REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue r2

Losing Israel

by Jasmine Donahaye

A complex, multi-layered and ambitious book, Losing Israel isn’t your average ‘memoir’ by any stretch of the imagination. In one sense, the book isn’t the book Donahaye wanted to write: it is, instead, an example of what happens when life – with all its messy, unresolvable difficulties – usurps the author and her story.

What begins as a personal exploration of identity – one which sees Donahaye return to Kibbutz Beit Hashita, where her mother grew up – evolves into a deep excavation of the history (and, crucially, the geography) of the contested space we now call Israel. She tackles the issue of the ‘depopulation’ of Palestinian Arabs between 1947 and 1949 with absolute determination, combining research of the conflicting literatures on the subject with her own reflections drawn from field work, interviews and personal experience.

This method makes the relationship between present and past suddenly and vividly tangible, offering a thorough, engaging and highly readable ‘introduction’ to the conflict in Israel. This is not to say the book is simply for the ‘uninitiated’; but for me, coming to the book with little background knowledge of the conflict, I felt Donahaye offered me a ‘way in’ to the subject where previously I might have felt overwhelmed by it. She writes:

All That Remains [by Walid Khalidi] gives a detailed account of the history, population and remains of each of the villages emptied between 1947 and 1949, and cumulatively, the scale and extent of that depopulation is shocking to read. By now there are about five million Palestinian refugees – those who fled the newly established Jewish state in 1948, and their descendants. […] Jordan granted citizenship to most of its Palestinian refugees, but some one and a half million still live in refugee camps, now urban ghettos, throughout the Middle East.

Donahaye returns to the Palestinian villages obliterated during the forties – villages just a stone’s throw from her mother’s kibbutz – and seeks to discover exactly what happened to the Arab population. When she gets there, however, she finds a silence, a blank: an erasure of the past. Suddenly, she finds this act of erasure everywhere she goes, and begins to question her ‘reassuring picture of the innocent kibbutz, the safe ground of [her] family roots.’ The personal becomes deeply political, and Donahaye must contend with a wall of silence surrounding the erasure of the Arab community. To her credit – and with a dogged, sheer single-mindedness of resolve – she drills into the silence, despite the dawning realisation that the ‘answers’ she finds will unseat her own relationship to Israel, her family, and herself.

As she questions her family and friends she places her personal relationships in peril; and yet Donahaye is driven to uncover – even just glimpse – some version of the truth. This results in her ‘back-story’ (along with her identity as an ex-‘kibbutznik’) being almost completely overturned during the course of the book. Towards the end of the book she writes:

The Zionist account of the past and the present is all-encompassing: it is a total story, a comprehensive account not only of a people, but of each individual, too. […] But to use the word Palestine or Palestinian is to lose the safety of that account. It acknowledges all the simplistic oppositions in the popular versions of the two narratives: heroic return to homeland versus European colonisation; defence against attack versus aggressive imperial expansionism; national self-determination as against racist exclusive ethnocentrism; a war displacing people and creating refugees, or a deliberate act of ethnic cleansing. The stories are irreconcilable.

And the very irreconcilability of the two accounts of history is the truth that Donahaye finally hits on – the fact that both accounts simply cannot both be true. But her investigation provokes a highly eloquent and thoughtful meditation on what it means to exist in history and as a product of history. She addresses the gaps, silences and palimpsests that emerge through geographies, languages, cultures and identities, and makes all of these things at once deeply political and strikingly personal.

Amy McCauley has just submitted her PhD to Aberystwyth University. She is the author of a verse play, ‘My Baby Girl’.

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