LISTENING TO MY ANCESTORS
My ancestors spoke to me. No, they yelled at me, pulled and pushed me, argued and turned their backs on each other in my tense body.
Our Olive Harvest Delegation visited the Palestinian hillside village of Lifta. Just outside Jerusalem, Lifta was attacked by the Haganah Zionist militia in December 1947, 5 months before war officially broke out. The Palestinian residents of Lifta were expelled, forced to leave their houses, Mosque, recreation centers, and the landscape of their memories behind. This story sounded all too familiar to me, and the sorrow personal.
Our group was guided by Umar, a softly spoken Palestinian man who works with Zochrot, an NGO whose goal is to introduce the Palestinian Nakba, or Catastrophe, to the Israeli-Jewish public "to promote an alternative memory to the hegemonic Zionist memory." Zochrot is the Hebrew word for remembrances.
As a multi-ethnic 1st generation American Jewish woman, I know some things about memory and the importance of holding your heritage and history of oppression close.
Today, Lifta is a national Israeli nature reserve and looks like a UNESCO world heritage site, with stone houses standing amidst rubble and cacti, a natural pool of water in the center of town where we witnessed men bathing and washing their feet, and graffiti with mixed messages of love and violence.
It’s hard to believe that only 70 years ago this was a thriving Palestinian village and not a site of ancient ruins of a distant history. It is a stark reminder of Palestinian life and existence prior to the Nakba, which displaced and exiled 2/3 of the Palestinian Muslims and Christians, close to 750,000 people, living on the land - but only if you're looking for it.
As we walked through the village, taking care not to stumble on loose stones down the steep hillside, I picked a stone up and held it for the duration of the tour. Perhaps this is a natural thing for me to do when I am in an environment rich in memory and ancestral prayer. In Jewish culture, we are taught to commemorate the memory of our loved ones by placing stones on their graves and it felt appropriate for me to seek the guidance of my ancestors in a Palestinian ghost town.
We stopped in the old mosque and as Umar was talking to us about the role of this place of worship in Palestinian life in Lifta, my Spanish Jewish ancestors woke up and spoke up. "Pay attention," they warned. "You know what it's like to be expelled from the land you grew in, to be a refugee. Listen to the prayers in these walls, you've heard them before." My Sephardic roots were shaken and I squeezed the chalky stone in my hand. "Remember us as you serve justice in Palestine and the collective liberation of all oppressed peoples."
My Sephardic ancestors, who were rabbis, mystics and poets, were driven out of their homeland after the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain in the 15th century. As refugees they continued to reach towards the sun as all life on earth does, and re-planted their torn roots in Morocco where they became Arab Jews.
As we continued to walk through Lifta, Umar exposed the reality of the devastation of the Nakba. He told us that when a nearby Palestinian village was attacked about 115 people were killed, the women raped and maimed for their jewelry, and children made orphans. This time my Jewish Palestinian ancestors woke up and spoke up. "It's time," they surrendered. "Its time to speak truth, confront what we did, the wounds we caused to our fellow Palestinians, and heal."
My Jewish ancestors on my matrilineal side go back in Palestine over 10 generations. My uncle joined the Haganah and was killed in 1948, in what Israelis and Zionists call the war of Independence. My uncle believed he was liberating Israel and died for a Jewish homeland while uprooting Palestinians from their homes and villages. The loss devastated my grandmother so deeply that she needed to believe that her son moved to a country far away and could not contact her. She could not cope with the truth of her loss, which in my heart seems deeper than losing a child. Her newfound privileges, which helped bring her and her family out of poverty, blinded her from the truth of the fact that Muslim and Christian Palestinian mothers were crying too.
"Pray for us," they humbly urged. "Know how you got your privilege here and remember us and our Palestinian neighbors and friends as you serve justice in Palestine and work towards the collective liberation of all oppressed peoples."
I hung my head low in sadness and confusion, hoping for relief. We continued onward, past indigenous trees and plants, and the cacti that Palestinian families planted between their homes to mark the separation of property.
As we gathered around the communal water pool sourced from a natural spring Umar walked us through the demographic history of Lifta post '48. He told us that after the Palestinian families were expelled and the Israeli state established, Mizrahi Jewish emigres from North Africa were placed in Lifta to reside in the abandoned houses. Then, in the 1960's the Israeli government drove them out so that wealthy Ashkenazi European Jews may move in; an unfortunately common experience for brown, black and Arab Jews and a reflection of a structurally racist society that makes Mizrahi and Jews of Color second class citizens.
"Fight for us," my Mizrahi ancestors empowered. "Remember our struggle and the struggles of brown and black people across the world in your service to justice in Palestine and work towards the collective liberation of all oppressed peoples."
I started to feel invigorated, yet with a lingering discomfort in my gut. The feeling in Lifta was familiar and I couldn't quite place it. I had been on a number of Jewish heritage tours in Poland and Germany and walked through numerous ghost towns like Lifta. Entire towns wiped off the map because of seeds of hate planted in the minds of otherwise good people armed with dehumanizing beliefs and guns. I didn't want to believe the comparison until Umar pointed to a spot where a tree was uprooted. My heart broke and my tears recalled the somber stories of the trees and forests in Poland, who witnessed human crimes of the highest order. Why would they uproot the trees here?
Finally, my Belarussian ancestors spoke to me "Never forget," they implored. "We have been to the forest, we have been witnessed in the attempted extermination of our existence. Now you bear witness where the trees do not. Remember us as you serve justice in Palestine and work towards the collective liberation of all peoples."
I stood silent before the land where the tree once stood and promised my ancestors that I will remember them and bear witness to human pain and suffering. I promised them to listen for hope, resilience, and truth. I promised them to honor the lives and ancestors of the Palestinian people, who continue to dream and mobilize around their right to return to their homeland.
I looked down at the stone in my hand, and placed it on the earth where a tree once stood in Lifta. I whispered a prayer for justice in Palestine and the collective liberation of all oppressed people's. I walked towards our bus and felt my body relax with the secure knowledge that my ancestors have my back, and my roots, here in Palestine.