In the Midst of the Ruins: Activists Struggle to Save the Palestinian Village of Lifta
Lifta is the last remaining Palestinian village within the disavowed Green Line that hasn’t been destroyed or renovated and resettled.
Threatened by Israel’s “Master Plan 6036,” which aims to convert Lifta into an exclusive suburban enclave and tourist resort, the crumbling village’s main hope lies in a coalition of Palestinian and Israeli activists who are working to try to save it.
The situation brings to mind a passage from Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History:
Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably….To articulate the past historically…means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.
Historically Lifta was located within the body of land known as the Corpus Separatum, the international demilitarized zone established by the UN Partition Plan in 1947 and reaffirmed under the Armistice Agreement that brought the 1948 War to a halt (UN Resolutions, 181 and 194, respectively). The Green Line—the demarcation set out in that Armistice Agreement—was to have marked the temporary borders between Israel and Palestine until the warring parties made peace.
But this never occurred; Israel unilaterally claimed the Corpus Separatum as its own territory, and confiscated Lifta as “state land” under the Absentee Property Law in 1950. Under the regime of law and historical consciousness that governed victorious Israel, a separate reality was constructed: amnesia settled over the Corpus Separatum and the international conventions that Israel had formerly accepted. The Green Line was disappeared from the map of Israel, and Lifta was relocated from the area set apart for negotiation and peacemaking to the Jerusalemite neighborhood of Romema. There it appeared to haunt the landscape like a flashback in the trauma history of the two peoples who reside there. As the decades passed, it became a stranger and more remarkable anomaly: the last remaining Palestinian village within the disavowed Green Line.
The Master Plan
What accounts for “the mystery of Lifta?” Jonathan Boyarin asks in Palestine and Jewish History. The overarching answer he finds is “prosaic”: Lifta and its lands are a scarce resource, the object of an unresolved competition among various Israeli interests. The village has been left in ruins on the outskirts of Jerusalem “because there [has been] no single controlling plan as to how it should be incorporated into the victorious city.” But in the years following the 1996 publication of Boyarin’s book, a Master Plan for Lifta was worked out, and the threat of obliteration now hangs over this historically and symbolically charged site.
In January 2011, the Israel Land Administration and the municipal government of Jerusalem announced Master Plan 6036, which, under the cover title of a preservation project, seeks to rebuild Lifta as an exclusive suburban enclave and tourist resort.
The plan calls for the sale by tender of “public land” to private developers; through privatization, the state and city planners intend to place a final legal barrier between the Liftawis’ claim of the right of return and the 3,000 acres of land that their ancestors continuously cultivated for 2,000 years. The Master Plan lays out the architectural model for converting the 54 surviving structures into condos, and adding another 158 condos, an upscale shopping mall, a luxury hotel, a synagogue, and a museum for the archeological finds—from the periods of ancient Israelite, Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader conquest and settlement—that excavation of the land will uncover. An underground tunnel running from a train station under the Knesset to Mei Niftoach, the biblical name for the area, would make it possible for state officials and VIPs to commute from their offices to their new homes in twenty minutes. No mention is made in the Master Plan of the former Palestinian village.
A wide-ranging coalition of Palestinian and Israeli activists has been formed to save Lifta. The coalition includes groups and NGOs such as the Lifta Society, an organization of refugees and descendents living in diaspora communities in nearby East Jerusalem, as well as in Ramallah, Jordan, and Chicago; Rabbis for Human Rights; Belonging and 1948 Lest We Forget, organizations of alternative planners, architects and conservationists; Zochrot, a group that collects and disseminates oral histories of the Nakba; and others.
Through their media campaigns and demonstrations, these activists have sought to reach the Israeli public with a counterproposal for Lifta. As articulated by Anil Korotane, in an article posted on the Lifta Society website, they want to preserve the ruins of Lifta as a heritage site. Following their vision, Lifta would become a site for reconstructing the memory of the mutually responsible and caring relations that the Arabs of this community enjoyed with their Jewish neighbors. It would become a place “for presenting and addressing common themes of displacement and victimhood shared in the tragic histories of both peoples,” a placeholder of the formative history of the state of Israel and the Palestinian right of return, “a site of conscience,” and “a common ground for dialogue, healing, and conciliation.” In other words, it would become a heritage site for both Palestinians and Israelis.
The most significant action taken thus far was initiated by the Lifta Society. Joined by the Society for the Preservation of Israeli Heritage and other members of the coalition, it filed a petition in the District Court of Jerusalem to quash the implementation of the Master Plan. The petition asserts their ownership of the village and their right to determine what is done with it and to return there: “Given that Lifta is an abandoned village and its original owners live as refugees only a few hundred meters away, no construction should be done there, certainly not construction that destroys the village and totally divests the original residents of their rights.”
