Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian Refugees and Their Histories

Julia Chaitin

Professor, Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME), The Israeli Center for Qualitative Methodologies, Ben Gurion University of the Negev

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: We've done about 20 interviews. I go to people's homes, and they tell me their life story.

Q: These are people who are Israeli?

A: Jewish Israelis who were refugees, either from the Holocaust or from Northern Africa and Asia.

Q: And who settled...?

A: Who settled Moshav or Kibbutz places that were once Arab villages or lands. They know the project is a joint Palestinian-Israeli project. They know how I've gotten to them. I tell them exactly what I'm going to ask them. I'm very honest and open with them, so they can accept or refuse to participate, because you have to respect people. I tell them what I'm going to do, because it's their story. So I bring a videographer with me. They start by telling their life story, which is usually an hour or an hour and-a-half, with very few questions from me. I just try to keep it in chronological order. If there's some detail that's unclear or something, then I try to clarify. But if they can speak without me interrupting them, that's the best. Then I ask them three questions: Do you know what was on this land before 1948? If a Palestinian was to come and say, "I'm from here originally," would you like to meet him or her, and what would you like to say to him or her? And, how do you see the solution or how do you see the Palestinian-Iraeli conflict, and how do you see a possible solution to the Palestinian refugee problem? Those are the three questions that I ask at the end. The answers to those questions can take 5 minutes, they can take a half an hour, they can take 45 minutes. Sometimes they just lead into one another.

Sometimes I have to ask all three, but sometimes, somebody will say, "There was a village here, it was called Jesir, and once a family came and said, 'This is my house....'" They've just told the story without me having to ask the question. Many of them have had actual experience. Then they can show photographs or documents that are important to them. We videograph them also. I ask each person to take me to a place in their community that has special significance for them and we go outside. It can be just their farm. One man showed me all around his farm, and he also took me to the old Arab village that they destroyed. The Arabs had gone, the Palestinians had left in '48, and the Jewish Israelis settled in '53. But they took down all the buildings, and he told me where everything was, because he had been in charge of taking down all the buildings.

I made a 12-minute film about one of these families, for instance. This was a Jewish family from Kurdistan. So, these are very parallel projects, but the idea again is to hear what the life experiences are, to document them. We want to put them on a computer. We want to make movies, because it's very visual, very rich stuff, and not only just to see, but also for researchers and educators. We want to bring some of these people together, because we believe that the crux of the problem is the '48 war, the '48 refugee problem, the creation of the state around around '48, the fact that the Palestinians fled, were thrown out, expelled, and all the absorption of all the Jewish refugees. So we think that those years are very important to understanding and working through the conflict. So at the end of the interviews, I also ask people if we were to have some kind of dialogue group or encounter group, would you be interested? And most people would be interested.


As I said, the Israelis don't know the Palestinian stories and the Palestinians don't know the Israeli stories. With the Israelis — not so much the '48 generation, not so much the people who came themselves — but some are more aware and some are less aware. Some of the Palestinians lived there for the hundreds of years that these villages existed, and they were there, and then they fled and then they were no longer there. Approximately 420 villages were destroyed, emptied, razed, whatever. The Palestinians do have a legitimate claim to the land. It wasn't that they showed up in 1940 and said, "This is ours." Some Israelis may not know that the Palestinians had lived there, their parents had lived there, their grandparents, their great-grandparents; it wasn't as though the Palestinians had just lived there for 5 years, and we just kind of moved them to somewhere else. It is also important for Israeli Jews to understand why they left and how they left, and what's happened to them since.

On the other side, many Palestinians have no clue why these Jews came — as I sort of said sarcastically, from Mars — but they might not be aware of the Jewish connection to the land, the history, the religious connection to the land. Hopefully they'll hear people who say, for instance, from Kurdistan, that they were taught, from age zero, that this was Jewish land. They were taught that it was just a matter of "when we can go back." You know, "We've lived in Kurdistan for centuries, but it's not our home. We're in exile. We're in exile from Israel." So as soon as there was a state, they emigrated. It's not colonialism, it's not Western powers moving them here, it's this deep, religious, historical belief that, "This is my land, and as soon as I can go back, I'm going back." How do you reconciliate those two? I'm not saying you can, but what we say at PRIME is that there are two peoples that have legitimate claims to the land, and we have to find ways of somehow living with one another and coming to terms with that. Figuring out how to do that is a big part of what we're trying to do.

Q: Are there a lot of lessons learned from that project? Things you didn't expect? Surprises?

A: I've interviewed more what we call Misrachim, people who come from northern Africa and Asia, more than Holocaust survivors. Basically, what I've learned so far from my interviews, is the basic line is, "God gave us this land, so this is ours." Because the Misrachim are very, very religious. So, "God gave us this land, this is our land, and we can live in peace with the Palestinians, but the Palestinians have to understand that this is our land. You're not going to get it back. It's not yours. God gave it to us, not to you." I've heard more from Holocaust survivors, "Why did we come? We were murdered everywhere else; we came here so we wouldn't be murdered anymore." What's been most interesting for me is the Misrachim, who have said, "God gave us this land; this is ours. We're not giving it back. there's no discussion here." But yes, they would like to meet with Palestinians; yes, they would like to live in peace with Palestinians. They speak Arabic, and they come from the same culture. They have a lot more in common than they do with the Ashkenazim Jews from Poland, from Germany, from Russia. So we think that one of the bridges could be these Misrachim Jews, who know much more of the Arab culture. It's much easier for both of these sides, we think.

Also the same thing with Palestinians, because they're religious people. The ones who are more religious understand that.... For a white, Ashkenazi, secular woman, speaking to a Misrachi religious man from Kurdistan, I'm seeing it in a whole different way. It's much easier, I think, for the Palestinians and people like this to get together and actually talk. I think they have a much more common language.