dominated politically and demographically by the ultra-right and the contradictions of the Zionist dream become revealed in all its painful racist and colonial contradictions. I guess I am still recovering from yesterday.
Jonathan’s focus is on the history of Nazareth and Saffuriya and the meaning of the Nakba. He does incredibly careful research and reporting and I always learn about the nuances and consequences of historical events that are mind boggling in their complexity. The village of Saffuriya before 1948 consisted of a wide expanse of land (100,000 dunams) with 7,000 people, three mosques, one church, and two schools. In the 1920s it was a leader in the Arab revolt against the British. In the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish soldiers scouted all the Palestinian villages, taking advantage of Arab hospitality, to acquire a detailed database about each town, but they could not get any information about Saffuriya. When the war began, they attacked it early and fiercely. After the bombings, refugees fled to the nearby forests, to Lebanon (Sabra and Shatilla) and to Nazareth; 40% of Nazareth is originally from Saffuriya. When the significance of the refugee crisis became apparent, Jonathan states Israel asked for a special agency and UNRWA was created with the understanding that no camps would be situated in Israel. (Ah hah moment!) The original village was destroyed, (the last structure bulldozed in 1967) and the fenced in area became a closed military zone (shoot on sight-Prevention of Infiltration Law) and Jewish National Forest. Today the rest of the village is the Jewish moshav of Zipora.
Jonathan wants us to pay special attention to the trees. This area was once a thickly forested site of pine trees, fast growing and familiar to Jewish Europeans. The trees prevented Palestinians from returning to rebuild, but they also ruined the agricultural land by changing the acidity and destroying the native flora and fauna like nut trees carobs, citrus, and olives. The trees were thinned out after the massive forest fires: in the 1990s near Ein Hod (a Palestinian village that is now an artist colony with a bar thoughtfully built in the former mosque) and in 2010 with the devastating Haifa-Carmel Fire.
We stop at a field of purple flowers and the original village spring, an area that is now part of Jewish National Fund Land, where a Palestinian family is picnicking, (staking a claim to their heritage even if only for lunch) The water is supposed to have special powers and is referred to as “Viagra on tap” by some in the moshav. The local Palestinians are present absentees as are 25% of all Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, (i.e. present when the state was founded, but absent from the property from which they had been expelled. You can’t make this stuff up.) There is also an archeological site that is controlled by a settler organization. Not only are there Roman ruins here, but this is where Jews fled after the fall of the temple, so there are some who think that the Palestinian villagers of Saffuriya are the original descendants or at least converts from way back then. This is what I love about history! It is so clear.
Jonathan tells us of a Nakba commemoration in 2008 in Saffuriya, Palestinians marched into a nearby forest with their children and their memories, because right wing Jews had taken over the field. In the midst of the commemoration, thuggish police arrived, charged the Palestinians using tear gas, stun guns, and grenades, revealing just how threatening historical memory can be. This year the Nabka March was enormous (some 30,000 people) celebrated in the town of Lubia, and so crowded it lasted for seven hours. This was the first time Jonathan did not feel intimidated, a major psychological breakthrough. The older generation is dying, and the young people are reenergizing the event with all the newfangled social media and youthful optimism at their disposal.
We pass through a gate into the moshav which was founded in 1949 for Bulgarian and Rumanian refugees as a dairy farm, confirmed by the strong smell of manure. At this point, most members work in the cities and acceptance into the moshav is protected by the suitability law that is designed to keep Arabs (as well as gays, disabled folks, single moms, and other undesirables) out of nice Wonder Bread Jewish towns.
We walk along the barbed wire and come across a shrine to the poet Taha Muhammed Ali, the brother of a Nakba survivor we will visit later. Standing in front of the rocks, Jonathan reads us some poetry fragments, softly touching the feelings evoked in such a sad and exquisitely beautiful place:
The Place (Extract)
And so I come to the place itself,
but the place is not
its dust and stones and open space.
For where are the red-tailed birds
and the almonds’ green?
Where are the bleating lambs
And pomegranates of evening-
the smell of bread
And the grouse?
Where are the windows,
and where is the ease of Amira’s braid?
There was no Farewell (1988)
We did not weep
When we were leaving-
For we had neither
Time nor tears,
And there was not farewell.
We did not know
at the moment of parting
that it was a parting,
so where would our weeping
have come from?
We did not stay
awake all night
(and did not doze)
the night of our leaving.
That night we had
neither night nor light,
and no moon rose.
That night we lost our star,
our lamps misled us;
we didn’t receive our share
Would wakefulness have come from?