In February 2012, in a decision that went against the prevailing trend of ruling against Palestinian refugees, the court temporarily blocked the sale of village lands on technical grounds: it ordered the Israel Land Administration to conduct a survey that would adhere to proper national and international standards and to take into consideration the opinion of the Israel Archeological Department. The outcome of the case is still pending. Nevertheless, the Israeli government, ignoring its judicial branch, is going forward with the excavation of the underground tunnel: a microepisode in the ongoing subversion of democracy and the rule of law under the territorial and demographic imperatives of Jewish sovereignty.
The current Master Plan aims not only at finalizing the dispossession of the residents of Lifta, but also at evacuating the memory of an earlier master plan to accomplish the same aim through the use of terror by the Jewish underground. This history was first documented by Benny Morris and Meron Benvenisti, and later recounted by Ilan Pappé in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2007), a militant critique of Master Plan Dalet and its post-war cover-up. His book is a scathing indictment of Ben Gurion and his eleven-member High Consultancy. Pappé’s indignation is refracted through his hard focus on their development of a strategy of intimidation and atrocity designed to expel the Palestinians from their villages; this emphasis is unrelieved by any appeal to the post-Holocaust context and the Jewish people’s fight for survival, mitigating circumstances that had been mythicized and used to air-brush history in the discourse of Zionist legitimation. Pappé’s use of the term “ethnic cleansing” represented a radical break with that discourse, and a frontal assault on Zionist historiography.
In a chapter titled “Finalising a Master Plan,” Pappé links the fate of Lifta with the deliberations of Ben Gurion’s inner circle that led to the formulation of the military strategy that Ben Gurion termed “aggressive defense.” Lifta was the proving ground of Plan Dalet. On December 28, 1947, Jewish underground forces entered the coffee house in the center of the village and opened fire, killing six residents and wounding seven others. Residents cowered in their houses; many fled the next morning; the rest were driven out when the Hagana returned two weeks later. In Pappé’s account, Hagana fighters carried out the attack on the coffee house “while members of the Stern Gang stopped a [Palestinian] bus nearby and began firing into it randomly. This was the first Stern Gang operation in rural Palestine.” Other sources claim that the Stern Gang was responsible for the raid on the coffee house. In either case, terror was used by a Jewish militia acting on its own initiative, and that is crucial for Pappé in his reconstruction of the deliberative process through which unplanned accidents were taken up and evaluated as elements in a trial-and-error policymaking effort, and retroactively incorporated in the High Consultancy’s Master Plan. Pappé thus portrays them as the intellectual authors of the Nakba and, as such, subject to the judgment of history. Here, quoted at length, is the passage that ties the events at Lifta to the crystallization of the plan for the Nakba:
The absence of a clear coordinating hand…troubled [Yigal Allon and] the rest of the military men in the Consultancy. Zealous troops, it was reported, sometimes attacked villages in areas where the High Command currently wished to avoid any provocation. One particular case discussed in the Long Seminar was an incident in the western Jerusalemite neighborhood of Romema. That area of the city had been particularly quiet until a local Hagana commander decided to intimidate the Palestinians in the neighborhood under the pretext that the owner of a petrol station there encouraged the villagers to strike out at passing Jewish traffic. When the troops killed the station owner, his village, Lifta, retaliated by striking at a Jewish bus. [Eliahu] Sasson added that the allegation had proved to be false. But the Hagana attack signalled the onset of a series of offensives against Palestinian villages on the western slopes of the Jerusalem mountains, especially directed at the village of Lifta that, even according to Hagana intelligence, had never attacked any convoys at all….
The involvement of the Stern Gang in the attack on Lifta may have been outside the overall scheme of the Hagana in Jerusalem, according to the Consultancy, but once it had occurred it was incorporated into the plan. In a pattern that would repeat itself, creating faits accomplits became part of the overall strategy. The Hagana High Command at first condemned the Stern Gang attack at the end of December, but when they realized that the assault had caused the villagers to flee, they ordered another operation against the same village on 11 January in order to complete the expulsion. The Hagana blew up most of the houses in the village and drove out all the people who were still there.
This was the ultimate outcome of the Long Seminar: although the Zionist leadership acknowledged the need for a coordinated and supervised campaign, they decided to turn every unauthorised initiative into an integral part of the plan, giving it their blessing retrospectively. Such was the case in Jerusalem, where sporadic retaliatory actions were systemised into an offensive initiative of occupation and expulsion…and the immediate settlement of Jews in the evicted places.
The ethical evaluation that saturates Pappé’s account is highlighted by the contrast he draws between Eliahu Sasson and General Yigal Allon. Allon and the other military professionals understood Ben Gurion’s intentions; Sasson did not. A lone voice in the Consultancy, he spoke in the name of the traditional morality that for the others had no place in fighting for a modern nation-state. Eliahu pointed out the innocence of the Liftawi station owner who had been charged with inciting Arab violence against Jewish convoys, and he protested against “what he thought was an unprovoked and ‘barbaric’ Jewish attack on [the] peaceful villagers” of Khiasis. Allon spoke for Ben Gurion and the group in his espousal of ruthlessness to expel “the strangers”:
There is a need now for strong and brutal reaction. We need to be accurate about timing, place and those we hit. If we accuse a family—we need to harm them without mercy, women and children included. Otherwise this is not an effective reaction. During the operation there is no need to distinguish between guilty and innocent.
