Unseen

Oshra Ginsberg


I grew up in a small apartment building in Israel. The building houses twelve families. The kids played together in the field across the street. It used to be a strawberry field. My family lived south of the field. The Shubaki family used to live north of the field.


The Shubaki family was one of many Palestinian families who lived in the area. In the 1920’s, the American Zion Commonwealth donated money so Zionist settlers could purchase land in British Mandatory Palestine. Zionist settlers founded my hometown in the area of the villages Alharam, Ijlil, Abu Kishek, Arab al-Akabshe Bedouin, Shitake, and Arab al-Asuat. Growing up, I received a barrage of messaging telling me that the land I was living in used to be barren and empty. I know now this is false. There was active life and culture in the area before the arrival of Zionist settlers. At the peak of the ongoing Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced. The residents of the various Palestinian villages around my hometown were among them.


On November 20th 1947, Stern Gang terrorists set out to my hometown. The Stern Gang, also known as Lehi (לח״י), was a paramilitary Zionist terrorist organization active in the decades prior to the establishment of Israel. That morning, a few members dressed up in British uniforms and executed members of the Shubaki family. Five people were murdered. I can’t find much information about the massacre but I do know where it took place. It was right there, by the north edge of the field.


Three miles from the site of the massacre, in my hometown, there is a street named Lehi, honoring the Stern Gang. Nearby, there is another street named Etzel (אצ״ל), commemorating another prominent Zionist terrorist organization active at the same time. Approximately 50% of Israeli cities have streets named after both Lehi and Etzel. There are hundreds of streets named after the leaders of both organizations. Actions carried out by Lehi and Etzel prior to the establishment of Israel have set historical precedent and established the concrete foundation for Jewish settler terrorism. Following the establishment of Israel, Lehi and Etzel leaders went on to become military commanders, prime ministers, and policymakers in Israel. Their legacy is celebrated symbolically on street signs. It is enacted by Jewish settler terrorists in the West Bank, and by present-day Israeli leaders, who follow their footsteps. 


Lehi and Etzel members originally belonged to Haganah, the biggest Zionist Jewish militia in Mandatory Palestine. Haganah’s policy regarding Palestinian-Zionist tensions in the 1930’s was to abstain from retaliatory and indiscriminate violence. Haganah leadership set out to prioritize defense against external threats. The everpresent argument claiming that Israel has the right to defend itself stems from this policy. While this was Haganah’s official policy, it is Haganah leaders who formalized "Plan D," which directed Israeli soldiers to expel Palestinians from their homes in 1948, leading to the Palestinian Nakba. The supposed nonviolent Haganah approach, which claims Israel only defends itself against active external threat, continues to dominate the discourse despite Israel’s aggressive displacement of Palestinians in 1948, its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and its continued policies of Palestinian home demolitions and Jewish Settlement building. Roughly 80% of Israeli cities have a street named after Haganah.


Lehi and Etzel members aimed to instill fear in the Palestinian residents of Mandatory Palestine. Their violent activity is well documented. During British rule, members of the organizations kidnapped and assassinated British officers, attacked British embassies abroad, and bombed the British headquarters at King David Hotel in Mandatory Palestine, killing 91 people. While Lehi and Etzel conducted violent resistance to British rule in Mandatory Palestine, most of their actions in the 1930’s and 1940’s targeted Palestinians. Lehi and Etzel members shot and killed civilians on multiple occasions. They detonated bombs in marketplaces, cafes, movie theaters, and buses. Following Israel’s declaration of independence In 1948, Lehi and Etzel were invited to join the newly formed Israeli military. They agreed to join on the condition they could form their own units within the military. 


Lehi and Etzel members are responsible for massacres in Palestinian villages, including the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948. In Deir Yassin, members of the two organizations massacred over a hundred Palestinian residents and caused others to flee in terror. Historian Benny Morris found a report by a witness describing a devastatingly familiar scene: "The conquest of the village was carried out with great cruelty. Whole families – women, old people, children – were killed. ... Some of the prisoners moved to places of detention, including women and children, were murdered viciously by their captors." Word of the Deir Yassin massacre traveled quickly to other Palestinian villages and towns. It was one of many events that created an atmosphere of fear and terror that led many Palestinians to flee their homes. Neither the residents nor their descendants were allowed to return. 


