Their blood cries out — Israeli-American’s memoir faces the Nakba – Mondoweiss
Israel, Palestine, and the Claims of Belonging
by Linda Dittmar
240 pp. Interlink Publishing, $20
The memoir Tracing Homelands vividly conveys the unstable psychological ground under the feet of settlers of the “Promised Land” – land that was – and continues to be — cruelly wrested from its original inhabitants. Author Linda Dittmar, an Israeli-American, tells of her years-long quest to expose herself to the truth of the Nakba by doggedly seeking out lingering physical traces of its catastrophic violence – and to record the painful impact of that quest on her identity as a Jew born in 1939 Mandate Palestine.
Readers are pulled along a winding and rocky path to and through the remains (or possible remains) of many destroyed villages – and bits and pieces of their history. The path also leads Dittmar and her readers through her own memories – many of them long buried – as she now places them into their proper context. At one point she realizes with horror, “It’s my own people, . . .. Our own Zvika and Dani and Uzi who expelled these villagers on our behalf. We are all in it together: those of us who fought but also our parents, our lovers, our teachers and neighbors and classmates, and now our children and grandchildren.”
In 1961, aged 22, Dittmar left Israel for graduate study in the U.S., married an American, and went on to live most of her adult life here – albeit with frequent visits to her parents and friends in Israel. In 2005, she was a professor of film and literature in Boston when she began her Nakba quest over several summers. A long pause occurred in the process during which she lost the will to write what she learned. Then she resumed and finished writing in late 2022 just as deep political tremors began rattling the psyches of Israelis and their supporters. Although highly personal, the memoir functions like a narrative MRI scan of a liberal Israeli mind reacting deeply to mute but damning vestiges of what happened in 1948.
The result is a highly original and engrossing exploration of many of the most gruesome events of the Nakba. Readers are offered a poignant, multilayered experience that brings together many sad and spooky Nakba sites; echoes of the horrors that took place on them; Dittmar’s personal memories of that time and of the sweep of her entire life as an Israeli, as well as of the parts played by her forebears (who arrived in the 1800s) in the impassioned creation of the Zionist community; the barren waste of 75 years of intervening neglect and erasure; and the pain she and her intimate partner, an American forensic photographer, deal with as they confront the truth.
In some of the most affecting pages, old memories surface in places that Dittmar visited before 1948 or afterward, oblivious to — or heedless of — their Nakba history. So, when she and Deborah, her partner, go to Caesarea to see Israeli-excavated splendors of the ancient Roman port, her blood freezes when she spots a Palestinian minaret amid newer and much older structures.
Crowds of visitors are paying it no mind, but her mind is flooded with personal memory: “Shortly after the  war I had seen this very village and its mosque emptied of people and lying in ruins.” In a daredevil move, she had climbed to the top of the minaret from where she could see the abandoned village. But she believed, then, as did everyone around her, that “the Arabs attacked [the Jews], lost, and fled; . . . Of course, whatever they abandoned was ours.” Her dad took a photo.
In 2007, Dittmar took a break from her quest by going to a beach where her family had vacationed when she was a child. “No Nakba,” she told Deborah, “Just sea and sand.” After they stumbled on remnants of buildings, however, they figured out that they were on the site of the former Palestinian village of Tantura (Israelis call it “Dor”). Suddenly, “Israel no longer looked the same”: “shadowed by lives erased from the land that sustained them for centuries.”
Then another memory of Tantura surfaced — a fleeting moment from 1950 — and Dittmar’s own life and identity no longer looked the same. As her family had driven away from the beach, she had seen “destitute women and children . . . penned behind barbed wire.” Now, she realized, these were survivors of the massacre of Tantura’s men – one that was successfully hidden for decades, despite Palestinian testimonies, a massacre still denied today by some Israelis, even in the face of new forensic evidence.
Early in the book, Dittmar tells the Nakba story of Fatma Hawari and Abie Nathan. A native of Tarshiha, a village known to Palestinians as the “Bride of the Galilee,” Fatma lost both her legs on her wedding day in October 1948. Abie was the Israeli pilot whose bombing of the village crippled Fatma. When, a lifetime later, they met each other, the moment was filmed. Abie was now also in a wheelchair, paralyzed by a stroke. But he had gone on in his life to become a peace activist famous for years as the “Voice of Peace,” broadcasting from the “Peace Ship” he kept in international waters. In the film, “slumped in his wheelchair,” he asks Fatma for forgiveness. With what Dittmar terms a “bone-chilling smile” Fatma says no, “even as she pats his hand with consoling intimacy.”
