Informing Israelis About Palestinian ‘Catastrophe’

Amaya Galili, SPI ’10, wants full history to be known. Photo by Jon Styer.

Growing up in Israel’s Hula Valley, Amaya Galili (SPI ’10) heard stories about her grandfather, who had lived in the same area and died when she was young. Though Jewish, he had Palestinian business associates, good relations with his Palestinian neighbors, and was involved in the community’s joint Palestinian-Jewish clinic. He even spoke Arabic.

Galili did not know any Palestinians herself. When she was a child, she did not stop to wonder where they had gone. It wasn’t something people talked about. In school, her history lessons focused on the founding of Israel, but were silent as to what had become of the Palestinians who had once lived nearby.

As she got older, though, Galili began to think more critically about the stories she heard about her grandfather, including ones about his involvement in local politics and military intelligence during the ’40s. It became apparent that, for specific reasons, her grandfather knew Palestinians and she did not.

While studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she learned about the nakba, an Arabic word meaning “catastrophe,” used to describe the deportation of more than 700,000 Palestinians from the newly founded state of Israel in 1948. She read The Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (1988) by Benny Morris, one of the first Israeli historians to write about how the Israeli military played a role in the event by expelling and intimidating Palestinians into leaving. This, she realized, explained why she never knew any Palestinians. During this time, she also discovered that her grandfather took an active part in the deportation of his Palestinian neighbors in the Hula Valley.

Since 2007, Galili has worked for Zochrot, an organization based in Tel Aviv that works to promote peace by raising awareness of the nakba within Jewish-Israeli society. The ongoing implications of the nakba – particularly, questions surrounding Palestinian refugees’ right of return – remain among the thorniest challenges to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. At the same time, Galili says, Jewish-Israeli society remains largely ignorant about the event.

“The nakba is not part of who we are [as Israelis],” she says.

As Zochrot’s educational coordinator, Galili has produced and promoted an educational guide called How Do We Say ‘Nakba’ In Hebrew? Since its publication in 2009, several hundred teachers have taken copies and participated in seminars sponsored by Zochrot; Galili hopes to someday see the group’s materials included in school curricula throughout Israel.

Zochrot’s mission remains highly controversial in Israel. Earlier this year, three people were arrested for disturbing the peace at a Zochrot-organized demonstration in Tel Aviv during which they read aloud the names of Palestinian villages that existed in the area before 1948. Some of Galili’s own family and friends oppose the work that she does.

Nevertheless, she believes that honest discussion about the nakba is a key to establishing lasting peace in Israel.

“Talking about refugees and the nakba and the right of return is the fundamental, basic element that can lead to peace and justice and coexistence between Palestinians and Jewish people,” she says. “It opens possibilities for peace. What we are trying to do is look backward in order to move forward.”

“Zochrot is a place of hope,” says Galili. “It is a place where people can talk about the fundamental elements of our problem and look for new and creative ways to build a just and lasting life together here.” — AKJ

Editor’s note: Some of the terminology used in this article – particularly the use of “Palestinian” to refer to Arab residents of Israel prior to that country’s establishment in 1948 – is controversial and politically charged within modern Israeli society. Galili uses the terminology as a way of declaring her view that broader understanding and acknowledging the nakba is important for her country’s future.