Ben Gurion summarized the meeting on Khiasis by writing down Allon’s words in his diary.
Between Master Plan Dalet and Master Plan 6036, Lifta becomes historically visible as the alpha and omega of the Nakba.
A Transformational Moment
I found out about Lifta from my friend Menachem Daum, who came to consult me about Uncommon Ground, the documentary film he is making about the fight to save Lifta as a place of memory. For Menachem, an observant Jew, Lifta is important as “a monument to the nullification of traditional Jewish values” and as “a historic site of mutual tolerance between Jews and Arabs.” As we looked at film clips and talked about them, it became clear that the difficulty he is having as a filmmaker is inseparable from the barrier the Liftawis and their allies are coming up against: the power against which they struggle remains out of reach. It is secretive, protean, deceptive and can’t be negotiated with. Lifta may be representative of the fate of Palestinians under Israeli rule, but the struggle that this entails is largely unrepresentable.
“The outcome,” Menachem said, “will probably be decided behind closed doors. How can I hold a general audience’s interest if I can’t show the two sides coming into conflict?” As a storyteller, he felt at a loss. He believed he couldn’t reach a mainstream audience unless he adhered to the familiar narrative structure in which conflict with an antagonist evokes suspense and builds to a dramatic climax, but this is useless in capturing the reality of waging a campaign against the kind of power that Foucault describes: power dispersed and mediated through an impenetrable network of governmental and professional practices, such as private architecture/planning firms and land use agencies of the city and state. Formulating his difficulty as the impasse between a Foucauldian or post-modern power and a traditional narrative structure contributed to his revisioning the story in which he will embed his ultimate concern: preserving the image of Lifta as a potentially transformational site of remembrance and ethical inquiry.
One of the clips he showed me epitomizes why Lifta matters both to Palestinians and to Jews. Here, he stages an encounter between Yacoub Odeh, a refugee from Lifta, and Dasha Rittenberg, a Holocaust survivor in her 80s. Both had vowed not to live their lives consumed by hatred for those who destroyed their homes and murdered members of their families. This is a pair whom the camera is prepared to love: an old Jewish woman and an old Arab man, both physically attractive, both people of good will.
Communication between them immediately breaks down. As the van leaves the hotel where they’ve picked up Dasha, Yacoub remarks that her hotel is in East Jerusalem. She throws her hands in the air, and backs away from him behind a bemused-guarded-perplexed expression. “Is it?” she asks. “Yes,” he tells her, “Jerusalem [was] occupied in 1967.” Clenching her teeth and smiling, she tries to terminate the conversation with a patently false concession: “Whatever you say.” Unbeknownst to her, he had told Menachem that he wouldn’t set foot in her hotel: it’s on land stolen from the Palestinians. Now he is explaining his less than gentlemanly behavior. She can’t read his veiled conflict between personal courtesy and principled opposition, and he can’t disclose to her what the viewer senses by having witnessed his refusal to go and meet Dasha inside the hotel. In the face of her dismissiveness, he declares, “It’s my city.” She shoots back, “It’s our city…. Historically, biblically, [the Jewish people] have no other place to go.”
On the road to Lifta, they talk at each other, each immersed in his or her own catastrophe, in mutual nonrecognition. With long experience as a spokesman for the stones of Lifta, Yacoub strives to maintain an ambassadorial air as he single-mindedly hammers home the essential things he wants Dasha to receive and acknowledge: he has the right to return. She self-protectively hardens herself against him, her anger masked by mordant irony that quickly begins to wear thin. They each half-close their eyes in speaking with each other, shutting the other out.
The van shakes from side to side as it makes its way up the tilting dirt road leading to the village. Yacoub says, “My grandfather and father were here. My father married here.” “Very lucky,” Dasha snaps back. “Because you didn’t have to be chased from one country to another like my family.”
The conversation reaches its nadir as they exit the van and begin climbing on foot, with Dasha held firmly under her arms by Menachem on one side and Yacoub on the other.
“Why should I suffer? Why should I pay the price for things that others did [to the Jews]?”
“You don’t look like you suffer. In my family, I’m lucky. Out of twenty people, I’m alive. So I’m supposed to go back and rebuild my life in a country where everybody was killed? They had a war against the Jewish people.”
“[That’s] what happened here against the Palestinian people.”
“No, no, nobody wanted to kill you.” The outrage in her voice is palpable as she flatly denies the Nakba.
“They killed!” Yacoub’s face is contorted in a grimace; in his raised voice indignation is mixed with the pain of loss and the suffering of nonrecognition.
