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“Such sights have never been seen before”, or have they?

“Such sights” we have seen indeed


Palestinians in the State of Israel, the early years

A photo exhibition by Ariella Azoulay


An exhibition of photographs is being held these days in Tel-Aviv (Zochrot Galery), unveiling the reality in which the Arab citizens of Israel lived during the country’s first few years. Although in its Declaration of Independence, the State of Israel pledged to “uphold complete social and political equality of all of its citizens, regardless of religion, race and sex”, it has done mockery of its own obligation since then, and is still doing so to this very day.

The researcher and curator of this exhibition was Ariella Azoulay[1], with the help of Haddas Snir. The exhibition holds great pedagogical value, and it should be displayed in many towns around the country, at schools; indeed it should become a permanent exhibition and have more and more findings added.

Here are two short pieces from the introduction A. Azoulay wrote for the exhibition, titled “Constituting Violence, 1947-1950, A visual genealogy of a regime and ‘a catastrophe from their point of view’”, and two pictures taken from the exhibition: 1. Tantoura – the deportation; 2. Jaffa – the “ghetto” -





Between 1947 and 1950, the institutions of the Jewish Yishuv were transformed into the apparatus of a Jewish state. They were tasked with Judaizing the region they had conquered. They applied their logic to all areas of life in a territory which still had no permanent borders. The exhibition follows this process through some two hundred photographs, most of which come from various Yishuv and state archives. The apparatus of the new state was shaped during the process of destroying Palestinian society by killing, dividing, expropriating, expelling and preventing those expelled from returning.  Nor was that enough. In order for this apparatus to be stabilized and maintained, it was necessary to transform the catastrophe imposed on the Palestinians into what I shall characterize as “catastrophe from their point of view” – "their," of course, referring to the Palestinians.

In order to trace the process by which the state apparatus was established, and by which the Palestinian catastrophe was structured as “catastrophe from their point of view,” the exhibit puts aside two major narratives: the Zionist narrative, beginning with the dream of return to Zion and ending with its realization in the establishment of the state, and the Palestinian or post-Zionist narrative which situates the nakba as the constitutive event of Palestinian existence and identity, and ignores its contribution to the establishment of the Israeli regime and to shaping the forms of violence that maintain it.[2] Both these narratives make a rigid distinction between Jews and Arabs, but do not allow us to reconstruct the origins of this division. This dividing line is a central component of the Israeli regime’s ruling apparatus. It was the means by which the disaster imposed on the Palestinians was transformed into “catastrophe from their point of view.”  The exhibition sets aside both competing narratives, and rather than drawing a line between Jews and Arabs it seeks to understand its institutionalization as a central ruling principle of the Jewish state. It does so by presencing the disaster imposed on the Palestinians as a catastrophe (from a civil perspective), and by presenting it not as the outcome of a war that preceded the creation of the Israeli regime, but as a component and as a product of that regime.

The exhibition includes many unfamiliar photographs. Still, it would be incorrect to think of it as an “exposé.” Each photograph was selected because of the particular situation it records, but none of them should surprise us – that is, we can’t say, “We’ve never seen anything like this.” We’ve certainly seen “something like this” - “we” Israeli citizens, men and women. We’ve seen the remains of Arab villages, in our streets as well as in photographs. We’ve referred to these remains by the names of the localities in which we live. We’ve come across them as part of the urban fabric in which they’ve been absorbed almost unquestioningly, and in landscapes where they’ve appeared as ancient “khirbot” – ruins.  We’ve mentioned the names of the refugee camps to which the Palestinians were expelled. We’ve used maps from which entire human landscapes have been erased. Some of us can still remember repeating as children the names of the military operations during which those landscapes were transformed. We’ve been able to see ourselves in the pages of those photographic albums documenting how the country was built - members of youth movements clearing stones from “abandoned” villages; pioneers celebrating “settling on the land” while moving into Arab houses situated against a backdrop of Arab landscapes.

Nor were images of Palestinian refugees strange to us.


So, despite the catastrophe that befell them, the Palestinians were expected to behave as if nothing had occurred, as if, at worst, it was “catastrophe from their point of view [the expelled Palestinians].” There were, among the Jews, some individuals and groups who immediately realized that what had happened to the Palestinians was in fact a catastrophe, but they had to make a special effort to demonstrate this, an effort that required them to “brush history against the grain”. No systematic account has yet been written about the various joint Jewish-Arab commercial, economic, social, cultural and civic ventures that were destroyed just before the establishment of the state and during its early years in order to restructure relations along the rigid divide between Jews and Arabs, between the governed and the non-governed, between citizens and citizens-under-military-rule. But the absence of an historical account does not mean that we can assume that all Jews joined in denying the Palestinian catastrophe. Such an assumption, which is unfounded, recapitulates the division between Jews and Arabs, presences the image of the disaster that befell the Palestinians as “catastrophe from their point of view,” and makes permanent the civil malfunction that the catastrophe has imposed upon those who brought it about and upon their descendents. Precisely because it rejects this assumption, the exhibition proposes a way of thinking in civil terms about a place that today, under the existing regime, appears hopeless, one where nothing can be promised, where it is impossible to dream of tomorrow.


Photographers: Yehuda Eisenstark, David Eldan, Werner Braun, Teddy Brauner, Paul Goldman, Ali Zaarour, Rudolf Jonas, Fritz Cohen, Hugo Mendelson, Jim Pringle, Frank, Fred Chesnik, Zoltan Kluger, Beno Rothenberg.

Photographs were provided by: The Israel Government Press Office, the Israel State Archive, the Central Zionist Archive, the IDF and Defense Archive, the JNF Photographic Archive, the Palmach Museum photographic collection, the Haganah Archive, the Golani Museum Archive, the Associated Press, Photo Art Israel, Zaki Zaarour, Nahada Zahara, AFSC-Archive, the Meitar Ltd. Collection, Bitmunah Lab, Palestine Remembered Internet website, Shahar Regev, Meron Perach, Al Rabta-The Jaffa Arabs Association, The Monastery and School of “Jesus Adolescent” (Don Bosco)-Nazareth.


[1] English translation: Charles S. Kamen.

[2]  For additional discussion of constitutional violence and law-preserving violence , cf.  (Walter Benjamin, 1999. “Critique of Violence”, Selected Writings Volume 1 – 1913-1926,  Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). In an article I wrote for a conference on the return of the refugees organized by Zochrot at Tel Aviv (2007), I characterized three groups subject to violence whose object is to maintain the Israeli regime:  1. Non-citizens – both non-ruled (residents of the refugee camps outside of Israel) and ruled (under occupation since 1967). The state has waged, and continues to wage, a violent, wild, uncompromising struggle against the non-citizens’ violent and non-violent resistance to a regime responsible for turning them into refugees. 2. Non-Jewish citizens, against whom the regime wages what is primarily an ideological struggle, including, from time to time, moderate, measured and relatively cautions use of force.  3.  Jewish citizens, against whom the struggle is also primarily ideological, focusing on mobilizing the citizenry to maintain the reality of a regime in which anyone not a member of the political entity that legitimates it is neither taken into consideration nor counted.  The struggle includes broad nationalization of the various components of the state apparatus (both ideological and repressive), as well as of the Jewish citizens, nationalization intended to enable maximum mobilization of the Jewish population to strengthen the regime.  For a more comprehensive discussion of this use of violence, cf.  (Azoulay, Ariella, forthcoming. Sedek, Zochrot).