Alain Epp Weaver, Mapping Exile and Return: Palestinian Dispossession and a Political Theology for a Shared Future, Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2014. 174 pp. ISBN 9781451470123.
In Jerusalem several months ago, Umar Al-Ghubari guided our Mennonite Church USA delegation through the ruins of Lifta, a Palestinian village depopulated in 1948 by the war that birthed the modern nation-state of Israel. Umar pointed to the sign that directed us toward the village. At the bottom of the sign was written “Lifta,” the name of a village that has endured for centuries. At the top, there was a new name given by the Israeli authorities: “Nephtoah,” a new name that is an old name, because it comes from the book of Joshua in the Bible. Even though archeologists have been unable to prove that Lifta used to be the biblical village of Nephtoah, the government has renamed the location as a way to claim the land as Jewish, as belonging to the modern state of Israel. To name it is to claim it.
Between the two names on the metal sign, the one above in Hebrew and the one below in English, a blank space bore the marks of erasure, of scratching and scraping. Our guide told us that in the space in the middle there used to be the name of Lifta written in Arabic characters, but a group of Israeli Jews defaced the sign, erasing the Arabic name in an attempt to erase the memory of Arab Palestinians from the land. Yet, as we walked by the sign, we could see traces of the name, despite the defacement, just as we could see traces of the people who used to live in Lifta as we followed Umar Al-Ghubari through the ruins of ancient houses, inside the remnants of a mosque with stones that date to the early medieval ages, around rocks that mark the boundaries of what used to be terraced gardens, and between the weathered gravestones remembering the lives of dead Palestinians of forgotten generations.1
Al-Ghubari works for an Israeli organization called Zochrot, the subject of the culminating chapter of Alain Epp Weaver’s new book, Mapping Exile and Return: Palestinian Dispossession and a Political Theology for a Shared Future. The Zochrot Association, Epp Weaver explains, resists Israeli Zionist plans to efface the memory of Palestinians in the land. Modern Israeli desire to forget the past, to forget the land’s inhabitants before 1948, continues the originary violence of the European Zionists who expulsed Palestinians from their villages, a woeful history documented in Ilan Pappe’s landmark study, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.2 As the former Jewish soldier Yerachmiel Kahanovich described his role in the violence of 1948: “You have to realize, if you did not demolish the Arab’s house, he would always want to go back,” Kahanovich confessed in a recent interview. “When there’s no house, no village, he has nowhere to go back to.” But the Jewish politicians and soldiers of 1948 misjudged the resolve of the Palestinians; they miscalculated the Palestinian determination to stay, to refuse to be disappeared, to never forget their olive groves, to never give up the hope of returning to their homes: “In Lidda, in Ramla, in the Galilee, we shall remain,” wrote the Palestinian poet Tawfik Ziyad, “[and we shall] guard the shade of the fig and olive trees…. Here we shall stay, [and] sing our songs.”3
The Zionist impulse continues “to construct and portray an exclusively Israeli Jewish landscape,” writes Epp Weaver, in the face of Palestinian refugees who desire to return to their land which has been claimed as Israeli land, cleansed of Arab life. Against this Zionist impulse, Epp Weaver observes, Zochrot refocuses Israeli attention on reconciled co-existence with their Palestinian neighbors who were expunged nearly seven decades ago. “The landscape remains haunted by traces of the prior, never completely effaced Palestinian habitation,” writes Epp Weaver (128). And Zochrot includes those traces of the history of Palestinian inhabitation on its maps as an invitation for Israelis to visualize the possibility of Jews and non-Jews living on the same land. Zochrot’s maps, explains Epp Weaver, are palimpsests with layers of names and peoples appearing atop one another, bearing witness to the multiple populations that have belonged to the same place over the centuries. Palimpsestic maps create space in our imaginations for particular sites to disclose “a multiplicity of histories and identities,” Epp Weaver argues (48).