“No, no, they did not!”
“Where is my father? Where is my father?”
Menachem tries to intervene, to mediate this moment of naked antagonism. Neither one pays any attention to him. The interchange has become too much for Dasha to bear. She turns on Menachem: “I really didn’t want to go into all this. I don’t know why you brought you me here. Why am I here?”
Dasha and Yacoub have been looking down while walking. Beyond the rise in the road, the blasted façade of a massive and still magnificent house has come into view. Now Dasha, abruptly changing her tone and stance, looks around, sees the house and asks, “Listen, what’s this?”
“This is Muhammed Rabia’s—”
“—yes, house destroyed—”
“—by the war—”
“—no, not by the war. Look now, there is a plan here to destroy the houses.”
Here they stop and turn to face each other. She looks at him with bewilderment and pain, and listens intently as he now puts into words what he has come to say to her in this place.
“Now they want—in the time they are talking all the time about peace—they want to destroy it, so as to build luxury villas for people who came from the USA or other countries. But these things are not stones. These things are my memory. These things are my history, my culture.”
“Yes, yes, you’re absolutely right—”
“—they haven’t the right—”
“—this is destroying your soul, I know.”
He nods vigorously. With a gesture, he invites her into the house. They begin walking in single file on the narrow path toward the entrance.
“I will take your arm, rather than—”
“Yes, hand by hand, we can do.”
“We can do it together.”
As they step across the threshold into the cavernous interior of the house, she exclaims, “Magnificent! This is a beautiful house.”
“So if we come back and renovate it, it will be so nice.” Her gaze encourages him to go on. “So we have the right to return to our homes.”
Then, echoing what he has said, but inflecting it with its impact on her, giving voice to the unending shock of trauma, to her imaginatively identifying with his unvoiced incredulity at the injustice of it, she says, “They’re not going to let you come here and renew and fix it up?”
“Never, never, never.”
She lifts her arms in a gesture of prayer, the gesture of opening oneself up to connecting with God, palms upraised; her open hands close into two fists, and shaking her fists, she calls out, “What are we going to do about this?”
As they leave the house, she says quietly, “A home is a home is a home, people need homes.”
The physical site has made it possible for Dasha to imagine a reality different than her own: to undergo a sudden illumination of Yacoub’s truth, and move from self-enclosure in her own trauma history through ironized dismissal, anger, and repudiation to empathy and a gesture of protest and solidarity.
Watching this, I, too, experienced a transformational moment. The underlying rage and sense of injustice they triggered in each other; the mounting frustration they each felt at the other’s inability to listen; the suffering they inflicted on each other through adhering to their love and loyalty to their own people and asserting their right to mourn inconsolably for all that they each lost; their repeating the same thing time and again, and getting nowhere with each other—all this overwhelmed me and, at the flashpoint where the explosion between them occurred, I, too, felt more pain than I could bear. I had the fleeting image of the coils of my brains enmeshed in razor wire. And then the actual coming-to-pass of everything I desired, against the seeming-evidence of its impossibility: a seed of hope for reconciliation planted at Lifta.
I thought of Menachem as the Prospero-like producer of this event. Born in a DP camp, raised in the community of Gerer hasidism, he is a storyteller who straddles the worlds of wonder rebbes and witness-bearers. In this and in the other encounters he set up, his hope was that in bringing his chosen dialogue partners to this island of wreckage and exception, he might catalyze “magic moments.” In this clip, he created the conditions for the emergence of a traditional tale or a modern short story by Chekhov or Platonov: in the midst of the ordinary, something of the eternal arises—a revelation of the divine in human affairs, or an epiphany, a change of heart, an act of goodness.
This clip repeats in the area of experience what the Jerusalem Court ordered in the realm of law: “a break in the regime of brutality and indifference,” “a bracket, a parenthesis in the otherwise remorseless flow of history” (words from John Berger). Dasha is lifted out of her anguish by surprise at the beauty of the ruined house.
Berger writes: “However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always in despite of. This is why it moves us.” This is the moment when she and Yacoub come to a standstill and turn to each other. In the midst of the ruins, they return Lifta to the Corpus Separatum, to the set-apart place where time—the time of war between their two peoples—stops for the sake of negotiation and peacemaking, and they enact in real life the now-time or eternal moment of the storyteller and the believer in hope. This is what Benjamin calls “a Messianic cessation of happening.”
Poetry in the Midst of the Ruins
Seeing Menachem’s film, I felt a tremendous desire to go to Lifta and to do whatever lay in my power to help save the image of it that Menachem had drawn out of the intransigent materials of ruin and trauma, and transmitted to me.
That night, after he left, the first of a series of Lifta poems came unbidden. Here the moment of transformational impact is transferred to the narrative image of a first encounter with Lifta, based on a clip that shows Yacoub giving Menachem and the viewer a guided tour of his village. The poem is called “Hinani” (Hebrew for “Here I am”).
