Mondoweiss / May 14, 2023
Jonathan Ofir grew up on a kibbutz and was never told of the destroyed Palestinian village upon which it was built. But some signs remain, like the cacti which Israelis have attempted to appropriate, but signify the deep Palestinian ties to the land.
“Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab [Palestinian] villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushu’a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”
– Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, speech at Haifa Technion, April 4, 1969, cited by Haaretz
One could add another mention to Dayan’s list – kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud was built in the place of Khirbet al-Manshiyya.
I was born on that kibbutz, in central Israel, in 1972.
Givat Haim literally means ‘Hill of life’ in Hebrew. It was named after Haim Arlosoroff, a Jewish Agency official who was murdered in 1933 in Tel Aviv, probably by Revisionist Zionists (from Abba Ahimeir’s Brit Habiryonim, or ‘Covenant of the Thugs’, a sub-group of Jabotinsky’s Revisionists).
Arlosoroff had just returned from Nazi Germany, having negotiated with the Nazis a deal called the Transfer Agreement, whereby mostly wealthy German Jews could deposit money with which agricultural equipment would be bought in Palestine, and they would move to Palestine. The deal served Nazi goals of getting rid of Jews, but also, importantly, breaking the anti-Nazi boycott from earlier that year.
In any case, this was inter-Zionist fighting and killing. But Arlosoroff was a Labor Zionist and represented the movement with which most kibbutzim were affiliated. So the first Givat Haim came to be named after him in 1933. I don’t know how many people in the kibbutz actually know this history. The more popular understanding of the name “Haim” in the title is its simple meaning in Hebrew – life. So, Givat Haim was understood as the “hill of life.”
In my youth and many years later, I knew pretty much nothing about the history of the place – a history that was directly tied up with the Nakba.
My awakening as far as Palestine was concerned was in 2007 when I read Ilan Pappe’s seminal The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. It was a moment of shock, and I started wondering, what else have I missed? But even then I did not really wonder how my childhood kibbutz was tied to the Nakba. I just took in the greater narrative of the destruction and was shocked by my ignorance. But after some years, I would trace the Nakba more specifically to where I was born and grew up. I don’t know why I didn’t do it immediately – was I afraid to know? Was it getting too close for comfort?
Only two years ago, I first encountered an official mention within kibbutz materials of the Palestinian town upon which Givat Haim Ichud was built. It happened to be a mention from my grandmother, who was interviewed for a kibbutz archive in 1991. By the time I read the transcript, my grandmother had already been dead for many years, and I had already investigated the case myself a few years earlier. People like Eitan Bronstein, who had established the Israeli organization Zochrot and later De-Colonizer (dedicated to Nakba awareness), Salman Abu-Sitta and his Palestine Land Society, and others have become dear friends over the years, and they helped me trace the ruins that were under the kibbutz of my childhood.
Christoph Bugel led me to Palestine Open Maps, where you can see a historical map with an overlay of current settlements.
But within the kibbutz this was never talked about. Nobody from the kibbutz has ever mentioned it to me directly at any point. Here’s what my grandmother said (note that her kibbutz split in 1951, and the new part which she moved to was built upon Manshiyya):
“Near us was the village Manshiyya, I don’t recall being afraid of them. The relations with the village were good, friendly… In the daily life I did not feel fear of the Arabs [Palestinians]. It’s not like now in the Intifada. In the War of Independence, the Arabs of Manshiyya left. The village of Manshiyya was erased. After the split, we built the new point in the place where Manshiyya resided.”
That’s how clinical it is. Even when mentioned in that long interview, it was very short and in passing. They left. The village was erased — end of story.
Why was it not mentioned to me? Was it not relevant? The kibbutz houses a museum called Beit Theresienstadt to commemorate the Holocaust victims of that ghetto — a place about 2,000 miles away. Was it not relevant to mention the ethnically cleansed village of Manshiyya upon which the museum was built? Not a word. It’s just the ‘hill of life,’ speak no evil.
Not absolutely everything from Manshiyya, however, was eradicated. The cacti, which bear witness in so many similar places in Israel to the history that the Zionists tried to make disappear, are still there.
Last year, I took a photo of the cacti above from the time of Manshiyya. They are still there near the stadium, at the southeast end of kibbutz Givat Haim Ichud, where the fields and citrus orchards begin near the main road.
The cacti have very strong roots, and these were more difficult to uproot than the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian inhabitants (over a million when counting the 1948 and 1967 ethnic cleansing campaigns together), and apparently more difficult than the over 131,000 Palestinian homes that have been demolished since 1947.
But here comes the great and sad irony: not only have Israelis stolen the land, but they have culturally appropriated the notion of the cacti — saber in Arabic — and started calling themselves “Sabras.” This term is used to signify those born in what the Zionists called Eretz Israel — the Land of Israel — when it was still Palestine. They suggested by this that they are the indigenous people and would also romanticize the nature of the cactus, saying that they are like the cacti — they “have thorns on the outside but are soft and sweet on the inside,” since these cacti have sweet fruits.
You need some nerve to do such a thing. You use the very thing that symbolizes the Nakba, the dispossession, the little that remains of it — and you make it yours, you replace the indigenous people and their symbols with yourself. And then you call yourself sweet on the inside.
In Arabic, the notion of these cacti and their resilience has also given birth to the parallel term for ‘patience’ — also saber in Arabic — and in the Palestinian context of dispossession, this would also mean something similar to sumud — maintaining resilience in the face of adversity.
The cacti and the ‘Sabras’ as cultural appropriation are emblematic of the settler colonial logic of elimination, of replacing the native. So many kibbutzim and towns have been built atop ruins of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages. The silence about this and what could be called institutionalized ignorance about this history represents Israel as a whole.
Khirbet al-Manshiyya is perhaps erased (even though its cacti won’t let go of the land). But its people, and the millions of people who were either directly ethnically cleansed or descended from them, have not forgotten. It is part of their heritage and identity to remember.
We must remember that people cannot be erased. The price of even attempting to do so is grave, not only for them but also for those who commit the act, and it will come to haunt them. It is a Zionist credo to prevent this reckoning because the Nakba is the foundation of Israel’s Jewish supremacy. But Israel must come to face this because that is not just the disaster of Palestinians but of us all — Israelis included. The only way to heal this is to look it in the eye — not just to remember it, but to work towards its repair.
Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark