Politics obscures history

Zochrot's tour guide of Arab villages abandoned in 1948 provides selective information about the sits it covers.

once upon 521 (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
once upon 521
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Just a few kilometers from Migdal Ha’emek in the Jezreel Valley is a surreal forest. Several tall pines sprout from a landscape that looks like it has been destroyed by logging, leaving it devoid of bushes and grass. Dirt roads of varying quality bisect the forest. And above it all are two large churches, totally abandoned, with nothing around them, as if they had been airlifted there by accident. According to the guidebook Once Upon a Land (in Hebrew and Arabic), the Catholic church on the left has been recently refurbished and new doors have been put on it. The more interesting church, the Orthodox one, is not mentioned.
The trip to Mahloul, the site of the old churches, is one of 18 field trip itineraries in Once Upon a Land, a book published by the Israeli NGO Zochrot. The NGO’s goal has been to “introduce the Nakba to the Israeli-Jewish public.”
The notion is to make the Jewish public more aware of the events of 1948, during which numerous Arab villages were abandoned by their residents.
Many of them were then bulldozed to make room for national forests, parks or housing projects, leaving only sparse remains. The guidebook should be understood as starting from this very political viewpoint.
The book is organized systematically, covering the whole of Israel. A map in the front shows the locations of “Palestinian villages Israel destroyed in the Nakba.” The editors have selected 18 sites for walking and driving tours of.
Each tour begins with the name of the former Arab villages to be visited and includes details about the village from before the war.
For instance we learn that in Al-Zib (modern Achziv) near Acre there were approximately 2,200 residents in 1948, around 525 houses, a mosque and cemetery.
A separate page provides details on how to get to the place and how long the tour will take.
Relatively helpful maps show the location of the sites listed in the text, usually numbered 1 through 5, but the maps are of such a scale that once one arrives the sites are often hard to navigate. For instance, at Mahloul one must use some guessing to find the way to the abandoned churches. Pretty pictures and a stunning layout make the book immediately approachable.
As a guidebook Once upon a Land is hardly adequate.
For instance, the visitor to Al-Zib is provided primarily with information about how the village was conquered in 1948: “On the 13-14 of May 1948 a unit of the Carmeli brigade of the ‘Haganah’ of northwestern Palestine during ‘Operation Ben-Ami’ conquered Al-Zib.”
This is in the section that is supposed to explain about the Al-Zib mosque, the effendi’s house and other houses.
The reality is that the history of the site is quite extensive, including a Crusader castle and a fortress constructed by the 18th-century warlord Dahar al-Umar, but one wouldn’t know that from the book.
The data about Al-Zib from 1948 also seemingly come out of thin air. The British Mandate census of 1931 found 251 houses in the village; it is not clear where the guidebook comes up with 525 houses in 1948 since the authorities never again surveyed the number of houses in the Arab villages of Mandate Palestine.
The other trips in the north take the traveler primarily to Christian sites, old churches in Al- Bassa near Nahariya, the Catholic village of Eilabun and the abandoned church at Al-Majdal in modern-day Migdal Ha’emek. A tour of the Tel Aviv area takes the walker to nooks and crannies near Tel Aviv University and Arlosoroff streets, the sites of villages named Jammasin and Sheikh Muannis. The mosque of the village of Mas’udiyya is shown to be a synagogue today.
As the book moves towards Jerusalem, some of the tours seem to bear less and less of a connection to the former Arab inhabitants. The section on the village of Colonia takes one on a tour of Mevaseret to see a nice spring and some old terraces.
It isn’t clear that the spring or terraces really have much connection to the village that was located in the valley near Motza.
A separate section takes the reader on a guided tour of Lifta, which is one of the best preserved Arab villages. The tour of Jerusalem shows the Catholic college of Terra Santa, several pretty Arab houses in Talbiyeh and the old Lepers’ Hospital located there. One gets the feeling that including this part of Jerusalem was a mistake, as it was covered in a much more detailed manner in David Kroyanker’s walking guides of the same neighborhood.
All in all, the main problem with this book is the political overtones that hang over it.
Because it wants the reader to focus on the “ruins,” the “conquest,” the destruction and takeover of the land by Jewish forces or organizations such as the JNF, the actual history of many of the places is clouded.
Many of the villages and walking tours take people to springs that have little connection to the former Arab inhabitants; in fact most of the springs and many of the foundations date back to the Byzantine, Roman or earlier periods. Too bad most of the authors were focused on providing a conquest narrative.