Unworthy as I am, when I saw
footage of my friend Menachem climbing beneath
the Jerusalem hills with an old man—
a displaced person—an Arab
who guided him into the ruins of his home
in Lifta, I felt something
become as clear and actual to me
as if for one pulse beat I heard
a voice speaking to my heart.
Call it the divine, it is the voice that calls
to us once or twice in a lifetime,
and we recognize it immediately and answer, Here I am,
for we remember it from before
we were born, and remain ready all our lives to go
where it sends us, it spoke directly
and distinctly as I sat with Menachem
in my Brooklyn office, watching
his unfinished film, a voiceover said, Go
to Lifta, accompany your friend to the emptied village
of Lifta, walk beside him as he treads carefully
around the boulder that blocks the winding path up to Lifta.
In July 2012, Menachem and I walked into the midst of the ruins and he filmed my response for use in his film and in the media campaign of the Lifta Society. Here, edited and rewritten, are excerpts of my dialogue with the stones of Lifta.
Circle and Square
On every one of these houses there was a dome. If we were looking at this house when it was an intact structure, we would have seen a dome on top of a great cube. And because of the way the eye of the mind works, forming gestalten, taking parts of things and imagining the rest, filling in what’s hidden, we would have completed the circle inside the square and seen a great wheel turning around inside the house, an image of eternity intersecting with earth and mortality.
This intersection of a cube and a circle is similar to the figure of the mandala, the cosmological design of squares encircled and circles squared. The Palestinian home is a map of the universe that is also a temple. The circle reality is eternity and the square is the shelter of earth; the interplay of rectilinear forms and arches on the outside of the house goes through its whole interior until the top—but I haven’t seen one dome left in Lifta, all of them have been destroyed to make return impossible. This is a tactical move in a war for land, but it is also an act of desecration—the destruction of what makes the home sacred and opens it to the residents’ relationship with God.
These architectural motifs bring to mind John Berger’s meditation on the meaning of home in And our faces, my heart, brief as photos (1984). All the modern historians, he writes, have described emigration and the forced transfer of populations as the quintessential experience of our times. “Why add more words? To whisper for that which has been lost. Not out of nostalgia, but because it is on the site of loss that hopes are born.”
In a traditional society such as Lifta, “home was the place from which the world could be founded.” A home was established, as Mircea Eliade says, “at the heart of the real.” A home provided a world of meaning over and against “the surrounding chaos [which] was threatening because it was unreal. Without a home at the center of the real, one was not only shelterless, but also lost in nonbeing, in unreality. Without a home everything was fragmentation.”
Home was at the center of the world, Berger writes:
because it was the place where a vertical line crossed a horizontal one…. At home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and the dead in the underworld. This nearness promised access to both. And at the same time, one was at the starting point and, hopefully, the returning point of all terrestrial journeys.
For Liftawis, identity and culture, dignity and fate are grounded in their home, in the village and the land that they and their ancestors worked as farmers. Intrinsic to their sense of personal and collective self is the hope that they will one day return home. By its unremitting destruction of Palestinian homes, the state of Israel tries to render this hope unreal and force the refugees to abandon it. Yet the Palestinians’ hope of return survives their hopelessness, and takes up residence in the midst of despair, because, without it, they would be cast into a hell greater than the one imposed by the occupying power: their lives would become unreal to them.
[We are looking at an archway made of countless small stones connecting two houses; and at the same time, we are looking through it onto a landscape of fields, hills, and sky.]
This suggests a populous gathering of many individual pieces that contribute their edge to the overall texture and join up to create one arch. In everything they build, the Liftawis give symbolic form to their relations to each other and to the land, to the above and the below. Here is another image of the larger life of community: it connects two houses, and it frames a view of hills that step back into infinity, hill and then hill and then hill and then sky and an arch of white light over everything. A moment in the life of the planet when heaven and earthly habitation appear harmoniously aligned.
This archway repeats the domelike shape over the doors and large windows in each of the houses, linking the inside and outside, the houses and the land. The Liftawis are always framing nature in this way, bringing it into the intimacy of their streets and homes. This arch works with stone the way poetry works with words. In the sublime meditation on poetry that closes And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, Berger writes:
One can say anything to language. That is why it is a listener, closer to us than any silence or any god. Yet its very openness can signify indifference. (The indifference of language is continually solicited and employed in bulletins, legal records, communiqués, files.) Poetry addresses language in such a way as to close this indifference and to incite a caring…. Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem’s labor, the result of the bringing-together-into-intimacy of every act and noun and event and perspective to which the poem refers. There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.
I pass through Lifta and I see a white tangle of withered shrubs or grasses in the walls; they look so much like kvitls, prayer notes, the petitions to God that Jews come from all over the world to put into the crevices of the Western Wall.
