Israel, at 50, Can't Agree On Its Past

Television series that began last night sparks debate over the 'facts' of the state's founding.

"Each of us has a general history and a private history; we sort out our personal recollections by anchoring them in public time," writes Israeli author Amos Elon in "Jerusalem: Battlegrounds of Memory."

The difficulty with memory in Israel today is that general history seems more subjective than ever, and public time is less an anchor than a springboard for debate.

As Israel approaches its 50th anniversary, to be marked according to the Jewish calendar on April 30, plans for celebrations have been overshadowed by disputes over how to tell the story of the state's establishment.

Some people think that's a healthy process.

It's good news, for example, to Ronit Weiss-Berkowitz, the writer and director of a controversial documentary that aired last night on Israeli television. Her episode, one in a 22-part series on the founding of the Jewish state, deals with the development of the Palestine Liberation Organization between 1967 and 1982, and was originally entitled "Biladi, Biladi," ("My homeland, My homeland") the name of the Palestinian anthem, which she uses to conclude the film.

The series, called "Tekuma" (Rebirth), has come under intense criticism. Some Israelis say it gives too much weight to how things looked from the viewpoint of Arab foes. Israel's communications minister asked that the series be canceled, saying that it had thrown Zionism - the movement to create modern Israel - onto the "defendant's bench."

But Ms. Weiss-Berkowitz's film has come under more attack than most, because the host of the series resigned from his job rather than give his usual opening and closing comments about her documentary. Accused of sympathizing with terrorists because she interviews Palestinians who carried out violent attacks on Israelis, she was forced to change the title of the episode to "On the Path to Terror - My Homeland, My Homeland." But she's less concerned with the name than the substance, most of which has remained intact.

A quest for balance

"There is a place to hear the other side, to hear voices from the other side of the hill, to understand why and how they choose this way of terrorism against Israel," she says.

The textbook version most Israelis learned, she says, cuts Palestinians off from their roots by pretending that the country was virtually empty when the Zionists began arriving in the 1880s. She is disappointed that so many Israelis were not interested in hearing both sides of the story, but glad that the series has people watching - and arguing.

"This public storm, I think it's more interesting than the films themselves," she says.

For other Israelis, "Tekuma" represents an unsavory brand of "post-Zionism" that seeks to rewrite the story so that Israel is no longer the only victim, nor the only party fighting a just fight for its survival. Even prominent peaceniks have said they were uncomfortable with the way the series portrayed certain events.

"I felt good with the first episodes, which discussed the past and reminded me of my childhood," host Yehoram Gaon wrote in his resignation, "but I find it hard to forget my feelings when presenting the episodes dealing with the present."

Roots of the debate

Today's public debate began taking place in quieter academic circles more than a decade ago. In the early to mid-1980s, an archives law forced secret government documents over 30 years old to be opened to the public, releasing details of many events of the 1948 war for Israel's independence. Palestinians had always said that they had been driven en mass from their homes during the war, often after massacres by Jewish guerrillas.

Israelis said that, with few exceptions, Arab residents had fled in fear, encouraged by the armies of neighboring Arab states who promised to drive Israel into the sea and let Palestinians return to their homes in a few weeks.

The truth, some Israeli historians now say, was some kind of combination. At the forefront of this genre of the "new historians" is Benny Morris, who published a book in 1988 that documented several massacres that had taken place in Palestinian villages 40 years earlier. Until then, the most famous of them - Deir Yassin - had been described as a battle site by some Israelis, and by others as a rare massacre by Zionist extremists who didn't represent the mainstream Jewish forces at the time. (See story at left.)

Mr. Morris says a decade ago the book was met by "rage and bewilderment" which kept him from getting an academic post until last year. "At first I was vilified, but by now, my description of what has happened is accepted by most historians," says Morris, now a professor of history at Ben Gurion University in the Negev.

"We came to approach the material in a critical, objective matter, and this is a maturing of the generation of historians who hadn't lived through the experience of '48," he says.

The impact of the new historians is now beginning to be felt on a broader scale, as the television series brings home to viewers what had until then been found only on bookshelves.

"Israelis have been conditioned over the decades to believe in the complete righteousness and justness of their cause, and have had this diet of Zionism and Israel in rosy colors," Morris says. "Now they're being fed a mixed diet, and they find it difficult to digest. That's part of nation-building - being able to shed these myths."

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