Land and Betrayal

Rebecca Romani

The Diaries of Yossef Nachmani

Directed by Dalia Karpel
First Run/Icarus Films, 2005

All nations have a meta-narrative, a group of myths that they tell themselves and others about their origins. As part of the technique to survive an uncertain infancy, a new nation needs to expend a great deal of energy establishing the legitimacy of that canon, especially if it owes its existence to the suppression of native peoples or minorities.

Israel is no exception to this rule. For years, official Israeli history has taught that the land that is now Israel and the occupied territories was previously sparsely populated. Indeed, a popular quote attributed to British Zionist Israel Zangwill justifies the influx of European Zionists as “a land without people for a people without land,” despite the fact that a 1919 estimate recorded the resident population at 700,000 Arabs and 90,000 Jews, with assorted others.

Like all myths, there are elements of truth and elements of self-serving justification, and eventually, given enough time, these myths and the national canon will come under native scrutiny.Another myth involves the resident Arabs: the myth of exodus in 1948. The official Israeli line is that most Arabs either left voluntarily or at the exhortation of their leaders. Any violence done by the IDF or the Hagannah was provoked and therefore, sadly, a justified if unfortunate act. It is a myth that echoes down through the years and through the policies of foreign nations towards Israel, most notably the U.S., which shares a similar narrative in regards to its own Native Americans.

There is evidence that, unlike American Jewry, Israel is starting to re-examine its history. The “New Historians” movement, which includes Ilan Pappé, Teddy Katz and Benny Morris, is taking a harder look at the Judaization of Israel as official documents become declassified. What they are finding belies the image of a nation forged in the crucible of moral right.

Their beliefs are shared by a handful of Israeli documentary makers, most notably Haim Bresheeth and now, Dalia Karpel, director of a fascinating documentary on how one Yossef Nachmani acquired land for the Zionists only to see his hopes for a peaceful Israeli-Arab co-existence dashed by the Hagannah and the IDF during the expulsions of 1948.
“The Diaries of Yossef Nachmani” is based in large part on actual diaries Nachmani kept from the 1930’s through the 40’s while he worked as a land broker, acquiring Arab land for the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to be used for the eventual settlement of Jews.
Nachmani, a Russian immigrant, comes across as a complex and conflicted man. An ardent Zionist, he is portrayed in interviews with his son and Palestinians as a man who spoke Arabic well and appreciated his Arab neighbors. He was also a founder of the Hagannah, a Jewish paramilitary organization, whose dearest wish was to see the two peoples living side by side.
Entries from his diaries illustrate how Nachmani assiduously courted Arab landowners and Arab tenant farmers alike with the purpose of acquiring huge tracts of land that the Zionists would transform into kibbutzim. Nachmani carefully records his transactions, noting which Arab community leader was helpful, which tenant farmers were recalcitrant.
The documentary is also a parallel story of Tiberias, the ancient mixed town on the shores of Galilee, where Nachmani made his home. It is here that Nachmani’s vision of a bi-national state will be first betrayed, where his beloved Hagannah will fall so far from grace. 
In his diaries, Nachmani notes that the Arab revolts of 1920 passed by Tiberias. Despite the murder of 20 Jews within its walls in 1938, Tiberias seemed content to adapt to the establishment of an Israeli state on the eve of partition. Yet the Palestinians were repaid with death, looting and bodily harm. They have the dubious distinction of being the first group of Palestinians to be expelled. The events in Tiberias cause Nachmani to first associate the word “murder” with the Hagannah.

As Israel moves closer to May 1948 and the declaration of independence, it is clear from Nachmani’s diaries that his confusion and sense of moral betrayal are growing. New Historian Benny Morris lists the villages and their accompanying atrocities: Safsaf – 60 fellahin killed and women raped; Haram – 1,000 houses destroyed. In April, more than three villages in as many days will gain infamy as the sites of massacres and looting by the Hagannah/IDF. The name of one of those villages, Deir Yessine, is on the lips of Palestinians as they flee their villages, fearful they will be next. What Israeli historian Ilan Pappé calls “urbicide” continues into May.

The resulting violence causes Nachmani to despair for the land he worked so hard to build. He fears, he says, “a country built on the blood of innocent women and children.”
The Hagannah are unrepentant, as evidenced in the interview of a former Hagannah fighter who jokes while he explains how he executed 15 wounded and captured Palestinian fighters as they lay on the floor of a house during the battle for Tiberias.
By the time Ben-Gurion declares the independence of the State of Israel in May 1948, Nachmani, the compassionate Zionist, is asking himself a question that many Israelis are asking themselves today: how did Jews become so cruel? Depressed, a diary entry observes that they learned from the Nazis: “the best come from the concentration camps.” Nachmani begins to realize that the JNF, for whom he worked so assiduously, has no intention of living with Palestinian Arabs. In fact, says Morris, one day before the UN passed UN Resolution 194, which provided for the return of Palestinian refugees, the JNF seized a sizable amount of Arab land, placing it outside the control of the new state, thus effectively preventing the return of any of its former inhabitants.

In the epilogue, it becomes abundantly clear that “Diaries” has joined the growing body of work re-examining Israel’s creation stories. Like its subject Nachmani, the documentary is conflicted – is Nachmani a national hero, the conscience of Zionism as Morris suggests, or the unwitting architect of what the Palestinians call al Nakbah – the disaster?
While parts of “Diaries” will resonate better with those who already have a background in Israeli/Palestinian history, it is nonetheless a powerful documentary built on Nachmani’s own observations, interviews and primary texts – a fascinating look at one of the most controversial moments in modern history and an invitation for non-Arabs to re-examine the long-held belief that the Palestinians chose to leave.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 56/57 (2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid

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