What prayers are lodged in the cracks of these walls? When I went to the Western Wall, I wrote out a prayer, asking God that Lifta be saved from destruction and that the Liftawis return to their village. This is one of the things these ruins represent: they are a placeholder for the possibility of return.
The stones of Lifta have become metaphors for everyone engaged in the struggle to save them. The struggle has made it necessary to articulate the surplus of meaning that lay quietly inside them when they and their meanings were one and lived by the villagers in the sum total they called home. The language of the master planners denies that these stones have any meaning or value. The Liftawis and their allies answer that act of cultural destruction with metaphors. As Yacoub Odeh says, “These things are not stone. These things are my memory. These things are my history, my culture.” Now that the task is to make stone speak its extended meanings, poetry is perhaps the most sensible way of approaching Lifta.
The heart of poetry is the metaphor-making that links stone and meaning; it is the imaginative faculty that transforms ruins into “potential space” (Winnicott’s phrase). I return to Berger time and again as a touchstone for understanding the value of poetry in relation to the most urgent tasks with which reality presents us:
Every authentic poem contributes to the labor of poetry. And the task of that unceasing labor is to bring together what life has separated or violence has torn apart. Physical pain can usually be stopped or lessened only by action. All other human pain, however, is caused by one form or another of separation. And here the act of assuagement is less direct. Poetry can repair no loss but it defies the space which separates. And it does this by its continual labor of reassembling what has been scattered….
Poetry’s impulse to use metaphor…is to discover those correspondences of which the sum total would be proof of the indivisible totality of existence. To this totality poetry appeals…. Apart from reassembling by metaphor, poetry reunites by its reach. It equates the reach of a feeling with the reach of the universe….
To break the silence of events, to speak of experience however bitter or lacerating, to put into words, is to discover the hope that these words can be heard, and that when heard, the events will be judged. This hope is of course the origin of prayer, and prayer—as well as labor—was probably the origin of speech itself. Of all uses of language, it is poetry that preserves most purely the memory of this origin.
The houses of Lifta are built out of the same stone as the Wailing Wall, the method of construction is the same, each block is hand-carved and joined without mortar to the others, gravity and the right fit hold it all together. Who but the refugees now speak of the life in common that Arabs’ and Jews’ longstanding way of working with Jerusalem stone suggests? In these houses, they babysat each other’s children; they went to each other’s weddings. For the Liftawis, these stones hold memories of peace as well as memories of war. And Menachem, who has recorded their oral histories to reassemble them into an image of the lost time, seeks to raise documentary to the level of prayer.
These stones look monumental, each one of them; arrayed together, they give these houses a massiveness that exceeds their size, a feel of great concentrated power, an air of the indestructible. Yet they’re fragile. And they’re fragile in two senses: violence can destroy them, and their meanings can erode—unless we come to refresh them with careful observation, imagination and memory.
Many Jews carry their wronged ancestors on the road through Lifta and can’t see beyond them. They remain in one fixed position, in the monolithic collective identity of the victim. They place themselves on higher ground, forever pure and always in the right, and maintain this position by dissociating the continuing Nakba we impose on the Palestinians from the khurbn (total destruction) that Jews suffered and can’t forget. They live in a country of absolutes, the state of “existential threat” to which they appeal in explaining and justifying the demolition of Palestinian homes and the annexation of their lands.
The enduring Jewish state of emergency, inherited from generations of oppression and genocide, contributes to the incomprehension and hostility with which Jews and Arabs face each other. In What Is a Palestinian State Worth? Sari Nusseibah writes “that it is impossible for either side to understand its workings on the other. Palestinians cannot believe that Israelis live in perpetual fear [for their lives], and Israelis cannot understand how Palestinians live without such fear.”
Jewish fear didn’t die out with the transmutation of the diaspora Jew into “the new Jew” of Zionism. Rather, it led to the building up of the internal separation barrier that made the external one feel totally in character, inevitable and right. The psychological defensive barrier endlessly duplicates the watchtower from which ceaselessly vigilant binary operations reproduce and maintain the elaborate security system. My cousin Dan made aliyah in the late ’70s and fought in Lebanon in 1984. When he passes Lifta by on the highway that’s been cut through the top of the village, he thinks, “If the war [of 1948] had gone the other way, that would be us.”
Another position is possible: that of recognizing Palestinian homelessness and experiencing the suffering and longing it causes out of one’s Jewishness and humanity.
The ethics of neighborliness requires what the rabbis call “holy imagination,” which allows us to see and feel beyond our concrete situation and enter the Other’s realm of experience. This act can be described as belonging to the poetry of everyday life, the sphere in which we make contact with things and forces that are more and other than those we admit into our habitual sense of self. In “Ars Poetica?” the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz writes:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our houses are open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come and go at will.
The ruins of Lifta hold open house for invisible guests of history and memory that unsettle Israelis when they drive past them; as the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem says, “they’d rather not be reminded of what happened here.” The Jewish allies of the Liftawis, on the other hand, hold that the way to peace with the Palestinians lies through Lifta: through confronting the history that many Jews don’t want to remember and mourning the loss of our exclusive and singular, idealized and righteous, damaged and damaging sense of collective self, and through opening our own houses to the invisible guests that become palpable here.
Reassembling What Has Been Scattered
Menachem: What will be lost if Lifta should be destroyed?
Marc: Many Palestinians and Israelis have spoken eloquently about this. In their appeal to the World Monument Fund, in their petition to the Jerusalem Court, in newspaper articles and online media campaigns and biweekly demonstrations, they have said that Lifta must be saved as a place of memory, a site of conscience, and a studyhouse of the inseparable and mutually formative histories of Palestine and Israel.
The refugees remember a time when the spring in the Wadi-al-Shami was known as “the eye of Lifta.” Their mothers and grandmothers gathered there to wash clothes and talk over the day’s events. As children, they played nearby under the fruit trees. There, too, the dead were laid out, ritually cleansed, then taken to the mosque and finally to the cemetery for burial. This was the gathering place of the women just as the coffee house was the gathering place of the men. Shaped like an eye, it was the place where they kept watch over the cycle of generations while they performed everyday and ritual tasks of cleansing. For the elders of Lifta now, the stones that line the spring hold the power to conserve tradition. Memory renews the water that was the source of communal life. The bond of memory and place reconstructs “the eye of Lifta,” keeping it alive as a reservoir of facts and symbols that also hold the power to disturb people into fresh feeling, thought and action. But if that bond is broken, if there is no place for memory to adhere to, what then?
The Israeli authorities make the Orwellian claim that they are destroying the village in order to save it. No one on either side of the conflict takes this pretense seriously. The Israel Land Administration wants to cover up the ravaged village under a façade that will resemble the architectural style of its houses, but it will not resemble the lost Palestinian village. It will not expose the scattering of the refugees and descendents. Everything that makes this a placeholder of hope will be lost.
Lifta now hangs in the balance, as does all of Israel/Palestine. If the Netanyahu government and the Jerusalem planning commission go ahead with their plan to build a corridor of new settlements between East Jerusalem and Maale Adumim to its east, in what is known as the E-1 area, this would have the effect of cutting the West Bank in half. Advocates of the plan point out that a nine-mile strip between Maale Adumim and the Jordan River would remain, yet the expansion of Greater Jerusalem into the center of Palestinian territory would make north-south travel along segregated roads linking the archipelago of Arab areas more circuitous than it already is, thus further constricting the contiguity and viability of a future Palestinian state. For Netanyahu, this comes in retaliation for Mahmoud Abbas’s successful initiative to gain the status of “non-member state” for the Palestinians at the UN. For Abbas, these building plans are “a red line and we will not allow it to happen.” This latest escalation of hostilities threatens to destroy the possibility of a two-state solution and, with it, the possibility of peace.
The Master Plan for Lifta, like the plans for three Jewish “neighborhoods” in E-1, seeks to complete the takeover of Palestinian land that began with the depopulation of Arab villages in 1948. Master Plan 6036 is paradigmatic of the form that the continuing Nakba takes. By its textual and material erasure of the Palestinian village,its aim is to fix the facts to the Zionist myth of “the country without a people for a people without a country.” It is the last act in the process of ethnic cleansing, bulldozing history to rubble in the name of development, and building new walls to make the separation of Palestinians from their homes final.
In Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, Judith Butler offers a study of Walter Benjamin’s thinking about the messianic as one of her touchstones for a Jewish critique of Zionism. Benjamin, she writes, “allies the messianic with the struggle to save the history of the oppressed from an imposed oblivion.” For Benjamin, she adds, the messianic
is a counterdoctrinal effort to break with temporal regimes that produce guilt, obedience, extend legal violence, and cover over the history of the oppressed…. As Benjamin becomes more clear that the effacement of the history of oppression must be countered, it is precisely not in the service of augmenting the world of guilt. Rather, the guilty are those who remain tied to a version of law and violence that seeks to cover over the destruction it has caused and causes still. Thus the messianic emerges as a way of exploding that particular chronology and history in the name of recovering in scattered form those remnants of suffering’s past that in indirect ways comport us to bring to an end regimes whose violence is at once moral and physical.
Echoes of the kabbalistic imagery of the scattered sparks and the task of tikkun olam are disseminated through Benjamin (who received them from Gershom Scholem) to Butler, whose remarkable exegesis of the Benjaminian text emphasizes the transposition of guilt through a shift from identification with the aggressor to a messianic alliance with the oppressed. In “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin writes that “we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power over which the [oppressed] past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.”