Zochrot’s maps and their guides, like Umar Al-Ghubari who walked our Mennonite group among the ruins of Lifta, are part of a project to elicit a hopeful imagination for the future of Israel-Palestine—hope for a land where Jews and non-Jews can live together, where the Israeli government can share land with Palestinians. “Zochrot’s actions expand political horizons,” writes Epp Weaver, “demonstrating that the current binational reality of exclusion and dispossession can be transformed into a binational reality of equality and co-presence” (145). With the people of Zochrot, Epp Weaver hopes for “practices that foster, create, and celebrate shared places, places in which Palestinians and Israeli Jews might find refuge with one another,” not the state of Israel’s “tired efforts at partition, efforts that monitor and enforce separations” (153).
As I remember the people I met in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; as I remember what it was like to walk through their neighborhoods in Bethlehem, with tear gas shells scattered in the streets—weapons made in the United States at a factory in Jonestown, Pennsylvania: “Combined Tactical Systems,” I read on a canister, “Riot CS Smoke Multi-Projectile, Range 80 yd”; as I remember the massive concrete wall looming over Palestinian homes, I don’t know how to see hope breaking into the brutal landscape. I can’t see how anyone or anything would be able to crack through Israel’s militarized topography. On my own, I wouldn’t know how to imagine the so-called Holy Land without Israeli soldiers: teenagers in combat fatigues, carrying rifles loaded with tear gas, standing on street corners and watching from checkpoints. “Palestine-Israel is scarred by the walls and fences of partition and violence,” observes Epp Weaver (153)—and that’s where I get stuck: at the wall, hope’s blockade. But Epp Weaver points to the fissures—fissures in Zionism, fractures in Jewish ethnocracy, cracks in the state of Israel’s violent dominion of the land, openings that make room for a theological vision of binational life, of Israelis and Palestinians together, cohabitants of land that has belonged to their ancestors, all of their ancestors. Villages and cemeteries and olive groves remember generations of Jews and Muslims and Christians, Abraham’s children who are still learning how to live into God’s call to be people of blessing. “I will bless you so that you will be a blessing,” God says to Abraham, “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Epp Weaver’s book breaks open space to consider the possibility of historic enemies becoming a blessing to one another in the land of Palestine, a blessing in the land of Israel.
As Alain Epp Weaver mentions in his acknowledgements, his book is rooted in his work with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in the West Bank and Gaza, which began as a three-year term in the village of Zababdeh, an experience that has lingered with him for the past decade, tugging his life and work towards Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora. In this book we are offered a political theology embedded in networks of relationships, in friendships and partnerships made possible by generations of MCC workers, by a half-century of Mennonites living and working alongside Palestinians and Israelis, alongside Jews and Muslims and Christians.
If there’s anything good about Mennonite institutions, it’s this ability to offer an invitation into a legacy of relationships, into a lineage of friendships, into a history of partnerships—to step into the trust established by others, by people who have struggled together, who have worked for peace in a landscape of war, who have forged a path for hope in a world of violence. These are the conditions of possibility for the kind of Mennonite theological imagination displayed in Epp Weaver’s book. And to read it is to be offered the gifts of people who have extended hospitality to foreign Mennonite workers, to receive our church people into their neighborhoods and villages, into their nonviolent fight for peace and their tireless struggle for life, because they somehow have thought it worthwhile to let Mennonites be their companions, to welcome our people as their friends.
Isaac S. Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, North Carolina, USA.
See Vinciane Jacquet, “In Pictures: Erasing Palestine,” Al Jazaeera (November 2014), accessed January 8, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2014/09/pictures-erasing-palestine-201492614175356567.html.
Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (London: Oneworld Publications, 2006). “The Zionist policy was first based on retaliation against Palestinian attacks in February 1947, and it transformed into an initiative to ethnically cleanse the country as a whole in March 1948. Once the decision was taken, it took six months to complete the mission. When it was over, more than half of Palestine’s native population, close to 800,000 people had been uprooted, 531 villages destroyed, and eleven urban neighborhoods emptied of their inhabitants…a clear-cut case of an ethnic cleansing operation” (xiii).
Tawfik Ziyad, “Here We Will Stay,” Palestine-Israel Journal 1, no. 4 (1994): accessed October 1, 2014, http://www.pij.org/details.php?id=709.