“Look at the land around you and carve it onto your memory. You must change it, so that it does not resemble what was here before you. You must leave your mark on it. The mountains, the hills, the forests and the meadows – they must all bear your name and reflect the light of your face… You must mercilessly destroy anything in the landscape which is not directly related to you… Tell everyone that you were here first. They will believe you. Tell them there was nothing before you – no mountain, forest, hill meadow. Say this with complete objectivity.” Amos Kenan, “The First”.
This quotation could be read as a précis of the Zionist methodology with regards to one of its central goals: acquiring and Judaising the land of Palestine. The logic of elimination characterises Zionism’s approach to achieving this goal, most egregiously evidenced in the attempted physical erasure of Palestinian villages, cities, culture and agriculture, with concomitant brutality towards, and massacres of, the people of the land.
But also we see this core aim of Zionism in the determined attempts to stamp an alien identity on Palestine, reshaping the very landscape, renaming the age-old villages and blotting out – by any means possible – those reminders of an Arabic past which resist eradication. And amplified as loudly as possible is the narrative, an essential component of settler colonialism. “Tell them”, and tell them again, this was a barren, empty space before you came. Say it with sufficient braggadocio and “they” will believe you…. you might even convince yourself.
The first Zionist congress in Basel in 1897 established the goal of creating what Hertzl called a “home” for Jewish people and, in addition, underscored the importance of creating a bond between Jewish people and the land they had acquired, land inconveniently called “Palestine”. The very fact that “strengthening and fostering Jewish national sentiment and national consciousness” had to be articulated as a core objective speaks to the fragility of the link between the immigrant Jews and the Palestinian land they “acquired”.
Of course, not all of Palestine was demolished in 1948, 1967 or during the ongoing destruction to this day of what remains. It is impossible to eradicate all the evidence of Israel’s brutal foundation. Yet this is part of Zionism’s enterprise and the JNF is a key agent of this attempted erasure, which operates at a visible, physical level, but has a psychological component too.
As Zionism reaches its 125th anniversary and the JNF its 122nd birthday, the attempts seem more and more desperate. Israeli citizens are urged to enjoy JNF parks and forests, follow trails, connecting with the land, but to do so they must block out the evidence of previous inhabitants who cultivated those “abandoned” groves, and built those derelict olive presses. It requires an act of psychological closure and denial of human curiosity to overlook such obvious signifiers of previous habitation.
Instead of an honest interaction with the land, Israeli citizens are presented with a distorted historical perspective: Palestinian villages are metamorphosed in JNF mythology into sites of Biblical significance – eradicating thousands of years of human endeavour. How can a history so telescoped to skim over recent times, over centuries of Arabic life, cultivation and culture, and latching onto a Biblical mythology, be sustaining and true?
The JNF are not alone in this venture of stamping Zionism on the land at all costs. The Israeli Government’s Naming Committee (which involves the JNF), the Parks Authority and the Survey of Israel are all busy trying to re-map the land of Palestine. This venture involves probing Arabic names to see if any Jewish link can be found and “revived”: if not, “translate” the Arabic into a Hebrew-sounding equivalent. Arabic street names in cities were changed to suit the national narrative: Independence Street, In-gathering of Exiles Street, Return of Zion Street, all in Haifa. (See here for more details.)
From an environmental perspective, the same erasure has been at work. Those forests of the JNF, planted over Nakba villages, scream out their alien nature. The indigenous olive meanwhile has suffered an onslaught devastating to the local economy and violating the harmony of the land and its native flora and fauna. Hundreds of thousands of these trees have been uprooted, cut down, or set on fire, all because they are such a potent symbol of Palestinian connectedness to the land, such a source of sustenance and income to the families who tended them across the generations.
Thus, the beautiful Palestinian “architecture without architects” of the villages and cities, the land’s age-old nature and relationship with those who cultivated and tended it, is constantly being disrupted and destroyed by Zionism. And to what end? To serve the Zionist aim of building a national identity and crafting a collective memory, rooted in a falsified narrative about the history of the land – “forging” a bond with it in the pejorative sense of the word, the artificiality of which bond is patently obvious.
No such labour-intensive efforts and desperate violence is needed for the land’s indigenous curators. Ask any Palestinian child above a certain age where they are from, they will probably say where they currently live and almost immediately give you the name of their original village. Bonds like that cannot be falsified or broken.
Zionism is swimming against a very strong tide of real memory, real belonging, real identity with land and place of origin.