(long deep breath)
Further up the hill is an orphanage run by the Catholic Church for Palestinian children who are not from Saffuriya, (we don’t want to get any right of return ideas here). There are lovely geraniums and cacti, a welcoming Franciscan priest from Venezuela, and a large ruin, Saint Anna’s Church. We are stunned to learn that this unmarked church, rows of fallen columns, no roof, ancient carvings, piteously meowing cats, and a jumble of stones at one end is the birth place of the Virgin Mary!!! Even I, a devout secularist, understands that it is totally weird that this is not a major tourist pilgrimage site. Jonathan thinks that some kind of deal was made between Israel and the Vatican such that the Vatican could keep the church and the orphanage, but no pilgrims would be encouraged because then they would see the destroyed village, barbed wire, and ask annoying questions. Three shlumpy people arrive, but they are Russians from Haifa and do not seem that impressed by the Virgin. The Israelis also will not issue a permit to restore the church, or at least put a roof over the site for protection. Got to love religion. The only surviving house in Saffuriya is now a B&B with a big Israeli flag.
We are now headed to Nazareth Illit (the word means “above” but also implies some moral superiority). The mayor erected some ginormous Israeli flags as a clear message that he intends to keep out the Arabs. Now this history is messy and confusing. The main points are that in the 1950s, our friend David Ben Gurion announced the Judaization of the Galilee with some comment to the effect, “Why so many Arabs?” They were supposed to have been run out during the war. The focus was on Nazareth, the only successful thriving Palestinian city that could potentially become a cultural and political force. So he confiscated thousands of acres of Nazareth (lovely man that David Ben Gurion) and built a Jewish neighborhood and a resorption center for incoming Jewish refugees, while the Palestinians in the city below lived under military rule, and the IDF built an army of Palestinian collaborators through various devious ways with a desperate population.
The goals of Judaization are to contain, isolate, and fragment the Palestinian community so Nazareth Illit is shaped like an octopus and the surrounding villages have never coalesced into a political or cultural force. The next goal is to redirect resources from Palestinian citizens to Jewish citizens, so the imposing administrative offices were built on land confiscated from guess who, this is ringed by a road also annexed to Nazareth Illit The Israeli army annexed land as well and the fancy Plaza Hotel was built in Nazareth Illit to capture tourist dollars from Nazareth which I will remind you is a very important religious site. Then there are the industrial areas also annexed to N. I. (including unfortunately a delicious chocolate factory). You get the pattern. The final goal is to build a system of surveillance on hilltops which let’s just say happened in spades.
The Israeli legal system kicked in with a variety of laws and rulings that recognized only 124 of the 204 Palestinian villages still in Israel, determined the blue lines for city expansion (Jewish towns get a lot, Palestinian towns get nothing beyond the 1965 boundaries and can only build up to four stories), communities can use compatibility laws to keep out Arabs, and no one in the Jewish cities will sell to a Palestinian family. And the list goes on and is quite disgusting I must say, especially since we are talking about the only democracy in the Middle East.
The mayor of Nazareth Illit, after describing Nazareth as a “nest of terror,” had difficulties attracting new residents but he lucked out when one million Russians arrived looking for a place to live. Now, immigration is at a standstill, Russians who want to get out of this less than desirable place are willing to sell to middle class Palestinians who cannot find housing in Nazareth. The clever mayor seeing that 20% of Nazareth Illit is now Arab, has morphed the absorption center into a Hesder Yeshiva, a center for orthodox Torah study and military preparation, in other words, a real nest of terror (finally!) Oh and he has also invited right wing settlers originally from Gaza and other West Bank settlements to move in. And for extra credit he is building a neighborhood of 3,000 only for Harredim families, thus creating tension between the religious and the secular, so there are now modesty patrols, women attacked with acid, shops burned, and we are not in Tehran (yet). This makes the modern Christian Palestinians with their short sleeves and tight jeans wonder if it is time to leave. Interestingly the mayor is under indictment for corruption, but he was still elected in a landslide.
While this all may seem a bit crazy, the important concept here is that this whole exercise is about Judaization, getting rid of the Palestinians and creating a Jewish state by any means necessary, and that is the fundamental flaw of Zionism as it is now practiced. This is not a sustainable model for Jews or for Palestinians; trying to make everything “Jewish” (whatever that means and I would argue that most of what I have described is far from “Jewish” but falls under topic headers like racist, prejudiced, Islamophobic, ignorant etc.) and is not what the richness and grand multiculturalism of life is about. It also is not a good strategy to protect against anti-Semitism which exists in the world. As Jonathan explains, it “turns us into monsters.” Nazareth and its big sister are just a microcosm of this growing national tragedy.
Alice Rothchild MD, is Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School. She serves on the steering committee for American Jews for a Just Peace- Boston, and has worked with medical delegations to Israel and the Occupied Territories with the AJJP Health and Human Rights Project. She is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience (Pluto, 2007; 2010) and director of the 2013 documentary Voices Across the Divide.