I’m about to start a line of posts about Israel and Zionism and their Jewish critics. I do so for reasons professional and personal. Whatever you think of the critics, they are right to put the finger not on 1967and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but on 1948, the creation of the State of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba. If people who care about Israel and Zionism can’t talk honestly about 1948, then I’m not sure they have anything to say. As per usual, my thoughts fall squarely within a compromised and compromising middle position. I don’t expect them to win me many friends or even respect from people who hold on to a more firm set of principles.
I’ll start this group of posts by sharing Laura Levitt Living Memory by Laura Levitt and putting it into conversation with Israeli journalist Ari Shavit’s recent article in the New Yorker about the massacre and expulsion of the Palestinian Arab population of Lydda (Lod) during the 1948 War. Both Laura’s essay and Shavit’s address the claims of historical memory on the present.
(Laura, whom I know, I’ll refer to as Laura. Shavit, whom I don’t know, I’ll refer to as Shavit).
About living memory, Laura writes, “If [it] is to matter, it needs to speak to us in the present. It needs to confront us with a compelling argument for seeing otherwise” (74). The point that she wants to make is that “Reimagining the past, and this particular past in this way might help make it possible for us to consider a different and perhaps less violent future” (75). In the re-iteration of memory, other things are seen, new possibilities open out.
But what if there is no seeing otherwise? What if the-more-you-see only comes back to reinforce the same? It may be that photographs, in their capacity as carriers of memory, do not “speak” as much as they “show,” and that what they show “says” not much at all. It may also be that what they show has only a weak claim on the present or on the future. The photograph repairs nothing if it’s the case that time is a fixed kind of thing. Even if our perception of it remains fluid and forever corrigible, the broken thing remains broken –like Palestine.
Shavit’s article about the expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs from Lydda/Lod is a case in point. He wants to face up to the historical facts relating to the 1948 Israel War of Indepence/Palestine Nakba, and then sets up a harsh choice between seeking to overturn the effects of the Nakba and abandoning Zionism and Israel as a “Jewish country” or accepting Zionism even with the Nakba. It could be that this choice is a bad one, a false one, omitting as it does the possibility of restorative justice. But maybe he’s right and the choice is that stark.
It’s noteworthy to see a mainstream center-left Zionist pursue these thoughts publically in these highbrow American pages. I’m sure many of his readers in the New Yorker will be drawn to the opposite conclusion that he’s going to draw, and surely he must have understood that when writing the piece. This would stand in contrast to what Laura refers to as “ethical necessity” and the desire to draw “definitive conclusions,” namely the notion that the civic photographic archive (a concept drawn from Ariella Azoulay) necessitates this or that political-moral judgment.
At the same time, Laura herself understands that vision of living memory is never definitive (p.80). Today you can walk around the ruins of old Arab Lod and do the same in nearby Ramle, where the Palestinian population was also expelled. But it’s not clear what conclusions one has to draw from them, except of course to acknowledge the site and sight you see.
In Shavit’s piece, the massacre in and expulsion from Lydda/Lod are forms of living memory. The article concluding thoughts end with the column of refugees moving out of town in a continuous stream into the present. Living memory here in the sense meant by Laura as to how facets of the past that were once rendered invisible, in this case by the State, come to light in the photographic archive, changing the way we look at the past and think about the present, deepening them, and making them more complex.
If living memory works in the way Laura says it does, opening up the possibility of living otherwise, maybe it lies in the way in which, at the very least, it can de-idealize the past with all its conflict and misery and to render that past in more human terms.