Dittmar saw the footage of this meeting early in her quest. It’s included in the documentary, Arous al-Jaleel, by Basel Tannous, which she viewed in Tarshiha with a mixed group of Jews and Palestinians. After the film ended, she notes, “I only remember my own paralysis and my sense of the chasm, the unhealed wounds, separating us.”
She goes on to say that “Tarshiha stands as a parable, an account of suffering that has no symmetry and of politics that elude a simple ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Each people have their own truth, their own claims to justice, never equivalent and not always spoken.”
This is alarming language. It sounds close to the “dual narrative” distortion of the history of Israel and Palestine so beloved by Zionist liberals — where it’s “you’ve got your history and we’ve got our history; let’s just empathize and try harder to get along.” Except that Dittmar is mapping a form of Israeli denial, the invocation of what she calls “the profound sense of existential injury that fused Zionist slogans of blood, fire, and revenge into Israel’s relentless and ever-expanding hold over Palestinian lives and land.” She puts her finger on how Zionists rely on a Jewish exceptionalism built on their heritage of suffering in other lands to deflect from their minds the blood that cries out from the land of Palestine.
In fact, the book’s dual focus is aimed directly against the relativism of the dual-narrative view of the past, which undercuts the classic goal of history to recover the factual truth of past events and times – a truth on which verdicts can be based (e.g., war-crime verdicts under international law).
Dittmar’s way of pursuing historical truth, in effect, seems to have been to present herself as a specimen of a certain kind of Israeli, one who wants to grapple with evidence and testimony of the Nakba. This would account for why she rarely turned to knowledgeable Palestinians to help locate and decipher the hard-to-find ruins of depopulated Palestinian villages. Instead, she and Deborah put themselves to the trouble of learning how to spot odd mounds, and clumps of cactus, which can indicate the presence of remains of pre-Nakba homes and buildings. They also managed to navigate the modern land by way of old photos and references that tie such ruins to Israeli place names marked on Israeli maps. (However, they did consult the Nakba memorialization group Zochrot, and Walid Khalidi’s monumental inventory of destruction, All that Remains.)
In the same vein, Dittmar declined to interview Palestinians, “despite knowing it would have been a good thing to do.” This avoidance, she says, was a “mark of the chasm separating us,” and her way of “voicing” the “gale of silence” that engulfed Palestine in the wake of 1948, in the words of Palestinian writer Mahmoud al-Assad. The screams of Palestinians were silenced. Her point seems to be that, as an Israeli, she should not presume to fill that silence.
She didn’t merely seek to know the facts of 1948 (after all, there are books that teach the history). She wanted to physically encounter the land that holds the graves and ghosts of old Palestine amid Israel’s robust overgrowth, overbuilding, and repurposing of the territory. In this way, she made a psychic space where she could interrogate an entire lifetime’s memories and feelings about being an Israeli.
Raised in a vast bubble of denial, in which she remained, Dittmar offers readers resonant images of how deeply she was immersed in the Zionist narrative. She once thrilled to the grit and self-sacrifice of Jewish pioneers and defenders of Israel; shared the dramatic sense of common purpose that has bound Israelis together and impressed the diaspora and other outsiders; and embraced the patriotic feelings and social pressures that shaped her identity and that of her friends and family. She served two years in the IDF, after four years of elite training in the Gadna youth brigades, proving her “Sabra toughness.” Arabs seemed strange and distant, possibly dangerous. Moreover, she had learned that Jews always and everywhere had been persecuted and were at risk, that, “In every generation they rise to annihilate us,” as the traditional Passover Haggadah insists. Along the way she notes her own complicity as a “bystander-participant” in discrimination, persecution, and erasure of the Palestinians.
As she ends her unflinching dissection of Israel’s crimes and alibis, Dittmar says that the “anguish” in writing this memoir was personal but that “the dots Tracing Homelands connects are political.” Of course, the very word “homeland” denotes identity. So, the traces she draws are those etched in her mind’s early years and then altered again by the effects of her quest. She has served as a kind of palimpsest – a parchment that has been written on and then written on again — allowing the Nakba reality and the Nakba narrative to overwrite but not erase her Israeli reality and narrative. In the process she perceived how deep a “chasm” separates wronged and wounded Palestinians from Israelis, who continue to wrong and wound them – and for whom the chasm is like a protective moat. Her Nakba quest likewise opened a chasm between her life memories and the fuller picture of herself that has arisen out of her Nakba consciousness.
In conclusion, this soft-spoken memoir is largely silent on what Dittmar thinks will happen to the Israelis and Palestinians, or how they can bridge their chasm. This reticence seems fitting, given the “gale of silence” endured by Palestinians. Perhaps her silence also betokens a refusal to seek an individual exoneration from her guilty Israeli past, which would separate her from her people, who still cling to national myths.