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By Linda Kinstler
“Don’t ask me what went on there. I don’t talk about it. It’s my secret. This I don’t tell.”
Binyamin Eshet shifts uneasily in his chair, averting his eyes from the camera. His interviewer has just asked him to recall the events of the Dahmash Mosque massacre in the Palestinian village of Lydda (now Lod), one of the bloodiest events of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Eshet witnessed the massacre when he was 21 years old and serving in the Palmach, a special strike force of the Israeli military.
“Was it your brigade that carried out the massacre?” Eshet’s interviewer, the French-Israeli director Eyal Sivan, asks.
Eshet equivocates: “Yes, not my brigade…The massacre was carried out by our brigade after someone thought they were shooting at us from there. I’ll tell you one thing. I won’t tell you there was no massacre. Who did it? I don’t know. Who buried them? I don’t know. I just know how they were killed. “
Eshet is now well into his 80s, and as a Palmach veteran, he is one of a dwindling number of Israelis who can testify to the expulsion of the Palestinians “from the point of view of the perpetrator,” as Sivan puts it. Eshet is one of dozens of Palmach veterans who Sivan has interviewed as part of his ongoing project to build a comprehensive online archive of the 1948 war, known to Israelis as the “War of Independence” and to Palestinians as “al-Nakba,” or “the Catastrophe.” Sivan has produced a number of documentaries on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including “The Specialist” (1999), “Jaffa: The Orange’s Clockwork” (2009), and “Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel” (2003). This particular archival piece is a departure from the narrative documentary style of his highly acclaimed body of work.
The interview with Eshet is one of over 30 testimonies from Palmach veterans and their children that make up Sivan’s latest work, “Towards a Common Archive,” which debuted this fall in Tel Aviv’s Zochrot gallery. For years, Sivan collaborated with Israeli historian Ilan Pappé to collect and analyze testimonies. Sivan emphasizes that the Zochrot exhibit is just the start—he and Pappé are still looking for people to come forward who want to tell their stories. Though recording testimonies is currently on hold due to a lack of funds, Sivan is hopeful that the continuation of the project will help one day broker a lasting peace in the region.
“We are confident that there is something new about this project,” Sivan says. “As Professor Pappé has said, this is the archive of the future state—the common archive of the common state, and I’m a believer that we’re getting closer to the common state everyday.”
Sivan is calling for a paradigm shift in the collective memory of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and believes that collecting the memories of Israeli soldiers who witnessed the expulsion of the Palestinians is crucial to combating willful forgetfulness about the magnitude of the 1948 atrocities.
“When Israelis today say there is no solution to the conflict, in fact the conflict that they are talking about is the 1967 occupation,” Sivan says. “I think that if we come back to the roots of the conflict, if we redefine the problem, maybe we can start to think about the solution …[this is] something that can go beyond Israel and Palestine, and can be interesting to places like Argentina or the former Yugoslavia and others, is the possibility to consider the situation where the perpetrator is not eliminated but the perpetrator is part of the future society. We need to create something that will be a common voice.”
To this day, Eshet says he remains disturbed by the image of Palestinians fleeing their homes as Israeli troops took over village after village.
“I take it very hard…Not the injustice. The thing itself—the refugee who fled his house, when it was still hot, who was still drinking coffee, who suddenly became a refugee and suddenly had nothing. … As a holocaust survivor, it was traumatic for me.”
Palmach veteran Esther Boss says she feels personally responsible for the events at Lod, which have been documented at length by scholars and researchers of the conflict but never told from the point of view of those who carried them out.
“There was an Arab standing by a kiosk, one-eyed, not young,” Boss remembers. “The guys went up to him, and he said, ‘Take whatever you want, here, take it please just—’ And they took him and shot him. It was a very difficult experience. I saw it.”
“It’s not about things that we don’t know,” Sivan says. “We never heard someone say ‘I did it’ and I think that there is the big difference…I believe that every person that committed a crime wants and needs to speak up. And if they spoke so easily, it’s because they were asked in the first time in this way…They were ready to talk.”
Now is a particularly good time to talk. Polls close in the Israeli elections on Tuesday, and very few candidates have addressed the treatment of Palestinian refugees outright. Two new Israeli documentaries, “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras” just received Oscar nominations for their highly critical takes on the occupation. But their message seems to have fallen on deaf ears in Israel itself, where the press has lauded both documentaries for their international reception while avoiding much discussion of their implications. “Towards a Common Archive” was similarly slighted by the Israeli press, though it is now being courted to appear in a number of galleries in the U.S. and Europe.
“The Israeli press, including Haaretz, for example, were not at all interested in this exhibition at all,” says Sivan. “This I think reveals something again about the Israeli liberal thinking about 1948. That ‘We can say whatever we want about 1967 and the occupation,' but 1948—still it is a taboo not in terms of knowledge about it, but in transforming it into the central issue of the conflict, which it is.”
The blunt questions and forthright testimonies that make up “Towards a Common Archive” refuse this taboo, forcing both interviewer and interviewee to reckon with the uncomfortable realities of the 1948 war.
“I’m criticizing the silence of the interviewers,” says Sivan. “It’s not the question of what they’re willing to say or what they’re saying, it’s what we’re willing to hear and what we’re willing to ask them about.”
“Towards a Common Archive,” like all of Sivan’s documentary projects, is about refusing the convenient apathy with which many Israelis view the conflict. The hope is that when faced with first-hand accounts of the 1948 war and all those that followed, neither Israelis nor Palestinians will be able to continue to manipulate the facts of the conflict for political gain, or to eschew culpability for aggression on either side.
“We are talking about something which is ongoing,” Sivan says. “It means to question yourself, to come back…The Israeli liberal left has to question itself about the colonial attitude, and it’s not ready to do that.”
With his archival project, Sivan is forcing the hand of liberal politicians who refuse to reckon with the implications of Israeli aggression in the “War of Independence,” and is hoping that the Israeli electorate will do the same come Tuesday.
“I hope—and you will find it maybe strange—that there will be a strong, clear cut right wing government in Israel, as the society is, in order just to be able to realize that it’s not the participation of the moderation—it’s not moderators that moderate Israel’s society, no,” says Sivan. Rather, his gripe is with the left, with parties like Meretz, Hadash, and others who, he says, try to explain “to the world that we are not as bad as we seem.”
“Towards a Common Archive” is the start of an ambitious endeavor to realign the Israeli collective memory of the 1948 war with reality. Sivan’s hope for their reception, as for the results of the upcoming election, is that Israeli society can no longer excuse past and future aggressions with “the idea that we are better; we are white; we are privileged,” says Sivan.
Linda Kinstler is the Editor of the Bowdoin Orient and wrote for the Fall 2012 Democracy issue of World Policy Journal.