Pre-Nakba Palestinian Life as a Zionist Narrative

Alon Hilu’s “The House of Dajani" takes us back to Jaffa in 1895. Intertwining the diaries of two characters, Salah Dajani, a 12-year-old Palestinian who foresees the rise of Israel and Haim Margaliot Kalvarisky, a real-life figure and head of the early Zionist movement, the book has been praised as a new historical approach to the Israeli narrative.
house of Dajani

BEIRUT, July 22, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Published in February 2008 by Yedioth Sfarim, "The House of Dajani" quickly became a bestseller, winning Israel’s top literary award, the Sapir Prize in 2009. It has  been hailed as a step towards reconciliation with Palestinians.

 Conversely, it has also been condemned by critics as an anti-Zionist book, anti-Semitic, and critical of the early Zionists that first went to Palestine.

A group in Israel, the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, even tried to revoke the award, claiming there was a conflict of interest. The legal forum was founded to oppose the disengagement of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

But the bigger problem lies in the portrayal of this book, and in works of a similar nature, as a revisionist history of Israel and as a move towards peace.

Hilu says that his idea came about while sitting in a café in Tel Aviv when he suddenly envisioned an Arab landscape. “A while later I was sitting with my wife in a cafe in the Tel Aviv port, and this past was haunting me, like a ghost. I thought that I could see before me the Muslim cemetery next to the sea, suddenly even the sea looked Arab to me; I don't know how a sea can look Arab," he told Haaretz.

In his book, he uses the old Arab names and locations that have been changed to Hebrew or are no longer existent. “Characters resembling national founders, including David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, are described as ‘warmongers dancing on blood’; Naftali Herz Imber, composer of the Israeli national anthem, is portrayed as an itinerant peddler of verse who "dies in New York in sickness and drunkenness,” an article in Haaretz states.

While Hilu acknowledges the fact that there was a Palestinian nation prior to the Zionist movement, he refuses to hold the state accountable for its crimes.

Instead he says the book is not a political, but rather simply discovering the Palestinian narrative. “The book, however, is not political in that it does not take a stand; instead, it presents in parallel two stories – one Arab, one Jewish – without determining which one is 'true,’” he states on his website.

At the same time, critics are hailing it as a story about two different peoples. Speaking at the Literary Forum at the President’s Residence on June 8th, 2009, Israeli President Shimon Peres remarked, "The House of Dajani is a one of a kind book that presents the encounter of two cultures through individuals. The author takes care in making each character sound different and unique on the page. In the interaction that takes place between the two, where there is no common language, the tragedy of their clash taking place beneath the surface is discernible.”

Here the problem lies in perpetuating a false history of the expulsion of Palestinians in what is now Israel, while approaching both peoples as equals. Although Hilu recognizes that Jaffa was a Palestinian city, vibrant and bustling, he says that “becoming acquainted with the Palestinian villages in the area of Jaffa, and learning the Palestinian narrative makes Zionism stronger, since these lay the path to reconciliation with the Palestinians and the Arab neighbors of Israel.”

Therefore this “historical novel” is not an “anti-Zionist” book that provides a critical approach to the creation of Israel. Texts written by Israelis, which provide a historical background to the state and truly pave the way for a just solution, do exist.

But what is frightening is that, Israeli society is having trouble digesting this novel. "Self-criticism is okay, but sometimes it is beyond the red lines," said Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist for the Maariv newspaper. "When Jews or Zionists are depicted in this way, it is going from criticism to delegitimization and demonizing the whole idea of the Jewish state."

Eshkol Nevo is the author of “Homesick,” a novel about the inhabitants of a village in Israel, including a Palestinian handyman who longs for the house his family was expelled from in 1948, and who is thrown in prison for taking the gold chain his mother left behind.

According to Haaretz, “Homesick” is being studied in matriculation exams to shed light on such stories. Nevo, who calls himself a loyal Zionist and rejects the idea of the right of return as a political solution, wants to see this happen in Israel. "There is emotional justice in the Palestinian narrative, and it is important that it be studied and heard. The challenge is how to deal with it without ceasing to be a Zionist, without losing the meaning of our existence here.”

However, although both Hilu and Nevo want to tell the Palestinian story and help young Israelis deal with the past, reconciling both narratives, “Homesick” and “House of Dajani” must be seen for what they are ––Israeli interpretations from a Zionist perspective of injustices committed against Palestinians. And they should not be seen as anything else–– not as a revisionist history of the nakba, or any historical event, nor as the Palestinian narrative, as doing so silences the Palestinian voice.