Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 by Noga Kadman (Indiana University Press, 2015)

The task of identifying and preserving the memory of hundreds of Palestinian villages depopulated by Israeli forces since 1948 has been most famously taken up by Walid Khalidi.

Along with Salman Abu Sitta’s mapping of historic Palestine, Khalidi’s monumental volume All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948, published in 1992, remains the reference work for such a project.

Noga Kadman — an Israeli tour guide and researcher for rights organizations such as B’Tselem and Zochrot — has duly built on these studies to offer an analysis of how Israelis interact with and think about the remains and ruins the founding of their state created.

(Kadman does not include Naqab Bedouin communities in her study, or villages depopulated after the 1967 War. She acknowledges this a gap but, like Khalidi, sees it as a separate part of the project of recovering and remembering.)

Palestinians refer to 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel as the Nakba (catastrophe). What is often forgotten with this designation is that the dispossession of Palestinians was not a singular event but one that spread over several years.

Kadman’s account of the massacres and intimidation by which Palestinian villages were depopulated follows that ethnic cleansing into the 1950s. It included what even an Israeli investigation admitted was “robbery on a massive scale” with members of the Zionist militia, the Haganah, stealing from the villages they emptied.

Kadman points out how various historical trends have shaped how Israelis view the homes, mosques, schools and other buildings which pepper their landscapes, acting as silent reminders of previous occupants.

Firstly, there are generational changes. The Israelis who remembered Palestinian inhabitants — and who forced them out in 1948 — have given way to descendants who never saw what these villages looked like as living communities and who have grown up only with state propaganda.

An illustration of this is the work of geographer Amnon Golan, who points out how early Israeli settlers, regarding olive trees as “enemy” agriculture associated with the “primitive” past, uprooted or abandoned them. By contrast, contemporary Israelis attempt to appropriate the remaining ancient olive trees as a symbol of longevity and authenticity.

Secondly, there is erasure of the villages themselves — sometimes by the processes of time, sometimes by intentional destruction and damage. Some villages, Kadman writes, were demolished for “security” reasons or used by the Israeli military for demolition and bombing practice.

The core of Kadman’s thesis is her study of Israeli documents, which examines the language and narratives employed to talk about depopulated Palestinian villages.

Her sources include internal newsletters and, later on, memorial books created by Israeli kibbutzim andmoshavim — rural agricultural communities built on the lands of Palestinian villages, if not actually using homes and public buildings whose owners had been forced out or killed.

As Kadman puts it, “in 1954 more than a third of Israel’s Jewish population was living on land belonging to refugees, whose return no one intended to allow.” In towns and cities, Palestinian homes were likely to be expropriated by Israelis; in rural villages, they were in more danger of being demolished or neglected.

Occasionally, Kadman’s research shows, idealistic Zionists who established left-wing kibbutzim had misgivings about setting up home in stolen villages. But the majority of settler documents show that Zionist incomers either ignored their predecessors or labelled them as terrorists, calling villages “bases” for “Arab gangs” rather than places where communities had lived and thrived for centuries.

These dynamics, Kadman describes, continue in modern Israeli discourse. Drawing on documents such as brochures and websites about the “national parks” and tourist sites superimposed onto the Palestinian landscape, she demonstrates how the national project of denial and appropriation has seen Palestinians written out of history or maligned.

In the copious information available for Israeli hikers and visitors to national parks, hundreds of years of Palestinian history are ignored with reference only to ancient cultures such as Hebrews, Greeks and Romans.

If Palestinian villages are mentioned, the discourses employed are, again, those of “armed Arab gangs” during the 1948 war. On the rare occasions when Palestinian society and agriculture are mentioned, they are portrayed as primitive and even destructive, tying into Zionist narratives about the Jewish people’s intrinsic, natural links to the land. Driving Palestinian villagers out of their homes is justified by the idea that they were the interlopers, living on land which “yearned” for its “proper” inhabitants.

There are some jarring notes. In the introduction, Israeli academic Oren Yiftachel blames Palestinian society for its excessively “romantic” vision of the past and — citing the Holocaust — a nebulous Palestinian refusal to recognize the “millions” of Jewish “refugees” who form the population of Israel.

Kadman herself occasionally falls victim to this uncritical swallowing of the narrative that emigrants to Palestine were refugees rather than colonizers, and that Jews coming from the Arab countries were violently expelled. It is a very Ashkenazi narrative of Jewish identity, denying the different experiences of Middle Eastern Jews. It also ignores the Zionist role in exhorting Jews to leave countries such as Iraq and in driving wedges between Jewish communities and their Muslim and Christian neighbors.

In addition, Yiftachel and Kadman both perpetuate the idea that Palestinians, as well as Israelis, have refused to listen to and empathize with “the other side.” This analysis seems out of step with Kadman’s overall awareness of the power differential between Palestinians and Israelis — and ignores the fact that most Palestinians have no choice but to hear and be coerced by Israeli narratives.

This translation of Erased from Consciousness was published in 2015. The Hebrew original came out in 2008. This makes for occasional gaps, for instance where Kadman talks positively of Palestinian citizens of Israel commemorating the Nakba and other aspects of their past.

The time lag between the two editions means that she doesn’t then mention strenuous efforts by the Israeli state to criminalize and block — by financial and institutional means — exactly the kind of events she talks about.

Overall, however, this is an intelligent, well-researched and fluently translated (by Dimi Reider of +972 Magazine) book that casts new light on the ways in which the State of Israel and its institutions have tried to eradicate the memory of Palestinian habitation of Palestine and the social discourses and narratives which underpin this project.

(Sarah Irving is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone.)