Lifta exerts tremendous pressure on the messianic propensity inscribed in traditional Jewish ethics: “oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah). For Jabotinsky, the ideological mentor of Netanyahu and the ruling consensus, traditional Jewish ethics, associated with the stigmatized figure of the weak Jew of the diaspora, have no place in the morality of a modern nation-state. There is no reason to think that the regime now in power will not be victorious in destroying Lifta. But even then, the bond between the Palestinian refugees and their lost home will not be severed, and there will continue to be Jews who consider it ethically imperative to face the catastrophe of our common history and reassemble what has been scattered for the sake of creating pockets of Jewish-Arab cooperation in the midst of the ruined relations between Israel and Palestine.
The Labor of Poetry
Coffee House at Lifta
I want to meet you, Yousef,
in the coffee house at Lifta. Let us sit
on the ground and invite History
with a capital H to bow its head and come through
the door in lower case letters, as we speak
of our enemy-uncles, let us make more
room for what we each lost here.
I lost my home on this land,
Yoyneh. What did you lose?
My uncle Avrom-Yitzkhok
left the narrow alleys where our rebbe rushed by
on slippered feet to tarry with the Impossible,
massing on the other side of the German-
Polish border. Don’t cry for me, he told
his mother at the train station, I’m going home.
He became a fighter in the militia
that entered the coffee house and opened fire.
We don’t know if he took part
in that raid. He didn’t speak of what he did
or didn’t do in the war. But this I know:
I’ve awakened from the dream in which he was my childhood
hero. In the coffee house at Lifta, he nullified the God
my father kept alive in a death camp, and in the DP camp
where I was born, my father wrapped me in his prayer
shawl and carried me into the world of his love
for the Yiddishkeit of our lost shtetl.
You ask me to sit down
with you in a place of imaginary
equivalence. There is no door
through which I could meet you there,
only a hole where a door once opened,
Jewish terrorists walked through it
and murdered six of my uncles, no one escaped
without injury, my father carried me
on his back out of Lifta the next morning,
and after two years of wandering
as a beggar, died
of a heart attack, another
victim of the Lifta massacre.
There is no hope unless you and I
sit side by side on the site of loss, telling
each other the story of that night.
You speak of hope where there is none, if all
you propose is that we mourn together.
And you speak of the story as if it were one
and definitive. You’re still living in your own messianic
that you can repair your takeover of my homeland
by incorporating me and the Liftawis’
coffee house in a Jewish storytelling ritual.
You would have me sit with you in mud
that was once tiled floor, amid shards
of plaster with traces of pigment
that once were a mural of musicians in a vineyard
under the heavens where a high-vaulted
ceiling sheltered the men who gathered there
to savor time together, sipping
strong black Arab coffee
after their day’s labor—and you believe
that if you and I return in memory
to the place where my world came to an end,
we can make our two stories one?
Why, then, Yousef, did you welcome
my alliance? Why did you take me
on a guided tour of the ruins?
Why fight to preserve Lifta
as a place of memory?
Lest you forget the destruction
your uncle visited on my village. And
as a placeholder for my dead
and my life in parenthesis—this
is where I can bring my past
and future into an encounter with you
and end your erasure of my face.
In yeshiva, I learned to draw things toward
the unity in which we sought to live with
God in the world. The template of faith
in which I was taught to think precedes
the new thoughts arising in me, and returns them
to the syntax that formed me. I see, Yousef,
why you reject the terms in which I tried
to communicate my desire. Give me a chance
to try again. I believe that unless
we bring our irreconcilable stories into the same bare
room, unless we sit and listen to the other
mourn the intolerable asymmetry and damage
of our mutual history, we will not grow in tolerance
for the other’s truth and cease reenacting
the impossibility of peace between our uncles’
warring ghosts. How else
can we be released from our deadlock?
No, Yoyneh, the room is not bare, and
the ground on which it stands holds roots
of the fruit-bearing trees we planted and tended
continuously for two thousand years.
You seek reconciliation in the sphere
of the spirit. That will not happen until
there is justice for Palestinians in our own land.
Until you commit yourself to my return
from exile, the situation will remain
what it is—the ruins of possibility.
Next Year in Jerusalem
Lifta was built into
the valley at the western entrance of the city.
Aging villagers drift through,
bearing magnetic ID cards that declare
them present absentees.
From this bowl of ruin, they drink
the life that was, and regain
the power to be wholly present in exile,
drawing gladness and grief from the wadi
at the bottom of the open wound of their history.
Jewish citizens strolling through the last
reserve of green space near the city
want to forget the ghost town that was the site
of a victory in a war long ago settled. Arabs
once lived here. Shadows
flit along the walls and floors
of the exposed interiors of their houses.
They condemn us to see, in the fate
we imposed on them, the image
of ourselves we hate to have mirrored:
this is the open wound of our history.
Every year I’ve concluded
the seder with the inconclusive words Jews everywhere
in the world repeat. Next year when I utter
the prayer that invokes the unfinalizable process
of our exile and redemption of hope,
I will look out at the physical city
from Lifta, and I will see what the phrase calls on us
to grasp: that even in Jerusalem we are
not in Jerusalem.