During World War II, my Ashkenazi Jewish grandfather left his home to escape the Nazis. When he went back to his family home after the war, he found another family living in it. My grandfather was told by a non-Jewish neighbor that his family members were taken outside their home and were murdered on the street by the Nazis. My three other grandparents are holocaust survivors as well. Each of them was scarred with trauma I cannot possibly imagine. My mother's parents arrived in Acre in 1948 after the establishment of Israel. My father's parents arrived in 1961. They all had recently lost their home, their family, and their community. They understood their existence to be in jeopardy. They arrived at a place already boiling with violence. They didn't have the time or the space to heal. They passed their trauma to me. I carry it in my body.


I was two years old when the first Palestinian Intifada started and eight years old when it ended. During most of this time, Yitzhak Shamir was Israel's prime minister as a member of the Likud party. This is the same political party led by Israel's current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Yitzhak Shamir's parents and siblings were murdered in the Holocaust. Prior to 1948, Shamir was a member of Etzel, and then he joined Lehi and became one of the organization’s leaders. During the years of British Mandatory Palestine, Shamir was arrested by the British and spent time in prison. In 1948, Shamir planned the assassination of Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations representative in the Middle East. As a response, the provisional government in Israel itself declared Lehi a terrorist organization. Lehi members were put in prison. A few months later, they were given a state pardon. Yitzhak Shamir passed away in 1992. Roughly 20% of Israeli cities have a street named after him.


When I was in middle school, we went on a field trip in the middle of the night. We went to a nearby beach to reenact a common scenario from British Mandatory Palestine. A third of the students pretended to be the British patrolling the beach, finding and arresting Jewish migrants who entered through the sea illegally. The second group pretended to be Jewish migrants, fearing for their lives. The last group pretended to be members of the paramilitary Zionist groups, aiding migrants and fighting the British. In high school, a year before the age of mandatory military service, most students go on a field trip to spend the night in a military base, doing drills and pretending to be soldiers. At the age of eighteen, most Jewish citizens become soldiers. Many of them remain on reserve forces until they turn forty. They may find themselves guarding Jewish settlements, stationed in checkpoints around occupied Palestine, or patrolling the wall that was erected around it as a response to the second Palestinian Intifada.


I was fifteen years old when the second Palestinian Intifada started and twenty when it ended. During most of this time, Ariel Sharon was Israel's prime minister as a member of the Likud party. Ariel Sharon's parents escaped the persecution of Jews in Russia in the 1920’s and emigrated to British Mandate Palestine. Sharon was the founder of Unit 101, a special force unit of the Israeli army known for raids against Palestinian civilians in 1950's. Members of the unit were responsible for the Qibya massacre, where more than sixty-nine Palestinians, two thirds of whom were women and children, were murdered. Sharon helped found the Likud party. Sharon also bears personal responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982 in Beirut. In 2005, Sharon resolved that withdrawing Israeli troops and citizens from occupied Gaza would allow the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and would allow Israel to hold on to its control of the entirety of Jerusalem. As part of the process, 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza were disbanded. Benjamin Netanyahu led a strong opposition to the move, backed by Jewish settlers in Gaza and the West Bank. Some Jewish settlers wore a Star of David badge to associate their displacement from the Gaza strip with the holocaust. The following years saw a spike in Jewish settlement building and development in the West Bank. Ariel Sharon passed away in 2014. Roughly 23% of Israeli cities have a street named after him.


The two Palestinian Intifadas took place during formative years of my life. I found myself surrounded by intense violence without much explanation for why it is taking place. All I knew at the time was that my existence was in jeopardy. I received a barrage of messaging across generations telling me so. The messaging was reinforced by my lived reality. I knew that if I went to the market there was a chance it would explode, if I took a bus there was a chance it would explode, if I went to a restaurant there was a chance it would explode, if I walked outside there was a chance I would be attacked. There was no information available to me to contextualize these events outside of the logic of Zionism and settler colonialism. I had access to various official repositories of memory -- Israeli news, state archives, state-approved history curricula -- but none of them provided me with sufficient explanations to why I am the target of such violence. On the contrary, they continuously reasserted a narrative of Israeli victimhood and justified Israel’s actions.


