Oral Testimony, the Birth of Israel and the Nakba

In Bookforum, Gershom Gorenberg on Making Israel (Benny Morris, ed.), Nakba (eds., Ahmad H. Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod), and historiography:

Within Israeli discourse, Morris’s devaluation of oral testimony served to break the hegemony of the founding generation, those who remembered the war. As seen by Palestinians, though, he is maintaining Israeli power over history. He is silencing the victims, who do not have archives precisely because of the catastrophe of 1948. For Sa’di, a lecturer in politics and government at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, justice demands affirming the victims’ story, but it also requires listening to them speak. Memory serves the Palestinians as plaintiffs, as he and Abu-Lughod write in their introduction: It “asserts Palestinian political and moral claims to justice, redress, and the right to return.”

Sa’di asserts that the Israeli archival evidence complements Palestinian testimony. Samera Esmeir argues the opposite in an essay on the dispute over whether Israeli soldiers carried out a massacre at the village of Tantura in 1948. The issue reached an Israeli court in 2000 in a libel suit by veterans against an Israeli researcher, Theodore Katz. Esmeir challenges the court’s preference for Israeli state documents over Palestinian testimony. She asserts that “the very project of the state” requires erasing atrocities against Palestinians. Palestinian villagers’ oral testimony is useful, she argues. If it is contradictory, incomplete, and incoherent, that’s partly a result of the traumatic experience and the shattering of community.