My own embodied experience and family interactions offered some insight, even though it was often abstract. I was exposed to one family member's severe PTSD on a regular basis. It manifested with such intensity and fractured the family. Witnessing it from up close instilled a deep fear in me that becoming a soldier will destroy me. I recognized similar symptoms, varying in their degree of severity, in so many people around me. Participation in the military scarred people close to me for life. They didn't have the time or the space to heal. I was lucky to be able to avoid it. I was lucky to have a grandmother who was radically kind to any person in need and who held me every day during the first years of my life. I was lucky to have a mother who taught me to see through the fog and cherish the life and dignity of all people, no matter who they are and what circumstances they were born into. I was lucky to be born with a different gender than the one I was assigned, which oriented me towards not belonging, eventually leading to my emigration at the age of twenty two. I was lucky to have met brilliant and generous teachers and friends where I landed, who cared about me and my wellbeing, supporting me over years of healing.


The actions of Lehi and Etzel were condemned by individuals such as Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt. The assassination of Folke Bernadotte was condemned. The Qibya massacre was condemned. Yet, the legacy of Jewish settler terrorism is the de-facto politics of the ruling ultra right wing government of Israel, led by the Likud party. Jewish settler terrorism targeting Palestinians and their homes happens on a daily basis. These incidents used to be condemned by the government, but nowadays they are literally encouraged. The leader of the Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu, speaks of two role models: Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. Jabotinsky grew up in between pogroms targeting Jewish people. He founded Revisionist Zionism, which advocated for maximum territorial expansion for Jewish settlers and created the grounds for the establishment of Etzel and Lehi. Menachem Begin’s parents and brother were murdered in the holocaust. He was one of Etzel's leaders before his career in politics. During the 1950's, he was considered a terrorist by the United Kingdom and was not allowed to travel there.


Sara Ahmed writes, "unseen violence is not simply violence that is not seen. Unseen violence is an action. You have to unsee something because it is seen. A complaint can be an effort to make the violence seen, to bring it out. A protest, also, can be an effort to bring the violence out, to make it public by creating a public." It is my hope that by witnessing the settler violence of the past, I can contextualize the settler violence of the present. Settler colonial violence is enacted on multiple levels, through territorial expansion, demolishing Palestinian homes, physically assaulting Palestinian civilians, limiting access to natural resources, controlling movement of Palestinians, controlling Palestinian trade, threatening and blackmailing LGBTQIA+ Palestinian youth, and having the descendants of 1948 Palestinians live on streets named after the people who had displaced their ancestors. This violence, carried out by a colonizing force against a colonized people who are trying to liberate themselves, is an ongoing event. At this moment, settler colonial violence is happening at a terrifying scale that amounts to ethnic cleansing.


When I see an oppressed people facing a continuous process of ethnic cleansing, I am confronted with my family’s experience in the holocaust. I mourn what my ancestors and I lost due to the world’s inability to act quickly enough. Millions of lives. Generations upon generations of local knowledge and culture. What am I to do with the trauma that continues to reside in me? What does it mean to be from the place that my ancestors fled to and I fled from? I mourn what my ancestors did not and could not know. They did not have the time or space to heal. They arrived as refugees and grew older in a colonizing state ridden with violence. This violence follows the same logic of the violence that harmed them: violence that springs from devaluing and dehumanizing an entire ethnic group.


The violent acts carried out by members of Etzel and Lehi did not happen in a vacuum. Some may say that my accounts of these events are one-sided without the context. After all, there was horrific violence targeting the members of these organizations as well. I intentionally left out the context as a way to grapple with this degree of violence. Would a consideration of the context legitimize mass displacement, dispossession, and death? In 1948, the so-called defensive approach was turned into a direct order calling for mass expulsion of Palestinians. In 2023, this is being repeated. There is no justification for ethnic cleansing. I write about what I know. The past violence enacted by Jewish settlers really did happen. This history is important in understanding the present violence enacted by the Israeli state. The loss is impossible to contain. I stare inwards into the unspeakable memory gap of my own family’s history and culture. An early memory emerges from within the gap. I remember the texture of my grandmother’s skin as she is holding me. She, too, experienced horrific trauma. Somehow, she managed to witness the suffering of others and respond with defiant compassion. She must have learned that from the people who were close to her. How do I piece my past together so I do not fall into pieces?


When I was ten years old, I was still living in that same building south of the field. A development company bought the land across the street. It started building a complex of tall apartment buildings where the field stood. The property value of apartments in my hometown skyrocketed. The original plans for the building complex included a new holocaust museum. More than twenty five years later, the museum has not yet been built due to legal battles. The part of the field reserved for commemoration remains empty. 

 

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